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The Shape of Me Will Always be You

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Many thanks to MarieCee, CrazyInL0v3, prescients, Lowrie, DeLaRun and TheRogueTrader for the beautiful cover art.

 

 

I dreamt about you today.

At least I thought I did; maybe it was more like dreaming while awake. You came into my hospital room and pulled up the shabby plastic chair, wincing a little at the scraping sound as you pulled it across the floor towards the bed. Then you folded yourself into it, crossing your long legs just so, and you…watched me. Just sitting: sitting and staring. You were wearing one of those ridiculously flamboyant suits that would look like hell on anyone else but on you lent a certain exotic, rarefied glamour. It’s been so long since I’ve seen you in one of those suits, I’d nearly forgotten about them. Years since I’ve seen you wearing anything that wasn’t institutional issue or splashed in scarlet. So initially I was looking more at the suit than I was at you. You wouldn’t have liked that, I don’t think. You’re such a narcissist.

You didn’t fit it in at all in this drab setting, all your color and energy completely misplaced. When I looked at your face you seemed attentive, a very faint smile playing around your mouth. You always were so inscrutable. Sphinx-like. I never really knew what you were thinking.

“Hello Will,” you said finally. Your eyes were like two endless black holes.

There was a long stretch of silence then I heard myself answer: “What are you doing here?” It probably wasn’t the best thing to ask you – demand of you – but then I didn’t know what else to say.

Your mouth flickered slightly at that: either amusement or annoyance, it was impossible to tell. Then for a few seconds I wondered if you were actually going to show some real emotion, but in the end all you replied was: “I wasn’t aware I needed to provide a reason.”

“You always have a reason though, don’t you?” I snapped. “You have a reason for everything. And now you’re here and you’re not even real.” Once I’ve looked at your eyes I can’t stop staring, trying not to get lost in them. You notice my fascination and my reluctance, of course you do, and that faint smile grows ever so slightly broader. You relish it (narcissist).

I close my own eyes to get away from yours, and in the darkness I hear you push back the chair and prowl towards the bed. You’re sauntering, lithe and cat-like – I can’t see you but I know that you are – and I feel the mattress dip as you sit down. I sense your breath on my face, incredibly light, barely there, your spidery fingers brushing over my cheekbone, and I breathe in again and open my eyes. At least I think I do, maybe they were already open; and of course you’re not there. There’s a gloomy dribble of light from under the door, and the blinking of the heart monitor, and footsteps, and muttered voices, and all the sounds of sickness and death, but there’s no you, and you are spectacularly loud in your absence. The room screams with its lack of you.

I take a deep breath, and it hurts, and I untangle the IV line to grab the glass of water next to the bed. My hands are shaking.

It’s almost unbearable that even my mental version of you still manages to remain several steps ahead.

*****

Kade Purnell is sat next to the bed, sat on your chair (it’s always going to feel like Your Chair now, I can tell). She’s been here nearly an hour, barking questions at me like a dog. Yap yap yap. I can’t tell how much of her defensiveness is down to genuine reservations about the statement I gave (which wasn’t exactly lies, as opposed to a liberal manipulation of the truth…sort of like Bullshit Lite), and how much is her just being a dick for the sake of it: bludgeoning me with her authority simply because she can. Maybe she just wants to feel that she’s been thorough, ticking boxes and crossing/dotting the requisite amount of t’s and i’s. I’m not sure really, she’s hard to read. Although I suppose with one dead and mangled serial killer, one missing one, and a half-dead FBI profiler washed up on a beach, that the thoroughness is not entirely unreasonable.

She says something predictable and probably pre-scripted about an “exhaustive, official enquiry” –rehearsed, no doubt, to instil exactly the right amount of dread and compliance. If I try hard enough I can even imagine her practicing it in a mirror beforehand, perfecting the various purses of lips and furrowing of eyebrows. She’s obviously trying to intimidate me and I promptly zone out, because seriously, who cares? They won’t catch you. If you’re still alive, you won’t let them find you unless you want them to – it will all be part of the game. If you are still alive. No, you’re not dead though. You’re not. I have absolutely no objective evidence for assuming this, but I believe it nonetheless. I’d know if you were dead, wouldn’t I? I’d just know.

“You were extremely lucky Mr Graham,” she says; grudgingly, as if I’ve been lucky just to annoy her, as if my good luck is a matter of immense personal dissatisfaction. I am quite impressed, in spite of myself – such meticulously measured venom. Not as good as yours of course, but not bad. Not bad at all. I’d give her a good seven out of ten.

“Someone found you,” she continues. She’s still dwelling on how lucky I am, as if I care. “Pulled you out the water, dressed the wounds on your face and chest…” She trails off, uncertain how to proceed. She doesn’t say that this random good Samaritan was you, but she doesn’t need to, because of course it was. Who else could it have been? When I shut my eyes I’m certain I can even remember it: your hand on the back of my head, cradling my skull, as calm and efficient as always but spiced underneath with an air of carefully controlled desperation, because I’m not responding to you and you’re struggling to locate my pulse. “Breathe, Will”, you said, “Breathe for me, I need you to breathe.” You’re holding the gash in my cheek together with your long fingers, making an airtight channel into my mouth so you can perform CPR. “I need you to live Will,” you were saying, “I need you to live for me.” On second thoughts, perhaps I invented that last part. In fact I almost certainly did. It doesn’t really seem like the sort of thing you would say.

My mind starts to drift, and I imagine what you would do if you were here: how you would take her apart with perfectly constructed little verbal parries and quirks of a single eyebrow. Or, more likely, just literally take her apart, probably with your bare hands. With one bare hand tied behind your back…

She’s staring at me now, with barely concealed distaste. “Did I say something to amuse you Mr Graham?” she snaps.

Her staccato voice jolts me back into the room, like nails down a chalkboard, and I blink at her, disorientated. “I’m sorry, what?” I say stupidly. Behind my eyes, you are smirking at me.

“You’re smiling. I wasn’t aware this was a laughing matter. So – did I say something to amuse you?”

Oh God, why do people ask questions like this? It’s not as if she expects, or even wants, a truthful answer. I briefly wonder what she would do if I said “Yes, actually, you are – enormously so,” or even “Yes, and guess exactly how many fucks I give about that. Count them. Done?

“I wasn’t smiling,” I say instead, “I was grimacing. I’m actually in a considerable amount of pain. Ma’am.”

She stares at me, clearly disbelieving, and not especially impressed with the blatantly piss-taking ‘Ma’am’. She’s not going to pursue it though; she can’t really be bothered. She’s going to let it go, so in return I arrange my face into a suitably earnest expression and give her my full attention. Quid pro quo. Besides, it’s not like it’s really worth imagining what you would do. I never was all that reliable at predicting you, was I? You’d probably be just as likely to take me apart as her.

“Yes, well…” she says. She gathers her purse up in a fussy way and clutches the strap. She’s losing control of this exchange, and she knows it. What she really wants, clearly, is to just tell me to fuck off. The fact that she can’t, and is desperate to, is actually hugely enjoyable.

We stare at each other, sizing each other up. “Thanks for stopping by,” I say finally, dismissing her. It takes my last shred of self-control to not start smiling again.

Her thin, feral face twitches, and she rakes her eyes up and down my body in poorly concealed contempt. We’re not really done here, I know this – I haven’t really won. Fuck it though, I’ll deal with her later. And a fleeting victory is still a victory regardless. Right now I just want to close my eyes and not open them again for a very, very long time.

“Wishing you a speedy recovery Mr Graham,” is all she says (yeah, right), then she stands up, drawing herself to her full height, impressive in her glossy heels, and glowers at me (she really does – there’s no other word for it) before doing a neat little spin on her toes and heading to the door. I achieve my ambition of closing my eyes and just lie there, feeling vaguely martyred. I’m disgusted to realise my hands are trembling again, so ram them under the covers. Beyond the door her heels sound all the way down the corridor in little self-important thrusts, click click click, and I imagine what it would be like to spear her through the heart with one of her own over-priced stilettos. I try to feel shocked at myself afterwards, but can’t quite manage it. “A little vulgar Will, don’t you think?” I hear you say, but I know you’re smiling in spite of yourself.

Some time passes. I don’t know how much. And then there’s noise outside the room and when I hitch open an eye I can see a tall silhouette through the frosted glass. It’s a man, I can tell from the build – broad shoulders, powerfully built. It’s not going to be you, I tell myself, it’s not, oh God…and the door opens all the way, and of course it’s not you. It’s Jack, resplendent in an overcoat and that ludicrous fedora hat, and absolutely beaming awkwardness. In fact he’s practically vibrating with it, rippling off him in waves. His hands are clenched behind his back as if he’s clutching something, and for a surreal/appalling moment I think he’s brought me flowers. He hasn’t of course (thank God), it’s rather that he doesn’t know what to do with his hands. He now unfolds them round to the front of his body and clasps them round his stomach, and then lets them go entirely so they swing at his sides like pendula.

“Well, Will…” he manages finally, and his words run together and trip over themselves in the effort to escape his mouth so it sounds all garbled: Wellwill. I feel my lips twitch again. When did I become so hysterical? I never used to laugh. “So solemn Will,” I remember you once saying. “So serious all the time.”

Jack gives it another go, battling on undeterred. I’ve got to hand it to him. “Hey Will” he says (better), and then after a pause, “You look like hell” (not so much).

“Yeah?” I say, “I just got back.” I don’t really mind though. I do look like hell. At least he doesn’t ask me how I’m feeling when it’s obvious that, by any commonly accepted criteria, I feel like seven shades of shit.

He snorts a bit at that then gingerly draws up the chair (your chair) to the side of the bed. Whatever resources he corralled to get him this far have clearly expired, because he now falls silent again, clasping and unclasping his hands (of course). I stare back at him, suddenly struck equally dumb. I can’t think of a single thing to say to him, and he clearly can’t either, and I start wondering if we’re just going to gaze at each other until the ward closes for the night and a nurse appears to escort him out, magnificent in his stony silence.

Jack looks unhappy, because of course he does, and emits a long rumbling sigh. “How’s that doing?” he says finally, gesturing at his cheek to correspond to where the dressing is on my own. I try to shrug in response then promptly regret it because it sends shivers of pain all over, radiating out from the stab wound in my chest.

“Could’ve been worse”, I manage finally (although probably not much worse). “They don’t think the scar will be too bad.” Not that I really care either way. It’s just another brand, another mark traceable back to you, like your handprints all over my body. A duelling scar: earned in combat.

“You can cover it up anyway with that mangy little beard of yours”, says Jack, and I huff out a laugh, because what else can I do? His awkwardness is now reaching levels of intensity that are positively operatic, and I find myself feeling sorry for him.

“It’s okay Jack,” I say after a pause. “You know none of this is your fault.”

“I know,” he says; and which immediately pisses me off, because I was expecting at least some level of apology. It serves me right, I suppose – I should have known there was no way I’d get the chance to be magnanimous with him.

Jack sighs again, so I sigh too to keep him company. “Hell of a scene you boys left behind”, he finally says. “A total bloody mess.”

I suppose that’s one way of putting it. “Caught you the Tooth Fairy, though, didn’t I?” I reply. There’s another pause. “Um…in a manner of speaking.”

Jack smiles a bit. “Yeah you did.” He pauses as well and when I glance down at his hands I see that of course they’re spiralling and twisting together. In fact his face has grown very serious again, eyebrows furrowing together like corrugated iron. Oh God…I think. Here it comes. “The thing is,” adds Jack finally, “the thing is Will, you also lost us Hannibal Lecter.”

I stare at him for a moment, shocked into genuine silence. I can feel my mouth working uselessly; I must look ridiculous, like a fish gasping for air. I bet you’ve never looked like I do now, have you? Not once in your entire life. “For God’s sake!” I manage finally. “I didn’t lose him. It wasn’t like I forgot to put him in the back of the car and then drove home and was like ‘Oh! Where did Hannibal Lecter go?’” I pull in a deep, raw gasp of air. “I got stabbed and thrown off a cliff.” I pause again: this time I definitely do not add in a manner of speaking.

He’s undeterred by this (of course), splendid in his sense of righteous endeavour. Jack Crawford: once more into the breach. “Will, you know I need to ask you this,” he says. “You know I do. Were you aware he was going to run?” He pauses even longer then gives me a hard stare. “It would hardly be the first time would it?”

For a brief, appalling moment I feel like I might actually cry. “I have absolutely no idea what happened to him,” I finally manage. “I’ve told people this. I made a statement. He went over the cliff when I did. We killed Dolarhyde, he grabbed me…” Careful, I think. “We lost our balance; we went over. He could be dead. He probably is.”

“He could be, and yes, he probably is,” replies Jack. “But then so could you. And you’re not.”

“No,” I say. “I’m not.”

“And we’re all very glad about that,” adds Jack, with truly appalling heartiness. He’s feeling guilty now; he’s backpedalling. Pushed and probed to get a reaction, and is satisfied that my distress is genuine so is prepared to temporarily back off. Job done. Anyway, it really is his fault…sort of. He looks a little happier though, some of the tension leaching out of him. Maybe he doesn’t entirely believe me, but he certainly wants to. He smiles at me again, all avuncular and good-natured: give him a little more time and he’ll possibly work himself up to ruffle my hair and call me buster (oh God, he’s not actually going to…is he?). Not that this display is all, or even mostly about me. It’s principally for his benefit – he needs to put me back in my place, revert me into a tame, fragile being that’s no threat and can be patronised and condescended to. For all his apparent astuteness, he really has no idea about anything.

“Kade speak to you yet?” he says.

I roll my eyes extravagantly in lieu of a response and he barks out another one of those laughs. Surely he should have already known that though, he shouldn’t have to check? They’re all pretty useless really, no one seeming to know what anyone else is doing. No wonder you rang increasingly elegant rings around them for so long.

Jack, like me, seems to have reached his tolerance level for this exchange, and he makes a performance of gathering up his coat and that stupid hat. I wonder if you could get away with a hat like that? Probably you could. Just. Rakish, slightly pulled down towards one eye.

“Take care Will,” say Jack now. He pats me gingerly on the shoulder and I smile back at him, because this is what I am supposed to do. “We’ll speak more later,” he adds, and it’s both a threat and a promise.

After he’s gone I stretch out and close my eyes, enjoying the peace and silence (fucking finally). After a while I open them again, but you’re not there: of course you’re not.

“I don’t know where you are,” I finally say out loud. I hope no one can hear me. I can just imagine the anxious update in my medical file: Will Graham is currently lying in his room, happily talking to himself. But it doesn’t bother me enough to make me stop. It’s not my fault anyway; I shouldn’t have to be talking to myself. I should be talking to you. But I don’t know where you are, I really don’t. You’re nowhere but you could be anywhere – all at the same time.

“Even if I knew where you are I wouldn’t tell them. I wouldn’t let them take you,” I say into the darkness. The ‘because you’re mine’ is unspoken, but if you were sitting in your chair, you’d hear it anyway. You’d know. You always knew.

Chapter Text

Another six weeks limp by before they discharge me from the hospital. This is patently ridiculous –it’s hardly medically necessary – but I get the sense that Jack wants me somewhere secure where he can keep an eye on me. Unspoken, but equally obvious, is that the hospital is a contained space that they can stake out in the event of you turning up to finish the job. The idea is risible; as if you would ever stumble into such an elementary snare. As if they would catch you, even if you did turn up.

You don’t turn up.

There is a small but steady trickle of visitors. Alana comes, bringing an earnest little boy with her bright eyes and mop of dark hair. He drags your chair into the corner of the room and makes some kind of fort out of it with his mother’s coat, his vivid, bird-like eyes peering out through the folds. There’s something very droll about his intense little face. I smile at him, but he just stares at me owlishly and refuses to smile back. I don’t blame him, I probably look terrifying: wild-eyed and haunted with a shiny scarlet scar snaking across my cheek. Afterwards, he’ll probably beg Alana not to make him visit again. Zeller and Price stop by and are almost (but not quite) as awkward as Jack, although they thaw out more quickly and convincingly.

“Your hair’s too long Will,” Price says, squinting at me critically, “you could tie it up in bows at the moment. Aw, you probably should, it would look so pretty.” I shoot him a quick glance, but he doesn’t mean anything by it, it’s just teasing. He’s right anyway; I am crossing onto the wrong side of ‘unkempt’ (have already crossed). He sits on the edge of my bed and pilfers all the grapes from the fruit basket than Alana brought, and I laugh and make a feint of punching his hand away. I suppose it could be worse. At least my room is sleek and spacious – in fact it’s so well-appointed that it’s a complete certainty that the Bureau is picking up the bill, because there’s no way my creaking insurance would stretch to something like this. Actually, am I even still insured? I make a mental note to check. Not that it really has the same urgency as it once did – it’s safe to say that my injury rate will be falling exponentially now that you’re no longer around.

Out of everyone, it is Molly who is conspicuous in her absence. It’s obvious someone has been talking to her (someone almost certainly being Freddie Lounds), and I feel genuine guilt and grief that this awareness doesn’t distress me more than it actually does. I can’t blame her. I don’t. It’s not like I’ve made any attempt to contact her myself.

Kade also turns up again and this time refuses to sit, opting instead to either loom over me or pace around the room. She tells me that forensics have done a further sweep of the clifftop scene, and would I like to amend my statement? It’s such an obvious ploy that I nearly laugh in her face – of course they haven’t found anything new, and certainly nothing to incriminate me. I’d hardly be sat here if they had.

“No, I’m good,” I say (I sound glib, I know, but I can’t help it). “I stand by everything I’ve already said.”

She just looks at me quizzically, but I refuse to look away, and eventually she drops her eyes first. I can really be quite single-minded when I want to be. You would have been pleased. “You know, your parents selected your name with great prescience,” you once told me. “William. It means ‘determined warrior’ in the original Germanic.”

“Yeah?” I replied.

“The word ‘will’ itself means fortitude and resolve. Strength of character; force of will.” You smiled a little. “’Willpower,’ you see?”

“Sounds like the world’s worst superpower.” I was feeling awkward by that time and was joking to try and cover it up.

“I suppose to you, at times, that it is,” you replied. You sounded thoughtful. “The gifts that you have; you don’t always find them easy to bear, do you? Perhaps one day you could.”

“’Gifts’ in the plural?” I said, confused. “I thought you meant my empathy?”

“I do,” you replied, in the same calm tone, “but I also mean your great capacity for darkness.”

If anyone else had said that it would have sounded vaguely ridiculous, but your clipped English managed to imbue it with just the right amount of reverence and menace. At the time I didn’t entirely understand what you meant – although of course I found out eventually.

*****

Another unavoidable factor extending my hospital tenure is that I don’t actually have anywhere to go. The Wolf Trap house is long since sold – the first of many casualties – and I can hardly shamble back up Molly’s driveway (it doesn’t actually feel like my driveway…I wonder now to what extent it ever really did). And even if I could, would I want to? No, probably not. The person she knew, her “sweet man” – I imagine how your lip would curl at that – is gone. He fell off a cliff and was washed away. The ocean claimed him. Full fathom five thy father lies, Of his bones are coral made, Those are pearls that were his eyes. Where’s that from? God, what’s the matter with me, it’s not like I’m in the habit of dredging up pretentious tags of random poetry. You’d know, of course. You always knew things like that.

The Tempest, that’s where it’s from.

Money is an issue, but not insurmountable. I’m not naïve enough to think I’ll be welcomed back to Quantico anytime soon, but I still have some savings, plus a reliable series of royalty checks that are trickling in from various monographs (reassuringly inflated since I’ve been in the news again – morbid curiosity has its market value, just like anything else). Even so, a part of me rebels at the idea of stifling in some suburban pile. I find myself scanning adverts for the decidedly wrong kind of apartments in the distinctly wrong part of town. Gravitating towards the unsavoury and secluded, telling myself it’s the privacy I’m seeking: the kind of neighborhoods where no one notices or cares and questions are never asked. I reiterate that it’s nothing to do with finding the type of property that you could drift into undetected, and sometimes I almost convince myself that it’s true.

Alana offers to help me move, but I have so pitifully few belongings now that it’s hardly worth her while. Pulling her across the city for the sake of a couple of tattered boxes would make the whole thing almost unbearably farcical. It’s not because I don’t want to give her my address. Is it? No, I’ll have to give it to Jack anyway. That’s not the reason.

The apartment is truly awful. I bet someone’s died in it, probably more than one person. Probably quicker to list the tenants who didn’t die in it. Even the building sags between its neighbors, like a drunk man being propped up between two grudging accomplices. I amuse myself imagining what you’d say if you saw it, standing in the centre of the living room in your fucking horrible pristine suit, rolling your eyes in horror. You’d have a stroke. You’d hate it. God, how you would hate it. You with your $1,500 bottles of brandy, and your Florentine leather shoes, and your furniture pillaged from the 19th century. You were such a pretentious bastard, flaunting your wealth and taste like a blunt instrument, all wielded with the force of your personality. I bet you’ve never had to stay somewhere like this in the whole of your pampered life. No, actually, that’s not true is it? You were poor once weren’t you, devastatingly so. When you were very small, before your aunt and uncle claimed you. I remember you telling me about it, very pragmatic and matter-of-fact. You had an intense look in your eyes while you were speaking, but nothing else gave you away. Your voice didn’t falter once. I didn’t offer any sympathy, because I knew you’d hate it, but I still felt sorry for you – for that waifish child you’d once been. I wonder where you are now: whether you’re curled into a dirty corner in some godforsaken tenement or queuing for a mattress in a homeless shelter, tired and tattered and massaging the bruises on your arms? Somehow I doubt it. It’s incredibly hard to imagine you in such surroundings. You’re too resourceful, too cunning, no one can pin you down and claim you. The only reason you’d ever be in such dire circumstances is if you deliberately chose to be there.

Maybe I’m not being totally fair to you anyway. It’s not like you ever tried to make me feel bad for being less well-bred than you were. I know you harboured your aristocratic fastidiousness towards the glow of flannel and dog hair that surrounded me back then. The creaking car and the whitewash peeling off the fence. The aftershave with a ship on the bottle. You could have belittled me over it if you’d wanted to, you had enough opportunities. But you never did. I never felt like you looked down on me. Those sorts of things weren’t important to you, I don’t think. You weren’t a snob in that way.

After a week and a half in the apartment the boxes remain unpacked, but there’s beer and food (not much, but some – largely of the deep fried, processed, and powdered sugar variety that would make you start twitching with horror), and two chairs, and an internet connection. Jack calls me twice, and Alana once, but I don’t phone them back. I scan the pages of TattleCrime, spending far more time on the comments than the actual articles. I don’t need to read those, I was there; I know what really happened. I lose track of the number of times people refer to you and I as Murder Husbands (Freddie should start a merchandise range with that one, she’d make a fortune). Several people speculate on whether or not we were actually fucking, and if so for how long, and who topped who (you, of course, being the consensus opinion). I groan out loud and run my hand over my face. It’s actually pretty mortifying.

The comments seem fairly split as to how many people believe I was in on the whole thing and helped you fake your death. ZombieCannibal99 thinks that I was the one who died and the current Will Graham is actually Hannibal Lecter in a wig and non-prescription glasses. I raise my eyebrows at that one. FBI_Unmasked argues that I have got you a secret job at the Bureau as an expert profiler, except that no one else knows it’s you. Apparently I intend to exploit your insights as my own. There is a touchingly earnest account of how ID badges can be convincingly doctored, as if a fake badge were the single most implausible part of the theory. Most people agree that you are still alive.

I toy with the idea of setting up a fake profile and weighing in myself. It is surprising how many people have a username with some variant of mine (numerous The_Real_Will_Graham’s and WillGraham2015’s), a substantial number of whom are actually claiming to be me and teasing the truth about what really happened that night. Far fewer do the same for you - even as an avatar you seem to command respect. Finally I snap and tell Graham666 “You’re full of shit. I know for a FACT that Will Graham could not have climbed back up the cliff because he has a morbid fear of lichen and would rather drown than touch its grisly furry surface.” TheTruthIsOutThere promptly logs on underneath and adds that *everyone* knows Will Graham hates lichen, duh, who doesn’t know that, and that Graham666 is indeed full of shit. I blink at the screen several times then turn the laptop off. I realise, belatedly, that I am actually extremely drunk (lately, I am often drunk).

Occasionally I scan up and down the threads to see if there’s anyone who could feasibly be you, concealed behind a keyboard and an innocuous screen name, but nothing ever stands out.

God, when did I become so pathetic – drinking myself into oblivion and scavenging on TattleCrime? I’ve turned into the type of person I used to despise. I know I need to get a grip, start preparing for the rest of my life, but I don’t know how. I don’t yet know what my life’s going to be like without you in it. It’s not like before, when I always knew exactly where you were, even if I didn’t see you. For once my imagination is failing me. There’s an empty space, a wound. A great bleeding gash where you ought to be.

My evenings nearly always end in the same way, which is me closing my eyes and imagining you. Most of the time you resolutely refuse to appear, but not always. I watch you walking in, eyes darting around to inventory the room. You take in my gloriously squalid surroundings and quirk an eyebrow at me. “Oh dear Will,” you say. You sound amused. Your accent is slightly thicker than I remember it, heavier on the vowels. W-i-ll. You carefully fold yourself into the chair opposite mine, stretching your legs out in front of you and steepling you fingers under your face.

“Fuck you,” I say cheerfully. I raise my beer bottle at you in a mock toast. I am gaining a ridiculous amount of petty enjoyment at your disdain for my shitty apartment.

You just smile at me. You look fond. I recognise that expression, I’ve seen it before. You used to look at me like that quite often. At first I found it a bit creepy, I’m not sure exactly when that changed. I smile back at you and drink my beer.

“You’re drinking too much,” you say. I smile again and ignore you, taking another swig. There’s a silence now, but it’s quite companionable. I always liked that about you, you never felt the need to fill up silences with social platitudes and bullshit. I look over at you and you’re just sitting there, watching me and taking me in.

“You sent me your broken heart,” I say suddenly. You glance up at that. “In Italy. In the church.” Why am I telling you this? It’s not like you don’t already know.

“I did.”

“Why?”

You don’t answer. You just sit, watching me, that goddamn smirk on your face. You’re waiting for me to figure it out. You know that I will.

“To have a broken heart implies depth of feeling,” I say. My voice is starting to slur slightly and I cough to try and cover it up. “You don’t feel like that though, do you? You’re not like other people.”

“Assuredly I am not.”

“Bedelia said you were in love with me.”

“Did she?” you reply with polite interest.

“Why did you leave me behind?” I say. “You bastard. Why didn’t you take me with you?”

“But I never left you behind.” You sound thoughtful. Or maybe you’re just growing bored with me, with this…whatever this is (fucked if know). “Something is always going to keep me near you, even if we are not together,” you add. Now your voice is lightly contemplative; it’s impossible to tell whether you’re being sincere or not.

“Bullshit,” is all I say.

“You needed proper medical attention.”

“So did you.”

“But I am not like other people – I believe we have already established that.”

“You’re in my head,” I say petulantly. “You can’t keep having the last word.”

“Very well. Whatever you wish.”

“I do wish.” I’m really very drunk now. Extremely drunk. I take my glasses off and close my eyes, shrugging my shoulders and letting the muscles flex and bend. Everything hurts. I hear you moving towards me, feel your fingers carding through my hair, massaging the scalp. Your thumb trails over the sensitive skin beneath my ear.

“Your hair is very long.”

“I’m aware,” I say carelessly, even though I'm pleased you've noticed - that you'd take the time to notice a stupid little detail like that. Then I realise with a jolt (of something very like mortification) that I am getting more satisfaction from talking to you in my head than I do from talking to real people in the real world. Real, non-maniacal people. I additionally realise that this thought doesn’t actually bother me anywhere near as much as it should. It really should bother me. But then It’s not like I’ve got anything better to do, is it. This is my design.

“Goodnight Dr Lecter,” I say aloud. But this time the room is quiet and there’s no reply, because of course you’ve already gone. It’s just me in an empty room in the worst part of town, lost in an imaginary reverie with simultaneously the best/worst person I have ever met in my life who has tried to kill me on several separate occasions (and saved my life on a few more), and who I don’t even know for certain is still alive. My eyes are damp and stinging, but I tell myself I’m not crying. I’m not; definitely not. And not waving, but drowning.

I find a piece of paper, scrawl “Sort out life” on it (underlined three times and with two exclamation marks) and prop it against the kettle so it’ll be the first thing I see when I come into the kitchen tomorrow.

As I stumble through a drunken approximation of getting ready for bed, I allow my thoughts to stray back to you (of course). I’ve thought about it a lot, you know: what was going through my head when I pulled us both over that cliff. I also think a lot about what was going through yours, albeit hesitantly, because that part’s much harder to pin down. The things I remember most are the feel of your hands – one on my back, one on my hip – and your silence. Your silence was striking; you never made a sound as we went over, not once. You didn’t struggle or anything, you just let me pull you down, like you were reconciled to that fact that of course it would all end like this. You kept your arms around me the entire time, my head tucked against your chest.

I’d finally crossed the line hadn’t I? No wonder you were so pleased. Once it was you who delighted, me who tolerated; and then along came a Great Red Dragon and my delight in the slaying of it. And the realisation of that was utterly annihilating. The hum of satisfaction as the knife went in, you and I hunting together – how alive I felt, truly fucking alive in the midst of all that death. Curiously (or not?), I don’t remember the important things – hitting the water, sinking under, getting ashore again afterwards – but I remember your hands and your silence, and the awful inevitably of it all. Can’t live with you, can’t live without you. I wanted to die and I wanted you to die with me. I do remember that.

When I woke up in the hospital it felt like the ultimate betrayal – you’d outsmarted me yet again. Your game, your rules…and the play doesn’t end until you say so. Even the ocean obeyed your whims and spat us both back out, because that’s what you wanted. Now that I’m here, a lifetime away from that hideous, exhilarating night - with the shock, the pain, the adrenaline, the blood (black in the moonlight) and the delight - I can feel glad about it. Or maybe not glad, not exactly - just no longer as angry. I suppose I’ve got another chance, thanks to you. The really big question, of course, is what I plan to do with it. That’s the part I’m not ready to face yet. Eventually, of course, I know I’m going to have to – another reckoning. The alternative in the meantime is this weird liminal space, where I’m going through the necessary motions, marionette-like, making all the right jerks and twitches to convince people I’m still the same Will Graham as the one who dived into the sea. Whereas I (and you) really know that’s not the case.

The sane bit of me (which is also still in there, somewhere) knows I need to finally let you go, and perhaps one day I will. Just not quite yet.

Chapter Text

I wake up the next morning with a pounding skull and the distinctly unpleasant sensation that something may well have crawled into my mouth and died in the middle of the night. God, this is pitiful – I’m too old to be behaving like this. I lurch into the kitchen to forage for aspirin, and immediately spot my note propped up accusingly against the kettle looking (if possible) even more shrill and exclamatory than it did last night. Then I feel an irrational surge of irritation towards my drunken self for being such a sanctimonious asshole, even though I know the sentiment is the correct one. I’m like a swimmer foggily and hesitantly moving skyward to try and break the surface (literally and metaphorically, really, because isn’t that what we must have done that night?) I need to make a conscious choice to start living again. I know this. I know it. I can’t keep pretending I don’t.

The problem is that I don’t have any clear sense of purpose, but at the very least I need something to fill up my increasingly aimless day before I run mad inside my own head. I suppose I could say I owe it to you (I could say that… I suppose). After all, you made sure I survived our mutual descent, you obviously intended me for something. God, though, where do I even start?

The apartment strikes me as even more dismal than usual this morning with pale, watery sunlight seeping through the thin curtains to showcase all the cracks and damp patches, so I decide to head out for a while. I keep my eyes cast down, glancing up every so often to observe the streets in short gasps. After about 20 minutes I begin to realise how paranoid I’m feeling about someone recognising me, so I pull up my the collar of my coat to hide my face. This feels better, until I catch a glimpse of myself in a store window and decide that if people weren’t looking at me before, then they definitely will be now because I look as shifty as hell. As a compromise I fold the collar back down but rummage in my pocket for my hat, tugging it low over my forehead. I cut across the park, and there’s a man on a bench reading a newspaper that has your mugshot splashed on the cover and a headline that runs along the lines of: FBI STILL BAFFLED. He catches me staring at him and gives me an accusing look, so I turn away and carry on walking.

I end up in a tiny coffee shop that’s trying a bit too hard to flaunt its trendily independent sock-it-to-the-man credentials, but is otherwise cosy and quiet. I’m the only customer, and I end up making idle small talk with the waitress. She’s wearing a handwritten name badge with a smiley face proclaiming “Hi! My name’s Sarah” and she keeps giggling at everything I say and tapping my arm when she wants to make a point. I know she’s trying to flirt with me, and she’s actually really pretty in a wholesome, rosy-cheeked kind of way. One upon a time I might have tried to hit on her just for the hell of it, although the very idea now makes me feel exhausted. I help her with her crossword puzzle instead. She has the same newspaper with you on the front, but at least I’m prepared for it this time and carefully avert my eyes to the sugar bowl on the counter.

“Within cupid’s arrow, a rare infection,” she says. “Twelve letters, starts with ‘e’ and ends with ‘s’.”

“Endocarditis,” I say before adding, a bit pointlessly, “endo means within.”

“Nice,” she replies. I can’t tell whether she’s genuinely impressed or is politely trying to ignore the fact that (even to myself) I sound like an insufferable smartass. I proceed to get both ‘autopsy’ and ‘malaria.’

“You’re really good with the medical ones aren’t you.” Now she’s beaming at me again, beaming even harder than the little emoticon on her badge. “Are you a doctor or something?”

“Not at all,” I say vaguely, “I only know them ‘cos they have to do with death.” Oh fuck, fuck, I actually said that out loud didn’t I? At times like these I wonder how I’ve manged to survive the past few decades whilst bearing a level of social cluelessness that’s so high it’s potentially terminal. I hold out my hands, palms upwards. “Shit, I’m sorry,” I say, “That sounded incredibly weird. I work in law enforcement. Forensics. You know, like…” I flail a bit, trying to think of a reassuring forensics analogy that won’t freak her out, and fail resoundingly. Are there any reassuring points of reference for forensics?

“Oh,” she replies slowly, “you mean like that show CSI?”

“Yes!” I say, a bit too eagerly. “Yes, exactly like that.” Well actually, no – not exactly.

She smiles and giggles, equilibrium restored, and while I’m glad to see her happy again, I still sigh internally and wish I could tell her that she’d be better off trusting her initial instinct and flinching away from me because I am, in fact, both disturbed and disturbing. I don’t belong in her world, which is peopled by those who are reliable and sane and nice. I am none of these things, I’m merely in disguise. I leave soon after and she drops heavy hints about stopping by again for a coffee on the house and another crossword challenge, and I tell her I’ll see what I can do, although even as I’m saying it I know that there’s no way I will.

*****

It’s a bizarre sensation, as if the world has been pacing on ahead without me (which essentially it has) and I’m trying to flag it down and clamber back on. After some deliberation, my first step is a silent pact with myself that the next time someone calls, I’ll pick up. In the grand scheme of things it’s a pathetic goal, but I need to start somewhere. A day or two drags past with nothing, and then the phone goes and it’s Jack. My heart sinks a bit – I was hoping it would be Alana. I’m not holding out much hope that Jack will say anything that I particularly want to hear, but breaking my resolution on the first try doesn’t bode well either, so I press the accept button.

“Hey Jack.”

“Will!” he says, as if he’s actually happy to hear my voice (he can’t possibly be. Can he?). “Long time no speak. I was starting to think you’d run off again.”

“No,” I say, “I’m right here,” which is actually pretty stupid, because where else would I be?

“Crime scene,” he replies, without further preamble. “One home invasion and one dead home owner. I’d like you to take a look.”

Considering his manner with me at the hospital this was not what I was expecting at all, and I am genuinely taken aback. “Really?” I manage finally.

“Yes, really,” says Jack. He sounds a bit impatient. I can hear a conversation in the background behind him, the sound of a phone ringing. “There’s no one else and I’m guessing you could probably use the work. Ready for it?”

I feel a sudden surge of affection for him. Good old Jack. Why does he trust me so much? It’s not like I’ve done anything recently to deserve it.

“I’m ready,” I say (I’m not).

“You better be,” Jack replies. “I’m going out on a limb for you here Will. Asking you back wasn’t…well, let’s say it wasn’t a unanimously popular decision. I can’t carry you through this one.”

“Jack I’m fine, I can do this,” I say, and I’m pleased at how convincing I sound. “No one needs to carry me.”

You carried me once didn’t you, stumbling over the snow from Muskrat Farm. We were shaken and sore with assorted injuries and sublimated exhaustion, and I was drifting in and out of consciousness. Partly all the drugs I’d been given, but mostly the shock as well, I guess. My mind was shutting off; wisely, it had realised it was no longer an advantage to be aware of what was happening to my body. God knows what had happened to you, they didn’t exactly treat you kindly either did they? But there you were: trudging on with steady, irrepressible purpose, me hanging limp in your arms. My eyes drifted open every so often, and once I saw you gazing down at me. You caught me looking and smiled, rolling your eyes at me. “For such a slender thing, Will, you are much heavier than you look,” you said in mock annoyance. But you still carried me, you didn’t put me down once. That was one of the reasons for your success, I suppose: you never quit, not at anything. You probably didn’t know how, airily sailing through the limits of anyone else’s endurance.

“Will?”

“Yeah, sorry, I’m right here.”

“You sure you okay?”

“I’m fine,” I reply, as if saying it enough times can conjure it into reality. Jack proceeds to ask me if I want a ride, and I tell him I’ll make my own way, so he gives me the address and hangs up. I put my phone down, carefully replacing it onto the table, and then stand for a moment, taking a few deep breaths. There’s a weird thrill of energy vibrating through me. I don’t know what’s going to happen.

Okay, first things first. I dig out a shirt from one of my cardboard boxes (still largely unpacked, merely scavenged in as and when needed), and make a desultory attempt at ironing it. It’s a shame I can’t iron my face as well, which is marginally more crumpled than the shirt. I know I look like shit. I’ve lost a lot of weight and my eyes are now too large in my face, my cheekbones jutting out like a balcony (although still not as distinctive as yours). At least I finally cut my hair. I couldn’t face a barber so I did it myself last week in the smeary bathroom mirror, sawing away with a pair of nail scissors. It’s certainly a lot neater, but I can’t help feeling that it actually makes me look worse. The curls softened my face before - the shorter cut makes me seem more gaunt than ever, all planes and sharp edges.

I locate my glasses on the bedside table and cast a final glance around my dingy little living room before scooping up my keys and heading out to confront whatever perdition has been conjured up at the other end. Time to go to work.

*****

On the drive over, I wonder what the hell I’m doing.

*****

I see the flashing lights before I turn into the road, and pull up to the standard flotsam of police cordons, paramedics and anxious-looking neighbors clustering together in packs for protection. The FBI presence isn’t immediately obvious, but then I notice Jack prowling around the periphery, barking out orders to his various minions. He raises a hand in greeting when he spots me. “Ah, Will!” he says, “Thanks for coming out. Glad you could make it.”

“No problem,” I reply. I sound a bit too earnest: it’s embarrassing. Then I nearly add something about being ‘glad to be here,’ but fortunately realize in time how inappropriate that might sound: no normal person is glad to be a crime scene (especially unfortunate given the whole 'I know everything about death – even in Latin' comments at the coffee shop). Jack pats me briskly on the shoulder. If he’s still harbouring any reservations, he’s not going to broadcast them here. As far as any onlookers would be concerned, he’s genuinely pleased I’ve showed up. I know this veneer of unity is as much for his sake as mine – he needs to stand by his decisions, after all – but I’m still grateful.

“Not your usual,” Jack says. He gestures at the house. “In fact this is probably a bit tame for you. But I figured I’d start you out on something small.”

I raise my eyebrows. “You’re breaking me in?”

“Yeah, something like that,” says Jack, unabashed. He shrugs. “Local police called it in. It’s a low crime area and there’s something a bit off about the body.”

“How so?”

“Face was covered with some kind of tribal mask. They think it’s premeditated, staged to look like a burglary.”

“Okay then,” I say, “show me where.” Jack leads the way and I follow, trying not to trail after him too awkwardly. To my great relief I don’t see anyone I know, although one of the cops we pass at the gate is staring at me, and I suspect he’s recognized me from somewhere. He looks incredibly young, little more than a teenager – scrubbed, shiny face with raw pink cheeks and practically bristling with earnest idealism. There’s something touchingly pathetic about him; he looks like he ought to have a plastic pistol and a toy badge. I try to remember when I was last that innocent and enthusiastic, and fail spectacularly. (Was I ever? Probably not).

“Hey!” he calls out. Oh shit, he’s following us, bouncing up the path like an enormous uniformed puppy. “Hey! Will Graham! You’re Will Graham aren’t you?”

I briefly consider denying it (‘No I’m not, but I’m aware of the resemblance – happens all the time actually. It fucking sucks’), before realising that I can’t very well insist that I’m someone else with Jack standing right there. The net result of all this is that just enough time passes before I answer to make it look as if I’ve been struggling to remember what my name is. “Y-e-s,” I say eventually (grudgingly). The inflection in my voice tips up at the end, so it sounds like I’m asking a question. Christ. Jack is looking at me with a ‘what the hell’s he playing at now?’ expression on his face.

“Man!” says the embryo police officer, “Man, this is so cool, seeing you in person. I’ve read all about you.”

“Yeah?” I say. “I’m the one who didn’t kill all those people.” I yearn to give Jack a deliberately snide look at this point, but decide not to push my luck.

“Cool!” says the child, undeterred, and I give him a nod and smile (which is meant to be friendly – I swear it is – but goes a bit wrong halfway through and probably just looks like I’ve got a nervous tic). I have a surreal mental montage of him regaling his colleagues with this exchange later on: “Yeah I met Will Graham, it was totally him. Twitchy little weirdo, seemed to have forgotten what his name was…” For an awful minute I think I’m going to start laughing.

“Don’t you have some statements to be taking Officer?” says Jack pointedly. A spiteful, shitty part of me wants to rub it in (‘yeah, Officer, don’t you have some statements to be taking?’) but I don’t, because he’s just a kid and none of this is his fault.

He now swivels the spotlight of his boyish awe upon Jack, and I take the opportunity to duck out the way and head towards the property. As I go I can hear a breathy “…absolutely Mr Crawford, right away Sir.” The house itself is spacious and affluent looking from the outside, entirely incongruous with tragic, violent death.

“Victim is Andrew Atherton,” Jack tells me when he catches up. “White male, 42 years old, divorced. Well-paid job as an investment banker. No criminal record, no known criminal associations. Main hobbies travelling and wine-tasting.”

“Why does it get called ‘travelling’ as opposed to saying ‘my hobby is going on vacation’?”

Jack ignores me: “According to his neighbours, an all-round decent guy.”

“People always say that when someone dies. Doesn’t mean anything.”

“It doesn’t mean he wasn’t either,” says Jack. “The Perp came in through there by the way,” he adds, pointing out a small casement window that’s about five foot off the ground. It’s not immediately apparent, partially obscured behind a trailing sycamore tree, and Jack has to gesture a second time before I spot it. I’m usually more observant than this, it’s slightly embarrassing. Jack gives me a look. “You okay?” he says.

“Fine. I’m fine.” (I should just get a recording made; write it up on a pasteboard sign). “Where’s the window lead to?”

“Utility room.”

“Uh huh.” I take a moment to track the footprints leading towards it. My footprints don’t deviate, I walk with purpose. I break the window to gain entry. A casual intruder would be unlikely to notice it, but I am familiar with the property and I know exactly where I’m heading. It’s an excellent choice because it is secluded; I am extremely unlikely to be noticed when I prize it open.

“What’s inside?” I ask.

“Andrew Atherton,” Jack replies. “Or at least what’s left of him.” He leads me into the living room, and I take in the sight of the late, lamented Mr Atherton, sprawled across the floor with a halo of blood around his head and his face obscured by an elaborate wooden mask with a raffia mane.

“Unexpected,” I say.

“Very.” Jack turns to the forensics crew. “Okay everyone, clear the scene for a few minutes. Will? Tell me when you’ve got something.”

I nod absently to Jack, but I’m already closing my eyes and entering the right mind space (which is not truly right, and never has been, as opposed to deeply wrong). I’m panicking, the acid rising in my mouth. My hearts throbs; this isn’t what I intended. This is not my design. I open my eyes again, blink a few times. Then I go outside and find Jack. I’m surprised to realize that nearly 15 minutes have passed.

“It’s a burglary gone wrong,” I tell him.

“What, seriously?” says Jack, “And your reasons are…?”

“He knew to head straight for that hidden window,” I reply, “which means he was already familiar with the house. But not from surveillance – this area’s too built up, someone hanging around with no reason to be there would get noticed. Check on any reports of loitering and so on, but otherwise I’d say you’re looking for someone who’s had prior access to the property. A laborer, tradesman…something like that. Squeezing through the window took a level of agility, so he’s going to be reasonably young and athletic. And it takes a degree of planning and confidence to raid a house in broad daylight, so we can be pretty certain he’s done it before – he’s probably already on the system with a history of breaking and entering.”

“Okay, I’ll flag up the B&E,” Jack says. “What else?”

“The primary intention was non-violent: the burglary. The front room’s been tossed so there’ll be valuables missing; you might be able to trace them. The killing of the homeowner was secondary and unintended, in the sense that it wasn’t the motive for entering the house. The offender thought it was empty. Mr Atherton should have been at work, it was the middle of the day.”

“We checked. His employers said he called in sick,” says Jack.

“Okay then, that’s why. He was in his bedroom, maybe he was asleep or the television was on – at any rate he didn’t hear the breaking glass from the window, but he did hear the disturbance in the living room. He comes downstairs and confronts the Perp, and that’s when it turns into homicide, because the offender needs to protect himself and eliminate the witness. Again, it suggests that he was known to Mr Atherton; he knew he could be identified, so pay attention to the possible tradesman link. Plus if he was anticipating an empty house he wouldn’t have tried to disguise himself in any way. See if the bullets match a gun belonging to the victim. If not, it means he brought it with him, so check for this in any previous offences when you go through the records; anyone arrested for burglary carrying that type of gun.”

“What makes you so sure Atherton wasn’t targeted?” says Jack.

“The body,” I say impatiently. “There’s no sign of sexual or ritualized elements, no attempt to torture or humiliate the victim. This wasn’t personal. The Perp wasn’t looking to derive any emotional satisfaction from killing him. A gunshot wound to the head suggests the only motive was to despatch him as quickly as possible, but it’s also far too clumsy for a professional hit – look at the defensive wounds on his hands. The furniture’s turned over; there was a struggle. The killer panics and shoots him, but it’s not clean. See the bullet holes in the wall? He didn’t get him the first time, the first few shots went wide.”

“So if it’s burglary why is the rest of the house untouched?” says Jack. “Why only this room?”

“Because now he’s been disturbed and has a dead body on his hands. He needs to make a quick getaway, so confines his search to the room at hand.”

“And the mask?”

“The mask isn’t significant; it already belonged to the victim. See the empty hook on the wall there?” I point at it, and Jack sighs out an agreement. “You said yourself that he enjoyed travelling, he almost certainly picked up the mask himself. Check with his friends, but I’m pretty positive that the mask is incidental. The Perp simply puts it over Mr Atherton’s face so he can detach himself from what he’s done, and minimize the presence of the body while he remains in the room and searches for valuables. The burglary appears controlled and methodical, but the murder is not - he came here to rob, not to kill. He’s not acclimatized to violence – at least not this level of lethal violence – so he needs to depersonalize the victim and just grabs the first thing to hand. I wouldn’t be surprised if he closed Mr Atherton’s eyes before the mask went on.”

“So,” says Jack, “…it really was just a burglary gone wrong.”

I smile wryly. “You weren’t kidding when you sad this was a lot more tame than the usual, were you Jack?”

*****

Outside the house it’s starting to get dark, and there’s a raw, metallic feel to the air. I prop myself up against the wall and take a few deep breaths: my temples are starting to throb with the familiar beginnings of a headache, and I’ve left my painkillers at the apartment. But it’s okay, it’s fine. I’m fine. I am. I came here, and I did my thing, and it was fine. There’s a high-pitched ringing in my ears, and I start to think I’m getting a migraine before I become aware of the vibrations in my pocket and realise it’s actually my phone going off. Look at me: two calls in one day. I feel like Miss Congeniality herself.

The caller display says ‘Alana Bloom,’ and I smile in spite of myself. “Hi Alana.”

“Will!” she says, “so good to hear your voice.”

“I’m at a crime scene,” I blurt out.

There’s a pause, and then Alana answers: “Is that so?” She doesn’t exactly sound happy about it.

“So, um, how are you doing?”

“I’m fine Will,” she replies, her voice carefully neutral, “to be honest I’m more concerned with how you’re doing.”

“We should catch up some time,” I tell her, instead of giving her an answer.

“That would be great,” she says, immediately seizing on this. “How are you fixed for tonight?”

“Uh, yeah, sure. Tonight,” I reply before I can stop myself. “Why not.”

“Okay, great.” She sounds surprised that I’ve agreed so readily (although not as surprised as I am – what the hell was I thinking?). “How does eight o’clock sound?”

“That sounds fine,” I say gloomily. “I can be with you by eight.”

“Excellent. I hope you don’t mind but I’ll have someone with me – someone who really wants to meet you.” I open to my mouth to protest, but she’s already rattling off the name of the bar and telling me not to be late. Then she hangs up.

I let my head fall back against the wall and sigh out loud. Another of the local cops is walking past and gives me a weird look, which I ignore. What’s the matter with me? Why does this feel so difficult? It shouldn’t be this difficult, should it? It’s just a drink with an old friend (and an unknown someone, who really wants to meet me’).

I give myself a mental shake and unfold myself away from the wall. I need to go. It’ll be good for me; dutifully I begin to trudge back towards my car. Then I notice that the policeman is still staring at me, and have to resist the urge to just walk over and punch him in his fucking face. I hate it (I do…I really do)…but I can’t deny the sense of crushing disappointment I feel whenever my phone rings, and it’s never, ever you.

Chapter Text

The bar that Alana has named is both expansive (high ceilings with swaying pendulum lights, wood-panelled walls stretching off to a vanishing point) and expensive (starched white cuffs flashing watches like delicate wafers of gold; the women brittle-looking with immaculately painted faces), and as soon as I cross the threshold I suspect that I’ve made a horrible mistake. I can’t see Alana anywhere. I know that I am spectacularly out-of-place in my ancient jeans, battered coat and DIY haircut, and it seems inevitable that one of the innumerably sleek staff will soon realize this and ask me to leave (good).

Ah, there’s Alana. Has she has spotted me, or can I still make a run for it? No, she’s seen me – her eyes lock with mine over the top of the crowd, and she heads over, arms curling around my back in a fragrant hug. She looks delightful: happiness suits her. Following behind her is a tall man, who peers at me over her shoulder with unabashed curiosity. I stare back meditatively, sizing him up.

“Will,” she says, disentangling herself and turning to gesture at him, “This is a very dear friend of mine, Dr Michael French. We did a residency together at Hopkins.” So this is the person who wants to meet me. Why? He doesn’t look like the type of person who’d be all that interested in the type of work I do. Not that you can tell that by looking at someone of course, he could be anyone underneath. I briefly amuse myself with the thought that he’s actually ZombieCannibal99 from TattleCrime.

“Of course I know who you are Mr Graham,” he says (right on cue). He pumps my hand vigorously. “Alana has told me all sorts of impressive things about you. It seems that you’re quite the dragon-slayer.”

Michael French is lithe and distinguished looking, with a neatly pressed suit and elegant coils of silvery black hair. I’d say he was in his mid-forties. He’s also English – all cut-glass vowels and affable smiles and nods of the head – so I try to be charitable and put that down as a cultural reference, and therefore the reason he thinks he can refer to someone as a ‘dragon-slayer’ without the kind of self-consciousness any self-respecting person ought to surely feel at saying such a ludicrous thing. “Please, call me Will,” I say. It appears his smiling and nodding is a bit contagious because I’ve started doing it myself.

Alana fortunately intercedes (no doubt compelled to prevent myself and Michael French continuing to smile and nod ourselves into a frenzy) and asks me how the case went. It’s a bit of an unfortunate question, but I can’t really blame her because the only other alternative is ’so what are you doing with yourself these days?’ and there’s no way Michael French wants to hear an honest answer to that, for all his smiles and chivalrous world-weary charm. Besides he’s a friend of Alana’s (a dear friend, no less), so maybe crime scenes won’t shock him too much. I still err on the side of caution though, partly because I don’t actually want to talk about it, and partly because I don’t feel I’ve got the measure of him yet (what’s he really after?).

“Fine, thanks,” I say, “it went fine. I think it should be resolved fairly quickly now.” So that’s that. I realise I am not exactly helping to oil the conversation along, and should add something else, but I don’t know what to say. Both Alana and Michael are looking at me encouragingly, smiling and nodding for all they’re worth (Christ).

I opt for the coward’s way out and gesture at the bar “Anyone want a drink?” I ask.

Alana swirls her wine glass to indicate that she’s fine, but Michael French says “No, no, let me. I insist. What are you drinking Will?”

“Oh thanks,” I say awkwardly, “a beer would be good.”

“Right you are,” he replies, and strides off to the bar with the determination of A Man on a Mission. Alana and I escape to a side booth, and I take my glasses off and run a tired hand over my face.

Alana regards me contemplatively. Here it comes, I think. She takes a deep breath: “Honestly Will. A crime scene? After everything that’s happened, you really think that’s wise? You’ve gone through absolute hell and the first chance you get you’re getting submerged in death and horror.” She frowns and takes a fretful sip of her wine. “Sometimes I think I should kill Jack Crawford.”

I just blink at her without answering. The main thought I’m guiltily aware of is that she’ll have to join a queue, because you’d get him long before she can. I wisely decide to keep this particular insight to myself, and instead make an impatient gesture with my hand. “It wasn’t like that,” I say. It’s not that I don’t appreciate her concern, but the implication that I’m so feeble I’ll just roll over at the first command from Jack is hugely irritating.

“So what was it like then?”

I put my glasses back on and regard her over the top of them. “What else am I supposed to do?” I say, “I’m good at this.”

“I know you are. I also know that it nearly destroyed you before.”

“Yes, well…that was before.”

“Will, there’s plenty of other things you could do. You walked away from it for three whole years.”

“Well now I’ve walked back again,” I say irritably. “Everything’s different now. Everything. Molly and I haven’t spoken in months, I’m going out of my mind on my own in the apartment…” I long to add ‘and Hannibal’s gone’ but this would be utter madness so I don’t. “I need something constructive to do,” I add lamely. “Jack called, and it seemed like a viable option.” I quite like the sound of this so I say it again (although at this point I’m no longer sure which one of us I’m trying the hardest to convince). “Working for the Bureau feels viable. It’s as simple as that. At least for the short-term, until I figure out something else.”

Alana looks as if there’s a lot more that she could say, but at this point Michael comes back with the drinks – a beer for me, and a glowing amber concoction in a slim glass for himself – and I’m so relieved to call time on this awkward heart-to-heart that I find I’m actually pleased to see him, and dole out a big smile in response. He smiles back and pushes the beer in my direction. “Cin cin,” he says.

Santé,” says Alana. She sounds frustrated.

“Cheers,” I reply, and down about half of mine in one go.

Michael glances at us both. “I hope I wasn’t interrupting anything?” he says.

“No it’s fine.” I smile at Alana, slightly apologetically, so she’ll know I’m not trying to dismiss her. “We were just catching up on a few things.”

She smiles back at me, and briefly puts her hand over mine. “It’s really good to see you Will,” she says, and I can tell she means it. Michael smiles too, and a for a moment we’re all just sat there, beaming at each other like the goddamn Brady Bunch. No one starts nodding though, so at least there’s that. Privately I congratulate myself on my general tendency to avoid socialising at all costs, because it’s really fucking exhausting.

Alana asks Michael how his clinic is going, and I try so hard to look interested it’s almost painful. Inevitably I overdo it, because he suddenly stops talking and looks closely at me before saying “Are you all right Will? You look a little tired.” It’s true, I do – I am – but I still feel irritated with the way he points it out. It always strikes me that when people say ‘you look tired’ they may as well be saying ‘you look like seven shades of shit.’ I amuse myself by wondering what would happen if you were here. Probably nothing much, not really: you’d be charming and confident, and we’d all hang onto your every word. Later I’d drown out the noise of everyone else and talk to you on my own, so I could bask in the voltage of your highly-tuned regard centring solely on me. Although if I’m honest, I can’t really imagine you ever willingly submitting to an evening like this.

Michael has now launched into an anecdote about his colleagues – something convoluted about an inebriated nurse and a night shift at the ER – and I zone in and out, making sure I laugh at the appropriate times. I keep waiting for him to start grilling me about my work (or, infinitely worse, about you) but he doesn’t. He’s obviously more polite and/or restrained than I gave him credit for – either that or my obvious weirdness has scared him off. Instead I ask Alana how Margo’s doing, and she tells us about plans for breeding race horses and getting a training centre going. Alana is pleasant and engaging to listen to, and I become a bit more animated, telling her how happy I am that things are going well for them both. She buys the next round of drinks, and I get the one after that. I sneak a look at my watch whilst stood at the bar: I’ve been here for nearly two hours, which is a sufficiently respectable amount of time that I can soon make my excuses and then fuck off and leave them to it.

Alana and Michael have their heads together when I return to our booth. I deposit the various glasses in front of them and slide back into my seat. Michael looks up at me and smiles. “Do you care for opera, Will?” he says.

“Not really, no,” I say bluntly. Alana shoots me a look. I catch it and throw it back at her. What am I supposed to say? I’m just being honest: I don’t give a shit about opera. Michael is looking at us both in turn, a quizzical little smile on his face. “Sorry,” I add a bit lamely, as a concession to Alana and her obvious disapproval.

“No need to be sorry!” he says gaily, as if I am just being charmingly eccentric as opposed to rude and ungracious and socially awkward. “It’s just that I have tickets for Tosca on Friday, and my usual opera crony has let me down at the last moment.” (Oh my God, who the hell has opera cronies? Even you would have drawn the line at that). He sighs heavily, laboring the point. “Alana was going to oblige me, but it seems she’s not available either.” Alana sighs too, in carefully choreographed regret, and I am struck with the horrible realization that they hatched this out beforehand between them. I wonder who the instigator was: whether Alana has been making a charity appeal on behalf of her tragically isolated friend, or if he was sufficiently intrigued by what he read in the press to seek out an introduction. Either way, this is a blatant set-up. There’s no way that someone like him can’t find a more suitable recipient for his opera tickets.

“It’s very kind of you,” I say, carefully selecting each word, “but I’m afraid it would be a bit wasted on me. It’s a shame to deprive someone who’d be able to truly appreciate it.” It’s not a shame (at all) – I couldn’t give less of a shit about the deprivation of the unknown opera cronies – but I am determined to behave myself in front of Alana.

“Oh but I disagree Will!” he says, “I can’t accept that at all I’m afraid. I think you would be an extremely worthy recipient.” Is he for real? For a second, I marvel at the level of self-confidence that enables someone to be so obvious, and so utterly unconcerned about it. I could tell him to ram his tickets up his ass and he’d just chuckle jovially and I’d be the one left feeling embarrassed, slinking away to re-live my shame in private. I hate the way he’s worked it round to imply that I am being modest and self-denying (which he can rally against) as opposed to conceding my original point (which would be game over) in that I just don’t like fucking opera.

“Honestly,” I say, “it’s really not my thing.”

“What operas have you seen?” he replies smoothly.

Oh God, it’s going to be like this, isn’t it? I need to either give up and accept defeat; or man-up and tell him ‘no’ in a way that’s so decisive he’ll finally abandon the whole stupid plan. He’s still talking, waxing lyrical about orchestration, and a particular soprano, and how I simply must give it a go, because he’s sure I’d utterly love it, and even if not then it’s only a few hours lost, and he would be so terribly grateful if I took that goddamn ticket off his hands. My head is starting to hurt. Alana keeps looking at me, smiling encouragingly.

I don’t respond immediately, which is fucking fatal, because it gives him the chance to dive in and spin my lack of refusal into a definite acquiescence. “I’ll meet you at the Hall at seven o’clock,” he says, giving me a chipper little nod. At least he didn’t offer to pick me up I suppose. Although maybe I should insist on it – he’d either get his wheels stolen while he was ringing the buzzer, or take one look at my shit-tip building and get the hell out of Dodge. Either way, I could then get back to my usual Friday night plans of getting drunk and trolling TattleCrime.

Ironically, it’s actually this realization that makes me start to change my mind. My level of socialising is terminal; in fact I’ve seen autopsies with marginally more life in them. Wasn’t this part of my resolution about Will Graham’s Brave New World? I said I wanted more things to do, I even told Alana that; and which she may make a point of reminding me of if I persist in saying no. What’s the worst thing that can happen, anyway? (Oddly enough, even my relationship with you doesn’t appear to have cured me of asking such loaded questions). Maybe I’ll even enjoy it? (Although admittedly, probably not). But it’s not like I can’t survive an evening masquerading as an opera crony. I can survive most things, after all. I even survived you.

“Okay then sure,” I say finally, before I can change my mind again. And then, dredging up my last reserves of good manners: “Thanks.” I remember your observation that “whenever feasible, one should always try to eat the rude,” and struggle to hide the most godawful smirk. If he has the gall to look triumphant, I think, then I really will tell him to fuck off. But he doesn’t. He just smiles, raises his glass to me and says: “Thank you Will, I shall be delighted to have the pleasure of your company.” Then he turns to Alana and starts asking her about the BSHCI budget, as if the last ten minutes didn’t even happen. I tip my head back against the cool fabric of the booth, and wonder for a brief moment what the hell I’ve let myself in for.

I know it’s ridiculous, but I almost feel like I’m being disloyal to you. As if you would have cared either way.

*****

The phone call comes in the middle of the night, my cell buzzing shrill and insistent on the scuffed gate-legged table propped next to the bed. I bolt upright, disorientated, and fumble around for it. There’s the unmistakable sound of breaking glass as a beer bottle tumbles to the floor. “Fuck,” I mutter to myself. I look down at my phone (successfully retrieved): the number is withheld.

“’lo?” I say. I cough a few times to clear the tiredness out of my throat. “Hello?”

There’s no response. No breathing, no nothing.

“Hello?” I say again, annoyed. Still nothing. The silence is complete. Even the room is silent, no sounds from outside the window, no noise in the building. I might be the only person awake in the entire world: me and whoever it is on the end of the line.

You?

I nearly say your name, but stop myself just in time. It’s hardly likely to be you. Silent telephone calls aren’t exactly your style, you’d be more likely to leave a few artfully arranged body parts on my doorstep. And if I say your name I’ll give you away, not to mention myself, to the person on the other end.

“Who’s there?” I say. I’m going for demanding and assertive, but am too confused and sleep-addled to properly carry it off, and I realize that I sound more anxious than anything else. There’s still no reply. I glance at my alarm clock, glowing a ghostly blue in the darkness: 02.33. What am I doing, why don’t I just hang up? 02.34. I wait to see what the caller will do. A sudden flare of competitiveness makes me feel that I shouldn’t be the one to crack first and end the call. I consider making some smartass remark (‘Quite the conversationalist aren’t you?’) but somehow the levity doesn’t feel right. 02.35. It’s the eeriness of all the silence, it’s oppressive. It’s making me feel unnerved, this voiceless presence at the other end of the line, and suddenly the spell breaks and I just want the whole thing to stop. I abruptly hang up and switch off my phone. Then I pull the blanket over my head and wait for sleep, which is a long time coming. A car finally goes past the building, and the headlights dip and swim across my wall like a phantom shoal.

By the time the morning comes I feel as if I could have maybe dreamt the whole thing, except for the call display - a permanent reminder of a missive from the middle of the night.

Chapter Text

As Friday approaches I start to agonize about the trip to the opera with Michael (which is absolutely not a date, oh my God), and alternate between enthusiastically cursing him and Alana for pushing me into it, and myself even more for allowing the pushing to happen in the first place. I feel like I’m sleepwalking into this, blindly staggering into some new disaster because I’m too passive (and exhausted and demoralized) to take control of my own life. Maybe there’s an aspect of him (very, very slightly) that reminds me of you – the European sophistication being most obvious – but there’s no doubt the main reason I’m even considering going is that I’m bored and restless and lonely.

I don’t have his number, but I could get it off Alana and cancel. I could be light-hearted and casual about it, the way that normal people are (“let’s take a rain check Michael!”), like it’s no big thing. I could say I’m sick, except he’s doctor and he’ll ask what’s wrong with me…he might offer to come round. I could tell him I have to work (no, of course I can’t say that – I don’t have a job, and he probably knows it). I could say I’ve recently got a job, completely unexpectedly…Oh God, no - just no. Even as I’m spiralling and floundering, I know deep down that I’m not going to do any of these things. As it is, I excel myself in the end by not only making it the opera, but making it on time. Michael is hovering in the foyer of the auditorium and his face breaks into an enormous smile when he sees me.

“It’s very good of you to come tonight Will,” he says, shaking my hand. “I know you weren’t terribly keen initially. I’m afraid I somewhat pressganged you back there.”

“It’s okay,” I say, “I’ve become seriously reclusive lately, I need to start getting out more.” I wonder whether I should leaven this (frankly, spectacularly depressing) disclosure with some kind of joke, but the only recluse references that come to mind aren’t remotely funny; and besides I can’t really be bothered. I shrug my shoulders instead: “It was good of you to make the effort.”

He looks a bit deflated at that (not surprising really, seeing as I’ve made him sound like some kind of social worker), but honestly though; what did he expect? He’s too suave and self-possessed, that’s his problem, he’s probably used to people falling over themselves to get him to take them out. It won’t do him any harm to have to work for it for a change. He recovers quickly nevertheless and compliments me on my suit, telling me I look very nice in formal wear. I know I should reciprocate, but it seems like that might get perilously close to flirtatious banter – and while I’m not the greatest with social cues, I’m not completely fucking oblivious – so in the end I just smile and thank him.

“Let us go in,” he says with mock formality. He places his hand lightly on the small of my back when we pass through the main doors, but removes it fairly speedily and otherwise doesn’t try and touch me at all, which I wasn’t totally expecting. Tentatively, I allow myself to start to relax (a bit).

We have a drink before the performance begins, and Michael starts asking me about my teaching work, and where I grew up, how I met Alana, and my thoughts on homeland security. Nice, safe subjects; slightly dull. Nothing about encephalitis or copycat killings, certainly nothing about you. He’s obviously done some research on me, because he’s aware of several of my articles, including the more obscure ones, and even asks me about fishing. I can’t decide whether I find it flattering or invasive and over-eager; possibly a bit of both. His knees brush against mine under the table, and I don’t immediately pull away. Michael is fucking beaming. Normally I’d hate it. I should hate it. But there’s something about being the focus of such radiant high regard that’s pretty intoxicating. I realise that I must have been lonelier over the past few months than I allowed myself to acknowledge.

He has excellent seats at the front of the House (of course) and I am relieved when we sit down and the lights finally dim, because while he’s proving marginally more bearable than I thought he’d be, I have absolutely reached - and exceeded - my small talk threshold. Onstage the performers caper and parade in a kaleidoscope of mantua dresses, embroidered breeches and sweeping cloaks, swaying slightly as they brandish ornately carved crucifixes. Briefly, I remember the church in Italy. God, this is going to be boring. You would have loved it. You’d have been fucking rapt.

Michael speaks Italian (naturally) but has “taken the liberty, Will” of procuring me an English translation of the libretto so I can keep track of the plot if I wish. I virtuously study it in the dim light, feigning an intelligent level of interest. Vissi d’arte: I lived for art. It sounds a little like you. I’ve never really had much to do with classical music. I remember you showing me your theremin once; me leaning over and picking out the opening riff to Smoke on the Water, and you looking like you were losing the will to live.

You were the complete opposite because you loved music, you were at the opera constantly. I never usually recognised the type of stuff you played, either on records or on an actual instrument (because of course you were a talented musician yourself). Actually, no, there’s that one time I did. It was a playful, light-hearted little tune, and it stood out because it was so far removed from the rippling harmonies and thundering arias you normally favoured; you were whistling it to yourself as you brewed us coffee. “Isn’t that from a children’s piece?” I said. I couldn’t remember the name, but I thought I might have seen it on TV once.

If I squinted – and if such a thing were feasible – I think that you perhaps looked faintly embarrassed. “It is indeed for children,” you said, “but I remember it from when I was a child. My sister was extremely fond of it. Peter and the Wolf. Petya i Volk.” Of course your Russian accent was flawless. I still emitted an involuntary snort of laughter: “You sound like a Bond villain.”

You gave me a long-suffering look in response. “Such things you say to me,” you replied. But you were smiling, you didn’t really mind. You always liked that I wasn’t afraid of you.

You pushed the coffee cup towards me, your eyes taking me in. Watching me; you were always watching me weren’t you? “Of course the entire thing can be understood as an allegory,” you continued. “It embodies the geopolitical status of Russia as Prokofiev saw it. The wolf represents the spectre of Nazi Germany, whereas Peter is Russia herself. It is a benign, beloved aspect of classical canon, yet in reality was forged from cruelty, oppression, and terror. Or at least, so some have claimed.” You gave me a slightly feral smile. You were still staring at me as you quoted: “Brave boys like him are not afraid of wolves.

On stage the soprano, emoting wildly, plunges a dagger into the chief of police. Questo è il bacio di Tosca: This is Tosca’s kiss. Before long, Act 3 is drawing to its awful climax. Tosca flees from the soldiers and hurls herself over the parapet into the sea, reunited with her lover in death. I flinch in my seat. Michael leans over and whispers whether I’m all right? “Thanks,” I tell him blankly, “I’m fine.”

*****

We go to the theatre bar afterwards, and of course it’s filled with the type of people that I’d usually avoid on pain of death. High Society – a setting in which you’d be in your element, owning the room; and I just want to grab a tray and pretend to be a waiter. Michael propels me forward, and I can feel numerous eyes swivelling towards us, taking us in. I try not to cringe away from them. Of course they all know who he is, so now they want to know who I am by proxy. Suddenly I am longing for silence and solitude and the cool night air on my flushed face. The evening has been too intense, and I can’t stop imagining you being here. You would have been here once, not that many years ago. Any of the tall dark men could be you.

“I really ought to be going,” I say, a bit wildly.

Michael looks disappointed (again), but doesn’t push it. “Of course,” he replies, “I’ll walk you out.”

“There’s really no need…” I begin, but before we can start arguing about it we are interrupted by a tall, rangy man who radiates the same air of authority and entitlement as Michael, clapping a pale, doughy hand on the latter’s shoulder. He’s going to delay my departure, I can tell, but in a way I’m quite grateful for his interruption. It’s grounded and steadied me; I was nearly on the verge of a panic attack before. Focussing on him I find myself anchoring back into the room, like a dash of cold water in the face - calmer and more myself (whoever the hell that is nowadays). I immediately see that he’s older than Michael is, far older than me (even older than you – ha) and reminds me a bit of a rocking horse: all heavy bones and teeth and rippling silver hair. “Michael French!” he says, “Where on earth have you been hiding, doctor? You missed the last two performances.” At this point he notices me for the first time, despite the fact I’ve been desperately trying to sidle away, and his eyes run over me approvingly. It’s so blatant, I shift a bit with embarrassment. I really hope I’m not blushing. “It seems you’ve been otherwise engaged Michael,” he says with an absolute fucking leer, “and I must say I can completely understand why.”

“We’re not…” I begin loudly, just as Michael says: “On the contrary Johnathan, I’m afraid Will is an extremely recent acquaintance.”

So get your mind out the fucking gutter, I (do not) add. It’s ridiculous that two men attending the same (boring, pretentious) event should automatically be assumed to be dating. I could be Michael’s wingman for the nubile opera cronies for all this old asshole knows. I try and remember if anyone ever mistook you and I for a genuine couple when we were spending so much time together, and if I would have minded if they had. Yes, I would – certainly in the early days. I’d have fucking hated it. Johnathan is just looking at us both with a disbelieving ‘yeah right boys, whatever’ expression on his face.

“Will works for the FBI,” says Michael, still heroically battling to save this conversation when it clearly ought to be allowed to slink away and die quietly.

“Oh, what fun,” gushes Johnathan in response (is it fun? How is it fun?). “I know how that one goes: ‘I’d tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.’” He beams at us both as if he’s just minted the most perfect epigram since Oscar Wilde himself.

“Actually – no,” I say in a bored voice, “that’s M15 not the FBI.”

There is an awkward pause.

Anyway,” I add, “like I said, I really have to be going.”

Johnathan, I’ll be with you in a moment,” Michael says, “I’m so sorry about that Will,” he murmurs to me in an undertone.

“It’s fine,” I say, even though it’s not. “Don’t worry about it.”

“He’s rather incorrigible I’m afraid.”

“He’s a stupid old bastard,” I reply, and we both laugh.

We get to the foyer and I have a sudden feeling he might try and kiss me, so I take a few steps back for risk-management purposes. If he notices it he doesn’t give any indication. “Thank you Will,” he says, “I’ve had an extremely pleasant evening. If you’re agreeable, I really would like to do it again sometime.”

His sincerity is a bit embarrassing, but I still find myself agreeing, shaking his hand and thanking him for donating the ticket. It’s the least I can do, really, when he went to so much trouble.

*****

I arrive home and sling my jacket over the chair, then automatically check TattleCrime whilst waiting for the kettle to boil. Freddie has updated twice today. There’s the usual speculative piece about you prefaced with your mugshot (of course you would manage to take a flattering mug shot), but it’s just a re-working of previous theories and hyperbole so I don’t bother reading the whole thing. There’s also a new article about me, with a picture furtively snapped at the Atherton crime scene. It’s not exactly what I’d call a good photo. My eyes look manic, and there’s a frantic, guilty-looking hunch in my shoulders. I look a bit demented to be honest; possibly it was while I was contemplating punching out the policeman. It’s obviously been chosen with care (unless I actually just look like that all time, and no one’s pointed it out to me yet). Not surprising either way, as the general gist of the article is that Jack must be nearly as crazy as I am to have let me anywhere near one of his crime scenes. Jack’s actually in the picture too, although mostly cropped out – the side of his overcoat is hovering in the corner of the frame.

TheUsualSuspects has written (almost certainly sarcastically) that I am ‘cute’. “Thanks,” I say out loud.

There are the inevitable puns about Graham Crackers.

In a fit of irritation I log on with my fake profile and type “OMFG, Will Graham has been arrested again. Feds outside his house for 30mins. Just left in unmarked car.” I sit back and wait for everyone to progressively lose their shit, until finally the Administrator logs on (bingo!) demanding who I am and how I know this (it’s vaguely depressing that everyone, including her, seems to take an obsessive interest in staking out Will Graham’s house as a given and doesn’t question that part). I reply “Check with Ms. Purnell ASAP.” I am pleased with this touch: Jack Crawford would be too obvious – everyone knows who Jack is – but mentioning Kade implies just the right amount of insider knowledge for Freddie to think about taking it seriously, and I smirk to myself at the thought of all the wasted hours this will (hopefully) entail. I consider adding something exclamatory (‘Another travesty of justice!’) but decide not to push my luck.

I scroll back to the top of the page and finish reading the original comments about the article. The summations about me are of two main types: incredibly unflattering, or creepily enthusiastic. Maybe I should be worried (should I be worried?). And then, just underneath something entirely different. Underneath all the variants of “he’s a misunderstood genius!” and “he’s a fucking psychopath!” a user called Maniloa has written: “The mongoose I want under the house when the snakes slither by.” I push back my chair and spring away from the laptop as if I’ve been stung.

Fuck.

Fuck, fuck, fuck.

I remember that exchange extremely well. Of course I do, it was the first time I properly spoke with you. You turned up at my hotel room, brandishing Tupperware so you could get me to eat human flesh without realising it (start as you mean to go on, I suppose). And you making me laugh with that wickedly apt analogy about Jack and the teacup. And me being torn between: “Well, thanks, I guess. It’s better than being a teacup” and “Wait, what…did you just call me a mongoose?”

Snakes and mongooses, it’s not that rare a combination. Is it? Is that a thing people say? I don’t know. Could anyone else be aware that you’d told me that? It’s not in the public domain, I’m sure it’s not. How could it be? I try to remember if I ever told anyone myself. Maybe at the BSHCI. Maybe Chilton – but it doesn’t seem very probable. Why would I have bothered telling him trivia like that? I was fighting for my life (thanks to you). And even if I did, he’s hardly in a position to do much about it now. And surely he wouldn’t do it like this? I go back to the laptop to bring up Google and spend a truly surreal ten minutes entering various combinations of your name and mine along with ‘snake’ and ‘mongoose’ to see if the information is already out there, if someone else could possibly have known. Nothing comes up beyond the current page on TattleCrime, and I experience a disorientating brew of deep relief and anxious disappointment. It still doesn’t mean it’s you. It could be a coincidence (unlikely though, surely?). It could be someone fucking with me (more probable). It could be you fucking with me. God, is it though? Is it you? I want it to be (desperately), yet the idea that it could is completely crazy-making.

Maniloa…what the hell does that even mean anyway? I pull up a new tab and type it in. My hands are shaking. I spell it wrong the first time and end up with listings for tourist destinations in Manila. Here it is: Maniloa, the Samoan God of…cannibalism. What, seriously? I scan down the website: Maniloa laid traps for humans and ate them; when they took revenge and murdered him, they were cursed with cannibalistic urges themselves. I’m smirking now in spite of myself: it’s too ridiculous, I can’t possibly take it seriously. It must be a set-up, it has to be, it’s far too hackneyed for you.

But then again…what if it’s not. I rub my eyes, knead my thumbs into my temples – try to think. What if this is just your version of a private joke? You knew I’d check. How many people on TattleCrime are going to know what ‘Maniloa’ means anyway? It sounds made-up, it doesn’t even seem like a proper word. No one except me would give this comment a second thought – the site is full of random bullshit, it’s hardly the weirdest thing on here, not by a mile. It wouldn’t stand out to anyone else.

I sit for while, chewing the ragged skin around the edge of my thumb and trying to decide what to do. I should reply in kind shouldn’t I? Something about teacups (how the hell has my life reached the point where I am deliberating whether to use a fake profile to troll TattleCrime and describe myself as a teacup? Christ). But then wouldn’t it be obvious that we were talking in code? It would, wouldn’t it - it would attract attention. It has to be something that’s not too esoteric, but something that’s specific enough that you’ll know it’s me; that your message got delivered.

First, though, I have to set up a new profile because the username of my previous trolling one was ‘Will_Graham_Is_A_Righteous_Badass’, and if Maniloa really is you then you’ll never let me live it down when you find out.

I sit there for fucking ages while the moths rattle crazily against the bare lightbulb overhead, and I finally type: “Pointlessly obscure, don’t you think? And what happens when the snake and mongoose switch places?” I hit submit before I can change my mind. My new screen name is ‘Primavera.’ Surely that will be enough? My heart is pounding in my ears.

Brave boys, I mutter illogically to myself, are not afraid of wolves.

Chapter Text

Waiting, and watching, and dreading, and hoping.

I stay awake until 4am, fortifying myself with cold pizza and scalding coffee, and obsessively refreshing TattleCrime to scan the comments section. Nothing. Is it you? It is you, isn’t it? It has to be you, it has to be is pounding through my head on frantic, breathless repeat.

To pass the time whilst I wait, I trawl back through the older threads for any other comments ‘Maniloa’ may have made. It takes a while as the site doesn’t have user profiles and there’s no way to establish posting history. I have to check each page manually, but I can’t locate anything else - the only evidence Maniloa even exists outside of my own head are the 12 hit-and-run words that I’m currently fixating on. There’s no avatar next to the user name, just a blank black box. Eventually I wear myself out with anxious anticipation and fall asleep over the table, waking up at midday with an agonizing cramp in my neck. My reply is still there, unclaimed. There has been no response.

I swipe my hand over my face, trying to chase away the surge of disappointment. I’m being premature aren’t I? It’s only been 24 hours, give or take. It doesn’t mean you won’t respond at all, maybe you’re just not able to at the moment. Perhaps you only have limited access to the internet (although the thought of you being subject to the same constraints as normal people doesn’t feel convincing somehow). Maybe something’s happened and you want to reply but can’t. Actually, this seems even less plausible – that anything could happen to you over which you didn’t have complete control. Although that’s not totally true either is it? After all; I happened to you.

I realize I hadn’t totally prepared for this. I’d considered anger, or forgiveness, or mocking, or disdain, or something cryptic and impenetrable – and I’d rehearsed my reactions to all of these scenarios with varying degrees of success – but I never seriously thought that you wouldn’t respond at all. Or maybe that is your response: muteness. Maybe your answer is to disregard me. No, surely you wouldn’t do that. What would be the point? Even as I’m saying this to myself, I know that it’s probably exactly the type of thing you would do.

Picking through all this make me feel tired again and I up dozing for a while, fitfully coiled up in my chair. I hope I might dream about you, but I don’t.

In the evening my cell phone rings. I sprint across the room to pounce on it, and have to swallow down my intense disappointment when I see Alana’s name on the screen. “I was just thinking about you,” she says, then adds mischievously, “how was your date with Michael?”

“It wasn’t a date,” I practically yell.

To do her justice, she backtracks immediately. “I’m sorry Will that was a stupid thing to say. I didn’t mean to tease you, I was just hoping that you’d had a nice evening…” she trails off awkwardly and I immediately feel bad for snapping at her. “He’s a good guy and he thinks you’re really interesting. I figured you could probably use a new friend right now.”

“I know,” I say. “Thanks.” None of this is her fault.

“Any word from Molly?”

“Divorce papers.”

“Oh Will, I’m so sorry.”

“Yeah, me too.”

“Want to meet up sometime and talk about it? I’m here if you need a friendly ear. Or a drinking buddy - we can drown our sorrows together.”

“I hope you don’t have any sorrows that need drowning Alana?”

“I’ll find some.”

“No, don’t. Mine won’t go down without a fight, I may need assistance.”

“We can go and drink that moonshine they serve at the Bureau bar. It could sink the Bismarck so your sorrows won’t stand a chance.”

We talk a bit longer then I tell her I’ll be in touch and hang up. I check TattleCrime again: there’s still nothing, and I feel a new surge of hopelessness. How can I possibly go and sit with Alana, fabricating a whole narrative about my emotional life that’s fit for her to hear? You hovering between us the entire time, unknowable and unnameable – the truth laid out in the silences and the gaps between the words. There’s so much I want to tell her and can never possibly say.

*****

Four days after the TattleCrime message I get a call from Michael. I didn’t give him my number, and am slightly irritated that he’s just gone ahead and tracked it down anyway (Alana again, almost certainly).

“Hello Will,” he says politely, “how are you doing?”

“Fine thanks,” I reply. I don’t ask him how he is, and there’s a slight pause as if he’s waiting for me to reciprocate. When he realizes it’s not going to happen (well done Michael), he ploughs on undeterred: “I hope you had a pleasant evening the other week?”

Oh God, are we really going to do this - I told him it was fine, why does he need to hear it again? Petulantly, I refuse to play along. “What can I do for you?” I say.

“Oh don’t worry Will,” he replies. He’s laughing, he doesn’t care that I‘m a rude little shit. Christ, does anything ever faze this guy? If he was here he’d probably give me a clap on the back. “I don’t actually expect you to do anything,” he continues, “ I simply thought it would be nice to touch base, as you Americans so charmingly say, and see if you were available to meet for a drink sometime? Say tonight, after work?”

I know I’m being ambushed again, but needless to say am now feeling vaguely ashamed of my previous abruptness, and therefore allow him to chivvy me into meeting him at the same bar we went to with Alana – which he was probably counting on from the start – and I realize that my social awkwardness has not only grown pathetically predictable but, as an added bonus, has morphed into guilt-tripping me into actual socializing. I sit across from him feeling sulky and hard done by, which after one beer tumbles into a sense of maudlin self-pity, and after several more into outright depression.

“You seem very preoccupied,” says Michael (which I guess is one way of putting it). “I sometimes detect a real sense of absence in you Will, like a part of you is wandering away from the rest of us.” He quotes softly: “Away from earthly cares.”

“Sometimes I feel like half a person,” I blurt out. I’m getting so drunk that the lights in the bar have started to swim and shimmer in duplicate. I amputated the other half, I think. I tore it out and hurled it into the sea.

Michael looks at me, pensive and solemn. “If you don’t mind me saying so Will,” he says at last, “you seem to me like someone who has had their heart broken.”

“Not exactly,” I reply. He waits expectantly. “It’s complicated,” I finally manage.

If he ever calls me on it, I can always pretend I was talking about Molly.

*****

One week after the message. I am finally starting to accept that it’s no good and you are not going to acknowledge me. That perhaps you never intended to. That you could simply be amusing yourself and it’s all part of some larger game that I won’t know how to play. But why would you do that? Why bother? You saved me after all…you could have just left me to die, but you didn’t. There has to be a reason for it, for all of this (doesn’t there…surely there has to be?), but I can’t figure it out.

“No word yet on Lecter,” sighs Jack, tossing the report sheets onto his desk. “It’s like he’s just disappeared from the face of the goddamn Earth.”

“Yeah,” I say absently, “he can do that.” I stare out the window at the way the birds are swirling past, wind-tossed and wild, swooping and plummeting like kamikaze pilots. My reflection is very pale, and I know I can’t go on like this.

*****

Two weeks after the message. I get another call from Jack to consult on an emerging pattern of serial homicides. I consider telling him no, but turn up in the end because it’s actually a relief to have something else to focus on beyond the frenzy that’s brewing up inside my skull. The offender is poisoning the victims and mutilating the bodies post-mortem: the combination of assault methods is highly unusual (thus interesting) and I spend many hours sifting through the files.

On the way out I bump into Sanderson, the new CSI sub-lead. He doesn’t like me, not to put too fine a point on it. The ostensible explanation is because I am allowed unrestricted access to the lab, whereas he has to call ahead and pre-arrange permission (I overheard him once bitching about it to Jack: “But how come he gets clearance?” he kept saying. I was sort of hoping Jack would smack him down with something along the lines of ‘Because he’s Will Graham and he’s a goddamn genius,’ but of course he didn’t). In fact, I know that the real, unspoken reason for Sanderson's dislike is that he doesn’t trust me and thinks I’m awkward and weird (to be honest, he's not entirely wrong). He spots me now and jerks his head towards the stack of papers I’m carrying. “You got a permit to remove those?” he asks.

I look at the files and then look back at him. “No.” I say. I wait patiently for him to realize that there is, in fact, fuck all he can do about this.

Oh yes, there we go. “Yeah…well…you should be careful,” he says crossly, “that’s evidence pal.”

“Actually, it’s technically not, it’s secondary summation data,” I say. “Pal.” I give him a (awkward, weird) smile and disappear into Price’s office, slamming the door with a smugly triumphant bang. Initially it appears that the only shared characteristics the victims had were that they were young, male, and physically attractive. A bit of digging, deductive logic, and a series of delicately-worded phone calls ultimately reveals that they also all worked as part-time escorts.

“Prostitute fixation and/or morality complex, possible religious zealot,” says Zeller, “We should get someone to pose as an escort. Lure him out then dogpile his sorry ass.”

“We don’t know it’s not a woman,” muses Jack. “They do say that ‘poison is a woman’s weapon’ don’t they? Although yes, I agree: statistically more likely to be a man.”

“I still think we should get a fake escort,” says Zeller, doggedly reluctant to abandon the plan.

“You could always do it Will,” adds Price. “You know, take one for the team? Put the booty up for duty.” I choke on my coffee. Price pats me kindly on the back.

“Will could do it,” says Zeller hopefully.

“For science,” adds Price.

“Yes, he could, but he is most emphatically not,” says Jack.

I can’t help laughing: in spite of everything, it’s actually quite nice to feel like part of a team again. I need to go back to work. I should. Shouldn’t I? I should start working regular cases. I’m so bored I take the virtually unprecedented step of typing up all my impressions about the murder series for Jack (on fucking headed paper, no less) and leave it with his secretary in a neat little envelope. I’ll go in and see him some time, tell him I want to consult on a regular basis. “Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness” according to Freud. It’s not like I’ve got anything else in my life after all.

*****

Three weeks from zero. I finally garner enough motivation to meet up with Alana, and as soon as I see her I wonder why on earth I didn’t arrange it sooner. We find a homely downtown bar, comfortably shabby and welcoming – the type of place with peeling posters on the wall and Bob Marley pounding out of the jukebox. It’s nothing like the stilted, pretentious one we went to with Michael, and I can feel myself starting to unwind a little, the tension seeping out of my chest and shoulders. The barman tries to hit on Alana, and we confer about his awful pick-up lines over whiskey chasers, giggling like schoolchildren. I volunteer to get the next round, then Alana decides she wants to derive more comedy fodder from the barman’s woeful seduction efforts and heads off for the subsequent one.

“Godspeed comrade,” I say, and we exchange a clumsy high-five; Alana is laughing so much her cheeks have gone pink. While she’s gone I check my phone and am surprised to see four missed calls from Jack. Something must have happened. It’s not like him to be so tenacious – usually he’d just leave a peremptory message and expect me to call him back. I gesture at the screen when Alana returns. “I better get this,” I say.

Jack answers immediately. “Will!” he snaps. “Why the hell haven’t you been picking up your phone?” His voice is very serious and I feel a sudden swell of dread.

“What is it?” I say sharply. “Jack? What’s wrong?” Alana’s eyes are darting over my face, alarmed and watchful.

“There’s been an incident Will,” Jack says without further preamble. “Matthew Brown broke out of police custody two hours ago.”

At first I am so preoccupied with my relief/disappointment that he’s not calling to say that they’ve arrested you (again) that I don’t fully absorb the implications of this. “Matthew Brown?” I repeat stupidly. I hear a little startled gasp from Alana’s direction.

“He was being transferred to a new prison and overpowered his guards during transit,” Jack continues. He doesn’t add ‘just like you did’ but I wonder if he’s still thinking it.

“Shit,” I say instead.

“Quite.”

“Are the guards still alive?”

“Yeah, but only just. He obviously wanted to be out of there as quickly as possible. His priority was to subdue rather than kill, but that’s just for the time being – God knows what he’s going to do now he’s out. We’ve issued an alert, road blocks, the usual.”

“Anything I can do?”

“No not yet. I’ll let you know.” There’s a pause. “Watch yourself Will,” says Jack, “You know he might come after you. I’m thinking I’d like to put a security detail outside your apartment.”

“Yeah,” I say. “Yeah, that’s probably a good idea. Thanks.”

“No problem,” he replies. I don’t say anything else, and after a brief silence he hangs up.

I carefully replace my phone in my jacket pocket and turn to Alana. “That was Jack” I say unnecessarily (of course she knows it was Jack). “Matthew Brown’s escaped.”

“Oh God.” She looks horrified.

“Yeah.” I don’t know what else to add. The name of Matthew Brown is a conduit for all kinds of horror and hopelessness, channelling a tiny subterranean cell, a charnel house in a courtroom, and a death warrant signed from me to you. I feel like the room’s starting to spin and I clutch the side of the table, try not to fall, try to keep my tenuous grip on gravity (and reality) intact.

“Will…?” Alana is saying. Her voice seems very faraway.

“How did you feel,” I suddenly blurt out, “when you discovered what Hannibal really was?”

She flinches a bit at that. “Wow,” she says, “not what I was expecting you to come out with.”

“Yeah, but how did you feel?” I can’t let it go. God, what’s the matter with me, why am I asking her this?

“Probably a little like you did,” she replies after a pause, “except at least you managed to figure it out for yourself.”

“And no one believed me,” I can’t stop myself saying.

“And no one believed you.” She takes a tense gulp of her wine. Her hand is quivering – just a little – and she places it flat on the table to steady it. “I don’t know…I hardly know what to tell you. I felt horrified. Shocked. Angry. Humiliated that I didn’t see it sooner.”

“I was mostly angry,” I say. Angry, fascinated, exhilarated, terrified, excitedand it changed everything, but not in the way it did for her. I drain my own glass. “Do you think he’s coming back?”

She looks at me meditatively. Finally she says: “Not if he has any sense.”

“I think he might come back sometime...I do. I think he might.” I’m muttering now, partly talking to myself, and she has to lean in to hear me.

“You almost sound as if you want him to,” she says finally. She’s frowning.

“The game’s not over yet,” I reply. I’m frowning now as well (mostly at myself for not shutting the fuck up). I know I’m going to bitterly regret this conversation tomorrow morning when I’m sober. I can see myself already – hunched in my apartment in convulsions of embarrassment and anxiety, picking over the carcass of my drunken confessions – but it’s like a dam’s been opened and I can’t stop the emotions of the last few weeks gushing out.

“You should have some water,” is all Alana says. “I’ll get you some. Otherwise we might lose you tomorrow to the hangover from hell.”

“No,” I say urgently. I grab her sleeve. “Don’t go, don’t leave me.”

“Okay.” She sounds anxious; she’s not totally sure what’s going on with me. She takes my hand and rubs her thumb over my knuckles, “Okay Will. What do you need? Tell me how I can help you.”

“Matthew Brown came back,” I say irrationally. And suddenly the whole thing is too much, and I’m shaking and shaking, and why aren’t you here?

“Shh, shh,” Alana pulls me closer to her, stroking my shoulders, gentling me in the same way she would soothe her child. “It’s okay Will. You’re just exhausted and overwrought. You need some rest.”

And then she suddenly she just pulls back and looks at me. And she says gently, apropos of nothing: “You loved him, didn’t you?”

She doesn’t say a name, but then she doesn’t have to. It’s there, unspoken (unspeakable). We both know she means you.

I can feel a broken sob threatening to work its way up my chest, and in that moment I despise myself utterly. I slowly let my head sink into my hands, my shoulders trembling.

“It’s okay Will, shh, it’s okay”, she says (even though it’s clearly not, oh God). But if she’s even half as horrified as I suspect she must be, she at least has the self-control not to show it. It’s not much consolation, but it is some.

Later she helps me navigate my leaden arms into my jacket, pulls me into a final embrace, and deposits me in a cab. She stands by the road and watches it pull away, her scarlet coat a bright splash under the streetlight. I slump back into the seat and watch the roads and cars roaring past the window. There’s a full moon, and the city looks drowned and pale. I know that the battalions of regret and shame will soon come trudging in but right now, in this moment, I am comfortably numb.

“It’s not over yet,” I think. I trace my finger against the glass. “You’re still out there somewhere. You’re waiting. I know you are.”

You and I. We were wildly opposing counterparts: north and south, left and right (and wrong). You the unstoppable force, me the immovable object. We were like polarities weren’t we, drawn together by nature and instinct. Like matter and anti-matter…opposites attract. ‘Matter’ means something counts, it means it signifies. It means it wasn’t all for nothing. “Matter does not really exist,” you once said to me, “the concept is entirely contradictory, an abstract universal.” Well fuck you, fuck you, because for once you were wrong. Because it means something. It matters. What we had matters. It counts, it signifies. It does. It exists and it matters, and it wasn't all for nothing.

Chapter Text

That night, I dream about you.

I'm watching you draw, your pencil dancing over the paper in quick decisive flicks, each mark made with incredible purposefulness. I find myself fascinated by your hands: they’re beautiful, the hands of a surgeon, musician, or sculptor. Somehow it doesn’t sound quite right to say that a man can have beautiful hands, but you really have.

“What are you drawing?” I ask.

“You.”

“May I see?”

Wordlessly you pass it over. The figure in your sketch looks savage and wild. I am splattered and dashed with blood, staring intently out from the paper; and I immediately understand that this version of me was created to stare from the page and see you, see the reality of you, what you really are beneath the human suit you wear. You sat there for hours, meticulously crafting this, knowing that its pencilled eyes would watch you with carnage and adoration. If you’ve been whispering into my chrysalis, then this image is undoubtedly the lurid butterfly that ripped its way out at the end – monstrous and outrageous, and shaped in your image. It’s fiercely and grotesquely beautiful.

“It’s amazing,” I say.

“Yes?” You sound intrigued. “I assumed you would be disturbed by it.”

I know that disturbance would be the normal response – the right response – but I also know that I no longer really care about being either normal or right. I stare back at you, keeping my counsel and saying nothing. Abruptly – noiselessly – you uncoil yourself out of your chair and start moving towards me. It’s frightening, how fast you can move when you want to. I stand up myself. Falter. Then I take a few steps back until I am hemmed against the wall, but you still keep coming. You’re only slightly taller than me, but your presence is so substantial that you seem to fill the room. We’re close enough now to touch. I know I could escape if I really wanted to – kick you in the groin, punch you in the stomach – but even as the thought occurs to me I know that I’m not going to do any of these things; that I’m not even going to try.

“Turn around,” you say. Your voice is soft and caressing, and when I obey you let out a small sigh, so low it could almost be a hiss. “Good. Now place your hands in front of you and brace yourself against the wall.”

“Are you going to hurt me?” I ask. I am calm though, despite myself; like I don’t really care one way or the other. Why am I so calm? I don't understand, although I suspect you would know.

You press you mouth up against the back of my neck, and I can feel you smiling against my skin. “That depends,” you say. “Would you like me to?” You reach up to where my hands are pressed in place against the wall, and curl your fingers around my wrists. Your hand is so large you can grip them both at the same time – your beautiful surgeon/artist/slaughterer hand. Your other hand trails thoughtfully down my abdomen, and my breath hitches in a shuddering gasp.

“So sensitive,” you say. You slowly glide a single, long finger below the waist of my jeans, and massage small circles against my left hip bone. I gasp again, and let my head fall back onto your shoulder.

“You are so responsive, it is rather beautiful.” You’re purring into my ear, soft and terrifying. “And yet we have barely even begun.”

“Oh God,” I say.

“No,” you reply mockingly. “Just me.”

My entire body is screaming with tension and need, delirious with rival instincts: fight/flight/freeze/submit. You’re going to pin me in place with a single hand and fuck me against a wall, and I know that this is a really bad idea and not something that I should be doing (at all) – and that I should care about this (a lot), yet I don’t.

“Please,” I say brokenly. “Please…”

“Please what, Will? What are you begging for?”

I shake my head. I can’t bring myself to answer, can’t put into words that I want (need) this from you, that I'm riven with hate and love and desire. Irrationally, I believe that naming it will be the single defining moment that changes everything; that once I utter it aloud then all my power and control will devolve to you. Game, set and match.

“Tell me,” you persist, “I want to hear you say it.”

 

I wake up suddenly and it’s shocking, almost physically painful, clawed hands wrenching me out of sleep. What the hell is happening to me? I am almost painfully hard, and am about to head to the shower to take care of it before the events of last night come crashing in on me, and I groan out loud in a particularly vicious brew of hangover, horror, and utter mortification. I fumble around on the bedside table to check my phone. No calls or messages. Is this a good sign or a terrible one? Either/or. Oh fuck.

For a few seconds I feel a bit overwhelmed by how utterly appalling all this is. It’s far too much to even consider processing without coffee, so I wrap a blanket round my shoulders to stave off the worst of the cold and stagger towards the kitchen. I look out my bedroom window on the way and immediately spot the black car parked opposite. There are two guys in the front seat, sipping from take-out cups and gazing laconically across the road – almost certainly Jack’s security detail. He didn’t waste any time, I’ll give him that.

Once I have caffeine I feel slightly more prepared to start the unenviable task of ravelling through my various problems. Problem one: hangover. I ferret out some Berocca tablets and wash them down with the coffee.

Problem two: having incredibly realistic erotic dreams about you. Although in retrospect maybe this isn’t so much a problem as a natural (inevitable) progression, so I decide that I’m not going to let it bother me too much (or, indeed, at all). While admittedly not a regular occurrence, it’s not even the first time it’s happened – and at the very least demonstrates that my unconscious mind is a lot more honest about things than my waking one. It’s not like I wasn’t aware of the tension thrumming between us. Of course I was: at least towards the end. In turn, I’m pretty sure you were aware of it long before me (as you were with just about everything else, you smug bastard), although you never mentioned it. Why didn’t you? Were you afraid of the reaction you’d get? It seems unlikely – I can’t really imagine you caring about things like that. More probable is that you were playing a long game. Or maybe you just didn’t care all that much. That’s also a possibility, I suppose. You always seemed to be above the type of things that drove normal people to distraction. I remember someone confiding their romantic woes to you at one of your dinner parties, and how you just watched them as the story rambled on, bored and amused and fascinated in turns: the way a scientist might look while scrutinising a lab rat.

Anyway, shit – problem solving. Where was I?

Problem three: infinitely more troubling at this point is my drunken confession to Alana. There’s going to be some serious fallout over this, I can tell – I already feel exhausted imagining the earnest, anxious conversations she’s going to force me to have. And what if she tells Jack? I frown at this, chewing nervously on my thumb nail. No, she wouldn’t do that. Would she? No, I don’t think she would. You’re not here. She doesn’t need to. It would humiliate me, freak out Jack (the spectre of an insanely angry Jack immediately floats into my mind and I quickly tell it to piss off) and it would achieve absolutely nothing constructive. It wouldn’t would it? Surely she won’t. Shit.

Problem four: for present purposes, most problematic of all. A deranged murderer with a frenzied obsession/grudge against me (at this point I’ve sort of lost track), who has escaped custody and right now could be fucking anywhere. The scale of this problem is so immense, that I don’t even have the words to discuss it with myself. This is such bullshit: who the hell has problems like this? (well…me, obviously). Right now I feel if I’m at the mercy of events; which is utter shit, because I of all people know that events – just like you – have absolutely no mercy in them at all.

This is a spectacularly awful realization (not to mention a resounding Own Goal in terms of trying to think constructively), so it is at this point that I make an executive decision to say ‘fuck it’ to the impromptu problem-solving session, and abandon it entirely in favour of stumbling into the shower and jerking myself off frantically, almost guiltily, my back slumped against the coolness of the tiles. It doesn’t take long, and I come so hard I nearly black out.

As I’m dragging a towel though my hair afterwards I think back again to my dream. As well as being more honest, my unconscious self has a damn sight more awareness than I do, because deep down I know beyond reasonable doubt that – had that scene been real – I would have been begging you in a heartbeat.

*****

After two days there’s still no news, and the spectre of Matthew Brown continues to linger over everything with no resolution in sight. I feel unbearably twitchy, a constant state of restlessness in which I can’t stop looking over my shoulder. It reminds me of a game I played as a kid called ‘What time is it Mr Wolf?’ One player would stand with their back turned, and the other kids would creep towards them in a pack. The kid at the front turned round every so often, and if they spotted someone moving then that kid was ‘out.’ But eventually, with an awful inevitably and a shriek of satisfaction, someone's hand would smack down on the first player’s shoulder while their back was turned: and they never even knew it was coming, they never saw it on time. I always hated that fucking game.

Ever since Jack's phone call, I have been playing Mr Wolf with Matthew Brown.

I remember your words, again and again: Brave boys like him are not afraid of wolves. But deep down it’s no good, because I am. I’m afraid.

*****

Michael calls me again the next evening, and I notice that my sighs of irritation are growing (slightly) more subdued each time it happens. Maybe Alana was right – it’s actually quite nice to have a friend.

"God forbid we become friendly,” you once told me. “I don’t find you that interesting,” I replied. You just looked at me meditatively, biding your time, an intense little glint in your eye: “You will.”

“How are you?” he asks when I pick up the phone. “I’ve been concerned. Alana told me about this Brown character – dreadful business.”

I can’t help laughing at this spectacular level of understatement. “Yeah, it’s pretty shit,” I say. I wonder if Alana told him anything else, but quickly dismiss this as paranoid.

“Would you care for some company?”

“Thanks, but no. I prefer staying in at the moment.” I shrug, even though he’s not there to see it. “You know how it is – battening down the hatches.” (I wince a bit when I hear myself say this: I sound like some old asshole in a string vest waving a shotgun). Nevertheless I’m familiar enough with his tactics by now to anticipate a polite objection, and sure enough he offers to drive over. He never can take no for an answer. At some point (perhaps not too far off) this mannerly persistence is going to spill over into domineering and irritating, but at the moment there’s something vaguely reassuring about his desire to see me. It makes me feel like less of a lost cause.

He arrives an hour later with a bottle of wine and delicious smelling take-out stacked in a series of neat little boxes. He's obviously taken aback at the state of the apartment, and I find myself warming to the fact that he’s sincere enough not to labor out a series of lying platitudes about how shitty it is. He prowls around whilst I try and marshal sufficient clean plates and cutlery for us to eat the food, and I take it all in through his eyes and ears: the sirens howling outside the window, the shouts from the street; the uncovered bulbs and the leaking pipes; the general air of squalor and hopelessness that coats everything like a layer of dust. He comes back and draws up a chair to the greasy Formica-covered table. “Not what I was expecting,” he says lightly.

“No, I guess not,” I reply, although I’m intrigued, in spite of myself, as to what exactly he did expect.

“So what washed you up on this particular shore?” he asks. “I can’t help feeling that you’re here from choice rather than necessity.”

I’m surprised at this, because it shows a level of acuteness that I wouldn’t have actually given him credit for. “I wanted to go to ground,” I say at last – which is almost, though perhaps not quite as bad, as when I was ‘battening down the hatches’ earlier. Maybe I should just concede the inevitable and look into founding a Doomsday cult. I could call it The Terminal Grahams…No I couldn’t, that sounds shit.

“Will?” he says. “You’re not listening to me.” Oh dear, he sounds annoyed (I knew my inveterate vagueness was going to piss him off eventually).

“Sorry,” I say. “I was just…” wondering what to name my Doomsday cult. “Um, I was just…thinking.”

“I was asking you if you felt you needed somewhere reclusive to conceal yourself for a while?”

“Yeah, something like that,” I reply. It was meant to deflect him, but even as I’m saying it I realize it’s essentially true.

“That’s good,” he says (is it? Surely it’s not). “Because if it had been a question of money…”

Oh hell no. He can't really believe that he can ride in here like the proverbial white knight waving his check book around. Does he? Does he think that he can buy me?

“It’s not a question of money,” I say firmly. The fact that he could even hint at it, however decorously, makes me feel uncomfortable.

“I’m sorry Will,” he says, “that must have sounded terribly patronizing. I simply meant that I am…well, I am financially comfortable, shall we say, and have always been very happy to help out a friend should they require it.”

Once again his reaction makes me second-guess myself, and I wonder if I am just being unnecessarily defensive and ungracious towards a kind person who simply wants to try and make my crappy life a bit less miserable (and has the financial comfort to do so). I still can’t quite bring myself to apologize, but I smile at him and say it’s fine (and it is…sort of).

After the meal – which is so luscious and appetizing that to call it take-out seems like kind of an insult – we pour the rest of the wine and I suggest putting some music on before remembering that I no longer own a CD player. We sit in the chairs instead (God, I need to get a sofa at some point. Why don’t I have a sofa?), but if he’s in agony at my Spartan hovel then he’s no longer showing it. I tell him about some of the cases I’ve worked over the years, carefully selecting and editing as I go (in fact it’s all neatly bisected – before you and after you, of which the latter isn’t mentioned at all). He appears interested and asks intelligent questions, and I reflect on how nice it is to actually have a sentient audience after all those nights declaiming to empty space. Several times he allows his gaze to linger over my mouth, and I know he wants to kiss me.

I avert my eyes hastily, pretending I haven’t noticed. In this respect I’m actually starting to feel vague nudges of guilt about him. I try to push them away, and sometimes succeed, but invariably they always come back, nagging and chafing like something stuck in my teeth. I know that the right thing – the kind, straightforward thing – would be to level with him and be clear that I can’t give him what he wants. But every time I consider it I pull back. Because if you tell him that you’re not going to fuck him, my conscience hisses at me, then he’ll get bored and leave and you’ll be alone again. On bad days I can’t decide which is worse – the fact that I’m willing to use a perfectly nice man who deserves better; or the fact that I’ve grown so pathetically, desperately lonely that I’m prepared to lower myself to being so clingy and needy towards someone who, in my previous life, I would have gone out of my way to avoid. Briefly, I’ve even considered giving it a go. I remember reading about Queen Victoria’s advice to her daughter: “lie back and think of England.” I could lie back and think of Baltimore (or the FBI, or the Washington Monument, or, more likely, lie back and think of you). Maybe it wouldn’t be that bad; I haven’t had sex in ages, I might even enjoy it. But even as I’m crafting a case, I know there is absolutely no way I’m ever going to go through with it. Because the only man I can ever imagine taking me to bed is you – and at this point, I no longer even try to deny it to myself.

*****

One week after his escape, and the absence of all things Matthew Brown is nagging against my nerves to such an extent that I finally cave in and go to see Jack myself. I know realistically that he won’t have heard anything – he’d have told me by now if he had – but just sitting and waiting is becoming unbearable and I need something concrete to do. Jack doesn’t seem surprised to see me, even though I haven’t been invited. He sends one of his minions to fetch us coffee, then gestures at me to take a chair.

“How are you doing?” he asks.

I shrug. “Pretty well, all things considered.” Not that this is particularly true, although I don’t suppose he really wants to hear how I am. I wonder what he’d say if I told him about you, for example; how I spend all day talking to you in my head (not that this is a remotely sensible question to ask, because I know exactly what he’d say). Mentally I now imagine you walking into the room, all long limbs and languor and pressing a finger against your lips as if to encourage me to keep you to myself. Discretion is the better part of valour, you’d tell me. Or perhaps you wouldn’t. God knows what you’d actually say….maybe you wouldn’t say anything at all? But it’s still so easy to envisage it, even though I never saw you perform a similar gesture in real life.

“Will?”

“Yeah?”

“You listening?”

Seeing as I can hardly tell him that I’m not I clear my throat a few times, grasping around for something practical. “Thanks for sorting out the guys at my apartment,” I eventually reply. “It’s good to know they’re there.”

“You’re welcome. Let’s hope it’s an unnecessary precaution.”

“Yeah.” I wait a little, then add carefully, “I don’t suppose you’ve heard from Alana have you?” I’m trying to sound unconcerned and casual, but miss it by a mile. Even to myself I seem nervous and paranoid, gnawing my bottom lip and refusing to look him in the eye.

Jack looks surprised at first, then a bit suspicious. Of course he does – I’ve practically gift wrapped this one for him. “Why would I hear from Alana?" he says. “Has something happened?” 

“Long story,” I reply (Christ, that sounds even worse). And then: “It’s fine, no reason” (which is now getting so enigmatic that I couldn’t blame Jack if he simply phones her right now: ‘Alana,’ he’ll say, ‘I’ve got Will here acting like a cryptic, shifty asshole. Tell me what the hell’s been going on’). I’m such a fucking idiot sometimes. Of course Alana wouldn’t have called me out to Jack. The Patron Saints of Bullshit intervene to deliver me at the last moment, and I think to add: “She was with me when you called the other night. She was worried. I wondered if she might have got in touch – I was pretty freaked out myself and wasn’t all that supportive.” I hold out my hands in a ‘you know how it is’ gesture so he’ll think my reticence was due to embarrassment at losing my shit and leaving poor Alana high and dry. I realize that this account has the unexpected bonus of being (mostly) true.

Jack nods, more satisfied now that he’s got an explanation he can understand. “To be honest there’s not much I could tell her that she’d want to hear,” he says. “There’s no news and no new leads. Sonofabitch could be anywhere.”

Something about his tone gives me the horrible feeling that I now know exactly what turn this conversation is about to take, and sure enough Jack starts to talk about you – unsurprising, I guess, seeing as you are the resident sonofabitch (who could be anywhere). “Pretty unbelievable to have them both running around,” says Jack, and I wonder if he’s worried about how it might affect his job – two maniacs off on the lam on his watch.

“Yeah,” I agree feebly. Well it is, isn’t it – unbelievable. I can’t really give him any comfort there. Cautiously I add: “Weren’t you thinking he was dead?”

“I can’t assume anything,” says Jack, a bit pompously. “We don’t know he’s dead; we don’t know he’s not dead.”

“I guess.” So in other words Jack, you know precisely fuck all.

“I was pretty rough on you in the hospital, wasn’t I?” Jack adds after a pause. It’s a rhetorical question. He knows he was, he doesn’t need me to confirm it. I find myself nodding anyway.

“But you understand why?”

“Yeah, I understand,” I reply. And I do. I’m hoping that if I give in easily then he’ll just drop it, but of course he doesn’t.

“Before all this started. I came to see you that time, and you told me to my face that you were considering running away with him. You could have lied about it, you could have just said nothing, but you didn’t.”

God, this is excruciating. I reach up to remove my glasses and realize that I’ve already taken them off. “I know,” is all I say.

“And now?”

“Now what?”

“Would you still go?”

I stare at him, blinking stupidly. I consider saying 'go where?' to prevaricate a bit longer, but there’s no point pissing him off any more than necessary. “Of course not,” I reply earnestly. What else can I possibly say?

Chapter Text

A few days later the press have grown self-righteous and shrill (bad), and politicians have begun asking questions (also bad), and Kade Purnell is having a coronary (fucking spectacular); so Jack convenes a crisis meeting about Matthew Brown. After several hours of polite discussion, a truly pointless ‘teambuilding exercise,’ a series of scrappy disagreements, a lot of earnest scribbling on flipcharts, and an elaborate ‘schematic representation’ (spread over five PowerPoint slides in stark sans serif font), the emerging consensus appears to be that no one has a fucking clue 1) what’s going on, or 2) what to do about it.

“Well,” I say. “That was productive.” I’ve turned my empty Dixie cup onto its side and am attempting to flick rolled-up balls of tissue into it like it’s a miniature soccer goal. I’m trying to remember similar meetings about you. Did they hold one straight after our plunge from the cliff? They must have done, it would have when I was still in hospital. I’ve been to one or two since then, but nothing ever happens. The consensus for these meetings tend to be ‘missing, presumed dead,’ although I know Jack doesn’t really believe it.

“With any luck Brown will be someone else’s problem soon,” says Andrews, one of the new trainee agents (small, fierce, ambition radiating from every pore like body odor). “He may well have fled abroad.”

“I’d be surprised to be honest,” I reply. I try to be tactful, because he’s young and keen and I don’t want to snub him in front of everyone in his first month on the job. Nevertheless, it needs to be said. “It’s a good suggestion,” I add, even though it’s not, “but I think he’s too disorganized. That kind of flight takes considerable planning and resources.” In other words: it takes someone like you.

“Well, even so,” he persists, “it’s highly likely that Brown’s several states away by now. People like that don’t come back to smell their own shit do they?” He looks round the table, as if daring anyone to contradict him. “Why do you think that psycho Lecter ran off to Europe the first chance he got?”

Hmm. Now I wish I’d just told him that his idea was crap. “So that’s your solution?” I say instead, “Hope he starts killing people elsewhere, just so long as it forces someone else to take responsibility for him?” He gives me a hurt expression and I flick a bit of tissue into the Dixie cup with unnecessary force. 

“Will’s right,” says Jack, “our position on this can be summarized in two words.”

“Fuck all?” I ask.

Jack gives me a filthy look and smacks his palm down onto the table, although doubtless the look would have been even filthier had I used my originally intended two words: ‘jack’ and ‘shit’. “Urgent priority,” he snaps.

“Well at least we know what the common denominator is,” says Sanderson in a pointed voice. “We should just dangle Graham in front of them as live bait.”

“Sanderson!” thunders Jack. “That’s completely out of order.”

“Yeah,” adds Zeller virtuously, “you’re just jealous because Will’s got better game than you have.”

“Better psycho game,” says Price with relish.

Everyone automatically turns to look at me. I do absolutely nothing to help the situation by starting to laugh.

“I don’t see what’s so goddamn funny,” says Sanderson.

“No you’re right,” I reply, “it’s not funny, and in fairness your plan is amazing: absolutely amazing. I would suggest a large Perspex box in the middle of Times Square. Like…”

“…Like David Blaine,” supplies Price helpfully. “With his game face on.” He reaches over and neatly flicks a tissue ball into the cup.

“Exactly,” I say. “Good shot by the way.” Price and I exchange a not-very-discreet fist bump.

“All right that’s enough,” snaps Jack irritably. “Will, Sanderson, sort yourselves out.”

I want to snap ‘well he started it,’ but am aware that there is no possible way of doing this that won’t make me sound like a sulky five-year old, so have to content myself with scribbling ‘bullshit’ in very tiny writing all over my PowerPoint handouts.

“I got game,” Sanderson says to Andrews in an undertone, having obviously taken Zeller’s comment to heart. “I’ve been doing online dating and the ladies have loved it.”

“Yeah?” asks Andrews. “Any luck yet?”

“I’m messaging a chick from DC. Grade school teacher, absolutely gorgeous,” says Sanderson. He shoots me a triumphant look. “We’ve not met up yet but I’m taking her to dinner next week. We’ve been getting along pretty nicely over the phone in the meantime, if you catch my drift.”

“Remarkable,” I say loudly, “I knew love was blind but I didn’t realize it was deaf as well.”

Unfortunately I appear to have forgotten that Jack (unlike love) is not remotely deaf. “Will!” he bellows, “I said knock it off! If I have to tell you one more goddamn time...”

But I’m not listening anymore, so never actually discover what it is he’ll do if he has to tell me (one more goddamn time). I’m thinking about you and Matthew Brown. Both of you are currently shrouded in a conundrum so thick it’s like fog, through which the outline of things are only very faintly visible. I turn the various pieces over in my mind like a 3D puzzle box of bone and skin, sharpening my perception at both ends. Fundamentally, I suspect very strongly that Andrews is wrong (and that I am right)…but not for the reasons I claimed.

Both you and Matthew Brown are still close by. And not because of narcissism, or rapacity, or wrong-headed gloating; or all the other theories that articles (written by people like me) suggest. You’re around because I am. I’m the orbit that’s drawing you in. Like to like. I’m certain of it. The more I think about it, the more certain I feel that it’s true. It’s knowing what either of you are intending to do about it which is proving frighteningly elusive.

 “You just came here to look at me. Came to get the old scent again,” you once said to me. “Why don’t you just smell yourself?

*****

I have my outpatient appointment in the afternoon, so drag myself over to the hospital to meet with Dr. O’Connor. “Mr Graham!” she says, when she comes to retrieve me from the waiting room, “You’re looking much better than the last time I saw you.” She sounds genuinely happy about it (she’s a nice woman), although it’s not actually as reassuring as she intends it to be because the last time she saw me I was doing a convincing imitation of a corpse so the margin for improvement wasn’t really all that impressive. I have to sit on her exam table in an embarrassingly gaping hospital gown whilst she prods my abdomen and chest. “I’m pleased with this,” she says, tapping the scar on my cheek, “that’s healing very nicely indeed. You’ll need a final follow-up with the maxillofacial unit, but I’d say you’ve been extremely lucky with that one.”

“Great,” I reply vaguely. To be honest I don’t really care. The scar occasionally itches and throbs, but mostly I forget it’s there. In my more eccentric moments I’ve even convinced myself I sort of like it: a romantic duelling scar, earned in combat.

Dr O’Connor examines the reading from the ear thermometer, then peers a bit closer at my face and frowns. “You’re a little feverish,” she says. She palpates my neck and shines a light in my eyes. “Any rashes? Vomiting? Headaches.”

“Occasional headaches.”

“Oh yes, that’s quite typical for you isn’t it. Didn’t I see encephalitis mentioned in your file?”

“Yeah, a few years ago.”

“My goodness. That must have been rather unpleasant.”

“You have no idea,” I say, because – seriously.

“No other symptoms?”

“No.”

“Wheezing, chest pain?”

“No, not at all.”

“Fine.” She puts her thermometer on the table then snaps her penlight back into her coat pocket with an efficient little click. “Nothing to worry about, I shouldn’t think, just a freak winter virus.”

I raise my eyebrows. “Freak virus?” I say incredulously. Oh my God: this is so typical. Most people obviously get normal viruses whereas I have managed to incubate a freak.

She can obviously tell what I’m thinking from the expression on my face and tries (and fails) to stifle a laugh. “Don’t worry,” she says, briskly patting my arm, “you’ll be fine, I promise. You just need to look after yourself a little better.” Her voice takes on a slightly hectoring, motherly tone: any minute now she’ll probably call me ‘young man.’ “You could do with gaining some weight for a start,” she says, “you’re far too thin young man” (oh for God’s sake). “Plenty of protein, that’s what you need. You’re not a vegetarian are you?”

I have a horrible feeling I’m going to laugh. “No,” I say. “I’ve actually eaten some pretty, um, exotic meat over the years.” Oh my God, I think, shut up you morbid fucker.

“My husband ate crocodile whilst in Australia,” she says. “Apparently it’s a little like salmon.”

I fantasize about saying something like ‘crocodile is for the weak’ but of course I don’t. While I’m gathering my clothes together she tells me to get myself home as soon as we’re done and eat something nutritious. “You need to take better care of yourself better young man,” she says (recurring).

“I’m planning to,” I say. Am I though? God, no, probably not.

“And wrap up warm,” she adds, “there’s a storm on its way.”

I glance out the window. She’s right: the sky looks swollen and bruised and there’s a vicious wind beginning to brew. It’s frigidly cold and I’ve left my scarf in the meeting room (where Andrews and Sanderson are no doubt currently fighting over who gets to set fire to it). The freak and I drag our respective sorry asses home where I bump into Mr Haversham who lives on the floor below me. In the miserable, delirious weeks following my discharge from hospital I used to wake him up a lot with my constant pacing in the middle of the night. I could tell he felt bad mentioning it, like he was inconveniencing me by politely asking me to stop pounding on my floorboards at 3am. I ended up concocting some bullshit story about how it was part of a Vipassana walking meditation…I may even have said that I was considering training to become a Buddhist monk (I was pretty drunk at the time). I remember it now and blush slightly.

“William!” he says; he never does call me Will, and I’ve long since giving up asking him. “Just the boy I wanted to see. How are you doing? You look a little peaky.”

“Not too bad, thanks,” I say. And then: “I’ve got a freak virus.” (Oh my God, why did I say that? Why?). He takes a cautious step back.

“Oh no, it’s fine, it’s nothing,” I add hastily. Why am I defending the freak? It’s like I’m getting protective towards it. Christ.

“Well,” he says. “Well...”

I try and help him out. “Did you need me to give you a hand with anything?” I ask.

“Oh, yes!” he says, perking up again. “My boiler’s broken, darned inconvenient in this weather. Would you come and take a look? I’d be real grateful. You seem like you might be good with things like that,” he adds hopefully.

This now means that I have officially become the type of person who arouses the sentiment: ‘Wow, yeah, look at that guy: that’s a guy who definitely knows all about boilers’ amongst their casual acquaintances. I sigh, and tell him I’ll stop by tomorrow morning.

“You’re a good boy,” he says. “I’d have done it myself once, but you know how it is.” He brandishes his arthritic hands, gnarled and twisted as twigs. I nod absently (I still want to ask him: what is it about my appearance that makes you look at me and think: ‘knows about boilers’?).

“It’s a dreadful thing to be old,” he says. I nod again. I guess it is. But surely it’s worse to die young?

He starts tottering up the stairs, then pauses and turns round. “You coming in son?” he adds. “You don’t want to stay out here. There’s a storm coming.”

That’s the second time someone’s said that to me today, as if I care. They don’t understand that the storm has already hit. It hit years ago and left me bleached and stranded: you standing in the centre as the calm eye. I suddenly feel, with complete certainty, that I absolutely cannot bear to go and sit in my horrible apartment with the wind howling outside and the walls closing in on me. “I’m fine” I say, “I just need to…” I make a meaningless waving motion with my hand, as if this will adequately convey all the things I need to do. “I’ll come inside in a minute.”

He nods and renews his uncertain progress up the stairs; I can almost hear his old joints creaking as he goes. He showed me a photo of his wife once, fresh and pretty with 1940s-style victory rolls in her hair and a blouse with a sweetheart neckline. She died of typhus when she was in her 20s and he nursed her. He never married again: her photo was still in the centre of his mantle gazing out at us serenely; her young face frozen in time. He was a Pacific Rim vet, a hero. He saved lives. And now he’s stuck in a crappy building like this, all alone with his arthritic hands and dependent on an asshole like me to fix his boiler.

I lean back and let my head rest against the wall. The rain’s coming down in earnest now, pounding angrily against the sidewalk, and there’s an unmistakable snarl of thunder on the horizon. The normal sounds of other peoples’ lives waft faintly through the windows overhead: clattering pans, a baby crying, a man telling someone to “Get your goddamn feet off the couch, how many more times?” He sounds a bit like Jack. There’s the tinny sound of a radio coming from the janitor’s office, a young, yelping female vocalist: “Spend my days locked in a haze, trying to forget you babe, I fall back down, gotta stay high all my life to forget I’m missing you.” Christ, what a load of bullshit.

I know that I’m crying, but with all the rain coursing down my face it’s easy to pretend I’m not.

So much rain: I’m soaked to the bone. My clothes feel heavy and my hair, which loses its curl and gets longer when wet, is plastered to my forehead and tangling in my eyelashes. Go inside, I think, go inside and get a fucking grip on yourself. I tip my head back further, close my eyes, let the rain throb down onto my face. I part my lips slightly so I can taste it. There’s something so raw and elemental about the rain.  Just one more minute, I think, one more minute and then I’ll go.

I open my eyes and lower my head back down, and that’s when I see a figure at the far end of the street. He (she?) is positioned underneath the convenience store awning, not making any attempt to conceal themselves. They’re just stood there, arched and poised, hands thrust in the pockets of their long coat.

I immediately feel a spike of adrenaline, even though there’s no real need. It’s not like they’re doing anything particularly suspicious. Perhaps they’re just sheltering from the rain: someone caught on their way home from work without an umbrella, checking their watch and sighing with irritation. They’re probably inspecting me right back, wondering what the hell I’m doing slumped against the side of the building with my face in the air.

It won’t do any harm to check though, right? I peel myself away from the wall, and begin walking towards the figure. At first it doesn’t move at all: a silhouette solidified, tall and slim and immobile. But after I’ve taken a few more paces then it suddenly twists sharply on its feet and strides away, the coat hem swirling around at the abruptness of the movement.

“Hey!” I shout.

They don’t flinch, don’t turn, just keep walking away; it’s like I never even made a sound.

“Hey, wait up!” I pick up my pace and start to run, just as the figure disappears around the corner. The weight of my soaking clothes is slowing me down, but I sprint down to the end of the block in pursuit. There’s a crackle of lightening, and it’s as if the sky’s about to split and sizzle in two. My heart is pounding in my ears, a crazy pulse of hope/fear/intrigue.

Shit, where’d they go? The road’s deserted. How is that even possible? They were right there. I take a few faltering steps forward then stop; I want to run but there’s nowhere obvious to run to. The quarry has flown. Something inside me suddenly snaps and I scream “Who are you?” into the soaking, empty air. God, I sound like a complete maniac. What if it’s just a random passerby? But then again…what if it’s not. The rain’s so heavy now it’s bouncing off the surface of the road like bullets.

I scan the street to try and gauge where the mysterious figure might be, so preoccupied that I don’t even see the cab bearing down until the lamps are blinding me and the horn is screaming in my ears, just fucking standing there like the proverbial rabbit in the headlights. Someone grabs me and yanks me out of the way, and we plunge over onto the sidewalk, him half on top of me.

“Hey!” he says. He has a round amiable face, his head as bald and shiny as an egg. I stare back at him, blinking stupidly. “Hey buddy!” he repeats, a bit louder this time. He pats the side of my cheek. “You okay?”

The cab pulls to a halt in a screech of tyres and the driver leaps out. “You fucking moron!” he shouts, “I nearly hit you! What’s your damn problem?”

“What’s my problem?” I say hazily. “How much time do you have?” The driver and the bald guy exchange concerned looks. My nose is bleeding: it tickles. I reach up to wipe it away.

“Look kid,” says the driver in a kinder voice, “you want me to call someone for you?”

“Yes,” I reply, “but I don’t know his number.”

“Jeez,” says the driver.

“Where do you live?” asks the bald man gently. “Are you local?”

“I just live round the corner.” I take a deep breath, trying to pull myself together. “I can be home in less than a minute; I’ll go home now. Honestly, I’m fine, it just gave me a shock. I’m really sorry for troubling you both.”

“Watch yourself next time,” says the driver. He join forces with the bald man to help haul me to my feet, then hesitates when he sees me up close. “Say, you look real familiar.” He’s so close, squinting right in my face. “Don’t I recognize you from somewhere?”

“No, I don’t think so,” I say, even though I know he’s almost certainly recognized me from the news coverage. “I’m pretty sure we haven’t met before.”

“You look like that FBI guy, whatshisname…?”

“No, that’s definitely not me,” I say quickly. I wonder whether I should invoke the freak to try and get rid of him (biological warfare), but he’s already turning away and opening his car door.

“Well, take care of yourself kid,” he says, “I hope if we do meet again then it’s not with your skinny ass underneath the wheels of my cab.” He sticks his head out the window at the bald man. “You need a ride anywhere friend? On the house.”

The latter hesitates and looks at me. “Go ahead,” I reply, possibly a bit quicker than would be considered totally polite. “I’m fine, I can be home in no time at all.”

“Well, okay…If you’re sure you’re all right on your own?”

“I’m sure,” I say. “Thanks again”. I watch them as they drive off. The street’s still deserted, no sign of anyone at all. I’m all alone. Slowly, I begin to limp back to the apartment.

Nothing’s happened, not really. Nothing conclusive – it really could have just been a random pedestrian. I couldn’t go and tell Jack about it and expect him to take it seriously. There’s no evidence: no prints or DNA, no scene-of-crime, no words exchanged. But none of that can alter the unmistakable sense I have that something is shifting. Has already shifted.

“There’s a storm coming,” I mutter to myself under my breath. I feel a weird thrill of dread. Coming coming, ready or not.

Chapter Text

It increasingly occurs to me that your voice has started to become more conspicuous and persuasive in my head than my own is. At times this troubles me: it means there’s nowhere I can get away from you, that even my own brain is unsafe and treacherous (because surely it must be – I always lose my own arguments with you, after all). Yet at other times I like it, because it’s means I can carry you with me and therefore don’t feel quite so alone. At these times your strength and magnetism feel infectious, and I can wear the idea of you like armour. Having you in my head is a fantastic, grotesque secret that fortifies and sustains me; and the fact that my thoughts have a smoky accent, wax philosophical, and spurn morality becomes the most thrilling enigma that no one else can understand or steal away.

Effectively I know that all this, taken together, cannot possibly end well, but I’m trying to condition myself to stop worrying about the future too much. What’s the point? I remember an old adage my high school math teacher used to trot out when we started to whine at her about test scores and college admissions: “Life’s so short, worrying’s a waste of time – you could go home tonight and get knocked over by a bus.” Although admittedly the endings I envisage for myself are far more colorful and horrifying than expiring beneath the wheels of a rogue bus. They are also more likely to happen. In retrospect, that was actually really shitty advice. I try to remember what happened to that teacher, and fail to manage it. I kind of like to think she got knocked over by a bus (filled with failed math students), but suspect that this is one irony too far.

“Be careful what you wish for.” That’s another one. Who said that? My dad, probably, it has just the right amount of melancholy pessimism for him. “Be careful what you wish for Son, you might just get it.” I’m not being careful what I wish for (even though there’s no guarantee I’m going to get anything), and I don’t care about that either. There’s a spectacular lack of caution in my wishes, and I don’t give a shit.

What did you say? “I imagine what you see and learn touches everything else in your mind. Your values and decency are present yet shocked at your associations, appalled at your dreams.

If you come back – if you do – then I’ll deal with all the madness and wonder and wanton carnage that you’ll with bring wandering in your wake. I’ll deal with it, I know I will. I just need you to come back first.

*****

The case with the murdered escorts gets wrapped up and, contrary to Zeller’s predictions, is neither the work of a religious zealot or a moral crusader, but a sad, sagging middle-aged man who killed male escorts simply because they were vulnerable and easy to access (which is exactly what I told Jack, and have to struggle not to go around reminding everyone of when they shake their heads and say “well, I didn’t see that one coming”). He sits in the interview room, peppering the table with sweaty handprints, and blubbers softly into a series of disintegrating tissues. “I never meant it,” he keeps saying. He blinks at me through his thick pebbly spectacles, beseeching and teary. “I just wanted them to stay with me, but they wouldn’t. They wouldn’t, and I got mad, but I never meant it.”

“Looks like he’s going with the ‘It’s not my fault Your Honour, they were mean to me’ defence,” says Sanderson afterwards to Price. He turns to me and gives a curt (grudging) nod: “Nice work in there Graham. You cracked him wide open.”

“What a loathsome bastard,” says Zeller in disgust.

Zeller’s right – and he is – but underneath their contempt for his lumbering soddeness and blatant inadequacies – at life, at relationships, at murder, at everything – I can still see the simple, sordid tragedy of a horribly lonely man whose grief and rage have curdled into cruelty and mindless, pointless violence; where the lives of his victims were all sacred and sought after, until suddenly they weren’t, and then they were all equally worthless and dispensable. Physically, emotionally and intellectually it would be impossible to find someone more different to you than this man. And yet, and yet…I know you were lonely as well. You also wanted someone who would stay with you, someone who could understand and appreciate you. Someone like me. You had tears in your eyes when you stabbed me. They were unshed, but they were definitely there. You thought I was going to stay with you, but at the last moment I let you down. You felt betrayed by me, I know you did, but something more than that too: hurt. Wounded. You wanted me to stay with you, and I wouldn’t.

I can’t decide whether reflecting on your putative vulnerability in this way is making me feel better or worse, so in the end I leave the building to find the nearest bar and drink myself completely and blissfully oblivious so I don’t have to think about it anymore. Alana and Michael both call in the interim, and I take a perverse satisfaction in cutting them off, one after the other.

*****

A few days later I receive a message from Jack, typically terse: “I need to speak with you immediately. Can’t call at the moment – come into my office as soon as you get this. Text to confirm.” I dutifully type out a response and wonder what he wants. Jack’s messages always verge towards the wrong side of bossiness and bombast, so over the years I’ve lost the capacity to distinguish between what’s true calamity, and what’s simply him stamping his feet for the sake of it. The fact he hasn’t called makes me assume the latter, although given everything that’s happened recently it’s probably better to err on the side of caution and head over anyway (and to be honest, it’s not as if I have anything better to do). My car’s at the garage, so I get the train instead then jump on the subway for the final few miles. It’s hot and dusty in the car, and the screaming metal and flickering lights grate on my nerves in a way that they never used to.

A man gets on at the next station and sits opposite me, and I realise with a pang that he looks a little like you. Not enormously so – not enough to be confusing – but it’s definitely there in the prominent slab of cheekbone and the curl of his top lip, and I find myself staring at him anyway. He realizes about two stops in and flashes me a look of anxious irritation, but I can’t stop looking. I keep waiting for him to call me out on it (possibly punch me – it’s not like I don’t deserve it), but he doesn’t; eventually he just makes a show out of fussily flapping open his newspaper and lifting it to cover his face. Occasionally he takes little surreptitious peeks around the edge to see if I’m still staring (I am). A nervous flush has started to spread along the top of those high cheekbones of his, and I know I’m being a complete dick but can’t bring myself to look away. At the next station he stands abruptly and leaves the train, and I muse over whether it really is his stop or if I’ve just freaked him out so much he’s got off early. He’s left his umbrella propped up against the seat and I briefly consider if I should chase after him with it, but ultimately decide that I’ve messed with the poor guy’s head enough for one afternoon, and that the sight of me charging after him down the platform brandishing a long object with a point will probably finish him off entirely. Weird to think that I’ve now become a part of his day; that he’ll probably go home tonight and tell his wife about it, embellishing it with little details in the way that people do: “Honey, the oddest thing happened this morning. I was on the subway and this scary-looking guy just wouldn’t stop staring at me, it was the darndest thing. I thought he might have wanted to knife me – he looked crazy enough for it –so I got off early and was late for my meeting …” It makes me wonder about all the various adaptations of you that would have existed in other people’s anecdotes over the years: my account of you, Jack’s, Alana’s, Chilton’s. A great composite of identities, none of them ever entirely capturing the whole. I wonder what they would have talked about if they’d sat down together – all those versions of you – whether they would have recognized each other if they’d met in the street.

Jack’s office is empty when I finally arrive. I stand outside it for a while, aimlessly shifting from one foot to the other and stifling the urge to kick his door (it’s a close call: the only thing that stops me is the idea of Sanderson/Andrews getting hold of the CCTV footage and laughing their asses off about it later). Eventually I lose interest entirely and head across to the lab. Price is there, meticulously sorting his mail into little stacks. “Hey Will,” he says when he sees me. “What brings you here?”

“Jack asked me to stop by, but he’s not in his office.” (The asshole. He’s probably doing it on purpose – I wouldn’t be surprised if he was in there the whole time, listening to me shuffle and sigh outside his door). Price just nods, not really paying attention.

“I don’t suppose you know what he wants?” I say.

Price shrugs. “No idea, I’ve been at the court all morning. Only just arrived myself,” he vaguely gestures at his overcoat, which he hasn’t yet had a chance to remove, and I nod in response – I probably should have guessed that. “Wait here if you like,” he adds. “Coffee?”

“Thanks, that’d be great.”

“Well you know where the kitchen is,” he waggles his eyebrows at me, obviously delighted that his set-up’s paid off so well. “I’ll have one too while you’re at it.”

I smile and roll my eyes, but don’t object. I actually like it that he just treats me like one of the guys. There’s still no sign of Jack when I return, so I drop Price’s coffee on his desk and receive a grunt of acknowledgement. I slump into the nearest chair with my cell to start scrolling through the comments on TattleCrime (of which there is nothing of interest – of course) and try not to sigh too loudly with boredom. Price looks up. “Today’s paper’s on the desk if you want,” he says.

I go to retrieve it, because even the inevitable litany of mayhem, madness and self-righteous commentary is preferable to searching for non-existent comments on TattleCrime and feeling that each absence is tantamount to a gigantic ‘fuck you Will!’ As I scrimmage for the copy of the Post (already submerged by all the crap on Price’s desk), a stack of papers dislodges slightly and my eye is caught by the glossy sheen of photographs. The top one is of Alana, waving a wine glass and grinning into the camera with her head on one side, and I can vaguely make out myself and Zeller in the background. When were these taken? I don’t think I remember it. The second one is Jack, wearing an awkwardly curated photo smile, and looking massively incongruous with a lop-sided Santa hat on his head (although it’s still marginally better than that fucking awful fedora). Christmas then. When did I go to a Christmas party with these guys? Maybe in the encephalitis-era, when I had no goddamn clue what I was doing 90% of the time. That, and the fact that nothing less than an inflamed brain would have feasibly got me to suffer through an office party.

“Hey! Mind if I look at these?” I ask Price.

He glances up absently to see what I’m talking about. “Oh, those,” he says. “Yeah sure. They’re pretty old now. Zeller’s taken Sanderson’s advice a bit too much to heart and wants a picture for his dating profile – he figured it wouldn’t hurt to look a bit younger.”

I huff out a laugh (although fair play to Zeller for being proactive – internet dating is probably the type of socially constructive thing I should be doing…even though there’s no fucking way), and retreat back to the chair to begin leafing through the photos. The next one is of Beverly, and my heart gives a painful clench. She looks so happy, her face slightly shiny from the lights, beautiful dark hair swinging over her shoulder. I don’t recognise the people in the next few: a blonde woman with a lot of fuchsia pink lipstick; a young guy with prominent teeth and a slightly manic expression (and a truly execrable Christmas sweater: a reindeer with a pom-pom for a nose), his arm slung awkwardly around the shoulders of a strikingly attractive girl with brightly coloured beads woven in her dreadlocks. Lab techs, most likely, or grad students long since departed for better things (…unless you killed them first for being rude or incompetent. Wait – did you kill them? No, surely not). There’s Jack again, no longer sporting the Santa hat, but with a garland of blue tinsel clumsily strung around his neck like a feather boa. Everyone strikes me as oddly ousted and displaced compared to their current incarnations; like refugees from the past.

Then at the next one my whole body jolts, because it’s a picture of me and you. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a photo of us together before, beyond the ones in the news that tend towards the matching-mug-shot variety. Neither of us are looking at the camera. I’m staring at something out of frame with a faint smile on my face, and you are staring at me. We’re sat at a table with the various detritus of revelry strewn across it: paper plates and empty bottles, a disposable camera, the innards of an exploded party popper (Christ. I bet you loved that). My hair is falling into my eyes, and by my standards (admittedly low) I look quite relaxed – the top two buttons of my shirt are undone and I’m lacking the usual anxious clench around the shoulders. You look utterly detached and elevated from the surroundings, your long fingers curled over your knee. I’m struck by how young I look, even though the photo can’t be all that old. The past few years have withered and aged me, obviously. Why can’t I remember any of this?

“Will!” says Price. He’s standing right next to me, and I realise I have no idea how long he’s been there, trying and failing to get my attention. He cranes his neck to see what I’m looking at, and grimaces slightly when he realises. “Shit, sorry,” he says, “I completely forgot that was in there.”

“No, it’s fine,” I say, making a feint of shuffling the photos, then as he starts turning away filch the one of you and me and crumble it into my pocket.

“Jack just messaged me,” says Price, “he’s on his way over. Says you should wait here.”

I check my own phone, and sure enough there’s two missed calls from Jack. “Will!” he booms when he finally arrives. “Where the hell have you been?” This is typical – as if I haven’t been sat here for over half an hour waiting for him.

“I’ve been right here,” I say irritably. “I went to your office first – your empty office – and had no idea where you’d gone.”

“You should have waited.”

“You should have told me how long I’d be waiting for.”

Price is glancing from one of us to the other, like someone at a tennis match.

“Knock it off,” says Jack taking a step towards me. He gestures with his finger, brandishing it like it’s a loaded gun. “This is serious, and I have zero time for you and your attitude.”

I raise one of my eyebrows (a sardonic gesture, I have come to realise, that I have inherited entirely from you) and insolently stretch my legs out in front of me, refusing to break eye contact. Jack takes a breath, visibly trying to calm down. His face is creased with worry, and I suddenly feel the first faint twinge of unease.

“Okay,” says Jack, “I’m sorry. Let’s start this again. Look, Will…something’s happened, and I need you to try and stay calm.”

The twinge kindles into a flare, a blaze of emotion flickering and scraping through my body, and I immediately think of you. Oh God, he’s going to say they’ve caught you. Or worse, that they’ve found you, they’ve found your body, beautiful and reckless and lifeless. Twin versions of me skitter though my mind simultaneously: me approaching your cell (walking towards you with a manufactured confidence that I don’t actually feel); me at your funeral (stiffly formal in a borrowed suit, blank with anguish but screaming inside). It’s so real that for a moment I can smell the prison disinfectant; see the waxy lilies languishing on top of the casket.

“This morning we received a package,” Jack says. I stare at him dumbly, watching his lips as they open and close. Package?

“It was posted two days ago from the Baltimore area,” Jack continues heavily, “and contained this letter.” He brandishes a zip-locked evidence bag with something white inside. “There was also an unsealed envelope. There was a badge in the envelope.” Christ, he’s spinning this out. ‘Fucking what?’ I want to scream.

“We ID'ed the badge 20 minutes ago, and there’s no doubt that it belongs to one of the officers who was assaulted when Matthew Brown escaped custody. Will, it’s from him. It’s from Brown.”

My stomach gives a sickening lurch, but my face doesn’t move, and I silently hold out my hand for the evidence bag. Jack passes it over, then hesitates and pats me on the shoulder. The letter is on plain A4 paper, each letter carefully stamped in blocky letters with red ink, and I stare and stare at the message, and the awful implications woven throughout each starkly printed capital: “TELL WILL GRAHAM I’LL BE SEEING HIM VERY SOON.”

Chapter Text

There’s a long silence, and I grow absurdly aware of all the tiny insignificant sounds in the room: the staccato beeping of the phones next door, the whirr and drone of the printer; the chirpy, bright voices of the lab techs in the corridor. It’s such an incongruous soundtrack: there should be sirens and screams, and you telling me that the game is afoot with that little anticipatory smile on your face. I’m grinding my teeth so hard that my jaw feels as if it’s about to lock.

“I know,” says Jack sympathetically. Exactly what it is he ‘knows,’ he doesn’t choose to elaborate.

“Actually, you don’t,” I snap, “You don’t know.” I abruptly get out the chair and start to pace around the office. Even in the midst of the delirious adrenaline charge of fear-and-shock-and-anger- and-oh fuck, I’m still keenly aware of the cool, coursing relief trickling through the back of my brain: that this is absolutely nothing to do with you.

Jack gives it another try. “Well, what we don’t know at this stage is that this is intended aggressively. He never tried to hurt you before – quite the opposite in fact.”

“Oh, well that’s all right then. When you put it like that, why am I even worried?”

“He’s an arrogant little prick,” says Jack. He looks at the letter in disgust. “He thinks he’s the one in control.”

“To be fair,” I say, “from where I’m standing I’d tend to agree with him.”

Jack, unsurprisingly, chooses to ignore this. “It’s to our advantage that he’s acting out in this way,” he says, “it shows he’s getting cocky. If he’s getting cocky then he’s going to mess up, and when he messes up we catch him.”

“For God’s sakes Jack,” I snap, “please tell me you’ve some semblance of a plan that goes beyond ‘we wait for him to mess up.’” I pick up the evidence bag with the letter, and slam it down again on the table: I’m aware that I’m acting like a hysteric, but I can’t bring myself to stop. “This postmark is local. He’s still in the area!”

“It’s okay Will,” Jack says soothingly, “I understand that this is unsettling for you…”

Do you?”

“Yes, of course. But we’ve got your back. I’ve got you back. I won’t let anything happen to you.”

I give a snort of humorless laughter: “Forgive me if I don’t find that terribly reassuring.” I don’t expect Jack to let me get away with that, but he just sighs heavily and pats me on the shoulder again – I have to summon a momentous level of self-control not to shake him off.

“I’ll make sure you get a firearm,” is all he replies.

I take a deep breath of my own, struggling to get my temper under control. “Okay,” I say finally. And then: “Thank you.” I know I’m not being entirely fair, taking far more out on Jack than his due portion of the blame (although really, whose fucking fault was it that I met Matthew Brown in the first place – except you, and you’re obviously not here to get your fair share either).

There’s a knock on the door and Sanderson comes lumbering in with Andrews bringing up the rear. Marvellous. “Brought you those dactylography results…” he says (of course he can’t just say ‘fingerprints’, the fucking moron). He takes a look at me, Price and Jack, whose faces are all arranged in tragic variations of ‘the shit has royally hit the fan’ and his sentence trails off. “What’s going on here guys?” he asks.

Price fills him in whilst Jack and I stare aimlessly round the room (him out the window, me at the ceiling) and by the end of it I can tell Sanderson’s struggling not to smirk. “Oh man,” he says, “Man, you are so screwed.”

“That is enough,” snaps Jack. “Sanderson, if I ever hear you speaking to a colleague and fellow agent in the way again, you’ll be looking for a new job.” Sanderson opens his mouth to protest, then shuts it again. “Will…” he hesitates as he realizes he doesn’t actually know what to tell me to do. “Sit down and chill out.”

“Sir,” pipes up Andrews, “I’m sorry to interrupt but I came to tell you that Ms Purnell called. She’s waiting in your office.” Jack gives an almost imperceptible eye roll. “Okay, all right,” he says. “Will!” He pats me briskly on the shoulder again and makes his exit. From his tone it’s impossible to deduce whether he means ‘Will! We’re done here – fuck off!’ or ‘Will! Sit in this chair and stress yourself out until I come back!’ In the end I decide to opt for the latter and collapse into a mutinous heap. Sanderson and Andrews retreat into a corner as Jack leaves, and start conferring together in low, earnest voices. Every so often they glance over at me, and at one point I hear a distinct “freak” from Sanderson.

My shoulders stiffen immediately. “How about coming over here and saying that to my face,” I say sharply.

“How about you calm down and behave a bit more professionally?” replies Sanderson in a horrible unctuous voice.

“How about I ram your fingerprint results – oh, I’m sorry, your dactylography – up your ass?” Two lab techs walking past slow down and peer at me curiously through the open door.

“Nothing wrong with using the correct terminology,” says Sanderson pompously. He practically puffs his chest out. “It’s important to be precise with these things Agent Graham: without precision, people get sloppy. Accuracy and correctness should be at the absolute heart of everything we do.”

If he starts chanting ‘Fidelity Bravery Integrity’ at me, I think, then God help me I really will do something with his fucking dactylography that will shame the memory of William Herschel.

“As the motto goes…” ploughs on Sanderson.

“Yeah, all right, save it J Edgar,” I snap (because in retrospect – ugh, no).

“You don’t know what he was going to say,” says Andrews from the depths of his corner. Everyone turns to look at him and he goes quiet again.

“I’ve got a pretty strong suspicion,” I reply sarcastically.

“There’s a certain four-letter word that you should bear in mind,” says Sanderson, gleefully laboring the point. “To suspect is not the same as to…”

“'Shit?'” I say.

“'Piss?'” suggests Price.

Sanderson is mouthing furiously.

“No, I’m just kidding,” I say, “…I meant ‘fuck’.”

“The word is know,” says Sanderson, who’s gone very red in the face. “That to suspect is not the same as to know.”

“Well, who knew?” says Price.

“Who knew,” I agree, “I must have been sick when they covered that session at the Academy.”

“And you a lecturer,” adds Price with mock regret. “Amirite?”

“Screw you, Graham,” snarls Sanderson, “you think you’re so goddamn smart.”

“I don’t think,” I hiss at him, “I know. So do us both a favor and get out of my fucking face.”

At that point Jack comes back, and everyone immediately goes quiet and studies the floor in the manner of high-school kids getting busted by the principal. He narrows his eyes and looks at each of us in turn. “What’s going on here?” he says.

“Nothing,” replies Sanderson, “Sir.”

As a concession to Sanderson for not choosing to add: ‘Graham also threatened to ram my fingerprints up my ass Sir,’ I agree that nothing is, in fact, going on.

“Well, make sure it stays that way,” says Jack, who’s clearly not buying it but is prepared to play along (at least until he can prove otherwise). “Will, how are you doing?”

I take a deep breath, forcing myself to relax. “Fine,” I say, “I’m fine.”

“Good,” Jack replies. “I know this seems bad but we’ve got it under control.”

“My ass,” I mutter under my breath.

“What was that?”

“Nothing.”

“Okay…Look, I wanted to tell you this in person, and I have,” says Jack. “There’s nothing else to be done here – you should get home, get some rest. Where are you parked?”

“I don’t have my car,” I say, “It’s in the shop, the brake light’s gone.” Somehow this pathetic minor detail takes on a crushing significance, and I feel an absurd urge to cry: as if a broken brake light is a signifier for all my vulnerability. Calming down was a mistake – I’m better off angry.

“That’s no problem Will, I’ll have someone drive you.”

It’s kindly meant, but the idea of being escorted home by an eager junior agent – like some kind of helpless, docile pensioner – feels intolerable. In my mind’s eye I see myself tucked up on the back seat of an unmarked car, failing to respond to bright, meaningless small-talk, as they shepherd me back into my horrible neighborhood and I shake my head before he’s even finished speaking. “No, it’s fine,” I say, “Thanks Jack, but I’ll get a cab.” (I’m clearly not going to get a cab – it would cost a fucking fortune – but Jack, with his enormous managerial salary, obviously takes this for granted).

“You sure?”

“Of course, there’s plenty that go past here.” I can get a train back, just like I got in. I’ll make my own way. If I can get myself home it means I’m still in control – and this is vitally important, because I know that in order to survive whatever might be in store, I’ll need to maintain every shred of control I can possibly wrangle.

“Fine,” says Jack. He nods approvingly – I can tell he likes that I’m retaining my independence (when he doesn’t like it, it ceases being ‘independence’ and morphs, less charitably, into ‘rash stubbornness’; or if I’ve particularly annoyed him: “Will, you reckless little asshole, sort yourself out”).

This time all he says is: “If you wait on a few minutes I’ll get the paperwork to sign off your gun. You can pick in up in 48 hours.” I nod and thank him, but his version of ‘a few minutes’ stretches out into 20, then 30, and I eventually grow tired of the stifling atmosphere in the office, Price’s constant darting glances of awkward sympathy, and the glowering presence of Sanderson (who is probably deliberating the most effective way to give Matthew Brown a good tip-off). In the end I decide I need to get some air and go outside to stand in the street and take in great gulping lungfuls. Some of the passersby cast me curious glances, and I feel like screaming at them to fuck off. Their faces look blurred and quavering – any of them could be Matthew Brown. Oh shit, oh shit. Don’t have a panic attack, I think, don’t you dare. Christ, not here.

“Will!” someone says, “Will Graham!” and I spin round on my heels like I’ve been shot. If I had a gun I’d have drawn it by now. I can’t see anyone, am I hallucinating? Oh please not that.

God, no, it’s Michael – what the hell is he doing here? “I hope you’re not following me,” I snap. I don’t actually mean it, but I’m so tensely wound that it comes out far more hostile than intended. Unsurprisingly he looks a bit hurt. I also realize how arrogant it makes me sound – as if I consider myself and my shitty life so endlessly fascinating than a high-ranking doctor can think of nothing better to do than trail around the city after me to try and get the latest updates on it.

There’s an awkward pause. “Look, I’m sorry,” I say feebly. “Believe it or not that was meant to be a joke.”

“Well, okay,” he replies slowly. He doesn’t sound convinced.

“Seriously,” I say, “just ignore me. Today’s been….” I wave my hands around with the effort of trying to mint a suitable adjective that can adequately capture the monumental, epic shittiness of the day, and ultimately find it’s beyond me.

Michael quirks an eyebrow. “That bad?”

“Worse.”

“Are you all right? Will? What’s happened?”

“Well…” I say. I scroll through variations of: 1) ‘an absconded murderer has written to the FBI to announce their intent to track me down’ and 2) ‘I have an obsessive fan who killed people to impress me and now he wants to stop by’ and 3) ‘to be honest with you Michael, I suspect that as of today I may be officially fucked’ and in the end just settle for “It’s a long story.”

“Anything I can do?”

“Probably not.” There’s not really much that anyone seems able to do is there? Not even Jack Crawford and his federal fucking Bureau. Of course there’s probably something that you’d be able to do, but you’re not here are you (you bastard).

“Perhaps a drink?” Michael says. “I know a very nice place not far from here. You don’t have to tell me what’s going on if you don’t want to, but you look like you could do with something to help you relax.”

“I don’t have my car with me,” I reply stupidly.

“If that’s your only reservation, then I can assure you that it’s no problem at all. I’ll run us over in my car, and then take you anywhere you wish to go afterwards.”

I hesitate again. I suppose it’s not a bad idea. It’s not like the alternative – sitting up all night in my apartment cataloguing the various ways Matthew Brown might break in – is particularly appealing either.

“Okay,” I say. I drag my hand through my hair. My fringe falls forward and gets caught in my eyelashes and I blow it out of the way. I feel like I’m going a bit mad. “Shit, I’m sorry.” I tell him, when I see him staring at me, “It’s just been a really difficult day.” And this is just the first day, I think desperately. Realistically, it’ll probably only get worse from here.

I text Jack to say I’ll stop by tomorrow to sort out the forms, then meekly follow Michael to his ridiculously expensive-looking convertible: all gleaming chrome and glossy red paintwork. I almost feel like I should ask for a trash bag to sit on before putting my crappy clothes anywhere near the upholstery. “Come along now Will,” he says briskly and I have to bite my tongue not to snap back something rude in response. Calm down, I say to myself, chill out, he’s just trying to help.

I obediently reach out the handle then briefly go rigid – it’s only a flicker in the corner of my eye, but for a moment I can almost swear I see the tall silhouette from the other night. I spin my head round, lashing like a whip: and of course there’s nothing there.

You’re being paranoid, I think. Promptly followed (unhelpfully) by: But just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

“Will?” says Michael. He sounds like he is making heroic efforts to remain patient.

“I thought…I saw someone,” I say. “There.” I gesture at the stairwell a few feet away from the car; God, I sound so hysterical.

He makes a (somewhat exaggerated) performance of peering around. “No,” he says, “it all looks clear to me.” 

“Look, please don’t patronize me,” I say (pretty politely, all things considered), “I know how I sound but I’m sure I saw someone.” This isn’t entirely true – I’m not as sure as all that – but his manner is annoying me. Although I suppose it’s not really his fault, he doesn’t know about Matthew Brown’s most recent shit bomb (and he doesn’t know about you at all).

“But Will,” he says, “how could there have been? If they’d moved away that fast we would of heard them.”

“Not necessarily…” I say, but find myself falling silent. Maybe he’s right. Or not? Fuck.

“Well if there was someone,” says Michael, “Then surely that’s all the more reason for us to get going ourselves.” I can’t really argue with the logic of this, so he walks round to open the passenger side of the car and practically shovels me in. I don’t say a word as he pulls away, just let my head fall back against the seat and gaze mindlessly out the window. Please come back, I think. I recite it over and over like it’s a mantra, an article of faith; as if by saying it enough times I can conjure it into reality. Magical thinking. Please come back, please come back, I think. Please, please. I need you.

Chapter Text

Michael drives us (in increasingly uncomfortable silence) to one of the exclusive, elegantly lacquered bars that he seems to favor. It’s quite late by now but I’m relieved to see that the place is still fairly empty: the idea of being saturated with well-bred revellers at the moment is actually pretty unbearable. Just as we sit down, my phone rings. “Sorry,” I say – the first words I’ve uttered since I got in the car – “I really need to check this.” I’m expecting to see Jack’s name, and feel a light spinning sensation in my stomach when instead the display reads: ‘Number withheld.’ Immediately I remember that silent, anonymous call in the middle of the night; I was so sure it was you. I’m still sure – sort of. Without saying anything else to Michael, I spring up and practically sprint towards the door before pressing ‘accept’.

“Hel-lo,” I say in a cautious voice. Silence.

“Look,” I hiss urgently, “I know it’s you. Why won’t you speak to me?” I don’t really expect whoever’s on the end of the line (you?) to fall for something so obvious, and of course there’s no reply.

“Why didn’t you answer my message?” I say. “Why contact me in the first place?” Better – although still nothing.

“Please say something.” I’m trying not to plead. The strain of the day is telling in my voice, and just for a second I think I might have heard an intake of breath through the receiver. I want to say your name so badly, but I know I can’t – deep down, despite the ardent desire to believe, I’m still not sure enough to take that step – and if it isn’t you then the consequences could be dire. God, it could even be Matthew Brown. I experience a lurching, sick feeling at that – but no, it couldn’t be, the first call came when he was still in prison. I look at my watch. One more minute and I’ll hang up.

What are you even doing out there? You must be lying low, keeping out of sight; surely even you wouldn’t find it easy to blend so seamlessly into the normal world a second time? (Even as I’m thinking this, I know that if anyone were able to accomplish this seemingly impossible task, then that person would of course be you). Your face is so distinctive – maybe you’ve altered your appearance, had plastic surgery? Maybe you have accomplices who are helping you. Chiyoh perhaps, or others that I don’t even know about. God knows how you manage to inspire this kind of loyalty. I, of all people, should be able to answer that one but I know that I can’t, not really. I just feel it without understanding why. Perhaps the people who get close to you learn to stop asking questions like that.

It’s now been three minutes since my self-imposed deadline. Through the glass panels on the door, I can see Michael moving towards me. He’s worried, he wants to check on me (he’s also being controlling and inquisitive, but I guess he means well). “Look, I have to go,” I say into the silence, and then as an afterthought (because fuck it, why not?), “I miss you.” Then I hang up.

*****

“So,” says Michael when we’re sat back down again, “would you like to tell me what’s gone on?”

The words themselves are meek enough, but there’s something about the way he says it that gets right under my skin: it reminds me of my grade school principal waving accusingly at a broken window and demanding explanations. “I believe that’s your soccer ball isn’t it William? Would you like to tell me what’s gone on?

“Not really,” I say.

“I might be able to help.”

I snort with laughter at that, and even to my own ears it sounds a bit hysterical. Christ, I think, get a fucking grip on yourself. “No Michael, there is absolutely nothing you can do.” I pause. Oh to hell with it, I may as well tell him – there’s no real reason not to, for all the difference it’ll make. “It turns out that Matthew Brown has announced his immediate intention to look me up,” I say, “and beyond Jack Crawford hoping that he may decide to do this while I’m sat in the Bureau – on the promising investigative grounds that he’s ‘an arrogant little prick’ – then there doesn’t seem to be much that anyone can think of doing to stop him.”

“Oh,” says Michael, and he sounds so deflated that I have a horrible feeling I’m going to start laughing again. “Oh Will, that’s dreadful. I’m so sorry.”

“Thanks,” I say. I dole him out a slightly morbid smile and take a swig of my beer.

“Aren’t they doing anything to protect you?”

I feel a bit guilty at that. “Actually they are. I’m getting my gun re-issued, and Jack’s put a security detail outside my apartment.”

“But no one’s shadowing you?”

I smile a bit at his use of the word ‘shadowing.’ It sounds so quaint and old-fashioned, like something that dapper agents in 1950s films would do – shadowing away in film noir trench coats and three-piece suits for all they were worth. “No,” I say, “that type of thing is incredibly expensive.” Not that I would have accepted it had it been on offer. As awful as it is to admit, I know that my reluctance is borne out of the vague, ridiculous hope that you’re going to turn up; and not wanting to be surrounded by the FBI’s finest if you do.

“I hardly think that expense is a sufficient excuse,” says Michael primly, “not in a situation like this. There ought to be people following you right now. Doesn’t your boss care at all about his team’s wellbeing?”

“He cares,” I say, a bit defensively (because while I’m happy to bitch about Jack myself until The End of Days, I slightly resent Michael doing it). “He’s always emphasizing that we need to work together and watch each other’s backs. You know; ‘strength through common purpose’ – the lab techs actually call him Union Jack.” Michael raises his eyebrows and looks politely bemused. Oh yeah, he’s English isn’t he? Oh God, perhaps he thinks I’m being racist.

There’s a slightly awkward pause, then Michael pats me gently on the arm like I’m a confused and ailing elderly relative (which is probably appropriate, because it’s exactly how I’m starting to feel). “Well,” he says, “I see what you mean when you say there’s nothing I can help with – and unfortunately, I’m inclined to agree with you – but should anything occur; well, you know where I am. If you wished for somewhere to stay, for example...” He doesn’t finish the sentence, but lets it dangle there meaningfully and gives me a pointed look.

“Thanks, but that won't be necessary,” I say quickly (because seriously – no way). “It’s extremely kind of you, but I’m actually fairly safe in my apartment with the agents outside.” Even as I say this, I wonder how true it really is. It’s not like the building’s a contained space: about 30 other tenants live there, there’s people coming in and out all the time. Any one of them could be Matthew Brown, concealed beneath a Fed-Ex uniform or a plumber’s overall, and no one would know until Price and Zeller turned up to categorize my mangled corpse (no doubt with Matthew Brown himself still crouched over it, snapping a self-congratulatory selfie to toss off to later).

“Well, bear it in mind,” Michael says bossily, and I tell him I will (I won’t). Nevertheless, it actually is really kind of him – albeit somewhat naïve – because the reality is that having me as a roommate means the potential of Matthew Brown rocking up to make three. Or even you to make the world’s most awkward foursome. Actually that might not be true – you and Michael would probably get on like a house on fire. You could have long, pompous conversations about opera and wine-tasting whilst Matthew Brown and I get drunk on cheap beer and start scuffling like bear cubs on the couch over who supports the best baseball team. Oh God, I think, shut up. I’m going losing my mind, I must be, I feel like my brain’s on fire (again).

I have one more drink, but switch to Coke after that because I’m already hovering on the edge of a meltdown and can no longer afford the luxury of blunted reflexes. “You shouldn’t drink that Will,” says Michael: he actually puts his palm over the top of my glass. “Caffeine will make you more anxious.”

“Yeah?” I say, “And spinach will make you strong, and, and…” Hmm, what other modus ponens propositions do I actually know? Shit, I wish I’d never started this. “…And Kriss Kross will make you ‘jump, jump,’” I eventually add, “And at this point I don’t actually care.” I honestly have no idea what I’m talking about: a part of me is observing this exchange in horror, waving its hands and shouting ‘no, no, shut up you fucking idiot! Also – update your pop culture references, you sound like a sad old man.’ On reflection, I decide to take its advice. “Please don’t tell me what to do,” I say instead. My tone sounds incredibly pompous, and I secretly feel a bit pleased with myself for managing to carry it off.

Michael sighs. “I’m just trying to help Will,” he says. Oh God, now I feel like a jerk (a pompous jerk…Christ). He always has an unfailing ability to make me doubt my own reactions. I lower my eyes and stare at the outline of my cell phone through my jacket, hopelessly willing it to ring.

“If you don’t mind me asking,” Michael continues, like the last few minutes never happened (which all things considered, is probably for the best), “how did you first cross paths with this Matthew Brown?”

I glance up and regard him meditatively. Oh come on, I think, no way. No way you don’t know about that. How can he have a virtual mental index of every article I’ve ever published (including that disastrous one on skeletonized insect larvae that even I’ve tried to forget about) and not know about that? Is this supposed to be some kind of test, probing how honest I’m willing to be with him when forced? Or does he simply want to give me the opportunity to volunteer my version of it? Or does he just genuinely not know? (But how can he possibly not?). It feels like a trick question somehow…or am I just being oversensitive and suspicious? He coughs politely, and I realize I’ve been silent for quite some time.

“Well…” I say. “Well.” I feel a sudden surge of exhaustion and in the end decide to dodge it entirely, simply settling for: “That’s a very long story.”

“I’m not in any rush,” he says.

“I’m sorry,” I reply sharply (I’m not), “but…”

“…But you don’t want to talks about it.” He sighs. “You know, you say that all the time Will. You say it a lot. I really wish you felt more able to trust me.”

“I have trust issues,” I say. I’m going for airy and light-hearted but miss it by a mile: I just sound tragic and resigned (also incredibly paranoid: memories of the Doomsday cult come rushing back unbidden…perhaps I should try and recruit him as the first member).

“Yes, you certainly appear to,” he replies, and just like that I’m feeling irritated again. Does he think I owe him an explanation?

“Not without good reason,” I say defensively.

“I’m sure your reasons are excellent Will. I simply wish you felt able to confide in me about them.”

Christ, so now we’re back to this one again: if this conversation ran in any more of a circle it would look like the fucking Olympic logo. “Look…” I say – then trail off because I’ve belatedly realized that I have absolutely no idea what it is I want him to see.

Michael is looking at me expectantly, and I idly wonder what he would do if I simply cut to the chase and said ‘Look…why don’t you just piss off?’ I don’t of course. Instead I just wriggle around uncomfortably in my seat: I probably look like I’ve got gas. Oh God, why didn’t I just go straight home when I had the chance? Even sitting up all night planning for the impending Matthew Brown Apocalypse couldn’t have been worse than this courteously controlled interrogation. In fact if Matthew Brown turned up now I’d probably be quite pleased to see him. ‘Come on you little shit,’ I think, ‘you tried to get me out of the BSHCI, the least you can do is get me out of this.’

“You seem lost in thought again,” says Michael, and I realize I have absolutely no idea how long I’ve been sat there staring at the table top having a whiney imaginary conversation with Matthew Brown. He’s not wrong anyway – I get so lost in thought it’s sometimes a struggle to haul myself out again. I need a ball of thread, like Theseus and the Minotaur: except that it would almost inevitably always lead back to you.

“I’m fine,” I reply, which is such an enormous, colossal lie that Michael simply raises his eyebrows. Fuck this – I’m going to hide behind the Fifth Amendment. “I’m going to the bar,” I say, a bit desperately, “do you want anything?”

He frowns slightly, no doubt in irritation at the clear bullshit evasion strategy which this obviously is. “Thank you,” he says eventually, “I’ll have another glass of the Mourvedre.”

“No problem,” I reply, and bolt away so fast I nearly trip over the neighboring table and break my fucking neck. The bartender is as sleek and well-groomed as a store-front mannequin, and I can’t overcome the feeling that he’s scrutinizing my crumpled clothes and slightly manic expression with resentment and asking himself how the hell a hobo like me managed to bullshit my way past the doormen and into his pristine premises. I’ve already forgotten the name of the wine Michael asked for but can’t possibly face going back to check, so end up enduring an excruciating few minutes gesticulating at the bartender going “it starts with an ‘M’!” in an increasingly fraught way, whilst he polishes the same glass over and over with a crisp white cloth saying: “Merlot? Malbec? Montepulciano?” like some kind of Stepford Wine Wife. My spirit breaks long before his does, and in the end I just get a Zinfandel, because – who fucking cares anyway?

“Oh, perhaps sir meant Mourvedre?” says the barman triumphantly as he’s handing me my change, so I make a big performance out of dropping a single cent into the tip jar.

Michael gratefully accepts his drink when I get back – to be honest he totally overdoes it, as if I’d given him the Holy Grail as opposed to a glass of the wrong wine – but if it doesn’t taste anything like he was expecting then he’s too polite to mention it. Instead he activates the whole Wine Bore routine: sloshing it round the glass, sniffing it, then finally sipping it daintily and smacking his lips (like a chimpanzee, I think bitchily – then promptly feel guilty). He is in fact, rather uncharacteristically, knocking back one drink after the other. While he’s not drunk, he’s definitely taking on a florid, rambling edge, and I decide that my Matthew Brown bombshell must have unsettled him more than I intended.

“Are you okay?” I eventually ask. He nods, but doesn’t elaborate. The silence starts to stretch out and become awkward, and I pick up one of my empty bottles and busy myself with peeling the label off, trying to ease each section away without splitting it.

“You look very appealing doing that,” says Michael suddenly, and I realize with embarrassment that he’s been watching me the whole time. “Frowning and practically pink-cheeked with concentration. Like Cassatt’s painting of the young woman sewing in the garden.”

I smile vacantly – because really, what the hell am I supposed to say to that? – and tug on another strip of label, which promptly breaks. Fuck. I put it down and wonder how I can politely extricate myself.

“You know Will,” he’s staring at me, smiling with an intensity that’s somewhat unsettling, “you really are a very beautiful man.”

Oh shit, shit, here it comes. “Look, Michael…” I say.

“No, don’t,” he cuts me off, touching a finger lightly against my bottom lip. “Don’t tell me ‘no’. You always say ‘no’ don’t you? I could be incredibly good for you Will. There’s so much I could offer you. Show you. Do for you. I’d take care of you…I could make you feel so good – just give yourself an opportunity to find out.” He moves his hand away from my mouth to tangle in the curls at the back of my head, and I instinctively jerk away from him. His face immediately shuts down.

“I’m sorry,” I say, “look, it’s not you,” (oh God, that sounds so lame – and to be honest, it actually is him). I try it again. “Michael, I think you’re great and I’ve really enjoyed getting to know you, but this, this is just…I’m sorry but I can’t. It’s just not going to work.”

“It’s perfectly all right,” he replies, but his voice sounds tight and strained. Shit.

“I’m sorry,” I say again, as if repeating it is going to make any difference.

He sighs at me. “You look tired,” is all he says in response. “Perhaps this is a natural time to draw the evening to a close. Come on, I’ll drive you home.”

We walk into the empty parking lot in silence. He’ll be fine, I tell myself, he’ll have someone else in tow within 24 hours whereas I’ll be going back to a lifetime of solitary drinking, TattleCrime trolling, and sad wanking over a serial killer. I have no idea whether this is true or not – and he certainly doesn’t look ‘fine’ –but somehow my own pathos has always been easier to dwell on than other people’s. We reach his car and I loiter awkwardly in front it: the prospect of dragging this out for the time it takes to get me home is actually pretty unbearable. “Look, it’s kind of you to offer,” I say, “but there’s really no need to drive me. It’s totally out of your way – everywhere’s out of the way for my place, unless you’re a crack dealer or want to score some stolen hubcaps.” Oh God, shut up, I think to myself, you’re making it worse.

“How do you know if it’s out of my way or not?” He gives me a bland little smile. “You don’t know where I live.”

“Honestly,” I say, a bit desperately, “I’m fine to get a cab.” If Jack fell for it then hopefully he will too.

There’s a pause while he stares at me, and I’m gearing up for the inevitable ‘no, no, I insist’, but in the end he just frowns and nods. “I’ll tell you what Will,” he says, “I can see you want to leave so I won’t detain you much longer. However, I have a small gift for you in the car” (at this point I’m pretty sure my mouth falls open in dismay), “and I’d like to give it to you before you leave. Don’t worry, it’s just a token.”

He politely bends round me to open the door and rummage in his glove box, and I know that whatever lingering sense of guilt I feel for not levelling with him sooner is being punished tenfold by how incredibly fucking awful and awkward this all is.

He retrieves what’s he’s looking for and then straightens up and puts his arms behind his back, almost coyly, and I have a surreal image of him asking me to choose which hand I want like a child would.

“I do hope we can continue to be friends after this,” he says. His voice is measured and courteous, but he’s standing too close, looming into my space. I take a step back, but he moves forward in tandem, hemming me up against the side of the car. He looks at me meditatively. “I’m sorry Will, I truly am,” he says. “I really didn’t expect it to come to this. But you know, you’re not giving me much choice are you?”

I open my mouth to yell, but he’s moving towards me – he’s so fucking fast, how is this happening? He’s gripping my throat and pushing a cloth over my face, and suddenly he’s not there anymore and it all goes still; there’s nothing but confusion, and fear, and a throbbing echo at the side of my skull. And then there’s nothing at all but blackness.

Chapter Text

I really don’t want to open my eyes, because I know whatever I’m going to see will be hideous – and that once I wake up, there’ll be no more delaying and whatever nightmare is in store will properly begin. But my body’s fighting to move, pulling me back into consciousness; and there’s no doubt that groping blindly in the dark is going to become its own kind of unbearable before too long. I’m aware that I’m propped against the headboard of a bed, hands in my lap and my legs stretched out in front of me. I’m fully dressed, but my clothes feel itchy and confining, as if they’re too small. The back of my shirt is damp and clinging with sweat. When I finally crack open an eye, I immediately see that Michael is standing in front of me, swirling a glass of what looks like brandy.

“Sleeping Beauty,” he says. He raises his glass to me in a demented attempt at a toast. “Welcome back.”

I try to speak, but only manage a kind of groaning noise. My stomach is curdling in fear. What the hell has he done?

“Chloroform,” he says regretfully. (Did I say it out loud, then?). “I apologize – it’s a little crass, as I’m sure you’ll agree, but sometimes the old ways are the most expeditious; as well as retaining a certain vintage charm.” What the fuck is he talking about? My head feels like it’s being crushed in a vice and there’s an oily sheen of nausea hovering beneath my rib cage. A bead of sweat trickles down my face, and I clumsily try to wipe it off before realising that my hands are cuffed. None of this makes any sense, and I stare down at my hands in confusion, as if they’re alien things that don’t belong to me. Michael is observing my feeble struggles with obvious amusement. “If you need to vomit”, he tells me, “there’s a bucket at the side of the bed.”

The thought of throwing up in front of him feels unbearably humiliating. But then what difference would it make in a situation as dire as this? It doesn’t matter, why do I care so much? Oh God. I take a few deep breaths, try to fight the panic and stay in control, the way you once taught me. My name is Will Graham, I’m in Baltimore, it’s around midnight. I’m going to get out of this (I am) and in order to do so I need to be able to think.

I try and ground myself, take in the surroundings. Establish an exit point, I chant in my head, assess the scene. There’s some soft classical music playing in the background, and a fire flickering in the grate at the end of bed. The room is done out in dark, rich colors, it looks expensive and sumptuous: gilt frames, damask curtains and an elaborate reproduction of Rodin’s The Kiss on a plinth by the fireplace. Candles too – Christ. It’s a grotesque parody of seduction. He’s had time to arrange me like this, he’s confident he won’t be disturbed. I deduce we must be at his place. This realization, whilst undeniably basic, still gives me a faint surge of confidence. I can think, I can rationalize. If I can still do these things, then I can get myself out.

He carefully sits down next to me on the side of the bed and runs a hand through my hair; I jerk my face away and his clicks his tongue with irritation. “Don’t be like that Will,” he says.

“What do you expect?” I try to hiss, but my mouth is still thick and sodden from the chloroform and the words tumble over themselves, garbled and clotted.

“You really have been trying my patience,” Michael continues, as if I haven’t spoken. “That blushing, coy maiden act of yours was incredibly charming at first, I’ll admit, but such things grow tiresome extremely quickly.” He actually sounds genuinely offended. He starts stroking my hair again, but this time I grit my teeth and allow it. Let him think I’m submitting – if I don’t struggle, he’s going to mirror me and subconsciously relax too, and if he relaxes he’ll let his guard down. By 6am this morning, I vow to him silently, I’ll have you in a fucking body bag.

“Truly Will,” he continues conversationally, like the goddamn psychopath he actually is, “you have been the most appalling tease. How long did you expect me to tolerate it? You get on your back for Hannibal Lecter, and then believe you can constantly deny me?”

I jolt at that, and he must have registered the look of shock on my face, because he starts to laugh. “Oh yes, of course. You thought I didn’t know about him?”

“I didn’t…we never…”

He just smiles and flicks the side of my cheek with his forefinger, each word punctuated with a spiteful little prod: “I. Don’t. Believe. You.”

I don’t say anything. I’m not going to discuss you with him. “I know an awful lot about you Will,” he continues. His eyes narrow. “Much, much more than you think. I’ve been waiting for this for quite some time. I’m a patient man, but I’m afraid I’m not very used to being denied receiving exactly what I want. Do you know how frustrating it is when someone won’t behave as you expect them to, behave as they should? Of course you do,” he carries on, not waiting for a response, “you’re very wilful yourself aren’t you? Will-ful,” he smirks at this, as if it’s the funniest fucking thing anyone’s ever said. Forgot 6am, I think, revising my earlier promise – 5am at the latest.

“I appreciate control and power in all things,” Michael adds calmly. His voice is completely steady, we could just be sat in a bar nursing a beer, two guys out on the town. “And I confess that I find the idea of exerting these things over you to be almost unbearably appealing. Seeing, however, as you refuse to offer…then I shall just have to take what I want. You can hardly say that I didn’t give you ample opportunities to agree of your own accord.”

I can feel a scream bubbling up into my mouth, wild and lethal, and it takes every last bit of self-control I can muster to swallow it back down. If I start screaming now I am afraid I won’t be able to stop. How could I not have seen this in him? Christ, how could I not have known.

“My dear Will,” he says. “You look terribly anxious. Now be a good boy and listen to me, and I shall tell you what’s going to happen. You are going to stay here tonight as my guest. During that time I am going to make use of that beautiful body of yours – repeatedly – and even though you don’t really deserve it, I am going to be extremely good to you and make sure you enjoy yourself. Tomorrow morning there will be copious DNA evidence of your enjoyment all over my bed. You know as much about male physiology as I do, I’m sure, and for that reason you will therefore be aware that I can bring you to orgasm whether you want to or not. You will then get dressed and go home, and you will tell no one what has happened. If you do, then I will express my great sorrow to the police that you are telling such terrible lies about me, and assert that we have been seeing each other for some time and that you came here of your own volition. I will tell them that we had consensual sex, and that you asked me to handcuff you. I will refer them to the forensic evidence of your extreme enjoyment to indicate that you had no complaints at the time. I may even imply that you had already threatened to blackmail me by fabricating a rape charge, and how sad I am that you have been disturbed enough to actually go through with it. I will describe my embarrassment and upset that I allowed your various attractions to distract and deceive me from realizing your true character – and I will be extremely convincing. You may choose to try and pursue it beyond this, of course, but everyone will advise you against it and remind you that it be a very foolish idea. Because in a court of law, when weighing the word of a respected medical doctor with no criminal record against – well – you…”

I stare back at him, mute and uncomprehending. I can feel my eyes widening.

“Now tell me Will, is this in anyway unclear?”

“No,” I say carefully. “No, it’s pretty clear.”

“Splendid,” he says. “Then we have an understanding.”

If I’m going to act it needs to be soon. Although my head is clearing, the effects of the chloroform haven’t entirely shifted. Fuck, I have to be more alert than this is I’m going to fight him off. I need more time.

He moves towards me and flicks open the top button of my shirt, and I pull away. “Not yet, please,” I say, I take a few breathes, deliberately making them sound shaky. “I still might throw up.”

He looks at me thoughtfully, but then he just nods. He’s buying it: the fucking idiot. “Water?” he says.

“Please.”

He opens the door of his en suite: there’s the sound of a tap running and I take advantage of his absence to give the handcuffs a vicious tug. Pain shoots up my arm and I briefly fear that I’m going to black out. I take a few more deep breaths, imagine you, imagine what you’d do to him if you were here. Stay here with me, I think desperately, don’t leave, please, I need you. In no time at all he’s back, and he raises the glass to my lips. A few droplets run down my chin and he wipes them away with his thumb, almost tenderly.

“You know, you really do look terribly pale,” he says, “Perhaps I gave you too high a dose.” He sighs fretfully – my sickliness is inconveniencing him. He puts his palm on my forehead and frowns when he feels how clammy it is. He thinks it’s the chloroform – he doesn’t know it’s actually the pain in my thumb.

He pulls back, but keeps a hand on my shoulder, scrutinizing me at arm’s length with his eyes narrowed. “Perhaps a few more minutes,” he says.

“How many people have you done this to?” I ask him, even though I don’t think I can really bear to know.

“Oh not all that many, really,” he says absently, as if we’re talking about some minor infraction; the number of speeding fines he’s acquired.

“Because you like, no, you need the control,” I say. “So you exert power over people, show them that no one has the right to say no to you. And most people don’t say no. So the ones who do have to learn their place, because you can’t tolerate any kind of threat to your self-esteem can you? You think that justifies what you do, it’s how you give yourself ‘permission’.”

“Are you presuming to profile me Will? Hardly the right time.” He frowns and takes a step towards me; he thinks I’m being insubordinate. “You know one thing that you are extraordinarily good at is running your mouth. I think I should like to see if it can’t be put to better uses.”

I ignore him. “You perpetrate enormous violence using sex as a weapon.”

“I suppose you could put it like that,” he replies, “If you really wanted to.” He actually looks amused.

“Fine,” I say. Then I jerk back my head and bring it crashing into his face. He howls and staggers away from me clutching his nose, and I get to my feet, swaying slightly, and punch him in the stomach as hard as I can with my uninjured hand. He starts to crawl across the floor, then rolls onto his back gasping and whimpering. Blood is streaming out of his nose, which even from here I can see that I have broken.

He stares at me stupidly, blinking and mouthing. “You slipped the handcuffs,” he says finally.

“Of course I slipped the fucking handcuffs.”

He gives a half-laugh, that’s more like a sob. “Not as delicate as you look, are you?”

“Not really,” I tell him, “Although you wouldn’t be the first one to make that mistake.” I look at him with disgust, imaging the unknown others he’s preyed on. “You utter bastard.” Then I pick up the Rodin sculpture and don’t even hesitate before I bring it smashing down onto his head.

 

Chapter Text

I don’t remember getting home, although I obviously managed it somehow because I’m slumped over my kitchen table with my door keys clenched in a rictus grip. My left thumb is still dislocated from where I slipped the handcuffs. Oh yeah...I should probably do something about that shouldn’t I? Mechanically I feel for the metacarpal bone and push the phalanyx back over the head, then strap the thumb to my index finger using duct tape. I feel remarkably little pain as I do this, and I know I am dissociating. The handcuffs are still suspended from my wrist, so I dig out a paperclip and arduously pick the lock.

There’s hardly any blood on me, and this is a surprise because I expected much more. Regardless I strip off everything I’m wearing and dump it in the trashcan. I never want to feel those clothes on my skin ever again.

Now I’m cold. I get into the shower, turn up the temperature gauge and flail into the scalding water. My forehead is bruised and swollen, and I know by tomorrow it will be screaming with pain. Right now I feel nothing.

Afterwards I dress myself in ancient jeans and a sweater, reassuring in their age and bagginess, and pour myself a glass of scotch which I knock back in one go. The whiskey is smoky and crisp, and it burns a bit as I swallow. It’s good. I pour myself a second, even larger one. I’m too exhausted to stay awake, but too overwhelmed to sleep, and I’m fraught, and cheerless, and hopeless, and lifeless...and right now it feels as if nothing will ever be okay, ever again. And I don’t even care.

Eventually I fetch a blanket from the bed and huddle in my chair. After a while I shift again, pulling the blanket over my head, wrapping it around myself into a makeshift cocoon. I close my eyes. Where should I go? I concentrate on imagining you, imagine you walking into the room. You’re not wearing your usual flamboyant attire, your clothes are simpler and vaguely funereal: an inky black suit and deep blue shirt. You make a noise of regret as you take in my appearance – the bruises, the rapidly swelling hand, the way my eyes are glittering in my pale face.

“You are hurt,” you say.

“Not really,” I reply. “You should see the other guy.”

“Someone did this to you?”

“Technically they’re defensive wounds.”

“I see.” Yeah. You probably do. “And from whom were you defending yourself?”

“A maniac,” I say. “Another one. I seem to attract them.” I start to laugh, even though it’s not remotely funny. I realize I am still in shock. Maybe I’ve been in shock since I first met you and it’s now become so normal that I can’t reliably tell the difference.

You sit down in the other chair, stretching your long legs out in front of you. “How did you feel when you attacked him?” you ask.

“I felt good.” That’s true, I did. “He deserved it. It was justice.”

“It felt righteous?”

“Yes.” Christ, this is deranged, I feel like I’m going insane. “Why am I even talking to you?” I say desperately. “You’re not here. You’re not real.”

“I am real to you right now, in this moment, which makes me subjectively true. Just as Abigail was real to you in Italy. The possible, the existent, and the necessary form a set within human perception and human sensibility. You are constructing me because you need to.”

I take another slug of my whiskey. My hands are shaking and I don’t know how to make them stop. “I blame you for this,” I finally say.

“Why do you blame me, Will?” You don’t sound angry or defensive, just curious. You genuinely want to know.

“I wouldn’t have let him get near me in the first place. Not if you were still here.”

“You used him as a substitute for me?”

“Yes. No…I don’t know. Maybe.”

“How? What was it about him that drew you in?”

“He was interested in me.” God, I sound so pathetic.

“We all have a desire to feel that we are necessary, wanted…that someone yearns for us. It is a very powerful thing to be the focus of someone’s esteem and interest. Humans have a profound psychological need to belong. ”

“He seemed so normal. At least relatively – I think you re-calibrated my sense of what’s normal.”

“You trusted him?”

“Yeah, I trusted him. Kind of. At least I trusted him not to pull something like that.”

“Yet he betrayed your trust in the worst way possible.”

“Maybe not the worst way,” I say, “I think you still have the monopoly on that one.”

“You really think that?”

I take another gulp of the whiskey. “No," I say, "not really.”

“You were my equal, though, always. I didn’t wish to destroy or diminish you; rather raise you up. Elevate you. See you become everything you are capable of becoming. I gave you freedom. When one loves something, one lets it go.”

“And now you’re not here.”

“Not yet. But something is always going to keep me near you, even if we are not together.”

I have a sudden, helpless feeling that I’m going to cry. God, I’m not going to cry am I? I blink furiously against the tell-tale sting. “I don’t know where you are,” I say instead. “I don’t even know if you’re still alive. I think about you, I dream about you, I’m carrying you around 24 hours a fucking day and it’s suffocating me.” I suddenly remember, in Florence: ‘We’re conjoined,’ I told you, ‘I’m curious whether either of us can survive separation.’ I hurl my empty glass across the room at where I imagine you are sitting. It soars through the air and splinters against the wall, and there’s almost something perfect about the way it explodes into a hundred shattered slivers, each one catching the light.

You also watch its descent. “It will not gather together again,” you say.

“Fuck you,” I reply. “This is your fault, it’s all your fault. I can’t do this anymore, I can’t live like this.” My voice is growing louder, tinged with desperate misery. “I don’t want this! I don’t want you.” It should be a relief to say it aloud, it should be freeing. Why don’t I feel these things? I take a steadying breath. I need to survive the separation; here, in the real world. I know what I have to do.

“I’m done Hannibal,” I say quietly. “I’m letting you go. I don’t want you here. I don’t want to talk to you, I don’t want to remember you. I don’t want to think about you ever again.”

“Will,” I hear you say. That’s all, just my name. Then I hear the scrape of your chair pushing back. You take a few steps towards me and pause, as if you want to say something else. But you don’t.

I put my hands over my face. I know you’re leaving, you’re walking away, and despite everything, I still don’t want to watch you go. “Come back, come back,” I whisper into the empty air. “Come back to me.” I love you. But it’s no good, and of course you’re not there.

*****

Waking up the next morning is agony. Worse than getting stabbed, worse than wrenching my thumb out its socket, worse than falling off a cliff. Worse than anything. “Stop being so melodramatic,” I say out loud, “stop catastrophizing.” But how can I not, when this is a catastrophe?

I’m not miserable that I’ve killed a person and don’t care about it at all; and I’m not particularly miserable that I’ll almost certainly have to answer for it, while someone (probably Jack) stands over me and laboriously explains the laws pertaining to ‘unreasonable force.’ But I am miserable at the fact that I am horribly, helplessly infatuated with someone who’s crawling into my head as the utter antithesis of everything that I ought to value; who I desperately want to see, whose presence would almost certainly be my undoing, and yet whose sheer, wretched absence is driving me slowly, exquisitely and excruciatingly mad. I am so fucking miserable about this that it’s difficult to breathe, and I want to open my mouth and scream, except I’m afraid that if I do I’ll never be able to stop and will be screaming every day for the rest of my life.

I remember, unbidden, the quote from Tarryn Fisher that I once heard Alana say. What’s the difference between the love of your life and your soulmate? One is a choice and one is not.

I realize that I’m clutching onto my hair so hard that it hurts, and force myself to take a few deep breathes to calm down. “You’re okay, you’re okay,” I mutter to myself. But I’m not, I’m not. I don’t think I ever can be again. I don’t know how. I don’t even know if I want to be, and the awareness of that is one of the most terrifying things I’ve felt so far. This is what you meant isn’t it, when you said that if I followed the urges I kept down for so long, "cultivated them as the inspirations they are," then I would become someone other than myself. You’re both the abyss and the light at the other side, and you’ve made me feel unravelled, undone: like only you can take me apart and put me back together afterwards, all at the same time.

The weight of carrying so much feeling is unbearable, and I slowly sink to the floor at the foot of the bed. I crouch to make myself as small as possible, wrap my arms around my head. I want to cry to get some of the tension out, but I can’t even manage it.

The thing is, I never knew myself as well as I did when I was you.

And then I went into a dark place with you, and I brought something back.

Chapter Text

 

 


 

Chapter Text

The morning drags on, and I eventually pull myself together sufficiently to get showered and dressed. Outside the window I can still see the agents propped up in their unmarked car. This time they’re parked to face the opposite way down the street, but are otherwise a carbon copy of the previous few days: same carefully-arranged inscrutable faces, same take-out coffee cups. The events of the past 24 hours reinforces my initial sense that their presence is of precisely zero value, and I feel a childish urge to saunter over and point this out to them.

God, this going to be a long day, I can tell.

I really need to get back to the country, that’s the problem. I’m not suited to city living, I’m fading away amidst all the glare and chrome and exhaust fumes. I need rivers, fields, and an open sky; a picket fence and spiralling trees and the sound of silence. And dogs. I really should have got an apartment that allowed pets. I should have done that. Why didn’t I?

Maybe that should be my next project – find somewhere more suitable to live. My budget isn’t what it once was but I’ll manage somehow. As enterprises go, this one feels a bit more promising than the last few I’ve come up with (go back to work; meet new people; stop obsessing about you…none of them have exactly been working out as planned, have they?). Real estate is nice and dull and dependable. Maybe best to wait awhile until the Matthew Brown situation becomes clearer, but after that…? I feel pleased with this idea, something solid to cling onto. I could go online this afternoon (and not open the bookmark for TattleCrime while I’m there) and have a provisional look. Maybe drive out over the next few days. I give myself a little affirmative nod to emphasize the fundamental safe, sound, solidity of this plan. It’s all pretty convincing, and I half-believe it myself, even though I know – deep down – that none of this is going to happen. That I’m deceiving myself, blindly and blithely, like someone watering shrivelled flowers long since dead. Because for all the soundness of this plan, it still can’t accommodate the two enormous elephants in the room: you, on the one hand; and the body of Michael French (and a bad taste Rodin sculpture covered in my fingerprints) on the other.

I force myself to sit down again and ponder this. Objectively, the issue with Michael would weigh far more heavily on most people’s ‘what the fuck do I do now?’ meters, but I actually find it easier to contemplate than the issue with you. In fact it’s practically straightforward in comparison; unlike you, he’s not shifting sands beneath my feet. I feel like I know where I am with this one. I can pin it down; I can pin him down. You, on the other hand, I cannot simply define by only your crudest, maddest edges. I can’t define you at all.

I just want you to come back.

To be honest, I should just go and see Jack – tell him everything. It was self-defence after all (at least morally – legally it wasn’t, because he didn’t actually threaten my life, but Jack will never know that). Yeah. I really should tell Jack. Screw all that twisted bullshit Michael came out with – Jack will believe me. He didn’t believe me last time. No – no this is totally different. When weighing the word of a respected medical doctor with no criminal record against – well – you. “He will believe me,” I say aloud in a small, doubtful voice, “I know he will.” No I don’t. My hand hovers over the phone. “Go on,” I say to myself. And then the phone rings, and fucking hell, it’s actually Jack.

“Homicide,” says Jack before I can speak, “I need you to take a look. White male, killed in his own home: it’s bad, the body is a complete mess. Alana will be pretty upset, Zeller says she knew the guy.” I let out a long, low breath as he tells me the address and asks me to come over as soon as possible. I don’t even flinch.

“Yes Jack,” I say. “That’s fine. Give me an hour.” I carefully hang up the phone. I’m quite proud of myself: my voice hasn’t shaken once.

Mechanically I pick up my keys and pull on my coat. I am an indifferent actor in a bad play, watching myself stumbling through the performance. This was, of course, inevitable. In fact it was so inevitable that I’m perversely relieved that it has come to a head so quickly, freed me from the burden of further decision-making.

As I lock the apartment door I can’t help thinking how delighted Freddie Lounds is going to be when she discovers (because surely she will) that her predictions have come true, and that I am finally investigating my own crime scene.

*****

Michael French is sprawled on his back in his once-pristine kitchen in a pool of his own blood, and the grisliness of the tableau notwithstanding, I am still overcome with a powerful urge to kick him in the balls. Strikingly however, he looks different from when I last saw him. Extremely different. Different to the extent that someone has removed his hands and inserted them inside two crudely sliced incisions within his abdominal cavity.

“Shitting hell,” I say absently. Because really, this is not what I was expecting at all.

“Well, that’s one way of putting it I suppose,” says Jack, “although I was hoping for something a bit more substantial.”

I’m not really listening, letting my eyes skim over the curdled puddles of blood that have gushed and flowed around the body.

“So he bled to death from the amputations?” I say.

“No shit Sherlock,” says Price, just as Zeller adds: “Good to see someone’s expensive forensic education wasn’t wasted.”

I ignore them both, because of course what it really means from my point of view is that his heart was still beating when the knife sliced in. It means he regained consciousness to get himself into the kitchen. Which means that I wasn’t actually the one who killed him – either he had a fucking adamantine skull, or I was too drugged up and delirious to hit him as hard as I intended. I am simultaneously both relieved by this and really, really disappointed.

“Distinctive mutilation pattern, isn’t it?” Jack is saying. “Remind you of anything?” I drag my attention back into the room. What’s he talking about? He doesn’t think it’s you, does he? It’s definitely not you. It’s far too simplistic and crude, no artistry at all. Not to mention that if you knew what he’d tried to do to me, there’s no way you would have let him off this lightly.

“I know what you’re thinking,” I reply. “And the answer is no. Absolutely not. It’s not Hannibal.”

“Actually I agree, and I wasn’t thinking that,” says Jack tartly.

“Oh,” I say, “okay. Sorry.”

“What I was thinking, however, is that the ostentatious nature of displaying the body rings more than a few bells,” says Jack. What? What the hell’s the matter with him today? He’s not usually quite this severe and pompous.

Zeller looks at Jack: the penny is beginning to drop. “Oh,” he says, “which means a latent copycat?”

“Which means Matthew Brown,” I say gloomily (because – well, obviously). Jack opens his mouth but then changes his mind halfway through and just nods instead – he knows I’m right. He thought the same, he just wanted me to confirm it.

“Shit, wow, so he really hasn’t gone anyway then?” says Zeller. “Still right here in Baltimore. I did wonder whether that letter was a bluff.”

“That’s crazy,” says Price, “he could have gotten clean away. He could have been anywhere by now. He could have been in…” he snaps his fingers, obviously trying to think of somewhere outlandish. We all wait patiently. “He could have been in Bognor” says Price triumphantly.

“Bognor? Price, what the hell are you taking about?” says Jack.

“It’s in the UK,” says Price defensively, “my mom has family there.”

“Whatever,” says Jack. He sounds impatient. “Look, Matthew Brown doesn’t need a reason to do anything. He’s out of his mind.”

Matthew Brown. Right now, I actually feel a bit grateful to the little bastard. I can still picture him, lurking in the bowels of the BSHCI. The way he peered so eagerly at me with his pinched rat-like face, yearning for my attention and approval. The bars made the allusion even more convincing – a rodent in a cage, desperately trying to earn a kindly look from its owner. So much trouble over such a feeble, fawning thing…and for a second I wonder why I’ve given him so much power through the force of my fear. Then I look at the bloody mess on the floor and remember – yeah, that’s why.

Rats are vicious and cunning. They’re hard to kill. They carried bubonic plague and brought down half of Europe. He nearly brought down you. It’s stupid to underestimate them.

“So, what I want to know is: why this guy?” Jack is asking.

Reluctantly, I look down again at Michael (rest in pieces). Well of course it can’t be a coincidence. Can it? I want to believe it is, but I know there’s absolutely no way – no way at all.

“And then when you consider the note…” muses Jack, who thinks I’m still listening.

I snap my head round at that. “What note?”

Zeller looks surprised. “Are you kidding me?”

“What goddamn note?” I almost yell.

“Jeez Graham,” says Zeller, “it’s right there.”

How could I not have seen it? It’s in an evidence bag now, smeared with scarlet and placed on the counter, but the block-print letters are a screaming claxon call to sound the alarm. They’re not exactly the same as the previous ones – cut out of newspaper print rather than handwritten, and thus black instead of red – but it’s enough. It’s more than enough. I lean over so I can read it, my heart pounding crazily in my ears: “FOR TOUCHING WHAT HE SHOULDN’T HAVE TOUCHED.”

Oh. Oh fuck.

“Okay Jack,” I say, “I think I may have some idea of what went on here…”

*****

“Man, that totally sucks,” says Zeller. He puts his hand on my shoulder. “I’m really sorry that happened to you.”

“Thanks,” I say, “I’m fine though. He didn’t hurt me.”

“He wanted to though.”

“I hurt him more,” I say. I’ve told Jack about the head butt and the punch (though have neglected to mention smashing his head in – Matthew Brown can have that one on the house). As it is, I’m still on the right side of ‘reasonable force.’ Mentally, I give myself a resounding high-five.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” asks Jack.

I shrug. ”I was in shock. And I guess a part of me had accepted what he said – that no one would believe me.” This is actually true (the bastard), although there remains the undeniable issue that I thought I’d murdered him and didn’t wish to advertise the fact. Legally I should have stopped once he was incapacitated. I could have called the cops, waited outside the apartment until they turned up. I could have done that, but I didn’t. Not that I really care anyway: screw the law. I throw a contemptuous glance at the mangled remains of Michael French, and silently telegraph: fuck you.

“You should have told me,” Jack persists.

“Shut up Jack,” says Price, “leave him alone.”

Jack, surprisingly, backs down. “You should go,” he says to me. “You’re a victim in this too. You don’t need to be here.”

“It’s okay, I’m fine,” I tell him. “I’m involved whether I like it or not.”

“Yeah, I guess you are,” says Jack heavily. “You’re the motive aren’t you?”

Price frowns. “Hang on, hold up. So what you’re basically saying is that Graham now has two psychopaths who are trying to flirt with him?”

“No, of course not,” Jack snaps. There’s a pause – no one looks convinced. “Well, sort of. Yes,” he amends.

Everyone turns on cue and looks at me.

“Actually it’s technically three” I say, gesturing at Michael’s body, “if you count the dead one on the floor.”

Jack’s mouth twitches a bit at that, and he gives me a lop-sided grin. “You sure you’re okay Will?” he says. “This…” he waves his hand at the mess on the floor, “would be a hell of a lot for anyone to handle.”

“I’ve handled worse,” I say, which is so undeniably true that Jack doesn’t even bother to push it. Even as I’m saying it I can’t decide whether the fact I’ve dealt with worse is somewhat reassuring or horribly depressing. In fact it’s becoming such a staple part of my coping repertoire that I may as well standardize it when I introduce myself: “Good to meet you! My name is Will Graham, and you ought to know that I am continuously handling something worse.”

That aside, what’s bothering me far more at the moment is how the hell Matthew Brown knew about Michael in the first place (which is, in fact, a rhetorical worry, because of course I know how – he’s been following me). He must have been lurking in that parking lot the whole time, hidden in plain sight, watching and waiting and primed to make his move. He probably heard me on the phone, and my stomach turns over unpleasantly at the thought. Thank God I had the sense not to say your name. He must have had a car in order to trail Michael, though I don’t remember seeing one. Fuck, he could be outside the building right now.

Or – and this is worse still – he didn’t actually know about last night at all, but was simply aware that I’d spent time with Michael and wanted to do something about it. Which would mean that this isn’t an avenging angel act of retribution, but simply deranged jealously and possessiveness. The newspaper print in his note would actually confirm this – he had enough time to plan it out and prepare beforehand. If that’s the case then anyone could be targeted next: Jack, Alana, Zeller or Price. You? (Again). The thought makes me feel a bit sickened, and I lean back against the wall and tilt my head towards the ceiling.

“Will?” Jack is looking at me with concern.

“Yeah.”

“You look exhausted. Go home and get some rest.”

This is the second occasion in the last 24 hours that he’s told me to ‘go home and get some rest,’ and it sounds even less appealing than it did the first time round. I’m sick of resting and waiting: it’s seems like it’s all I’ve done so far and it’s accomplished exactly fuck all. I want to scream and rend and tear at something. “This is such bullshit,” I say.

“You’re right, it is.”

I pound the heel of my hand against the wall in frustration. “I’ve had enough,” I say. It’s true: I have. I’ve had more than enough. Fuck all of this.

“You know Jack,” I suddenly blurt out, “this sounds crazy, but I actually just wish he’d just come at me. Come out into the open.”

Jacks stares at me evenly. “Yes, that does sound crazy.”

I shrug. It is what it is. “I want this finished.”

“Of course you do, we all want that. But Will, I’ve know you’ve proven yourself pretty bullet-proof so far…”

“And knife-proof. And cliff-proof. And…”

“Yeah, okay, I get it: you can handle yourself. But this – this is different. This is incredibly dangerous. And I absolutely forbid you to do anything stupid.”

“Is that your speech?”

“That’s my speech.”

“It’s good. Good speech Jack.”

Jack gives me an exasperated look. “But...?” he says.

“But – define stupid,” I reply. “In a situation like this, give me an operational definition of what the smart option is.”

“The smart option,” says Jack beadily, “Is not parading yourself around as live bait in the hope of luring out Matthew Brown.”

Parading myself? I nearly start laughing at that. What does he think I’m going to do? I have a fleeting, ludicrous image of myself trudging up and down Pennsylvania Avenue in a ‘Hey there Matthew Brown!’ sandwich board.

“I can’t lure him out even if I wanted to,” I say instead, trying my best to sound reasonable. “I can’t do anything except what I’ve done so far – he’s going to appear when he thinks the time is right. What I’m saying is that I wish it would just happen. The waiting is worse.”

Jack is nodding sympathetically, but I’m no longer paying attention. I can feel a weird thrill of energy running through me: a flicker that kindles and turns into a flare. What I omit to add out loud is ‘maybe Matthew Brown will realize that it’s not all that smart to piss off someone who imagines killing people for a living.’

God, I’m ready for this. I am. I won’t make the mistake of underestimating him, but I won’t keep cowering either, lingering on in a perpetual state of dread and doubt. And if it’s the realization that he could pose a threat to you that has helped trigger this sea-change in attitude, then fuck it: bring it on.

The sudden surge of resolve and determination that courses through me is so powerful it makes me light-headed, and I have to briefly close my eyes. It’s like a hit, like getting high: I feel so far removed from the broken, despairing shadow of this morning. The spectres of Michael French and Matthew Brown skitter through my head, their separate attempts to control and manipulate me; how the first one failed and the second won’t be allowed to succeed. Then I think of you, of the torturous twists and turns of our ongoing danse macabre: of where you are now, what you’re doing, and whether you’re thinking about me. Of the way you used to watch me, touch me, insinuate and persuade: wind me up and watch me go; your unwavering belief that I could become something more than I already am. And for the first time in months I’m suddenly aware – with a jolt of energy, of fire and inspiration – that I’m no longer possessed by a crippling sense of misery and uncertainty. Because finally, fucking finally, I am in possession of myself.

*****

I half expect to awake the next morning and find that my resolve has withered away during the night, but after flexing and prodding it, I’m relieved to discover that it’s still firmly intact. The renewed sense of purpose is incredibly liberating. It’s like I’m slowly coming back to myself, breaking out of my stifling cocoon: ready to hunt and track and trail whatever it is that's out there.

I get out of bed with much more energy than usual. The first thing I’m going to do with my resuscitated resolve is contact Alana, because I’m tired of being timid and wary about her reaction. She can say her piece about that night in the bar, and I can either accept it or not. The second thing I’m going to do is lie in wait for Matthew Brown, and I’ll be ready for him when he comes. And then…then I’m going to find you.

Coming, coming, ready or not. I tap it out as a rhythm on the kitchen counter with my knuckles. I sent you away, I can invite you back in again – on my own terms. Jack would say I’m being reckless and he’d probably be right. I’m like someone idling along the edge of a cliff (another one), eyes closed and whistling to myself with my hands in my pockets, believing I’m untouchable – invincible – that I can’t ever fall. Other people might miss their footing and plummet down but not me, because I’m not like other people and can’t be contained by the same rules.

I realize that I am falling back into this belief with blind faith, a type of mindless, unquestioning constancy that's both irresponsible and stupid. And yet, and yet...is it really such a bad thing to have faith in? You once said I was unique, and I know you always believed it – even when everything went to hell you never stopped believing it – so why shouldn’t I agree with you? In the most literal sense it’s true, anyway – there’s only one of me. I’m Will Graham. I’m from the Old Germanic Willelm meaning ‘bold warrior.’ I am young and smart and fast, with empathy and autonomy and imagination. I am sovereign and self-commanding; relentless and resolute; I have dark impulses and inspiration; I am centre stage, curtain up and this is my design. And I am absolutely sick of being fucked around with.

As I button up my shirt I realize that I’m smiling from the sheer pleasure of not feeling afraid. I think, if you were here, you’d actually be quite proud of me.

Chapter Text

I call Alana that afternoon to arrange to meet, and as soon as I hear the tone of her voice – quavering and tearstained – I realize that Jack must have told her everything. I feel like a complete shit: I’ve been so preoccupied with my rambling confessions on the night of Matthew Brown’s escape that I completely forgot about her link with Michael. This recent development is going to devastate her.

I spot Alana as soon as I walk into the coffee shop; and the depth of her devastation is immediately apparent, branded in every feature like a stigmata. She’s hunched over the table, hands clasped around her mug so tightly that her knuckles are white, and I take a circuitous route so I can approach her from the front to avoid startling her. When she looks up at me I can see that her eyes are pink and swollen; the sleepless shadows underneath them so pronounced they could almost be bruises. “Oh God, Will,” she says. She reaches out one of her white-knuckled hands, fumbling blindly for mine. “I’m so sorry Will. I’m so, so sorry.”

“It’s okay...Honestly, it is. It’s not your fault.” I pull out the other chair and sit down, my hand still gripped in hers.

She stares at me, pale and anguished. “What an utter nightmare this has been,” she says. “I could scarcely credit what Jack was telling me. I still can’t: this hideous, distorted version of Michael that none of us ever knew existed. I mean he was really interested in you. He asked me about you. A lot. But he always seemed so respectful about it. I just thought he would understand you, could be a friend for you...that you might not be as lonely.” Her voice cracks. “How could I not have seen...I mean, I didn’t see it. I didn’t know.”

“Neither did I,” I say. I make my voice as gentle and non-accusatory as possible. “He was incredibly convincing.”

“Just like Hannibal,” she says faintly.

Ah. I knew that there would be an excavation of what happened with you – a stratigraphy of regret and shame and remorse – but wasn’t sure whether she would broach it quite so soon. Perhaps I should have; she’s pretty fearless that way. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve underestimated her.

“Just like Hannibal.” I have to agree with her, because it’s true. I add, a bit lamely, “It seems as if there’s something in the water at Hopkins.”

“That’s not funny Will.”

“No,” I agree, “it isn’t really is it?”

“I can’t believe this has happened to you," she says. "Because of me. You’d never have met him if it wasn’t for me.”

“Alana, don’t. Please.” I tighten my grip on her hand. “Don’t do this to yourself. You were being a friend to me. You were being kind and considerate, like you always are...like you always have been.” As an afterthought I add: “And don’t confuse it with what happened with Hannibal.” I notice that my voice doesn’t catch on your name, and tuck this away as a small achievement. “It’s two entirely separate issues.”

“That just means I was utterly taken in twice,” she says in a small voice.

“Yeah, but so was everyone else. That’s how people like them become so incredibly successful: they have a flawless mask of normalcy." I realize that I’m starting to talk like a textbook – and also that I really hate bracketing you and him together – but that right now it’s necessary; that I need to do it for Alana’s sake. “I’m trained to spot predators,” I continue (for all the fucking good it’s ever done me), “and he completely had me taken in as well. I actually felt sorry for him.” God, I did as well didn’t I – all those evenings reproaching myself for leading him on.

“But you’re okay now?” She sounds so frail and young and uncertain, it’s awful. I hate that someone’s made her feel like this, like she can no longer trust her own judgement.

“Of course,” I say (with a flippancy I don’t remotely feel), “I thoroughly kicked his ass.”

She smiles a bit and reaches for my hand again, and I feel a renewed surge of admiration for her. She’s not ashamed of her vulnerability: she can feel it, and flex with it; and because she bends she won’t break. I can’t help comparing it with my own brittle veneer – the cavalier pretence that everything’s fine, when I’m really cracking and rupturing inside. I don’t really know how to explain the complexity of my real reaction, I don’t have the words for it. I was fucking terrified, and ashamed, and repulsed, and I couldn’t quite believe that it was actually happening. But when I thought I’d killed him it made me feel sick-ecstatic-thrilled-alive; and I know that should trouble me, but it doesn’t.

“Look,” I say, “I didn’t just want to talk to you about Michael” (to be totally honest, I never really wanted to talk about him at all). “Alana, I’ve been thinking about our last conversation.” She looks at me blankly. “You know, in the bar? The night we got the news about Matthew Brown?”

“Oh,” she says. She’s visibly dragging her mind from the horrors of the present to the distress and confusion of the past. I wait patiently, twirling a sachet of sugar between my fingers like a miniature baton. “Look, Will,” she says at last, “I pushed you too far over that, I’m sorry. I had no right to say what I did. You don’t have to clarify anything…You don’t owe me any kind of explanation.”

“I know. I know I don’t. But I’d like to be honest with you about this. I’d like to be honest with myself about it.”

“Okay, I guess. If you’re sure. Just as long as you…” She trails off. “Thank you Will. I appreciate that you trust me. I don’t feel like I deserve it.”

“Of course I trust you,” I say. “You’ve always been a good friend to me, and I’ve always trusted you.” I fall silent after that, because I suddenly realize that I’m not sure how to proceed, but she doesn’t prompt me: just waits, patient and quiet.

I draw in a deep breath then let it out again. “He made me feel alive,” I say finally. “He still does. He understood me in a way that no one else ever has, and I never knew myself as well as I did when I was with him. He didn’t make me feel the best, or happiest, or safest...but he made me feel the most.” I sigh and lean back in my chair. "I know he didn’t make me a better person Alana, but I felt like he made me a better version of myself. No one else has ever wanted the darkness in me, never even wanted to acknowledge it, and he…admired it. It was like the greatest acceptance and the ultimate freedom.”

God, it really was. You were so many things: phantom, demon, fallen idol, faithless friend, malign energy tempered by thoughtful smiles, tender touches that wound without warning, broken promises and earnest endeavours – both problem and solution – completely, utterly and unrepentantly deficient in all morals, ignoring all maxims…yet with an intense, unbridled virtuosity that burnt so brightly it sometimes hurt to look at you. In a deeply fucked-up way, everything was just better with you. I was better with you: lived larger, thought sharper, ran faster, loved fiercer and was more loved. It’s both as simple and as convoluted as that.

She nods slowly, thinking about what I’ve told her. “It sounds incredibly powerful,” she says finally. “Intoxicating. I don’t think I’ve experienced something quite like that, I guess hardly anyone has. I’m not going to say you’re lucky, because I’m not sure that you are, and I know you’ve paid a very high price for it…”

“Still paying,” I say.

“Still paying,” she takes a careful sip of her coffee, grimacing slightly at how hot it is. “But you found someone who understood you, and captivated you, and was captivated by you…” She sees me staring at her. “Well of course he was,” she says, “It was obvious.”

“I guess.” I hesitate and lean back in my chair, trying to maintain eye contact. “Do you think he’s still alive?”

“I don’t know. They never found a body did they? Unless there’s firm evidence to the contrary, I’d say it’s probably safer to assume that he is.”

“Don’t you ever worry that he’ll come after you?” I know it’s a fucking awful question, but I can’t stop myself.

“Yes,” she says simply. “He gave his word didn’t he? But Will, what am I supposed to do?”

“I don’t know…Run?” Run, run, fast as you can.

“Run where? He’d always find me if he wanted to, just like I found him.” She sighs and pushes her hair back from her face. “Oh, I’ve taken sensible precautions of course. Our house has the best security that money can buy – and you know that really is the best. And I always carry a gun.” She briefly shows it to me: a neat little pistol nestled in her purse. “The thing is, if I spent my whole life in hiding – even if that were possible – then he’s already won by default. Even in the past few months, there’re so many precious experiences that I would have missed.” She gives me a significant look. “I would have lost all that, he’d have taken it away.”

“Even so…”

“Will, you know as well as I do what Hannibal is. You know better than anyone. Do you really think he couldn’t find me wherever I go?”

“It would slow him down.”

“It’s not about that with him. He could know exactly where I am and still not strike for years; it’s all part of his grand mise-en-scène. And in the meantime I refuse to eke out a half-life where I’m constantly glancing over my shoulder. Besides,” she adds with an awful simplicity, “We both know that he’s going to come to find you long before he looks for me.”

“Possibly.”

“Definitely. And I imagine you’ll be waiting?”

Instead of an answer I just sigh.

“Look Will,” she says. “I get it. I do. I don’t condone it, and I don’t particularly like it, but I can understand it. Everything you described: of course you miss it and want it back. You can love him and how he made you feel without loving what he did and what he was.”

“I don’t know if it’s quite as simple as that.” It’s not an easy thing to admit, but I’ve promised myself the truth.

“I suppose it isn’t,” she concedes. “But Will, you said you trusted me, and I trust you as well. I trust you to do the right thing. I think you’ll know what that is when the time comes.”

“You’re taking a lot on trust, Alana.”

“Of course. What else is there?”

“There’s him,” I say.

“There is. And there’s also you.”

I look earnestly at her. This woman. “You know what he used to say?” I ask.

“What?”

“He said that ‘the most beautiful quality of a true friendship is to understand, and be understood, with absolute clarity.’”

She smiles at me, and takes my hand again, and we sit like that for a while; drinking our coffee, enjoying the clarity.

*****

On the walk back home I run through in my mind how I’m going to find you; where you could be. It’s not an easy task. In fact, if I’m brutally honest, it’s probably somewhat impossible – but I won’t allow myself to give up hope. I found you before, I can find you again. What I’ll need more than anything else is patience and perseverance. And time. The last one is especially easy, because I have it in abundance: an extravagant, stretching surplus of time. I’ve got the rest of my life (or yours, whichever lasts the longest).

When I get home I sling off my coat and scavenge around in the fridge for last night’s leftover pizza, which I eat one-handed whilst scanning TattleCrime. There’s nothing, of course, but I’m so used to this by now that it’s lost some its power to bruise. Of course you’re not going to make it easy for me: why would you? It’s cold and draughty in the living room, so I brew myself a coffee and stand at the window to drink it, automatically scouting out the security detail. Oh yes, there they are. I’m about to turn away, my mind already drifting (wide-eyed and wondering) back to you, but something about the scene catches and snags at me, and I suddenly go very still as the pieces grind and slot together. I look out again, peering closely. It’s so dim and dusky out there, I can’t see properly. It can’t, it can’t be. I realize I’m speaking out loud.

I snatch my cell phone from the table and pelt out into the hall. The elevator won’t come, no matter how hard I mash the buttons, and in the end I lose patience and sprint down the stairs so fast I nearly break my fucking neck. I’m only wearing cords and a thin shirt, and the icy air slices through my arms like a razor blade as soon as I leave the building. Mr Haversham is tottering up the steps, hugging himself against the cold, “William!” he says, “Just the boy. Would you mind…?”

“Sorry, can’t stop!” I yell. I don’t even know if he’s heard me, my words are picked up and carried away by the spiteful gusts of wind that are blowing the trash down the street and swirling it round the steps, and I’m running and running and running, desperately hoping I’m wrong and knowing, even as I make my helpless wish, that I’m horribly and inevitably right.

Close up the agents look oddly peaceful, their eyes closed, dipped back softly against the seats like sleeping children. Each of them has been shot in the head: despatched and discarded with ruthless efficiency. The gunman must have knocked on the window. They wound it down. He was plausible, convincing; maybe asking for directions, pretending to be a tourist: ‘Hey guys! So sorry to bother you. I wonder if you could help me out?’ They never saw it coming.

On the windshield, tucked under the wiper blade is another note. The same stiff white paper, the same grid-like capital letters: NO ONE CAN WATCH YOU BUT ME.

I slowly stand up, back away from the car, carefully take out my phone. My legs are trembling from the force of the sprint, but my hands are steady. Now – long after the worst has already happened – I am strangely calm. Jack answers almost immediately. “You need to get over to my place now,” I say, “both the agents have been shot. Yeah of course it’s Matthew Brown. Yes, I’ll wait inside.”

But I don’t. I stand next to the car for the entire time it takes the cavalry to arrive, stand with the cold and the shock, and the sheer fucking blinding rage that Matthew Brown continues to exist. “I’m going to get you, you bastard,” I hiss aloud to the frozen empty air. “I swear to God, the last thing you will ever see is my smiling face as I choke the life out of you with my bare hands.”

Maybe this is what Jack meant by 'parading myself.' Logically I know I’m vulnerable standing out here, yet I feel oddly protected, swathed and stayed by the steely links of my incredible anger. Matthew Brown, I decide, is no longer the predator, but the prey.

I hear the sirens first, then see the patrol cars snaking round the corner, and when Jack walks up, snuggly muffled against the cold, I’m still stood there in my silent, vengeful vigil, the red flashing lights illuminating every clench and twist of my murderous face.

Chapter Text

Chapter Text

Jack is wearing his angry/concerned face – it’s now so familiar that I’m beginning to suspect he just grabs it and puts it on whenever he see me, the same way someone would reach for a certain scarf or sweater. “What the hell are you doing out here Will,” he says, “I thought I told you to wait inside? You must be freezing, you idiot. Go and get a coat for God’s sake.”

“I’m fine.”

He prods my arm, which is numb and icy: I’m virtually petrifying in front of him. “You’re not, you’re halfway to hypothermic,” he says crossly. He snaps his fingers at one of the paramedics to bring him a shock blanket. I am slightly envious: if I snapped my fingers like that they’d just laugh (then tell me to fuck off). Jack fussily drapes the blanket round my shoulders, tucking it under my chin like I’m a child. It’s downy and warm, and although I feel (and no doubt look) like a bit of a fool I don’t take it off.

“Shock blanket,” I say. “So how’s that work?”

“Damned if I know.”

“How is a blanket supposed to recalibrate my cognitive faculties?”

“Take more than a blanket with you,” agrees Jack. He pats my shoulder. “I’m sorry you had to see this Will. It’s the last thing you need.”

He holds out his flask of coffee, and I take a deep draught which I promptly choke on when I notice that Freddie Lounds has materialized next to us flourishing a dictaphone. For fuck’s sake. Prurient curiosity is positively rolling off her in waves and I experience the (increasingly familiar) sensation that the Universe does, in fact, hate me and will take any opportunity it can to piss me off.

“Mr Crawford.”

“Ms Lounds…Industrious as ever.”

“Mr Graham.”

“Freddie…If you publish a photo of me in this blanket I will literally kill you.”

She smirks delightedly. “Is that a threat Will?”

“Well, yes, clearly it is,” I say. “I don’t remember saying I intended to kill you metaphorically.”

“Are you hearing this?” she asks, turning to Jack.

“No,” says Jack unhelpfully.

“Any comment to make?”

“We have no statement to make at the present time,” Jack and I chant in perfect unison.

“Bullshit. Come on…is it him? My readers will want to know. The public has a right to know”

“’Him,’ only narrows it down to around four billion people,” I snap. “So very broadly speaking: yes”… And then promptly feel like punching myself in the face, because of course the smart thing would have just been to say ‘no, absolutely not’ instead of setting her up to (inevitably) clarify:

“Hannibal the Cannibal? Chesapeake Ripper back from the dead and back on the rampage?”

No,” says Jack. “Does it look like that to you?”

“Not for me to say what it looks like, Mr Crawford,” she says, shooting me a glance of pure malice. “But considering the enormous FBI presence – rather incongruous for a random homicide – not to mention that it’s all happening outside his wife’s house…”

“Did you just call me Hannibal Lecter’s wife?” I yell. Unfortunately I’m so pissed off I don’t realize until too late that my voice has grown progressively louder, and consequently everyone in the vicinity (and possibly some of those beyond it, including the people inside the building and maybe even the dead agents as well) all heard the last part. Sanderson and his forensics crew have turned round to stare: two of them have their mouths open. I kind of want to add ‘why does everyone assume I’m the wife,’ but needless to say desist on the grounds it will not improve the situation (at all).

“All right, that’s enough,” says Jack. “Ms Lounds my official statement, upon which you may quote me to your heart’s content, is that two adult males have been found dead from gunshot wounds inflicted by a suspect, or suspects, unknown; and that we are actively pursuing several lines of enquiry. Got that? Good. Now get out of here, we’re done. And if you mention Will in your piece I’ll personally see to it that you get an injunction slapped down on your site within 24 hours.”

Even Freddie Lounds can’t withstand Jack when he activates full-on ‘And lo! I shall brook no argument!’ mode and she obediently (albeit reluctantly) melts away into the crowd, wielding her goddamn dictaphone in front of her like it’s an assault rifle. Jack sighs and pats me on the shoulder. “Ignore her,” he says, “she’s just baiting you for a reaction.”

“Yeah, well…she got one.”

“She sure did.” He gives me a sideways look and cracks a grin. “’Wife’?”

I can’t help laughing (even though, oh God, it’s really not all that funny), then immediately stop when I notice that Kade Purnell is determinedly picking her way through the cordon in our direction. What the hell’s she doing here? I half wish Freddie would come back (Matthew Brown would also do, at a push). Jack and I groan simultaneously and exchange matching ‘oh fuck’ looks.

“Well, well, well Mr Graham,” she says when she reaches us (for some unknown reason I find myself nodding each time she says ‘well’). “Still proving yourself to be the proverbial trouble magnet aren’t you? Seems like you just can’t catch a break.”

“Looks that way,” I reply. I’m going for haughty and aloof, which is extremely hard to pull off whilst swaddled in a fluffy blue blanket, but I give it my best shot.

She gestures at the car. “This is a spectacularly bad result Jack,” she says. Well, yes – obviously. I shuffle my feet with irritation. Jack has more self-control than I do, and merely gives a long sigh. “It certainly is,” he says.

“I suppose you hardly need me to tell you that the apprehension of Matthew Brown has now become a matter of the upmost priority. This looks bad for us Jack. Very bad indeed.”

“Put me onto it,” I pipe up, just as Jack tries to kick me in the shin to get me to be quiet. “I can guarantee I’ll apprehend him into…” (I nearly say ‘a body bag’ and manage to backtrack at the last minute) “…into a holding cell as a matter of the upmost priority.”

“No,” she says sharply. Her eyes are gleaming in the glare of the headlights. “No, I don’t think so. You’re not coming within spitting distance of the Matthew Brown case.”

I open my mouth to protest. “That’s final,” she adds.

“Why not, when I’ve got the best chances of catching the little bastard?”

She raises her thin, pencilled eyebrows. “Colorful terminology you have there Mr Graham,” she says, “Is that how you’d normally refer to someone escaped from psychiatric custody? He’s a very angry, damaged young man.” Oh for God’s sake. She’s enjoying this just a little too much.

“Actually he didn’t escape from a psychiatric unit,” supplies Jack helpfully, “he was being transferred to a federal prison.” I make a mental note to high-five him for that later.

“And don’t give me that crap,” I add. “First and foremost he’s a narcissistic, entitled prick who’s eliminating people for absolutely no better reason than satisfying the deranged ego trip he currently appears to be on. Do you actually believe what you’re saying, or is it just because he’s targeting me and you’re trying to piss me off?”

“Will…” says Jack in a warning tone.

“People aren’t driven to behave like he does for no reason,” she says primly.

“Agreed, but there are also many people who are far more hurt and damaged than him, and don’t behave like that at all.”

“Censure and judgement perpetuate the cycle of violence. He needs understanding.”

“Did you read that in a memo somewhere?” I say with heavy sarcasm, “I suppose you’d say he needs a hug as well?”

“Will…” says Jack, again. He should just a recording made.

“Who knows?” She gives me a venomous smirk. “Perhaps he does.”

“He needs a hug in the face. With a brick.”

“Just ignore him,” says Jack a bit desperately, “he’s in shock.” He gives me a look that clearly translates as ‘shut the fuck up you idiot’. As annoyed as I am, I know he’s right (reluctantly, I also know that I’m showing a fatal lack of strategy in allowing her to get to me as much as she has). I retreat a fraction, making a point of mutinously (and ostentatiously) rearranging my blanket.

“He’s certainly in something,” says Kade, (go on, I urge her mentally, say ‘in the shit,’ you know you want to). “Carry on talking like that and the first thing he’s in is…a considerable amount of trouble.”

I have a horrible feeling Jack’s going to force me to apologize, but he just grabs me by the elbow and starts pulling me away. “Come on Will,” he says with forced heartiness, “let’s get you to one of the paramedics.”

“Yes let’s,” I say, “I need a new blanket, this one’s run out.” He tugs me so hard I stumble over, hissing under his breath “For God’s sake, leave it. Don’t give her any more reasons to come after you.” I obediently shut up (better late than never) and we conceal ourselves behind the ambulance whilst Kade begins barking out orders into her cell.

I let out a long, angry sigh. “He’s not going to stop Jack. We need to do something.”

“Look – Will…we have the situation under control.”

“Balls.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I said…”

“I heard very well what you said,” growls Jack.

“Then why ask me to repeat it?!” I’m starting to yell now, and Sanderson and his forensics crew turn round and stare at me (Part Two). I glare back defiantly until they look away. The wind is threatening to blow the note out of Andrews’ hands – as if Matthew Brown is mocking us all through elusion by proxy – and Jack and I face up and glower at each other, bristling so hard I’m sort of surprised we don’t catch fire.

“May I remind you,” he says in an angry, low voice, “that I lost two men tonight. Good men. Men with families, men whose spouses I shall have to visit after this and inform them that their husbands have been lost in the line of duty. May I also remind you, Agent Graham, that these men were in the line of duty protecting you – under my orders – and that a little professional courtesy right now would not go at all amiss.”

I should feel guilty at this – I know I should. A better person would apologize now and back down; but I’m not that better person, and I can’t. So I don’t.

“And may I remind you,” I say, “that the whole reason I’m in this situation at all is because you dragged me into it. The only reason I’m not still married, and happy, and several light years away from all this bullshit, is because you dragged me into it. You never hesitate to drag me into anything as long as you think I can be useful do you Jack? To hell with the consequences, just as long as I can be your party trick and pet psychopath spotter whenever it’s convenient and will make you look good.” (This is definitely below the belt: while Jack’s always been concerned with cracking the case and saving lives, he can’t fairly be accused of being a publicity seeker or glory hunter; or, for short, a Dr Chilton. Also…‘psychopath spotter’? What the hell am I even talking about?). I lower my voice a bit. “Look, Jack, just stop telling me that it’s fine, and stop telling me you have things under control, when it’s completely obvious that you don’t.”

“So what would you prefer Will? You want me to become as hysterical as you are?”

“Yes!” Actually this is patently untrue. The idea of Jack becoming hysterical (as I am) is fairly appalling…although it would at least be a golden opportunity to slap his face.

“Yes I do,” I say (I don’t), “because at least it would be more real. I’d rather you levelled with me. I hate this patronizing , condescending, appeasing…”

“Supercilious,” says Jack. He smirks a bit. “I thought I’d throw that one out, in case your mental thesaurus is running out of inspiration.”

“Supercilious,” I say. I sigh again and lean back against the side of the ambulance. “Stop treating me like a child.”

“I will when you stop acting like one.”

I raise an eyebrow at him. “Seriously? You get many of your children to go out profiling serial murderers?”

“What can I say? You’re an unusual child with rare gifts.”

“Now you sound like Hannibal.”

“Christ,” says Jack, “I hope not.”

I huff out a laugh. I think Jack and I often forget that when we’re not bickering, we’re actually quite fond of each other.

*****

After a few hours the first of the patrol cars start pulling away, and Jack leaves around 30 minutes later. He tells me to get my ass into my apartment and stay there, and that if he hears any more about me running round town on a Matthew Brown bounty hunt then he’s going to come round and handcuff me to my table himself. Then he gives me a hug, and tells me I’m a pain in his butt.

“Thanks,” I say, “I do my best.”

“And your best is admirable,” replies Jack. He looks at me carefully. “Take care of yourself kid,” he adds.

“Always have, old man.”

He pretends to shake his fist at me, then gets into his car. Our eyes meet as he pulls away and he mouths ‘go inside!

As I head back towards the building I notice groups of the neighbors clustering together, watching the proceedings in small, cowered packs: Mr Haversham, the Ramirez family, the old lady who lives opposite me whose name I still don’t know but who tells me I remind her of her son every time I see her. Nice, normal people – genuine and capable and well-meaning, and just about as far away from me and my shitty life as it’s possible to get – who’ve all had this madness brought screaming down upon them because of me. Their faces look drained in the flickering lights of the police cars, a chiaroscuro of doubt and fear. ‘I’m sorry’ I want to say to them, ‘I didn’t know any of this was going to happen. How could I possibly have known?’

At that moment I want to speak to you so badly it almost hurts, and I have to take a deep breath to steady and settle myself. As I push open the door I catch sight of my reflection in the glass pane. I look hollow. Strained. Defiant yet desperate.

As soon as I’m indoors, I know that Jack’s advice isn’t going to work. I’m too wired to just sit down tamely and wait; it feels like the walls are closing in on me. I realize I’m still wearing that bastard shock blanket and have a childish urge to drop-kick it across the room. I slump onto my chair and flick on the television, fretfully hopping from one channel to another: all the local news channels are talking about Matthew Brown. There are a couple of sitcoms, each featuring mannequin-like actors with identikit shiny hair and large white teeth, and a simpering documentary about meerkats (with the highly improbable title of 'Nature’s Little Scallywags’). The meerkats are bounding all over the screen like they’re on crack, and I know I should find it cute and adorable but it’s just really irritating so I switch it over. The next one is a cookery program – none of the food looks anywhere near as impressive as yours. “Oh fuck this” I say out loud. I stand up, sit down again, and then finally grab my coat and head for the door. I’m going to ignore Jack’s instructions – handcuffs be damned – and after wandering round the streets end up going to a local dive bar to play pool against myself for over two hours until my wrist is aching and I’m practically cross-eyed from staring down a cue. I’m just starting to contemplate leaving (and go where? Shit, I don’t know), when I take a step back from the table and my shoulder jostles against a towering, mean-looking guy in frayed denims and a Slipknot shirt. It’s only a slight nudge but he immediately coils round like a whip. “Fucking watch it, pretty boy,” he says with a sneer.

“You fucking watch it,” I say. Which, as comebacks go, I admit is pretty dismal – but he nevertheless looks a bit deprived that I’ve denied him the anxious apology he was no doubt expecting as his due. At that point I decide that I’m not going to leave after all, just to piss him off further, and defiantly park myself by the bar. It turns out to be a mistake though, because I am promptly pressganged by a verbose and miserably drunken man who practically lashes me to my stool and insists on recounting – in long, torturous detail – an argument he’s had with his boss. The story is distinguished by being both incredibly complicated and irredeemably boring.

“And then he says – get this – he says that I can just go to the convention by myself…”

“Wow,” I say. “Imagine that.”

“And then he walks out! Just leaves! But before he went, he told me…”

“Yeah, that’s rough.” I’m starting to yawn so hard I may dislocate my jaw.

“…And that I should just trash the portfolio for all the use it was…”

“Oh my God,” I say, “what a bastard.”

“No, no man, it was my girlfriend who said that.”

“Oh…right. Sorry, I misheard you.”

“That’s okay, it’s noisy in here,” he takes a melancholy swig of his beer. “Thanks buddy,” he says, “You’re a really good listener. You a therapist or something? You’re really empathic, you know?”

His sinks his head into his hands, and I am sorely tempted to join him. “Yeah,” I reply gloomily, “you’re not the first person to think that.”

He looks up at me, smiling boozily. “You’re a decent guy,” he says, “I should get you a drink. S’least I can do. What you having?”

“Thanks,” I say, “but I’m fine. I really have to be going.” I leap off the stool like a fucking gazelle and head for the door before he can object. The night air is cool on my face, and I linger for a few moments trying to get my bearings before striking off in the direction of my apartment. I only get a couple of blocks before someone calls out at me.

“Hey, hey mister!” Christ, it’s the guy from the bar in the Slipknot shirt, with two – no, three – friends. They might even be brothers – they all have the same squinting eyes (a bit too close together) and coarse simian slants to the jaw. I roll my eyes inwardly. I suppose ‘mister’ is at least a grade up from ‘pretty boy.’

“Got any cash to spare?”

“No.”

“Oh really? You sure about that?”

I pretend I’m thinking about it. “Yeah, thanks, I’m sure,” I say cheerfully.

He takes a menacing step toward me: “Last chance to change your mind pal.”

“Oh, seriously, fuck off,” I say. “I have no money, and with no job I have no immediate prospects of acquiring any.” As an afterthought I add, “So actually, I should really be asking you to give me some, pal.”

One of the sidekicks gives an incredulous snort of laughter, and asks: “Is this guy for real?”

I know I should be frightened (and that provoking them is a profoundly stupid, stupid thing to do), but really, it’s all a matter of perspective. Considering the things I’ve seen (not to mention done…Christ) over the past few years, a handful of brawlers in a back alley somewhat lose their impact. To be honest, I resent it more than anything else. After everything I’ve been through, I want to say, just give me a fucking break.

Nevertheless there’s also four of them and only one of me, which are not good odds by anyone’s standards (apart from you, of course, who would probably consider one against four as excellent odds and a mildly enjoyable challenge), and it’s compounded by the fact I don’t have a weapon and no immediate opportunities for improvising one. So in the end I adopt the most sensible remaining option, which is to make a run for it. I’m fitter than they are, not to mention spending the last few days primed on massive reserves of adrenaline, and I manage to clear the alley long before they can process what’s happened and make a fumbling attempt to catch up with me. The street stretches out as long and straight as an arrow in both directions – there’s no way they won’t see me if stay on the road, so I double-back down an adjoining alley and locate a convenient dumpster to fling myself behind. I’m pleased to see that I’m hardly out of breath at all, no mean feat considering the only exercise I’ve had recently is pacing round my apartment and running my mouth.

I can hear them at the end of the block, cursing me out with grunting variations of “Where’d the little shit go?” and I bide my time before their voices grow fainter and I’ll be able to emerge from behind my dumpster with some semblance of a dignified exit. Honestly, what a fucking day.

And then, just then. That’s when it happens.

It’s the footsteps I hear first, the unmistakable crunch crunch crunch of feet on gravel; not troubling to be quiet, but gliding with a sufficiently light touch to not be immediately conspicuous either. It’s like a droning metronome, getting closer and closer with a grotesque inevitability…and worst of all (worst of all by far) it’s punctuated by a horribly familiar voice that croons: “Hello. Mr. Graham. In trouble again I see?”

My mind goes blank, it really does. Of all of the crappy, awful timing…it’s like some enormous cosmic joke. I have a sudden image of myself over the past day: talking with Alana and Jack, Freddie and Kade; of watching the neighbors’ stricken faces; pretending to listen to that man’s ridiculous meandering story at the bar…all the while feeling so safe and unconstrained within my own conjecture and imaginings, my own spectacular ignorance; completely and utterly unprepared for this. That this night – of all fucking nights – was the moment it was going to happen.

But of course I don’t express any of this. I just turn my head round to face the speaker, and as I do so I slowly and deliberately get to my feet.

“Hello Matthew,” I reply evenly. “Long time no see.”

Chapter Text

Matthew Brown offers his long pale hand to help me to my feet, which I pointedly ignore. “So we meet again!” he says. He sounds deliriously pleased about it.

I lean down and brush the grit off my knees. “Yeah, seems that way,” I reply when I straighten up.

“You don’t seem very pleased to see me Mr Graham.”

“Why would I be?”

“I don’t know…a bit of gratitude might be nice. Technically I went to prison for you.”

I yearn to retort ‘yeah, well, I didn’t ask you to!’ but there doesn’t seem to be any way of saying it that won’t sound impossibly childish, so in the end I don’t say anything (especially because – technically – he did).

“I’m not angry with you about that by the way. Or not much, at least.” He bares his teeth at me in a jagged smile.

“No reason why you should be,” I snap. “It’s hardly my fault you got caught.”

“No, I suppose that was Mr Crawford wasn’t it? I’ll be having words with him later.” You fucking won’t, I think. “But there’s no rush is there?” He looks at me as if he’s waiting for me to confirm it. “First things first!” he says.

“First things being…?” I experimentally prop myself against the wall – I’m trying to look casual and unconcerned, as if getting ambushed by him is no more than a minor inconvenience – but realize it makes me appear much shorter than he is (not good) so promptly straighten up again.

“I want to talk to you,” he says earnestly, “and I want you to listen. I want to tell you about my plans.”

“Yeah, I’ve been seeing quite a lot of your plans.

“Were you impressed Mr Graham? You ought to have been. I did it for you, all of it. You know that right?”

“I know it. You were hardly subtle.”

“It was my homage.” He lingers lovingly over the word, rolling it round his mouth before spitting it out. “My homage to you. All those people – those invasive, interfering little people – all trying to worm their way into your space, like they had a right to be there; like they thought they could understand you in the way that I can. It was presumptuous. It was disrespectful.”

“What do you know about that?” I say. God, the way he’s talking about me is so fucking creepy: like I’m a dementedly cherished possession that he’d rather destroy than allow anyone else to have.

“Those guys outside your house. Spying on you. And that man. The way he followed you – following you all the time, desperate for your attention. You didn’t know about him did you, how he stalked after you when he thought you couldn’t see him? But I knew.” Without taking his eyes off my face he reaches into the pocket of his coat and draws out a long slim knife, its serrated blade gleaming wickedly in the moonlight like alligator teeth. He doesn’t do anything else, doesn’t threaten me with it, but he clearly wants me to know it’s there. My heart sinks a bit further, but I force my voice to remain steady.

“That man,” I ask carefully, “The one who was following me. What else did you know about him?”

He looks a bit puzzled and absently returns the knife to his pocket. “What do you mean?” he says.

“You’re telling me you killed him just for following me around?” The inflection is light and barely-there, but I want to confirm whether what happened to Michael really was an act of retribution (which is going to complicate things ever-so-slightly) or simply Matthew Brown’s own special brand of psychopathy (which won’t complicate anything at all).

“Well of course,” he says, his face clearing – like he’s relieved I’m finally starting to get it; starting to get him. “He presumed. He thought he was good enough to be in your world.”

Christ, I fucking knew it. Nevertheless, I’m still glad – being in the position of forced gratitude towards Matthew Brown would be a bit much, all things considered. “You seem to be doing quite a bit of presuming yourself,” is all I reply.

“Oh, I know what you’re going to say,” he interjects and I watch, fascinated in spite of myself, as his eyebrows knit together in a petulant frown. “You think I failed, don’t you? I know it didn’t work out before, but I’ll make it up to you: I’ll prove myself. I want you to know that I’d do it again. For you I would. Kill Dr Lecter I mean.”

“You can hardly kill him ‘again’ when you failed so entirely the first time round,” I say lightly.

“I got very close though didn’t I?” He pauses and looks at me – he wants to hear me say it.

“I guess you did.” I tell myself I’m just playing along, but I know that I’m not; not really. If it weren’t for Jack, of course he would have killed you.

He nods, satisfied now he feels I’m giving him due tribute for a job (sort of) well done. “I would if you asked me to,” he says. He looks so hopeful at the possibility of pleasing me that for a second I am genuinely taken aback by the intensity of his regard: white-hot, cold-blooded and merciless. Why are you doing this, I want to ask him, what is it about me? But of course I don’t; not least because I really don’t think I can bear to know.

He’s staring at me again now, that fucked-up little smile playing around his lips, and it takes a gargantuan amount of effort not to flinch away. Fuck, it’s so cold. There’s steam billowing from a ventilation grid on the wall, and the way it catches the light and swirls around makes him look vaguely infernal and other-worldly. There’s a horrible, grinding industrial noise droning out from the building next door, which only adds to the surreal nightmarish quality of the whole scene, then from the top of the alleyway comes the sound of voices, and my eyes automatically flick towards it: late night revellers, weaving their way home as the bars start to close. One of them is drunkenly serenading the others while a woman guffaws with raucous laughter, and a man’s voice says “Frankie! You’re unbelievable!” over and over again. Their very existence feels so far removed from mine that I may as well be observing them from behind a pane of glass: Exhibit A ‘How Normal People Live.’

Matthew Brown follows my gaze, then gives me a truly gruesome smile. “Don’t get your hopes up,” he says. “You’re on your own now, just like you always were. No one’s going to come for you. No one knows you’re here. It’s just you and me.” He beams delightedly: “Like old times!” He takes a step towards me and I resolutely refuse to shift, watching and waiting and holding my ground. He stops instead and regards me impassively, a weird glint in his twitchy little eyes. “Speaking of old times Mr Graham,” he says, “I know you’re still obsessed with him. With Dr Lecter. I know that you are.”

For fuck’s sake. “Now what makes you think that?” I ask. I’m impressed at how neutral and non-committal I manage to sound, as if it doesn’t matter; like I couldn’t care less either way.

“What do you know about experiments?” he says.

“Enough.”

“Because I was curious, so I ran an experiment,” he replies. “In a classic experiment, you have your independent variable, and you manipulate it, and then you observe the effect of the manipulation on your dependent variable.”

“Are you planning on getting to the point anytime soon?” I say, “Because life is a short and precious thing.” But my heart is pounding in an unpleasant skittish way, because I suddenly think I know exactly where this is going.

“You were my dependent variable,” he says.

“Oh yeah?”

“Oh yeah. And my hypothesis was confirmed by the incredibly quick response you made to my cryptic little message on TattleCrime. You really did jump right onto it didn’t you? I knew you would.”

Oh God, I was right – and my heart almost shatters, because I was so sure it was you. My previous loathing for him, already volcanic, reaches a new pitch of intensity at the way he’s forced his blundering way into our private danse macabre. Of course, I don’t allow even a glimpse of this to filter into my expression. Instead I say, in a bored voice: “Oh, so that was you. Thought so. The screen name was a little obvious, don’t you think?”

His looks a bit deflated at that. Good, cocky little shit.

“I told you about that conversation didn’t I, whilst I was at the BSHCI? Or were you just listening in to one of my session with Dr Chilton,” I’m actually talking to myself more than him, working it out as I go along. Fuck, how could I have forgotten that? But even as I ask myself, I know exactly why: I forgot about it because I wanted to believe in you so badly. I consider asking him about the phone calls too, but hold back just in case. If it was him, I’m not going to provide the set-up for his gloating satisfaction; and then, if it wasn’t him…?

“Out of interest,” I say, curious in spite of myself, “how did you get internet access in prison?”

“I see you haven’t been following my progress,” he says, clicking his tongue in a pastiche of regret, and before I can say ‘of course not, why the hell would I bother following your progress you tiresome asshole?’ he adds: “I got myself transferred didn’t I: psychiatric facility. The doctors are so easy to fool, they’ll believe anything you tell them, anything at all. And of course I learnt from the best.” He swoops over in a ridiculous theatrical bow before righting himself and smirking: “The amenities in a hospital are far more generous than prison.”

“No they’re not,” I say sharply. “Not that generous. Not accessing-restricted-internet-sites generous.”

“Of course not,” he says, “but they’re so much more flexible. I had a smart phone smuggled in.” Shit – a phone. Then it must have been him. But if so, how could he possibly have known my number?

“So you’ve got your own fans now then?” I say instead.

“One or two.”

“Good for you,” I say drily.

“Of course the staff figured me out eventually,” he says. “Realized I was faking: not mad but bad. I’d say it was a shame, but of course the trip back to the prison had an extremely good outcome. So you see,” he grins dementedly at me, “it wasn’t a shame at all.”

“I guess you could say that.”

“I guess you could, Mr Graham.”

“You may as well call me Will,” I say. “Every time you say ‘Mr Graham’ I expect to turn round and see my father.”

“I should probably call you Agent Graham,” he replies fawningly, and I start to regret ever saying anything – because seriously, as if I give even the slightest shit what he calls me.

“Why go to all that trouble?” I ask instead, even though I’d decided, only moments ago, that I wouldn’t. “Why do you even care? Why bother with any of this?”

He looks genuinely surprised at that. “Because it’s you,” he says simply. “Because you understand me. You’re a hawk, just like I am. Because we…”

I know he’s going to say some variant of ‘we’re the same,’ or even ‘we belong together’ if he’s aiming to wax poetic –and I can’t stand the thought of either of them, so I cut him off before he can get any further. But even as I’m doing so, it’s impossible to ignore how similar he sounds to the way I talked to Alana about you.

“You’ve killed three people in the past week just to prove to me that I understand you?” I say instead. “Do you have any idea how fucked up that sounds?”

He prowls in a circle around me, and I turn in tandem to remain facing him. “Of course,” he croons, “but I know that you understand, even though you’re pretending you don’t. You’re as fucked up as I am, and I know you understand.”

No,” I say. “I’m not. I’m nothing like you.”

“But you are,” he replies. “You really are. I suspected it when I read about you, and then they brought you in and I knew. I recognized it the first time I saw your face.”

I wonder, somewhat hysterically, how long I might be able to spin out “You are!”, “Am not!”, “Are too!”, “No I’m not – fuck off,” until either the sun rises and we collapse from exhaustion (having agreed to call it a draw); or I can devise a way of wiping that goddamn smile off his face on a terminal basis. It’s tricky: there’s nothing to hand I can use as a weapon, and unless I can catch him off guard I don’t fancy my chances at trying to take him down unarmed. I’m fairly strong (but then so is he); and he’s fuelled with a reckless, ruthless determination (but then…so am I). I run my eyes up and down his wiry frame, trying to establish a point of attack, when my attention suddenly catches on a flickering movement at the top of the alleyway. Oh God, it’s one of the muggers from the bar. What the fuck? I can’t decide whether I should be relieved or horrified. And what the hell will Matthew Brown do? He has his back to the street and hasn’t noticed anything yet, but the guy is now staring down the alleyway and inevitably spots me. “Hey, he’s over here!” he shouts triumphantly. He starts running towards us. “Hey, guys! I found him!”

Matthew Brown spins round, eyes gleaming, and he flashes a vulpine smile, sharp little teeth gleaming in the moonlight. The guy from the bar is smiling too, but some primitive hind-brain instinct is clearly starting to alert him to the fact that this is something he really doesn’t want to be messing with, and his conquering grin starts to fade as he takes a step back, just as Matthew Brown takes a step forward.

“I guess you did,” he says in a deeply creepy sing-song voice, “but you know…find-ers aren’t always keep-ers, despite what you might have heard.” He glides forward slowly, and there’s almost something graceful in the way he does it, something balletic, then he jerks his arms out to snatch the guy’s head in a vicious twist. There’s a repulsive sound of grinding bone, and the guy’s eyes briefly bulge with shock before he immediately crumples to the ground, his neck broken. The whole thing happens in an instant: one minute he’s leering and looming, the next he’s dropped down like a puppet with its strings cut. It reminds me of a nature documentary I once saw, a praying mantis pitching forward to claim its prey. Matthew Brown has exactly the same robotic impulse, the same eerie reflexes; his movements appear fitful and inhuman. I clasp my hand over my mouth to stifle the groan of shock I instinctively want to make.

“Well, that’s that,” he says briskly. He turns to me and I quickly move my hand away from my face, trying to look unconcerned. “Everyone seems to want a piece of you,” he continues, “but they can’t have you. You’re mine. I found you first.”

I stare back at him, look him directly in the eye. This is it; moment of truth. I’m ready for this, I think, damn right I’m ready. I’m almost quivering in anticipation. Briefly I remember that conversation with you: “How would you do it?” you asked. With my bare hands.

Matthew Brown is talking again: still fucking talking. “I want you to come with me,” he says. He takes a step towards me. “Somewhere we can discuss things properly. Not here.”

“Well then you have a problem,” I reply evenly, “because I’m not going anywhere with you.”

“I can force you, Mr Graham.”

“You can certainly try, Mr Brown.”

He smiles at me, almost pityingly. “It wasn’t a request. You know you don’t actually have a choice here, right? You owe me Mr Graham. You owe me. I’ve been pretty patient with you so far, but you really ought to drop that attitude of yours while you still can.” A delirious part of me wants to feign incomprehension (Attitude? Moi? How very dare you?), but I just carry on staring at him, taut and watchful, every single muscle strained and poised and ready. He stares back, and briefly raises his hand as if he wants to touch me, but then changes his mind at the last minute and lets it drop back down to his side. “Although to be honest,” he says, with another crooked smile, “I didn’t really think you’d come without a fight. I would’ve been pretty disappointed if you had.”

I smile back. “In that case,” I say, “I’m so glad I haven’t disappointed you.” This time my smile is more genuine, because in my mind’s eye I have already worked out exactly how this is going to go. He has his back to the street again, and the result is that I now know something crucial which he does not. At the top of the alley, the remaining crew from the bar have started assembling. Any second now – any second – they’re going to see their fallen comrade, and they’re going to come running. And the moment they do, then I am going to grab Matthew’s Brown’s hateful rat-like head and ram it into the fucking wall. And after that I’m really going to start on him. I feel a thrum of anticipation, and I know I should be repulsed and shocked by it but I’m not. Subtly I shift my shoulders around, calculating the amount of leverage I’ll need, the best angle to come at him. I know I can do this: I want to do it.

Ah, show time. Slipkknot sees the crumpled figure on the floor at about the same time he sees me, bellowing out “Joe! Joe! What the fuck’s going on!” – and there’s such genuine anguish in his voice that I actually feel a brief twinge of sympathy for him. Matthew Brown makes a vaguely irritated noise, as if three half-crazed assailants are nothing more than a small aggravation, and I’m literally pivoting on my heels ready to punch him when a bullet whistles past my ear and imbeds itself in the wall in a flare of brick dust. It only misses me by inches. Oh fuck, fuck. I didn’t factor in for a gun. A gun is the proverbial unknown variable in one of Matthew Brown’s deranged experiments. How the hell was I supposed to know they had a gun? They didn’t use it before. Instinctively my training kicks in and I duck down and to the side, and another bullet fires out, this time ricocheting off a pipe. My foot tangles in the jacket of the dead guy – Joe – and I stumble slightly, grabbing the side of the dumpster to save myself from pitching over entirely. The Slipknot guy is bearing down, roaring like a maddened bull, his two friends (brothers?) following at the rear. “I’ll kill you!” he screams, and it’s like a mantra. “I’ll kill you, you bastard. I’ll kill you, I’ll kill you.

“Don’t you fucking touch him!” screams Matthew Brown.

And then suddenly it all goes completely to hell, as someone with incredibly strong arms (really strong, fuck) grabs me from behind and spins me onto the floor with such force that all the breath is knocked out of my body. Oh my God, I think, here it comes – and I’m suddenly hit with a crushing, agonizing sense of irony, because of all the potential endings I envisaged for myself I never really imagined it would happen like this: incapacitated in a back alley after a mugging gone wrong. I close my eyes, wait for the inevitable blade or boot in the face, but nothing happens. Something (…someone? Shit, what’s going on?) pushes me behind the dumpster and I can hear shouts, screaming, the sickening crunch of cartilage grinding against bone, the gun discharging again, and loudest of all my own desperate attempts to drag some air back into my lungs. It’s utterly hideous, like those dreams where you want to run but can’t. Can’t fight, can’t run, can’t scream, can’t do anything. All I can do is lie there with this carnage unfolding around me and wait until it’s my turn. Someone shouts “stay there and don’t move.” Who? Do they mean me? Is it Matthew Brown? God, what the hell is going on? Someone else shouts too, but I can’t make out what they’re saying – from where I’m lying I can’t even see anything because that fucking dumpster’s in the way.

There’s the clatter and rattle of running footsteps, and I have a feeble flare of hope that it’s the cops. Surely someone’s heard the disturbance by now? It’s so damn loud, Jack must have heard it all the way from Quantico. Please be you Jack, I think wildly, I’d be so grateful, I’ll never smartass you ever again. Most people appeal to God in moments like this, bartering his intervention in exchange for bargains they’ll never keep. Why the hell am I invoking Jack Crawford? No, the footsteps are getting fainter – the person’s running away, not towards. I think I can hear more punching before realizing it’s just my own heart thrashing crazily in my ears, the arteries pulsing and thrumming. Oh shit, shit, that’s bad, that’s really bad. If someone cuts me (if Matthew Brown cuts me with that spiteful little knife, the blade like grinning teeth) then my heart’s pounding so fast I’ll bleed out in minutes in a back alley: all my imagination, all my empathy – my whole life gushing out into the gutter of some godforsaken back alley. I imagine Jack and Zeller and Price: their shocked, frozen faces as they wheel me into the mortuary. Alana would cry. Perhaps you’ll read about it in a newspaper, sipping vespetrò on some foreign balcony with a Panama hat tipped over your forehead. Would you cry too? I feel a sudden surge of helplessness. Oh God I don’t want to die here: not here, not like this. Not on my own. Not without you. This is your fault, it’s all your fault. Why didn’t you let us pitch down in each other’s arms so the ocean could claim us? Why couldn’t you have just let us go together? We should have gone together. It was my fucking design.

If I squint I can focus enough to see a few feet in front of me, and the first thing I notice is the Slipknot shirt of the guy from the bar. He’s curled on the floor, almost neatly, but while his face is in shadow I can still see the twisted, unnatural angle of his neck. His eyes are still open, it’s like he’s staring right at me in a sightless, glassy gaze. Is he dead? Was it Matthew Brown? Oh fuck, I bet it was, I bet it was Matthew Brown…he did this, and now he’s coming back for me. I roll onto my back, still struggling to draw air into my aching lungs. The moon is sharp and flinty overhead, like a piece of bright bone in the sky, and I can see my breath rising in little frozen clouds. The stars are very vivid too, chips of shiny ice in the darkness, but I don’t know the names of the constellations. You would have known. “I believe some of our stars will always be the same” – was it me who said that once or you? I think it was you. Oh God, I must have hit my head when I went down, I can’t think straight. I’m so painfully and pointlessly aware of numerous stupid, irrelevant details: the blunt nudge of the paving stones underneath my head, how my left foot is wedged underneath my right leg, and the way my fingers are tingling and throbbing from the biting cold. Get up, get up Will, I mutter desperately to myself, fucking get up NOW. In the corner of my eye the shadows are solidifying, and I realize that someone’s leaning in front of me proffering their hand; and I blindly reach out and grab their wrist, clinging on, pulling it towards me to see who it belongs to.

And I look up.

And it’s you.

Chapter Text

Oh my God.

Oh God. Oh God.

I’ve imagined this moment so many times, scripted and rehearsed and re-played in my head exactly what I would say to you. Something noble and dignified, slightly enigmatic – teacups and time and the rules of disorder – in which I’m far more articulate than I ever am in real life, and that generally all conclude with an enormously unrealistic version of you that looks suitably abashed and respectfully hears me out before earnestly apologizing and begging for my forgiveness (which I eventually magnanimously bestow, and then we make out. Wait…what?). And now you’re really here, really in front of me – God you really are – and all I manage to croak out is a singularly unimpressive: “Hannibal, what the actual fuck?”

Your features flicker in that usual inscrutable way, and I can’t quite tell whether you’re struggling not to laugh, or struggling not to reprimand me for cursing at you – and if it’s the latter, then you may well regret coming back to life, because if you do then I swear to God I’m going to kill you again myself. I’m still gripping onto you, my hold so tight I can feel the delicate bones in your wrist grind together. It must be hurting you, but you don’t pull away.

“Kaip gera vėl matyti tavo veidą,” you say quietly. “Hello Will.”

“I don’t believe this,” I whisper. My voice cracks a bit on the last part, dry and rusty. I sound very hesitant, very faint and faraway.

“You have to believe it,” you say. “It is happening.”

“I didn’t…I wasn’t…God. Shit. Shit. How are you even here?”

“Because the time was finally right,” you reply. You scan up and down my features for a few seconds, then your eyes lock into mine. I stare back at you numbly. I want to touch you properly – touch your face – but I don’t.

“God, you’ve really come back,” I say instead. “You’re really here in front of me.” My voice cracks again. “I’ve imagined this…so many times.”

You smile at that, and it’s one of your rare genuine ones. “As have I,” you reply, “and here we are.” And then we just look at each other and don’t say anything at all. My heart is pounding in my ears, and there’s nothing except your angular face, and your dark eyes, and the feeling of your wrist beneath my fingers.

I want to shout at you, and fling my arms round you, and kiss you, and punch you, and ask you where the hell you’ve been when I needed you (fuck, I needed you so badly), but I don’t because I don’t really know how. Then from a few blocks away comes the familiar wail and drone of sirens, and we both swivel our heads towards it at the same time. “Will, listen to me” you say, in your usual calm tone (how the hell are you so calm?), “I imagine there is quite a lot you would like to say to me, and I will be very happy to answer any questions you may have, but here is neither the time nor the place. Are you able to walk?”

I wonder what you would do if I said no? I’m half-tempted to try it just to shake the smooth surface of your fucking preternatural composure, but of course I don’t (and besides, it wouldn’t bother you anyway would it? You’d just sigh and shrug, then fling me over your shoulder and stride off). “Yeah, I can walk,” I say in a low, husky voice that doesn’t sound like mine. “Help me up.”

“Then let us go,” you reply. You neatly pull me to my feet like I don’t weigh anything at all, then quickly move my head from one side to the other with your finger and shift the front of my coat around to inspect my shirt. I realize belatedly that you’re checking for injuries; you give a satisfied nod when you don’t locate any.

“Your home is much closer than mine,” you say, “is there likely to still be a police presence outside?” I open my mouth to ask you how the hell you know where I live (let alone about the police presence outside), but ultimately don’t bother because – of course you’d know. I check my watch. “I’m not sure,” I reply slowly. “I don’t know…Possibly. They might not have all left yet.”

“That is rather inconvenient,” you say with a slight frown, “but not insurmountable. You will have to go ahead and let me know when it’s safe to proceed.”

“Jesus, are you kidding me?” I hiss. “You’re on the top of the FBI’s Most Wanted and you’re planning to just stroll into an active crime scene? Are you out of your mind? Why don’t we go to your place?”

“You worry too much Will,” is all you say.

“One of us clearly has to,” I reply sharply. But as usual I find myself aligning my will with yours’ (‘willpower’…yeah, right. My ass), falling in with your priorities and preferences like there’s no feasible alternative (and to be honest, when it comes to you, there usually isn’t). The apartment is close, and we don’t exchange a single word on the way there. I keep holding my breath and need to remind myself to let it out, all the while stealing short, furtive glances at you. You’re just striding along, impervious, like you don’t have a care in the fucking world. My hands are shaking and I ram them into my coat pockets to hide it.

When we get to the top of my block I grab your sleeve to stop you walking any further and gesture for us to crouch behind a parked car. I loiter at the side of it, sticking my head up every so often. I also realize, too late, that I’ve forgotten to drop your sleeve and am still clinging onto it – not unlike a needy five year old (Christ) – and have to force myself to let go. The crime scene tape is waving forlornly in the wind, but the car’s been removed and there’s no sign of anyone else. Nevertheless, in my mind’s eye I can still picture all the cops and cordons and goddamn Kade Purnell, and consequently can’t quite bring myself to venture out. It’s not the suavest I’ve ever looked in my life: in fact it strikes me that I bear an unfortunate resemblance to one of the meerkats from that fucking documentary. It’s possible you think the same because you’re looking at me with your eyebrows raised so high they nearly get lost in your hair.

“I’m so glad you think this is funny,” I hiss.

“My apologies Will,” you say (you don’t sound remotely apologetic), “but your vigilance is hardly necessary – there’s nobody there.”

“Okay,” I say slowly; because actually there really isn’t. “It looks good. I’ll go in first. Do you have a cell phone?”

“I do.”

“Give me the number. I’ll text you if it’s clear.”

You hold out your hand, palm up, and I wonder what the hell you’re doing before I realize you mean for me to give you my cell so you can type your number in. I watch you while you’re doing it, the way your hand flicks nimbly over the keypad and how elongated your fingers are. You don’t look all that different from the last time I saw you. Your hair’s probably longer than I remember it, and your face is a bit thinner (and hence more sculpted) than it was previously, as well as covered in stubble as opposed to your usual immaculate close shave. But your appearance hasn’t radically changed, not at all. No doubt the lack of disguise is a statement: a nonchalant ‘catch-me-if-you-can’ defiance. But how the hell has no one recognized you; how can you blend in so seamlessly? I’ve temporarily forgotten that you’ve had a lifetime’s practice.

You pass the phone back and smile at me thoughtfully. “See you very soon Will,” you say. I just nod, and dash out from behind the car into the building. There’s no one here; no real reason we couldn’t have just gone in together. But I realize that I’m trying to buy a bit of time alone to sort out the skeins of my scattered self. Right now I’m unravelling like a dropped spool of thread.

As usual the elevator is out of order so I drag myself up the stairs – and as luck would fucking have it, Mr Haversham opens his door when I go past and peers short-sightedly at me over the top of his security chain.

“William!” he says. Although I’m cursing inside I still feel a perverse smugness that I was right, after all, to go in first. I make a mental note to make sure you find out about it (with suitable dramatic embellishments if necessary).

“Hey,” I say, “everything all right?” my voice sounds shaky and I cough to try and cover it.

“Fine, fine, seeing as it’s you. But I’ve been feeling worried after all that ruckus this evening. I don’t mind telling you William, I’ve been extremely concerned.”

“Look,” I say. I cough again. Shit, why can’t I get a grip: it’s only Mr Haversham. “I’m sure everything’s fine,” I add, trying to sound earnest and sincere, “the cops were very thorough. But if you hear anything else don’t open your door again. I’ll give you my number – call me if you’re feeling anxious and I’ll come and check it out.” I rifle through my pocket for a bit of paper, and end up with my bar bill from earlier in the evening. Shit, it already feels like another lifetime ago.

“I certainly will,” he says, “you’re a good boy.” Oh God, I think, I’m really not. He’s still there, blinking and smiling at me in his usual benign way. “You’re used to things like that aren’t you?” he says, “Terrorists and things like that. Don’t you work for the government?”

“Sort of.” I’m beginning to desperately sidle up the stairs.

“Bunch of crooked sons of guns,” he says.

“Yep, they sure are.” Give it much longer and I’m going to be practically sliding up the bannister.

“Thanks for this,” he says, brandishing the slip of paper. He turns it over to see what’s on the other side, chuckling when he sees the extensive list of drinks. “Good to be young,” he says.

“I guess.” Right now I feel older than he is.

“I’ll surely call you. Thank you William.”

“You’re welcome,” I say, and dive round the corner of the stairs. Then I have a sudden flare of anxiety and stick my head back round (meerkat redux. Christ) and call down: “And remember not to open your door!”

When I’m safely inside I whip out my cell to text you the apartment number. My hands are still shaking and it takes a few attempts to get it right. I add: “Give it 10 more mins, neighbor is still awake” then as an afterthought “BE VERY QUIET” in pointlessly haranguing capital letters. If I had the energy I’d invent a gun-toting body-building neighbor just to ram the point home, but in the end I can’t be bothered. Not that it would really matter if Mr Haversham saw you: not from your point of view at least. I’d be far more concerned for his wellbeing than for yours.

Your reply comes within seconds: “Understood.”

I let my phone fall out my hand, then sink onto the floor with my back against the wall. I take a few shuddering breaths then reach up to remove my glasses, only to realize that I’ve already taken them off. The apartment is pale and ghostly with the moonlight streaming in, but I can’t bring myself to do more than switch on a tiny table lamp. I close my eyes and when I open them you’re standing in front of me, and I jump so hard it takes me several seconds to land again. How the hell can someone as tall and broad as you are move so quietly? It’s fucking creepy. Perfect predator I think to myself. I suddenly feel a bit desperate. Even though I know it’s not possible, it somehow seems like you’ve grown taller since I last saw you; as if you’re pure, solidified energy, occupying every last atom of space in the room. Maybe it’s because I feel that much more diminished myself.

I’m half expecting you to make fun of me for being so freaked out, but you don’t. Actually you’re not looking at me at all; you’re staring around in the gloomy half-light, cataloguing the surroundings with small quirks of your head. You give a visible shudder at the sight of the kitchen. “Will,” you say at last, “your apartment is…truly terrible.”

“I know,” I reply. I don’t know what else to do, what to say. If this was a film we’d fall into each other’s arms and embrace while orchestral strings soared in the background. This isn’t a film. We don’t embrace. I just stare at you. I’m biting the inside of my mouth so hard I can taste blood. I don’t even know how much time has passed. How long have we been here like this? It’s so utterly unreal. The director should call “cut, it’s a wrap; nice work guys” and then we could go back to our real lives and none of this would be happening.

You, on the other hand, still look completely and utterly unconcerned (as if the last time you saw me was over wine and canapes with a piano tinkling in the background, rather than falling off a fucking cliff). You move away from me until you’re standing in the centre of the room, then remove your coat and neatly hang it over the back of one of the chairs. Your clothes are much simpler and starker than they used to be (slate grey suit, black shirt) but your presence and self-command are as imperishable as ever. I know I should say something, do something, but I feel too entranced and mindless. And you are so calm and controlled it makes an even harsher contrast: highlighting my uncertainty and self-consciousness in a horrible, grating way. Then suddenly I remember your initial words in the alley, how callused and unfamiliar they sounded: perhaps you’re not as wholly calm as you appear, because your reaction when you first saw me apparently made you forget how to speak English. The knowledge that you’ve unintentionally revealed yourself (a bit) gives me courage.

You’re still watching me, meticulously classifying the mental struggles that must be telegraphed across my face like fucking Morse code. “Well,” you say at last. “We must begin somewhere I suppose. I expect you have questions?”

I open my mouth then close it again. I have an urge to proclaim ‘you’ve really come back’ – just to assert that it’s true – but resist it because I know how much it irritates you when I state the obvious. Instead I take a deep breath and let it out again. Shit, shit, where do I even start?

“Why are you here?” I say eventually, “Why now?” This is good; I feel pleased with myself: straight and to the point.

“Excellent, I see you intend to begin simply,” you reply. You gracefully fold yourself into the chair and steeple your fingers in front of your face, regarding me over the top of them. “I am here because I have been wondering about you, and have been intending to contact you for some time once certain arrangements had been made.” (What ‘arrangements’? I think. Oh fuck).

“As it is,” you say, “I am here now because circumstances have moved quicker than anticipated. I was aware you would likely require my assistance.”

“How? How did you know about any of that?” Tentatively I haul myself off the floor and creep over to the opposite chair to yours. I sit down gingerly, coiled up inside myself like a spring.

“Naturally I was aware that Matthew Brown had escaped.”

“How?”

“It is hardly a secret Will,” you say. Oh yes of course; it’s been covered extensively by the media hasn’t it. I even saw the most recent footage myself this evening – Matthew Brown’s fucking rat face plastered all over the local news channels.

“You and Uncle Jack appeared in some of it,” you continue (giving, not for the first time, the truly unnerving impression that you can actually read my mind). “I could observe you quite clearly behind the broadcaster’s shoulder. You were having an animated discussion next to an ambulance.” You smile very faintly, Sphinx-like and inscrutable as ever, but at least you don’t mention that fucking ridiculous blanket.

“That was only a few hours ago,” I say sulkily. “How did you get here so fast?”

“Because I was already here. Obviously ‘lying low,’ as they say. But here nonetheless.”

I blink at you, my lips slightly parted; I probably look a bit half-witted. “You were?”

“Yes indeed, because my concern is not a recent thing. It began in earnest when I discovered that someone was contacting you posing as me,” (my mouth falls open again) “because inevitably there was a high likelihood it had not been done with benign intentions. Perhaps I was being overly cautious about the outcome – but I have lately come to realize that this is becoming a custom of mine where you are concerned, seeing as you are constitutionally incapable of keeping yourself out of trouble.”

This is a bit fucking much, so I snap: “Trouble which you’ve always gone out your way to put me in, Dr Lecter,” before pausing and thinking back over what you’ve just said. “You saw the message on TattleCrime?”

“No,” you say, “Not TattleCrime.”

“Then how…?” Oh, of course: the phone call outside the bar that time with Michael. Me, desperately urging down the phone into silence: 'Why didn’t you answer my message; why contact me in the first place?'

“So that was you” I say.

“It was,” you reply smoothly, “also the call in the middle of the night.” You don’t look anywhere near as embarrassed by this admission as you should.

“Why?” I ask, but I think I already know the answer.

“I wanted to ascertain that you were well – and to hear your voice,” you say. You smile and shrug, an elegant curl of your right shoulder.

“How very sentimental of you,” I say, but I’m smiling too in spite of myself. “Why didn’t you ever say anything back…return the favor?”

“There were several considerations Will – be reasonable. I couldn’t be certain your phone line wasn’t being monitored for one; I took a significant risk contacting you at all.”

“You thought Jack…?”

“There was a possibility. Besides, while I was quietly optimistic, I could not of course guarantee a positive reception from you. I intended to wait a little longer before making contact; and would have done so, had Mr Brown’s tedious amateur dramatics not forced my hand.”

“So you were following me then? How long for?”

“Only very recently,” you say. “Hardly anytime at all.” So that figure in the rain…it wasn’t you. Either Matthew Brown, or – probably more likely – Michael. Shit. Essentially this means that I have been obsessively stalked three times in as many months (which even by my demented standards is fairly impressive).

“It seems my timing was impeccable”, you continue (I can almost hear you thinking: ‘as usual' ), “because I am very glad I was able to be there tonight.”

“I had it under control.”

“Forgive me, Will…but you quite obviously did not.”

“I wanted to be the one who took him down,” I say. I can’t help cringing at the whiney tone that’s crept into my voice.

“Ah yes, indeed. He is your kill isn’t he?” Your choice of words makes me flinch, but I don’t actually contradict you. “You shouldn’t trouble yourself on that score," you add, "your time will certainly come.”

I glance up sharply. “What do you mean? He’s still alive?”

“Indeed he is.” You pause and give me a searching look. “I was going to say ‘unfortunately’, but perhaps from your point of view it is actually very fortunate indeed.”

I don’t quite know how I feel about this (or at least don’t want to examine it right now), so instead I ask why you didn’t kill him yourself. “I would have done so very readily,” you say (you actually look quite cheerful at the thought of it), “but in the chaos of the moment it became a matter of priorities, and I was more concerned about you not getting yourself shot. He made his escape while I was dealing with the others.” Despite everything, I’m still struck by how casually you say ‘dealing with the others,’ as if taking out three maddened aggressors with your bare hands in under ten minutes (whilst I was flat on my back and planning my own funeral behind a dumpster) is no big deal.

“Did he know it was you?” I ask instead. “Did he see you?”

You frown very slightly – it’s obviously agony for you to admit that you don’t know. “I’m not certain,” you eventually reply. “If he did, he gave no indication.”

Now I’m frowning myself. “I wish I’d known they had a gun,” I say.

You stretch your long legs out in front of you and give me a slightly sardonic look. “To be frank Will, it was probably for the best - seeing as you are such a magnificently bad shot.”

“Oh shut up,” I reply, even though I’ve started to laugh. “I would have got them eventually. Maybe ten bullets each.”

“Then it is certainly for the best that I was there, as I cannot imagine a good outcome whilst you called a halt halfway through proceedings to request his spare ammunition."

“I suppose you have your uses,” I say. “Cannibal ex machina.

You roll your eyes and give me another one of your long-suffering looks. “You are an utter horror when you wish to be,” you reply. “And besides, I prefer deus ex machina.” But you’re smiling while you say it.

I smile back (a bit) and then fall silent, mulling things over and biting my nails, darting the occasional glance at you from underneath my eyelashes. I realize that this is probably one of the most straightforward conversations I’ve ever had with you: none of the usual subtext or metaphor, no abstract threats or torturously convoluted double-meanings. Does this mean we’re past all that now and can just communicate at a mutual level? Or is it all just part of your game? You’re still watching me: my move, then.

“That night,” I say eventually. The night I tried to kill us both. “Why didn’t you take me with you?” I know I sound slightly petulant but I can’t stop myself.

“You would have wanted me to?”

“I…I don’t know.”

“Your injuries were both serious and excessive; you needed immediate medical attention. Contrary to what you wish to believe you are not, in fact, indestructible. Besides, there was little point in forcing you to accompany me.” You give me a thoughtful look. “You had to come of your own accord.”

“And you were that certain I would? That I wouldn’t turn you in?”

“Of course,” you reply airily. Why is it that your arrogance is insanely attractive when it would be repulsive in anyone else? I don’t contradict you though. We both know you’re right.

“I thought of you often Will,” you finally say. “Don’t imagine that I did not. As you once had occasion to remark, it would appear that we are ‘conjoined’…whether we like it or not. Being apart from you is never comfortable or easy.” You quirk an eyebrow at me. “It would appear that it is no longer entirely my natural state.”

I don’t quite know how to respond to this so I just stare mutely back at you: your gaze is still as sensuous and mesmeric as ever, still every possibility of getting lost in it. I remember the words I imagined you saying the night I thought I’d killed Michael: ‘something is always going to keep me near you, even if we are not together.’ God, I want to tell you how much I’ve missed you, how bleak and barren everything’s been without you here, but I don’t know how: I don’t have the words for it. I want to share a silent acknowledgement with you. I want to drift away together through that twisted, outlawed wonderland of ours that blazes away on the horizon, way beyond what passes for the 'real world'...and I can’t. I close my eyes and fall silent again, and when I open them you’re still staring at me. You’re so motionless you could almost be a waxwork of yourself.

“Poor Will,” you say lightly, when you see me looking at you. “You appear even more waifish than usual. I imagine you have had an extremely difficult time?”

“Yeah…you could say that.”

“More, on occasion, than you felt able to bear?”

“Yes.”

“You considered giving up?”

Yes.”

“Yet you didn’t, did you. Why not?”

“I thought…I…I don’t know. I hoped it would get better.”

“What else?”

“Jack…Alana…”

“What else?”

Your voice in my head.

“I’m not sure,” I whisper, and you just stare evenly at me. But you know, don’t you? Of course you know. We fall quiet again, and the only sounds in the room are the rain against the window, the ticking of the clock over the mantle, and the very faint sound of your breathing. God, you’re really breathing aren’t you; your heart’s still beating. Please don’t ever stop. There’s still life in you. And in me.

“There is clearly much more to be discussed,” you say eventually. “I expect you would like to hear about where I’ve been all this time. And there are several things that I particularly wish to talk about with you.” You give me a significant look and my heart sinks a bit. “But not now,” you add after a pause. “You look exhausted Will, you should rest. You have had a very trying evening.”

A very trying evening…I guess that’s one way of putting it. But you’re right. My limbs are leaden and my neck feels like its buckling from the weight of everything going on in my head. I could probably slump into bed and sleep for a year.

Bed? Oh shit. “Look, I don’t have a spare room,” I say. “You can take my bed. I’ll sleep…” I realize, belatedly, that I don’t actually have a sofa either “…in the living room.”

“I beg your pardon but you will do no such thing,” you reply. “I would be a very inconsiderate guest if I turned you out of your own bed to sleep in a chair.” You briefly flick your eyes towards it, in a gesture which clearly translates as ‘especially in a shitty chair like that.’ “We can avail ourselves of your room together,” you say. I must look a bit taken aback at that, because you smile and add: “It will hardly be the most unlikely accommodation I have taken while I was away.” Your eyes gleam at me a bit.

“Okay,” I say eventually. I run my hand through my hair: what does it even matter in the grand scheme of things? “I’ll find you something to sleep in.” As a bit of petty revenge I rummage around for the most hideous sleepwear I possess, not least my oldest, rankest t-shirt (complete with a faded Queens of the Stone Age logo peeling off the front).

“Charming,” you say when I hand it all over, “thank you Will. These are practically festering in front of my eyes.” You smirk a bit, then deftly roll everything up into a ball and pitch it at me so it lands on my head. But you put them on anyway (irritatingly managing to look louche and glamourous when anyone else would look like a hobo) and stretch out on the bed next to me, basking like a panther and still looking gloriously unconcerned by the whole thing. I perch next to you and draw my knees up to my chin, curling my arms around my legs. I want to clutch a pillow or wrap myself up in a blanket, but can’t bear the thought of doing something so infantile in front of you. Neither of us says anything for a while.

“You are thinking so strenuously I can practically hear you,” you say finally.

“No, I’m really not,” I reply. “I’m trying not to think at all.” At the moment thinking almost seems dangerous – but then I’m sort of afraid to feel as well. Mostly I’m just aware of an overwhelming sense of wanting. I want you, all of you: I want you majestic and imperious but also wild and untameable; provocative and playful, yet grave and enigmatic. I want you glacial and lethal, I want every mood, every memory, every outrageous thought and suggestion: every day and every hour for the rest of my life. I want you to console me, and complete me, and transform me…and I want to let you. But how can I possibly admit any of this to you? Christ, I can barely even admit it to myself. My temples are starting to throb with the weight of it all, and eventually I unfold my taut, tired limbs and creep under the covers, lying down with my back to you and hunched in a ball. A part of me is expecting to wake up and find that this has all just been another dream: that’s it’s actually feasible for you to be both present and absent at the same time. I suppose, to be honest, that this would actually be entirely possible for you - you’ve never been restrained by sense, order and sequence in the way that normal people are. You always were an exercise in reconstruction, from the very first day I met you.

You are silent for a while and I wonder if you’ve fallen asleep, before I hear you say: “I trust all this means that you have finally got the urge to kill me out of your system?”

I start to laugh at that, but it goes wrong somewhere in the middle because I suddenly find myself gasping helplessly for breath. Oh God, I think desperately, please don’t cry, please, please…don’t fucking cry. At first you don’t make any response, and I’m starting to worry that it might actually prove possible to die of embarrassment, when I suddenly feel your arm wrapping around me; your chin on my shoulder, your hand resting lightly over my stomach, and the tip of your cheek softly pressed against mine. Your skin is surprisingly warm. Somehow I always expect you to be cold to the touch, but you’re not. I hesitate, then, trembling slightly, I move my hand over yours. “It’s all right now Will,” you say, in a gentle voice I don’t remember you using before. You entwine your fingers with mine and just hold on.

And I want to laugh and cry together, because it’s wrong, it’s not all right – of course it’s fucking not – it’s light years away from being all right. And yet at the same time…it is. It’s beautiful, it’s perfect, it’s the best thing that ever happened – the teacup gathering back together.

Chapter Text

I wake up, and it’s quiet, shadowy and still; and I draw breath and wait for the customary, crushing sense of depression to come trampling in – time to haul your ass out of bed and deal with another shitty day. When it doesn’t I blink, then make a small gasping noise as it all comes careering back in a kaleidoscopic rush: the dead agents, the alleyway, the muggers, Matthew Brown…you. You. Oh my God.

You’ve come back haven’t you? You really have. You’ve come back, and you’re here…and I have absolutely no fucking idea what’s going to happen next.

Actually you’re not here: the other side of bed is empty. I bolt upright and listen and – of yes, there you are. You’re in the kitchen (of course), I can hear the tinkling sound of crockery and a spluttering, wheezing noise that must be the kettle (my kettle, like everything else, is shit, and always sounds like it’s dying when it tries to boil). I imagine you waking up first and watching me sleep: the idea is simultaneously both appealing and unnerving. I know that when I get out of bed and go into the living room that you’ll be sat there waiting…and I’m not sure if I’m quite ready to face you yet, so I sink back down and pull the cover over my head.

It feels humiliating, because I know I’m being perverse. I’ve spent the past few months absolutely yearning for you. I’ve been talking to you in my head, and pining and fading, and generally going mad from the lack of you…and now you’re actually here and I’ve suddenly lost my nerve. Maybe the yearning is part of the problem: I don’t want you to know how much I’ve missed you. You’d see it as a vulnerability, something you could exploit. Would you? I think so. Yeah, you probably would, almost certainly you would. I’m not yet ready to trust you yet with my vulnerability (or at least no more than can possibly be helped). It would be like serving you up something pink and raw and fragile on a plate.

I make another huffing noise and bad-temperedly fling myself onto my side. The crockery sounds have stopped now, it’s all gone silent and still. What are you doing? I start chewing my thumb nail and allow my mind to wander back to the previous night: your arm around me, chin propped on my shoulder, your fingers tangled in mine. Is this what we’re going to do now then? But…that’s not us, we were never like that. Well, no, we were once. That night on the cliff: your hand on my hip, your cheek stroking rapturously against my hair. What about before that? I remember you touching my hands a few times, your spidery fingers tracing over mine. Actually if I’m honest you were always pretty tender with me, even if you were hurting me. Especially if you were hurting me…God, what a head-fuck.

I know I’m going to have to face you eventually, but heroically decide to put it off for as long as possible by having a shower (because, not to put too fine a point on it, I fucking reek) and getting dressed, and searching for my glasses (which I finally locate inside my shoe. What…how?), and attempting to do something with my hair because it looks like some malignant hair goblin has crept in during the night and electrocuted it. Then I sit on the bed and fret anxiously, because I am clearly a gigantic coward who can’t face walking into their own living room. Get your shit together, I tell myself sternly. As an added incentive I try to make my inner voice sound like Jack. I finally decide, as a compromise, that I will indeed leave my bedroom (willpower and all that…like a fucking champion) but will then promptly leave the apartment to give myself a bit of breathing space (because the way I’m feeling right now I need something more akin to Kryptonite than paltry mortal willpower to be able to cope with you). The bottom line is that if I didn’t care so much – about you, about what you think of me, about what’s going to happen next – then this would be a hell of a lot easier. But I do, and so it’s not.

Eventually my bashfulness is starting to embarrass even myself, so I give myself a mental punch in the face and force myself into the living room. Of course, the first thing I see is you: you’re sat on one of the chairs with your eyes closed and your hands clasped together (probably sauntering around your memory palace and imagining you’re in Salar de Uyuni, or the Sistine Chapel, or the lost city of fucking Atlantis – or pretty much anywhere except my crappy apartment, which is looking even more sorry for itself than usual in the harsh winter sun). I’ve not made any noise, but your eyes immediately flick open.

“Hey,” I say a bit awkwardly. I’m suddenly remembering how I clung to you in the middle of the night and am feeling self-conscious. I’m also aware that I’m slouching, so try to straighten up and look a bit more dignified.

“Good morning Will,” you say briskly. You narrow your eyes and give me a quick look up-and-down; it’s a bit intimidating and I find myself drooping and shrinking against the doorframe again under the intensity of your stare (dignity being evidently overrated).

“Did you sleep well?” you ask.

“Yeah, thanks.” I’m about to add ‘I slept like the dead’ but change my mind at the last minute, because I know you’ll probably crack that slightly reptilian smile and I can’t cope with it at the moment. I cough to try and cover it up, and the general effect is that I’ve just swallowed a fly and am proceeding to choke on it. I see you raise your eyebrows a fraction.

“Are you all right Will?”

“Fine!” I say, cheery as a gameshow host. “Yeah, I’m fine.” Oh my God, this is terrible. “Look,” I say, trying to regain some control over the conversation (although the words ‘horse,’ ‘stable door’ and ‘bolted’ all come to mind in a rather unfortunate way), “I’m heading out. For a while. Y’know…to the store. Do you need anything picking up?”

You sigh gently and let your eyes roll up towards the ceiling (you sound like a balloon deflating: where you always this much of a drama queen or is it a recent development?). “I need an extensive number of things,” you say languidly, “but it will be much easier if I simply acquire them myself.”

Fine. Whatever. “I’ll be back in about an hour or so,” I say. I hesitate, and look back at you as if I want to add something else (I do, but I’m not sure what), but in the end just slink away in silence.

“I hope you have a pleasant time,” you say. You close your eyes again and tip your head against the back of the chair. I can’t tell whether you’re making fun of me or not, but in the end decide to accept it as cordial and simply reply: “Thanks. I’ll see you in a bit.”

I ignore the elevator and run down the stairs instead, two at a time, to try and burn off some excess of all my nervous energy. It’s cold out and I pull my collar up, my breath coming out in little frozen puffs. People jostle past me, elbowing me out the way: a woman on her cell phone juggling a briefcase in her other hand, a tall man with a baby self-consciously slung round his chest in a little harness. It’s just a regular day, business as usual; it doesn’t mean anything special to them. None of you have any idea what’s just happened, I think, the whole world’s changed overnight and none of you know, only me. I run and run until my legs are trembling and my lungs feel like they’re going to burst, then lean against a wall and drag in painful shards of icy air. I’m aware I have a big smile on my face. I’m anxious and conflicted and fearful, but simultaneously I want to cry out in triumph and punch the sky.

I wander round for a bit longer, wearing my mercurial mood like a badge of honour, then eventually force myself to calm down and head to the local market to pick up a few staples: bread, milk and so on. I hesitate over the deli section, but ultimately decide I’m not even going to bother with the kind of pretentious crap you’d want to eat – you can sort that out yourself – although as a concession buy a French press and a bag of Rio Oro coffee beans. The next thing I do is head to the Goodwill and attempt to scout out a couch. I don’t think I can cope with having to sit across from you in those chairs for hours on end (I really don’t), and it seems like I should at least give you the opportunity to have your own place to sleep. I know that if you accept this alternative arrangement I will be both relieved and disappointed; it’s one thing imaging us having sex, but the reality…God. I can control my mental version of you. Just…sort of…actually no I clearly can’t can I, so what the hell would even begin to happen with the real one? My brain fogs over a bit, and I don’t notice the assistant saying “Can I help you sir?” in a polite, nervous tone until I realize I’ve just been standing in the middle of the floor like someone tragically struck down with paralysis.

I stare at her over the top of my glasses. “Couch?” I finally manage.

“You want to buy a couch sir?” she says. She has now adopted a tone of voice I imagine she only ever wheels out for the elderly or suspected cognitively infirm.

“Yes!” I say. “Couch! Thanks!”

“Our furniture is all displayed on the lower floor,” she replies in a kindly voice. “Would you like me to show you?”

“No, that’s fine, I can manage.” I sound suitably earnest and she looks quite relieved (she’s grateful she won’t have to escort me into a basement while I ramble incoherently to myself, only coming back to sentience in order to emit occasional enthusiastic exclamations about couches). There’s a good selection of furniture and I spend a bit of time browsing before opting for the largest couch they have; an attractive Chesterfield style sofa upholstered in quilted brown velvet. There’s some cigarette burns on one arm and the springs sag a little in the middle cushion, but otherwise it’s in surprisingly good condition. The clerk rings up the sale, then asks if I have a van with me. A van? Shit. How the hell could I have forgotten that I’d need a way to get the bastard thing home again?

“We do deliveries,” he says, correctly interpreting the look of dismay on my face. “I could get it to you for the day after tomorrow: 15 bucks extra.”

“Great,” I say, “Thanks.” Two more nights: I suppose it could have been worse (better).

*****

I take a deep breath before I open the apartment door, stealing myself for the fact that you are going to be there, then nearly have a fucking heart attack when I go inside and find you sat in the living room…with Mr Haversham. My mouth drops open in horror and I have to remind myself to close it again.

“Ah, there you are Will,” you say casually. “What a time you’ve been. Although it hardly matters, because I have been having the most fascinating conversation with your neighbor.” I am immediately struck (and am grudgingly impressed) by how much you have managed to subtly alter yourself. The most obvious is your accent, which now has a crisp English lilt, but it’s also your body language and general demeanour; you’re both you and nothing like yourself. It’s actually kind of creepy.

“Hullo there William, it’s been a real pleasure meeting your relative here,” says Mr Haversham. He turns back to you, looking perplexed. “I’m so sorry, I forgot what the connection was?”

“Not at all,” you say. “The fault is entirely mine, as I believe I neglected to mention it.” You and he both swivel your heads and look at me at the same time, with similar expectant expressions on your faces. Right, great…thanks for that.

“This is my…um…my uncle,” I say. “My dad’s older brother.” You look slightly pissed off. Ha. It’s actually a bit ridiculous – you’re clearly not that old (not to mention looking nothing like me) – but Mr Haversham is buying it anyway.

“My!” he says, “The older brother! You are incredibly well-preserved aren’t you?” This is too much and I know I’m going to start laughing, so have to dive into the kitchen to splutter in private.

“What’s the matter with William,” asks Mr Haversham in concern.

“His father passed away recently,” you improvise smoothly, “he gets very overcome mentioning him.”

“Well if that isn’t the greatest shame,” Mr Haversham says dolefully.

“It was the most terrible tragedy,” you reply, laying it on with a shovel.

“You know, I wasn’t aware that William’s family came from the Old Country,” muses Mr Haversham. “He never mentioned it. I guess his mother was an American?”

“Yes, quite right. The Grahams are actually a very ancient and well-established line.”

At this point I have a horrible feeling that you are going to start telling him how a splinter group of the original Grahams packed up their – ancient, well-established – shit and all piled over on The Mayflower (partly in revenge for the whole elderly uncle bit, but also because you’re an enormous narcissist even when pretending to be someone else) so I force myself to sober up and go back into the living room.

“Sorry about that,” I say.

“Not at all William, don’t mention it,” tuts Mr Haversham sympathetically. “Blood is thicker than water after all.”

“Indeed it is,” you say. You give me a vaguely unsettling smile. Mr Haversham remains cheerfully oblivious, looking from one of us to the other with a delighted expression on his crinkled face.

“You know,” he says thoughtfully, “I think I can actually see a bit of a resemblance…although I’m guessing that William takes more after his mother’s side?”

“Oh certainly, in many ways,” you reply, “yet it must be said that Will and I also have numerous interesting similarities beyond the surface level of appearance.”

I’m now starting to feel slightly tense from the effort of keeping up with a conversation that’s clearly running on two different levels at the same time, so deliberately turn to Mr Haversham and ask if he’s okay and does he need anything? He immediately starts apologizing for disturbing this touching family reunion (Christ) and announcing the original reason for his visit: whether I could possibly tighten the washer on his kitchen tap when I have a moment. “I’ll gladly pay you,” he says.

“Don’t worry about that, I’d be happy to do it. I’ll come down in about an hour.”

“Oh, there’s no rush,” he replies. “Don’t let me disturb you anymore than I already have.” He arduously prises himself out of the chair and shakes your hand. “I’m so sorry,” he says again, “I’ve forgotten your name.”

“Again, I failed to mention it,” you answer cordially. “My apologies. I am Will’s Uncle Jack.” Oh fuck you.

We both stand and watch him leave with matching fake smiles on our faces. “So,” you say in your normal voice when he’s gone, “it would appear that the beautiful and brilliant Will Graham has an entirely secret life running around as a helpmeet of old men.”

“You mean like you?” I say. “My old yet incredibly well-preserved Uncle.”

“As my young and incredibly poorly-behaved nephew, it is entirely my prerogative to put you over my knee,” you say serenely. I go a bit pink at that and you smirk.

“Seriously, though,” I say, “don’t you dare do anything to him.”

“Why would I do anything to him? He was perfectly pleasant and courteous.”

“Like that’s ever stopped you.”

“In my opinion, it would in fact be a kindness to ‘do something to him,’” you reply, “as he is old and lonely and his life has become a burden to him.”

“Don’t give me that crap. Like mercy’s ever made you do anything either.”

“I am not proposing to be merciful. It is merely an observation.”

I feel like you have somehow got the better of me, and can’t quite work out how, when you suddenly yawn and stretch. “Your bed is truly abominable,” you say, “I have slept on paving stones in the Soviet bloc that were more conducive to a good night’s rest” (I strongly suspect that this is not hyperbole – you almost undoubtedly have).

“I’ve been sorting out a couch,” I say. “You can sleep on that. It’s really big. It’s nice,” I wave my hand around a bit to emphasize the point, how nice it is. “It’s…brown,” I finally manage. You look unconvinced.

“You could always go back to your own place,” I say crossly, “if this isn’t good enough for you.”

“It is perfectly fine,” you say, “I apologize. You must disregard my occasional grievances.”

“Don’t worry,” I say, “I will.” I go into the kitchen and start hurling dirty crockery into the sink with unnecessary violence and making a huge amount of noise. You prowl in after me and stretch again, your muscles flexing underneath the fabric of your shirt, which is slightly too small. Wait – I look a bit closer at you. “For God’s sake,” I say. “Are you wearing my shirt?”

“I’m afraid so,” you reply. Your regret is obviously nothing to do with getting caught borrowing my things without permission, but more to do with wearing something that wasn’t hand-stitched in a Milanese grotto a century ago by fucking elves.

“Great,” I say sarcastically, “I’m so delighted that you’ve been rummaging through my stuff while I’m out. Do you have no boundaries at all?” You just give me a look which I translate as: ‘of course not – don’t be ridiculous.’

“I restricted my rummaging to the bare minimum to accomplish the task at hand,” you say, “namely the top drawer of your bureau.” You pause and look at me carefully, waiting for me to process this, and I realize…of course – oh fuck! – the drawer where I stashed the photo of us that I stole off Price. The photo that no one else was ever, ever meant to see. From the smug look on your face this is clearly no longer the case.

I draw in a deep breath, torn between the dual imperatives of absolute outrage and profound humiliation. I opt for the former, as the latter might end up with something truly terrible (including, but not limited to, actually starting to cry). “You know what?” I say, “Fuck you.” I go out the kitchen (I am rapidly running out of places to storm in and out of) and go into my bedroom to lean in front of the window, my chin propped against my forearm. You come in behind me and put your hand on my shoulder. I shake it off.

“I’m sorry Will,” you say, “that was clumsy and unkind.”

“Oh, so you’re doing apologies now?” I say sarcastically.

“Evidently I am,” you reply. “Perhaps you will have to throw me off a few more cliffs.”

I give a small huff of laughter. “Who are you, and what have you done with Hannibal Lecter?”

You place your hand on my shoulder again. “I was actually immensely pleased,” you say. “I’m glad you kept it.”

“I didn’t keep it, I stole it.”

“You did? Even better.”

“No…not really.”

“Of course it is. It shows a willingness to improvise that is highly commendable.”

“Okay,” I say sulkily, “you’ve had your fun out of this, why don’t you just drop it?” I turn round and try to push past you, but you press your hand against my chest to keep me in place, and I immediately go still.

“Very well,” you say, “I suppose you are entitled to some kind of retaliation. Would you like to know what I did?”

I raise my eyebrows at the (frankly) extreme unlikeliness of this. “Quid pro quo?” I say.

“I am deeply ashamed to confess that I succumbed to nostalgia and procured a bottle of your atrocious aftershave,” you reply, and I snap my head up in surprise. “I wish I could tell you that I wore it myself, but I’m afraid there are some limits to which even I am subject. Nevertheless the mere sight of it alternatively evoked feelings of profound affection and deep exasperation, and therefore reminded me of you in the most charming way.”

Although I’m still pissed off with you (and genuinely taken aback, because – really?) I can’t help laughing, not least because of the expression of mock-seriousness on your face. “Thanks I guess,” I say, “I’m touched, Dr Lecter.”

“You are welcome, Agent Graham” you reply. “I thought you would be pleased to know that you had caused me a level of discomfort.”

“I’m delighted, actually. You have no idea.” And then suddenly the levity’s all gone and we both fall very quiet, just staring at each other, and I hear myself saying (apropos of nothing and without even intending to): “Why aren’t you angry with me?”

You smile slightly. “You expected me to be?”

“I don’t know...Yes.”

“In the way you are angry with me? For leaving you.”

“I’m not,” I say feebly.

“Of course you are. It is entirely obvious.”

I realize there’s no point disputing this further, and just shake my head helplessly. “But what I did. I mean, I tried to kill us both…I tried…I…”

“You did, most enthusiastically. Fortunately you were not successful.”

“Aren’t you, God, I don’t know…why aren’t you angry?”

“Because I understand the impulse that led you to do it. And, more to the point, the transformation which will result – your need to rise up from your own ashes. Why do you think I went to such trouble to ensure your survival? I could have left you to die, could I not? But I didn’t.”

“I know. I know.”

“That said, perhaps there was a certain level of self-interest involved – as you have doubtless ascertained by now, I want you alive because I prefer you that way. But it was for your own sake too, do not doubt that.” You reach out and idly tuck a strand of hair behind my ear and I can feel myself quiver. “The phoenix must burn before it can arise,” you say.

“I don’t know what you mean.” I can’t quite look you in the eye. My desire for you? The desire to unleash my own violence, my own darkness, to kill someone else? Both? Neither?

“Of course you know,” you reply. “You just don’t wish to acknowledge it. But you will. And in the meantime, here we are.”

Yeah, here we are. And I cough awkwardly, because I’ve suddenly become aware of how close we’re standing, how much in my space you are. You don’t look even remotely fazed (you wouldn’t would you?). Oh God, we’re so close, we’re practically breathing each other’s air. Friends don’t do this, they don’t get so close. People only get this close for one reason. But then you’re not like other people are you, you never have been. And in that moment I feel the full force of my own ponderous, shambolically graceless normality. Me desperately uninspired; you eternally fascinating. Me shackled and inhibited by rules and rationalization; you devising and discarding your own rubrics of cascading and fiendish complexity as you go along. You light on your feet; me casting a shadow. And that no matter how fast I run I will never, ever, ever be able to keep up with you…even as you’re leading me in delirious pursuit towards dark, forbidden places that I can’t quite admit I want to go to.

You’re watching me, carefully and mercilessly, as if you can peer into my mind and casually rifle your long fingers through whatever it is you find there. “Yes, it is a dilemma isn’t it Will?” you say, even though I’ve been silent the entire time. “You have my sympathy. You are at liberty to select your own course, but what you are not able to do is select the repercussions that inevitably come with it. You are facing the discord between imagination and reality; between how you wish things were and how they really are. What values are you able to compromise? Which side should you select? Perhaps you should take consolation in the fact that a choice free of consequence is no choice at all.”

I know about consequences, I think wildly. I know about cause and effect. About penalties and outcome, and aftermath, because you went away and I had to live without you…that was my consequence. God, you’re not going to make this easy for me are you? I have a sudden, random recollection of the dream I had about you all that time ago: ‘Tell me…I want to hear you say it.’ It’s one of my sudden flashes of insight, and in that moment I realize that that for all your sensuality and insouciance you’re not actually going to push for anything: you’re going to wait, patiently and plausibly, and let me come to you. You won’t coerce, you’ll influence and encourage, just like you always have with everything. Plant the seeds and then see what happens. Wind me up and watch me go. In other words: this is all on me…which is exactly what you always intended. My breathing’s sped up and I know you’ll be able to see the way my rib cage is moving and falling underneath the thin material of my shirt. I glance up at you from under my eyelashes: uncharacteristically timid. Oh God, I don’t know what’s going to happen.

You’re watching me, and then you smile again. “So much to think about, isn’t there Will?” you say. “Razing the old to raise the new.” Then you slowly and deliberately lift my hand to your face and kiss the back of it. Your eyes never leave mine the entire time and I feel my mouth go totally dry.

“Don’t worry,” you say, “it will all become clear in time.” Then you lower my hand back down and walk away.

*****

I stay in the bedroom for a long time, not quite willing or able to process what’s just taken place: instead I adopt the highly productive strategy of running my fingers though my hair until it’s almost vertical, then bracing myself against the window frame and proceeding to freak out as quietly and discreetly as I possibly can. My hand feels like it’s been branded, and it seems impossible that you haven’t left a mark behind: an imprint, red and raw and signifying ownership. If anyone else did that it would be vaguely ridiculous (I can immediately imagine Michael failing spectacularly to carry it off), but you have inevitably managed to take a hackneyed gesture and spin it into something sinister and menacing and profoundly erotic (oh God). Everything you’ve said has left me feeling bewildered and anxious and frightened – and enormously and guiltily turned on – and I really can’t stand the thought of leaving the room and having to look you in the eye. But there’s no doubt I’ll have to eventually (and that the longer I leave it the worse it’s going to be), so I finally force myself to go into the living room…where rather than facing up to you I spinelessly proceed to behave as if nothing has happened.

You obliging play along, cool and complaisant as ever, though I can’t help feeling my inability to address the situation is entertaining you enormously. Nevertheless – and counterintuitively, after such an incredibly overwrought encounter – it feels as if the tension has finally peaked and broken, and as the afternoon ebbs into the evening I realize I’m starting to behave (a bit) more naturally around you. I go and fix Mr Haversham’s tap, and am even able to smile and nod politely as he sits watching me in his battered wooden chair and waxes lyrical about me having such a distinguished relative.

“I’m glad you enjoyed talking with him,” I say. “Some people find him a bit…intimidating.”

“Oh when you’re as old as me you stop caring about things like that. Folks are just folks. Anyway he seemed very charming. Very nice and friendly. He mainly just wanted to talk about you, how you’d been.”

“Oh yeah?” I turn round and fiddle with the compression valve so he can’t see that I’m starting to blush (Christ).

“Oh yes. He was very interested. Anything I could tell him.”

“What did you tell him?”

“Well, I said you were very frail when you first moved in, like the first gust of wind would’ve carried you straight off. Of course he knew you’d been in the hospital. ‘That poor boy,’ I said to him, ‘pacing the floor in the middle of the night.’ But then I explained how you’d told me it was a sort of, what did you say it was? Walking meditation?”

I stare at him with an expression of dismay that must be almost comic in intensity, and his kind face crumples slightly. “Oh dear,” he says, “I do hope I didn’t say anything out of turn?”

“No, no, honestly, it’s fine.” I guess it could have been worse – at least he didn’t tell you all that bullshit about pretending to train as a monk (for fuck’s sake). “What did he say?”

“Nothing, I don’t think. He just smiled.”

“Yeah I bet he did.”

“He said he’d come back to keep an eye on you. I told him ‘that boy’s a good boy and could probably use someone taking care of him.’”

“Oh Mr Haversham, you didn’t. I really don’t need taking care of.”

”Happen we all need a bit of that, in one way or another. You seem a bit lonesome William, if you don’t mind me saying so. It’s not right, a boy of your age. There’s nothing like family.” He casts a sad, solemn glance at the photo on the mantle, the sweetheart blouse and victory curls as serene and ageless as ever, and I feel so bad for him that I end up staying a lot longer than I intended, allowing him to show me recent pictures of his son and daughter-in-law (looking smug in front of the Lincoln Memorial and surrounded by assorted progeny in matching baseball caps) and desperately pretending to feign a mannerly interest in the son’s shitty self-righteous opinions on Homeland Security. I escape as soon as is politely possible, then virtually sprint back upstairs again: you’re lounging elegantly in your chair and the very sight of you makes me smile in spite of myself.

“So, apparently you intend to keep an eye on me?” I say as I close the door.

“Most certainly. At least one – possibly both.” You give me one of your uniquely enigmatic looks, which could be a smile (but might not be) and then return to reading the newspaper, which is at least two days out of date. I feel a bit guilty at that – you must be unbearably bored – although the guilt promptly turns to petty irritation when I notice you’ve filled in all the crossword clues I’d abandoned as unsolvable. You’ve also completed the Sudoku...then designed your own on the advert on the facing page (the model’s forehead is covered in meticulously neat little numbered squares). I hover briefly nearby: I want to go over and touch you in some way – ask you to touch me – but can’t summon up anywhere near enough courage, and in the end the moment passes and I go and check my emails instead. I put the laptop on my knee, surreptitiously pulling my chair a bit closer to yours. I stretch my legs out and occasionally our feet brush together.

Later we switch the evening news on to see if there’s any updates about Matthew Brown (there isn’t), then you lean back in your chair with your eyes closed, probably strolling around in your memory palace again and no doubt attempting to get away from me going ‘incredibly well-preserved’ in a fake English accent and dissolving into cackling laughter. I watch you for a while, almost hungrily – absorbing you, soaking you in – then force myself to look away and check the street. I peer furtively out the window but there’s nothing there: no shadowy figures, no flashing lights, no dead agents. No live ones either: I’ll put money on the fact that Kade Purnell has intervened to stop Jack issuing any more. I consequently experience the completely novel sensation of feeling something other than insane levels of rage towards her.

God, it’s hard to settle. How do you manage it so effortlessly? I drift aimlessly back towards my chair and manage to knock my empty coffee cup off the arm, at which point you promptly come back to life and start fretting again for the fiftieth fucking time about the state of my kitchen. From the way you’re acting, it’s like I’ve got live Ebola cultures growing in there.

“This is getting really old,” I say. “If you don’t like it, sort it out yourself.”

“I fully intend to,” you reply, “in a day or two. I’m currently recuperating. I’m afraid I’m not quite as resilient as I used to be, at least for the time being.” I feel a bit bad at that, because I’d actually briefly forgotten that less than a day ago you took out three highly aggressive crazy people with your bare hands (four including Matthew Brown) to save my hapless ass from getting shot. Not to mention getting shot yourself a few months back…

“Don’t forget the cliff,” you say, and I literally go bright red.

“How the hell do you do that?”

“It is not so very difficult. Not least because you are, on occasion, utterly transparent.”

“Not always.”

“No,” you concede, “not always.” You briefly look thoughtful. “Indeed, I could never entirely predict you.”

This feels like a compromise of sorts, so I offer to order some food from the place that Michael once brought his appetizing (enormously overpriced) boxes from, in what now seems like another lifetime ago. We eat it in comfortable silence, then I put the television back on and doze a bit in front of it. I dream, very vividly and relentlessly, about you: your old house, your old life. You’re in your kitchen, chopping and dicing something on the counter. I walk up behind you, but I know without looking that it’s me that you’ve got laid out: my brain is in a white porcelain bowl with a cloth perched neatly on the top, and my heart is lying in a little Le Creuset dish, pulsating and raw. I open my mouth to ask you what the hell you think you’re doing, but my voice is drained out by the wail of sirens and people shouting through loudspeakers: “This is the FBI! Come out with your hands up.” You calmly move past me, kiss my hand, then pull on your coat and walk outside to greet them. “You’ve finally caught the Chesapeake Ripper,” you say; you sound perfectly relaxed about it. I yell at you through the window but you can’t hear me, and I can’t follow you because all my organs are on the table and I need to gather them up first and put myself back together. But I don’t know how; I don’t understand anatomy like you do, I never did. I watch as Jack pulls out his handcuffs and Sanderson moves forward to manhandle you into a patrol car. I scream at them to stop, but they can’t hear me either…and I wake up with a start so violent it wrenches the muscles in my neck. I can see you watching me from the corner of my eye.

“We need to talk more,” I say abruptly. I’m breathing very fast.

“We shall,” is all you reply. You uncoil yourself from your chair and walk into the kitchen, making a detour on the way back so you can pause and place your hand on my shoulder, briefly stroking the back of my neck with your thumb. I can feel my lips part slightly, and it takes every shred of self-control I possess not to cling onto you and bury my face in the front of your (my) shirt. Instead I lean back into my chair and rub my hand over my face. The news is still playing in the background: the anchor’s hair is so large and coiffured it practically fills the screen: “And finally!” she says, “There was good news for local businessman John Anderson when he received the prestigious…” She sounds genuinely delighted, how can she pretend to care so convincingly about this bullshit? I lean over and turn it off then start biting my nails. God, I really want to believe this is going to end well, I really do. I want to hope, even though I feel I’m tempting fate in doing so. Although, really, what’s the point of hoping anyway? Hope is avoidant and escapist. It lies to you. It's complacency: it’s bad luck. I need to do, not hope…Christ, I sound like fucking Yoda.

“What’s going to happen to us?” I say softly. It’s clearly rhetorical, I don’t actually expect you to answer, but you glance up anyway and give me a thoughtful look. “Something extraordinary,” you say.

I know you’re right. Today was the start of a new chapter…a whole new book. The old one’s finished and discarded – thrown off a cliff and into the sea. And it’s only as I’m brewing a coffee later on that I realize it has taken less than 24 hours for me to stop questioning the fact that you and I have become an ‘us’ – one life, one fate, one unit together: my lot inextricably thrown in with yours.

One plus one equals one. Equals ‘us.’

Chapter Text

“Where were you,” I say. “For all that time…where did you go?”

We are sat at the table eating cereal (at least I am – you took one look at it and literally shuddered, and are instead sipping fastidiously on a cup of black coffee). I went to bed before you did and you weren’t there again when I woke up; I’m starting to seriously question whether you actually sleep at all.

“Not here, for the most part. After the necessary recuperation…” (at this you give me a pointed look over the top of your cup as a substitute for 'after you threw me off a cliff’), “I mostly crossed borders; namely Canada and Mexico.”

“How did you manage that? The whole world was looking for you.”

“Hardly,” you say, although I can’t help feeling you secretly adore the idea of the whole world (or at least three quarters) being in hot pursuit. “It was not particularly difficult. I disguised myself of course, as well as a number of other elementary precautions, but in asking me how I did it you have to bear in mind that I have a nearly infinite number of resources at my disposal.”

“Like what?” You give me another look. This one I interpret as ‘oh, please…you tiny simpleton.’

“A substantial fund of money, of course,” you say instead, “my considerable intellectual abilities,” (I roll my eyes on cue), “and a complete lack of fear or trepidation. ‘To be successful, one must merely project an image of success’.” I can almost hear you putting squeamish air quotes around such a trite expression, but I know immediately what you mean.

“You’re so self-assured that no one thought to question you.”

“Precisely.”

“Nevertheless,” I concede, “it’s pretty impressive.”

“Thank you Will.” You tip your head slightly to one side. “I must confess that I agree with you.”

I smile and take a thoughtful sip of my coffee. “So what’s your plan?” I ask. “Or plans plural; I suppose you have more than one.”

“Indeed I do,” you say crisply. “I don’t imagine you need to hear them all at once.”

“What about right now…Are you going to stay here?”

“I shall, if you’ll have me.”

“Sure,” I say lightly, like it’s no big thing. “That’s fine.”

“Thank you,” you reply. “You may live in a hovel but I suppose that it at least has the personal touch. It also has you in it, which is an added advantage as your company is extremely diverting when you are not being hugely exasperating. I’ve grown rather tired of being itinerant, it will be nice to have a more permanent base.”

“So where’s all your stuff at the moment?”

“It is currently in a hotel outside the city limits, from where I will collect it before the reservation expires next week. Although I do not currently have a substantial amount of ‘stuff’ – at the moment I observe the maxims of travelling light.”

“Well at least you’ll have to collect my aftershave,” I say cheekily, “it would be a shame to lose it now after you’ve been devotedly carrying it round all this time.”

“Certainly I must collect it,” you reply calmly, “or else the bottle might get broken. In the resultant environmental disaster, lives will almost certainly be lost.”

I throw my spoon at you, which you neatly catch one-handed and place back down on the table. God you’re so annoying sometimes.

*****

Around midday I perform my obligatory Matthew Brown Watch. It’s as frustrating as ever: still nothing about him on the local news channels, and nothing in the papers either. We’re playing a waiting game again.

“Yes, there remains the considerable inconvenience of Mr Brown, which will undoubtedly need to be dealt with eventually,” you say when I tell you. You give me a slightly condescending look. “It is a great pity that you have managed to attract an admirer who is so ardent, yet has so few attractive or admirable qualities.”

“Oh my God, you can talk,” I say crossly. “You and your goddamn ‘Tooth Fairy.’” We briefly roll our eyes at each other as if to say ‘oh yeah – that little bastard.

“I concede your point,” you say loftily, “but at least he had the compensation of considerable artistry and originality, not to mention a certain measure of cunning. A precision tool, one might say. Yours is more of a blunt instrument.”

“Oh do shut up,” I say, “he’s not ‘mine’, and I’m not going to argue with you over which of our respectively deranged super-fans was the most impressive.”

“Which means I win by default.”

“Which means…” I start to say, but then my cell goes off and the opportunity is lost. Wordlessly I show you the caller display: Jack Crawford.

“Certainly you should answer it.” You actually look pretty delighted, as if the idea of me making polite, stilted small-talk with Jack while you’re sat right there is giving you an enormous amount of satisfaction.

I hesitate a bit, but I suppose I’m going to have to speak with him eventually and press ‘accept’. As an afterthought I turn on the loudspeaker, so you can keep track of any updates: if indeed there are any (probably not).

“Will!” he says, “How are you doing? I’ve been wondering about you.”

“Fine,” I say, “I’m just fine Jack.” I cough nervously, and you start smiling in a vaguely unsettling way.

“Good. That’s good Will. I’m glad to hear it. When are you going to stop by for the firearm clearance?”

Shit, I’d completely forgotten about that. “Anytime,” I say, “when’s convenient?” I exchange a significant look with you: a gun is undoubtedly going to come in useful.

“How about tomorrow, 10am?”

“I’ll be there.”

There’s a pause, then Jack lets out a sigh. “I’m afraid there’s still no news,” he says eventually. “We’ve got a big team working on it, but no fresh leads as yet. Don’t let that worry you though, Will. We’ll get him long before he can get to you I guarantee it.”

“Yeah,” I say feebly. Now you look like you’re struggling not to laugh and I angrily wave my hand at you to be quiet.

“You sure you’re okay?” says Jack again.

“Yeah, honestly, I’m fine.”

“Well, good. Good. That’s good.” He pauses for a second time, then lowers his voice sympathetically. “Look, I don’t mind telling you that the emphasis of this is focussed on the murdered agents, and of course Brown himself. No one’s particularly concerned about that bastard French. We’ll do what needs to be done because we have to, but there’s no doubt he got what was coming to him.”

“Thanks.”

“After what he tried to do to you…I’d happily kill him myself.” Out the corner of my eye, I can see you stiffen very slightly.

“Thanks Jack, I appreciate it.” I glance at you and you stare back at me quizzically with your eyebrows furrowed.

“Well, okay,” says Jack in his normal voice. “Look, the other reason I called…about those agents. Look, Will, you know if it were up to me…”

“…You’d re-issue some more. But Kade Purnell says I can go fuck myself?”

“Yeah. Yeah, that’s pretty much it.”

“That’s okay, it’s fine. I understand.”

“I’m sorry about it Will, I really am. I did my best for you on this one but my hands are tied.”

“It’s okay Jack, honestly,” I say, trying not to sound too fervent. We make a bit of meaningless small-talk, then I tell him I’ll see him tomorrow and hang up.

So,” I say.

“So?”

“So…that’s good. Sort of.”

“Certainly it is good. A gun is good, a lack of surveillance is good, and the continuing freedom of Matthew Brown is excellent.”

“Why?”

“’Why,’ Will? Are you seriously proposing that you would prefer Uncle Jack apprehends him before you have a chance to get to him yourself?”

I don’t quite know how to respond to that (essentially because I know that you’re right and I don’t particularly want to admit it) so I just make a noncommittal grunting noise and begin a big performance of pretending to check the messages on my phone, scowling with concentration as if there’s something of monumental importance in there. You’re just looking at me – of course you’re not falling for it, why am I even bothering?

“In the meantime,” you continue, “we wait. There is no particular rush, and there are several other things that require my attention in the interim.”

I look up sharply. I can’t quite bring myself to ask what I really want to know (i.e., ‘do you have any plans to start serially murdering the ruder members of the citizenry anytime soon?...And by the way please don’t because I can’t possibly be bothered to get off my ass to investigate it’). But there’s no doubt I’ve been miserably preoccupied with what your long game is going to turn out to be – or even your mid-game…God, even the next 24 hours would be better than nothing – not least are you going to leave again?

“Yeah, about that…” I say, and then trail off because I can’t think of a way to phrase it that won’t sound incredibly anxious and clingy.

“Oh, there are various loose ends to be dealt with in addition to Matthew Brown,” you say airily. “To begin with; I need to give my regards to Dr Bloom.”

Oh shit, shit. I swear my heart actually skips a beat at that. “You can’t,” I say in horror.

“I most certainly can. I gave her my word.”

Alana’s sincere, pretty face flashes into my mind, and I can feel myself starting to panic. “Don’t you dare!” I yell, and you immediately take a step towards me. I might have stood my ground against Matthew Brown, but this time it’s game over and I instinctively shift backwards – the sheer menace of you, Christ.

“Do I ’dare,’ Will?” you ask politely. “Are you presuming to tell me what to do?” Your voice remains at the same calm, conversational tempo – you could be musing on the weather – but you take another deliberate step forward. “Because if you are, I would strongly suggest that you consider how foolish that would be.”

I stare numbly back at you. This is all starting to feel vaguely surreal, as if I’m not really involved: just a bystander, watching this fucking idiot that looks a bit like me from the other side of the room as he embarks on an unbelievably half-assed suicide mission. I know I have to say something, do something, intervene in some way. But what? What should I do? To be successful, I think irrationally, one must merely project an image of success.

“You can’t,” I say quietly, “I won’t let you.” I want to add something swaggering and affirmative (‘and that’s not a threat but a promise!’), but there’s absolutely no way I’ll be able to carry it off.

I expect you to laugh at me for the clearly bullshit posturing that this actually is, but you don’t. You take a few more steps towards me, but this time I force myself to stay still, resolutely staring at a patch of wall just behind your right ear. You don’t seem angry – more amused/intrigued than anything else – but there’s no doubt that I’m pushing my luck beyond all sane limits. God you could kill me right now couldn’t you, there’s no way I’d be able to fight you off. How had I forgotten about this – how completely fucking terrifying you can be? My heart is pounding so hard I’m convinced you’ll be able to see my pulse throbbing in my neck. You’re just staring at me thoughtfully.

“What a remarkable boy you are,” you say at last. “Look at you: you are extremely afraid, yet see how you pitch on regardless. You really have no respect for your own limits do you?”

It seems like there could be problems with either confirming or denying this analysis, so in the end I don’t say anything at all, and have an experimental attempt at squaring my shoulders at you instead (Man vs. Boy-Man).

“Why this dramatic surge of interest in Dr Bloom’s welfare?” you ask. You narrow your eyes at me. “Are you renewing your romantic aspirations towards her?”

No,” I say. “No, it’s nothing like that.”

“What then? You are being extremely chivalrous on her behalf.”

“She’s been good to me,” I say simply, because it’s true. “A good friend. These last few months…you have no idea what it was like.” Briefly I think of Michael and my voice falters a bit. You immediately detect the tremor and look at me curiously.

The silence stretches out, taut enough to snap, and I pull out one of the chairs and sit down. I’m hoping it will look casual and conciliatory, but the reality is I’m no longer confident in the ability of my legs to stay upright. You lean back yourself, one hand resting on the other chair, and continue your scrutinizing observation. I feel like you’re literally peeling the layers back in my skull.

“Very well then,” you say finally, “as a favor to you, I declare a formal cessation of hostilities against Alana Bloom. At least for the time being; I can’t guarantee that I won’t want to renegotiate with you at a later time. But rest assured you have at least secured her a reprieve. Certainly I am obliged to her for taking such good care of you in my absence.”

You pin me in place again with one of your incredibly intense stares – like a poor, dead butterfly cleaved to a display card – then turn round and disappear into the kitchen. My knees are going to buckle, I can feel it. I take a deep breath then go into the bathroom and throw up, running the tap loudly so you won’t hear.

*****

Afterwards I stumble into the bedroom and collapse on top of the bed, where I lie in a trembling heap for a very long time: just staring blankly at the ceiling and asking myself over and over again what the hell I think I’m doing. There are no easy answers – no answers at all – and it’s like trying to solve some impossible mythic task: carry water in a sieve, wrap up fire in paper…express the inexpressible. Because fundamentally I know it’s madness: this is all madness, it’s fucking deranged. Why am I doing it? Why am I still doing it? God, what’s wrong with me?

There are so many things that I could do instead: should do, ought to do. I could call Jack. I could call Alana. I could turn you in (I could turn myself in). I could run (I could tell you to run). I could go out into the living room right now: “Look here,” I could say to you, “this Bonnie and Clyde bullshit isn’t going to work, you need to leave. I don’t want you here. I don’t want this. I don’t want you.”

In my head I imagine doing it: how I’d look you directly in the eye; the way I’d stand (assertive – feet firmly planted, shoulders back, head straight); how I’d strike my right fist against my left palm to punctuate the most important points. You’d listen attentively with that impenetrably blank expression on your face. You wouldn’t interrupt while I was speaking, and when I was finished you wouldn’t try and talk me out of it. “Most certainly Will,” you’d say, “whatever you wish.” You’d put on your coat, then walk out the door and down the stairs; and you’d look incredibly elegant and imposing while you were doing it. I’d gaze at you as you left, watch you as you walked away, but you wouldn’t look back. The only trace you were ever here at all would be one of my shirts dusted in a faint trace of your cologne; and I would never wear it again, never wash it, just push it to the back of my closet and tell myself I never liked that shirt anyway.

I’d move back to the country like I originally planned, get some dogs, do some fishing. Jack would call every so often and we’d bicker at crime scenes while Sanderson and his team stared at me in dislike with their mouths open and mutter behind my back about how weird and unstable I am - how it’s impossible to like or relate to me. Price and Zeller would say how pale and thin and miserable I looked, and that my hair’s got too long and needs a cut, and Alana would worry about me. When I was in town I’d visit Mr Haversham to fix his taps and reminisce about you: “Remember when you met my uncle that one time?” I’d say, “Remember how distinguished and charming you thought he was? Remember how he asked you about me; he came back because I needed him didn’t he? Remember how he wanted you to tell him how I’d been?” I’d get knocked down by cabs in the rain, and people would stand over me and ask “Are you okay kid, is there anyone we can call for you?” and there never, ever would be. Matthew Brown would come back for me with his grinning little knife, and I’d either fight him off or not, but no one would step out of the shadows this time to fight with me. I’d spend my evenings either drunk or numb or miserable, and my days reckless and out of control; and I’d be doing it all to try and fill the enormous, gaping hole in my life where you should have been. It’s a hole that I’d regularly tumble into, and pace around in, and smash my head against the side of, and then when I climbed out I’d virtuously tell myself that I’d done the right thing, and that the further away I am from you the better, and good riddance you bastard…and I wouldn’t mean a fucking word of it.

Because I know that it’s no good, not really. My conscience, my rational brain, is attempting to persuade me into believing something that my mind, heart, body and soul all know is a hopeless, helpless lie. The way I feel and think about you isn’t going to expire. It’s not going to die. It’s not going to go away. I can club it and pound it and kick it all I want, it just limps off and lays dormant, recuperating and convalescing, then comes back twice as vital as before and wrecks me.

*****

Later I pull myself together, or at least pretend to (though I’m no longer certain whether I’m working harder to convince you or myself) and go into the living room, ostensibly offering to make you a coffee as if nothing’s happened. You’re watching me in a vaguely calculating way, and I know you’ve added several more variables to your ‘what is Will going to do now’ equation (doubtless with suitable moderators, confounders and mediators just for the hell of it…you smug shit). The sheer force of your presence is scorching me, making me feel as exposed and helpless as an exhibit in a glass case.

Oh God, this day is turning out to be really fucking long; how can it possibly only be mid-afternoon? I decide I need to devise a way of avoiding you that won’t look really obvious, and after rejecting several possibilities as too lame (going to the store), too complicated (pretending I need to see Jack), or too exhausting (visiting Mr Haversham), elect for sitting in front of my laptop and feigning immersion with work. Ultimately this turns out to combine all the worst qualities of the other options, firstly because I don’t actually have any work (I end up playing online Minesweeper and have to keep minimizing the screen every time you walk past), but also because I manage to spill coffee on the laptop, at which point the temperamental bastard neurotically begins to hibernate and won’t turn on again. Shit, have I actually killed it? I try switching it off and on with the main power button and it promptly boots up and displays a truly incomprehensible list of options and belligerent requests for command prompts, and the only thing I can think of typing is ‘I’m_Not_Goddamned_Bill_Gates_You_Know’ followed by ‘You_Ungrateful_Shit.' God, this is actually extremely bad: I’m going to need reliable internet access, and while I like to think I have several varied and interesting skills, resuscitating erratically self-centred shitty laptops isn’t really one of them. I’ll have to take it into the office and ask one of the IT guys to take a look. Actually, maybe this could be convenient – a genuine reason to leave the apartment.

“Look, I need to go out,” I say, “I’ve damaged my laptop, I’ll have to drop it at the office.” As usual you’re basking in your chair, eyes closed and hands folded neatly across your chest. I’m starting to realize that you’re harnessing all the practice you must have come to rely on in prison: drawing from your vast reserves of internal space to entertain yourself.

“It’s important,” I say, even though you haven’t indicated otherwise. “We need the internet.”

“Surely they will have left by now?” you say without opening your eyes. And you’re right (of course you are); it’s already gone 17.30.

“Shit.” I experience the highly familiar sensation of being at the end of my rope, and have to strongly resist the urge to boot the laptop across the room.

“Don’t concern yourself,” you say languidly, “you can take it tomorrow and consult your phone in the meantime.”

Again, I know you’re right, but feel like making a big deal out of it just to be awkward. “It’s still annoying,” I say petulantly.

“Agreed, but that is not the same as disastrous.” After a pause, you add: “Would you like me to take a look at it?”

“What? You’re telling me you know about computers?”

“A little, not an extensive amount.”

“How?”

“I am somewhat competent in a substantial number of areas,” you reply. “One never knows when various scraps of knowledge will come in useful.”

“You mean like being in hiding and needing to repair a laptop with a caffeine aversion,” I ask sarcastically.

“Indeed,” you say, “exactly like that. For example, I know that you will need to remove its battery and dry it out before attempting anything further.”

This leads to the problem of how to dry it out: you refuse to let me put it in the stove (“that is a truly cretinous suggestion Will”) and naturally I don’t own a hairdryer, so in the end you just drain off the excess coffee, wipe it down, and prop it by the halogen heater. I fantasize that it’s staring at me with a triumphantly smug look on its evil little silver face.

“I’m going to lie down,” I say at last, “I’ve got a headache.” This isn’t even a lie, I really have: my skull’s being nudged by the familiar cramping pain and a series of bright dots are starting to swarm in my peripheral vision. Migraine, most likely. Shit.

“Do you need anything?” you ask.

I’m going to say that I probably need my head removing, but decide not to (no point encouraging you) and instead go and crouch in the bathroom, resting my head against the cooling tiles of the porcelain and trying very hard not to throw up again. I dry swallow a couple of painkillers, then slump against the wall and regard myself critically in the mirror. I look a bit feverish: my eyes are glittering and there’s an unhealthy flush mottling my cheekbones. The shadows under my eyes are so pronounced they look like bruises. God, I need to go to bed.

I sleep fitfully for a few hours, but it’s not really any good: I keep jolting awake from nightmares, and while I’m too hot with the covers on it’s too cold with them off. It’s very quiet in the room, and the air feels clammy and confining. Why am I having to go through this on my own? You’re not lying next to me, and in spite of everything I have an overwhelming, childish urge to simply see you and be comforted. I stagger into the living room like a small, bespectacled zombie and of course, there you are: propped up as usual in your chair. You’ve turned the tiny table lamp on, and your face looks even more unworldly than usual in the shadows: all hollows and sharp angles, slightly infernal.

“Will?” you say immediately, “what is the matter?” You sound completely coherent, and it lends further fuel to my private suspicions that you don’t actually sleep at all, just suspend yourself in the gloom with your eyes open like a giant bat.

“Can’t sleep.”

You sigh, but not in an inpatient way. “Come here,” you say.

Where? There’s absolutely no way I’m going to sit on your knee (Christ), but I shuffle over nonetheless and collapse in front of your chair in a defeated heap. You lift your coat from where it’s hanging over the back and drape it round my shoulders. It smells nice: like fresh air and cinnamon and cedar wood, and that undefinable scent that’s distinctly you. I’m vaguely aware of what an enormous display of submission this is – curled up at your feet like one of my own dogs – but I can’t really bring myself to care; or at any rate, not enough to do anything about it. You gently grip the top of my arms and manoeuvre me so I’m sitting squarely between your knees, then move your fingers underneath the fabric of the coat to massage my shoulders. I can’t stop glancing down at your hands: the shape and strength of them, and how pale my skin always looks next to yours.

“How tense you are,” you say.

“Oh yeah? I can’t think why.”

You politely ignore me, and continue kneading your thumbs into my trapezius muscles. It aches but is quite pleasurable at the same time, and I writhe a bit underneath your hands.

“Be still,” you say briskly.

I make a small noise of protest but do as you say before becoming horribly aware that – oh my God – I’m getting an erection aren’t I? Christ. I mentally telegraph threats, entreaties and bargaining offers to my treacherous hard-on, which remains cheerfully oblivious and continues to take a completely uninvited interest in proceedings. I can feel my face growing warm with desperate embarrassment, thank God you can’t see. This means I can’t stand up anytime soon, although I can’t help feeling that you probably know anyway.

“This tension will hardly be helping with your headaches,” is all you say. What’s that supposed to mean? What do you mean by that? Musculoskeletal tension? Or sexual tension? Oh God, I bet you mean sexual tension don’t you. I bet you do. You conceited, self-satisfied…oh fucking shit, I’m so turned on.

You go quiet for a while, moving your hands in a comforting rhythm, spine–to scapula–to masseter muscle, before suddenly saying: “Jack Crawford. What did he mean before; when he expressed his wish to kill that man on your behalf?”

Oh God. That sobers me up immediately; I knew you’d picked up on it but wasn’t sure if you’d actually say anything.

“Will?” Temporarily, your hands go still.What happened to you?”

I pull my legs right up so I can prop my chin on my knees, then after a few stammering false starts manage to supply the edited highlights of what went down (taking great care not to mention Alana’s role in any of it). You remain silent throughout, but your hand is gripping the armrest so tightly your knuckles have gone white. It’s a minor gesture by anyone else’s standards, but I can tell at once that you’re incredibly angry. You sigh heavily when I’ve finished and lean back in the chair.

“It is a very fortunate thing for him that he is already dead,” you say at last. You put your hands back on my shoulders, restlessly tapping your fingers up and down as if you’re playing the piano. “At the very least, this will require an additional degree of chastisement for Matthew Brown.”

“Why?”

“Because in prematurely disposing of this appalling individual, Mr Brown has deprived me of the opportunity to do it myself.” (I privately smirk a bit at that). “Let me see your thumb,” you say.

I proffer it up and you examine the joint, palpating along the phalanx bone. “Hmm, yes that has been reset very well – you did a good job. You are a resourceful boy aren’t you?” Gently you flex it from one side to another. “Movement and sensation all as normal I assume?”

“It’s fine.”

“Certainly it is very minor compared with what might have happened.”

I shudder involuntarily at the undeniable truth of this, then awkwardly swivel round so I can look at you. You’ve let go of my hand, and I have an irresistibly mad urge to seize hold of yours again.

“Did you know about him?” I say. “Before, I mean…when he seemed normal.”

“No.”

“Would you have done anything if you had?”

“I would not. It has never been my intention to enforce your social life.” I suppose it hasn’t, has it? No, I guess you wouldn’t have done anything. You’d have just planted seeds of ideas and whispered in my ear, then waited for me to do it myself.

“That said,” you add, “I may be enforcing it from now on.” You put your hands back on my shoulders and resume tapping your fingers. It’s an unusually fidgety gesture for you: you’re obviously still extremely pissed off. Matthew Brown, I think with satisfaction, is going to be at the receiving end of the most momentously gruesome ass-kicking in human history.

“This should not have been allowed to happen,” you say tersely. “How was he able to access you in the first place?”

Oh fuck, trust you to pick up on the fact that I’d deliberately left the details vague. “I met him…in a bar,” I say cautiously (which, technically at least, is actually true).

“You did not.”

“What?”

“I know you did not, because I know you; and I therefore know that there are no conceivable circumstances under which you would allow a strange man to ‘pick you up’ in a bar.”

“Yeah, well, maybe you don’t know me as well as you like to think.”

You don’t even bother responding to this. “You know you will end up telling me eventually. You always do.”

“I have told you.”

You tap away for a few more seconds. “Someone brought the two of you together didn’t they?” you say thoughtfully. “Someone you trust, and think well of – hence your compliance, in the first instance, of tolerating his attempts to impose on you. And you are reluctant to disclose exactly who made this most unfortunate introduction, because you are concerned about the type of reprimand which could be meted out as a result.”

Oh for fuck’s sake.

“He was a doctor,” you continue. “Affluent from the sounds of it, and with certain feeble pretentions to culture and good taste…Well, naturally it must have been Alana Bloom.”

“It wasn’t.”

“It obviously was.”

“It wasn’t, and what difference does it make anyway? It wasn’t their fault. They were just as shocked and upset by what happened as I was. Probably even more so.”

“Somehow I doubt that. Alana Bloom needs to urgently revaluate her social circle.”

“It wasn’t Alana!” I practically shriek.

You sigh slightly at this and briefly place your hand on the back of my neck. “Calm yourself,” you say gently. “I gave you my word, and while I will not deny that this knowledge would have influenced my readiness to give it, our agreement still stands.”

“It wasn’t Alana,” I say mutinously. You just make a non-committal noise and resume massaging my back. I close my eyes and tip my head towards you, and you briefly move your right hand from my shoulder so you can smooth my hair out of my eyes. “It wasn’t her fault, there was no way she could have known,” I add in a small voice.

“See? I knew you would tell me eventually. You did well to hold your counsel for a full two minutes.”

“You promised!”

“Indeed I did.” You sigh again. “As you have no doubt perceived I am extremely unhappy about this Will, but it does not detract from the more important issue – which is that you are safe now.”

“Am I?” I say gloomily.

“Of course you are. I will not allow anything of that nature to happen to you ever again.”

Neither of us says anything for a while. On the floor below, Mr Haversham has his radio on and the faint strains of a violin come lilting through the floorboards.

“Talk to me,” I say eventually. “Tell me about when you were away.”

You obligingly start to recount a story about your time in Juárez (something about corruption in the Policía Federal, a retired insurance broker, and a regional recipe for chilaquiles), but your voice gradually begins to grow rumbling and muffled, as if you’re speaking underwater, and I realize I’m starting to drift off again.

“Look at you,” you say, amused but fond. “Like a sleepy little child.”

“I’m wide awake,” I mutter. It comes out more like ‘M wi’ ‘wake.

“Yes, of course you are. My mistake.”

I can feel my head sliding sideways onto your knee, but can’t quite stop it on time. You don’t mind though; you stroke my hair, and then run your fingers over my cheekbone.

“I’m really glad you came back,” I say quietly; so quietly you have to lean in to hear me. I wasn’t planning to just blurt it out it like that, but I guess you know anyway.

You tug on my hair, very gently, then adjust your coat so it’s wrapped more tightly around my shoulders. “Yes Will Graham,” you say softly after a pause, “as am I.”

And maybe it’s because I’m tired and my head hurts; or because the last few days have drained me beyond every reasonable limit and my defences are down; or maybe it’s because I’m just exhausted from the helpless, pointless, aimless agony of fucking denying it. But all I can think, with a glaring and blistering sincerity – even though I know I shouldn’t, oh God I know – is: please don’t let go of me again. Please. Never let go.

Chapter Text

It turns out that the headaches and vomiting weren’t completely random, because I wake up in the morning feeling like seven shades of shit and am forced to self-diagnose a reoccurrence of the freak virus. I’m also lying in bed, which leads to the inevitable – mortifying – realization that I fell asleep (on the fucking floor) and you had to carry me in. Christ.

You frown over me and lay your palm on my forehead. “I don’t suppose you have a thermometer do you?” You don’t actually wait for a reply before adding: “No, of course you don’t.”

“It’s the freak,” I say hazily. “It’s come back for another go, the crafty little bastard.”

You give me a slightly incredulous look. “I beg your pardon?”

I give you a potted history of the freak, and Our Life Together So Far, and your reaction is virtually identical to Dr O’Connor in that you are obviously trying, and failing, not to laugh. Bedside manner my ass.

“Did you actually say the Hippocratic Oath?” I ask sarcastically, “Or did you just mouth the words while everyone else recited it?”

“What do you think?” you say, amused (because…well, yeah). “Regardless, I am not particularly surprised by this. Stress and fatigue are bound to have compromised your immune response. Not to mention subsisting in this hovel, in the manner of someone determined to renounce all the comforts of modern civilization.”

I cough and swat your hand away. “Enough of the ‘hovel.’”

“It is natural all this has left you susceptible to a virus.”

“To a freak virus.”

“A freak virus, indeed,” you say, humoring me. “I shall have to go and acquire a few supplies.”

I grab your wrist. “No, don’t. You can’t go out, not yet.”

“Why not?”

“You need to disguise yourself. Properly, like you did before. There could be people watching this place. Freddie Lounds, Matthew Brown…” the rest of this increasingly plaintive speech trails off into a feeble wailing noise and I just sit there dolefully, suddenly feeling tremendously sorry for myself.

I expect you to contradict me (or laugh at all the wailing), but you don’t. “All right Will,” you say, lightly touching my cheek with your fingertips, “don’t agitate yourself. I will go and speak with that very obliging neighbor of yours instead.” I watch you as you shrug on your ‘Uncle Jack’ persona, then glide out the room and disappear for about 15 minutes. When you return you're holding a brown paper bag. “Mr Haversham was greatly saddened to hear that you are indisposed, ‘William’,” you say. “And was extremely eager to assist in any way he could.”

I squint at the bag. “I hope you offered to pay him for all that.”

“Of course I did. But he would not accept it – he feels that it is the least he can do after all the little tasks you have been performing for him so tirelessly.”

“Okay then, great. Thanks.”

“You’re welcome,” you say.

I look at you warily. “You’re not going to start lecturing me on taking better care of myself, are you?”

“Why would I do that?”

“Doctors always say that to me.”

“I am not intending to say it myself. Not because I don’t think it’s true, but because I know you will pay absolutely no attention.” You help me to sit up then proffer a glass of water and some small white capsules.

“What’s this?”

“Ibuprofen, you need something anti-inflammatory. The other is paracetamol. It should be sufficient, I can’t imagine antivirals will be required.” I mumble something. “I beg your pardon?” you say.

“I said I need anti-freak.”

“You are completely and cheerfully deranged,” you reply, patting me on the head like I’m a puppy. “I am going to prepare some food for you and your freak – which you will eat, even if I have to force-feed you both myself – and then you will try to get some sleep.” You smirk a bit. “Doctor’s orders.”

I mutter “actually, you were struck off” under my breath as you’re leaving, but it’s a bit half-hearted because the sensation of being looked after is actually extremely pleasant.

*****

The delivery guys from the Goodwill roll up later in the day with the couch. I’m half-asleep when they ring the buzzer, and by the time I’ve worked out what’s going on it’s too late and you’re already sorting it out yourself. This time you have transformed into a gracious, extravagantly grateful persona who twitters at them in broken English with a rippling French accent (Uncle Jacques?). There’s no real need for you to do it, you’re probably just showing off, and I try to come up with an uncomplimentary comparison to give you shit about later. The best I can come up with is the candlestick in Beauty and the Beast, but belatedly realize I’m going to have to keep it to myself because there’s absolutely no way you’ll get the reference.

“Guillaume!” you shout from the other room. “Où voulez-vous cela? Près de la fenêtre?”

“Ouais, d’accord!” I call back in my awful high school French, “La fenêtre.” As an afterthought I add “Merci, grand-papa.”

The delivery guys leave, and you appear in the bedroom doorway soon afterwards and raise your eyebrows at me. “Grand-papa?” you say.

“I don’t know what you mean,” I reply innocently. “You’re obviously projecting.”

You smile and sigh. “Another one of your extraordinary triumphs of wit,” you say. “I take it this means you are starting to feel better?”

“Thanks, a bit.”

“That’s good.” You sit on the edge of the bed and put your hand on my forehead again. “You’re still rather feverish,” you say. “Mr Haversham lent me a thermometer, will you allow me to take your temperature?”

“Ugh, no. No way. I have no idea where that thermometer’s been.”

“I would sterilize it, of course.”

“I don’t care. What if he’s used it for anal thermometry?”

“The correct term is rectal thermometry, and seeing as he is neither a dog, cat, infant, or unconscious, I would say that is highly unlikely.”

“Put it in your own mouth then,” I say sulkily.

“You are a truly terrible patient,” you reply, although I can tell you’re trying not to laugh.

“To be fair, you’ve historically proven yourself to be a truly terrible doctor.”

Touché,” you say with a smile. You ruffle my hair, and I have to resist the urge to pull away (not because I don’t like it, but because it’s so oily it should have distressed sea birds in the middle and disapproving Greenpeace campaigners camped round the edges).

You give me a final eye-roll, then stand up and flex your shoulders. “I am going to make you something else to eat,” you say, “you are far too thin. By the way, did you remember to contact Jack Crawford?”

“Jack? No, why?”

“If you recall, you told him you would collect your gun from him this morning.”

“Oh shit. I did, didn’t I? I totally forgot. Can you pass me my cell?”

You locate it in my jacket pocket, but pause before handing it over. “Would you like me to do it for you?” you say craftily.

No. No I would not.”

“I could you know. I think I could pass as you extremely convincingly.”

“Don’t you dare.”

“Or what?”

I try, and fail, to muster a convincing threat. “I’ll transmit the freak to you.”

“Now how will you contrive to do that?” you say, and you sound like you’re almost fucking purring. I have a horrible feeling you’re going to say something suggestive about bodily fluids and can feel myself starting to go red, but in the end you just smirk at me again and pass the phone over. I laboriously type out a message to Jack, apologising for standing him up and asking him to contact me as soon as possible to rearrange. I’m nibbling on my bottom lip as I do it, and suddenly I don’t feel like laughing anymore. The necessity of being armed has forced the real world to intrude, chiming in the miserable reminder that both of us – for all intents and purposes – are playing this game on borrowed time.

*****

The freak begins to retreat again within 24 hours (no doubt merely biding its time…although it’s possible that it’s simply scared of you as well), and I take immediate advantage of its departure to head over and collect the gun from Jack.

“Will!” he says when he sees me, “Glad you could make it.” He pauses, then peers closer. “You look like complete shit.”

“That’s good, thanks.”

“Hope you’re feeling better now?”

“Yeah, the worst it passed off pretty quickly,” I say. Screw you freak.

“Can’t say I’m surprised you got sick,” replies Jack mournfully, “the stress of all this must be really getting to you.”

“Yeah, I guess.” Oh my God, he has no idea. “I suppose there’s no news?”

“No, nothing. Although that might not necessarily be a bad thing; could mean he’s lying low. No news is good news, as they say.”

“They also say that ignorance is bliss. Personally I’d rather know.”

“Fair point,” replies Jack good-naturedly.

“It’s not over yet,” I mutter, half to myself.

“I know Will. I know it’s not.”

I gesture at the gun. “Thanks for this. I hope I won’t need it, but…”

“…But you’d rather not take the chance. And I agree.” He sighs heavily and then puts his hand on my shoulder, regarding me at arm’s length. “Look after yourself Will,” he says. “You know where I am if you need anything else.”

“Thanks,” I say, but my voice has gone very quiet because I’ve suddenly noticed your Wanted poster on the wall behind his head and have been hit with a crushing sense of being the most appalling traitor. I lower my eyes and stare at the floor. Poor Jack, luminous with all his ‘Fidelity, Bravery, Integrity.’ He should have just given me 30 pieces of silver.

*****

I pass Sanderson on the way out, and he discreetly sticks out his foot to try and trip me over. I swerve round it easily, then turn back and shoot him an incredulous look (the gun is practically burning a hole in my pocket and it feels like a great pity that I can’t literally cap the stupid bastard). “What, seriously?" I say, "are we 12 years old or something?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” he replies stiffly. I hesitate for a second. Is he bullshitting me? Or was it genuinely an accident and I’m just being paranoid? Not for the first time (and, no doubt, not for the last), I am briefly overwhelmed by my own crushing sense of being different – not like other people, not anywhere near. How do you manage to wear it so lightly? You make it look good. No one would ever behave like this with you.

Sanderson gives me a look of intense dislike before I have time to make up my mind one way or the other. “Jeez Graham, you’re a prickly little shit aren’t you?” he says (which makes me sound like a malevolent hedgehog). “You always assume people are out to get you.”

“To be fair,” I say, “on the basis of prior experience they usually are” (which possibly qualifies as Biggest Understatement of the Year, followed only by ‘Houston, we have a problem’ and ‘nothing at this dinner party is vegetarian’).

He gives a snort. “Yeah, I guess maybe I can’t really blame you. Both your crazy admirers are still running around aren’t they? I mean two? Seriously man, one would be bad enough but you seem to be working your way through the FBI’s top five Most Wanted, not to mention that dead guy from the other month. How the hell do you manage it?”

“I have no idea,” I say gloomily.

“I’d be shitting myself if I were you.”

“Yeah? Then it’s probably just as well you’re not me.”

“Aw that’s bullshit, man. Don’t give me that crap. You can’t tell me you’re not scared right now.”

“I’m used to it,” I say lightly, “you’d be surprised.” Fleetingly, I remember Jack’s words all those years ago: ‘Will Graham deals with huge amounts of fear. It comes with his imagination.

“Damnit Graham, you’re a real little weirdo aren’t you?” says Sanderson with disgust, abandoning all pretences at civility.

“Unashamedly so,” I reply. I start to walk off, but can’t resist adding over my shoulder: “And for the record – less of the ‘little’.” I consider adding a click and wink, but doubt my ability to summon the necessary swagger to carry it off – he’d probably just think I was sincerely flirting with him (Christ). Nevertheless he still looks like he’s about to spontaneously combust – mission accomplished – so I dive down the stairs and head outside. Out of habit I scan the street up and down, but there’s nothing out of the ordinary (except for an extravagantly drunk man stood in front of a large cargo truck, gesticulating wildly and accusing it of being Optimus Prime). God I could do with a drink, I really could. I haven’t just cut loose and got gleefully shit-faced in ages. I can’t really contemplate doing it with you though: it’s actually pretty impossible to imagine something as mundane as simply sitting down and getting hammered together. Perhaps I should pick up some packs of beer just in case? Actually, no, you probably won’t drink beer will you; or at least not the cheap crap I typically pour down my neck. Wine then. Oh shit, no, not wine, you’ll be even fussier about that than you are about beer. I sigh at the seemingly impossible task of finding something that you’d actually deign to put anyway near your pretentious mouth. Oh fuck it, I’d rather just stay sober.

Instead, on a whim, I head over to a costume store to try and find something you can use to disguise yourself. It’s not actually as easy as I expected it to be, because it has to be subtle to avoid drawing unwanted attention, and this place clearly doesn’t cater for subtle. How did you manage it before? With effort I dredge out something from my memory about CIA agents being issued with a disguise kit, nicknamed ‘the Dagger’ – so small it can reputedly fit inside a paper bag. I look it up on my phone: the contents are classified. Fine, whatever. Fuck you CIA. In the end I buy a theatrical make-up kit (which claims on the lid to be ‘professional quality’ though I have serious doubts), a pair of glasses with clear lenses and spray-in hair dye (I really want to get a wig, but know that you’re far too vain to agree to it). Likewise I suppose there’s no way you’ll agree to wear any thrift store clothes, but I guess you must already have something in your luggage that you’ve been using. At heart I know this is probably more for my benefit than yours, because there’s no way I can feel as relaxed about you sauntering round in the open as you appear to be. Anyway, it’s one thing to do it at border patrol, quite another in a city where you could literally walk right into Jack (Christ). The store clerks are both deeply irritating and make a big performance out of stacking my purchases in a pointlessly symmetrical pile inside the bag. Sure, okay, but how am I supposed to – oh, like I fucking care. Carry on assholes.

You’re basking on the sofa when I get back, and you seem quite pleased – albeit in a slightly patronizing way – that I’ve gone to the trouble of getting you disguise materials. “Very good Will,” you say, “extremely industrious. I shall go out in a day or two.” My face falls a bit at that (I can’t shake the feeling that if you leave you won’t come back again), although I can hardly say anything when I bought it for you in the first place, so go and check my emails instead. At least you got my laptop working again. It doesn’t seem any the worse for wear after being submerged in coffee: if anything, it’s slightly better-behaved than before.

I automatically have a quick sift for Matthew Brown updates, even though I don’t expect to find anything. And of course there’s nothing: not on the news, not on TattleCrime, not anywhere. God it’s frustrating, how has he managed to vanish so entirely? I don’t even bother telling you (you won’t care) and instead try to think of a way to pass the evening. What though? You don’t seem particularly disposed to talk and I can’t concentrate on the television. On an impulse I revert to my original Plan A and ferret out the remains of the bottle of Scotch from the kitchen cupboard (the sight of it immediately reminds me of the night I thought I’d killed Michael…God). The door is jammed and it takes a few almighty yanks to get it fully open. Fuck this apartment. One of us (i.e. me) is going to have to sort it out at some point.

I take the bottle over to the sofa, clutching it protectively as if it’s the Elixir of Life as opposed to shitty bin-end whiskey, and pour myself an enormously large glass. Entirely as expected, you take one look at the label and politely refuse (you don’t actually wince, but it’s kind of a close thing). I still can’t completely switch off, but things actually feel quite peaceful and companionate for once: just sat amicably side by side, me sipping my drink, you sketching, the only noise the faint scratching of your pencil and the occasional car sweeping past outside. I keep hoping you might touch me in some way, but you don’t. It’s so quiet, so still.

“I wish you’d come back sooner,” I say eventually. I probably wouldn’t be so upfront with you if I wasn’t becoming slightly (somewhat…very) drunk, but the alcohol is softening everything, blunting and blurring some of my sharper edges. And besides: it’s true. I do wish that.

“Yes, I’m aware,” you reply. “And I would have done so, had I realized the kind of difficulties you were in. But I’m afraid that even I am not completely omnipotent.”

“You still haven’t really explained why.”

“Indeed; I have not.”

I suppose I should be vaguely grateful to Matthew Brown (the little shit): that fake message was the catalyst after all. But you could have come back for me long before that. Why didn’t you? I take another swig of my Scotch, turning the pieces over in my head. I’m missing something aren’t I? Of course I am. Why are you being so evasive; what clues are you feeding me? And suddenly I give a bitter half-laugh because – obviously – it’s clicked into place. “You know, I think I can guess,” I say. “Or at least some of it.”

“Yes?” you say politely.

“It wasn’t just practical was it, these ‘arrangements’ you keep hinting at – which is getting really annoying by the way. It was something else as well…you wanted me to miss you. Didn’t you? You wanted me to see how desperate and aimless and dull everything was without you, so that when you did come back I’d be more likely to go along with whatever you wanted me to do. You were trying to make me feel out of control.” (I don’t add: and you succeeded beyond your wildest fucking dreams). “You set yourself up as both the problem and the solution. It was part of your design”. I wave my hand around a bit to emphasize my point. Even as I’m speaking I’m aware that I already knew that this was the case, but couldn’t quite bring myself to push it to its logical conclusion. How many moments like this have I had with you? Fragments and clues that are meaningless on their own, but combined together can spell out the truth in painfully bright lights. Randomly I remember watching you in the back of the ambulance that time (‘ohsurgical skills’) and you staring right back (‘so you’ve made that connection have you? One step closer to working it out…interesting’).

You’re just looking at me. “I’m right aren’t I?” I say.

“You are not entirely wrong.”

“God, I knew it. You are such a manipulative…shit.”

“’Manipulative’ is a tediously emotive word. Is it manipulation, or simply tactical strategy? A means to justify a particular set of ends.”

“So you’re admitting it then?”

Instead of answering you just regard me thoughtfully, your eyes slightly narrowed. “You know Will,” you say at last, “you really are endlessly fascinating. You are to be congratulated. I’ve spent a lifetime perfecting my disguise, yet until I met you I was unaware that, in many respects, I have actually been longing to find someone whom it was not always possible for me to deceive.”

“Oh come on!” I say bitterly. “You love deceiving me. You fucking love it.”

“But I love your moments of clarity even more.”

I knock back another mouthful of Scotch (by now I have abandoned the glass and am just necking it straight from the bottle) and regard you sceptically. “How? How does that work?”

“Because,” you reply smoothly, “I have an odd affinity with you.”

“Why? What do you mean?”

You pause. You’re still staring at me. “Are you familiar with the expression ‘two sides of the same coin’?” you say eventually.

“Of course.”

“Well then. We are very different, and yet we are the same. Discrete and dissimilar, yet closely related expressions of a single idea – all at the same time. It is the perfect paradox.”

Perfect paradox,” I repeat slowly. Oh God, I’m so drunk. How am I so drunk?

“Consider my situation before Jack Crawford was obliging enough to bring me to you,” you continue. “Someone with the most supreme vices; made for exceptions, not for rules; and a human realization of the most extreme ideals and fulfilments. Yet I am surrounded by dull, blind, mechanical people who are completely unable to comprehend me. No one has the imagination to appreciate it. And then one day, this small, shabby boy comes in…”

“I’m not small,” I say (I don’t actually bother disputing the ‘shabby’ part).

“You were back then. You were shrinking inside yourself.”

“Yeah?”

“Indeed. This diminutive, tattered little person, snapping and snarling and not even able to look anyone in the eye – yet as soon as I saw him, I thought ‘if I turned my own coin, then he would be on the other side’.”

I am a bit overwhelmed by this, but I understand exactly what you’re saying – because I felt the same. In my case, it was like I’d been playing chess against myself my whole life, jaded and lonely, until one day you came in and took your place at the other side of the board.

“So you see Will,” you add calmly, “that we are the same, you and I. We are the ‘soul mates’ in Plato’s Symposium; a zero sum game. Each of us is fascinated by our opposing qualities, but also by the mirror image. And neither of us can completely distinguish and appreciate our own substance until we observe it reflected back in the other.”

Can’t we? I stare at you, silent and thoughtful. My head is spinning slightly, as if I’m dreaming and spiralling within my own body, and this time it’s not just from the alcohol. It’s like everything’s in slow motion, and there’s nothing except me, and you, and the culmination of all this tension, and yearning, and beguilement, and madness. I don’t actually know how to respond, how to express what I’m feeling, everything that’s within me: it seems that no matter what I say it won’t be enough. Except that I’m suddenly glad about the last few months. Glad for every moment of fear and anguish and loneliness. Thankful for every bad dream, every second of self-doubt; each hangover and headache; all the solitary mornings and humorless, lifeless evenings; all the scars, stress, and shadows; all the pining and aching and longing. Happy for the times Sanderson laughed at me, or Jack shouted and sighed, or all the people who’ve tried to break me and drag me down…grateful for all of it, for every fucking miserable awful second, because it all brought me back here to you.

You’re looking at me, you’re waiting…I need to say something. Oh God, why can’t I say something? I don’t know what to say, that’s why. I’m not like you, I never have been: I can’t deconstruct things the way you can. So in the end I don’t say anything at all, I don’t even try. I just lean forward and kiss you instead.

Chapter Text

Even you, with your paranormal levels of composure, must be slightly taken aback when I hurl myself at you across the sofa (not unlike – it must be said – that face-hugging beast from the Alien movies), but of course you still manage not to show it. In contrast I’m completely overwrought, panicking really. I don’t entirely know what I’m doing: it’s like I’ve just initiated it and then discovered halfway through that I’m utterly out of my depth. Fortunately you seem to realize this as well, because you immediately take control by cradling the back of my head and gently stroking my jaw, teasingly brushing your lips against mine before slowly sliding your tongue into my mouth. I gasp slightly and tilt my head back, finally summoning the courage to let my tongue move against yours and you make a humming noise, soft and approving, and move your hand beneath my collar to caress my neck. Most people would see stars, but I’m so drunk I see 4th of July fireworks. My heart’s hammering so fast it’s becoming difficult to breathe.

You’re rubbing my back now, very tenderly and rhythmically, the way someone might soothe a frightened animal: you’re trying to calm me down, you can tell I’m freaking out. You kiss your way down the side of my face murmuring something, low and affectionate, in a language I don’t recognize. Have you forgotten how to speak English again? Perhaps you’re not quite as calm as you seem. At least you must be somewhat invested in this, because I know I taste like horrible cheap whiskey and I don’t know how you could stand it otherwise.

Oh God, we left it too long didn’t we? I left it too long (but then…so did you). We should have done this when we first met, screwed the obsession out of our systems in the initial few weeks and then chilled out and moved on. You could have fucked me a few times on the couch in your office, and I could have gone down on you in the men’s room at the FBI. People would probably have guessed and we wouldn’t have cared (actually that’s not true. I would have cared – enormously – but right now I’m unwilling to undermine this alternative reality I’m laying out). God, it would have been so different. We could have finished all the arguments with make-up sex rather than trying to kill each other, and you would have eventually got busted (or not) and I would have visited you every so often in prison to bicker with you over the visitor phone, bitching and sparring yet gazing into each other’s eyes the whole time. You would have smiled at me, I would have pressed my palm against the glass, and Freddie Lounds would have taken covert photos of me leaving and run snide articles about me being a prison widow. And now we’re here instead, and we’ve made it mean too much. Too many things have happened, the pressure is too high. Too much significance and expectation, too much you and too much me…just too much. Oh God, I might hyperventilate (please don’t). The intensity with which I want this (and want to take a step back from it, yet can’t) has taken me completely by surprise and it’s fucking terrifying. I’m far too drunk to get an erection, but I don’t even care. Right now, in this moment, I know I’d let you do whatever you want, to me, to my body; I'd do whatever you asked for, I couldn’t stop you, couldn’t bring myself to say ‘no’. I'd let you cut me and bite me, tie me up, hit me; I’d get on my knees for you and suck you off, I'd let you choke me and pull my hair and come on my face, I'd let you bend me in half and fuck me over the sofa...oh shit, I didn't say any of that out loud did I? Did I say that out loud?

You hold me for a bit longer, running your hand up and down my spine and rubbing your cheek against my hair (I’ve just gone very still with my head tucked against your chest; it’s like someone’s taken my batteries out), when eventually you pull away. “Not like this Will,” you say. “Not tonight. I want you fully aware, and you’re not.”

I jerk my head up at that, and only narrowly avoid knocking myself out on your forehead (because in a collision of your head and mine, there’s no real question as to which would come off worst). Then I just sit blinking at you, slightly uncomprehending. What, are you kidding me? What the fucking hell is this? No way. No way is your self-control that strong…is it? (Yes). Despite my panic, which is now borderline delirious, it suddenly feels very important that we don’t stop (mainly because, if we do, I don’t know if I’ll ever summon enough courage to try it again). In my frenzied state I can only see a binary choice: 1) now or 2) never.

“I am aware,” I say hazily, “I’ll prove it to you.” I try to think of a way to demonstrate this – how spectacularly aware I am – but nothing immediately comes to mind, and I end up getting lost in thought to the extent that time passes and the seasons change, and I’m still sitting there frowning with my mouth open looking like I’m just on the verge of saying something incredibly profound.

Eventually you clear your throat politely. “No, Will, you are far too drunk. You don't know what you're doing. I am not going to take you like this, when there is every chance you will wake up tomorrow and regret it. Or – more to the point – when you can shift responsibility to the alcohol rather than owning the decision yourself. Surrendering when you are completely inebriated is not surrendering unequivocally, and I will not be happy with anything less.”

“Ugh, stop it, that sounds really creepy.” I try to scowl at you, but the end result is negligible because I’m no longer completely sure what my face is doing. Surrender? Oh, yes, I get it…I do get it don’t I? “You want to hear me say it,” I announce triumphantly (I’ve temporarily forgotten that this was my dream version of you, and that the actual version doesn’t know what the fuck I’m talking about).

You give me a quick look. "If by that you mean I want you to give yourself to me without reservation – and not because you've artificially reduced your inhibitions with half a bottle of execrable whiskey – then yes. Yes, I want to hear you say it.”

“This isn't just you being ethical about my consent is it?” I smirk a bit at the idea of you being ethical about anything. In fact it suddenly strikes me as the most hilarious thing ever and I start giggling in a rather demented way. “It's about submission isn’t it?” I say at last. I get unsteadily to my feet and you stand up with me, maintaining eye contact. I peer at you, as if by looking closer I can get behind the exterior and glimpse what’s underneath. “It’s about submission, and how genuine you think it is. You want to take all my defences away.  It's about me completely submitting myself to you.”

Sentiently submitting. Yes – partly.”

“No, wholly. You can't deceive me remember? You said so yourself.” I try to give you a shove against your chest, but stumble instead and nearly hit the decks. You dart out a hand and catch me on the way down.

“Oh God,” I say, “you’re such a cock tease.” And then I realize that I’ve just said the word ‘cock’ in front of you and start giggling again even worse than before.

“Will,” you say gently, “go to bed.”

“Are you going to come with me? Platonically, obviously.”

“Yes, if you wish.” You tap me lightly on the end of my nose – my eyes start crossing as I try to track your finger. “Although if you vomit on me at any point you will be extremely sorry.”

“I wouldn't really. Not as sorry as you would be.”

“Indeed, that is probably true,” you say, “so please don't. You should drink some water.”

“Ugh, stop being so doctorly. It doesn't suit you.”

“Stop being so adolescent,” you reply. “Imagine if your students could see you now.”

“I don't think they'd care to be honest. They wouldn’t notice how drunk I am because they’d be far more bothered about the fact I've been trying to seduce the Chesapeake Ripper.” As soon as I've said this my face falls, because – oh my God. (Also: I’ve just called the Chesapeake Ripper a cock tease…Fuck my life).

“Trying yet failing,” you say sanctimoniously, “although it was an admirable attempt.”

The mention of students has reminded me of something else now, but I’m so drunk I can’t remember what it is. Something to do with Freddie Lounds and a crime scene…oh yeah that’s it. “One other thing you need to know,” I add with extreme seriousness. “And it’s very important. You need to know that I am not your wife.”

You wait a few seconds without speaking; I like to think it’s because you’ve been struck dumb with the emotional power of this epic speech, but the reality is that you’re probably just trying to keep a straight face. “No,” you eventually reply. “You are certainly not that.”

I nod very firmly: certainly not.

There’s a long and fantastically awkward pause. “Well then,” you say. “I’m glad we’ve cleared up that particular misunderstanding.”

I’ve started blinking now, struggling to focus, only it’s getting increasingly difficult because there seems to be two of you. On reflection I decide I’m not particularly happy about this – it’s not like one isn’t more than enough by anyone’s standards. “Do you want know what your real problem is?” I add accusingly. “Because I – me – Will Graham of the FBI – am going to tell you.” I wave my hand at you for emphasis but unfortunately it goes a bit wrong because it looks like my arm’s on fire and I’m trying to put it out. I briefly lose my train of thought and stare at my hand in vague confusion: you’re also looking at it with your eyebrows raised.

“All right,” I say, determined to give it another go. “Do you know what your problem is?”

You start smiling again. “Please enlighten me.”

“You are a sad, boring old man who has lost his libido,” I say triumphantly, “that is the problem.”

Your lips start twitching again like you’re struggling not to laugh. “Well, you are an impetuous, overly-excitable young man who cannot hold his alcohol. You are a bacchanal.”

“I am not a bacchanal…wait, what does bacchanal mean? Did you just call me a wino?”

“Not that I am necessarily surprised,” you continue cheerfully, “considering that appalling stuff is only several degrees removed from methylated spirits. I myself am now in excess of the legal driving limit merely from kissing you. You ought to have pre-booked a liver transplant earlier in the evening. Of course you would first require a liver – would you like me to try and obtain one for you?”

“Well you should have pre-booked a…a…sex transplant.”

Oh indeed, so they are finally available? The advances in medical science are truly astounding.”

Sex transplant,” I repeat mutinously.

“Yes, I heard you the first time. It doesn't make any more sense on a second attempt, but I give you full marks for perseverance. Wait there, I am going to get you some water.”

You disappear into the kitchen and there’s the sound of you rifling through the cupboards. “What are you doing?” I yell. “Are you looking for your sex drive?” You return a few seconds later with a glass, still smirking (possibly even more than before), then hold my head in place to make me drink it before tenderly stroking my face and wiping some stray droplets from my bottom lip with your thumb.

“You know Will, you really are incredibly charming, even like this,” you say. You lean forward and I shiver as you lightly run your tongue over my ear and whisper: “In fact you are positively edible.”

“All right, you weirdo,” I say, “point taken. I'm going to bed.” I make an attempt to walk off but promptly stumble again and you put your hands on my hips, steadying me from behind. I can't stop myself arching against you, my head falling back against your shoulder, and you wrap your arms around my chest, two fingers dipping underneath my shirt and stroking my collarbone. I make a small (highly embarrassing) moaning sound.

You lightly kiss me on the temple and I make the same noise (except a bit louder this time…God). “Dear Will Graham–of–the–FBI,” you say, “you really have done extremely well tonight. I’m proud of you; I did not anticipate you acting so quickly. Once again you have exceeded my expectations.”

When you say that I clumsily turn round and try to focus on your face, but it’s becoming a struggle because of the way my eyes are starting to cross. “What does that mean?” I say at last. “I suppose this is all just a game to you, isn’t it? One of your ‘experiments’?” I go to the trouble of making exaggerated air quotes with both hands as I say this; and despite how drunk I am, am still aware that I look like a fucking idiot while I’m doing it.

“No Will,” you say softly, “not at all…at least not in the way that you mean.” You look very serious, although by the time the morning comes I’ll start to wonder if I dreamt that last part.

*****

I wake up with a hangover sent straight from Satan himself, and the events of last night float around my pounding head in disparate fragments that gradually coalesce into a truly appallingly composite of disbelief and mortification. How could I have said those things, done those things? (Because I was smashed out my fucking skull, I helpfully remind myself). Oh God, you were right to stop me. I hate admitting this but it’s true: I'm not totally ready for it, not really. But I want to be…Why aren’t I? Why the hell aren’t I ready? The only thing worse than the pain in my head is the sense of confusion and uncertainty that I want something so badly yet am utterly terrified about what it’s going to mean for me if I have it.

Getting up and speaking to you seems paramount to testing the hypothesis of whether or not it is actually possible to die of embarrassment, but in the end I’m spared having to summon the courage to face you because you appear in the bedroom anyway, holding a glass of water and some white tablets.

“You look terrible,” you say.

“I feel terrible.”

“Then you have achieved perfect symmetry and should be congratulated.”

“Hilarious. A bit of sympathy right now would be marvellous, doctor.”

“I thought I was unsuited to bring doctorly? Besides, I’ve brought this haven’t I?” I drink it in one go, then take a few moments contemplating whether to throw up or not.

You sit next to me on the bed and regard me thoughtfully. “Admit I was right,” you say.

“You were right.”

“Excuse me? I didn’t quite hear you.”

“Ha ha.”

“I really would appreciate you repeating yourself. I should like to record it and use it as my phone alert.”

“I’ll vomit on you,” I say feebly. “I have the means, motive, and opportunity.” I roll over so my head’s on your knee, and you gently rub my temples.

“You always push yourself beyond your own limits,” you say at last.

“So do you.”

“Yes, but I have a very well-attuned awareness of what my limits are; and they are few and far between. You are still discovering yours.”

I don’t quite know what to say to that, so remain silent. You slip your hand down under my t-shirt to stroke my chest, and I draw my breath in sharply.

“This is a very substantial thing for you,” you say. “You haven’t acknowledged the extent of it yet, but you will. You must.” And I know, without being told, that you’re talking about a lot more than just sex. You’re thinking of whether I’ll consent to join you – to cross onto your side, to fully merge. It’s me acknowledging that I don’t just want you physically, but that I want everything else you’re offering; everything you represent…and the answering, yearning echo it represents in me. Admit that I enjoyed killing him. Admit that I enjoyed you watching me. Admit that I want to do it again. Admit it, admit it, admit it.

You dip your hand a little lower and I gasp, my eyes widening slightly. “And you have my word for it Will,” you say softly, “that when you allow yourself to do so, we shall become completely unstoppable.”

There’s a long silence, you just stroking my skin and me lying with my eyes closed leaning up towards your touch and listening to the faint sound of you breathing. What I finally say is: “You’re already unstoppable, your brake cable was cut at birth. And please can I have some more water?”

But what I’m actually thinking, completely contrary to my better judgement, is: I hope you outlive me, because I don’t want to know a second time what my life is like without you in it.

*****

I spend the next few days warily circling round you (to which you appear completely oblivious) and jumping and twitching anytime we’re within touching distance. Of course you don’t try and touch me: you don’t need to, because you know that eventually I’m going to come to you. So basically I know that you’re waiting – and you know that I know – and it should probably be really awkward and uncomfortable between us, but it’s not. What is uncomfortable (profoundly so) is the prickling, aching intensity of my own doubt and apprehension. In fact I fucking hate it. I suppose it’s partly my own fault for not acknowledging to myself sooner that, of course, nothing can ever be straightforward with you: even something as relatively mundane as having simultaneous orgasms needs to turn into a goddamn Fibonacci equation. The only time you give yourself away is when I occasionally catch you looking at me with a very faint smile on your face (my interpretation of it alters depending on my mood: sometimes I think it’s affectionate, at other times I persuade myself it’s vaguely sinister). But you never mention anything, and – because I am obviously a massive coward – neither do I.

So needless to say when something does eventually happen (because inevitably it does – by this point it can’t not), it’s absolutely nothing like I expected it to be. It’s early evening and you are reading on the sofa while I have my head on your lap. I’m honestly not quite sure how it ended up there – one minute I was sat with my feet pulled up and my chin resting on my knees, then I started slowly migrating towards you like you were a fucking magnet, and finally I was half lying on you with my legs folded around the cushions. That said it doesn’t feel weird (maybe it should – it really probably should. But it doesn’t. We fit together quite comfortably, and the realization of this makes me feel calmer and more contented than I have in days). The night is unusually quiet once again, and there’s little to hear except the rain dashing against the window and the rustling of you turning the page. One of your hands is carding absent-mindedly through my hair.

After a while you put the book aside and tip your head back against the sofa. You’re not asleep, I can tell from your breathing. Perhaps you are in your memory palace. Your hand begins to move again, stroking rhythmically through my hair, occasionally caressing the back of my neck, and you trail your other hand down onto my shoulder, then glide it along my arm. I make a little rumbling purr-like sound (which I wasn’t intending on, but can’t quite stop in time), and you trace your hand against my waist, my ribs, my hands and wrists, briefly allowing our fingers to entwine together, before moving back to my shoulder again. The touching is still (just) on the side of ‘affectionate’ as opposed to ‘erotic’, but nevertheless I can feel myself getting incredibly hard. Christ. You’re going to notice this any minute, you probably have already. I decide that if you say anything to make me feel self-conscious about it (‘Ah ha! So what do we have here?’) then I am getting off this fucking sofa immediately and leaving you to it, but of course you don’t. You just make a soft, pleased sound, and push the heel of your hand against my groin so I’ve got something to arch against. I make a low moaning noise and thrust up my hips. At the same time my head tips back against your knee and you put your hand on my forehead, lightly massaging the top of my cheekbone with your thumb. This should be humiliating – being so needy, helplessly grinding against you until I almost certainly come in my jeans like a teenager – but it isn’t, it doesn’t, it just feels so good, I don’t care.

You let this go on for another minute or two and by now I am making deep, desperate gasps and rocking frantically against your hand before you suddenly stop (Christ…sadist, obviously) and shift a bit so you can lean forward and place a light kiss on my lips. I instinctively open my mouth but you pull back instead and say, very gently for you: “Is this it then Will? Are you ready? Do you want me to take you to bed?” I open my eyes at that. You are looking down at me, smiling quite tenderly. In all the years I’ve known you, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you smile as much as you have over the past few days.

Naturally enough (for God’s sake) I find that I still can’t fully commit to an answer. Do I want you to? (Yes, yes, yes…but no). Oh God, I think helplessly, I’m scared: I’m scared, I’m scared. I can’t do this…but I can’t not do it. I appreciate that you aren’t assuming, but to be honest I actually wish you hadn’t asked; just let things run on and see what happened (in other words: exactly like before, only with momentum for me to hide behind rather than alcohol). The request to bind myself to a decision has jolted me out of the oblivious state of feeling and into the cold, cognitive world of rationality and consequence. I blink a few time and then struggle to sit up, and you press your palm under my shoulders to help me. I look at you and run my hand through my hair, gnawing anxiously on my bottom lip. You watch me patiently. In the end I hedge my bets and settle for: “Yes. Sort of. I’m not sure.” (Christ…what the fuck was that?).

You’re carefully observing my face, and it seems to me that you look rather fascinated: as if you’re monitoring my mental agonies and neatly formulating to yourself all the possible ways that this is going to go. However, all you actually say is: “Have you ever done this before?” The unexpected change in tone – the fact that you’re bothering to ask the type of thing a normal person would – suggests to me that you’re deliberately shifting the focus to give me a few seconds to get my shit together.

“What, seriously?” I say, “Of course I have. I was married for nearly three years, remember.”

You smile, rolling your eyes slightly, and give one of my curls a gentle tug. “Of course I do not mean at all,” you reply. “But with another man?”

“Oh,” I say. “No.”

You just nod, as it that was what you were expecting. I feel a bit naïve, although I know it’s not what you’re trying to do.

“I suppose you have?” I ask, a bit accusingly (it’s irrational, but the thought somehow annoys me).

You shrug. “I have always been a student and seeker of sensation, in all things. In this, my only limitation is a consenting adult. Asides from that, I have never closed myself off to any kind of exploration.”

“Oh for God’s sake.” I roll my eyes. “That’s just a rarefied way of saying you sleep around.”

You playfully flip the side of my nose with your long finger. “You are such a brat,” you say. “And I don’t regret for a single moment having taken sexual pleasure to the extreme – I have lived it to the full, as I do with everything else.”

I fall quiet for a bit (partly because hearing you say ‘sexual pleasure’ in your precise, aristocratic voice has briefly made my brain short-circuit), then glance at you from under my eyelashes.

“So…?” I say. I clear my throat. “So. We’re actually going to do this then?” Christ, this is terrible. Why am I being so gauche? I have a sudden mad urge to hide my face in the front of your shirt. This is not how I expected this to go, at all. In my fantasies of you, you were always far more aggressive and dominating than you are being now, and I was far more self-possessed and coolly acquiescing. I can’t even attribute it to some latent sexuality crisis (I almost wish I could, it might be easier. Mightn’t it? Surely it would). But I can’t, because this has nothing to do with the fact you’re a man; it’s the fact that you’re you. Then I suddenly remember something inconvenient, and to my disgust realize I am blushing slightly. “Look, we can’t. I don’t have…um, I don’t have anything.” Oh God, how could I not have thought of that before?

“That does not matter.” I must seem a bit panicked at that, because you sigh, and give me a thoughtful stare. “Will,” you say, “please don’t look so alarmed. I have never forced sex upon anyone in my life, do you really believe I would start with you? And even if you did have ‘anything’” – I can almost hear you putting careful quote marks around the word in deference to how absurdly self-conscious I suddenly feel about saying ‘condoms and lube’ – “on consideration, I do not think it would be a good idea tonight.”

Oh God, not this again. I still feel like you’re messing with my head, despite the fact I can’t quite work out how. Then I see the way you’re looking at me, thoughtful and appraising, and I think actually…maybe no. Maybe that’s not it. Maybe this is more part of your strategy. You know that I’m poised and ready to bolt, so you’re going to lure me in slowly – bit by bit, piece by piece and infinitely patient – at a speed which you feel I’ll be able to tolerate. Because too much too soon and you know that I’m going to be overwhelmed. And if that happens, then I’m going to run.

You’re still watching me, smiling slightly. You know what I’m thinking; you always know. “You need careful handling Will,” you say, as if in confirmation. You then add, “Even though you can’t quite admit it,” just as I’m opening my mouth to snap: ‘No I don’t, piss off.’

“As such,” you continue, “I want you to have more time to reflect on exactly what this is going to mean for you.” You give me an intense look, and I don’t say anything in response, just stare at you mutely. I can’t, I think piteously, I can’t, I can’tFor God’s sake, I threw us off a cliff because I couldn’t bear to reflect on it. You’re asking too much, just like you always do; you always want too much from me.

I must look pretty wretched, because you suddenly lean in and kiss my forehead. “Forget about past events,” you murmur softly (oh Christ, why am I always so fucking obvious?). “The past is a foreign country, as they say: people do things differently there. Can you forget about it Will? At least for tonight? I believe that you can, you are endlessly resourceful after all. There is no hurry, and in the meantime I propose that we begin slowly.” You say the word ‘slowly’ with a lascivious flourish that goes directly to my groin.

“I am not going to touch you at all…yet,” you say, pulling back and looking me straight in the eyes. “But you can touch yourself can’t you? Run your hands over your body, take control of your own pleasure. You’re so aroused, I know you want to, and I want to see it. I would like to watch you. Would you do that for me?”

Oh. Fucking. Shit. I’m glad it’s dimly lit in here, because there’s no way I’m not blushing again. “Yes,” I say slowly, “yes, I can do that.” I realize I am starting to feel vaguely unhinged: what am I even saying? When did I become so shameless?

You just keep smiling at me, calm and conspiratorial, and there’s something vaguely hypnotic about it which means I can’t look away. Without any self-consciousness at all you unfasten your shirt and cast it onto the floor, keeping your eyes fixed on my face the entire time. Your muscles are incredibly well-defined, and I know that must be at least partly from years of flinging corpses around (and that a realization like this should be the most enormous boner-killer in human history, and it’s not having that effect on me. At all. Shit). You don’t take off anything else. I’m vaguely disappointed by this, but also relieved, because I know that you’re right and anything else would almost certainly be too much for me to cope with. As it is, I’m glad that you’re taking control of everything; it’s much easier to be passive, to be directed by you. You pull me closer with one hand and calmly pull my t-shirt over my head, lightly tracing your fingers up and down my ribs before trailing downwards, and I can feel myself quivering. When your hands rest on my belt you pause and look at me for confirmation. “Yes?” you say.

I open my mouth but suddenly find that it’s impossible to speak, so just nod instead. Oh God, God, God this is so surreal, I can’t fully believe that I’m doing it. An aspect of me is stood to one side, observing what’s happening and mouthing in horror: I am literally and metaphorically beside myself. It’s incredibly vulnerable to be naked in front of you, but also serves to highlight that I actually feel profoundly defenceless with you all the time and that this is really just another form. Skin is just that: skin. It’s not like you don’t see me anyway; having my body exposed is nothing in comparison with the way you’ve exposed my mind – exposed me – carefully and meticulously stripping away every single defence from the day I met you. My heart’s begun to pound wildly, a frantic SOS rhythm that’s harmonized by the part of me that’s stood watching, panicked now and screaming: ‘Oh shit. SHIT! What the hell are you DOING? Put your fucking clothes on and get out now!’

You’re probably aware of at least some of this (you definitely are), because you cup your hand to the side of my face and give me another one of your searching expressions. “Don’t look so anxious Will,” you say. “There is nothing to be afraid of. Nothing is going to happen to you tonight of which you are not in complete control.” (But how can that be true when I’m never in control around you…when I never have been). You smile slightly, then slowly and deliberately run your palm down my chest and over the jagged knot of scar tissue on my abdomen. You don’t glance down as you do it – of course you don’t need to, you know exactly where the knife went in.

My breathing speeds up, and your smile broadens as you move your eyes away from my face and examine my body. “Such a sumptuous palette of scars,” you say admiringly. “Our scars have the power to remind us that the past was real. They anchor us…we all need to be anchored, Will. Except on you they’re not imperfections are they? More like embellishments.”

“I don’t…I don’t know.”

“They would most likely appear sad or unsightly on most people,” you add thoughtfully, “yet you lend them a certain distinction. Like craquelure on a particularly arresting portrait. You wear them well. Or perhaps more like patina on stone: testimony and witness-bearing to your rather extraordinary resilience.”

“Most of them are your responsibility,” I finally manage.

“Yes indeed,” you reply, “I am to be sincerely commended.”

I say nothing, which is probably the absolute worst thing to say.

“Look how wide your eyes are.” You sound enthralled: a glint of energy in your deadpan voice that’s not usually there. “You’re trembling. You really are frightened aren’t you?”

I dart my tongue across my lips. “Yes,” I reply faintly.

“How interesting. You know you could leave if you wanted to; you could walk away – you could run away. You know I would not try and stop you.”

“I know.”

“Yet here you stand.”

Yes.”

“Tell me, Will Graham, what are you most afraid of right now; me? Or yourself?”

“You know what,” I say quietly.

“Of course I do. The question is: do you?”

I don’t answer, just stare at you almost pleadingly, and you stare right back – staring and smiling – then with an almost tormenting slowness pull my face towards yours so you can kiss me. It starts off gentle, almost sweetly chaste: me stood there, ungainly and unresponsive as a statue with my mouth slightly open; you stroking my jaw to encourage me to relax and softly brushing your lips over mine, occasionally caressing them with the tip of your tongue. Then you lick very slightly into my mouth and I make a helpless moaning sound, at which point you abruptly pull away and look me directly in the eyes. For a few seconds everything goes still, no movement, no noise, as if the whole room is holding its breath: we just gaze at other. And oh – oh fuck – I don’t think anyone has ever looked at me that way in my entire life. It’s longing and passion and hunger, spiced with something indefinably dark and menacing, and at that moment something inside me snaps and I move towards you at the precise second you move back to me. We meet in a clash of teeth, moaning and gasping into each other’s mouths, pillaging and ravaging like we’re trying to devour one another – immediately finding a perfect rhythm as you grind your hips against mine and I cling onto your shoulders and arch into you: my nails clawing and scraping against your skin until it makes you hiss, you tangling your fingers into my hair so you can jerk my head back and tug on my bottom lip with your teeth before forcing your tongue so deep into my mouth it’s difficult to breathe. The chemistry is fucking unbelievable, like voltage: intense and undeniable, our desire for each other so fierce and urgent it’s like a living thing, like a third person in the room. Oh God, is this what everyone else always saw? Alana, Freddie, Bedelia, even Chilton – why people always assumed, always watched us and wondered. And any last doubts I have about backing out are extinguished at that moment because I can’t get enough of you, I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to get enough. I’m parched for you but drowning in you; the fiery heat of you mad and wild (wildfire…please don’t burn me all at once), your fierceness craving to corrupt me and cast me out into something new. Malicious, delicious, and gorgeous, and ferocious, and oh God, oh God, oh fucking hell.

Without letting me go you move back onto the sofa, roughly pulling me on top of you, then shifting so you’re sat lengthways with your legs stretched out. Without any visible effort you spin me round and manoeuvre me so I’m leaning against you with my back to your chest, and I cry out again in the helpless disbelief and desire and yearning of it all. You rest your chin on the top of my head, then bracket your ankles round mine so that when you widen your legs mine are forced open too. I just let you, pliant and submissive as a marionette: I’m so overwhelmed, so heady and besieged, that it’s impossible to think straight. You’ve already said that you’re not going to touch me yourself (and I know that once you’ve said something you always see it through), yet I don’t think I’ve ever felt so passionately, desperately turned on in my entire life. For a few seconds I just lie there stricken, staring at the ceiling, listening to the ragged, shuddering sound of my breathing.

“Oh God,” I finally manage. My voice sounds faint and shocked. “Oh God. I didn’t…I wasn’t…”

“Breathe, Will” you say caressingly. “Just breathe. Take your time: we have all night and I want you to enjoy this.” You run your palm over my chest, then slide it lasciviously across my stomach which is smooth and slick from where I’m leaking pre-come all over myself. “So wet already,” you murmur into my ear, “that is rather lovely. You need this so much don’t you? You are aching for it.”

Oh fuck it’s true, I am. I moan again and arch back against you, desperate for as much contact as possible, relishing how good your skin feels against mine; and when you slide two of your fingers into my mouth I suck them in an urgent, helpless way that I don’t entirely feel in control of. I’m still trembling slightly, but I reach out and take hold of myself, rubbing my thumb around the head of my cock – the initial jolt of pleasure is so intense it’s almost shocking; it almost hurts – and we both make a deep groaning noise at exactly the same time. Normally I’d consider improvising and spitting into my hand for some lubrication, but I’m soaking myself so much already that I don’t even need to, and it feels so incredibly good that I find my rhythm almost immediately, thrusting forward to fuck into my fist and then pushing back against the smooth, hard muscles in your chest.

“Good boy, that’s perfect,” you say. “Keep going. Just like that.” My skin is already growing slick and glistening with sweat, and you glide your hand over my ribs, across my hips, and tantalizingly up and down my thighs – touching me everywhere except where I really want you to – and by now I’ve totally lost it, jerking myself off frantically and absolutely desperate to come. You move your legs further apart so mine are forced wide open, and I feel utterly debauched and wanton and it’s fucking fantastic.

You rub your cheek against mine and smooth my damp hair out of my eyes. “How fearless and adaptable you are,” you say, “see how well you can attune to whatever circumstances you find yourself in? Yet the difficulty with that, of course, is habituation; the current provocation grows insufficient, despite the initial stress of it, and you find yourself wanting more. That is the origins of escalation Will…How should we escalate? Perhaps next time I’ll put my fingers inside you. Would you like that? Just one at first, I think. Just enough for you to feel what it’s like; and for me to feel how smooth, and tight and perfect you are. Enough to tease you; to torture you with pleasure. Make you rock your hips back against my hand, make you plead for more. And you would beg me, wouldn’t you Will? You would beg me so beautifully it would be impossible to resist you.”

“Oh yes. Oh God. God.”

“I know, it feels so good doesn’t it?” you murmur into my ear. “Look at you: you are so stunning like this. You have no idea.”

“Oh, oh,” I’m practically wailing now, my voice gone high and young. There’s no way I’m going to last much longer and my back curves up against you like a bow string. “God, I’m so close, I’m going to…oh God.” I let my head fall back against your shoulder, gripping my cock almost feverishly as my hand speeds up and hearing the tacky, viscous noise of skin thrusting against hot, damp skin.

“That’s right Will,” you say, “flawless. You are doing so well. Quite brilliant. So good for me, aren’t you? Doing exactly what I told you to do.” You kiss the side of my face, then tug on my ear lobe with your teeth. “It is rather perfect seeing you this way. So beautiful. Vulnerable. Desperate. All those lovely noises you are making; they might be the sounds of distress as much as desire. And the way that you are writhing and shuddering against me you could almost be struggling; like something fragile and breakable fighting for its life. I would have to keep clinging onto you through the final throes, wouldn’t I; hold you in my arms until you grew silent and still? And yet there is so much life in you.”

I cry out again, then bite down on my hand to try and subdue all the frantic noises I can’t stop myself making. You firmly pull it away and keep it gripped in yours. “No,” you say, “don’t hold back. I want to hear you.” Oh fucking hell, it’s all so intense – the emotion so raw – I’m almost hyperventilating. Every single nerve is spasming, every muscle taut and strained: it’s close to being too much and yet it’s nowhere near enough. God, how is this even possible? It shouldn’t be possible: you haven’t even touched me, yet I’m completely undone. And over the pounding of my heartbeat and the almost sobbing groans I’m making, I can hear my own voice, fierce and desperate , gasping out something which I don’t want to admit to, but which I know is hopelessly, helplessly true: “This…all of it…it feels so good. Oh fuck, fuck, I want this, I want it, I want you.”

When I say that you make a low, possessive sound deep in your throat, then haul me up so your mouth is resting against the curve where my shoulder and neck meet. You briefly lave your tongue over the skin, pressing and probing as if you’re trying to take my pulse, then you bite down, hard – hard enough to draw blood. It hurts and hurts, oh God it really hurts, and I cry out almost wildly, desperately thrusting my body back against yours as my hips give a final, frantic shudder and I start to come. You hold me through it, one arm wrapped tightly around my chest and the other stroking my face. I’m vaguely aware that you’re saying something, but despite the urgent intensity of your tone I can no longer make sense of the words. Instead I let myself slump into you. I’m shaking uncontrollably, can barely even hold myself up. Everything feels so intense.

For a while there is complete silence, broken only by the sound of my ragged, panting breaths. I might almost be in shock. Oh fuck, fuck, I can’t quite believe what I’ve just done.

You just make a slight sighing noise, and pull me tighter “Exquisite,” you finally say, almost reverently. “Ecstasy and abandonment are quite extraordinarily flattering on you. You should see yourself: how perfect you are when you permit your instinct to take over and simply let yourself feel. To take what you need without shame or reservation.” And despite being so hopelessly overwhelmed, I’m still aware that (once again) you’re talking about a lot more than sex; that you’re thinking back to that night on the cliff, and the way I looked slathered in blood and sweat and the scent of victory (as opposed to how I look collapsed on your chest having just shot my load all over myself…which right about now I should probably be starting to feel self-conscious about and – oddly for me – clearly don’t).

You keep your arms wrapped round me until I’m no longer shaking and my breathing’s slowed down to something less reminiscent of cardiac arrest, stroking whatever bit of skin you can reach and occasionally kissing my head and murmuring things in (another) foreign language. I want to turn over so I can see you but it seems to require more effort than is physically possible, so I settle for curling one arm over yours and stretching the other behind my head because I have a sudden weird urge to touch your face. You press your mouth against my palm, and I can feel the sharp, sculpted line of your cheekbone. I realize, idly and pointlessly, that I don’t think I’ve ever touched your hair before. It’s somehow softer than I expected it to be, less coarse than mine. I know that someone (you) is going to speak eventually – is going to have to speak – but I want to delay it for as long as possible, because it feels like as soon as the silence is broken then the real world will start screeching and cranking back to life and all the fucking madness is going to start again. I feel protective of the silence, I want to preserve it as something rare and precious and wonderful, because for the few remaining seconds that it lasts I can pretend that you’re not you, and I’m not me, and we’re just two normal people holding onto one another on a crappy second hand sofa.

Eventually you swing yourself round so you’re sat upright, bringing me with you in a series of smooth, effortless gestures as if I don’t weigh anything at all. I brace myself for something devastating, but all you say is: “Shall you be all right if I leave you for a moment?” and instead of my usual ‘of course, why wouldn’t I? Duh, don’t be ridiculous’ I just nod, slow and stupid (even though I don’t actually want you to go and leave me alone with the knowledge of what I’ve just done). You vanish into the bathroom, reappearing soon after with an antiseptic wipe and a damp cloth which you use to clean the bite mark and the tacky mess on my stomach respectively. I just sit there and let you. You’ve also brought a glass of water that you hold up to my mouth, cupping my face with your other hand to keep me steady. The only non-chaotic thought I’m currently aware of is: ‘thank fuck I chose such an enormous sofa.’ The second, in close succession, is that I should offer to sort you out as well (oh God, why didn’t I think of that before? I’m so crap at this aren’t I…why am I so crap at this?). I’d be a lot more enthusiastic about it if I wasn’t feeling so completely stunned and enthralled, but it seems like a dick move to not at least suggest it. I make a vague gesture at your body and cough a few times to try and get my voice working. “I’m sorry, um, do you want me to…?”

“Don’t worry about reciprocating,” you say softly. “Tonight was about you. I want you to rest now – you look exhausted…and somewhat overpowered.” You reach down the side of the sofa and pull out the shock blanket (that blue bastard. Oh my God…fucking typical) and wrap it round my shoulders. You kneel down in front of me and I try, and fail, to think of something to say; ultimately just allowing myself to slump forward so my forehead’s resting against yours, and childishly reaching out for your hand. You squeeze mine gently, returning the pressure, and I stare down at our clasped hands and feel oddly at peace. Our fingers are so tightly tangled together it’s hard to tell whose are whose just by looking: where you begin and I end.

“The commencement of your ‘Becoming’,” you say. “Congratulations Will.” There’s a smile in your voice – I know you’re not being entirely serious – but at the same time there’s no doubt that an enormous line (oh my God, fucking huge) has been crossed; that this is just the beginning, and that after tonight nothing is ever, ever, ever going to be the same again. And that I should probably care about that, and what it’s going to mean; that I want to care about it. Yet right now…I don’t. I just sit there: sit with your breath on my face, and your dark eyes right in front of me, and your skin touching mine. I stare at our hands; entwined and interlocked: you and me. The destructive opposites, the zero sum game, the unstoppable force and the immovable object. The empath. The sociopath. But also underneath it all, underneath all of that, and right now in this moment – just one and the other: just you and me. Just us.

 

Chapter Text

I wake up next morning bleary-eyed and vaguely exhilarated, and drowsily roll onto my side to reach out for you only to find that – as usual – you’re not there. This time however you’ve a left a note, written in elegant navy blue cursive on the back of my (unpaid) phone bill. The letters run vividly and authoritatively across the page, much in the way you do yourself:

Dear Will, forgive me for not being with you when you wake up, but you were sleeping so peacefully I could not bring myself to disturb you. I have gone to run several errands. Do not trouble yourself; I will be very careful.

There’s no indication when you wrote it, so you could have been gone for minutes or hours; and be returning any time now, or…never? No, of course you’ll come back, why wouldn’t you; from your perspective this has finally started to get interesting. I sit up to stretch and flex my aching shoulders. You’re right, this bed is fucking awful, no wonder you virtually never sleep in it…although will you be sleeping in it more from now on? Will you be staying here? I frown slightly and run my hands through my hair. It’s genuinely impossible to imagine such mundane domesticity: bitching over whose turn it is to empty the trash, and whether you’ve been using my razor or not, and how much of your expensive aftershave I’ve stolen, and “honestly Will, I appreciate your intrepid scientific spirit, but is it really necessary to cultivate penicillin in every single mug we possess?” And then retiring to the same bed every night at the end of it all, where I’ll steal the covers and you’ll leave the light on so you can read until 2am, and I’ll get irritated (“your legs are too long, you take up too much room…get your elbow out my face, it’s like sleeping with a sack of wrenches”), and you’ll make an amused noise and finally turn the light off and pull me towards you…and then what? And what about after that? What are you going to expect from me? What am I going to have to say, have to do? Who will I have to be? God, I feel so out of my depth: the necessity of inhabiting a brand new space that has you so firmly at the centre of it. It’s like being deposited in the middle of a foreign country: I need to navigate your customs, learn your language, become naturalized: understand how to be a citizen of you. I don’t regret it though. Do I? No…I don’t. Not any of it. In fact the absence of regret is startling (probably troubling). I’m feeling several things: self-conscious, confused, excited, apprehensive, doubtful, turned on, slightly embarrassed. But if I’m being honest with myself (and there’s no real reason not to be), then no: regret isn’t one of them.

On the contrary I’m aware that I’m actually acting in a vaguely pathetic way – smiling faintly to myself, lightly touching my face with my fingertips, gazing into the distance, reimagining the way you looked just before you kissed me. Then I suddenly think of Alana, who on more than one occasion undoubtedly sported a similarly besotted expression to the one I’m currently wearing, and that sobers me up immediately. God, you wouldn’t…would you? I think back to last night, the rapturous way you held onto me, your touch, your face, the sound of your voice, how intense you were. Surely you couldn’t have faked that? (You could). But even so, why bother? I frown slightly, gnawing at a bit of rough skin round my thumb. Is that all it was: you amusing yourself? Manipulating me just for the hell of it, just to prove that you can? I almost wish Alana was here so we could compare notes (wait, no – no I don’t…What the fuck?). Besides surely the liaison with her was just a way of getting to me. I bet you’d never have got off your smug, lazy ass and made the effort if you didn’t know I was already interested (you malevolent…shit). I start to mentally compare your behavior and demeanour around me and Alana, but the only conclusion I can firmly draw is that you’ve either tried to kill me or fuck me over on a much more regular and elaborate basis than you have her (which by your standards could be interpreted either way as a gesture of antipathy, amorous intent and/or benevolently friendly interest). Oh fuck this, fuck all of it. It’s too much, I can’t do this now.

I glance down at your note again, which (ridiculously) I am still holding onto. You haven’t signed it, but as evidence goes it would still be pretty damning and I know I can’t keep it, so I read it over one more time, then rip it up and get out of bed to drop it in the trash (there’s also the fact that I was considering stashing it in the bureau alongside Price’s photo in the manner of a love-struck teenager, and this is so deeply mortifying that it’s an even better reason to get rid of it than the risk of it turning into Exhibit A). Afterwards I go for a piss and catch sight of myself in the bathroom mirror. I look like I’ve been in a fight: there’s a bite mark on my shoulder and several livid bruises sucked into my neck that I don’t actually remember you putting there. I also have the most spectacular sex hair I’ve ever seen in my life (unfortunately my sex hair never looks tousled and erotic, only wild and vaguely ridiculous), so I flatten it with water and comb it through, and despite all the agonizing I realize I’ve got a stupid grin on my face. This gets even worse when I briefly amuse myself by imaging how much Freddie Lounds would pay for some photos from last night.

In this respect…we’re surely going to be having actual sex at some point. Aren’t we? Oh God. That means I need to buy supplies. I haven’t felt this uptight since college; since before college. Since I was a teenager. Christ. Surely the store clerk won’t say anything. They don’t, do they? That only happens in lame sitcoms, not in real life. Briefly I torment myself with images of a smirking pharmacist calling out to a colleague “Do we have any lubricant in stock? This gentleman wants to buy some” (and me, defiant, shouting back even louder: “Yes, my good woman, please procure me a metric ton of lubricant because I will definitely need it for the inordinate amount of anal sex I intend on having – with Number One on the FBI’s Most Wanted. Do you accept MasterCard?”). No, shut up you fool, it’s fine. Of course they won’t care, they won’t say a word. Belatedly I decide we probably don’t need condoms anyway: I had all my blood work done at the hospital and it’s impossible to imagine you having something as vulgar and plebeian as an STI. More to the point, we’ve already bled all over each other’s open wounds on several occasions so it’s a bit late now anyway (oh God, that is so fucking revolting…how the hell is this my life?). Nevertheless I realize I can’t go out and make the necessary arrangements because there’s only one key, which of course you’ve taken. I wonder if this is one of the ‘errands’ you referred to – the thought is both vaguely embarrassing and surreally hilarious. In the end I spend a highly irritating 15 minutes trying to find my glasses (the stupid bastards should have legs rather than arms considering they’re always strolling off somewhere unlikely), then go back to bed and fall into a deep dreamless sleep, and when I wake up you’re lying next to me on top of the covers reading the newspaper.

“Hey,” I mutter. I can feel myself smiling; I anticipated feeling excruciatingly awkward at the sight of you, and now that you’re here am pleasantly surprised to realize I don’t – not at all. Surely that’s a good sign? Without even thinking about it I roll over so my head is propped on your chest and you wind your arm round my shoulder, holding me close.

“Good afternoon,” you say. You wave the headline at me (which is yet another shrill account of the FBI’s failed attempts to catch you) and roll your eyes. I snort out a laugh. “What time is it?” I ask.

“Nearly one o’clock.”

“Shit, is it really?”

“You slept extremely deeply. You clearly needed it; I imagine you have not been sleeping well recently.”

“I never sleep well.”

“You did last night,” you say, slightly smugly. “I suspect my presence had something to do with it.”

“No, it was more likely the incredibly good orgasm – self-administered, I might add – that did it.”

“So orgasms have a sedative effect on you, do they?” you reply. “That is extremely interesting to know. Someone should inform Jack: considering that I am capable of administering even more pleasurable sensations than you are yourself – and you may take my word upon that – he may agree to hire me as a form of occupational health to keep you under control in the field.”

“Shut up, oh my God. You’re completely mad. So am I.”

“We are,” you say. “Folie a deux.”

“Something like that.” I roll over again so I’m staring at the ceiling. I can feel your rib cage rising and falling underneath me: the sensation is unexpectedly soothing, and I move my hand behind my head so you can take hold of it, your long fingers running over mine. “So…last night,” I say finally (because surely it would be weird not to at least mention it). “Is…um. Is that the type of thing we should be, y’know. Talking about?” Smooth, I think, sarcastically. For God’s sake.

“Not at all,” you reply, “talking too solemnly about sex,” (I wish I could overcome the urge to start sniggering like Beavis and Butthead whenever I hear you say ‘sex’), “intellectualizes – and thus enervates – what is better explored through a physical lens: the prism of the body and the senses. Anything hedonic, any sensual pleasure in life,” (oh God, I’m actually blushing now…fuck), “should be felt and experienced rather than debated.”

“Oh,” I say (what, seriously…that’s it?).

You start to stroke my hair with one hand and give the newspaper a rustle with the other, and I don’t need to look at you to know you’re smiling. I clear my throat awkwardly. “Okay then. Yeah,” I add. “When you put it like that.” Despite a vague sense of deflation (although really, what did I expect…that we were going to have a cosy ‘no you go first,’ ‘no, you..,’ type of chat about it?), I don’t actually feel dismissed by this. To be honest I’m sort of relieved, considering I’m pretty terrible at the stilted morning after conversation at the best of times. Not that I genuinely believe you’re going to let me off this lightly – of course you’ll be mentioning it at some point (and I imagine you’ll have plenty to say). Only you’re biding your time; you’ll do it when it suits you, and it’ll be in a weird, abstract, Machiavellian type of way that will thrill me and chill me and utterly mess with my brain. In fact in a way you’ve already started – you’re dismissing the physical aspect because it’s not as interesting to you as the psychological one. Fuck it though, I’m prepared to play along. I tip my head back and let my eyes fall closed.

You tuck a strand of hair behind my ear. “You seem extremely pensive,” you say after a pause. “I recognize that look: it makes you appear very young and ingenuous. It is rather endearing.”

“Ugh, no it doesn’t. I appear enigmatic and badass: you’re making me sound like a 12-year old.”

“No, not at all. It is rather that I find the contrast amusing: the ingénue exterior compared with what I know is going on in here.” You tap the side of my forehead.

I make a grunting noise in lieu of a response then turn over again so I’m lying on my front. Your comment about occupational health has made me remember myself in the alleyway on the night you came back, invoking the celestial aid of Jack Crawford when most people would be making bargains with God. Unfortunately though, I have taken it too far and begun imagining what would happen if I shouted ‘Jack!’ as opposed to ‘God!’ at all kinds of critical and inconvenient moments (including, but not limited to, moments of sexual gratification).

“What are you sniggering at?” you say.

I open my mouth, then wisely close it again. “Nothing.”

“Hmm.” You look at me closely. “You have remembered something that is amusing you.”

I eventually tell you (admittedly it sounded a lot less weird in my head) and you look vaguely appalled. “Do not even joke about such things,” you say. “With the exception of God, who I suppose must be permitted to inveigle his way in where he is not wanted, as he does with so much else, the only name I permit you to shout at such moments is my own.”

“Noted.” As an afterthought I add (because fuck it, why not): “I look forward to it.”

“Excellent.”

Nevertheless I can’t resist doing an experimental “Oh Jack! Jack” and you look like you’re losing the will to live.

“If you persist with this rather horrifying trajectory,” you say with mock severity, “then I shall record you doing it and forward it anonymously to the FBI.”

I snort again. “Okay, I’ll stop.”

“Good. I would be very obliged if you did.”

I imagine Jack’s face after downloading the audio file and nearly start laughing again, so roll away to try and hide it and lie on my back. You stretch out next to me, long and lithe and propped up on one elbow with your chin cupped in your hand.

“Where did you go this morning?”

“Primarily, I collected my luggage from the hotel,” you reply. Idly, you trace your fingers over the bruise marks on my neck, and I lean up into your touch. “It is very pleasant to have my books again.” I glance at the bedside table and sure enough a pile of them have appeared. The top one is bound in dusty looking green leather and has a medieval script on the spine: The Collected Writings of Wilham of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.

“That looks almost unbearably boring,” I say.

“It is, indeed, not terribly stimulating, although some of his ideas about morality and humanism are quite intriguing. I acquired it from an antiquarian dealer while I was away.” You lean over and press a brief kiss to my forehead. “I admit that it primarily caught my eye because of the portmanteau on your name: ‘Wil’ and ‘Ham’.”

“Did it? I could give you a portmanteau name as well. I could call you Hector.”

“You could indeed, as long as you do not expect me to answer.”

“You should be pleased. Wasn’t Hector an enormous badass? More impressive than Wilham of Sex-Coburg and Goth.”

“It is Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, and while I’m sure you make a very good point nothing will induce me to respond to ‘Hector’.”

“Well I’m glad you’ve been reunited with Wilham,” I say, “but I still wish you wouldn’t go out. I’m worried about someone recognizing you.”

“No one recognized me. I adopted a different accent and availed myself of your extremely expeditious disguise kit. Remember that I have extensive experience with this kind of thing; it is hardly the first time I have been ‘on the run’.”

“Even so…” I sigh fretfully. “Maybe we should leave? Go someplace else.”

“Certainly we can do that.”

“I need to sort a few things out first…I mean I can’t just go, it would look odd. People would notice. But maybe we should…At some point. Maybe.”

“Whatever you like,” you say.

I fall quiet again, biting my nails. The reality of what I’ve just said has come crashing down: if I run away with you – if I really went through with it – then what would the fuck would that actually mean? What sort of life would we have? More to the point, what sort of person would I turn into? And I know you’ve got your own plans (you’ve dropped enough cryptic hints after all) so how do they fit it? I know I’m being ridiculous; of course we can’t stay here forever. At some point I’m going to have to commit to a decision (and I already know what it’ll likely be). Just…not commit right now.

You’re watching my face carefully: naturally you have immediately worked out what I’m thinking, the sudden surge of doubt. “There is no rush to go anywhere,” you say at last.

“Yeah…” I glance at you in silent acknowledgement. “In the meantime though just, you know, be careful.”

“I am always exceedingly careful.”

“You seem to be forgetting that Jack Crawford – as in ‘oh! Jack!’ – is practically next door. And it’s not like it was the last time. In fact it’s nothing at all like that; I’m an accessory now.” Shit, I really am aren’t I? “Oh my God,” I add faintly as this fully sinks in, “I don’t want to go to prison.”

“You will not go to prison.”

“You don’t know that. How can you know that? You always said you would never go to prison, and look how that turned out.”

If you remember – and you certainly ought to, considering you were there – I went entirely by choice.”

“I don’t care! It’s all right for you, everyone’s terrified of you – they don’t put you in solitary for your own protection but for everyone else’s. How long do you think I’d last in prison?”

“Will…”

“I’m law enforcement, according to you I look about 12…”

“Will…”

“Oh my God, I’d be murdered in the first week. Someone would have to adopt me to stop me getting murdered. I’d have to be some con’s prison wife…” I pause and look a bit closer at you. “Are you laughing?”

“No.”

“You are! You totally are!”

“Will, you must calm yourself,” you say. “You are not going to go to prison, I shall not allow it.”

“Oh yeah, I forgot how much influence you have with the district attorney. That guy fucking loves you.”

“I shall not allow it,” you reply, “because in the unfeasibly unlikely event of me being apprehended I will tell anyone who will listen that I coerced Will Graham into everything, and was forcing him to act entirely contrary to his wishes. That is if anyone ever linked it to you at all, considering there is no means to retrospectively prove that I have been here all this time.”

“Yeah, well…what am I supposed to do if you went to prison?” If you left me again.

You look at me carefully. “I have no intention of going to prison,” you say at last. “Nor anything else that would entail someone taking you away from me.” You slide your hand down my chest under the covers.

"Stop it," I say crossly. “Stop trying to placate me.”

“You really want me to stop?”

Fortunately I am spared the embarrassment of adding 'no, actually, now you mention it...carry on' by my phone going (saved by the bell).

“Jack!” I say. You pretend to swat my head.

“Will, you okay?”

“Thanks, I’m fine. I’m good.” I realize it’s true – I am – and I smile in spite of myself. “What can I do for you?”

“Have you been on TattleCrime recently?”

As soon as he says that, I am decidedly no longer fine: I feel my stomach turn over in a horrible, nauseous way and dart a quick glance at you with wide, panicked eyes. “No,” I say weakly, “what’s happened?”

“That bitch Freddie Lounds has done another number on you.”

“Oh, okay,” I reply, almost cheerfully (fine status reactivated). I thought he was going to say something about you – a sighting, a rumor, the whispered beginnings of a trail where X marks the spot. Freddie Lounds’ invariable screed along the lines of ‘why the hell hasn’t someone locked this psychopath up yet?’ is relatively low down the list of priorities.

“It’s pretty bad,” says Jack irritably, as if I’m not taking it seriously enough. Why’s he so pissed off? It’s not like he’s the one that she’s arguing should be tied up and dropped down a well (or a variation thereof…but not before having his head opened up so Medical Science can study his fucked up brain). “Look, you probably shouldn’t read it, but I just wanted you to know that I don’t take it seriously.” He pauses then adds: “It won’t affect anything.”

“Thanks, I appreciate it. Jack.” I can’t help grinning again, and you roll your eyes at me.

“Just…watch yourself,” Jack replies. He doesn’t add anything else, and after a brief silence he hangs up. I put the phone on the bedside table then bury my way underneath your arm again.

“Freddie Lounds has done, and I quote, ‘a number on me’,” I say.

“Has she? How amusing. We should read it.”

“Why?”

“Because it will be interesting to know how close she has come to the truth.”

There are several ways of interpreting this, none of which are particularly appealing, so in the end I don’t answer at all and just get out of bed and wrap myself up in the shock blanket (the shock blanket, like the freak virus, has turned into a ubiquitous yet acceptable irritant…I clearly have pronounced Stockholm Syndrome tendencies) and shuffle over to the laptop. I expect you to follow me but you don’t.

Freddie was obviously sufficiently cowed by Jack’s warning to not mention me in her initial coverage of the agents’ murder, but has shown no such restraint this time round. Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing? screams the headline, with a photo of me looking more than unusually manic. I roll my eyes in advance. It’s pretty much a re-hash of the standard invective, albeit with some vicious embellishments: for example, she makes a great play of emphasizing that you haven’t been found yet but were last seen with me, your “known associate.” The conclusion she wishes the readers to draw is obvious, but she’s just stopped short of saying anything actionable (shame…the first amendment can kiss my ass). On the other hand, Sanderson’s voice is clearly recognizable behind several quotes from “an exclusive source within the FBI” about how creepy and unpredictable I am. Suddenly I feel bad for laughing at Jack. It was good of him to call and show solidarity: hardly anyone else in his position would have done the same.

Out of habit I scan through the comments (it’s the usual split between ‘Genius! Give the guy a medal!’ and ‘Psychopath! Throw him down a well!’), and I’m about to call you over so I can give you shit about the line “Graham, who was admittedly instrumental in the apprehension of the notorious Chesapeake Ripper…” when my eye suddenly catches a comment at the bottom blaring out in the familiar capital letters. I can feel myself growing very cold all over, and I don’t even need to look at the username to know I’ll see ‘Maniloa’:

TICK TOCK TICK TOCK MR GRAHAM. THERE’S A RECKONING COMING. YOU AND ME. YOU’LL BE HEARING FROM ME SOON. ”

Oh fuck.

“Look at this!” I yell.

“What?” you ask calmly. You stroll in through from the bedroom, still holding the newspaper (I suspect you are collecting and cataloguing some of the more lurid quotes about yourself to stash in your memory palace – no doubt a new wing is currently in development).

“It’s him!” I say, stabbing my finger at the screen. You lean in closer to read it, your hand on my shoulder, and in spite of myself I let my head fall to the side so I’m nestling against your arm. “Yes, it certainly appears to be,” you reply. After a pause you add: “Another theatrically loaded message: how tedious.”

“It is. It definitely is.”

“I agree: it definitely is.”

“Well aren’t you bothered?”

“No, not particularly, and nor should you be.” You lean forward to read the message again. “His reliance on feeble rhetoric is truly appalling. I have disposed of people for far less.”

“Oh God, you’re unbelievable.”

You ruffle my hair in an exceedingly patronizing way. “My dear Will, as are you. I would have expected you to be much happier about this; isn’t it what you’ve been waiting for?”

“Yes, but…” But it’s different now. I want to lounge around with you on the sofa with no clothes on, and not have to worry about one or both of us getting shanked in a back alley by Matthew Brown. I give you a frown that’s meant to be impatient, but probably comes across more as doleful and tragic. You’re just staring at me, looking (if possible) even more Sphinx-like and inscrutable than usual.

“Is that your poker face?” I say irritably. “You should take that to Vegas. You could win us enough money to pay for some bodyguards and a really good attorney.” Even as I say this I realize I am not entirely joking…at the very least, I bet you can count cards like a fucking boss.

“You are capable of managing it,” is all you reply. You wave your hand around in a rather complacent way. “I am more than capable of managing it.”

“Oh yeah, because you managed him so successfully before.”

You frown at that – needless to say you hate being reminded of one of the few times somebody got the better of you. “Well, if you recall,” you say, “he had the advantage of surprise on that occasion, and that is an advantage which he has now lost.” You give me a sardonic smile. “Be reasonable. Even I could hardly have supposed that you had been flirting with him so industriously the entire time to coerce him into acting on your behalf.”

“I did not flirt with him,” I say mutinously.

“Well, at the very least, employing your formidable ‘powers of persuasion.’ Shall we refer to it as that instead? It actually sounds worse you know; it has a rather unfortunate euphemistic quality to it.”

I open my mouth to yell at you, but you sail on impervious. “Most people would have taken recourse to the legal system and petitioning the mercy of the FBI. But not you. Really Will, what a cunning boy you are; I must confess that I have passed many amusing moments picturing you tirelessly and manipulatively fluttering your eyelashes at Matthew Brown through a set of bars in the service of securing your revenge.”

“Oh for…”

You quirk an eyebrow at me. “I suppose you made that charming blue jumpsuit work to your full advantage?”

I am sorely tempted to throw my coffee mug at you, but ultimately resist on the grounds that you’d only catch it and sling it back again (no doubt going for a head shot and taking me out in the process). “Sometimes I loathe you,” I say, “you do know that, right?”

You give me the most appalling smirk and then flick your eyes up and down my body in a way that makes me start blushing. “Yet even with such an appealing incentive,” you add, “we see that he was ultimately unsuccessful and fate thoughtfully intervened on my behalf.”

“Yeah – fate. It was hardly anything you did.”

“On the contrary, it was because I had an ensemble of eager little rescuers who were touchingly keen to take my word over yours and come running to my assistance. As you see, it is incredibly difficult to try and outwit me; even you have never been entirely able to manage it.”

“God, you’re so vain. Clinical and pathological narcissist. Do you have insurance on your ego? Do you have to pay excess baggage on it every time you need to get on a plane to flee the country?” This is actually putting it mildly: your ego is so enormous and all-consuming that’s it’s like a third person in the apartment; I should probably be asking it to contribute to the rent.

“You are quite correct, as you often are” you say in a self-satisfied voice. “My ego, inevitably, is obliged to be proportional to the scope and breadth of my numerous capabilities. Hence it is naturally somewhat magnified in size. Examine your Nietzsche and you will see that it is an entirely sensible position to take.”

“Oh Christ, they better not arrest you again; they’ll have to charge the two of you separately. They’ll need to give it its own cell.”

“Dear me Will, how terribly rude you are.”

“Yeah, well…eat me.”

You just give me a rather evil smile, and at that precise moment someone knocks loudly and bad-temperedly on the door. I jump so hard I nearly fall off my goddamn chair.

You look as if all this is entertaining you enormously. “It would indeed be an excellent thing if that were Matthew Brown on the other side,” you say, “but I’m afraid that is probably too much to hope for.”

“Yeah,” I reply weakly.

You smirk at me. “Shall I answer it?”

“What? No! Jesus. I’ll get it. No one’s supposed to know you’re here, remember?” I frantically tug on some jeans and replace the shock blanket with a t-shirt (these items are still strewn around the sofa from last night – I can’t help blushing slightly at the sight of them); and the knock comes again, loud and peremptory. You just sit there, watching me with obvious amusement.

“So anxious,” you say, smiling at me broadly. “Don’t worry Will. If you do end up in prison, I promise to come and visit you unfailingly.”

“That’s not funny. How is that funny?” I open the door. There’s a tall, rangy man stood outside: angular and fleshless with pale, slightly bulbous eyes, and wearing a pair of dingy dungarees with the rental agency logo on the breast pocket. He gives me an intense look from head to foot – it’s like his bulging eyes are literally crawling over me – and I instinctively shift a bit further behind the door.

“Mr Graham?” he asks, “You Will Graham?”

“Yeah.” I consider snapping ‘who wants to know?’ but ultimately decide not to: no point in looking overly defensive.

“The Building Super sent me to check up on you pal. Heard reports you’ve been subletting?”

“What?” I ask stupidly. “Subletting? No. Absolutely not. No way.” I sound so incredibly fervent that the only thing missing is an earnest salute followed by ‘Scout’s Honour Sir! And God Bless America!’ Christ, don’t overdo it, I think to myself.

He consults his sheaf of papers, making a big performance out of licking his thumb and arduously flicking through each sheet. “Tall, dark-haired guy been seen on the premises,” he finally says and I can feel the blood draining away from my face. Fuck. Fuck! I stare at him numbly. How is this happening?

“Oh, yeah?” I force myself to sound as casual as possible. “That would have been my Uncle. But he left last week, went back to Europe.”

“Mind if I come in and take a look?”

“You got some ID?” He rummages round in his pocket and produces some. Shit.

“Okay,” I say grudgingly, “But you know that you’re not allowed access to the property without 24 hour notice right? So…” (so fuck off).

He eyes the bruises on my neck and smirks. “What’s the matter pal? Am I interrupting something?”

I seize on this almost gratefully. “Yeah, actually, you are. My girlfriend’s visiting from out of town, so, y’know…” I wave my hand around a bit, trying to aim for a kind of shitty macho camaraderie, but am way too anxious to carry it off. I almost certainly look deeply weird: he probably thinks the girlfriend is of the inflatable, wipe-clean variety and has just been delivered from out of town in a cardboard box.

“Yeah, yeah, I get it buddy.” He gives me a horrible leering look, and I shrink a bit further behind the doorframe. “Tomorrow then.” He doesn’t say anything else, just keeps staring at me, and in the end I can’t stand it anymore and slam the door in his face.

I go back into the living room and run my hands through my hair. I can vaguely see my reflection in the window: it’s now standing on end and makes me look like I’ve been electrocuted. You’re just lounging on the sofa, looking completely unconcerned.

“Shit. Shit! Someone knows you’re here!”

“On the contrary, they most certainly do not know,” you reply calmly. “They suspect someone, yes, but not who. If that were the case, your entire building would be swarming with the FBI.”

This is undeniably true, but I still don’t like it. “Something’s wrong,” I say uneasily. “It is. It doesn’t make any sense. How could anyone have reported seeing you?”

“Your neighbor perhaps?”

“What, Mr Haversham? No. No way.”

“Yes, I am inclined to agree. He appears far too fond of you for that.”

“Do you think it’s got anything to do with that internet message?”

“I have no idea,” you say, “but it will be fascinating to find out.”

“How the hell could anyone know? You’ve barely left the apartment. You’ve barely left that chair.”

“Or, for that matter, this sofa,” you add innocently.

“That’s not funny.” Absently I rub at the marks on my neck, this time with dismay rather than satisfaction. Shit, I’ll have to find something to cover them up before anyone else sees them.

“You should have applied a cold compress this morning,” you say. “It would have broken up blood clots and reduced the swelling. Of course it is too late now.” You look revoltingly smug about it.

“Great, thanks,” I reply, “thank you for that utterly pointless advice.” I fling myself down next to you on the couch, and you pull me against your chest and wrap your arms around me.

“Is it so pointless?” you murmur into the top of my head, “I am sure it will be of great benefit in the immediate future.”

I can feel myself starting to blush, and bury my face in your shoulder to hide it. “We should leave,” I say. “Tomorrow, as soon as possible. We should go to a hotel…somewhere out of town.”

“Of course, if you wish.”

“You go first and I’ll meet you there later. I don’t want to risk us being seen together.”

“Naturally not. Although I would suggest you delay a little longer; if you desert your apartment immediately after that inspection it will look suspicious.”

“Yeah…okay. But you have to find somewhere tomorrow. Then you’ll be out the way when that guy comes back.” I start biting my nails again, anxious and fretful, and only belatedly realize that I’m clinging onto your shirt with my other hand. Realistically I know the most sensible thing would be for you to go while I stay here (for you to just go, full stop), but already that’s out of the question and I dismiss the thought as soon as it occurs. Because it’s still like before, like that night on the cliff, like it always has been: we sink or swim together.

“I suppose it was the presence of your enormous ego that raised the alarm,” I say mournfully. “Ironic considering I wasn’t even charging you rent for it.”

“You are a ridiculous boy.”

“You are a ridiculous narcissist.”

“Brat.”

“Old man.”

“If I am an old man,” you say, “then that virtually makes you a sort of catamite; although admittedly a rather elderly one. I shall have to start calling you Ganymede. Or would you prefer the Latin equivalent?”

“Gross. Don’t you dare.”

You give me another patronizing hair ruffle. “Don’t be so despondent Will, such agonizing is premature. We have a plan; there is nothing about the immediate situation that is without remedy, or deserving of significant alarm.”

“I guess.”

“Well, you may be guessing but I am not. My position is based on careful and impartial consideration of the facts.”

I sigh and stare at the wall straight ahead. There’s a patch of damp that looks a bit like the outline of California. You’ve stopped ruffling my hair but have kept your hand on my head, and the weight of your palm is oddly reassuring.

“Stay with me,” I say abruptly.

“When?”

Always. “Tonight.”

“Of course. I thought we had just agreed that?” You uncurl my fingers from your shirt, one by one, then take hold of my hand, examining it as if it’s some foreign, fascinating artefact. “And numerous nights thereafter I should think. You have already discovered that I am not particularly easy to get away from.”

But you’re easy to lose track of, I think. Oh fuck, there’s so much I could lose isn’t there: life, liberty, mind. Sense of self. You. What will I do if I lose the other half of my equation? What would you do? Shit, I’m overreacting aren’t I? Nothing’s really happened after all. Not really. Some self-righteous asshole has reported me to the rental agency and Matthew Brown has left just one of numerous bullshit messages. You’re not concerned (but nothing ever concerns you). It’s okay. Isn’t it? It’s fine. But it’s no good, not really. Because deep down I know that it’s not.

“I can see that you are unhappy about this,” you say, “and considering everything you have been dealing with in the past few months it is unsurprising that your resources are running a little low. Console yourself that you have a considerable advantage now which you did not have before.”

“What?”

“Well, obviously, you have me. I am going to appeal to that rather hackneyed expression ‘strength in numbers’ – because now there are two of us.”

“There’s always been two of us.”

“Yes, but we have hardly always enjoyed our current level of cooperation.”

“Hmm,” I say absently. I want to tell you that this isn’t entirely comforting, because what’s mostly bothering me is the fact that I now have your welfare to worry about rather than just my own. But I don’t know how to tell you that without sounding appallingly sentimental (and anyway you’d probably just be offended on the grounds that I’m appearing to question your status as an unassailable badass). Instead I shift my head off your shoulder and haul myself upright.

“All will be well,” you say, as if we’re discussing renewing the mortgage.

“Yeah,” I reply vaguely. I want to touch you in some way but can’t quite summon enough courage to initiate it (which is actually pretty fucking ridiculous…considering what I did in front of you in this exact spot less than 24 hours ago all bets should now officially be off). I clear my throat self-consciously, and shuffle about a bit; drawing my knees up under my chin, then wrapping my arms round my legs, before finally abandoning the whole thing and putting my feet back on the floor. I can’t stop staring at your lips, and finally glance up only to realize you’re staring equally fixedly at mine. Then we move our gaze upwards at the same time and our eyes lock together.

“Please,” I can hear myself saying.

“Come here Will,” you reply softly. “You know you can have this; you don’t need to ask.” You put your hand round the back of my head to draw me towards you and I can’t stop myself making a small moaning noise, because I need this so much and still can’t quite believe I’m allowed to do it. We entwine into one another as naturally and easily as if we’ve been doing it for years (as if we’ve always done it, as if we’ve never done anything else), and while the kiss is deep and slow and gentle – none of the frenzied urgency of last night – the passionate sincerity is exactly the same. The sensation of your tongue lapping against mine is incredible and I helplessly arch myself against you, whimpering slightly at the loss when every so often you pull away so you can trace your lips against my cheekbones, my eyelids, my forehead, your touch so incredibly light it could be just the brush of eyelashes. You keep murmuring my name, low and rhythmic: “Will…Will…Will,” one hand stroking the side of my face, the other running up and down my back, sometimes shifting up so you can caress the delicate skin behind my ear, or slide your fingers underneath my collar. Oh God, it’s so good to be in your arms like this: it feels like it’s where I’m supposed to be. It feels like everything, ever; yet it doesn’t feel like anything else. I press up against you, craving as much contact as possible, frantic to be close to you, and you seem to instinctively realize what I need and curl your arms around my back, holding me tightly – so tightly it starts to hurt, and it’s still not enough. Your lips feel so good against mine, your mouth is so warm, your body so heated and hard and heartening; and I cling onto you with both hands as if you’re the single lifeline in the abyss. Oh God, I want you to understand. Please hear it, please know. And into every movement, every sigh, every breath, I desperately pour everything that I’m not able to tell you in person.

I need you.

Don’t leave me.

You frighten me.

I’m frightening myself.

I want to protect us and I’m scared that I can’t.

I want us to stay and I want us to leave.

I want to know you but I don’t know how.

I want to feel sure.

I want too much.

I just want you.

I want you, I want you; I want you all the time. And I know that I shouldn’t but I do.

Chapter Text

The afternoon limps on and I’m feeling progressively pissed off and restless, wishing that the day would just end so we can start over again tomorrow. You’ve promised me you’ll leave first thing in the morning and find a hotel, and it’s clear that you now consider the matter settled.

“Why wait?” I say tetchily, “Why not just go now?”

“Because there is no real reason, at present, to suppose that the inspection was anything other than what it appeared to be: in which case there is no need to leave. If, on the other hand, it served more nefarious purposes then it is highly likely that the building is being watched in the expectation of you or I vacating the premises. In which case, it is far more sensible to leave early tomorrow when all your neighbors are departing to their tedious little jobs and it will be easier to merge into the crowd.” All this without once glancing up from your book.

Even though I know you’re right I’m finding your composure highly aggravating, so end up storming (possibly even flouncing) out of the living room and hurling myself onto my bed so I can sulk in private. I put the radio on and they’re playing Nirvana – I don’t even particularly like Nirvana, but it reminds me of being at college (when life was that much…simpler) so I crank it up and let the shrieking riffs wash over me. Your head appears round the door almost immediately (you still manage to look dignified whilst you’re doing it, despite the fact such a thing shouldn’t be theoretically possible). “Will,” you say politely, “that noise is…ungodly.”

I scowl at you, but turn it down anyway. Once you’ve left I turn it up again. God this is such bullshit. It’s the waiting I can’t stand. That and the not-knowing – I can’t get a proper grip on what’s going on and it’s driving me crazy. I try calling the rental agency, but they won’t tell me anything: “We treat all reports or complaints about existing tenants in the strictest confidence” chants the administrative fascist who answers the phone. I can tell he’s literally reading some bullshit spiel from a piece of paper, and in the end I lose patience and hang up. The only other thing I can think of doing is speaking with Mark, the janitor, so I have a shower and put on some fresh clothes, then head out to track him down. He’s lurking as usual in his dingy little office, and I ask him if he’s aware of a new inspector from the rental agency but he says he’s not. “Don’t look at me bro,” he says, “I just work here.”

I pick up a ruler on his desk and anxiously fidget with it. “Yeah, but there was something off about this guy. He was really…odd.”

“You think anyone regular wants to stick working for a shitty company like this. I mean look at me!” He guffaws uproariously, although I don’t really get what’s meant to be so funny. I smile at him thinly and give the ruler a particularly elaborate twist, upon which it promptly snaps. I look down at its mortal remains in genuine dismay. “Oh, shit,” I say, “I’m really sorry.”

“Jeez, man, watch it.” He snatches back the ruler (now in two halves, so technically rulers plural) and gives me a dirty look. “Why’d you care so much anyway? You say you’re not subletting so what’s the big deal? Just let him inspect your place – job done.” At that point his phone goes off and he flaps his hand at me to be quiet. I stare at the logo on his overalls, trying to mentally compare it with the one I saw on the inspector earlier. It looks exactly the same, as far as I can tell: if it was a forgery, it was expertly done. Who could have had resources for expert forgery? Surely not Matthew Brown. Oh Christ, what am I talking about – ‘expert forgery’? It would have been easy enough to steal. From down the receiver I can hear the sound of a scolding female voice, and Mark keeps rolling his eyes and grimacing at me. I just stare back, numb and expressionless.

“Women!” he says when he hangs up. “Can’t live with ‘em…can’t kill ‘em either.” He pauses awkwardly when I don’t respond. “Hey man, it was a joke.”

“You should do my job,” I reply sharply, “and you’d realize why I don’t think it’s funny.”

“Oh, jeez, chill out,” he says irritably. “Don’t take your crazy stress out on me. If it was just your uncle stopping by then you ain’t got no need to worry.” He gives a snort of phlegmy laughter. “I mean, come on, someone like you? No one’s gonna believe you’d be shacked up with another guy!” He laughs again, and I long to tell him to fuck off, but in the end just turn round and leave in silence.

*****

It’s only nine o’clock, but already the day feels like it’s never going to fucking end. You’re still sat on the sofa, engrossed in one of your (incredibly boring looking) books and I feel equally envious and resentful that you can be so completely unconcerned. I sit for a while and watch you, fascinated in spite of myself. Your reading speed is phenomenal: it’s like you can just run your eyes up and down each page.

“Why are you so comatose?” I ask accusingly.

“Why are you so relentlessly energetic?” you reply without glancing up. “You are constantly running around; no wonder you are so thin. It would benefit you enormously to sit still once in a while and simply…contemplate.”

I can’t think of a suitable rejoinder to this except for something incredibly juvenile (along the lines of ‘contemplation is shit’) so in the end I don’t answer at all, just start pacing round again. At one point I stumble over my briefcase, and take a perverse amount of satisfaction from throwing it in the air then drop-kicking it across the room. It lands almost perfectly by the side of the table.

“Touchdown,” I say. “Fucking amazing.”

You finally lower your book and give me a pointed look over the top of it. “You need to try and relax.”

“I am relaxed.”

You don’t even bother responding to this obviously bullshit statement, just raise a single sardonic eyebrow.

“I am reasonably, fairly, at least somewhat relaxed.”

“No indeed. You are reasonably, fairly, and at least somewhat hysterical.”

“I am not hysterical,” I say witheringly. I give you a look that would quell a lump of granite (and which needless to say rebounds off you with no obvious effect). Instead you just keep staring at me, with that faint half-smile on your face.

“There is nothing more to be done at present,” you say. “We have established a course of action, and can begin to instigate it in the morning. In the meantime your constant agonizing is entirely pointless.”

“I don’t understand why you’re not more bothered.”

“Because it would not achieve anything.”

Once again I know you’re right but can’t bring myself to admit it, so renew my increasingly demented pacing. It must be driving you mad (to be honest I’m actually starting to piss myself off).

“Will,” you say at last, “come here.”

I hesitate slightly. Pride makes me want to delay: to take a stand, hold my ground; not automatically comply with whatever you tell me to do. But you’re just sat there, watching and waiting, and for all my intrinsic resistance I still can’t stop myself obediently walking over and parking myself in front of the sofa. Technically I’m in the dominant position – standing up and looking down on you – but I might as well be on my knees for all the difference it makes. You don’t say anything at first: just look at me, dark and luminous as always, and I find myself shuffling awkwardly from one foot to the other; longing to say something, to try and take control, but simultaneously finding it completely impossible to do anything except stand there – docile and pliable – and await further instructions. You briefly put your hands on my legs to make me stand still, then lean back, stretching your arms behind your head.

“As I remarked, Will,” you say at last, “you really need to turn your mind away from Matthew Brown et al.”

I open my mouth to object, then close it again.

“We are in agreement with this, yes?”

“Y-e-s,” I say reluctantly.

You smile again, and there’s something about it that’s both slightly threatening and incredibly enticing, all at the same time. I can’t draw my eyes away from you. “Very good,” you say smoothly. “Now – take off your shirt.”

“What?”

You don’t repeat yourself, just carry on looking and smiling – smiling and looking – and I find myself automatically reaching up for the top button, fumbling to obey what you’ve told me to do. “Wait,” you say. “Not like that. Do it…slowly. Start with the cuffs. Fold them back, I want to see your wrists.”

“My wrists?”

“Yes. You have beautiful hands, very slender and well-shaped. See?” you reach out a finger and run it up and down my forearm, over my wrist, and along my knuckles. “Look how long and delicate your bones are. So fragile and willowy, yet capable of great potency. These little hands. There is so much ferocity in them, isn’t there?”

I don’t answer immediately and you glance up. “Yes,” I say faintly.

Yes.” You lean back against the sofa again, regarding me. “Carry on please,” you add. “Just the first few buttons at the top. Pull the collar down and show me your throat. A little lower. Perfect, that’s very good Will. Keep your eyes on me. Now undo the rest, one at a time. Be careful, don’t tug the buttons off. You’re nervous aren’t you? See how your hands are trembling…your ferocious yet fragile hands.”

I swallow – hard – and finally manage to navigate unfastening the whole thing, hesitating for a few seconds before glancing up at you anxiously. You lean forward very slightly and fix me with one of your concentrated stares. “Take it off,” you say.

I raise my hands to obey, lose my nerve, waver again; and then finally let it slide off my shoulders and fall to the floor. You make a vaguely regretful noise, immediately picking it up and pleating the fabric into neat, precise folds.

“Don’t be so careless,” you say, “I am very fond of this shirt. The shade of blue is extremely flattering: it complements your eyes and complexion rather wonderfully. It deserves more considerate treatment.” You lay it down, almost tenderly, by the side of the sofa, then return to running your eyes over me adding, almost like it’s an afterthought: “Now please take off everything else.”

Oh God. I falter slightly – I feel so intensely self-conscious, I almost can’t bring myself to do it. My hands really are shaking now and it takes several scrabbling attempts to unfasten my belt; it’s like even my fingers are freaking out and won’t obey direct orders. I suspect you’re relishing my discomfort. It doesn’t matter how long it takes me, you’ll just wait – serene and smiling – you’ll wait as long as you need to. You’ve already been waiting haven’t you? You’ve been waiting for years. I have to awkwardly lever my jeans to avoid catching on my – incredibly obvious – erection, which is already flushed and throbbing and leaking wetly at the tip and I feel like I’m going a bit mad: the heady combination of feeling incredibly vulnerable and panicky and unbelievably turned on. You stretch back languorously, observing me with unconcealed satisfaction.

“I believe that this rather excites you,” you say. “You like it don’t you? Displaying yourself, showing me how beautiful you really are. And that makes you feel ashamed, then guilty; and then somewhat unnerved. And then, finally…it frightens you. Doesn’t it Will? Because your better judgement, and all your wonderful morals, are screaming at you that you should not be enjoying it quite as much as you are.”

“Oh God, don’t,” I say piteously, “don’t do this now.” This endless fucking metaphor. All right, I think defiantly, I admit it. I enjoyed killing him. I enjoyed the fact that you enjoyed it. And I was so horrified by that I threw us both off a fucking cliff. What do you want me to say? Nevertheless as soon as I’ve asked you to stop I immediately regret it, because if there’s one thing that’s likely to encourage you it’s being told to leave it alone. But to my surprise you actually do stop (I guess, as always, you have a flawlessly tuned sense of exactly how far to push). You’re still smiling, but instead you put both your hands round my waist and pull me towards you, delicately massaging the jut of my hip bones with your thumbs. The sensation makes me tremble.

“Come here,” you say quietly. I stumble slightly as you tug me forward, and allow you to manoeuvre my body so I end up sitting on your knee facing you, my own knees resting on either side of your thighs. You push my hair out my eyes, then hold my head firmly in place – one hand on each side – so my eyes are exactly level with yours.

“My dearest Agent Graham,” you say, “one day – and that day will be quite soon – you know that you are going to have to admit it.”

I stare back at you, blinking a bit stupidly. You hardly ever blink; it’s one of the many subliminal signals that make you so intimidating. “I know,” I finally say in a hushed voice, and even those two tiny words seem to take on a momentous significance, because it’s the first time I’ve really conceded that there’s something to admit.

You lean forward and kiss me lightly on the forehead. “That’s very good Will,” you say.

This is all now getting way too intense, and I’m increasingly desperate to do the non-verbal equivalent of changing the subject, so on a whim I clumsily unbutton your shirt and run my hands, somewhat shyly, over the chiselled lines of your torso. It’s actually pretty daunting: a highly visceral reminder of how strong you are (and the fact that, if you put your mind to it, you could crack me in half with no effort at all). You’re watching me do it, amused but affectionate, seeing how far I’ll have the courage to go. I can’t actually bring myself to try and fully undress you – it feels like too much of a power shift, and while you’d almost certainly allow it (I think…I think you would), I’m not sure that I want to attempt it. Besides, it’s starting to look as if I have a previously untapped submissive streak a mile wide – which of course you’ve picked up on – because the clothing disparity is actually turning me on even more (oh God). You lean forward again, gently tugging on my ear lobe with your teeth, and I gasp and let my head tip back. You laugh slightly at that, reaching out to tangle your fingers in my hair, pulling it until it’s just on the cusp of being painful.

“I find the way you do that rather captivating,” you say. “You are so sensitive. See how rapturously you respond to even the slightest of touches? The contrast is fascinating: the most perfect arrangement of artless naiveté tempered by utter dissolution and shamelessness. How do you manage it?”

There’s a pause, and I realize with mounting embarrassment that you actually expect me to answer this (frankly, impossible) question. “I…I don’t know,” I reply.

“One of your many dichotomies I suppose,” you say, amused. You trail your hands down my ribs and grip my waist and I can feel myself starting to quiver. “So…now that I have you here, what should I do with you?”

I hesitate. My mouth has gone totally dry. “I don’t know,” I say again.

“My poor Will. You don’t seem to know very much at this precise moment do you? That is rather uncharacteristic. Although I must admit that I find you rather appealing this way. Not to mention the distinction it confers; no one else gets to see you like this do they.”

I just shake my head, a bit helplessly, and you place a hand on the back of my neck, gripping it gently yet firmly. “You still haven’t answered my question,” you say.

I close my eyes and lean back into your touch. “Anything,” I hear myself replying.

“Anything?” you repeat smoothly. “You know that if you are unable to express a preference then I’m afraid it means you are placing yourself entirely at my discretion? Which is rather courageous of you, isn’t it – all things considered.” I whimper very slightly and you move your hand away from my neck so you can place one of your long fingers over my mouth, rubbing my bottom lip with your thumb.

“Open your mouth Will,” you say. And of course I obey immediately, letting it fall open so you can slide your finger inside, flicking my tongue and sucking it almost ecstatically as I gaze at you submissively from under my eyelashes. You stroke my back with your other hand, and I’m vaguely aware of how tightly I’m clinging onto your shoulders. It must be hurting you by now, but you don’t even flinch.

“So beautifully pliant,” you say, “I believe I could do anything I chose to you when you’re like this and you wouldn’t stop me. Would you? You wouldn’t even try. One day we shall have to fully put that to the test won’t we; explore how far you really would be willing to go.” I make another small moaning noise and you pull your finger out my mouth, wet and glistening, and slowly and torturously glide your hand down my spine and over my ass. Oh fuck, I think, as I finally catch on to what’s going to happen: and then I really do cry out as I feel your slick finger running insistently round the rim, gently stroking to test how tense I am, coaxing the muscle to relax, before sliding into the tight heat of my body, right up to the first knuckle, caressing and exploring in a way that’s both careful yet incredibly persistent.

“Oh my God,” I say faintly. I’m now gripping your shoulders so hard my fingers are aching, and you move your face round to kiss my wrist.

“It feels good?”

“Yes…Yes.”

“Has anyone ever done this to you before?”

“No.” I gasp again and bear down on your shoulders for leverage, frantically pushing my hips back against your hand, exactly as you predicted I would.

“Have you ever done it to yourself?”

Oh for fuck’s sake – is nothing sacred? “Yes,” I say in a small, reluctant voice. Absurdly, considering the situation, I still feel embarrassed admitting it. And this is fatal, because of course you can tell and persist even further.

“How?” you say softly. “How did you do it? Lying on your back? On your knees?”

“In…in the shower. Please don’t, this is….just stop…”

“How many fingers did you attempt?”

“Jesus, I don’t…I don’t remember.”

“You don’t remember; so it was endeavoured some time ago and not repeated? You didn’t like it then. It didn’t satisfy you?”

“I don’t…shit, why do you even want to know?”

You curve you finger to the side and I cry out again. “I am curious,” you say.

Ah…Oh God…No, okay? It wasn’t like this.”

“Not like this,” you repeat. You reach out your other hand to cradle the back of my head, holding it in place. “Don’t close your eyes,” you say, “I want to watch you while I’m doing this. You shouldn’t be so self-conscious Will. We shall have to work on that; you need to take more pride in how wonderfully unique you are.”

“I can’t…I’m not…”

“But you are,” you say. “And right now you feel exquisite. Like wet silk tightly stretched and wound around me. I can already imagine how perfect you are going to feel when I’m really inside you, when you let me take you for the first time.”

I can’t even answer this, so let my head fall forward onto your shoulder to hide my face. “You’re growing so relaxed,” you say caressingly. “So open. So receptive. It’s as if your body is trying to draw me in. It hasn’t taken you long has it Will? One would think you were extremely used to this, as if you did it all the time. You can feel it as well, can’t you? How little resistance there is?” You remove your finger almost entirely then slide it back in with a deep thrust, and I give a low moan and desperately arch my spine so my hips push harder against your hand.

“That’s right,” you say softly. “It feels good doesn’t it? You enjoy it so much. In fact I think you are ready to take a little more now, would you agree?” God, the sound of your voice is turning me on to an almost insane degree: you could be simply reading out of the telephone directory and it would still be driving me crazy. You kiss my shoulder, then slip your finger out of me – I make a small whining noise in protest at the sudden absence – and reach around for your coat, which as usual is hanging over the back of the sofa. I blink in confusion, wondering what the hell you’re doing, and become highly aware of the harsh, almost ragged, sound of my own breathing. I’m growing light-headed, and am still grasping your shoulders in a desperate attempt to steady and ground myself. You’ll probably have bruises tomorrow. It’s still too much to process, even last night didn’t fully prepare me. How is it possible you can have this delirious effect on me? I didn’t expect…God, I didn’t know.

You retrieve a small plastic bottle from your coat pocket, which I can immediately see is lubricant. Oh, so you did get some after all – you crafty bastard. You drizzle it over your fingers with a slight flourish, and then over my cock as well, although you do it straight from the bottle and don’t actually touch me (oh fuck, fuck, please touch me, this is torture. You’re obviously doing it on purpose). The lube is clear and plain, thank God, vaguely medical looking: I don’t think I could have coped if it had been brightly coloured and smelt like synthetic fruit, I really don’t. You slide you fingers between my legs again, slick and smooth, but this time you just stroke me for a while, deliberately teasing and provocative; pressing against the opening but moving away again whenever I think you’re finally going to push inside. I can feel myself starting to make small whining noises, thrusting desperately against you hand.

“Tell me,” you murmur into my ear. “Ask me for what you want.”

“Oh God, please, just…”

“What?”

Please…I can’t.”

“Yes you can.”

I falter again. I know you’re doing it on purpose; you want to overwhelm me, break down my inhibitions. Oh Christ, I feel like I’m going mad. “Please. Please,” I finally say. My voice sounds so raw, so frantic. “Oh fuck. Please…I want your fingers inside me.” I make a deep gasping noise, more as a way of expelling the tension than anything else, and renew my rigor mortis grip on your shoulders. “Oh God, I want it hard, deep…I want you to make me feel good…I want you to make me come.”

“Very good. You are an obedient boy, aren’t you?” you say. “I think that can be managed,” and you reach down with your other hand and spread me open so you can slide your thumb inside. My whole body tremors convulsively, and you pull out, teasing me again, before slowly working in two fingers and caressing me from the inside, almost like a massage. I cry out helplessly and you tug on my bottom lip with your teeth, simultaneously hooking your fingers forward and rubbing in small circles against my prostate. Oh God, shit, fucking hell, it feels so good.

“Mmm, you like that don’t you?” you say. “See how you are spreading your legs and pushing against me. Look at you Will; completely overwhelmed by the pleasure of it. I wonder if you could come just from this? One day we shall have to try it. I will lay you out you over my knees again, just like you are now: explore your body, touch you like this for as long as it takes, but refuse to give you anything else. Do you think the stimulation would be enough? Do you think you could? I can already imagine how you would look, so utterly desperate and wanting, pleading me for release. I wonder how long you could bear it. Would you beg, do you think?”

“God, you know I would. You know…”

“I do.” You kiss my forehead. “So beautiful, Will. I would like to know what you are thinking right now.”

“I can’t…I can’t think…”

“No, I don’t accept that I’m afraid. I believe you can. You are so clever aren’t you? Such a lovely, quick mind: it never truly goes quiet. I believe that you can, and I believe that you will; because you know that I want to hear it and you like to please me, don’t you?”

“I’m…God, I don’t know. I’m just thinking how good it feels.”

“Where does it feel good?”

“Everywhere, all over. My whole body. Like a pressure building up.”

“Yes, you’re so close aren’t you? And if we can keep you like this for a little longer it will feel even better. Tell me, are you surprised by how much you enjoy it?”

“Yes.” I gasp again and give my hips another violent push, and you put your hand on my neck to keep me steady, curling your fingers around so you stroke the side of my throat.

“But it’s not just the physical sensation is it?” you say. “You know most men would find it pleasurable when done correctly, so that part doesn’t entirely bother you. There is something else isn’t there?”

Yes.”

“And what is that?”

“You. I didn’t think…ah, God, it’s because it’s you.”

“Yes. You weren’t fully prepared for that, were you? You thought that when the time came you would be able to resist. That all your morals and reason, and your fine good judgement, would supervise you more effectively.”

“Oh God, I know. I know.”

“You did not anticipate I could overtake you so entirely?”

I bite my lip and shake my head. You’re so relentless. I can’t quite bring myself to look at you.

“And yet you find yourself craving it. Don’t you? The way I can make you feel. The way I can get inside you.”

“Oh fuck you. Christ, why are you doing this? You already know, you’ve always known.” You don’t respond immediately, just slide your hand down my face, and I can’t stop myself twisting round and grasping at it with my teeth, desperately trying to bite you. You make a sighing sound so low it could almost be a hiss.

“Quid pro quo Will,” you say. “You must be aware that I find you utterly fascinating in return?”

“I don’t…I’m not sure. I don’t know.”

“Do you not? You really are quite singular, aren’t you – so extraordinary, yet so unaware of it. It doesn’t matter; you are simply going to have to learn. It won’t be difficult. You are so clever after all. Such a young, inventive, ingenious thing as you are.”

You shift your thumb so you can stroke the slick taut skin around where your fingers are sliding in and out of my body, then press down sharply on my perineum and this time I almost scream with the pleasure of it, frantically thrusting my hips so I can fuck myself on your fingers. “Beautiful,” you say caressingly, “just like that. That’s perfect.” Up until now you’ve basically been rocking your fingers in and out of me, but now you keep entirely still, letting me do all the work and set my own pace. I moan again, wild and needy, and you return your hand to the back of my head so you can pull me forward and kiss me; hard, almost bruising, like I’m being invaded. You keep on holding my head in place, your fist clenched in my hair, possessively forcing your tongue into my mouth, and I can taste a faint coppery tang from where my top lip has caught against your teeth. I desperately want to touch myself, but don’t quite dare: somehow it feels as if you’ll stop me, like I have to wait for your permission, and I find myself breaking my mouth free from yours and moaning “please, please, please” into the side of your face.

“Please what?” you ask. “What are you begging for?” You press your teeth against my throat.

My hands aren’t restrained and you haven’t tried to stop me: there’s no real reason I can’t do it myself, yet despite the shame and submission, I know I’m going to say it anyway. “Please,” I gasp again. My voice hitches. Christ, I sound like I’m about to cry. “Please let me come.”

“Good boy,” is all you say, and it’s both vaguely disturbing and incredibly thrilling: your mouth is pressed against my forehead and I can feel you smiling against my skin. You push me backwards, almost roughly, and I have to renew my grip on your shoulders to stay balanced. You’re staring right at me, and it’s so fucking intense I can feel my own eyes widening slightly; like my skin might start blistering under the heat of your laser-sharp scrutiny.

“Oh God,” I say, “You. You’re so…you’re so…” But I can’t quite articulate what it is that you are.

I am,” you reply. Without taking your eyes off my face you reach round to stroke my cock, which at this point is so hard and aching it’s actually uncomfortable, and I’m so far gone that even the briefest touch of your hand is enough – it’s more than enough – and I cry out your name as I come all over your chest in a series of hot pulses that are so fast it’s actually vaguely embarrassing. You don’t seem to mind though. “My God Will, you are quite perfect,” you say. You sound slightly breathless yourself. Likewise I can hear myself, the almost-sobbing gasps that I’m making, and at this point my entire body gives out and I slump forward, exhausted, trembling and panting onto your shoulder. You wrap both arms round me and the harder I shake the tighter you hold onto me.

“It was so good,” I whisper helplessly, “you make me feel…it’s too much. I can’t…I want you so much.”

“It’s all right,” you say soothingly. “It’s all right Will. You were wonderful, you did so well.” You stroke my sweaty hair and kiss the top of my head, then rest your cheek against my temple, running your hands up and down my back. I feel so fucking raw and overwhelmed, it’s almost unbearable, and I can’t stop clinging to you. I’m painfully aware of the division that’s ratcheting around my head: one part confused and fearful, the other half ecstatic and exhilarated. I feel like I’m starting to split in two. Starting; one day I actually will, and it’s going to be both exquisite and excruciating, and I know it’s going to hurt –the only question is how much. But I still don’t let go of you, won’t pull away. I can’t. I don’t want to.

“You appear to have ground to a standstill,” you say at last. There’s something unfamiliar in your tone and I can’t quite interpret what it means, so I just stay slumped over your shoulder with my face buried in your neck. You don’t say anything else, simply hitch your arms round me and spin me over so I’m flat on my back on the sofa (I make a feebly confused ‘oof’ sound at the suddenness of it…fuck knows how you can manoeuvre my weight so easily. But you can). Then you sit next to me on the very edge of the cushion: your face over mine looks very severe in the half-light. I’m expecting you to make some smartass remark about how spaced-out and stupid I’m being (again…Christ), but you don’t. Instead you lightly touch my cheek then vanish next door: I can hear a tap running and assume you’ve gone to wash your hands (not to mention your chest), and am not expecting you to reappear, as you do in a few moments time, with a selection of bedclothes that you proceed to wrap me up with. Normally I’d find this almost unbearably annoying and embarrassing, but right now I just let you. Oh God though, seriously, I really need to get a fucking grip at some point or our entire sexual contact is going to be solely comprised of you (expertly) getting me off and then administering shock blankets and psychological first aid afterwards. On an impulse I grab your wrist. “I’m sorry this is so one-sided,” I finally manage to say. My voice sounds scratchy and hoarse from all the yelling and I can feel myself blushing. “I want to. I will. It’s just…you know…”

You give me a slightly unreadable smile and reach down to tilt my chin up with one finger. “You do not need to apologise,” you reply. “I entirely understand that this is not straightforward for you; it has only been a short time since we re-negotiated the boundaries of our relationship in this interesting way, so it is unsurprising to me that your mind is taking a little longer than your body to accept it.” I can feel myself blushing even harder when you say this, accompanied by a somewhat surreal sense of irritation at my body, as if it’s being devious; betraying me in some way by colluding with you.

“Besides,” you add after a pause, “I do not view this as a transaction; you do not owe me anything.” You move your hand away from my face and gesture towards the sofa. “I should like to stay here with you for a while, would that be agreeable?”

I nod instead of answering, and hitch bit closer to you. You lift me out the way so you can sit down, then pull me towards you so my head’s cradled in your lap and you can run your fingers through my hair. You retrieve your book from the side of the sofa, and proceed to read sections of it to me: something to do with Polymaths in the Renaissance (it’s actually touchingly optimistic of you to assume I’d be remotely interested in that crap). Plus big chunks are in Italian so I can’t understand a fucking word you’re saying, but I don’t care about that either because I just like to hear you. Your voice is quite different when you’re reading it: still with that rough, smoky edge, but flowing and undulating in a way that it never does when you speak English.

Lying here with you like this it’s actually surprisingly easy to forget that I’m a weird fuck up and you’re an enormous maniac, and instead imagine that we’re just two normal people (I can’t bring myself to say ‘couple’) who’ve just had sex (except we haven’t…yet). God, it’s unbelievable – unfeasible – how far things have shifted. My entire world’s moved so far in the past week I’d need a Fed-Ex van to bring it back again. It’s actually pretty crazy: rather than wanting something I can’t realistically have, I now have something I shouldn’t reasonably want. I know this. I know I shouldn’t want you, want us, want this (whatever the hell ‘this’ actually is). Yet I do: probably more than I’ve ever wanted anything. And I want you to want me too, to fight alongside me, to watch over me – and be watched over – and most of all to never leave again. Because the simple truth is that I don’t know anymore what I’d do without you.

“What are you thinking?” you ask. You’ve stopped reading and are looking down at me: of course you’ve noticed the intense expression on my face, the way my eyes have lost focus as I retreat into myself.

I hesitate. I can’t possibly tell you any of that. Can I? Christ, no…definitely not. “Amongst other things,” I finally say, “I’m thinking that I must be mad.”

“Of course you are,” you say briskly. “You should be grateful. ‘Madness comes from the Gods whereas sober sense is merely human’.”

“Oh yeah? And ‘whom the Gods would destroy they first make mad.’”

“No one will destroy you, not even the Gods. Let us consider that even I was not entirely able to manage it.”

“That’s not as reassuring as you probably intend it to be. Also – did you just compare yourself to the Gods?”

You smirk slightly. “I do not intend it to be reassuring. It is merely an objective fact.”

“Is that all we’re left with then?” I say tonelessly. “Trading objective facts?”

“No, not all,” you trace your finger down the side of my face and I briefly close my eyes. “We also have our subjective interpretation of all these detached, impartial facts. In addition we have one another. Objectively, we are forging a new type of alliance. Subjectively you may decide that this is the very best thing that could have happened to you, or the very worst.”

“As usual there’s a lot of emphasis on me in the conversation. What about you?” I sigh slightly. “I suppose you already know?”

“Of course I know. I have known for a very long time.”

“And?”

“And that even as an adversary, the world is far more interesting and gratifying when you are in it. As an ally it promises to be infinitely more so.”

“Subjectively speaking?”

“Subjectively speaking, of course.”

“Subjectively speaking,” I say, “I don’t have a fucking clue what’s going to happen to me, and…”

“…And that bothers you.”

“Yeah. Yeah it bothers me.”

“But?”

“But…I’m open to finding out.” And it’s true: I am.

“A voyage of self-discovery,” you say. “I can guarantee that it will prove immensely entertaining. And of course you continue to have the advantage of myself as a most conversant and experienced guide.”

I shift my head slightly so I can look at you. “Meaning what? To find myself I have to lose myself in you?”

“You have already found yourself Will. Your true self that is; you just don’t want to acknowledge him. Your true self is not what you believe yourself to be – or even what you wish you were – but what you have spent your entire life trying to hide from yourself and conceal from the world. Not that it is entirely your fault of course; you have constantly been surrounded by people who reward you for pretending to be something you are not.”

No. No, that’s not true.”

“You don’t want to acknowledge him,” you repeat ominously, “…yet you have always recognized aspects of him in me. You knew it immediately, just as I did. It merely took you longer to admit it.”

Aspects, maybe,” I say sharply, “but I’m not like you. Not really.”

“No, indeed you are not. You would be much happier if you were.”

“I’m fairly happy right now.”

“And long may you remain so,” you reply. “Just be mindful of the fact that to constantly renounce and disavow one’s true self is one of the greatest acts of self-violence which it is possible to inflict. It requires a degree of audacity to examine oneself Will, and considerable fortitude to tolerate whatever pain might result from the knowledge. But it is far preferable – far more profitable and admirable – than the agony of constant, mindless denial.”

“Do we really have to do this now? I’m not you’re patient anymore, remember.”

“Technically you were never my patient.”

“Thank God,” I reply sulkily. You make an amused noise and tap me on the forehead.

“There are no right or wrong choices,” you say, “not for people like us. It is not merely a question of true or false, correct or incorrect: the road less travelled or the path not taken. None of the usual rules apply.”

“So what do we do then?”

“We simply make our choice,” you say. “And after we have made it, we make it into the right one.”

 

Chapter Text

I sleep so deeply I end up doing a convincing imitation of a corpse, and when I wake it’s to the sound of you moving quietly around the bedroom. It’s still dark outside, although you must have got up a while ago because the bed’s fucking freezing. I blearily pull up the cover until only the top of my head’s sticking out, and am starting to contemplate drifting off again when I feel you smooth back my hair and lightly kiss my forehead.

“I shall see you very soon,” you say. “Be sure to look after yourself in the meantime or I shall be very displeased.”

I push the rest of my head above the cover. “Did you just kiss me goodbye?”

“Well,” you reply, “let us consider: I pressed my lips against you just prior to departure. So you must examine the data and draw your own conclusions.”

“You kissed me goodbye,” I say rather wonderingly.

“Your powers of deduction are truly intimidating.”

“No, it’s just…I dunno, it’s just not the sort of thing I imagined you’d do. Have you done it with other people?” Oh God why did I say that last past? It makes me sound like a needy, insecure asshole (which I obviously am, although there’s no need to advertise the fact quite so enthusiastically).

“Yes, of course – but rarely as sincerely.” You ruffle my hair. “Go back to sleep Will, you look completely exhausted. No doubt all the mental energy you have expended in the past few minutes has worn you out.”

“Hilarious. Some people actually consider me to be quite smart you know…I’ve got degrees and everything.” I start to retreat again, before changing my mind and abruptly re-emerging. “You’ll text me won’t you? When you arrive? Let me know where you are?”

“I shall.”

I struggle to sit up and glance at you dolefully. “Be careful won’t you?” I say. I’m so tired I keep blinking at you, and I can’t help thinking it must be making me look incredibly pathetic, like something doe-eyed and diminutive from a Disney cartoon (for fuck’s sake).

You sit down next to me on the bed and put your hand on the side of my face. I promptly start blinking again. “I believe we have already had this conversation,” you say, “and my determination and capacity to be careful have not altered in the meantime.” You smile slightly. “Are you batting your eyelashes at me, or do you have a nervous twitch?”

“I’m not…it’s…oh for God’s sake.”

“Where are your glasses?”

“I don’t know,” I say gloomily. “I never know where they are. I need two pairs: one to wear, and one to use to find the other ones.”

You flick your eyes round the room and immediately retrieve them (in a typically unlikely place: this time underneath the windowsill), then put them on the bedside table.

“You could always wear them on a chain round your neck,” you say innocently. “It is a style which that elderly neighbor of yours manages to carry off extremely well.”

“Ha. Ha. Ha.”

You sit down on the bed again. “What time is the inspector arriving?”

“Well, I said 24 hours. So I guess around 3pm?”

“Then you must likewise be careful. Your judgement is usually fairly reliable and it may be that your reservations about him were not entirely unfounded.” You frown slightly. “To be frank, Will, I am not particularly happy leaving you alone but regrettably, in this case, it is unavoidable. You have Jack Crawford’s gun to hand?”

I nod and you give me a serious look. “If you are at all concerned, then you must contact me immediately.”

“Thanks, but it’ll be fine. I can handle it myself. You really shouldn’t come back here.”

“Will…” you say severely.

“Okay, yes. All right. Fine. I’ll call you.”

“Be sure that you do.” You stand up and flex your shoulders. “I believe I shall miss this hovel; it has acquired a rather pleasant set of associations. You are going to remain here tonight, yes?”

“Yes. Like you said, no obvious changes to routine. I’ll go to the office tomorrow then meet you afterwards.”

“Excellent.” You look down at me and smile again. “You look utterly tragic, like a photograph from some sort of charitable appeal. Such dejection is really quite unnecessary; the situation is under control.”

“I know,” I say (even though I don’t).

“Everything will be well,” you reply. “I shall not allow anything unfortunate to befall either myself or you. And we both know that I am never wrong about anything.”

“Well, actually, I think you’ll find there was that one time…”

You lightly press your finger against my top lip. “It will be fine,” you say. “One way or another.”

I open my mouth again to protest, and you roll your eyes at me. “Stop agonizing. One more word and I shall be obliged to gag you. Perhaps using one of those forensic anti-bite masks; I always thought you looked particularly charming in those.”

“I’d like to see you try,” I say crossly (although I have a sneaking suspicion that you may well try: no doubt you carry one – if not several – around with you on a permanent basis in the way that other people carry spare change or sticks of gum).

“But how would you attempt to stop me?” you reply thoughtfully. “I know – perhaps you could improvise a garrotte out of the chain you will have to acquire to hang your glasses on.”

“Oh my, aren’t you hilarious this morning? I take it all back. I won’t miss you at all.”

“Yes you will. As I will miss you, despite your extensive talents for being aggravating,” you lean down again and press your lips against the top of my head. “But it will only be for a short while; I shall see you again tomorrow.”

Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow. And although I promised myself I wouldn’t, I nevertheless find myself clinging onto you because even though I’m desperate for you to vacate the apartment, I still don’t want you to leave. A hell of a lot can happen in 24 hours.

“I don’t want you to go,” I mutter into your hair. Christ, I sound so pitiful; why am I acting like this?

“I must. I will come back.”

“When are you leaving?”

“In about 15 minutes, I thought. The volume of people will peak around then; it will be easier to merge in.”

“Come back to bed. Please. For 15 minutes.”

You give me a quick look – you’re probably surprised that I’m initiating for once (to be honest, I’m fairly surprised myself). Then you follow it up with a slow smile that’s so incredibly amatory and suggestive it should probably come with an age-restriction warning.

“Well done Will, I applaud your sense of enterprise,” you say. “I did not entirely expect it; it would appear that the process of breaking you in is proceeding somewhat quicker than anticipated.”

If anyone else said that to me I’d tell them to fuck right off, but when it’s you my immediate feeling is ‘Oh God yes, break me in: then break me afterwards, I don’t care.’ You sit down again on the bed, and I gaze at you for a few seconds before hesitantly reaching out to start unfastening your shirt. My hands are steady this time, although I’m biting my bottom lip and am aware I probably have an almost comically intense expression on my face. You just watch me, still smiling and completely at ease. God it’s all right for you, I bet you’ve never felt awkward or indecisive in your entire life. I probably wouldn’t either if I looked like you; like something that’s been chiselled in a workshop, angled and sculpted, perfectly fine-boned and fierce (why do you have to be so perfect?). My pulse is starting to speed up, every nerve throbbing and tingling. Come on, I think, it’s fine. It is. I can do this. This time I am not going to need a shock blanket. I refuse to need a shock blanket.

I take a deep breath and reach for your belt when you suddenly grab my wrist. “Wait,” you say, “come out from under there; I want to see you.”

Although I falter a bit at this, I recover much quicker than previously. It’s your tone, I think – how intense and sensuous you sound. It makes me feel more self-assured, emboldened by the knowledge that I want to look desirable for you; that I want you to want me. Fuck it anyway…it’s hardly like it’s anything you haven’t seen before. I push the covers back and shift myself so I’m kneeling in front of you, aware that I’m trembling very slightly (one part the cold, two parts nerves, seven parts: incredibly turned on). You run your eyes over me approvingly and I find myself basking under your gaze, arching my back and allowing my legs to fall a little wider apart.

“Very lovely,” you say. “You are such a beautiful thing aren’t you? You really should not be so self-conscious.” You pull me towards you and kiss me in an incredibly filthy way; yanking my head back by my hair so you can push your tongue deep into my mouth, pushing and probing until I begin to moan and gasp for breath, then gripping my waist and forcing me against you so I can grind my hips against yours.

Eventually you pull away, still looking more composed than anyone in this situation has a right to be, although there’s an unmistakable glint in your dark eyes. “So,” you say caressingly, “how would you propose to spend the remaining 12 minutes?”

I gaze back at you, blinking slightly (again…for God’s sake) and somewhat stunned from the passion and intensity of kissing you. To be honest I hadn’t actually planned this far ahead, mostly because I was assuming/hoping you’d just take the lead as usual and sort something out yourself. I have a vague idea that I want to jerk you off, but in spite of myself can’t quite start the necessary proceedings because I’ve been inconveniently overpowered with a crippling surge of performance anxiety. I’ve only ever done this to myself, never on anyone else, not once, not one single time. Oh God, what if I’m crap at it? I’m probably going to be crap at it. I suppose, to be fair, it would always be daunting to do this for the first time with another man, and now I’m trying to instigate it with the singularly most impressive and intimidating example of maleness that I’ve ever encountered (and considering my assorted encounters over the years that’s actually saying a fuck of a lot). There’s also the fact that I really want to make it good for you, and have unhelpfully chosen this precise moment to start questioning whether I possess the necessary skills to pull this off. Pull it off? Oh God, shut up you fucking idiot.

Some of this miserable conflict must be showing on my face, because you give me one of your weirdly compassionate looks (that I still can’t believe are totally genuine…I can almost imagine you practicing them in the mirror when I’m asleep and scoring yourself out of ten) and push me down with one hand on my chest until I’m lying flat on my back. You lie next to me, casual and graceful, and as long and lithe as a panther. “You do not have to,” you say. “Don’t try and force yourself.”

“I do want to,” I say. “I do. I really want to.” I reach out again for a second attempt at unfastening your belt, doing it extremely slowly in order to buy myself a bit of time and deliver a hastily constructed mental pep talk (although unfortunately it ends up containing the phrases ‘get a grip’ and ‘how hard can it be?’ and the tragically escalating levels of unintended innuendo makes me want to start laughing with nervous hysteria). Although I probably could laugh if I wanted to, you wouldn’t mind. You don’t care about conventions; you delight in everything that’s outrageous and absurd. You’d be fascinated by my laughter, you’d want to know why (and what, and how), but you wouldn’t really care; you wouldn’t be affronted. A normal person would take offense, but you never will. You’ve never cared how weird and inappropriate I am, have you? You relish it, encouraging and inciting ever greater extremes. You break the boundaries other people aren’t even aware of.

Oh Christ, look at you. You’re so…God. I lean in frantically so I can kiss you again, trying to taste you, savour everything about you that’s extraordinary. You’re so striking: your face, your voice, the way you move and speak and think. How did I never acknowledge that before: how stunning you are? I feel a bit lightheaded with longing. I want to absorb you, to crack open your bones and crawl inside you. You kiss me back, on and on, pressing me down with the weight of your body, then finally reach behind you to get the bottle of lotion off the bedside table (it’s just suggestively sat there right next to a box of tissues…oh Christ that is so embarrassing. I should have hidden that. Why didn’t I hide that?). You pull away briefly and drizzle some over my fingers, rubbing my hand together with yours to warm it up, then take hold of my hand and wrap it around our erections so I can jerk us both off at the same time. I make a helpless gasping sound as my breath catches in my throat. The sensation is unbelievably intense, and I can’t quite believe I’m actually touching you like this; that you’re allowing – encouraging – me to do it (I’d also vowed to myself that I wasn’t going to start comparing cock sizes but it’s impossible not to because you’re so much bigger than I am. Oh shit, you really are…you can’t possibly fuck me with this, you’ll kill me). Then I give my fist an experimental thrust and we both groan at exactly the same time, and I lose track of everything except how good it feels. The surge of pleasure is feverish – overwhelming; and I have a sudden sense that I could stay like this forever; could die like this.

“There you go,” you say. “That’s it. Very good Will.” I give a half-laugh that quickly turns into a gasp. I want to wrap my legs round your back, grip you as close as possible, but the angle’s wrong. You curl your hand over mine, stroking my fingers and massaging my knuckles with your thumb. You don’t try and force the pace though, just let me move how I want to. Oh fuck, it’s completely perfect, so slick and wet and smooth. You feel incredible, and I feel incredible because of you, each one of us enhancing the other: it’s like we’re joined together, muscle entwined with flesh shot through with bone. You hook your other arm under my back and round my shoulder, resting you weight on your elbow. It’s unbelievably intense like this; your face only inches away, your eyes boring into mine. It’s like I’m breathing your air, inhaling you in. It should be unsettling – being this intense, this fixated – but it’s not. Your hair has fallen over your forehead and I reach up to push it back because I want to see your eyes. God, I need to come, I’m so close; yet even as I’m frantically chasing it I know I don’t entirely want to, because the moment I do then it’ll all be over and you’ll leave.

“It’s really good,” I say faintly, and I can hear my voice catching. “It feels so good.”

“I know.” You lean down and kiss the space between my eyebrows. “For me also.”

“Oh God. Fuck. I’m going to…oh God.”

Yes,” you say, “exactly like that. So beautiful, Will. Keep your eyes open, let me look at you.”

I tip my head back, bearing my throat – knowing how vulnerable it makes me look but not caring – and helplessly canting my hips towards you as my breath hitches and I frantically jerk my hand over us both, drawing leverage from my entire arm until my shoulder aches. We’ve already found a natural rhythm, syncopated to each other’s movements and the raw passion of it seems to have slowed down time, drowned out everything else: all I’m aware of is you. Seeing you like this, feeling your desire, the mutually fervent pleasure, has driven me completely wild; there’s something so exhilarating about watching you come apart at the same time as me.

“I want more than this,” I can hear myself saying, and there’s an urgent intensity to my voice that’s strange and unfamiliar. “Oh God, I want more, I want everything. I want you inside me, please, I need it.”

“Soon,” you reply softly. You lean down again and run your teeth down the side of my face, and it’s like the most gloriously brutal caress. “I want that too.”

“Oh God, yes, soon. Please.” I have a sudden image of myself on my hands and knees at the edge of the bed with my legs spread apart, you stood behind and gripping my hips as you fuck me. The thought is such an enormous turn on that it nearly makes me come.

“Very soon.” This time you begin sucking the side of my neck, so roughly that it hurts, and I know it’s going to leave the most fucking awful bruise and the idea that you’re marking my skin, that you’re branding me as belonging to you – that people will see, will know that someone’s done this to me – is enough to finally tip me over the edge and I cry out desperately as I start to come, spilling and pulsing over our entwined hands. You’re much quieter than I am, just tighten your grip on my shoulder then close your eyes with a deep groan, but it seems in that moment that it might be the most erotic thing I’ve ever seen in my whole fucking life; shit, if I could it would be enough to make me come again. You briefly let your forehead rest against mine and I let out a long shuddering breath then bury my face in your neck.

“Oh God,” I say. My voice sounds frayed and raw. “That was…that was….”

You turn my head round so we’re looking at each other, then give me a slow smile. “I concur,” you reply after a pause.

“Yes. Oh my God.” This time I do actually laugh and run my hand through my hair, remembering just in time to use the left one (because rubbing copious amounts of ejaculate onto my head would not be a particularly dignified note to end this on).

“And now you are preverbal.” You kiss my forehead, then stand up and neatly pluck a tissue from the bedside table to clean your hand before starting to dress with brisk efficiency. I draw another deep breath then roll my head round so I can watch you, my cheek resting on my am.

“I really must go Will,” you say. “I imagine it is rather obvious that I would prefer not to, but we are one minute from the appointed deadline. Stay there and get some rest.”

“Yes.”

You see me looking at you and pin me in place with one of your intense stares; even now you have such carefully controlled menace. “You look very peaceful,” you say finally. “Liberating, isn’t it, to discover that one’s yearnings are shared and mutual yearnings? That one does not have to yearn alone.”

I just gaze back at you. I don’t know what to say.

Briefly you pause in fastening your shirt and run your eyes over me. “In a way, of course, it is easier not to long for anything,” you add. “Because longing for what one cannot have is so corroding: all the hungering and coveting that propels us onwards and incites our worst behaviour. As such, it is an excellent thing to identify exactly what it is that one wants, because until you are aware you will never be in a position to obtain it. And in the interim will settle discontentedly for something less.”

“I know,” I finally say. What else is there?

You crouch down by the side of the bed so my eyes are on the same level as yours.

“Only you,” you say softly. “Only you Will. It was always you. No one else would ever have endured for this long, and here you are.” You reach out and run your finger over the scar on my cheek. “You have already shown me that you can survive. But tell me; do you think you can thrive as well?”

I stare back mutely, wide-eyed and unable to articulate what I’m feeling; then finally pull myself towards you so I can kiss you again, frantically and urgently, until you gently unhook my hands from your shoulders and lay me back down on the bed. You smile slightly, a faint gleam of teeth. “I will see you tomorrow,” you say, and I watch you go and already miss you.

*****

I fall deeply asleep after you leave, clinging onto your pillow (which is almost unbearably pathetic…but at least you’ll never know) then haul myself out of bed at midday to have a shower and make a desultory attempt at tidying up (mainly focussing on the sofa and the assorted clothes strewn round it – not to mention the dubious stains on top of it – so it looks a bit less like something from The Last Days of Rome). I’ve been aware of you performing various bits of cleaning and straightening ever since you arrived, so it actually looks far less squalid than it did before you came back; in fact I appear to have created more chaos simply by walking from one room to another, not helped by the fact I’ve tripped over the wastepaper basket and can’t be bothered to clean it up again. Ultimately though, I lose interest halfway through and decide to leave most of the rooms as they are. It’s not like I care if he thinks I live in a shit tip (which, considering that I clearly do, is probably just as well). Anyway, he’s hardly coming to check the condition of the apartment. Oh God…if only.

Fuck, I wish I could calm down about this. Maybe it is just a regular inspection? It might be. It could be. The guy was weird, for sure, but perhaps that’s a reassuring sign: if this was a set-up, then wouldn’t he make more effort to appear normal and inconspicuous? I know there’s no chance that Mr Haversham reported us, but someone else might have seen you – possibly the night you first arrived, when I was so freaked out that the Creedence Clearwater Revival could have been sat in the vestibule thrashing their beards and I wouldn’t have noticed. Subletting though…it’s such a weirdly specific accusation. Surely no one seeing a stranger going into my apartment on a single occasion would assume that?

Now I wish I’d told him to come earlier so I could get it over with; if I wasn’t so wary of attracting unwanted attention I’d just fuck the whole thing off and go on the run myself. I slump onto the sofa and start biting my thumbnail. You’ve already texted to say you’ve found a hotel and will meet me there tomorrow, and I keep taking out my cell to re-read it the message. I want to call you to hear your voice and be reassured, but can’t quite bring myself to do it – you’ve only been gone a few hours, it would look incredibly anxious and needy. God I really hate this place now without you here. It’s like you’ve left and taken all the oxygen with you.

Thirty minutes until he turns up. I’ve now bitten my thumbnail down to the quick, so switch over and make a start on the other one. My neck’s tingling slightly on the right hand side, and on an impulse I rummage around in the closet to locate a scarf as I don’t think I can bear the idea of him staring and leering at me again (particularly after this morning, which now makes me look like I’ve been gnawed). It’ll probably come across as a bit eccentric, but fuck it – anyway, it’s not as if it isn’t freezing in here. A demented part of me fantasizes about just telling him the truth, which probably wouldn’t help things all that much in the long run but would at least have the advantage of wiping the creepy smile off his face on a terminal basis:

ME: [Adopts self-righteous tone] So – all those marks on my neck that you were commenting on in a somewhat sleazy and inappropriate way.

HIM: I wasn’t.

ME: [Wags finger in manner of smug asshole] I think you’ll find that you were.

HIM: Yeah, okay, I guess I was.

ME: Well…do you remember the Chesapeake Ripper case?

HIM: [In horror] Of course I do. The mere mention of it strikes terror into my very soul.

ME: Well.

HIM: Well what?

ME: [Winks]

HIM: You don’t mean…?

ME: [Winks again]

HIM: Oh my God! What have I done! [Puts head in hands]

ME: [Triumphantly] Yes! I am currently in the pre-consummation stage of a sort-of-relationship-but-not-entirely with the Chesapeake Ripper! Picked the wrong fucking apartment to inspect this time didn’t you, you stupid shit.

[Door flies open. Inspector drops to knees and begs for mercy]

YOU: [Walks in looking incredibly badass] Hello Will. I believe you phoned me?

ME: Yes, this individual has been rude to me. Very rude. Somewhere between ‘profoundly’ and ‘inexcusably.’

YOU: [Smoulders erotically menacingly]

HIM: Forgive me! [Grovels]

ME: No fucking chance. [Cackles maniacally]

…Although at this point it all breaks down somewhat, because God knows what you’d actually do – if I directly told you to dispatch someone you’d undoubtedly say ‘no’ just to be awkward (or, more likely, encourage me to do it myself). In fact we’d probably just stand there bitching at each other, with you looming about in the background going “discover your true self Will!” like that old man in Star Wars (except in reference to murderous impulses rather than The Force) while the inspector took advantage of the resulting confusion to make a crafty exit down the fire escape. Oh shitting fuck, he’s going to be here any minute now.

In the end he rolls up at 3.02 on the dot, radiating petty officialdom – but also, unfortunately, something indefinably more sinister – and this time he barges straight past me as soon as I open the door.

“Watch it,” I snap.

He gives me another beady look. “Sorry buddy,” he says, “but I wasn’t going to take the chance that you wouldn’t let me in again.”

“I would have let you in yesterday,” I reply sharply, “if you’d followed the proper procedure and given me 24 hours’ notice.” Oh Will…you shameless bullshitter. Nevertheless it’s actually quite enjoyable to pull rank for once, so I deliver a pompous mini-lecture on following civic procedures – at one point I think I actually wag my finger at him – until I realize it makes me sound like Jack (if not like J Edgar Hoover himself. In fact if J Edgar Hoover and Kade Prunell had a liaison, then I would probably sound like the resulting offspring, and this thought is so horrifying that I promptly shut up).

He’s been watching me the whole time, a weird little smile on his narrow Harlequin’s face and a beady glint in his wide distended eyes. “Yeah, well,” he says, “I was over here anyway and thought it was worth a shot. Save a return journey, y’know? Can’t blame a guy for trying.” He gives a nasty braying laugh. “You’d be surprised how often it works out – most people don’t know their rights.”

I am now literally dying to recycle my previous fantasy scenario (‘Picked the wrong fucking apartment to inspect this time didn’t you, you stupid shit’), but manage to resist the urge. Instead I gesture at the empty room. “See?” I tell him. “Just me.”

He nods and makes a deeply irritating ‘hmmm’ noise, and I have to grit my teeth as he strolls round each room making an inflated performance out of examining everything. I stare at him closely while he’s doing it, trying to work out if I’ve seen him before. The best I can manage is that there’s something vaguely familiar about him, but it’s nowhere near marked enough to lead anywhere and in the end I have to let it go. More likely he reminds me of someone else – realistically, there’s no way I could have completely forgotten someone like him if I really had met him previously.

“Find me pretty interesting, do you pal?” he says suddenly.

“What?”

He waves his hand at me. “You’re really staring.” Oh balls.

“Am I?” I say vaguely.

“Yeah. Yeah you are.”

“Sorry,” I reply airily, “I didn’t realize.”

He narrows his eyes slightly at me, but doesn’t pursue it. “Better check your bedroom now,” he says instead. Ugh, gross, oh my God. Belatedly I wish I’d made more effort to clean up the bed because it probably looks somewhat…orgiastic (along with the sofa I now have a matching set of debauched furniture). I can’t bear to follow him in, so just stay in the living room, propped up against the wall with my arms folded and knocking the back of my foot against the skirting board. I wish you were here, I really miss you. Shit that sounds so pathetic.

“Your girlfriend left pretty quick,” he says when he comes back.

“Yeah, well, like I said: she was just visiting,” I snap. “What difference does it make? Are you telling me I’m in trouble now for not subletting?”  

“No reason.” His eyes catch on a pile of papers on the table, and he leans over as if he’s trying to read them.

“Hey, knock it off,” I say crossly.

“Sorry pal. Just curious. Only perk of this damn job is rifling in other people’s lives.” I find this an incredibly odd thing to say and am about to tell him to leave when he sees your book, which I have stupidly forgotten to remove. He raises his eyebrows. “Interesting reading you got there. Bit of an intellectual, are you?”

Really I should just tell him to fuck off – it’s not like I need to explain myself – but because I am anxious I unwisely go into defensive mode and open my mouth to start justifying it. And then I realize I don’t have a goddamn clue what to say, and end up going “sort of,” then taking off my glasses and polishing them vigorously on my shirt as if to say: ‘behold, asshole, my fucking intellectual spectacles.’

“Nice,” is his only response. “Not just a pretty face, are you?”

Excuse me?” I say, followed by a sound that is not entirely unlike a boiling kettle. I find myself wondering, somewhat hysterically, what would happen if someone said the same thing to you…not that anyone would ever dare.

“Chill, pal,” he replies, “I’m just messing with you. Just messing. It’s good to be smart. I wish I was smart. I’d not be doing this if I was smart. My family’s real smart: brother and father both doctors. But not me, I just do this. Just go round other people’s houses like this. I’m no one, really. So you know I don’t mean nothing by it. You just don’t look the type, is all.” He starts chuckling in a highly patronizing way, and I wonder if I should try and augment my intellectual credentials by pointing out that I’m actually a lecturer for the FBI (but wisely decide it wouldn’t do all that much good considering that the Polymaths of the Renaissance aren’t really renowned for being much help in the solving of violent and serial crime). Oh God, what’s he still doing here; why can’t he just fuck off?

“Look,” I snap, “if that’ll be all…?”

“Yeah, yeah,” he replies. He’s still staring at me. Now I really do wish you were here: all you’d have to do is turn round in your chair and raise a single eyebrow and he’d be shitting himself and vacating the building quicker than I could say ‘bogus intellectual.’

“I’m actually pretty busy,” I say sharply (my nails won’t just bite themselves, after all). “You wanted to look round, and you have; so if there’s nothing else…?”

“No,” he says, “there’s nothing else.” But he still doesn’t move.

Right then,” I snap. “You can obviously see that no one else is living here, so I think we’re done.”

“Yeah, sure,” he answers. “We’re done.” He walks towards the door, with me following up at the rear ready to manhandle him through it and down the stairs (head first) if he shows any signs of changing his mind. He lingers in the hallway, so I slam the door just in time to hear him say “See you around Mr Graham.”

*****

Option 1: Regular inspection.

  • Reasons why: Occam’s razor.
  • Reasons why not: The simplest theory is almost never, ever the best one. Simple theories are shit. Fuck you Occam, and your razor too. You are shit. Your razor is shit. Complexity is a more realistic way to go.

Option 2: New or returning enemy, currently unidentified.

  • Reasons why: Because fuck my life, that’s why.
  • Reasons why not: There is absolutely no reason why an (as yet) unknown person wouldn’t want to kill me and/or you. But why make contact in this convoluted way?

At this point I try and calculate all the assorted enemies you and I have made over the years (both separately and in combination) but ultimately give up when I realize that it is both hugely depressing and mathematically impossible.

Option 3: Matthew Brown.

  • Reasons why: A significant known threat. Still at large. Hates you, loves me (in a ‘I love your face, I’d like to put it on my mantelpiece’ kind of way). Most straightforward and obvious option (note to self: consider re-evaluation of Occam’s razor).
  • Reasons why not: It doesn’t make sense that he’d send an accomplice rather than coming himself. How would he even get an accomplice? And isn’t all this a bit too subtle for him?

Oh fuck, I really don’t know what to think about this. After 15mins of mental effort, I realize that all I have manged to establish is the following:

  1. Occam’s razor is shit (except when it’s not).
  2. You and I are almost universally hated.
  3. Matthew Brown wants my face on his mantelpiece.

I finally crack and decide I’m going to call you after all, and if it makes me seem insecure and pathetic, then I’ll just have to deal with it. It’s 6pm anyway, I’ve managed to hold out nearly all day. Briefly I think back to this morning, remembering myself lying underneath you and basically begging you to fuck me. Now that I’m here on my own I feel self-conscious about it. I don’t know if I even meant it (yes…probably). Do I really want that? (Yes…almost certainly). Would it be a mistake? (I can’t even bring myself to answer that). Oh God, why does everything always have to be so goddamn complicated? My head’s starting to hurt, pounding like the bass beat in some shitty nightclub.

I press the button and you answer almost immediately. “Will,” you say sharply, “are you all right?”

“Yeah I’m fine. He’s gone. He left ages ago.”

“Good. Did anything happen to cause you concern?”

“No. I mean he was weird, like last time…”

“In what way ‘weird?’” Your voice sharpens like a chisel. “Did he try and do anything to you?”

“No, no, nothing like that. It’s just…I don’t know.” I take my glasses off and let them fall off the sofa (where I will probably never find them again) and run my hand over my face. “I forgot to move your book.”

“Alternatively it could be proposed that I forgot to take it with me.”

“He asked about it.”

“And?”

“I said it was mine.”

“So what is the difficulty?”

“Nothing, I suppose. I just…I just have a bad feeling about it.”

“Yes, I am aware. You sound somewhat shaken Will, and considering that you are not a person who lacks in fortitude there is obviously something about this situation which is unnerving you. Why don’t you drive over here and stay with me? It would only take you half an hour or so.”

Shit, I want to so badly, but it somehow feels embarrassingly weak to admit that I can’t manage a single night on my own. Instead, I summon a colossal level of effort and manage to say: “I’m fine. Thanks, but I’m going to keep to the plan and stay here.”

“Whatever makes you most comfortable,” you reply. “But contact me if you change your mind.”

“I will,” I say (I won’t). I stare numbly at your chair; I can almost imagine you sitting in it, regarding me with that thoughtfully quizzical expression on your face: ‘Come here. Take off your shirt. Let me touch you.’

“What’s the hotel like?” I ask. I get up and sit in your chair, pulling my knees up under my chin.

“It is adequate. It is not a hovel.”

“Marvellous.”

“No doubt you will turn it into one when you eventually arrive.”

“I’ll do my best. I know how enormously fond you are of hovels.”

“Only those with you in them,” you say, “and even then there are limits. For example, if you bring your appalling aftershave with you then you will be denied entry.”

“I don’t need to bring it, I can just use the bottle you’ve been carrying around all this time. If you can bear to let go of it for long enough that is. You should probably just wear it around your neck on a little chain…like me and my glasses.” (Speaking of which, where have those fuckers gone now?).

“I can already tell I am going to regret admitting that to you. You are truly merciless in identifying a weakness and exploiting it.”

“Three words: pot, kettle and black.”

“That is, indeed, undeniably true.”

I sigh and before I can stop myself say (again): “Be careful won’t you?”

“I believe that this has been ascertained. I suggest writing ‘Dr Lecter is continuously and inordinately careful’ on the front of your glasses as an aide-memoire. When you manage to find them, that is.”

“How did you…It’s fine. They’re right here.”

“Of course they are there, in a purely metaphysical sense. You just don’t know precisely where. Get some rest Will, you sound even more exhausted than usual.”

“Okay, maybe that’s a good idea.”

“And be sure to eat something.”

“Yeah.”

“Actual food – not something you foraged from a gas station and which is currently fermenting at the back of your refrigerator.” From the tone of your voice, you make it sound as if acquiring food from a gas station is a sign of the most unspeakable depravity.

“Yes, dad. Anything else? I’m not actually completely incapable you know. Are you going to start tying my shoelaces and holding my hand when I cross the road?”

“In matters of self-care you are, in fact, somewhat incapable: your assortment of freak viruses being a case in point. However I draw the line at holding your hand when crossing the road. Or at least until you can reliably locate your glasses and are less likely to myopically stroll under the nearest truck and take me down with you.”

“Didn’t anyone ever tell you not to mock the afflicted?”

“Of course they did, I simply ignored them. Are you yawning?”

“No.”

“You are either growling – which as a concept is appealing yet highly likely – or you are completely worn out and unwilling to admit it. Are you going to get some rest?”

“Yes.”

“And some food?”

Yes.”

“And refrain from crossing any roads whilst blinking short-sightedly into the traffic?”

“Oh for God’s sake.”

“Splendid. Then I shall see you tomorrow, and ensure that I am extremely careful in the interim.”

After I hang up I double-check all the doors and windows are locked, then put Jack’s gun next to the sofa and curl up on the cushions, ignoring the shock blanket (even in a crisis situation there are limits) in favor of covering myself with my jacket. Your book is still lying on the floor, and I pick it up and idly leaf through it. God, what a load of boring crap. But it smells very faintly of your (pretentious) cologne, and I find myself clutching it like it’s a kind of talisman; something to give me strength for whatever might lie ahead.

I feel wretched, and it’s not just for my own sake, but for you. For me and you: for us. For the fact that we’re a symbiont circle, intertwined and interlocked, and that whatever happens to one of us is going to affect the other. Having only just got you back I can’t bear the idea of losing you again. Oh God, I think, something’s wrong. It is…it is. I just don’t know what. But it’s like a countdown’s started somewhere, like a timer’s been tipped: sand inexorably trickling down the hourglass. How much longer until zero?

Chapter Text

I finally stress myself into a state of nervous exhaustion and fall asleep on the sofa, clutching your book like it’s a goddamn soft toy (for fuck’s sake), waking up about an hour later with a crick in my neck and the first stirrings of a headache creasing across my forehead. I blearily fumble around for my glasses, which I have a vague idea ought to be on the armrest yet needless to say are not…the little bastards.

“They were underneath the sofa,” you say. “I have placed them on the table for safekeeping. You should utilize your skills as a dog owner and train them to return to your whistle on command.”

“Thanks.” I rub my eyes, rake my fingers through my hair and then…Hang on. Wait one fucking minute. I swivel awkwardly onto my side, and there you are – sat in your chair staring at me.

“Wait. What?...You’re here!”

“Observant as ever, Will.”

“Yes – there is the small issue that you’re not supposed to be here. And how did you get in? The door was locked.”

“I took the precaution of having a second key cut when I left you the other morning.”

“Oh yeah, right – ‘the errands.’ You could have just asked you know; I would’ve got you a copy myself.”

Instead of answering you nod your head towards the book, which (mortifyingly) I am still holding onto. “Do you find that to be an effective sleep aid?”

“Yeah, actually, because it’s so incredibly boring. They should sell it on prescription.”

You just give me your patented ‘My dear Will, we both know that’s complete bullshit’ smirk, but (thank God) decide not to push it.

“Well,” you say, “I changed my mind. I decided I would keep you company during the final night in the hovel.”

“Did anyone see you?”

“They did not.”

I can’t help smiling (I suspect in a somewhat corny, sentimental way), and you smile back (except you look poised and enigmatic, and about as corny as a slab of granite). I roll off the sofa and start gravitating towards you, but manage to tangle my feet in the shock blanket on the way there and dramatically stumble sideways. You dart out the chair with one of your unnervingly fast movements and catch me before I pitch over entirely. I don’t try and get free straight away, just let you hang onto me.

“Are you all right?” you ask.

“I’m fine. I’m really glad you’re here.”

“Yes, I suspected you would be. It was clear that you were not happy being alone but could not bring yourself to admit it.”

“I would have been okay by myself,” I say defensively.

“Of course you would, you are extremely capable in many ways. Notwithstanding the fact that you are constantly being outwitted by your glasses and this blanket.”

“And you as well, I suppose. That means you are the spiritual brother of my glasses and the shock blanket…Are you really sure no one saw you?”

“Quite sure. As we agreed on several occasions, I was extremely careful.”

“How sure?”

“Will,” you say patiently, “I am sure.”

“Okay. Okay, good. So what are you going to do now?”

“I shall stay here tonight and return to the hotel in the morning. In all other respects the original plan still stands: you can go to your office tomorrow, drift about for a bit pretending to be an upstanding investigative official, and then join me afterwards.”

“Excuse me,” I say irritably, “but I do not drift about. I stride. Purposefully. I swagger around like the emperor of purposeful investigative official…ness.”

“You do not. You drift. You are terminally vague.”

“I am not!”

“I’m afraid that you are. You should be proud of it – it is part of your charm. More importantly it also means that people underestimate you, which gives you a persistent tactical advantage. Your formidable mental acuity is masked behind an exterior that is somewhat…”

I narrow my eyes at you.

“…confused.”

“I do not come across as ‘confused’!” I give you a shove against the chest, which needless to say has precisely zero effect. “Could it be the case that you’re actually being rude?”

“No. I am merely being candid.” You give me the most godawful smirk and coil yourself onto the sofa. “If you wish to retaliate, I declare myself willing to hear any reciprocal criticisms you might have.”

I briefly consider it, but ultimately decide not to on the grounds that whatever I say you’ll only come back with something ten times worse. “Tempting, but no,” I reply. “I’m going to have a shower, and sulk, and then get something to eat, and then generally drift about in a state of advanced confusion.”

“That all sounds charming. I am sure you will enjoy yourself immensely.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I shall read,” you reply, gesturing at the Renaissance Polymaths, whose severe bearded faces now seem to be glaring accusingly at me from the front cover of your book as if they’re all taking your side against me as well.

“Enjoy. I hope you and the Polymaths are extremely happy together.”

“I am sure we shall pass the time very agreeably.”

“You can have pompous, judgemental conversations in Latin about how confused I am.”

“Not in Latin,” you reply, “we are on more informal terms by now. We shall discuss your confusion in Florentine Italian.”

“Okay, great. That’s great.”

“Off you go now, young Will.” You wave your hand at me. “I believe you wished to have a shower and sulk before ordering some food, and I would not be averse to eating something myself. So please do be prompt.”

“All right, I will in a minute. Chill out.”

“Don’t forget your glasses,” you add, slightly maliciously.

“I wasn’t going to.”

“I’m sure – except that you currently have no idea where they are.”

“I don’t need them to have a shower. Or sulk.”

“That is a very fortunate coincidence isn’t it?”

“I do know where they are.”

“You do not,” you say without glancing up from your book.

“You’re such a complete pain in the a…Ah! There they are,” I collect them from the top of the table. “I told you.”

“On the contrary, I believe you will find that I told you – when I placed them there after you lost them the first time. You look very fetching when you are asleep by the way. And with four older men too.” You briefly brandish the Polymaths at me who look, if possible, even more disapproving than before. “What a little harlot you are.”

“I was not sleeping with them. They put me to sleep.”

“Hmmm,” you say, “I believe you have showering and sulking to attend to.”

I go into the bathroom and dig out a clean towel, but can’t stop myself sticking my head round the living room door and adding: “I was not sleeping with them.”

“They report differently, I’m afraid,” you reply. “It is somewhat inconvenient for you: four against one. I rather fear that the maxim of ‘a gentleman does not kiss and tell’ was not existent in their day, so their discretion cannot be counted upon. Would you like me to leave and take them with me?”

“No,” I say in a small voice.

“That is commendably brave of you. You are going to be sadly outnumbered all evening.”

I slump down onto the sofa and rest my head against the arm so I can stretch my legs across your knees. “I can’t be bothered to have another shower.”

“So you are going to skip straight to the sulking?” You put your hand on my thigh, idly rubbing it with your thumb.

“Yes. Not that I can be bothered to sulk about the Polymaths either; technically they belong to me anyway.”

“Oh yes, that inspector.”

“He was so weird. Something’s not right.”

“What specifically is alarming you? Asides from the fact someone reported it in the first place? And please be more precise than ‘weird’.’”

“You think I’m exaggerating?”

“No, not at all. I take your concerns extremely seriously, but I can’t extrapolate without possessing the facts. Yesterday you were sufficiently convinced that it was a normal inspection to let him into the apartment. Something has happened since then to change your mind.”

“Not exactly…I mean it couldve been. It might have been a regular check.”

“Except?”

“Except he was weird. And Occam’s razor is shit.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Nothing. Look, it was…” I frown and drum my fingers against my chest, trying to find a sensible way to articulate it. “It was his manner for starters. Creepy. Overfamiliar; like he was constantly laughing at some private joke. He commented on these,” I gesture at my neck, “and made a big point of wanting to look in our…my bedroom.”

“And you think this behavior indicates an imposter, as opposed to a genuine employee who is somewhat socially and interpersonally…challenged?”

“He said I was more than a pretty face,” I say indignantly.

“I suppose we must own that to be true,” you reply, “although I am extremely unhappy with him speaking to you in that way. What a pity it is that I was not there.”

“He wouldn’t have said it if you’d been there. He’d have been too busy booting my ass out of the apartment for subletting.”

“So you do think there is a possibility it was genuine?”

“No,” I admit gloomily.

“No. I am inclined to agree with you.” You stretch your arms behind your head. “On consideration, I do not believe anyone reported seeing me; whoever he is, he knows who I am, suspects that I have returned, and believed this to be a promising place to begin searching.”

I sigh unhappily. I’d suspected that too, but didn’t want to believe it; the fact you’ve now said the same confirms it – constructs it as real. “Why?” I ask. “What makes you so sure?”

“I am not entirely sure, because it is never wise to theorize without full possession of the facts. However his rather inexplicable attention to these gentleman,” (you gesture at the Polymaths. Fuck those guys…the miserable big-bearded bastards), “strongly suggests it. It is the type of reading material that would be associated with me rather than yourself.”

“So why draw attention in that way? Why make it so obvious?”

“Why indeed? Most likely it was a form of power play; he was trying to belittle you and make you uncomfortable. But it was unlikely to be the main purpose of the visit; he wanted to ascertain whether I am, or have recently been, in the building. However the lack of any more definitive action strongly suggests that it was only reconnaissance; he does not know for certain that I have been here. Probably the accusation of subletting was simply a bluff to determine your response. This means we must consider someone who not only knows us both, but is aware of my rather inconvenient regard for you.”

“I’m so glad I’ve caused you inconvenience.”

“No more than I have caused you, I would imagine.”

“Even Stevens,” I say absently.

“Quite. Of course the timing could be a coincidence, though it is highly unlikely. You say that nothing similar occurred before I came back?”

“No, nothing like this. Although I’ve had people following me.” I frown slightly. ”But that could just as easily have been you…or one of the other two.”

“Oh yes, you do seem to prove rather irresistible to certain types of disreputable people. It is quite fascinating; why do you think that is?”

“God knows. You're one of them, why don't you tell me? On second thoughts don't, I'd rather not know.”

“So you have Matthew Brown, and I have this mystery caller. We are evenly matched for the time being.”

“Well thank God for that. I’d hate to think of one of us feeling left out.” I stretch my arms and tip my head back further until it’s dangling over the edge of the armrest. “You know he said something to me that night,” I add, half to myself. “He said ‘You’re on your own now, just like you always were. No one’s going to come for you. No one knows you’re here.’”

“Well, once again he was wrong; because you were not on your own and someone did come.”

“Yeah.” I briefly think of Freddie Lounds and am tempted to respond with something flippant about having a monumentally badass Murder Husband on standby, but can’t quite bring myself to in case you don’t get it. “What if he sent him round?” I say instead.

“Again, please, with fewer pronouns.”

“What if it was Matthew Brown who sent the inspector?”

“That is also a possibility, I suppose.”

“Do you think he saw you in the alley? Do you think he knows you’re back?”

“You have already asked me that, and my answer has not changed in the meantime.”

“What if he did and he tells someone? Tips off the FBI?”

“He will not tip off the FBI.”

“Yeah, but what if…”

“Will, Matthew Brown does not perceive the FBI as his natural ally. It would be about as likely as you going to him in preference to Jack Crawford. If he knows that I am here he would come for me himself.”

“Or send someone else.”

“Or send someone else. You know in retrospect your quick thinking about providing 24 hours’ notice is a great shame. The inspector could have come in and we…”

I give you a nudge with my foot.

“Very well, I could have escorted him from the premises.” You shoot me a look that could be interpreted as ‘your constant denial about this is somewhat endearing’ but might equally be, ‘nice try but you’re fooling anyone, you dick.’

“Escorted him from the premises in a casserole dish. There’s still a hell of a lot about this which doesn’t make sense.”

“There is. I imagine that it will become clear in time.”

“Yeah,” I answer gloomily. “I imagine it will.” The discussion about being followed has reminded me of that night in the rain, the shadowy figure poised and vigilant. There’s a storm coming. I fall quiet, turning over various possible scenarios in my head before the silence is abruptly and dramatically broken by the sound of raised voices and shattering glass from outside the window. Our reactions are immediate, disparate and typical: I give a startled gasp and nearly jump out of my fucking skin, whereas you sharply flick your head round then jump to your feet, simultaneously grabbing my shoulders and pushing me onto the floor behind the sofa.

“For God’s sake!” I hiss. I’ve landed awkwardly and it takes a few seconds to try and swivel my knees round to get enough leverage to stand.

“Do not move.” You’ve already turned the light off and are looking out the window.

“I can…”

“Will,” you say ominously, “please do not make me repeat myself. You will stay exactly where you are until I tell you otherwise.”

I guess what you really mean is: ‘until I tell you it’s safe to come out,’ and despite the stress of the situation I feel absurdly touched by this (albeit also extremely suspicious because – why?) then I just go quiet and let my head fall back against the floor. God knows what’s going on: I can’t see a goddamn thing because the sofa’s in the way. It’s all gone quiet now, the noise cut off as if someone’s flicked a switch. If that’s Matthew Brown, I think, with a sudden surge of adrenaline, then I’ll fucking well kill him myself. I proceed to spend an enjoyable few minutes planning the various ways in which I might accomplish this, and all the while you are completely silent: watchful and still.

Finally I can’t stand it any longer. “What’s happening?” I hiss.

“Nothing…yet. The street appears clear.”

“Maybe it is nothing? This area is rough. People are always fighting and breaking shit.”

“Hmmm.”

“I want to come out.”

“You are not coming out. Now be quiet.” You actually sound quite frightening (God knows how you manage it: it’s not like you even need to raise your voice, just imbue the tone with something indefinable that’s soft and subtly understated yet still clearly tantamount to ‘do not even think about fucking with me’). This time I really do shut up and wait (sort of) patiently until you appear overhead and offer a hand to help me up.

“Nothing?” I ask.

“Nothing visible. That is not the same as nothing at all.”

“No…I know. I know it’s not.”

“Are the windows all locked?”

“Yes, I double-checked earlier.”

“Good.”

“I thought you weren’t concerned?” I say fretfully. “You said you weren’t worried.”

“At this point I am not prepared to take any chances. As I told you, I trust your judgement. Since meeting that inspector you feel that something is wrong and I am disposed to agree.” You frown slightly. “The sooner you are out of this building, the better.”

“The sooner we are out of it.”

“Yes, granted; except I have more confidence in my ability to deal with any trouble which might arise.”

“Are you claiming to be concerned for my welfare?” I can’t help saying. “That is…ironic.”

“Yes, I suppose it is,” you reply. “Although in my experience irony is seldom absent from life’s more taxing situations.” You turn the light back on, then fold yourself onto the sofa and resume reading your book as though nothing has happened.

“Well…okay then,” I say. I go over to the window myself and hold a temporary, nervy vigil, peering out from behind the curtain and into the street. You’re right of course; there’s nothing to see. Maybe it really was just kids or crack dealers, or whatever the hell happens round this neigborhood on a nightly basis. Or maybe it wasn’t.

“Move away from the window, please,” you say suddenly; and I automatically obey, propping myself against the table instead. I keep darting anxious glances at you, resplendent on the sofa and so vibrant and present and whole. I can’t bear the thought of anything happening to you. I’d rather it happened to me; I wouldn’t leave the same kind of gash in the world that you would. As soon as it’s daylight we’re both getting out of this fucking place; briefly I curse myself for being so stubborn and not just joining you at the hotel like you originally suggested. It’s my fault you’ve come back here. I feel like going over to you and slumping in a heap at your feet with my head on your knee, but of course I don’t. You’re just sat there reading, completely oblivious.

“I could order the food now?” I offer, mostly because I can’t think of anything else to do. “Have you any preferences?” Ugh, grim…maybe not the best thing to ask you.

“Whatever you like,” you reply absently. You follow it up with some weird foreign word.

“What? What does that mean?”

“It is a term of endearment, I suppose,” you reply, without glancing up from your book. “It does not translate precisely. ’Little one’ would be a close approximation in English.”

“Oh my God, I am not little.”

“It is merely a figure of speech.”

“I’m nearly as tall as you are.”

“There is no shame in being diminutive,” you reply placidly. “Have you never heard the expression ‘small yet deadly’?”

“I am not small!”

You look like you’re struggling to keep a straight face. “I am only teasing you Will,” you say, “now be a good boy and be quiet.”

“And don’t call me a boy. It’s infantilizing.”

“Well, you are younger than am I; so to me you appear rather boyish at times,” you finally look up at me, “particularly when you are throwing one of your spectacular tantrums.”

“Oh for God’s sake.”

You put your book down and this time you actually do laugh and hold out your hand. “Come here,” you say. I shuffle over and you pull me next to you on the sofa and wrap your arm around me. “Now truly Will,” you add, “please be quiet. You are, on occasion, enough to drive someone to drink.” I guess it could be worse – at least you didn’t say ‘enough to drive someone to murder.’ You’ve lost interest in me now, deeply engrossed in your book, and I want a way of getting your attention again that’s not too obvious (and won’t drive you to drink and/or murder), so disentangle myself from your arms and go and sit in front of the heater with my legs stretched out.

You look up immediately (result!). “Are you cold?” you ask.

“Yeah.” It’s true actually, I’m fucking freezing.

“Hardly surprising. You are still far too thin; you can’t efficiently retain your body heat.”

Please don’t offer to feed me up.”

“I shall certainly be feeding you up once I have access to a kitchen equal to the task. Unfortunately that may not be immediately forthcoming whilst we are dependent on either hovels or hotels. However, it will not always be the case.” You give me a thoughtful look, but I can’t face asking you what you mean (not that you’d explain anyway; if you wanted to tell me you would). You don’t say anything else, and in the end I just order from the same restaurant service we used before (which you inevitably complain about, at one point acting like I’m trying to coerce you into eating something I’ve just foraged off the side of the road). You arrange the sofa cushions and an assortment of blankets on the floor in front of the heater, and we eat it there off our knees and drink wine out of mugs because I don’t have any wineglasses. I actually really like the way the light flickers across the room: as if we’re two bandits on the run, crouched in front of our camp fire.

“Why are you being so nice to me?” I suddenly say, apropos of nothing.

You give me one of your vaguely unsettling smiles. “Because you have not given me any reason not to be.”

There’s a slight pause before you start telling me about an art dealer you met while you were away; but after a while you stop talking entirely and just stare at me, and I can feel myself unfurling under the intensity of your gaze. Although I’m not drunk, the alcohol’s gone to my head and given me a warm, hazy feeling (although you can hardly start bitching about it after what I’ve done over the past few days).

“You’re thinking about all the pornographic things you’d like to do to me aren’t you?” I say, “I can tell.” I smirk and try and do my best imitation of your accent: “You are, on occasion, utterly transparent.”

You give me a withering glance, but I can tell you’re trying not to smile. “If that were true you could hardly blame me,” you reply, “when you are lounging in front of me as flushed and loose-limbed as you are, and gazing at me so invitingly with your big eyes.”

I choke slightly on the wine. “Oh my God, I am not doing that.”

“I regret to inform you that you absolutely are.”

“I’m not.”

“I’m afraid that you are. It is nothing to be ashamed of: if you weren’t so captivated by me, your life would have been far less interesting.”

“Ugh, shut up. I am not…It’s not…” You raise your eyebrows at me. “God you’re so vain,” I finally say.

“Naturally I am vain. I have an excessive and varied amount of things about which to be conceited, and a lack of vanity would be tantamount to ingratitude. At the moment I have you, which has brought me no end of satisfaction.”

I realize I don’t quite know how to respond – these unexpected compliments are still feeling a bit leftfield, not least because I’m not all that great with receiving praise at the best of times (my standard response being to either laugh awkwardly, or begin to earnestly and logically point out why the person is mistaken). I can’t help feeling I won’t get away with either of these strategies on you, so consider saying ‘you don’t have me’ instead (because, seriously – it makes me sound like a possession: as if I’m your goddamn Bentley or something). But as soon as I’ve thought that, I realize that I’m actually not completely averse to the idea (oh God)… so in the end I don’t answer at all; just give you a small smile instead. It’s so warm and tranquil with the flickering light, the locked doors and windows keeping everything out: like being inside a cave. I stretch my legs in front of me and flex my toes, and you pick up one of my bare feet and stroke along the arch.

I watch you doing it for a while: your hands are so graceful, you move them like a musician does. “We were therapist and patient once weren’t we,” I say idly. “Look at us now.”

“A ‘contrasting combination’,” you reply with a slight smile. “Although it is not the only one that applies.”

“What do you mean?...Or do I not want to know?”

“Merely that the ‘therapist-patient’ dichotomy is not the only relevant one, either now or in the past. For example, I would add ‘teacher and student.’”

“Huh, I bet you would. I suppose you consider yourself the teacher. Which I dispute by the way, you arrogant…” I trail off, trying to think of an appropriate insult; you wait with an expression of polite expectation on your face. “You’re an ass,” I finally say.

You raise your eyebrows. “You really do have the most colorful vocabulary when under the influence. Are you going to suggest I look into the possibility of a ‘sex transplant’?”

I can’t help blushing a bit at that (which is doubtless what you intended). “No,” I reply quickly, “I’m nowhere near that drunk. And anyway, you are. But I still maintain that I’m not your student.”

“Not at all. In this instance the pairing applies to us both, as I have certainly learnt several interesting things from you. My other suggestion is ‘enabler and enabled.’” You give me a slightly unsettling smile. “Your turn, I believe.”

“Bullshitter and bullshitted,” I say with a flourish.

“Eloquent, Will,” you reply. “Again, that is clearly both of us. I’m afraid you cannot entirely claim the moral high ground there.”

I frown for a bit and chew my thumb nail. “Hunter and hunted.”

“And which is which?”

“Well I’m the hunter, obviously. I work for the FBI and you’re the FBI’s Most Wanted.” I wave my hand at you as if to imply ‘you do the math.’

You look as if there is a lot more you could say in response to this, but ultimately just smile instead (albeit in a vaguely sinister way). “Very well: cat and mouse.”

“Okay, I guess that one’s pretty indisputable,” I say irritably. “Why are we playing this game anyway? It’s shit. This is a shit game.”

“Ah, you are sulking now because you feel the comparison does not reflect well on you.”

“Not necessarily. Mice are vicious…Vicious little furry bastards.”

“Oh yes, of course, I forgot.”

“Well, they are.”

“Holy terrors, indeed.”

“I was ‘instrumental’ in apprehending you, remember,” I say. “Even Freddie Lounds agrees.”

“Oh well, in that case I suppose I must concede defeat,” you reply. “If even Freddie Lounds agrees. Nevertheless, the thesis is still somewhat undermined by the small fact that I turned myself in.”

“Because of me!”

“Yes,” you smile at that and begin stroking my feet again. “Once more you have me at a disadvantage, because that is undeniably the case. This is why the estimable Bedelia du Maurier always considered you to be my greatest mistake.”

“Am I?”

“Perhaps in some ways,” you reply thoughtfully, “although I hope you will prove to be much more than just that. It rather diminishes you, after all, to consider you as merely an error in judgement.”

“Thanks,” I say, “I guess.”

“You are most welcome. Now, I have one more.”

“What?”

L’amante e l’amato,” you answer. “The lover and the beloved.”

I blink a few times, then just stare at you: I can’t tell if you’re being serious or not. “And which is which?” I ask automatically.

“What do you think?” You give me one of your blank, wide-eyed stares, then softly quote: “’Loving someone liberates both the lover and the beloved.’”

I frown slightly; once again it feels as if you’re inventing new rules to a game that I ultimately won’t know how to play. “I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean,” I finally say.

“Don’t you?”

“No. You don’t…You can’t…You’re not like that.”

“Aren’t I? And what about you; what are you like?”

“I don’t know, but…not like that – not like you.”

“So I am not like that, and you are not like me. We would appear to cancel one another out.”

“We’ve always cancelled each other out,” I say tonelessly.

“Yes indeed,” you reply. “Yet here we are all the same.” And then you just stare at me again, and I stare back.

For a while neither of us says or does anything: just sit there gazing at one another, our breathing oddly synchronized, your dark eyes fixed on my face. It’s started to sleet, splashy white flakes pock-marking across the window. There’s a storm coming. And I stare at you, staring at me, and am suddenly overwhelmed by an awful, helpless urge to cry because I have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen to us. It’s like gazing down an elevator shaft: realms of darkness and no way of guessing how far the emptiness goes.

I don’t know the future, or what’s lying ahead; and the only thing that feels really distinct and indisputable is that we might not come back from it. You could get caught and caged tomorrow; I could get shot/stabbed/fed to mutant pigs next week. It’s not like either of us has the type of lifestyle that lends itself to excessive forward planning. Without even thinking about it I lean into you and kiss you with a sort of blind, miserable desperation, and I remember what you used to say: “The thought that my life could end at any moment frees me to appreciate the beauty and art and horror of everything the world has to offer.” At the time I thought you were talking crap, but now I have a painfully acute sense of exactly what you meant. And it’s this that makes me realize, with a sudden surge of clarity, just how much I actually want you. God help me, but I do. I want all your beauty, all your art and horror; the best of you, the worst of you; the wonderful and the terrible; all of you, all the time.

I entwine my arms round your back and press myself against you; and I think about you carrying me to safety over the snow, of your constant fascination with everything I said and did; of the way you always believed I could be something more than I am, when no one else ever really accepted me for what I already was. I think about all the glances, and touches, and smiles; the synchronicity, the shared, unspoken understandings, and the fatal, magnetic pull that never ever went away. “If I saw you every day forever, Will, I would remember this time…Freeing yourself from me and me freeing myself from you, they’re the same.” Then I think about all the terrible, awful, unspeakable things, and the fact that I still fell in love with you anyway. That we both fell: fell into the ocean, fell to our deaths, but then still rose again together. You with blood on your face; me with wide frantic eyes, staring into a future where I couldn’t live with or without you. The recognition, the reservation; the aimless, pointless agony of it all. ”I want you to know exactly where I am. And where you can find me.” That you were the past and I thought I’d buried you, when all I ever did was bury myself alive. And I think about how I was slowly wasting away when you weren’t here and how everything revived the moment you came back.

If I could I would offer you something, a tribute, a gift, something to honor you. Ideally it would be something peerless and incredible: suns and moons; gold, frankincense and myrrh. But of course I don’t have anything like that; the only thing I have to give you is myself.

Me: “I wondered if you could see it too; I wondered if our stars were the same.”

You: “I believe some of our stars will always be the same.”

And I think about that night in the alleyway: the way I gazed at the constellations, the last thing I thought I’d ever see, helpless and hopeless and flat on my back waiting to die. And how I turned round, and there you were; both of us finally underneath the same stars. And, for once; in alignment.

Oh God, it’s no good – I want this. I do. Ever since you came back I’ve been thinking ‘I can’t’ and now it’s more like ‘I have to. We need to. I can’t bear it if we don’t.’ I don’t know what the implications could be. I don’t know what it could lead to. I know I could end up regretting it, that it could be a mistake; a huge one, the biggest mistake of my fucking life (me, who’s made so many mistakes). But it doesn’t seem to matter – not now, not anymore – because it feels like I can no longer take for granted that we have an indefinite amount of time left together…and I can’t renounce you a second time. I kiss you and kiss you, and all I’m aware of is the overwhelming sense that I want you to hold me and have me; I want to see your face over mine; I want to feel you inside me; I want to wrap my legs round your back and cry out your name. For the next few hours I want you to take me over completely. And I want to let you.

The first day you came back, when I asked you what was going to happen to us, you told me “something extraordinary.” Right now, this night, in this moment, this is my something extraordinary. The past can’t be changed, the future’s an unknown quantity, but the present can be controlled. A present is a gift; so this is mine. And I feel a sudden certainty that if I wasn’t ready before, then I am now.

Chapter Text

I’m not exactly sure how you detect that the energy in me has shifted (I never know how you work out even half the things you do) but it’s obvious that you have realized, because you suddenly pull away and look at me meditatively, one hand still cupping the back of my head – literally holding me at arm’s length. Your eyes are ever so slightly narrowed.

From outside the window comes the faint wail of sirens - tearing towards someone else’s emergency - and while I automatically flick my head towards the noise, yours doesn’t move at all. God knows what you’re thinking: I’ve never really been able to read you the way I can other people; the way that you can read me. But the silence starts to limp on and on, and it’s obvious that you’re waiting. You are waiting, aren’t you? You’re waiting for me to say something; to tell you what I’ve decided. I open my mouth and close it again, then just gaze numbly, unsure of what to do. I’m uncomfortably aware of how undone I must look: flushed, dishevelled, wide-eyed, and my hair hopelessly tousled from where you’ve been running your fingers through it. Christ, why can’t I say anything? I feel a wave of contempt for myself that I’m being so hopelessly inept; that I can’t take control of the situation the way I’d like to (the way you would if our roles were reversed). I don’t even fully know why. Maybe it’s because you always overpower me, or because I don’t trust myself with you, or because I want you so much it stuns me. Maybe it’s because there’s still a part of me that’s afraid of you. Maybe it’s just you – you in all your fierce and formidable and fantastic entirety. It’s not me, it’s you…a self-defeating twist on the ultimate, pointless cliché. Oh God. Oh fucking hell. And all the time you’re just looking at me, the same inscrutable expression on your face.

“You have made your decision haven’t you?” you finally say, when it’s become painfully apparent that I’m not going to do anything myself. You smile slightly, the faintest quirk of your mouth. “And now that you have, you are – unnerved.” Your voice is very measured, very controlled. Almost clinical. If it was anyone else I’d say you were trying to disguise your own feelings. But you’re not anyone else. You don’t need to do that, do you? You’re not like other people.

I draw in a breath through my teeth. “Yes.”

“Yes you have, or yes you are? Or both?”

I hesitate, but there’s no point lying to you; you’d know immediately. “Both,” I say. I’m proud that my voice sounds almost as steady as yours does. Chameleon-like: you’re not the only one who knows how to use a mask.

You tilt your head back, observing me, and it takes an enormous amount of willpower to not begin wilting under the intensity of your stare. The way the light catches your eyes makes them look like they’re glittering.

“Yes, you’ve committed yourself,” you say after a pause, “and having done so the commitment frightens you. Appals you, even.” You tug my head very slightly, your fingers twisting into my hair. Any harder and it’s going to hurt. “Yet you are going to do it anyway, aren’t you? Either your objections are not strong enough, or you are sufficiently resolute to disregard them.”

I look at you. Worship you. Why are you even asking? You already know. “Yes,” I say quietly.

Your smile becomes fractionally broader, and I can’t tell whether you’re pleased by my response, or intrigued, or simply amused; possibly all three. You tug my head back a bit further, only this time I flinch and try to pull away.

“Christ, stop doing that,” I say, “you’re hurting me.” Even as I’m speaking I’m bracing myself for the flare of pain when you inevitably do it again; but to my surprise you don’t (although you don’t let go either…and I can’t quite bring myself to move away entirely). There’s yet another silence while you stare at me, and now your face has closed down and there’s absolutely nothing in your expression to indicate what you’re thinking. It’s pretty remarkable really: you have no tells at all, your countenance as level and serene as a sheet of glass. I may as well just be staring at myself.

“You know I often envisaged you while I was away,” you say eventually, “and whatever guise you appeared in there was a common refrain.”

“What?”

“You were always victorious,” you reply. “Triumphant and exultant – and with no respect for your own limits. None at all.”

I smile as well then, I can’t help myself. “No, none at all.”

“And I in turn respect your disrespectfulness,” you say lightly. “One should never allow fear to govern one’s choices. Although you never really have, have you? If that were the case you would hardly be sat here now.”

“I guess not.”

Of course you pounce on this immediately. “So why are you then?” you ask. “All this threat and uncertainty distilled into a single moment; jeopardy in its purest form…What is the appeal?”

“Because it makes me feel alive.” God that sounds so clichéd. I can’t help it though; it’s true. I’m clichéd and overused, and even then my motives still don’t entirely make sense to me. As an afterthought I add: “And as you’re so fond of reminding me, I have no respect for my own limits.” I shift my head in a final attempt to loosen your grip on my hair, and you tilt your own in tandem so you can maintain eye contact; the movement makes the light dapple across your face in a way that exaggerates all the sharp angles. You look like you’re glowing, as if you’re luminous, a light source yourself. You are. You glisten and blaze and you’re everything.

“So tell me Will,” you say, “where do you think all your disrespect is going to lead you?”

I hesitate again, but the answer’s so obvious there’s no real reason not to admit it. “To you, I suppose,” I say simply. “Where else did it ever lead me?”

“Yes indeed,” you reply. “And perhaps that is another mutual combination; two heretics together. Two people with no respect for the customary order of things. After all, there are some who would consider you my greatest mistake, yet here I am too.”

I want to add something about being glad that you’re here, that it could never have been anyone else except you; but it sounds so horribly sentimental that I can’t quite bring myself to do it. Instead I lean back and allow my head to press against your hand. I realize my eyes are shut, although I don’t remember closing them.

“Fear is not a reason to cease and desist,” you say softly. “It is the inspiration to strike out.”

“I know.” My eyes are still closed. “God, I know.”

“Very good,” and you tighten your grip on my hair. “Will Graham; once more unto the breach.”

“Yeah…One more time. And always with you” (and how many more times after?). I smile slightly at the complete insanity of it all, and finally open my eyes and tip my head forwards so I can look at you properly. You still seem so calm, so composed: smooth and impassive as liquid metal. It’s good – grounding. It makes me feel safe. You’re going to have to be in control for both of us.

“Always with me,” you repeat, before adding: “yet always me with you. Are you ready to fall again?”

“Yes,” I reply, quiet but firm. “Of course.” And it’s true; I am. God knows where or how I’m going to land, or when. Broken, shattered and deformed beyond recognition…or as something else entirely, elated and complete, more whole than I ever was before. I don’t know. More to the point: I don’t care.

“Don’t you?” you ask, and I realize I said the last part aloud. “Do you really not care? Not even a little?” You sound sardonic now; you’re making fun of me. Fuck you.

“Maybe,” I say. “Maybe a little. But still not enough.” I stare back at you defiantly. You look intrigued, even though this is surely going exactly as you expected: first the realization, then the doubt. Doubt followed by anger. Anger followed by acceptance. And then, ultimately, the acquiescence.

“You’ve scripted this out to yourself beforehand, haven’t you?” I find myself saying. “Planned exactly what you wanted to happen, then manoeuvred it round so you can feed me all the right lines.”

“No.”

“Of course you have. You think you know me so well.” I can actually imagine you doing it; in fact it’s probably what you were plotting to yourself all those times you were sat in the chair with that fucking smile on your face. You think you’re so goddamn smart (although of course this doesn’t really hold up, because you don’t just need to think it; you actually are. And I should never, ever allow myself to forget that).

You stare at me for a few seconds without replying, your eyes flicking over my face in a way that’s deeply unnerving; and I both love it and hate it at the same time.

“I do know you,” you finally say. “But you, on the contrary, don’t entirely know yourself – and that is one of the things which makes you so incredibly fascinating. Yes, I have an idea of what you are thinking; and yes, I have shaped your perspective in a certain way. But I have never known entirely what you will do. If I could predict you as precisely as that I would not be here now. And neither would you.”

“Oh yeah? So where would I be?”

“You would be dead,” you answer bluntly. “You would never have survived me in the way that you have.”

I look back at you: your power and energy, the way you hold yourself, the unspoken threat that’s engraved into every movement. You’re so endlessly self-assured. “That’s a logical proposition Dr Lecter,” I say, “and while I agree with the antecedent, you’re still missing something.”

“Yes; what am I missing?”

“The consequent.”

“Which is?”

I lean forward slightly. Look you straight in the eyes. “Who says you would have survived me?”

This time you really do smile. “That’s good Will,” you say. “Very good. You are learning.”

The atmosphere is now so highly charged it feels flammable. I draw in a deep breath and there’s another beat of silence while we look at one another, ready to fall.

Fortes fortuna adiuvat,” you say. “Fortune favors the brave. And where there is unity there is victory.”

I can hear my pulse throbbing in my ears. Yes, I think. Yes, yes, yes.

Very slowly and deliberately you remove your hand from the back of my head, trailing it down my cheek and throat and then grasping the collar of my shirt so you can pull me towards you, your gaze locked into mine the entire time. You start flicking the buttons open with your other hand, but I grab you before you can finish and pull you onto the floor on top of me so I can kiss you; it’s as if I can’t bear to break the contact for even the time it’ll take to get our clothes off. The kiss grows rough and heated very quickly, and at times it’s like we’re fighting each other (to an extent I think we actually are): me digging my nails into your shoulders and trying to seize hold of your wrists and wrap my legs round yours; while you’re scraping your teeth across my throat, biting and sucking bruises into my skin, pinning me underneath you and twisting my hair in your fist to keep my head in place. I make a low moaning noise and you hold me down even harder, gripping both my hands in one of yours and pinning my arms above my head. I arch my back up towards you, trying to pull myself free, and you push the heel of your other hand against my groin until I’m gasping helplessly into your mouth. There’s no way we’re going to make it as far as the bedroom now, no way at all. Although it actually feels suitably surreal that after all the years of grandiosity, madness, and grotesque baroque splendour we’re finally going to do this in front of a flickering electric heater on top of a pile of tattered cushions and the shock blanket. The reality is that it’s all happening too fast, ridiculously fast really – I know it is –but I can’t bring myself to wait any longer. We’ve already waited too long. We’ve waited for years. We’ve been waiting since the first time we met.

Eventually we pull away to draw breath, both of us panting slightly, and I stare up at you with my lips parted. Your face is only inches above mine and I want to touch it – the way I would do, and have done, with other people – but can’t quite bring myself to with you. That sort of gesture doesn’t feel entirely right, the same way I wouldn’t pet a wild animal. Your eyes are incredibly piercing, it’s unnerving. You’re so striking. And terrifying. And unknowable. And I need you more than I’ve ever needed anyone else.

“Please,” I say quietly. “Please. I want…I want…”

“What do you want?” You spin it out into a languorous drawl, which in your smoky voice sounds almost impossibly seductive: What. Do. You. Want.

And at that precise moment I grind to a halt, even as I’m opening my mouth to reply, because I’ve suddenly realized I have absolutely no idea what to say. ‘I want you to fuck me?’ No, far too vulgar for you. ‘Make love’ (cringe); ‘take me’ (makes me sounds like Scarlett O’Hara); ‘have sex’ (no, too stilted and formal); ‘shag me’ (Austin Powers. Christ); ‘intercourse’ (oh my God, NO…just no). In the end I simply settle for: “You. I want you.”

And you say: “You can have me, Will, whenever you like. All you need to do is ask.”

We stare at each other for a few more seconds, then you kiss my forehead in an unusually tender way – in fact it’s so tender it immediately makes me suspicious – and I lie prone on my back, staring at the ceiling with my arms stretched behind me and a vague refrain of ’Oh God, oh shit, what am I doing? What the fuck am I doing?’ running through my head. Which is, in effect, a pointlessly rhetorical query (little more than a tokenistic show of objection), because I know exactly what I’m doing. And knowing that, am going to do it anyway.

You lean over me again and resume unbuttoning my shirt, staring down with another unreadable expression on your face, and on an impulse (and without even fully meaning to) I seize your wrist, because I’ve now abruptly hurtled from ‘what am I doing’ to ‘what are you doing’ and realized there’s one more thing I need to check. You pause and glance at me, calm and composed as always.

“I…I want to ask you something,” I say.

“Yes? I am listening.” You arrange your features into what I privately think of as your ‘therapist face.’ Honestly, you’re such a bullshitter.

I pause and dart my tongue over my lips. Oh hell, it’s so difficult. For fuck’s sake, why am I even doing this now; what’s wrong with me? Why is my timing so ridiculous? I should have said this before. Way before. Or even after (way after), when I could have been more reflective. Or just anytime, really, because any other time would have been preferable to the actual time I’ve chosen to do it. I huff out a breath, and you watch me patiently, and I finally just make a show of gesturing back and forth between the two of us.

“You," I say. "This. You being like this.” You raise your eyebrows at me. I can’t help feeling you’ve already worked out exactly when I’m trying to ask you, but are going to force me to stumble through the whole thing anyway just to be a dick about it.

“Y-e-s?” you say encouragingly.

“How do I know this isn’t all an act?” The words come tumbling out in a rush, as if eager to escape before I can change my mind and recall them back again: HowdoIknowthisisntallanact. I take another deep breath. “Weren’t you like this with Alana? Exactly like this?” As well as with God only knows who else...probably half of Baltimore. “How do I know you’re not just…How do I know?” Even as I’m asking (and cringing) I’m aware of the miserably undeniable fact that if you turn round now and say ‘Okay, fine, you’ve got me. I’m massively manipulating you – again. So what? Now stop whining, take your clothes off and get on your back’ (or a more eloquent version thereof) it still wouldn’t be enough to make me leave.

You look at me carefully: you don’t seem irritated, or mocking, or even defensive; just thoughtful. Intrigued, even. “It is not an act Will,” you eventually say.

“But how do I know that?” I keep my voice reasonably composed, but inside I feel a bit desperate. Christ, I’m so fucked up; why do I even care? Of all the possible reservations, this should hardly be top of the list.

You just shrug slightly. “I cannot prove it definitively, of course; you have to decide for yourself. I would suggest you console yourself with the knowledge that the short-term outcome would be exactly the same regardless: you will be able to experience a considerable amount of physical pleasure, as well as the emotional satisfaction of knowing you had the courage of your convictions.” You give me a slightly unsettling smile. “You should be less concerned with my motivations than your own. After years of shouting into a void you are finally starting to listen to yourself – it would be something of a pity to deny the message as soon as you’ve uttered it.”

I must look unconvinced; because you briefly press your hand to the side of my face again, and in spite of myself I close my eyes and lean into the touch, allowing my cheek to rub against your palm.

“Will,” you say quietly, “I am not trying to deceive you.” You pause, and then add (with uncharacteristic candour): “Not this time. After everything that has happened, what would be the point?”

There doesn’t need to be a point, I think, you’d do it anyway just because you can. But you’re right, of course you are; ultimately I need to decide for myself. And the truth is that I’d already decided before I even asked you. I know you’d never force me; I could walk away right now. But I won’t (can’t) because I want this too much.

I let my eyes fall closed again, feeling unexpectedly peaceful now that the last kernel of doubt has been acknowledged, examined, and ultimately discarded. You wait to see if I’m going to make any further objections; and when I don’t, kiss my forehead again and resume removing my shirt. From there you proceed to undress both of us, and I just lie there and let you. The mood’s shifted again now, softening into something that’s mellower and less fraught and I realize, with something almost like surprise (why?), that now the frenzied urgency has eased off I’m actually incredibly nervous. Why am I so nervous? I’m trembling; it’s embarrassing. “I can’t stop shaking,” I say.

“I don’t mind. In fact I find it rather endearing. It is partly fear, but also desire. Pleasure and pain – they are so closely aligned. Pleasure without conscience; pain without principle. You know about both don’t you?”

“Of course.”

“Yet you want to know more?”

“Oh God, yes.”

“I thought so,” you reply smoothly. “Come here then.” You pull me upright and manoeuvre me round so my back’s against your chest, coiling your arms around me as I twist my head so I can kiss you. You’re so strong that I know there’s no way I could get free even if I wanted to (I don’t want to) and there’s actually something incredibly soothing about being held and contained. I find myself gasping into your mouth – if I could I’d entwine my hands over yours, but I can’t move my arms because you’re pinning them down. You keep me like that for a while, seeing how long I’ll tolerate being held in place and rubbing your face against my hair, then eventually shift one of your own arms so you can trail your hand downwards. You stroke across my ribs, my hip bones, finally letting your fingers slide over the scar on my abdomen; and it makes me cry out with a weirdly thrilling combination of desire and fear. You let go of me entirely then, pushing me forward until I’m on my hands and knees and placing one hand firmly on my neck while running the other one up and down my back. And I’m acutely aware not only of how submissive I’m being, but by the fact that I would never, ever, ever be like this for anyone else except you.

“Open your legs Will,” you say softly. I make another small moaning noise as I obey, and you place your palms on the inside of my thighs to spread them even wider before leaning over and kissing my shoulder blade. “You are so beautiful,” you murmur into my skin. “If only you could see yourself now.”

I don’t know what to say to that, so ultimately don’t say anything and allow my head to fall forward and hang between my arms because it feels like there’s too much going on inside it for my neck to bear the weight. I’m still trembling and you stroke my chest, encouraging me to relax; then leisurely begin to kiss your way down the ridges of my spine, occasionally letting your teeth scrape lightly over the skin. Your breath feels surprisingly warm; humid, almost. Christ it’s so intense. I expect you to stop when you get to the small of my back, but you don’t and continue moving downwards. No, you’re not…are you? You wouldn’t. Oh my God, you fucking are. I make a helpless gasping noise as I feel you spread me open with both hands, running your tongue in a slow, lascivious glide straight across my ass in a way that’s incredibly ardent and utterly overwhelming, then rapidly switching to a series of lingering, lapping kisses that leave me trembling and delirious and completely unhinged.

Oh,” I say in a faint voice, “you can’t do that.”

You move away briefly and kiss the side of my thigh. “Just let yourself enjoy it. I can assure you that I am myself. I have wanted to do this to you for quite some time.”

“Oh God,” I say weakly. Now you’re alternating between languorous flat strokes and more delicately deliberate thrusts, running your hands up and down my thighs and forcing my legs further apart, then narrowing your tongue so you can ease past the tight ring of muscle until I’m wet, wet everywhere; and it feels so shameful, and pleasurable, and almost unbearably intimate, that my arms give out entirely and I end up slumping forward and moaning your name directly into the cushion. You pull away again and lean over me, kissing the base of my neck beneath my hair, and reaching up at the same time with your right hand so you can rub your finger in slow, teasing circles before pushing deep inside me. I’m so slick and wet that it slides in with total ease.

“Oh God,” I say again.

“You enjoyed that?”

“It was…it was…” and then you stroke my prostate and my brain promptly short-circuits and I can’t say anything at all.

“I thought you would; once you could overcome your initial disconcertment.” You curl your finger round again and this time I nearly scream at how good it feels. “It is incredibly satisfying helping you push past your boundaries. I am immensely looking forward to seeing how much further we can go.”

“God, yes. Please…please. I want you to. Anything, I don’t care. I want it so much.”

“I know you do. And I shall.” You kiss my shoulder blade again, briefly withdrawing your hand so you can lean over to retrieve the lube from the side of the couch, and I realize – slightly hysterically – that I actually have no idea what it is I’m agreeing to; if you’re still using metaphors, or whether you really are just talking about sex this time. God knows with you…it could be either. What other limits might you be planning for me to break? Maybe you want to blindfold me, handcuff me, hurt me. Tie me up. Choke me. Hit me. Maybe you want to get someone else involved and let them fuck me in front of you; you’d probably just watch, not participate yourself but simply direct my responses into a suitable tableau so you’d be in vicarious control of the whole thing (get on your knees for him Will; spread your legs; show us how much you enjoy it). The thing is I probably would. If you wanted me to, if you asked…for you I probably would. I spiral off into an in increasingly frenzied inventory of all the things you might want me to do (and which I’d inevitably struggle to say ‘no’ to) and almost don’t notice you’ve come back until I feel your leg against mine. Oh God, God. I’m unbelievably wired: over-sensitized, each nerve shuddering, almost painfully aware of everything: how warm and damp my skin feels and how cold the air is against it; the rough texture of the carpet under my knees, the smooth fibres of the blanket beneath my hand. It’s both ecstatic and slightly frightening. I hear the sharp ‘click’ of the bottle lid as you open it and pour some of the lube onto your hand, then moan helplessly as you work two fingers inside me: it feels so good, so intense and invasive, it’s almost too much.

“Please,” I gasp out. “You have to stop. Please, stop, you’re going to make me come.” I sound vaguely panicked, a distraught combination of genuinely wanting to make it last until you’re inside me; humiliation that I’ll ruin everything if I come too soon; but most of all a sense of something like fear that I’m getting so completely out of control. I’m expecting you to make me beg – or even force me to come anyway, just for the hell of it – but you don’t.

“It’s all right Will,” is all you say. You smooth your other hand up and down my back and across my shoulders, finally wrapping your arm round my ribcage and leaning over to press your face against my hair. “Relax. Breathe. That’s it, that’s good. You are doing so well.”

“It’s just…” I shake my head a bit desperately. “It’s so intense. It feels so…”

“I know,” you reply. But you don’t. How can you possibly know? I want to tell you that I’m not used to this, have never felt like this before – that I’m not sure how to cope with it – but can’t bring myself to because the admission feels too exposing. You still have your fingers inside me, but are moving extremely slowly and gently; enough to feel pleasurable but not to overwhelm.

“Just relax,” you say again, and in spite of myself I make a small whining noise and push my hips back against your hand. “That’s very good. Perfect. Let me make you ready for me.”

“I’m sorry,” I mutter helplessly. “I’m just…it’s…ahh…it feels so good.”

“It will soon feel even better.”

“Oh God,” I say, and make a sound that’s half a laugh but could easily swing the other way and become a sob.

“Take your time Will,” you reply. “There is no rush. None at all. We have all the time we need.” You kiss my neck again then abruptly pull me upright again so we’re both on our knees, my back resting against your chest – you’ve obviously worked out that the close contact with you calms me down. You wrap one of your powerful arms round my torso, then let my head lean onto your shoulder, rubbing your face against my mine as you gently finger me open with your other hand.

“How does that feel?” you ask.

“Good. Oh. Really good.”

“You are so sensitive aren’t you? It is a very fine line between not enough and far too much.”

“Yes…I think so,” I say vaguely. I’ve tipped my head so far over your shoulder I can see the wall behind me. I can’t bring myself to admit that this level of rapturous response is hardly typical; that the only person who’s ever made me feel like this is you. It’s actually pretty crazy – the concept of being fucked by another man, even (especially) if that man is you, ought to seem bizarre and troubling. Shocking, even. If it were anyone else I’d have freaked out and left ages ago. But despite a faint, residual swell of anxiety I want this more than I know how to express.

“Tell me when you think you are ready,” you say.

When exactly was I ready? Never…Always? I don’t know. I push my face into the side of your neck so your jaw is resting on the top of my head. “Now,” I say, “Please. I want you to do it. I want this.”

You don’t answer immediately, just keep touching me in the same slow, tantalizing-tormenting way. I’m really starting to shake now, my muscles spasming and my skin growing slick with sweat. I need this – you – so much.

“God, let’s just do it,” I say. “What are you waiting for?”

“You are sure?”

Yes. Christ, do you want me to beg?”

“Not on this occasion,” you reply. “There will be ample time in the future for you to beg me for what you want. Beg me to begin; beg me to stop. Pleading…imploring; yet always so defiant and rebellious in spite of it all. You will never stop fighting me will you?”

“No.” You remove your fingers almost entirely, then suddenly force them back in with a deep thrust that makes me groan and arch myself against your chest.

“Good,” you say. “I am very pleased to hear it. I don’t want you to.”

“I won’t. You know I won’t.” I reach up behind me so I can thread my fingers into your hair, tugging your head backwards like you did to me. You let me do it, tightening your grip around my chest until it becomes difficult to breathe, before suddenly snapping your head free and leaning forward.

“You are so beautifully broken aren’t you?” you murmur, straight into my ear. “Yet never broken-spirited. The two things are not the same. Did you know that? All these pieces of you, yet you are not truly fragmented; the light shines through your slivers and cracks. Luminous in all your damage.”

“Just like you. You’re even more fucked up than I am.” I writhe up against you, curving my back and grasping the side of your neck with my right hand.

“Perhaps. Perhaps not,” you say. “We shall have to find out. There is no one quite like me Will. But equally, of course, there is no one quite like you. That is why I didn’t know I was looking for you until I found you. You felt it too, didn’t you? It just took you longer to admit it.”

Oh fuck, fuck, you have no idea. And I want you to know; I want you understand. On an impulse I roughly jerk my body forward then back again, forcing you to lose your balance so you fall backwards and take me down with you. I twist round sharply, swinging one leg over you so I’m straddling your chest, then lean forwards and grip both hands round your throat. You just smile beatifically as if I’m kissing your hand as opposed to being in a position to throttle you; I suppose, for you, this is probably tantamount to foreplay. I can feel your pulse beneath my fingers, how steady and regular it is and I want to make it race. Take control of your heartbeat; take control of you. For a while we just stare at each other, and I don’t think I’ve ever been so turned on in my entire life.

“Interesting,” you finally say. “Tell me, how far would you dare to go?”

“You know how far I’d go. You know better than anyone.”

“Yes, but I want you to go further. And you will, won’t you? When the time comes.” You put your hands on my waist, digging your fingers into my skin until the pain makes me draw in my breath. “You will relish every second of it,” you say. “And how I shall relish watching you; a falconer with my own bird of prey. And you know that you will always return to me at the end of it. Every single time.”

“Yes, God. Always.”

“Always,” you repeat. You hitch your shoulders forward and effortlessly pull yourself up, taking my weight along with yours so I’m forced to shift until we’re sat face to face with my thighs bracketing yours on either side. You take hold of my hands and pull them away from your neck, then twist my arms behind my back and pin them there. I lean forward but you keep me gripped in place, your face just inches away from mine. I want to kiss you, bite you, touch you – I don’t even know – and you deliberately move your head away whenever I get close.

“I’m ready for this,” I hiss at you. “I want it. I want you.”

“Good,” you reply. “Because I intend to have you. For once we are in complete accord.” This time you slide your tongue into my mouth and let me kiss you although you still keep my arms pinioned behind my back; and it’s urgent and passionate and painful and frantic – terrible and incredible – all at the same time.

You eventually pull away, and I notice that even you are starting to look slightly undone (fucking finally). You briefly press your forehead against mine, then let go of my hands so I can move my arms again. My shoulders are screaming, I’ve definitely wrenched a muscle. I don’t care though. The pain somehow feels appropriate; it should hurt.

“Get on your back for me Will,” you say, and your voice sounds low and intense. “I want to see your face, and I want you to be able to see me.”

“Yes,” I say. “Yes.”

You hitch your arms round my shoulders and lower me backwards onto the floor, then change your mind and lift me onto the cushions so my body’s slightly tilted up, spreading my legs wide apart and then kneeling back between them. You look down at me, taking your time as you stroke the lube over yourself, fixing me with one of your concentrated stares. And I don’t know whether you’re giving me a chance to prepare myself, or if you’re simply dragging it out to be tormenting, but either way I’m not willing to wait anymore and abruptly hook my legs round your back and tug, pulling you forward by the arms at the same time so you can pretty much thrust straight inside me in one slow, smooth movement. I’m so slick and receptive that the initial stretch is uncomfortable but not painful. In fact it actually makes me feel a bit shameless, the way I can take you this easily with no resistance at all. Jesus, fuck, it’s so good. I gasp out your name and arch my back up as far as I can, letting my head tip over the cushions and fall onto the floor.

Oh,” I say faintly. I sound shocked, like I can’t quite believe it. “I can feel you.”

“And I you.” You let out a low breath. “You feel so perfect Will.”

You run your hand up and down my thigh, giving me a few moments to get used to the sensation before starting to move your hips. You do it slowly at first, then I make another moaning noise and push myself towards you and you speed up, building to a harder and more relentless rhythm and using your thumb to stroke the tight, slippery skin that’s stretched round your cock where you’re fucking me.

I cry out, almost incoherent with the pleasure of it, and snap my head back against the floor. “I like it, oh, I like it, it’s good. It feels so good. I didn’t think…God.”

“There you go,” you say, “I knew you would enjoy that. My beautiful boy.”

“I didn’t think…” I say again. But even as I’m speaking the words they feel wrong – they have to be – because I must have known it would feel like this; that we’d be so good together. I glance down at us, how our bodies are joined – merged together – the way I’m rocking my hips towards you and spreading my legs so you can take me. You, inside me.

“You are stunning like this,” you say softly. “As if you were made for me.” You slide your hand underneath my cock and push against my abdomen, feeling the tremors deep in my body as you fuck me, and I can hear myself crying out over and over (oh, oh). My legs are trembling and you lift them up so I can wrap them round your back.

“You feel incredible,” I frantically push myself against you, trying to take you as deep as possible, and you hold onto my waist to give me some extra leverage. “You feel so good inside me.”

“Yes,” you say. “This pale, slim, scarred and infinitely precious home for the inside. Look at you. Look how beautiful you are.”

“It was always you,” I sound slightly wild; I don’t even really know what I’m saying. “Oh God, it’s always been you.”

“I know.”

“Always…Fuck, never anyone else.”

“For me also, Will.”

“There couldn’t, there wasn’t…”

“You belong to me now,” you say. “If anyone so much as attempts to touch you, I will kill them.”

“Oh God…yes.”

“I was never prepared to let go of you.”

“Never, I know. I know that now.”

“From the first moment I laid eyes on you...”

“Please…yes.”

“…I knew I would never give you up.”

“I know, I know, oh God.” I arch my back, and you grip my hips again and push my legs down towards my chest so you can fuck into me even deeper, my body stretching open to take you in. It’s almost too much; the emotion, the pleasure, the yearning, the need. The fact that we’ve wasted so much time and I don’t know how much longer we have left. That no one thinks we should be together and the whole world is against us. That the whole world can’t keep up with you. That I can’t keep up with you. That people want us both dead, and we’ve both tried to kill each other. And that none of these things can change the fact that this is one of the single most perfect moments of my life; second only to lying on the ground in a back alley, frozen and terrified and turning round to see your face.

I don’t move or make any sound, but I can still feel tears seeping out from under my eyelashes and running down my cheekbones and into my hair. You notice immediately of course; asking me what’s wrong and whether you’re hurting me, and I just keep shaking my head, slightly desperately, saying “nothing, it’s nothing, I’m fine. Please don’t stop,” trying to disguise how close my voice is to breaking. Oh fuck, fucking hell, fuck everything, this is unbelievable: what I am doing? I’m a grown man who is crying while lying naked on top of a shock blanket.

“Will,” is all you say. You look at me almost rapturously, reaching down and wiping the tears away with your thumb; but thank God decide to show some mercy for once and don’t actually push me to explain myself. Instead you lean forward and run your tongue over where the remaining tracks have dripped into my hairline, and I press myself up against you as if I’m trying to force some of the emotion from my body into yours. I’m really shaking now, the wave of desire building up deeper and stronger than I’ve ever known it before, and I can feel my body contracting and tightening round you.

“I’m going to come,” I say, a bit desperately, “I’m close…I’m so close.”

“I know you are my love, I can feel you. Take some slow breathes, it will make the pleasure more enduring; more intense. That’s right.” You run your fingers down my face. “Deep…slow.” You move your hand down so you can take hold of mine, knotting our fingers together. I gaze up at you, adoring and frantic. I can’t quite cope with the passion of it – how good it feels, how overwhelming, how feverishly perfect – and you stare right back.

“I believe I could stay like this with you forever,” you say quietly. You take my other hand and lift them both up so they’re on either side of my face, tightly held in yours.

“I know,” I answer brokenly. “I know, I know.”

You angle your hips slightly and I cry out again, desperately canting my body towards you. My stomach is soaking from where I’m leaking pre-come over myself, and you let go of my hand so you can reach down and begin stroking my cock, moving in perfect counterpart to the rhythm of you moving inside me.

“You’re very close now aren’t you?” you say. “Quivering right on the very edge. I want you to let go for me; let yourself feel it. I want to see you.”

“Oh God yes, yes, oh God.”

“Show me,” you say.

I gaze up at you; my eyes are so wide and staring it’s straining the muscles in my face; but I can’t close them, can’t not look at you. It’s you, it was all for you. Everything, all of it, all the time. I’m not sure if I’ve said it aloud, but I know you understand anyway; I know you can tell. “Oh,” I say, and my voice sounds so intense, burning with a raw urgency I don’t entirely recognize. “Oh God, I’m coming, I’m coming.”

“So beautiful Will.” You tighten your grip on my hand, and then push into me again with a long, particularly hard thrust at exactly the right angle. You make a low noise, deep in your throat, and I know you’re coming as well; and that it’s because of me – that you feel like this because of me. That it’s you, me, us, oh God. I cry out again and again, clinging onto you with all four limbs, pivoting myself towards you, trying to ride out the aftershocks. And all I can think is ‘I won’t let you leave me and I won’t let go of you. Never, not ever again.’

For a while we just lie there, you still on top of me with my arms and legs wrapped round your back, and although your weight is starting to hurt it doesn’t occur to me to ask you to move. I can feel your heart beating from where you’re pressing against my chest, and I wonder whether you can feel mine. I don’t want to move, don’t want you to let me go; and I draw in a breath, ragged and panting, and bury my face into your neck.

“It was good,” I whisper against your skin. “It felt so good.”

“It was. There was never any possibility it could have been anything else. We are, as they say, a perfect fit.”

I make a humming noise in agreement, although it turns into a whine as you pull out of me; and you kiss me very tenderly on the forehead, as if in sympathy. Christ, I’m really going to feel it tomorrow. In fact now that it’s over I’m acutely aware of various aches and soreness radiating across my whole body; I’ll be walking bow-legged for days (I don’t care).

“It hurts?” you say.

“A bit…not much…I’m fine.” I don’t expect you to be solicitous about this, and of course you’re not. Although you do lean over and smooth my damp hair out of my eyes, then kiss me very gently and slowly.

“Dear Will,” you say, “I don’t think I will ever forget how you look right now.”

Even though you’ve been doing all the work – whereas I’ve effectively just been lying on my back and wailing – I still sound like I’ve just run a marathon whereas you are hardly out of breath at all. In lieu of an articulate verbal response (potentially not physically possible) I raise my eyebrows at you.

“Peaceful.” You smile down at me. “As if all the noise in your head has been turned down. Sated, and serene, and beautiful. And mine.”

“Yes,” I say quietly. “I know.”

I don’t specify exactly which part I’m referring to, and you don’t ask me to clarify, but we both understand nonetheless. Of course I’m yours. I always have been, even before I wanted to be. You pull a blanket over us then pull me close so I’m resting against your chest, and I let my head settle into the curve of your shoulder trying to slow my breathing down and clinging onto your hand. I feel slightly blurred and out-of-focus – dreamlike, almost, like staring through smoked glass – and my sense of myself has shifted in a way that, right now, I don’t want to examine too closely. Not that there’d be much point anyway. I chose this. Chose to give up, chose to hang on. Chose to jump and fall, chose to let you pull me up again – and then chose the aftermath with all that it implies. Made my proverbial bed and laid and lied in it. And none of it changes the fact that I want you, and need you, and I don’t fucking care about anything else. Hazily I remember your words when you first came back: Perhaps you should take consolation in the fact that a choice free of consequence is no choice at all.

“What are you thinking?” you say eventually.

It’s not an idle, affectionately post-coital request (‘tell me what’s on your mind baby!’), of course it’s not. You’re intrigued; you genuinely want to know. I can almost feel you brandishing your psychological scalpel, and I don’t think I can bear being mentally deconstructed so soon after you’ve physically taken me apart. I try to devise a decoy statement that you’ll be satisfied with, fail utterly, and in the end settle for a somewhat half-assed: “Not much. Nothing…I don’t know.” Oh hell, what does it matter anyway? Why do you care so much?

“I suspect you cannot quite believe what you have done,” you reply crisply. “You are trying to process it.”

“Partly,” I finally mutter, half to myself. I stretch my hand in front of my face, watching the way the light from the heater reflects and blinks though my fingers. “Yeah, okay, you’re right. I mean, I didn’t expect this to happen. I didn’t intend to do it. Not yet. Not so soon.” I sigh slightly, then hitch a bit closer to you.

“So what moved you to change your mind?”

“Because I thought we might die over the next few days,” I reply vaguely; and there is a long pause as I feel myself go rigid with horror at the fact that I was actually tactless and stupid enough to say that aloud in such a blunt, context-less way. I can’t bring myself to look at you, but all you do is laugh – as usual, you’re not offended by my horrific awkwardness. Why aren’t you offended? You really, probably should be offended.

“Ever the optimist Will,” is all you reply. “We shall not die, at least not within the next few days.” You tuck a strand of hair behind my ear. “And if we do, at least we can die happy.”

*****

Afterwards I doze a bit in the warmth of the fire with your arms wrapped round me, before you finally wake me up and make me get into bed. You prop yourself up on one elbow, and I lie on my chest and twist my face round so I can gaze at you. I’m acutely aware that I feel absolutely no regret – none – aside from the fact I didn’t do this sooner. It can’t have been wrong. It wasn’t. How could it be wrong when it felt so undeniably right?

You catch me staring and smile at me, thoughtful and watchful as always, idly trailing your fingers up and down my back as if you’re carving a pattern into it. The moon’s very bright and has filled the room with an eerie sheen, making us look as if we’re ghosts of ourselves. The only sound is the occasional car sweeping past and the patter of the sleet against the window. It’s so cold, it’ll probably snow soon.

“I look at you now,” you say eventually, “and a particular word comes to mind.”

“Which is?”

Chrysallid.”

“What? Oh yes…of course. You’re talking about metamorphosis – are you waiting for me to emerge from my chrysalis by any chance?” I smile a bit at the memory. “Not a very subtle metaphor.”

“No, perhaps not; but then subtlety doesn’t suit you particularly well. Although, that said, you are undoubtedly calmer than I have ever seen you since I came back. Like an unwound coil. Some of that nervous energy has dissipated.”

“Yes. Yes, I suppose it has.”

“Replaced with what, do you think?”

“You’ll have to wait and see.” I smile again and you just nod in response, as if finding my ambiguity highly satisfactory.

For a while we simply stare at each other, inventorying each other’s faces, and neither of us says anything at all. I suppose there’s no need, not really. We’ve already told each other all there is, mostly without speaking a word. Or – have we? Actually no, maybe not; not quite all – not everything – and I’m suddenly aware there’s one more thing I need you to know. It’s a leap of faith, but I’m going to do it anyway.

“You know, when you were gone I talked to you,” I say quietly. It feels like a confession; it is. It’s also a declaration. “I talked to you all the time. Out loud, in my head; your voice became more real than my own was.”

You don’t answer immediately, just continue stroking my back. “I know,” you say finally. “I know you did Will. I was listening, in my own way. And I heard you.”

Neither of us says anything else, but by unspoken, mutual consent we migrate towards each other and remain as close as possible (my head on your chest, your arms wrapped around me, our legs tangled together) and when I wake up in the morning, for the very first time, you’re still lying beside me.

Chapter Text

I wake up the next day with a strange composite of dazed incomprehension and blatant euphoria. It’s The Morning after the Night Before…and in purely temporal terms it’s like any other morning, ever; and yet it’s also like nothing else. I’ve never seen a morning like this one, and I never will again – because now there will never not be a time when we haven’t touched each other in that way; merged like that; wrapped ourselves around one another; exchanged that depth of recognition and longing and force of feeling. There will never not be a time when I haven’t surrendered myself so completely, and been empowered (liberated?) by the capitulation. It reminds me a bit of those old posters I used to see peeling off the walls of college dorm rooms: ‘Today is the First Day of the Rest of Your Life.’ So what did that make last night then? The funeral pyre, the wake for the old one? He had a good run. We gave him decent send-off. I don’t know. Maybe.

Briefly I think of the Nina Simone song my dad used to play, bourbon in one hand and cranking up his old Dansette stereo: It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me. And I’m feelin' good. Carpe diem: seize the first day of the rest of my life, and all the endless possibility, and opportunity, and infinite potential. And you. God, always you.

I tilt my head so it’s resting on my arm, and spend a long time simply enjoying the novelty of being able to watch you while you’re sleeping (not unlike, I belatedly realize, some kind of creepy stalker). The pale winter sun’s falling directly on your face, like your own personal spotlight. On consideration, I decide that you don’t look vulnerable in the way most people would. Even your stillness telegraphs something imposing; as if waking you would bring severe consequences, like a slumbering giant in a folktale. Do not disturb, I think (already disturbed). If you actually are asleep…you could well just be lying there plotting with your eyes closed. In which case you almost certainly know that I’m gazing at you, and are internally smirking to yourself.

I turn over a fraction so I can see you more clearly, unobscured by the corner of the pillow, and moving as quietly as I can so as not to rouse you (either from sleep, or into suspicion as to what I’m up to). I can feel your breath on my face, how warm it is in the frigid morning air. It strikes me that I really wish I could draw, because I’d like to record the way you look right now. A photograph wouldn’t do it; it would have to be something created by hand, painstakingly and stroke by stroke; a labor of love. I spend a few moments imagining it: it would need careful shading to capture the ridge of your cheekbones, smudged over with the thumb, then softer pencilled lines for your eyelashes and the curl of your mouth. I’ve never seen you draw yourself, and wonder if you ever have. One day I’m going to ask you – I’d like to see how you’d interpret a self-portrait. Now you’re frowning slightly, a faint crease between your eyebrows as if your dreams are puzzling you. Your breathing is very shallow (are you really asleep?).

I desperately need a shower, and caffeine, and to go for a piss (not necessarily in that order), and while I don’t particularly want to move I’m starting to feel uncomfortable at staring at you for so long without you knowing because I have a vaguely-defined sense that you wouldn’t like it. Actually, no, that’s not right – you’re so vain you’d fucking love it (in fact you’ve probably been offended that I haven’t done it sooner). Why the discomfort then? I chew my thumbnail and decide that yet again I’m transposing my motives onto you, because it’s actually my own fascination that’s the source of the discord. I’m not used to acknowledging this level of dependency on someone. It’s unsettling. But then – at least I’m acknowledging it. That’s got to be a good thing, right? I remember your words from the night before last: to constantly renounce and disavow one’s true self is one of the greatest acts of self-violence which it is possible to inflict. My Self, inextricably entwined with Your Self. One plus one equals us. Equals oneself.

I’d quite like to kiss you before getting out of the bed, but it feels a bit too syrupy and mawkish so in the end I don’t. You have one leg and one arm draped over me, and I reluctantly disentangle myself, then creep around the bathroom and kitchen trying to make minimal noise. I can’t actually be bothered to get dressed yet, so sling the shock blanket round my shoulders instead. I really should have a robe. Why don’t I have a robe? Normal people possess things like robes and slippers (and wine glasses, and DVD box sets, and matching towels) and I am never likely to acquire any of these things. Although normal people also don’t have ecstatic sex with notorious serial killers either. So…yeah.

I brew myself a coffee, wincing slightly at the twinge of pain in my shoulder. In fact my whole body’s aching and limping from having the living daylights fucked out of it, and I don’t care at all because it was you who did it and it’s like I can still feel you. I take the mug and stare absently out the window, smiling to myself; at the thought of last night, and today, and tomorrow, and the knowledge that you’re asleep in the next room in a bed I’ve just got out of. The wooden frame of the ledge is the same color as your eyes. Oh God, last night was…God. I’m so absorbed I lose track of my surroundings until I feel something coiling round my waist from behind, and nearly jump out of my fucking skin until I realize it’s your arm and that you’ve prowled over without me hearing you.

“Good morning,” you say. You’re right, it is. This is a good morning.

“You startled me.”

“Yes. I did, didn’t I?”

“You don’t need to sound so smug about it. As achievements go, it’s not one of your greatest hits.” I place the mug on the windowsill, then turn round and bury my face underneath your chin and let you put your arms round me properly. It feels incredibly natural and instinctive to do this: I was anticipating a level of awkwardness and am relieved to find it’s not there. You stroke my shoulder blades through the thin fabric and I can’t help grinning into your chest at how utterly wrecked we both look: me swaddled in the shock blanket like ET with a Morse code of bruises on my throat, and you with a towel slung round your hips and covered in scratches from where I was clawing you last night.

“Aren’t you cold?” I ask, mostly because I can’t think of anything else to say.

“Not particularly.”

Oh. Okay then. So that’s that. Although, really, what did I expect: ‘Yes, I am simply expiring with cold, but am only wearing a towel regardless because I have lost the ability to dress myself’? Now I’ve exhausted my only conversational salvo and can’t think of anything else to come at you with, except for a somewhat ridiculous urge to announce “Hey! We just had sex!” (Why? You were there after all…it’s not like you don’t know). Silence is obviously preferable, and I bask in how comfortable it feels to just press myself against you and not say anything. Actually I’ve always liked that about you; the way you’re unconcerned by silence. You’ve never been one to ramble on about bullshit just to fulfil social expectations. I lean into your chest, letting you take my weight, feeling the way my breath speeds up at how light and delicate your touch is as you run your hands up and down my back; dipping between the folds of the blanket to caress my hip bone, then moving up to stroke the sensitive skin at the base of my neck.

Eventually you kiss me lightly on the forehead then pull away and stroll into the kitchen to make yourself a coffee. I blink a few times then pick up my own mug and follow you in.

“So,” you say blithely, “today we vacate the hovel.”

You’re not going to mention last night are you? I knew you wouldn’t. Not that it really matters: whatever the implications prove to be you’ll enact them rather than discuss it. Show-not-tell. Up until recently I would probably have felt anxious about this, but now am simply sanguine; content to leave it as it is. It’s not like you’re in control of everything, after all – not even you can manage that. I smile to myself and take a sip of my coffee. Today is the first day of the rest of my life.

*****

The next half hour mostly passes in amicable silence: me nibbling absent-mindedly on a piece of toast and you sipping several cups of black coffee while you scan through yesterday’s newspaper, your eyes skimming up and down each page at the usual preternatural speed. You touch me quite a lot in an unselfconscious way: trailing your long fingers over mine when you pass me my cup, resting a hand on my shoulder when you walk past, or letting your feet graze against mine under the table. After a while you disappear into the bathroom and I can hear the shower running. This makes me smile again, because it’s almost inevitable that you’ll be in there for ages elaborately grooming yourself (like a Geisha or Hollywood grande dame, or similar). You’ve even managed to find a cologne called Égoïste, then caught my eye when you found me staring at it as if daring me to laugh at the name (which I did…obviously). To be honest I find your preoccupation with preening and adorning rituals somewhat hilarious, although it’s actually quite endearing that you have some humanizing foibles. I remember seeing your bathroom once in your old house; it was groaning with mysterious-looking potions in glass bottles with expensive foreign labels. You’ve managed to acquire more since you moved in here, because they keep appearing unexpectedly in the bathroom; squatting on the counter in disapproving contrast to my own assortment of aftershave That Dare not Speak its Name, drug store shampoo (“Will, are you aware that this abysmal stuff smells like embalming fluid?”), ancient, tatty razors (“for humane reasons these tragic things really ought to be euthanized” – said with a straight face), and a half-used tube of moisturiser long since encrusted and dried out (no comment at all for that, although I once caught you staring at it with an expression on your face best described as ‘horrified fascination’). The moral of all this being that I think your fastidiousness is both affected and entertaining, and you find my dismissal of overpriced toiletries to be somewhat barbaric; as if I’ve just crawled out of a cave to pick fleas off myself. In the midst of all the madness and bullshit, I find the idea of sharing mundane discrepancies like this to be utterly delightful.

There’s no way I’m going to disrupt The Sacred Sacrament of Grooming and Anointing while it’s in full flow, so on an impulse pull on some jeans and the blue shirt that you profess to like so much, and go to the pharmacy on the corner for some cheap concealer to cover my spectacular collection of bruises and bite marks (mainly because I can’t face seeing Jack with a neck that looks like something out of The Story of O). I find it incredibly weird-looking, like flesh-colored lipstick. A ridiculous amount of time passes while I peer witlessly at the various shades until the assistant takes pity on me and bustles over to help me out, efficiently selecting one of the paler ones and handing it over. I take a look at the name: Porcelain Doll (Christ).

On the way back I pass Mr Haversham’s door, and the thought of his helplessness and solitude – and the fact I’m no longer plagued by either of these things – induces a twinge of guilt that makes me stop and knock so I can check he’s still got my cell number. “I’m going to be, um, working long hours over the next few weeks,” I tell him, “really long – so I might not be around much. But if you need anything, just give me a call. If I’m not in my apartment then I can try and stop by.”

“Well, if that isn’t the nicest thing!” he says. “You’re a good boy William, a very good boy. It’s most appreciated, it surely is.”

I have a horrible feeling he might try and pat me on the head, or something equally excruciating, and am trying to find a polite way to extricate myself when he suddenly gives me a beaming smile and adds: “I hope I’m not speaking out of turn, but you know how I worried about you when you first moved in; and…well, I just want to say that I’m mightily pleased you’re not on your own anymore.”

“What? Sorry, I don’t quite…”

He starts to chuckle. “You sounded like you and your young lady had a good time last night.”

What. The. Fucking. Hell? Oh. Oh shit! Those bastard sound-amplifying floorboards. I really hope he’s just assuming, as opposed to the truly mortifying alternative that I actually sound like a woman whilst in the throes of orgasm (there’s no way the hypothetical ‘her’ refers to you, after all). He sees how red I’ve gone and chuckles again, then claps my shoulder in a ‘we’re all goddamn men of the world together’ type of way.

“No need to be embarrassed Son,” he says, “you’re only young once. What’s her name?”

“Hann…ah,” I say. My voice rises very slightly on the last syllable so it sounds like I’m asking a question. Oh God…Fuck my life.

“Well, well,” he says, “I wish you all the best. I’m sorry I embarrassed you.” He pats me kindly on the arm. Mr Haversham, I think, you have no idea.

“I hope I get to meet her at some point,” he says, and my mind goes a bit blank because technically ‘her’ would appear to be me. I make some vaguely affirmative sounding noises, then make my escape and bolt into the apartment, slinging my coat over the back of the chair. You have (finally) emerged from the bathroom and are draped over the sofa making quick, pencilled notes in a book with a foreign title. Anyone else would look sprawling and ungainly in that position, but naturally you manage to look as if you’re posing for an El Greco portrait.

“Ah, you are back,” you say without looking up. “Did you accomplish what you needed to?”

I slump into my chair and stare at you over the top of my glasses. “Oh, it was fine,” I say gloomily. “I’m fine. Everything’s fine. Turns out my sex voice has led the whole building to assume that I’m actually a woman, but it’s fine. My name is Hannah, by the way.”

“Will,” you say mildly, “what are you rambling about?”

I tell you about the conversation, and by the way your mouth starts twitching I can see you are making a truly heroic effort not to laugh. “I can honestly assure you that you do not sound remotely feminine,” you say eventually (although I notice that you don’t even pretend there was a possibility he meant you). “That is not what happened. Rather your neighbor heard you making a particular sequence of noises, and even though he did not actually hear a woman he automatically assumes one was present owing to his conventional ideas about the type of relationship he would expect you to have.”

Hmmm, in that case I suppose it could have been worse (“well, William, sounds like someone had a truly momentous masturbation session last night”). Then I think more about what you’ve said and glance up at you, intrigued in spite of myself.

“A ‘relationship’?” I say. “Is this what we have then?”

“A relationship is a close association based on commitment, solidarity and meaningful interaction,” you reply, “so certainly yes.”

Ugh, you’re such a shifty bastard. I clear my throat. “That’s not what I meant.”

“What did you mean then?” you ask innocently.

Oh shit: I really set that one up for you didn’t I – game, set and match. Now I deeply regret saying anything in the first place. “It’s okay. It’s nothing, forget it,” I reply awkwardly. I sound unpleasantly reminiscent of my 14-year old self (who was also a mindless asshole much of the time, so it appears my development in this regard has been rather limited).

You look like you’re trying not to laugh again, and I have a sudden urge to punch you (and probably would, if I didn’t know you could flatten me in five seconds without even getting off the sofa).

“Don’t look so perplexed,” you say. “I am teasing you, of course. I know exactly what you mean, and the answer is both yes and no. Yes in the strictly conventional sense” – you say ‘conventional’ in the type of tone people usually reserve for ‘genocide’ or ‘Guantanamo’ or ‘genital warts’ – “in that we are emotionally attuned, interpersonally attached, and sexually intimate.” (At this point the 14-year old promptly reappears, because even though I’ve now had a succession of ecstatic orgasms with my legs wrapped round your back – in which I allegedly sound like woman – I still can’t hear you say the word ‘sex’ in your clipped, concise voice without blushing).

“However,” you continue, “’relationship’ is far too prosaic a term. That is it what normal people have, and you and I have never been that.”

“Yeah, I guess,” I reply vaguely.

“We are epic,” you say, pronouncing the word with relish. “We are the stuff of myths and legends. Comrades and co-conspirators, and elevated far above the normal arrangement of things. At a different point in history, people would have composed ballads and poetry about us.”

“Saying what narcissistic assholes we are? In heroic rhyming couplets?”

“You are being flippant because you are discomfited; you cannot readily accept praise. But nevertheless, you know I am right.”

I can’t help smiling. “You clearly think you are, so I suppose that’s all that matters.”

You obviously agree with this analysis (obviously) because you nod briskly at me, as if to say ‘well that’s settled then,’ and ask me what time I’m planning to leave. As per the plan I intend to head over to see Jack in the afternoon then meet you afterwards at the hotel you’ve found. Contrary to agreement, however, you’re now being serenely insistent that you leave after me.

I should leave last,” I say patiently.

“No.”

“But it was the plan.” (Even to myself I sound slightly ridiculous, as though The Plan is a sacred artefact of such unfeasible complexity that it can’t possibly be deviated from).

“I am aware; but I have amended the plan.”

“You can’t just amend the plan,” I say, “it was good. It was a good plan. It would have helped avoid trouble.” (Now I am making The Plan sound like it’s imbued with mystical preservative properties, as if I’m Harry Potter).

“The only rationale was to reduce the likelihood of someone seeing me. I did that yesterday by departing early, and can achieve it just as well by leaving late. Besides, I don’t want you to stay here on your own.”

“Look,” I say heavily, “no offence but you really don’t need to keep doing this. I’m more than capable of looking after myself. You don’t need to protect me.”

“It affronts you? To be protected?”

“No,” (yes), “it’s just…it’s not necessary.”

“With respect, I am more able to deal with any difficulties that might arise than you are.”

“So you’re saying you’re unequivocally more capable than I am? How incredibly not-vain of you. It’s not really true though, is it?”

“It is undeniably true.”

“Oh come on, it’s not. It is not true. I have dealt – successfully – with constant difficulties; most of which, I might add, have been caused by you. I dealt with that inspector when he first turned up; I dealt with Matthew Brown…” I run on with an exacting, methodical, and escalating list of illustrative examples of how I am genius coper extraordinaire (including a list of the various people I’ve killed over the years – I fling this in at the end like it’s a DVD bonus feature), and you just sit there and wait patiently until I’ve run out of breath.

“You must humor me then,” you say when I finally wind down, “because I have seen how unforgiving the world can be, and when a suitable occasion arises I like to safeguard things which are precious to me.”

“Um…Okay. Thanks. Thank you. But it’s still not necessary.”

Your smile grows fractionally broader. “No,” you reply, “I suppose it isn’t really, is it? From now on I shall be more economical with my concern."

There’s something about your expression that doesn’t quite sit right with me, and I narrow my eyes at you, turning the facts over in my head: your insistence on defending me, buffering yourself between any latent threat. How uncharacteristic it is, the fact I’ve been letting you...

“Oh God,” I say, as it slots into place. “You’ve been doing it deliberately haven’t you?”

“How so?”

“The way you’ve been…” I wave my hand about a bit trying to think of a suitable word, “…coddling me?” You politely raise your eyebrows. “Being so overprotective. Treating me like I’m vulnerable and…and violence-averse. You want to push me to the point where I’ll be motivated to go the other way and prove you wrong.”

“Would I do such a thing?”

“Um, let me think,” I say sarcastically. “Yes.”

“I do not mean in terms of manipulating you.” You shrug as if to say ‘because obviously that goes without saying.’ “I mean whether you believe I would lower myself to apply such woefully trite ‘reverse psychology.’”

“Yes, actually. Yes you would. You just wouldn’t call it that. You’d say you were doing a ‘paradoxial intervention,’ then justify yourself by spouting something convoluted about reactance.”

“Oh, indeed?”

“Yes – indeed. It would hardly be the first time. Remember? You even left a gun on the table as an added incentive.”

You start smirking again. “That is not exactly what I was doing back then,” you say. “You are confusing the issue. And I have no intention of referring to interventions, paradoxical or otherwise.”

“But?”

“But – if I were going to say anything, it would be about choice and free will. The ultimate reactance against determinism.” You give me a look that’s positively beady. “You know quite a lot about that don’t you?”

“Please don’t quote something I said to you in art gallery over four years ago.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s different. It’s different now. Everything’s changed.”

“Yes, but your competing imperatives remain the same.” You smile slightly. “At least they have been up until now.” You don’t actually say ‘until last night’ but I can’t help feeling you’re thinking it anyway.

“Okay,” I answer wearily, “you’ve made your point.” (Don’t you always, oh my God). “Anyway it’s irrelevant, because whether or not you admit you’ve been doing it on purpose, it doesn’t change the fact that the safeguarding isn’t necessary. I can take care of myself.”

You steeple your fingers under your chin and stretch your long legs out in front of you. You’re so self-contained; it’s irritating “Why did you tolerate it?” you ask.

“I didn’t.” You raise your eyebrows. “I didn’t…entirely.”

“Because it was easier than asserting yourself? Or for some other reason?”

I frown, unwilling to answer immediately; and you lean back again in your chair watching me.

“You were not yourself when I found you in that alley,” you finally say. “You must concede that to be the case. I could tell immediately; I did not even need to speak to you to know it.”

I yearn to snap ‘well whose fault was that?’ but resist the urge because it’s too juvenile and I know I’d regret it. But something must still show in my face because you look at me carefully, then unwind yourself from the sofa and come and stand next to my chair. It’s weird; even after everything that’s happened the sight of you darting towards me still triggers an involuntary twinge of fear. Classical conditioning. I get to my feet as well so we’re on the same level.

“You were not yourself,” you repeat. “Not in that alleyway, and not afterwards. Ever since I came back you have been incredibly skittish; tense and wary, and taut enough to snap. Yes?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

“Not maybe; definitely. It was apparent that you had lost confidence in yourself. And given that your Self is so rare and singular, it is rather unforgivable to not wish to breathe life into it again.”

“I didn’t…I don’t know. I didn’t feel that different.”

“Because you do not know yourself as well as I do. You don’t realize your own potential – yet.”

“Yes…well. Even so.” You start smiling again. “Are you going to admit it or not?”

“Admit what?”

I screw my nose up at you and you laugh. “You should not do that,” you say, “it is both incredibly rude and impossibly irresistible; I cannot vouch for my self-control.”

“Okay, so tell me this then: do you think your ‘woefully trite reverse psychology’,” (you roll your eyes in a long-suffering way), “has been successful?”

“I think that you shall be extremely successful. And that my presence facilitates that.”

“Very sure of yourself, aren’t you?”

“Of course. But also of you; I always have been.” You look thoughtful. “I am not a faithful person as a rule; I am not a believer and I pledge my allegiance to very few things. But I have faith in you.”

“To do what?”

“To be true to yourself. And to inhabit your natural state.”

“Which is?”

“Your capacity for greatness. That you will become a great version of yourself, rather than a mediocre version of someone else.”

“And is that the person you really want?” I say pointedly. “Not the version of me that’s stood here, but some hypothetical, idealized edition?”

“No, on the contrary; I see him all the time. There is a call in me which finds an answering echo in you, and that is something which has never fully gone away. Even when you are not yourself. Even when we are at variance; even when we are not together.”

I give a slow nod at the undeniable truth of this and you make a quiet sound that might (possibly) be a sigh. “I confess that it is one of the few occasions in which I miscalculated,” you say, “because I underestimated the toll the separation would take on you.” You pause, and then add like it’s an enormous concession (which I suppose it is): “As well as on myself.”

I look at you steadily, and you look back at me; and it feels like a further recognition has been acknowledged and exchanged. You smile in a rather feline way and lean your head back.

“As you wish,” you say. “I shall leave shortly. Perhaps you ought to keep your car here, at least for the time being. It will draw less attention to the fact that you have left. Of course that means you will have to rely,” you shudder slightly, “on public transport.”

“I’m sure I’ll cope.”

“Yes,” you reply, “I am fairly sure that you will”. You grab me and spin me round against your chest, briefly burying your face in my hair, and it should be ridiculous but it’s not and I can feel myself laughing and leaning into you, wrapping my arms round your back and tilting my face up so you can kiss me.

You’re right; we’re not like normal people, not anywhere close. We’re never going to do the things that regular lovers do. We’re not going to walk down a beach hand in hand, or stare at each other over candle light; we won’t be sharing the same popcorn bucket at the movies and making out in the back row, and we won’t have a joint car and a nice house in the suburbs. I’ll never meet your relatives; you won’t be coming to my office Christmas party as my ‘significant other.’ We won’t have pension plans or retirement packages or sit on PTA boards. But I don’t care about any of that crap, because I never actually wanted normal. I only ever wanted you.

*****

After you’ve left I shovel some clothes and other assorted shit into a backpack and realize that I’m smiling to myself like an idiot. I can imagine the way you’d stare at me if you were here (“do not be an idiot Will”), but it wouldn’t really matter because I feel like I’m your idiot now. Oh Christ, I sound ridiculous – put a few beers in me and I’ll be writing our initials inside a love heart on some random wall (God, I’m not actually going to do that…am I? No. No, I’m definitely not doing that. Fuck).

I glance at my watch: time to get going. Although there’s a strong rationale for maintaining routine and keeping contact with Jack, the idea now seems awkward and troubling; as if he’ll somehow be able to look at me and immediately tell exactly what I’ve been doing (and who with). Oh shit, yeah – my neck. I go to the bathroom mirror and laboriously dab the concealer over the worst of the bruises. It takes ages because I keep smudging it in the wrong places and can’t get it to blend smoothly (God, what an utter pain in the ass). Afterwards I gaze at my face meditatively; it’s as if I expect myself to have altered in some way and am vaguely surprised that I haven’t.

I take your advice about the car, leaving it where it is and heading over on the subway instead. It reminds me of the last time I made the journey, the day I found out Matthew Brown was after me. God, so much has changed since then, it’s like a whole different lifetime ago. I even find myself glancing absently around the car for the guy I stared at so fixedly before who looked a bit like you; a drably monochrome copy of the real version. Sorry about that, I think, you were all I had to look at. But not anymore.

On the way to the office I wonder what you’re doing right now and whether you’re thinking about me. Maybe you had a point in what you said before; you really do have a whole mythos that’s risen up around you. You’ve become your own urban legend and nothing has ever been able to hold you back. And yet…you’ve never been able to hold me back either. Not entirely. Not altogether. And now I’m about to walk into the world’s foremost centre of criminal investigation and tell people a completely false account of myself and my circumstances, and I’ll be able to make them believe it and accept it without question. Nothing can touch me and no one can pin me down. Then afterwards I’ll meet you at the hotel and you’ll pull me onto the floor and take me apart; then you’ll reconstruct me afterwards and I’ll do the same for you.

Me and you; us. We’re loftier than the law, larger than life, shrewder than reason, tougher and fiercer than the FBI, or the ocean, or a Great Red Dragon; and we’re even stronger than ourselves, because we’re better together and when we work as a unit then nothing can stop us. This is our design.

For the first time in recent memory I feel like I’m no longer casting a shadow. There’s a sharp winter sun overhead, and a sense of anticipation in the air, and I walk sturdy and sure and unassailable, letting people step out of my way. I’m attuned and alert, in control of myself and what’s around me, and I strive high, imagine well, and dare greatly. And no one is going to hurt me without my permission ever again.

Brace yourself world, I think. Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter are back.

Chapter Text

The building’s quieter than usual, although someone – almost certainly Sanderson – has printed Freddie Lounds’ ‘Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing?’ article and pinned multiple copies on the staff notice board (each one laid over the other in fussy geometric lines). I stare at it with amused irritation and it strikes me – not for the first time – what complete and unrepentant outsiders you and I are: the major difference being that you wear it well, and make it seem enigmatic and glamorous, whereas with me it leads to crap like this. I consider unpinning it all, but it would take ages and ultimately I can’t be bothered, because really – who fucking cares anyway. It’s not like most of the building isn’t secretly thinking it.

I run up the steps two at a time, and in deference to The Plan obediently head to Jack’s office to fill him in on Matthew Brown’s most recent display of bullshit. As usual he’s not in and his secretary’s only insight is a ‘how the hell would I know?’ shrug (“Thanks,” I say sarcastically; “you’re welcome” he replies), so I wander down to the lab instead. Price and Zeller are both there, bickering amicably about a skeleton that’s just been uncovered during a parking lot renovation: the latter is loudly claiming that the statute of limitations for human remains is 80 years, after which there is no obligation to investigate the circumstances of death.

“The parking lot was built in the 1960s,” declares Zeller, as if that settles it.

“So?”

“So…so, it’s not exactly recent.”

“It’s hardly ancient history either,” answers Price, who loves a challenge.

“There’s no way those remains are any less than 81 years old.”

“Rubbish. We can’t possibly tell that without isotope analysis.”

“Will,” says Zeller, brandishing the photos in a sort of frenzy, “back me up. Tell him we should refer this straight back.”

“1000 years if he’s a day,” I reply without looking at the picture.

“See? Will agrees that it’s Palaeolithic.”

“Absolutely,” I say. “Injuries entirely consistent with being speared by woolly mammoth tusks.”

“That’s a brilliant theory Agent Graham,” sniffs Price, “except that the parietal and temporal bones are clearly fractured, which is ‘entirely consistent’ with blunt force trauma to the side of the head.”

“My mistake. I meant to say trampled by a woolly mammoth.”

“You two are ridiculous,” says Price sanctimoniously.

“Well, to be fair, it’s not like we don’t have enough to do without wasting time on cold cases. Zeller’s right, refer it back.”

Zeller’s no longer listening to either of us, but is talking to the photograph instead. “You better be more than 80 years old,” he says mutinously, “you shrivelled bastard.”

I hold out my hand for the pictures; the angle they’ve been taken makes the skull looks like it’s grinning. The next one has a construction worker in the background wearing a look of dismay that’s so intense it’s almost comical.

“We could always sneak back tonight and dig a new hole to stick him in,” I say. “We can tell Jack that archaeologists made off with it.”

“Shut up Will,” answers Price in a martyred voice.

“Maybe he interred himself deliberately. They were wild bastards back in the 60s – there’s probably a load of weed and flower power in the next hole.”

“I am not investigating the murder of Piltdown Man,” says Zeller to the photograph.

Price opens his mouth to protest, then suddenly hesitates and peers closer at me with narrowed eyes. “Will,” he says after a pause, “are you aware that your neck is absolutely smothered in hickeys?”

“No. No it’s not,” I say with mock solemnity. “I’ve got scabies. And fleas. Both are highly contagious; would you like them as well?”

“You’re full of shit,” says Price smugly. “No wonder you’re being so chipper. My suspicions were first aroused when you didn’t come in here like usual – lurking in a corner looking monumentally tormented and pissed off.”

“Who’s full of shit?” asks Zeller, finally putting down the photos.

“William Graham is positively overflowing with excrement of the male bovine variety, because he’s pretending that the hickeys on his neck – which he’s inexpertly tried to cover up with ladies’ cosmetics – were put there by a combination of fleas and Sarcoptes scabiei.”

“You know the Latin name of the scabies mite,” I say in an awed voice.

“Professor Maggot told me,” replies Price; Professor Maggot being an (unkind) nickname for Earl Johnson, the senior forensic entomologist. He’s actually a decent guy, despite a somewhat troubling obsession with flyspecks and larval colonization. I remember once getting stranded with him at a Loudoun County crime scene during a blizzard: he whipped some photos out his briefcase which I expected to be of his wife and kids but that turned out to be newly acquired close-ups of the American carrion beetle in Glorious Technicolor. We ended up getting spectacularly drunk in the hotel bar and he proceeded to tell me way more about the mating cycles of the blowfly than anyone could ever possibly want or need to know. “They’re horny little beggars Will,” he kept saying, “complete randy bastards. You’ve got to hand it to them.” I have a horrible feeling we ended up drinking a toast to the blowfly’s sexual prowess. Actually, yeah. Yeah we definitely did. It may even have been my idea.

“Why have you and the Maggot Man been talking about skin infestations in Latin?” I say (partly to deflect attention from my neck, but mostly to try and blot out the awareness that I did something much worse with him).

“Don’t change the subject. And don’t try and pretend that it was scabies and Pulex irritans who’ve been nibbling on your skinny jugular as opposed to a lusty young lady.”

Pulex irritans?”

“The human flea. In its Latin binomial,” says Price smugly. “It is also known as a ‘cosmopolitan flea’.”

“Christ. I bet the long winter nights just fly by in your house.”

“Stop evading the question.”

“All right, you’ve got me. It was Kade Purnell; our beloved and cosmopolitan leader. She adores me, she’s obsessed. That’s why she’s always trying to get me locked up; she doesn’t want anyone else to have me.”

Price narrows his eyes again. “Why are you being so secretive?”

“Oh, let me think. Could it be because it’s absolutely none of your business?”

“There’s no need to raise your voice,” replies Price piously. “I’m not deaf. There’s no reason you can’t bullshit me quietly.”

“Who says I’m bullshitting you?” I say with a smirk.

“Because while I’ve heard worse stories than your combined explanation of scabies and Ms. Pulex irritans, I could count them on the fingers of one slightly abnormal hand. You agree, don’t you?” he adds, turning to Zeller, “Will is bullshitting us – his dear friends and comrades – about the state of his sex life.”

“Will has a sex life?” asks Zeller, feigning disbelief.

“His neck certainly does.”

“If Will has a sex life below the neck,” replies Zeller, “then this skeleton is no more than 79 years old.”

“I’m not offended by that by the way,” I say, “in case you were wondering.”

“No offense intended. It’s just I figure this guy,” he brandishes the photo, “sees more action than you do.”

“Go on Will,” says Price, “regale and enthral us with the graphic details. We need to get our vicarious thrills somehow.”

“Believe me, you really don’t want these details,” I reply (because – fucking hell) when the door opens and the head of one of Jack’s trainees, Natasha (“call me Tash!”) comes peering round the side. Price and Zeller loyally abandon their interrogation and promptly resume bickering over the parking lot skeleton.

“Oh Mr Graham!” she says. “Wonderful, I’ve been looking for you. Do you have a few minutes? There’s something I was hoping you could help me out with.”

“Sure,” I say, “no problem.”

“Great, that’s great!” She beams at me in a touchingly eager way. “Thanks so much. I’m having trouble with a few things and it’s an area that I thought you might know a bit about” (which inevitably means it’s going to relate to something depraved).

I give a slightly triumphant look to Price and Zeller, who obediently melt away whilst Natasha-call-me-Tash draws up a stool and proceeds to earnestly ask how criminal definitions of severity relate to constitutionality. We have a cosy back-and-forth about aggravators, intent and victimology; and I try to spin it out for as long as possible in the hope that Bad Cop and Worse Cop will become preoccupied with something else so I can make a crafty escape and take my neck with me. At least that’s the plan; one can only hope (that one being me…I am the one).

Well,” I say, with a level of enthusiasm that’s probably (certainly) bordering on inappropriate, “the issues around terminology are very interesting, because analogues like ‘heinous’ or ‘outrageous’ have withstood repeated legal challenges…” and she’s nodding away and bombarding me with smart, insightful questions (in fact we’re getting on like a house that’s both on fire and surrounded by heinous and outrageous arsonists) when Sanderson comes swaggering in and inevitably fucks it all up. He pauses dramatically on the threshold, as if he expects someone to provide him with a drumroll, and Natasha gives him a nervous, wary look and hastily thanks me before abruptly leaving herself.

“Brought you those ballistic results you asked for,” Sanderson says sulkily to Price when he finally realizes no one’s going to acknowledge him. Then he spots me, and his eyes flicker in a malevolent way.

“Oh, hey Will,” he says. “Pretty surprised you’d be so shameless as to show your face in here. Not after that fantastic coverage on TattleCrime.”

“Yeah, it was wasn’t it?” I say. “I thought I came across rather well. Not so sure about the ‘exclusive anonymous source within the FBI’ though; he sounded like a bit of a dick.”

“Yes, where could she have got those quotes from?” asks Price.

“I suppose she got them from somewhere,” says Sanderson evasively.

“Yeah, I suppose she did,” I reply with heavy sarcasm. “I hadn’t thought of that.”

“Well, all I can say is that it’s just as well not all of us are determined to drag this division’s name through the mud,” says Sanderson airily. He turns to Price, effectively dismissing me and Zeller as unworthy of further notice. “Did you see my interview with Jenny Jones?”

“Who?”

“Jenny Jones. The crime correspondent for East Coast Update. They were doing a special on forensics and invited me on to talk about my work on the Abbott case. The producers included the Judge’s concluding comments at the end, it was great.”

“Oh,” says Price. “No.”

“It was great man. Really great. Kind of thing that could get me promoted – catch the eyes of the guys at the top, y’know? I said to her afterwards, I said: ‘honey, you ever need to know how this all works, and how it’s done right, you come to Rick Sanderson.’”

Oh for God’s sake. I have a horrible feeling I’m going to start laughing, because surely the only thing worse than a massive narcissist is a narcissist who insists on expounding their narcissism in the third person (and I have just had a night of rapturous sex with the most unapologetic narcissist in the known universe, so I Know What I Am Talking About). Also – Rick? Does that mean his full name is Richard? Oh please let it be Richard; that means I could legitimately call him Dick.

Sanderson (Dick?) beams round the room in a highly irritating, self-satisfied way. “Yeah, what can I tell you,” he says. “It was pretty special. They’re even going to reuse some excerpts for their Pick of the Week.”

“Prick of the Week?” I ask. Price and Zeller start snorting in unison and have to hold the photos of the parking lot skeleton over their faces to try and hide it.

“Hilarious, aren’t you,” says Sanderson sarcastically. “You know Will, envy’s a pretty pathetic emotion.”

“Envy?”

“Damn right envy. I can’t really see you on TV somehow.”

“To be honest neither can I,” I reply. “If I wanted to be on TV I’d have joined Miami Vice rather than Behavioral Sciences.” Even as I’m saying this I’m hoping no one gets round to pointing out that I actually have been on the television – several times – only it tends towards footage of me being manhandled into the back of assorted police cars with a ‘oh for God’s sake, not again’ expression on my face.

Sanderson has obviously decided that the whole envy tactic isn’t going to yield dividends, so changes strategy and gestures contemptuously towards my neck instead, grimacing all the while in a shitty, accusing sort of way. I internally roll my eyes: for someone so adept at concealment, I’m clearly monumentally crap at using actual concealer. Why the hell didn’t I just wear a scarf? Or band aids? Or a…neck brace? I briefly stray off into an interesting fantasy about where I would acquire (i.e., steal) the latter, when Sanderson clicks his fingers in front of my face.

“Earth to Graham,” he snaps, adding: “what the hell is that?” after I’ve stubbornly refused to acknowledge the pointing.

“Fleas,” says Zeller.

“Scabies,” says Price. “Will is a host organism.”

“Fleas and scabies,” I confirm. “Both highly contagious.”

“Oh yeah? I figured you’d been holding a vacuum cleaner against your throat to fake the fact someone would be crazy enough to want to give you a hickey.”

“Fascinating theory,” I say, “but this time sadly wrong. I look forward to reading about my various parasites in forthcoming TattleCrime articles. Tell Freddie that I can give her the Latin names if she wants them.”

“Hey man, it wasn’t me who spoke to her.” He walks over to the door, then pauses and adds over his shoulder, “Although I’d buy a few beers for whoever did. It’s about time someone finally had the guts to tell the truth about you.”

“There’s nothing as sad as drinking alone,” I call after him as he leaves. “Christ, I’d like to punch that guy in his fucking face.”

“Why the face,” asks Price, “what’s wrong with in the balls?”

“Fair point.”

“You’re smaller than him, mind, you’d need to work out a bit first. Why don’t you sign up for the physical?”

“Ugh, and go sweating through the woods on an assault course? No way. Anyway, I don’t need excess muscle mass to get the message across. If all else failed, I’d just have to make it recreational and get someone to lend a hand” (or do it myself with my Own Bare Hands – already latticed with slim white scars from a similar confrontation – and which is starting to feel like an increasingly appealing option. Shit, no, I don’t mean that. Do I? No. No, definitely not. Much).

“Don’t look at me,” says Price, interrupting this interestingly morbid train of thought, “I abhor all physical violence. I’ll cheer you on though.”

“So will I,” adds Zeller, “right to the bitter end. Then I’d help carry you to the mortuary after he kicks your ass.”

“Thanks, I’m touched. I hope you’d also weep over my corpse when you autopsy it.”

“He would,” says Price, “then he’d drop tears into the Foley cathether and contaminate the sample, so we’d have to start over irrigating your…”

“Okay, I get it. Zeller, don’t cry at my autopsy. Show some respect for the dead.”

Zeller gives me a pointed look. “Seriously Will, don’t let Sanderson get to you. He’s an idiot. He’s not worth it”

“Yes, I know.”

“He’s just jealous because you’re prettier and smarter than him,” says Price in a consolatory voice. “Even if you do have sexually predacious scabies.”

I start laughing at that, even though I suppose it’s probably not all that funny. Because the fact is that Sanderson doesn’t merely dislike me, he hates me; and while a trivial thing like envy might be the kindling, the accelerant comes from somewhere much murkier and rawer. I suppose I should be used to it by now: to being hated. Bizarrely though, no matter how many times it happens (and despite my best efforts to the contrary), it’s never enough to fully quash the faint, hopeful part of me that just wants to be liked and accepted and believes that one day it might finally happen. Other people manage it, the part forlornly says to itself, surely it’s not that much to ask. I briefly think back to the chronic, ambivalent nihilism I experienced on first meeting you: the wretched sense that you would inevitability catch on to the wary mistrust that everyone else seemed to feel and not want anything more to do with me, coupled with a pathetically hopeful optimism that maybe – just maybe, just this once – it might not happen.

I can see Price and Zeller looking at me with coordinating expressions of gloomy sympathy; and while it’s undoubtedly well-meant it’s also deeply irritating, and I make an abrupt, executive decision to say “fuck The Plan” and opt to join you at the hotel right now rather than waiting until evening. I can always call or email Jack about the message – it’s not like it matters all that much in the grand scheme of things. I say goodbye to Price and Zeller then head off; and have to resist the urge to lose my temper when I see Sanderson propped against the wall in the corridor lying in wait. I stride straight past him and he abruptly seizes my elbow and pulls me back.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” I say in a low, angry voice. “Touch me again and I’ll…”

“And you’ll do what?” he replies mockingly. “Jeez, look at you man. Who do you think you are? You think you’re so goddamn smart. Think you’re something special.”

“I know I do,” I say sarcastically, “I’m my biggest fan.”

“Well you’re not as smart as you think you are.”

“Yes, everyone always says that,” I answer in a bored voice. “I don’t really see it myself.”

“You know Will, if you were genuinely smart you wouldn’t piss me off so much. You’d make a bit more effort to get on my good side.” He takes a step towards me and makes an insolent gesture of straightening the collar on my jacket. “I have friends in high places.”

I reach up, slowly and deliberately, and knock his hands away. “Oh yeah? Where? Do they live at the top of a tower block?”

“You’re going to get what’s coming to you,” he says, and he’s practically snarling. Jesus, what the hell is this?

“You think you’re in control, don’t you?” he continues, “Always so goddamn arrogant, think you know what’s going on. But you’ve got no idea about anything.” And there’s something about his tone – intense and venomous – that makes me hesitate.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I ask slowly. He’s bluffing, surely? He must be.

“You’ll find out man. When you’re least expecting it. You’ll find out.”

I opt to dismiss this as typically blustering bullshit, and am turning round to walk away when he hisses: “Don’t you turn your back on me.

I take a deep breath. “We’re done here Sanderson,” I say, with a level of equability I certainly don’t feel. “Go back to your office.”

He takes another step towards me and I can see a vein throbbing in his temple, his dead-eyed malevolence: the loathing so sour and palpable it’s as if it’s curdling him from the inside. “You know I’ve been hearing a lot about you recently,” he says, “and it seems like you’ve caught the eye of quite a few people.”

I can’t help frowning at this – genuinely confused as to what the fuck he’s referring to – and he gives a barking laugh. “Yeah, I can’t say I share the same fascination; a little weirdo like you. Looks like you don’t totally get it either. Even Will Graham is over Will Graham. If you want my advice, you really better start praying that everyone else gets over you as well.”

Outside the window the groundskeeper is blast-cleaning the sidewalk, and the buzzing whine of his equipment is eerily magnified in the silence of the corridor. Sanderson is still staring at me; scenting blood. Fuck all of this. I lean forward, get into his space.

“Unlike you,” I say quietly, “I don’t need ‘friends in high places’ to make a point. So consider this as a final warning: do not keep pushing me. Because you won’t like it when I push back.”

“I could say the same to you,” he replies. His voice doesn’t falter, but he still shifts away very slightly. There’s something in my expression and I know he can see it.

“Then it looks like we understand each other,” I say. “Doesn’t it?”

There’s another beat of silence while neither of us moves, and there’s nothing except the wailing drone from outside like a warning siren: prepare, take cover, the onslaught’s about to begin.

“I’m not going to mess with you myself man,” he says at last. “You’re way too much freak for me. But from what I hear it’s not me you should be worrying about.” He lets out a humorless laugh. “You know, anyone else and I’d feel sorry for them. But not you. Not. You.”

I stare back meditatively, trying to take the measure of him – how much is posturing and how much is real? Sanderson, you’re finally getting interesting. Then there’s a clatter of footsteps and Jack comes striding round the corner in his usual forceful way, nearly careering into both of us in the process.

“Will!” he says. “Just the man. I heard you’d stopped by, glad I caught you. There’s a few things I need to…” He pauses and looks from one of us to the other, taking in the bristling antagonism. “What’s going on? Is there a problem here?”

“No,” I say, without taking my eyes off Sanderson. “There’s no problem.”

“No problem Sir,” Sanderson adds. He stares right back at me.

“That’s not what it looks like from where I’m standing,” says Jack sharply.

“It’s fine. What did you want to see me about?”

“It’s related to the Matthew Brown situation.” He’s still looking at us both, a crease of angry concern between his eyebrows.

“Your office?”

“Yes. You good to come now?”

“Of course.” I finally turn away from Sanderson. “I’ll be right there.”

Jack hesitates again, then nods and moves off at the same time as Sanderson also makes to leave. On an impulse I dart out and grab the latter’s elbow, my grip so tight I can see him wince. “I’m glad we had this discussion,” I say quietly. “I feel it’s clarified a few things, don’t you?”

Jack’s now halfway up the corridor, and spins round in annoyance when he realizes I’m not following him. “Will!” he calls out. “You coming?”

“Coming,” I say, then quickly lean forward again, tightening my hold on Sanderson’s arm even further. “I don’t know what the hell all this is about, but if I need to find out then I will. And in the meantime, these people who are so interested in me? Do me a favor – tell them I’ll be waiting.”

Then I turn round and walk away.

 

Chapter Text

Jack and I traipse up to his office in grim-faced silence. “You going to tell me what that was about?” he says when we get inside.

“Sanderson...” I begin, and then promptly grind to a halt.

“Yes? What about him?”

Now that I’ve started I realize I’m not entirely sure how to proceed. I push my glasses up the bridge of my nose (it seems the bastards are now actively trying to run off) and look at Jack thoughtfully. “Does he…?”

Jack raises an eyebrow.

“Is there anything about his background that’s…I don’t know…anything that stands out as odd?”

“What do you mean exactly? I can’t give you details from personnel files – you know that.”

“Come on Jack.”

Jack sighs. “The short answer is ‘no.’ Not at all. And I’m very good at picking up on that sort of stuff.”

You’re not really though are you? I can’t help thinking. “Well, are you aware if he has any…” I flail around a bit. “Connections? Anyone influential?”

“’Connections’? What’s this about Will? And no, I seriously doubt it. What sort of connections could he possibly have? His background’s hardly what you’d call High Society; he came up through one of those Cane Foundation programmes.”

“What? Oh, those scholarship things.” I’m actually genuinely surprised by this as the competition for them is so fierce – he’s clearly nowhere near as stupid as he looks.

“That’s the one. For people who aren’t as smart as you are, but just as socially and materially…disadvantaged.”

“Thanks; you’re making me sound like a war orphan.”

“The American Dream,” Jack replies sardonically, “highest goals and aspirations achievable for all – if you’re prepared to work hard. And keep that to yourself about the programme grant; I shouldn’t really have told you.”

“It’s hardly something to be ashamed of.”

“I guess,” says Jack vaguely, obviously growing bored with this line of discussion.

“And does he?”

“Does he what?”

“Work hard?”

“Yeah. He’s good. He’s good at what he does.”

“Hmmm.”

“So now we’ve established that he works hard and you’re a smart war orphan, are you going to tell me what’s actually going on here? What’s he said to you?”

“Nothing really, I guess. I don’t know.” (Yet…I’m sure I’ll find out).

“Well he’s clearly said something.”

“A sort of veiled threat I suppose; he hinted he knows people who are out to get me…Maybe I’m overreacting,” I add, partly to appease Jack but partly as a concession to myself that it might actually be the case.

“I don’t like the sound of that Will. Do you want me to get him in here?”

“Thanks, but no. Or at least not yet. I’d like to try and sort it out myself.” I sigh slightly. This is completely impossible, as if there’s a sheet of glass separating us. Jack no longer feels like someone I can openly confide in – not as long as he’s wearing that badge.

“Try not to get too paranoid,” says Jack in his best ‘Will’s-being-difficult’ voice.

“No? I’d probably be dead several times over by now if I wasn’t.”

“How can someone be dead several times over?”

“You’re such a pedant sometimes Jack, did anyone ever tell you that?”

“And you’re a paranoiac,” Jack replies cheerfully. “Look, Will, seriously – try not to wind yourself up too much. I don’t know exactly what Sanderson’s said to you, but I can honestly tell you that there’s nothing in his background to cause me any concern; he wouldn’t be here if there was.” He seems touchingly oblivious to the fact that I’m still here, meaning this safeguard effectively equates to ‘fuck all.’ There’s another pause and I start tugging at a loose thread on my cuff, then glance up and realize he’s staring at me so self-consciously put it down again.

“Be vigilant by all means,” Jack says pointedly. He’s now adopted his sermonizing tone; he might as well be stood in a pulpit. “But don’t wreck your peace of mind in the process. It’s no way to live.”

“Yep.”

“Remember that saying: ‘happiness is a choice, peace is a state of mind, and both come for free’.” What, seriously? Now he sounds like a rambling old hippy…I combine this with the parson persona from a few seconds ago and end up with a highly unfortunate composite of him standing over me and forcing me to sing Kum Ba Yah.

“Did you get that from a fortune cookie?” I say to try and distract myself from this (appalling) mental image.

“No. All of us directors got sent on an occupational wellbeing seminar – I got it from there.”

“Great. Thanks Dr Crawford” (thanks for nothing, that is – my occupational wellbeing got kicked in its sorry ass years ago).

“You’re welcome.”

God, this conversation’s starting to get tedious. “So what’s this about Matthew Brown?” I say.

“Oh, yes. Okay. So, now you’re here I’d like you to take a look at some files for me.” He hesitates. “About Michael French.”

I try not to sigh again. The truth is that I’d rather gnaw off my own feet than look at the casefile on Michael fucking French, but Jack might think it’s odd if I say no and I’ve clearly got a vested interest in staying on his good side for as long as possible (which realistically is…probably not all that much longer). He reaches into the filing cabinet to retrieve it, and I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the highly polished plaque on his desk: I look almost impossibly pissed off, so summon a supreme effort to compose my features into something that could (just about) pass as politely professional interest.

Jack dumps the folder in front of me and claps me on the shoulder. “You sure you’re all right with this?”

“Of course,” I say. I fantasize about adding something along the lines of ‘are you telling me it would matter if I wasn’t?’ but manage to resist, because there’s absolutely no point starting an argument.

“I’ll be honest with you Will,” says Jack, as if being honest is some kind of enormous concession and I should be grateful, “this isn’t really to do with Matthew Brown.”

“Well, obviously,” I say irritably (my vow to stay on my best behavior rapidly starting to wither on the vine). “They had no connection beyond me. Nothing in this file’s going to help catch him; this is about French himself.” Oh yes, of course. I glance up at Jack. “You want to go for posthumous convictions don’t you?”

“On form with the smarts today aren’t you? Yes we do. Not in terms of an actual trial of course.”

“Naturally not,” I say in an ironic voice. “Too expensive.”

“But in the interests of justice, we thought…”

“You mean increasing the closure statistics.”

Jack gives me a look. “Sorry,” I say sheepishly.

“Of course it would help if the other victims came forward.”

“I wasn’t his victim.”

“No shame in being victimized.”

“Of course there’s not, I know that. It’s just…” I wave my hand around a bit. “Come on Jack, give me a break.”

“You’re right. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay, it’s fine.” I flick the file open and run my eyes down the pages. Simultaneously I decide I won’t bother referring to the Matthew Brown message now; it wouldn’t really achieve anything in practical terms, and it would also mean having to explain the significance of the screen name (Christ). Not to mention the teeny tiny little omission of never telling Jack about the alleyway ambush when it happened. Maybe that was a tactical error in retrospect, although – fucking hell – pretty understandable all things considered. I take my glasses off and run my hand over my face. Okay then: the Michael French file (for God’s sake).

“You’ll have to tread very carefully when reaching out for anyone else,” I say. “He wasn’t opportunistic. He selected people meticulously. That was part of his MO: finding,” I frown slightly, “victims whose testimony he thought would carry less credibility than his; or at least who he believed he could terrorize into submission. You need an emphasis from the outset that people will be taken seriously.”

“All men?”

“No, not necessarily. Remember it was about power, not sex, so it doesn’t rule out targeting women. But I couldn’t say for sure – it wasn’t exactly something he discussed with me. Hey,” a name in the file catches my eye and I brandish the paper at Jack. “It says here he did a residency with Abel Gideon.” Jack and I sign simultaneously and roll our eyes at each other.

“Oh God, yes,” says Jack, “I forgot about that. Keep it to yourself all right? The press would have a field day.”

Don’t tell the press, don’t tell anyone Sanderson got a scholarship…I’m getting a bit bored of other people’s secrets, I’ve got more than enough of my own. Not least the dual identities I’m currently sitting in Jack’s office with: the person who’s going to hide out with you in a hotel (so we can fuck like rabbits) and the one who’s supposed to be working with the US Government to catch you. Although two identities seem quite frugal by your standards: at one point you probably had as many as you had acquaintances. I have a horrible feeling I’m smirking so try and keep my face straight.

“Jeez, that was a crazy few months,” says Jack. He looks a bit guilty (good). “Feels like a lifetime ago.”

“Hmmm,” I say. “Crazy.” I suppose this is probably the point that I ought to be having some serious reservations (“I sat in Hannibal Lecter’s cobalt blue drawing room with Leda and the Swan over the fireplace and you having a fit in the corner”) and needless to say I don’t. Both the people in this file are dead whereas you and I are so incredibly alive. “They really are putting something in the water at Hopkins,” I eventually add. Jack, like Alana, doesn’t seem to find this particularly funny (I make a mental note to try it out on you later).

There’s an awkward silence and I tip back the chair so I can stretch my legs out. “Jack,” I say with mock seriousness, “why does nearly everyone I meet want to either kill me or screw me over?”

“I don’t,” says Jack, “if that’s any consolation. At least I don’t most of the time.”

“That’s pretty understandable I suppose. What can I tell you? Take a ticket and join the back of the queue.”

Jack gives a crooked smile, then leans across his desk to pat my wrist like I’m an ailing pet. “Don’t worry Will,” he says. “We’ll get him. We’ll get him eventually.”

I smile back vaguely, and let my eyes drift over to the window: the first flurry of snow has started, dirty grey flecks like feathers. Jack’s still watching me, and idly I wonder whether he’s referring to Matthew Brown or you: two discrete adversaries and two totally different types of dismantling.

*****

The hotel turns out to miles away, taking goddamn ages to reach without a car, and I get a shock when I finally arrive because it really wasn’t what I was expecting: opulent, in a rather garish and vulgar way – not your style at all – and more ostentatious than seems entirely wise. It’s the type of place that makes me want to start chanting Trade Union anthems, but I need to be on my best behavior (again…whatever the hell that actually is) so conceal myself behind a vase of sickly-looking Easter lilies and try to look casual and unconcerned (in fact I put so much effort into looking casual and unconcerned that it first becomes strenuous, and then physically painful). You’ve said you’ll meet me in the lobby, but as yet there’s no sign of you. Instead a group of trust fund types, all shiny hair, big teeth, and Tommy Hilfiger, come and park themselves a few feet away, yapping away in well-bred, loudly self-confident voices.

“We’ll have access to a private beach,” says one of them, “so of course we’ll be skinny dipping every morning. Do you have any idea how divine water feels on your naked skin?”

I have to resist a powerful urge to lean over and say “I do, actually – every morning in the shower.” God this place is awful: the lilies make it smell like a funeral parlor and the lobby resembles a mausoleum where crystal-drop chandeliers and imitation marble go to die. I have an image of us being trapped in a series of equally mindless places for the indefinite future and feel my heart beginning to sink. What’s taking you so long anyway? Oh…oh, okay there you are. In fact I can’t believe I didn’t spot you sooner as you’re virtually in my direct line of sight. Then after a few seconds I understand exactly why, because you’re doing that thing where you alter all your body language and demeanor and turn into someone else. It’s both artful and fascinating and incredibly creepy. You’re wearing the fake glasses I got you (which suit you surprisingly well…how the hell do you manage it?), and a loose-fitting navy suit and pale blue shirt with the top few buttons undone. You’re lounging against the wall scrolling through your cell phone and people keep staring at you, but not with suspicion as opposed to barely concealed (in some cases extremely poorly concealed) admiration. You don’t glance up once, but I know you’re completely aware of the commotion you’re causing and are mentally high-fiving yourself (it serves you right that I have now rolled up in resplendent scruffiness to bring the side down). I abandon the trust funders – now waxing lyrical in a rather nauseating way about the merits of Southampton vs. East Hampton – and launch myself out from behind the vase.

“Good afternoon Will,” you say without looking up.

“How did you…”

“I can smell you of course. You are extremely distinct.”

“Ugh, do you have any idea how weird that sounds?”

You finally put the phone away and give me a quick up-and-down glance, chased up with one of your slow, slightly sinister (yet undeniably sensual) smiles.

“I would also tell you that I know you have been here for several minutes, hovering only a few feet away,” you reply, “….but I imagine you would find it ‘weird,’ so I won’t.”

I can’t help grinning at that (and the fact it’s really good to see you), but the moment is lost because one of the Trustafarians promptly ambles over and deposits himself in between us, loudly asking if he can borrow your lighter. From the way he’s eyeing you up, and the insinuating tone of his voice, it’s apparent that he’s hoping for an entirely different type of conflagration later in the evening. How is it even possible to ask for a cigarette lighter in a manner that’s tantamount to foreplay? (Surely it shouldn’t be possible…I am grudgingly impressed in spite of myself). Nevertheless – hell no. Find your own devastatingly suave sociopath, you presumptuous hipster shit.

“He doesn’t smoke,” I say firmly.

The guy initially looks a bit nonplussed, then shoots me a look of such intense contempt that I’m sorely tempted to either punch him or whip out my (expired, and thus invalid) badge and perform an impromptu (citizen’s) arrest on the grounds of being an unbearably smug asshole.

“Well, I didn’t ask you,” he says – he clearly wants to add ‘you obnoxious little peasant’ – “and I know he smokes because I saw him.”

I give you an incredulous ‘what the hell have you been doing now?’ glance (it involves raising both eyebrows so high they get lost in my hair) and you return it with a ‘wouldn’t you like to know?’ shrug (which necessitates an elegant hitch of one shoulder and a blank wide-eyed stare). You gracefully uncurl yourself away from the wall and draw yourself up to your full height, upon which the hipster gives a slightly amorous sigh and I swing back round again.

“Well, I am telling you,” I say evenly (you overly-privileged trust fund capitalist whore asshole), “that he doesn’t have a lighter to hand.”

“And I’m saying that I didn’t ask you. He can tell me that himself.”

“He won’t,” I say possessively before you even have a chance to respond. You give me a sceptical look and I realize….oh yeah. Now I have to qualify this somewhat improbable remark with a reason why not. Why not? Fuck.

“He doesn’t speak English,” I finally add with brilliant improvisation (now go take all your stolen capital and set it and yourself on fire with someone else’s lighter).

“Oh what is this?” demands the hipster, “are you telling me you’re his translator or something?”

He and I both swivel back to you at the same time (like kids appealing to an adult to settle a dispute over who gets the last candy bar) and you make a very faint noise which the hipster probably interprets as irritation, but which I know is you trying not laugh. You open your mouth and shoot me a slightly evil glance. If you start speaking English now, I think, I will literally kill you. I don’t care if I have to round up a posse of hipsters to help me do it, you and your ‘fuck-me’ cigarette lighter will not leave this hotel alive.

Fortunately (for you) you decide to be charitable for once, and promptly launch into a stream of something incomprehensible that sounds like it might be Dutch, or possibly German, but is most likely neither. I give the hipster a triumphant stare.

“See?” I tell him, “not one word.” I note with amusement that he now looks almost incandescent with irritation, his fists are actually clenched. Imagine caring so much about a cigarette lighter; people are weird.

“Look, bro, why don’t you shut up for a minute?” he says.

Well really; how incredibly rude. I raise my eyebrows. “Well, bro, why don’t you fuck off?”

What did you say?”

“I said…” I begin with exaggerated patience, but at that point you intercede in Dutch-German-neither and I can’t resist turning to the hipster and adding sanctimoniously: “He’s saying ‘why doesn’t this tiresome person fuck off?’”

“He is not saying that,” replies the hipster almost plaintively. (No, to be honest, most likely not…God only knows what you’re actually saying). You add something else unintelligible whilst giving me a pointed look, and although you’re almost certainly bristling at being rudely referred to as ‘he,’ (not to mention the fact I’m acting like a jealous, controlling idiot who wants to drag you into my cave) I can’t help feeling your irritation is marginally outweighed by amusement at the fact that me and this pampered asshole are basically squaring up to have a fight over you in a hotel lobby. Nevertheless we’re now at a logical impasse because I can hardly appeal to you to back me up when I’ve sworn blind you can’t speak English…in fact I’m starting to wish you’d just revert back to your normal self and say something terrifying so the guy realizes that of all the cigarette lighters in all the world, this is one he really doesn’t want to be borrowing. Fortunately a pending crisis/homicide is averted because the hipster’s gaggle of friends have been alerted by his raised voice and materialize to shepherd him off. He beams me looks of upper-class hatred the entire time; I frown back at him and he drops his eyes first.

“Please do not say anything,” I hiss at you. “Not. One. Word. And since when do you smoke?”

“It was not a cigarette, it was a cigar: French Cuvées. I am not averse to them on occasion. Besides some art dealers were at the adjoining table and I wanted a reason to linger and listen to their conversation.”

“Why?”

“Why not?”

“What, that’s your answer? That’s what five-year olds say. Did you check me in?”

“No, I thought you would prefer to not appear on the records; I have procured two key-cards so will give you the spare one. Officially, however, I am staying here alone.”

“Okay, great, thanks. That’s probably better.”

“Come along then,” you say. “I suppose I should be thanking you for defending my honor against the marauding hordes.”

“Oh please drop it. Actually no, don’t – you should be thanking me. You have to hide your usual rabid persona at the moment so you need me to defend you.” I smirk slightly. “For all intents and purposes you are currently neutered.”

Am I?” you say, briefly transforming back into your real self; and I am promptly on the verge of collapsing at your feet in a lustful heap when the bellhop appears and you abruptly switch back again. You begin an animated conversation with him in another language I don’t recognize: it’s all guttural consonants and heavy vowels, and makes you sound like you should be reclining in a leather chair with a Persian cat informing Mr Bond that you’ve been expecting him. I have a horrible feeling I’m going to laugh, and you spot this immediately and give me a tap on the shoulder with your finger and say something that sounds like it might well be a more eloquently multi-syllabled version of ‘fuck off.’ I’m tempted to prod you back, but resist because I know you’ll just do it again (and probably take me out in the process), and surely the whole point of this enterprise is to be as inconspicuous as possible as opposed to starting a (second) fight in (another) unspecified foreign language in the foyer of an incredibly upmarket hotel. You say something else to the bellhop, who looks at me and smiles in a slightly shifty way, and I can’t help suspecting you’ve just told him something deeply unflattering (like “this is my simpleminded American relative; he knows nothing but he means well”).

The bellhop’s beady black eyes are now crawling all over me, and it’s this – combined with the realization that this new persona of yours is going to be an insufferable asshole – that makes me cut my losses and leave you to it, drifting off instead to examine the large aquarium at the other side of the foyer. I can hear the bellhop starting to laugh (no doubt in response to you saying: “see, there he goes, the sad little man – he has an adorable affinity with fish”) and I’m internally rolling my eyes when another staff member appears and asks me what I’m doing, and can she help me at all? Oh for God’s sake, fuck all of this. I should have just stayed at the apartment and had a cosy evening in with the inspector, Matthew Brown, and Occam’s razor…with the Renaissance Polymaths we’d have had enough people for a bridge party.

“Thank you,” I say tersely, “I’m fine.”

“Are you a guest here?” she asks. From her tone it’s evident that what she really means is ‘why is a scruffy little shit like you polluting my pristine lobby? And get the fuck away from those fish while you’re at it.’

I smile politely (at least that’s the intention; it probably comes out more like a tortured grimace) and open my mouth to reply, when you abruptly materialize at the other side, the bellhop following at the rear (now – inexplicably – carrying a large potted fern). “He is with me,” you say firmly.

Her manner is far more cordial with you (of course), but she keeps looking from one of us to the other and bleating “well, it really is against hotel regulations Sir…”

“He will not be here long,” you reply smoothly.

“Well,” she says, “well…we like to accommodate our guests Sir. And seeing as it’s you, I guess an allowance can be made.” She glances at me again and I have an overwhelming urge to tell her to piss off. (Also – ‘seeing as it’s you’? This is only the second time you’ve been here, how the hell have you already managed to bullshit everyone so convincingly?).

“I am extremely obliged,” you say, “your establishment’s reputation for tractability has not been exaggerated.” You give her an enormous tip (my eyes widen slightly at the sight of all the bills) and she practically starts purring at you.

She turns to me. “If you could perhaps avoid the lobby area? If it’s no trouble?”

You give her a quick look, then glance at me, then back to her again. “Most certainly,” you say, just as I’m opening my mouth to protest.

“Thank you Sir, I’m so glad you understand. How did your meeting go? Will you need to stay with us for a bit longer?”

“Oh, it was somewhat unproductive,” you reply languidly. “It is possible I may need to extend the reservation.”

“Well, you just give me a call if you need anything. Have a nice day Sir.” She nods at me. “Sir.” Whatever.

The bellhop solemnly hands you the fern, which you receive with a gracious nod as if you’re simply accepting expensive tributes as your due (which, come to think of it, is exactly what you’re doing) then he stands watching us as we walk away, the woman next to him with her arms folded.

“What was all that about?” I ask as we get in the elevator (I can’t even face asking you about the fern).

You remove the fake glasses and put them in your pocket, then give me a slightly incredulous look as if you can’t believe I can possibly be so dense. “Oh the source of the consternation is perfectly obvious,” you say airily, “…they believe you to be a sex worker.”

I open my mouth extremely wide to dispute this, and promptly manage to start choking on my own spit. You wait patiently until I can breathe again.

“Christ! They do not think that!”

“Of course they do. We look extremely incongruous together in this context. It is apparent that I am bringing you to the hotel as my temporary ‘guest’; someone who is noticeably younger than I am, and who is considerably less…formally attired.”

“Scruffy. You mean scruffy don’t you? Why don’t you just say scruffy. You mean I look like I spend all day on my knees for wealthy Europeans in exchange for crack.”

“Well, I should not have expressed it quite so explicitly myself. But essentially – yes. Not in the general course of things you understand, only in this specific context.”

Only in this specific context. I narrow my eyes at you. “Did you make them think that on purpose?”

“Don’t be absurd, of course I didn’t. Unfortunately they had already assumed it independently.” You give me an acerbic look. “It is rather a shame we were delayed so long in a pointless altercation over a cigarette lighter. However, now they have been so obliging to conjure up an explanation for your presence they will pay no further attention to you. As such, allowing them to continue believing it was,” you smirk slightly, “…expeditious.”

“It was not. It was ostentatious. We’re drawing attention to ourselves completely unnecessarily.”

“On the contrary, ostentation is good. Once again I have created a persona that will linger in people’s minds and take on a life of its own that they will be unable to connect with an image they might come across in the news. Behaving in a subdued, guilty way invariably attracts the wrong type of attention – immodesty and insinuation are far more effective deceptions.”

I suspect that you are going to start cross-referencing your extensive experience of ingeniously outwitting the law (again…yawn), and I try to cut you off but you sail on regardless. “In respect of your second concern,” you say, “this hotel is extensively tenanted by middle-aged individuals with younger companions. Why do you think I selected it? It is all opulent artifice wrapped around a thoroughly disreputable core.”

“Did you just admit to being middle-aged? Anyway, I think we should move to somewhere with a little less ‘opulent artifice’ – they’d be more likely to look for you in a place like this.”

“They most certainly will not, because I would never be in such a vulgar, gaudy establishment by preference. Consider also that after last time they would know that I would be aware of that – thus assuming I would do the opposite and seek out a hovel.”

I can’t help laughing at that. “Actually, that’s exactly what you did do; as you never tired of pointing out.”

You politely ignore me. “Besides, it is hardly an issue as I can guarantee they will not expect me to still be in the country, let alone this close by. We are hiding in plain sight, which is the most efficient concealment of all.”

“Not indefinitely.”

“No, I agree with you there. But I do not intend for us to stay here indefinitely.”

The elevator stops and we get out. “It’s just as well we’re not,” I say gloomily, “considering that the whole staff now has me down as some kind of rent boy.” Unfortunately, however, I have managed to share this disclosure with my usual genius level of bad timing, because a lacquered old lady and her son (or, if you’re right, youthful ‘companion’) are walking straight past and hear the whole thing. My mouth falls open in extremes of dismay, at exactly the same moment as you roll your eyes heavenwards then exchange a sympathetic glance with her as if to say ‘you can see what I’m dealing with here; what can I do?’ She smiles supportively at you, then shoots me a deeply disapproving look. “Oh my!” I hear her muttering as she turns the corner.

“Excellent,” you say with an enormous smirk. “Well done Will. Sterling work, indeed. Do remind me what were you saying about us being ostentatious?”

“You can talk,” I say (unreasonably), “this is entirely your fault.”

“Not entirely. I believe you must take some portion of the blame. After all it was not me who self-identified as a rent boy at the sort of pitch that usually only canines are able to detect.”

“Oh God,” I say faintly. “I did, didn’t I?”

“Most assuredly you did. I witnessed the whole thing, so am afraid I can’t give you any reassurance there. Console yourself that at least Freddie Lounds will never get to hear of it.”

I have a brief image of what the headlines would be, and am torn between wanting to laugh and sink down to the floor with my head in my hands.

”It is nothing to be ashamed of,” you say innocently. “You are merely showing an extremely liberal-minded support for the oldest profession.”

“Oh my God, if you don’t shut up, I’ll…”

“…charge me double?”

I stop walking and glare at you with my arms folded.

“Very well,” you say, although I can tell you’re internally smirking to yourself. “I apologize. I empathize with your discomfiture at having informed the entire 22nd floor that you are a rent boy. I will not mention it again.”

“Good.”

“It is probably better if you also refrain from mentioning it. At least not at such an extravagant timbre and volume.”

“Oh God, how is this my life? In the last few months I’ve been pinned as your husband, wife, accomplice, and rent boy.”

“As diverting at that may be,” you say, “you are in fact none of those things.”

“What am I then?”

You look at me carefully. “My equal,” you reply, “someone in whom I met my match” (adding – because this is you after all) “or at least as close to it as anyone has previously managed.” As if to illustrate the point you pause at the door, then move aside so we can walk through together rather than me having to follow you in.

“Thank you,” I say.

“You are welcome.”

We stare at each other for a few seconds, and I realize I’m starting to feel uncomfortable (mostly because of a wary sense that you’re being disingenuous in some way, yet not wanting to be ungracious enough to accuse you directly). I clear my throat awkwardly and gesture at you. “So what’s with the fern?”

You give me a slightly pitying look. “It is not a fern,” you say, “it is a juniper bonsai. Very lovely and unusual. I wish to examine it and shall return it tomorrow.”

“Seriously?”

“You have no appreciation for natural beauty,” you reply with asperity, although by that point I’ve kind of stopped listening, because I wouldn’t know a juniper bonsai from The Day of the Triffids (and am quite happy with that, thank you very much). Instead I have a quick look round the room – which is not a room as opposed to a suite, complete with separate bedroom, bathroom, sitting area and galley kitchen – then fold myself onto the sofa with my chin propped on my knees. You sit next to me with your body slightly arched round so you can watch me.

My face is starting to ache and I realize it’s because I’m frowning so hard. Now that I’m finally sat still with space to think the crushing irritation and mundanity of the past few hours – Sanderson, the hotel, even Jack – is really hitting me. Maybe a week ago it would have been bearable, maybe even 24 hours ago. Now it feels hateful. Jarring and grating and stifling, as if I’m being forced to be the wrong person and live the wrong life. I am, it is; it’s unliveable, unsustainable. It’s not how things should be.

“This is so frustrating isn’t it?” I finally say.

“It is.”

“We have to hide, and when we’re not hiding we have to pretend to be other people. We can’t just be ourselves.”

“You should not be so concerned with the absurd and the trivial. Learning to disregard other people’s opinions is exceedingly liberating.”

“No, it’s not that.” And it isn’t: it’s far worse. This morning’s surge of purpose has shone a harsh, remorseless spotlight on how intolerable it is to keep masquerading as something I know I’m not. I hunch my shoulders slightly and run my hands through my hair.

“What are you thinking?” you ask.

“That we’re in suspended animation. This isn’t living, it’s existing; we’re just biding our time. We used to really thrive. Now we’re hiding out in hovels and hotels with the ‘absurd and the trivial’ like normal people. It’s awful.” God, it really is. This isn’t us; we ought to be somewhere fierce and fiendish with bright lights and cacophony. “It’s suffocating,” I say.

“It will not be forever,” you reply serenely.

“Hmmm.” Now I’m thinking of how I was when you first came back: the chronic timidity, the constant wariness, the reluctance to take a stand, or commit to a course, or make any kind of purposeful action. That person feels like a pale imitation now, a phantom version of myself. You’ve purged him out of me: dead and buried.

I’m expecting you to respond to this outpouring in some way, but you don’t say anything else so I pick your newspaper off the floor and browse through. There’s a big picture of Jack on page 4: I brandish it at you sardonically and you smirk.

“It is not our job to stay out of Jack Crawford’s way,” you say, “it is his job to stay out of ours.” There’s another pause and I glance up; you look extremely thoughtful. I raise my eyebrows as a prompt.

“To be frank, it hardly matters,” you add at last, “because Uncle Jack and his cohorts shall soon become entirely irrelevant.”

“Why?” You keep looking at me. You’re working up to something, I can tell. “Why?” I say again.

“I suppose this is as suitable a moment as any, seeing as you have obliging prefaced the conversation,” you reply, and there’s a smile in your voice. “They will become irrelevant because I want to leave. I want to leave – and I want you to come with me.”

There’s a beat of silence and I go very still. “Where to you want to go?” I ask quietly.

“Europe; at least initially. Italy, France, Spain…there are so many possibilities. I want to show you Florence and Granada and Toruń, lay you out and make love to you somewhere beautiful. There is so much I would like to show you Will.”

I draw in my breath. So. This is it then: the moment of truth. This is what we’ve been working up to ever since that first “Hello Will” on the floor of a back alley. It’s both the beginning of something and the end of something else; and the proposition that’s going to change everything. Whatever I’m about to commit to in the next few minutes will spiral my entire life onto a new trajectory; and whatever I opt for there’s no way I’ll ever be able to take it back. I twist my head round so I can look at you directly. I need to see you to have this conversation. I need to really see you. But the seconds stretch out and I still don’t respond. I’m vaguely aware that less than a week has passed since I last considered the possibility of leaving with you, only to dismiss it out of hand as too overwhelming to contemplate. And now?

You’re just watching me, attentive and impassive as a waxwork of yourself; if you’re apprehensive about my reaction you don’t give any indication.

“I expect you have questions?” you eventually say.

“Yes…No. I only have one.” You’re just a few feet away but the distance between us suddenly seems vast. I feel like I want to touch you but can’t quite bring myself to move.

“And what is that?”

“What would it mean?” I say, and you narrow your eyes very slightly; boxing clever. “In the long-term? For me. What would it mean for me?”

“Be more specific please.”

I take a deep breath. “Say I come with you; that I really go through with it this time, knowing that I had to leave everything behind, and that I could never go home again. And say that we’re living together somewhere, and we’re dependent on each other, and everything has to be synchronized and acknowledged…”

“Not necessarily, there is…”

“Don’t do that, please. Not now. Just hear me out.” You incline your head in agreement and I flex my shoulders, trying to dispel some of the tension that’s building up. I look at you, straight in the eyes (an all-seeing I). “What would you expect me to become?”

You frown slightly – it’s almost imperceptible, just the lightest crease around the forehead, but I immediately sense that whatever you were expecting me to say it wasn’t that. It’s good to know I still haven’t lost the capacity to surprise you.

“Yourself of course,” is all you reply. “Or at least a more completely realized version.”

“But that’s exactly my point,” I say with energy. “I’m myself, me – I can’t be a reflection of you. And that’s what you want, isn’t it?” I hesitate, expecting you to interrupt, but you don’t. “What you do…You see death as art, as arbitrary, your grand arrangement; everyone’s equally deserving. It’s not like that for me.”

Your mouth quirks into an extremely faint smile. “It’s not,” I say. “I’ve only ever killed someone because I had to.”

“’Someone’ implies the singular.”

“Fine. I’ve only ever killed people because I had to.”

“Oh yes,” you say. “I know you were forced.” You pause, then look me directly in the eye. “But no one forced you to enjoy it, did they?”

My mouth goes totally dry; I feel like you’ve just slapped me in the face.

“For it to make you feel so ‘alive’, if you recall,” you continue, relentless as ever. “You once told me I could not reduce you to a set of influences, that you were not a product of anything. But that was not entirely true, was it?”

I hesitate. “I don’t…I mean, if it was really justified…”

“With the resolution of what? I am not some type of vigilante Will.” You cut me off sharply – your eyes flashing in that unnerving way you have – and I flinch in spite of myself, pulling slightly away. Remember what happened last time I said ‘no’ to you? Oh Christ, fuck, why do I allow myself to keep forgetting how utterly terrifying you can be? Selective memory at its most high risk.

“I know. I know you’re not.” I pause again. I can hear my heart thrumming crazily in my ears. “But I’m not…whatever it is that you are.”

You look at me meditatively, and I realize I’ve been holding my breath and need to force myself to let it out.

“No, indeed you are not,” you eventually say. “Curious isn’t it? Because in spite of it all, in spite of everything…” you pause, allowing the silence to express the inexpressible, all the terror and madness this moment’s built upon, “…united we stand. There is a fine line between beauty and horror. We have deleted this line. You – and – I.”

“I know,” I say, a bit helplessly, because this is my version of Rome to which all paths lead (“Don’t go inside, WillStay here with me.” And me: “Where else would I go?”). “God, I know that.”

“Do not appeal to God; he will not listen to you. Better to pray to yourself, for yourself.”

I suddenly feel like screaming. Oh fuck you…fuck you and your constant verbal parries and sanctimonious theorizing. Why do you have to summon a calculating, complacent response for everything?

“Isn’t that a bit obvious for you?” My voice has gone very low. “I would have thought that went without saying. Of course I have to defend myself – who else is going to do it; who else has ever done it? You?”

“In my own way.”

“Oh yes – your way. That’s what I’m trying to tell you; I’m not prepared to always play everything your way.” You narrow your eyes again, and as an afterthought I add: “And you can’t keep punishing me for it.”

“’Can’t’?”

“No,” I answer quietly. “You can’t.” You don’t reply immediately, just look at me, and this time I refuse to drop my eyes first.

“If you think I want you to accompany me merely as something mute and passive to mould in my own image then you are mistaken,” you finally say. “If you were as malleable as all that you would hardly be as intriguing as you are. I am not interested in trying to recruit you as an acolyte, but rather enlist you as an associate. That is a potential I have seen in you for a very long time, although what path you ultimately select is something over which I inevitably have only limited control. And yet none of this alters the affinity we share. Does it Will?” You steeple your fingers under your chin. “We are a confederacy, you and I. A perfect synthesis – and greater than the sum of our parts.”

I let my breath out softly. “Yes…I know.” I’ve known for a long time haven’t I? The definitive forbidden knowledge. And because forbidden – irresistible

“Equal in energy, equivalent in compulsion…identical in our strength of purpose.” Your voice is hypnotic, and you say it as if it’s a mantra, an article of faith, as if it should be chiselled into stone or inscribed on parchment. A universal truth: the sun will rise, the tides will flow, and you and I are the same and we belong together. And I can’t contradict you because I know that what you’re saying is right.

Your eyes are boring into me and I find myself helplessly begin moving across the couch towards you as if drawn by an unseen thread: the old, irresistible pull, like you’re my center of gravity. You are though…always were and have been. You’re my Muse, my undoing, my redemption, my purposeful disarray and dark mirror image. You’re everything. If I’m aware of what fulfilment and completion are, then it’s because of you. We’re what love would be if it was set on fire. Aren’t we? You and I.

“Yes,” I murmur and I know I’m talking to both of us. Yes, yes, yes. You curl your hand round the back of my neck, stroking my throat with your thumb.

“A unique alliance,” you say. You brush your lips against my ear and I quiver against the touch. “An unsplittable atom.”

“I know. Christ.”

“Of course you know. Look at you: small, solitary and striving. Yet you will never stay with the herd will you? Not when you could lead the pack.”

I don’t reply immediately, just let my cheek rub against your hair, focussing on the way your hand is trailing up and down my spine – and you eventually pull away and manoeuvre my shoulders so we’re looking at each other. You’re staring at me, gazing really, your eyes flicking over my face as if committing each feature to memory. I suppose if I don’t go with you then that’s all you would have. It’s all either of us would have; memories of one incredible night (our first and our last) followed by a stilted farewell on a hotel sofa. And the knowledge – hard-won and realized too late – that for the rest of our lives, no matter how long we look and how far we search, there’ll be no appreciation for me like yours and no acceptance for you like mine.

“It may not be particularly easy,” you say at last, “at least initially.” And I know you’re talking about far more than simply getting out of the country.

I take another deep breath and look at you. This is it now.

“That’s okay,” I say. “We don’t really do easy, do we?”

“We do not.” You run your finger down the side of my face.

You knew anyway didn’t you; you’ve always known. You didn’t really need to ask. “I’ll come with you,” I say, enunciating each word slowly and carefully so there can be no mistake. “I will. I want to.”

You just smile. “Then tomorrow we begin preparations to depart.”

I close my eyes and let my head tip back so I’m staring at the ceiling. There’s a strange thrill of energy running through me and I realize that I’m smiling too: prepared for another plunge and ready to fall.

“Yes,” I say. “Tomorrow. Yes.”

Chapter Text

In the end we don’t (can’t) wait until morning. I dig my laptop out my backpack and you brew some coffee so strong it’s like rocket fuel, and we settle round the table and descend down the rabbit hole of border patrols, ferries, flights and fake passports. I’d forgotten how synchronized we can be when tackling the same problem; anticipating one another’s questions and coordinating and communicating at a level that’s so instinctive I‘m not always entirely aware it’s happening. Although as the hours roll on it becomes obvious that it’s going to prove far less complicated than it should be, because you appear to have most of the logistics laid down already.

“Those plans you kept hinting at,” I eventually say. “This was it wasn’t it? Me running off with you. You were counting on it before you even came back.”

“Do not say ‘running off’ – you make us sound like teenage lovers. We are not running anywhere. We are mastering providence and controlling our destiny” (said with the inevitable grandiose flourish).

“We’re absconding.”

“I am; you are not. Unless you have been behaving extremely badly and are keeping it to yourself, you are not wanted by the Government.”

“Not yet, anyway…I will be when people find out.”

When they find out? Not if? You are assuming it as a certainty then?”

I realize I’d taken for granted that Jack and co. would somehow just know I’ve run off (to master providence, control destiny etc.), not to mention with who. The decision is so fateful and momentous that it seems unfeasible other people could remain unaware of it. But of course you’re right; there’s no real reason for them to find out – I could just disappear, if I wanted, and no one would ever discover why. I frown a bit at the bleakness of this idea, and you notice and reach over to close the laptop.

“This is more than sufficient for one sitting,” you say. “It is now so late it has become early.” You push your chair back and stretch luxuriously, then prowl over to the kitchen area to run a glass of water. I flex my aching shoulders and stand up too, loitering by the side of the couch so I can watch you. You’re so distinctive (unlike me, who is practically the dictionary definition of ‘nondescript’). It doesn’t seem possible that people won’t recognize you.

“Are you going to disguise yourself again?” I say abruptly.

You glance up. “Yes, I expect so.”

“Good.”

“You sound anxious.”

“No, I’m not.” You narrow your eyes at me

“I’m fine.” Now you raise your eyebrows as well. “You really should use ‘Rasputin’ as your new alias,” I add irritably. “You’ve already got the manic stare for it; all you’d need to do is grow a sinister despot beard and you’d be good to go.”

“Wonderful. Thank you for your input.”

Ra-Ra-Rasputin, Russia’s greatest love machine …”

“Do be quiet Will.”

“You know, you should make a bit more effort to be polite to me,” I say. “Remember I’m almost certainly the one who’ll be choosing your retirement home.”

You smile slightly. “Noted.”

“So how much longer do you think we’ll need to stay here?”

“I am not sure yet. As long as it takes.”

“You managed it very quickly before.”

“Yes, but some additional precautions are necessary now you are accompanying me.”

“Rough estimate?”

“Perhaps another week. Two at most.”

Although this is exceptionally brief given the complexity of what we’re proposing, it still seems an unbearably long time. Now I’ve committed myself it feels intolerable to wait another week (two at most). I know my anxiety is contradictory, each source competing with the other: I want to get going (because I want to start my new life with you) and I want to get this over with (because if we wait too long I might lose my nerve and change my mind).

“Business as usual in the meantime?” is all I say instead.

“Certainly. Although the proverbial ‘low profile’ is preferable. Perhaps tell people you intend to take a vacation?”

“Okay, yeah, that could work.” A vacation from which I’ll never return. I actually have pathetically little to arrange from my own end: rented accommodation, no family, no close friends that I can’t bear to leave. I sigh again at this rather mournful image.

“What exactly does ‘business as usual’ entail for you at present?” you ask. “Are you going to see Jack Crawford again?”

“I don’t know to be honest. Probably. I haven’t decided yet.” I can’t help smirking. “Speaking of ‘business,' I don’t know how you’ll be able to look that woman in the eye when you go downstairs. She thinks you’ve been up all night with a scruffy male prostitute and a juniper bonsai.”

“I am sure I shall be able to bear the shame,” you reply airily. “It is hardly the worst thing anyone has ever accused me of.”

I huff out a laugh. “No, I suppose not.” You prop yourself against the kitchen counter and gaze off into the distance with one of your blank thousand-yard stares (no doubt inventorying the accusatory highlights from the Golden Years) and I run my eyes over you. You look so imposing and sculpted and impressive; and right now you’re all I have. I realize – with something like latent embarrassment – that I am starting to feel enormously turned on.

There’s a long silence: you gazing into the distance, and me gazing at you. “S-o-o-o,” I suddenly hear myself saying. “If those people downstairs were right; if I actually was a sex worker…?”

You promptly come back to life, swivelling your head in my direction and arching an eyebrow. “If you were?”

I can feel my eyes start to widen in a vaguely manic way with incomprehension at what I’ve just said (because I just said that out loud, and you’ve totally heard me). Oh holy fuck, what am I doing – what possessed me to say that? It’s too late to back out now though (…oh well).

“Yes,” I say after a small pause. “If I was…what would you do with me?”

“What an entirely fascinating and unexpected question,” you reply. You abruptly straighten up and move towards me in that flowing, terrifyingly purposeful way you have; and I experience the familiar surge of overwhelming desire and automatic dread, inadvertently taking a step backwards before realizing that there isn’t actually anywhere to go.

“If you were?” you repeat thoughtfully. “If I were paying you to give me your body; if you were selling yourself to me…What manner of transaction do I think we would have?”

I clear my throat, suddenly nervous and uncertain. Oh God, I can’t quite believe I’ve gone ahead and instigated this. I know I’m blushing. When did I become this shameless? I’m torn between wanting to high-five myself for being uncharacteristically salacious and daring, whilst also suspecting I should immediately call the whole thing off and solemnly apologise for being an enormous pervert. Shit – shit! What if you’re thinking that as well? Maybe that’s why you came over so quickly – you’re about to start lecturing me for being an enormous pervert. Oh God, it’ll be awful. ‘Will Graham,’ you’re going to say, ‘I am disappointed in you. Since when did you become such an enormous…’

“So where would I have been fortunate enough to acquire you from?” you ask, and I promptly stop berating myself (as you) for colossal perversity and focus on your face instead. You smile very slowly then begin to pace round me in a leisurely circle, like something enclosing its prey.

“Would you have been loitering around on a street corner?” you say after a pause. “I suppose I would have driven past and noticed you. Yes, of course I would; you would have stood out immediately wouldn’t you? Hovering a little apart from all the others. Slightly forlorn. Beautiful. Vulnerable. But with that proud defiance in spite of it all that makes you utterly irresistible. ‘There is something about this one’ I would have said to myself. ‘There is something special about him.’ And then I would probably have hesitated, asked myself whether I was making a mistake. ‘I could ultimately regret slowing down,’ I might have thought. ‘Regret stopping. Regret approaching him and letting him into my life.’ But then I would have caught your eye through the glass and it would be impossible to say no to you.”

I don’t answer, just keep staring straight ahead. I’m no longer blushing but my ribcage is rising and falling far quicker than it should and I know you can see it.

“You would walk over immediately wouldn’t you? As soon as I pulled up; there would be no question I was there for you. Would you try and negotiate, do you think, or simply open the door and get straight in?”

I swallow. “I’d get straight in.”

“Yes, I rather thought you might. You wouldn’t be entirely easy about it though would you? Your eyes would have grown large and wide with apprehension, and if I watched you I would be able to see the way your breathing had sped up. Much as it has now.” You reach forward and I flinch slightly, but all you do is take my glasses off and place them on the table. “But you wouldn’t try to escape, would you?” you add after a pause. “Wouldn’t use those long legs to run away? You wouldn’t tell me you had changed your mind. You’d just sit, quiet and still, and allow me to take you away.”

“Yes.”

“Yes. So now I’ve brought you here and you’re stood, trembling slightly, awaiting your instructions. Why do you do this I wonder? Not just for the material benefits; you look resourceful enough to obtain those in other ways if you really wanted to. No, there is an element of choice here isn’t there? It is not just blind desperation. Something about it fulfils a need in you. What could that be, I wonder? What drives a young, capable, educated, moral person into a situation like this?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you not?”

“No.”

“Really? Do you truly not know? Perhaps it is more that you do not want to. At any rate we may have a clearer idea by the time you leave. So, what is your name?”

“Will.”

“And do you have a surname at all?”

“Graham.”

“Do you know what the name ‘William’ means?”

“It means determined,” I say, chanting the old, familiar words. “A warrior.”

“Quite right. Well, William Graham, are you are a warrior?” You trace your finger over the scar on my cheek, faded by now but still visible. “You certainly have the battle scars for it.”

“Yes.”

“Yes what?”

“Yes I do. And yes – I am.”

“Excellent. And what exactly would you say I am?”

“I’m not sure,” I reply slowly. “I don’t have a word for what you are. I haven’t figured it out yet.”

“But you will won’t you?”

This time I look at you. “Yes.”

“Yes, I am quite certain you shall: you appear to be someone who is quite extraordinarily insightful. At least when it comes to others; I am not yet convinced how adept you are at turning all that stunning acumen towards yourself. But you will certainly run your beautiful mind ragged attempting to work me out. I wonder what your conclusions shall be. And what will they tell you about yourself? After all, you were so extremely willing to come with me. Your better judgment told you not to didn’t it? But you ignored it and let me bring you here all the same.”

“Yes.”

“It appears you made an exception, just as I did for you.”

“Yes.”

“How very interesting. And do you think you may come to regret it?”

I look up at you again. “No,” I say. “Not really.”

Your smile grows broader at that, but you don’t pursue it further. “So,” you say instead, “now that you are here I would attempt to make you feel welcome. You have already removed your coat, so I would invite you to take off your jacket as well.” You stand behind me and ease if off my shoulders, and I push back against you. “I would urge you to make yourself comfortable,” you say, running your hands across my hips. “But of course that is essentially impossible, isn’t it? You cannot allow yourself to fully relax, because you don’t yet know what’s going to happen.”

“No.”

“Indeed, you are in the rather unenviable position of being certain only of your own uncertainty. You look rather nervous Will Graham; see how tense the muscles around your jaw are?” You briefly press your fingers against the side of my face, then stroll off to the kitchen area and open one of the cupboards. I stay rooted to the spot, not even turning my head, and you return a few moments later with a glass of wine which you manually place into my hand by folding my fingers around it. I drain it in one go, and you remove the glass and place it on the table.

“I imagine you don’t usually drink when you’re working, do you?” you say. “You need to keep your not inconsiderable wits about you. Especially on a job like this. Because you are such a perceptive boy, and you know that something about me does not quite…sit comfortably with you.”

“Yes.”

“Yes. But you’ve accepted the offer regardless, because you don’t want to appear ungracious – appear rude. Do you?”

“No, I don’t.”

“Of course you don’t. And you are thinking that numbing yourself slightly with alcohol might not be an entirely bad choice, because you don’t know exactly what I am going to ask you do to. Tell me; do you think I am going to hurt you?”

“No…But I know that you could. If you wanted to.”

“And why wouldn’t I want to?” You put your hand on the back of neck and I close my eyes and lean into your touch.

“I don’t know,” I say, a bit breathlessly. I let my head fall back against your shoulder and you press your face against mine.

“Let us consider then. There are several reasons aren’t there? It could be I never intended to, because even though I’ve just met you I find you incredibly fascinating; far too fascinating to damage in anyway. Or it could be that I initially anticipated doing so, but am re-evaluating because it seems a terrible waste to dispose of something as rare and captivating as you appear to be. Or perhaps, after all, it is merely for practical reasons; that causing you any kind of harm in a crowed hotel carries a high risk of detection. What do you think?”

“I don’t know.”

“Don’t you?”

“No.”

“Then we shall have to find out, won’t we?”

“Yes.”

“Yes? So eager aren’t you. Do you have any idea what you’re actually agreeing to?”

This time I moan slightly and push up against you again, increasingly desperate for contact. My throat is completely exposed and you curl your fingers round it, bearing down with a light but persistent pressure.

“You are very trusting aren’t you? I would say that it is rather ill-advised…although it is not naivety, more like a finely-tuned streak of recklessness. You are gambling your wellbeing on the expectation that I won’t harm you; only use you, pay you, and let you go – release you back into the wild.” You move your other hand over my groin, massaging my erection through the fabric of my jeans and I gasp loudly and tip my head back further over your shoulder.

“But you would not meekly submit in any case, would you?” you say.

No, I’d fight you. I’d fight back.”

“Yes indeed – you would fight back. You are a warrior after all, are you not? Who knows, perhaps you might even be successful. There are not many people for whom I would suspend disbelief about the likelihood of such an outcome, Will Graham, but perhaps you would prove to be one of them. What do you think?” You move your hand from my throat, and trail it down my ribs and across my waist. “Despite this somewhat frail exterior, you have rather remarkable reserves of agency. Don’t you? You know how to get your point made.”

“Yes.”

“Oh yes, you do. But do you really think you can trust me?”

“I have to,” I say quietly, “I don’t have a choice.”

“Do you not? But you chose to be here.”

“I didn’t.” My voice sounds raw and urgent. “I just couldn’t choose not to.”

When I say that you make a sighing sound so low it could almost be a hiss then spin me round, quickly and roughly, so that I stumble and have to grab onto you to remain upright. You hold me in place, wrapping your arms round my back, and kiss me in an urgent, painful way: teeth and tongue and hot breaths. I can hear myself – the panting, desperate noises I’m making – but you seem to quickly regain control of yourself and pull away, stroking my hair so roughly it makes my head jerk back.

“Well, I suppose that since I am paying all this money for you I am entitled to see what kind of return I can expect to receive,” you say. You briefly tighten your grip on my hair then let me go entirely and take a step backwards. “Take your clothes off.”

“What, here?” I say stupidly.

“Of course here, I think the floor is good enough for you. I am hardly going to take you into my bedroom as if you were some kind of romantic attachment. I am very fastidious about such things – only someone tremendously special would warrant such treatment. Do you think you could convince me you are special enough?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“I applaud your self-confidence; we shall have to see won’t we? In the meantime you are going to have to work very hard to make your case. Get undressed.”

You lean back against the couch with your arms folded and I take a few deep breaths, trying to reorient myself. Oh God everything’s so intense. You’re so intense. You’re all-consuming, and it doesn’t even matter anymore because I want you to consume me…and I want to let you. My hands are shaking slightly and I end up fumbling over my shirt buttons, but I mutely obey your instructions then shuffle back a few paces so you can look at me.

“Very good,” you say crisply. “This is all extremely promising so far. However before we proceed I want to ascertain how clean you are – would you be very affronted if I inspected you?”

“What the fu…Yes, actually. Yes I would.”

“Really? Well, I’m afraid you are just going to have to grit your teeth and tolerate it,” you reply dismissively. “One can never be too careful, and I have no idea where you have previously been – or with whom. Hold out your arms please. No, not like that; turn them over, palms upwards.” I grudgingly do as you’ve told me, and you run a finger down each forearm.

“No track marks,” you say. “So, exactly as I supposed, you are not supporting a drug habit. That is one of the more common exigencies that would drive someone to do this – but not you. Although you are nearly thin enough for it.” You smooth your hand over my cheek. “You have attractive bone structure, but it is rather too near the surface. You have not had anyone to take care of you, and you clearly do not take care of yourself.”

“I do, actually.”

You ignore this, instead ruffling your hands through my hair. “Your hair is very clean isn’t it? In fact you are generally very clean. So, Will Graham: who cares enough to wash but not enough to eat, and who doesn’t use drugs but who needs to satisfy another type of habit…are you at all repenting of your decision to get into my car?”

“No.”

“Good. That’s very good Will. Now, tell me, how detailed and extensive should my examination of you be? I would like to hear your opinion.”

I look at you a bit helplessly and shake my head.

“What would you advise if you were in my position?” you persist, merciless as ever.

“I don’t know.”

“Why not?”

“I’m not in your position, am I?”

“You cannot imagine it? But you appear to be so very imaginative.”

“I…I don’t know.” You lean back and look at me. “I don’t.”

“Don’t you? Very well, I shall have to use my discretion then won’t I? Perhaps I should tell you to get on your hands and knees and spread your legs for me; what do you think? Ah, you are blushing. The idea both embarrasses and excites you doesn’t it? Then I think that is where we shall have to begin. Get on the floor please.”

I blink at you idiotically, stupefied and dazed with arousal, and too overwhelmed to immediately process what you’re saying. You raise your eyebrows and then nod curtly towards the rug, and I let my legs fold under me, almost gratefully, and buckle onto the floor. You kneel behind me and run one hand up and down my back.

“You are entirely exposed like this,” you say. “How does it make you feel?”

“Exposed.”

You slap me, quite hard, on the side of my leg and I make a yelping noise. “Do not be flippant,” you say sharply.

I draw in a ragged breath. Breathe out. I need one of your grounding exercises (complete shit that they were): say my name, my location, note the time. Draw a fucked up clock. “I feel defenceless,” I say at last, and I hate how unsteady I sound. “Panicked, like I can’t protect myself.”

“Yes, indeed, because you can’t control yourself. If you could you would not be in this situation. You want to protect yourself from yourself, and you can’t.”

“No.” It’s impossible to keep the slight tremor out of my voice.

As soon as I say that you abruptly lean forward so your chest is bracketed against me and kiss my temple. “Then I suggest you do not try,” you murmur into my hair. “You are so striking in your imperfection. Embrace the strength your vulnerability gives you.”

I moan something unintelligible in response, and you press your face against the back of my neck so you’re speaking directly into my skin. “You are indomitable,” you say quietly. “Only a fool would mistake your vulnerability for weakness; it is going to be the origin of all your advancement, audacity and alteration. Hard things shatter; remain lithe and adaptable and you will never truly break. Revel in your inner strength and be uniquely you.” Then you pull away again and resume stroking my back as if the past minute never happened.

So,” you say, “I believe I was about to examine you. Are you going to let me, or are you going to get dressed and leave?”

I groan again, stunned and unsteadied by the intensity of it all, and allow my head to droop forward so it’s hanging limply between my shoulders. “I’ll let you. You can…I want you to.”

“Excellent.” You push my legs wider apart and I hear you spit onto your fingers – the gesture is so madly incongruous that I raise my eyebrows in spite of myself – then give a long, helpless sigh as you slide one long finger straight inside me.

“Does that hurt?”

“No. No it feels…ahh, it feels good.”

“If anything hurts you will tell me immediately.”

“Why? So you can stop, or make it worse?”

“Clever boy. You will have to wait and see, won’t you?”

I shake my head in response, then moan loudly as you twist your finger round and the stroking and pressing becomes more insistent. Your skin feels so warm. Oh God, it’s really good, I could probably come just from this. Just from one of your fingers inside me, I think it would be enough…a bit longer and it’s going to be enough.

“Your muscles are rather tight,” you say, almost conversationally. “You are not used to this are you? It is not something you offer regularly in the course of your occupation?”

“No…never to anyone else.”

“But you will to me.”

“To you. Yes.”

“Yes – and very enthusiastically.” You take your other hand off my back and rub my stomach, which is embarrassingly slick and sticky from where I’ve leaked pre-come over myself. “You are an impetuous boy aren’t you; look at the mess you are making. Tell me, do all your clients excite you this much?”

“No, God no. Just you.”

“Hmmm. How extremely gratifying; you really are quite irresistible aren’t you? I think I am going to keep you after all. However, since you have been kneeling down it seems you have managed to dirty the floor as well as yourself. It is hardly fair to expect the hotel maids to deal with it; you are going to have to clean it up yourself.” You pause, slightly sadistically. “With your mouth.”

“What?”

“Please do not make me repeat myself.”

Fucking shit. I can feel myself flushing; partly with the utter shame of it, but also from something like guilty humiliation that I’m not going to refuse. And it’s not just because I asked you to start this whole scene in the first place and it’s a bit late to start complaining; it’s because you want to see me do it, and that means I want to do it too.

“Go ahead,” you say. “Taste yourself.”

I hesitate again before obeying, dropping down to basically lap against the rug and feeling fantastically wanton and depraved, grinding my hips against your hand the entire time. There isn’t much so it doesn’t take long. What if I come on you later and you make me lick that up as well? Oh God, shit, I totally would…you’d run your hands through my hair while I was doing it and tell me how beautifully brazen and shameless I am. I emit an involuntary whine at the thought of it, and in turn you make a sound that’s close to growling, pressing your face between my shoulder blades.

“The sight of you doing that…” you say. You reach round with your other hand and roughly jerk my head up, sliding your thumb between my lips. “What else can you use your mouth for? Should I ask you to get on your knees for me? Stroke your jaw so I can feel your beautiful mouth moving around me as I push into you. Would you do that for me?”

“Yes. God, yes, I would.”

“Do you know how to do it? Not just in the abstract, but practically.”

I blush again. “No…not really.”

“No, I suppose you are more accustomed to being the recipient aren’t you? Rather unusual for someone in your profession; even in your deficiencies it would seem that you manage to be unique. I shall have to teach you sometime won’t I; would you like that?”

“Oh yes,” I say faintly.

“Yes what?”

“Yes please.”

“Well, perhaps it is for the best in any case because I want to have you tonight and one might have ended up precluding the other. I imagine you brought your own supplies didn’t you? In that hideous bag you have been carting around.”

I nod instead of answering, trying to ground and steady myself by focusing on the way your hand feels on my back; how deft your touch is and the slight calluses on your thumb and index finger. Then you shift it upwards to curl round my neck again, and your fingers are so long and dextrous that I’m abruptly aware of how you could crush my throat right now without any effort at all. Oh shit, fuck…fucking hell, it’s so intense. I make another inadvertent whining noise, then bite my lip to try and hide it.

“Excellent,” is all you say. “You have an admirable sense of forward planning. Remain exactly where you are please.”

You move away to retrieve the lube from the backpack, then I hear the rustle of fabric as you get undressed yourself. You deliberately take your time about it, letting me simmer into a desperate state of feverish anticipation – and it takes an tremendous amount of self-control to obey your instructions and not simply turn round and yell at you to fuck me before I pass out.

Please,” I can hear myself saying. “Please, please, please.” Oh God, I didn’t want to beg…I promised myself I wouldn’t beg. I faintly hope that I’ve managed to sound irritated rather than frantic. But ultimately I still can’t stop myself, the words beginning to run together until I’m just groaning rhythmically, and you place a steadying hand on my back. Your touch is gentler than before, and it suddenly feels that whatever game we’ve been playing is starting to wind down: replaced by the older, far more familiar one, of you being you and me being me, and still no clear idea of what the rules are except that we’ll be playing it every single day for the rest of our lives.

“Stay as you are, on your hands and knees,” you say at last. “I want to watch myself taking you.” Your tone is incredibly possessive and I moan loudly and shamelessly as you spread me open and slide deep inside me with a single hard thrust.

“Oh yes, yes,” I say. I brace myself on my forearms, tilting my hips and pushing back almost desperately.

“Perfect.” Even your voice is no longer totally steady. “You take it so well, don’t you? How very striking you are. I wish you could see how you look right now. So responsive. Receptive. As if your body really craves me inside you.”

“I do. God. Don’t stop.”

“So eager. Look at you; how close you are already, yet we have barely even begun.”

“I know, I know. You feel so good.”

“Oh yes?” you say caressingly. “How much more of me do you think you could take?” You run your finger round the skin where we’re joined together, giving a sudden abrupt push, and my entire body goes rigid as I realize what you’re suggesting.

“No!” I sound panicked, like I’m coming undone (I am). “I can’t. Don’t, please, I can’t do that. It’s too much. I can’t take that much, I can’t,” but even as I’m saying it I’m arching my back and pushing my hips towards you.

“You are quite certain you can’t?”

“Yes. No.” I’m whimpering nonsensically. “Oh God, I just want you, I want you.”

“I know you do,” you reply. You wait a few more seconds to see if I’m really going to say no, then reach over for the lube with your other hand. “And you know you can tell me to stop if you need to – although perhaps that is an unnecessary precaution, because I do not think you will.”

You do it extremely slowly, stroking my back with your other hand and pressing down on it in a soothing way every time I cry out. You begin with just the tip of your index finger, coaxing and insinuating to make me accept the intrusion until you’re inside me up to your knuckle – my body stretched around you in an almost impossibly combined circumference. I can hear myself gasping, but the main thing I’m really aware of is whiteness: spectral white noise filling my head, white hot heat in my body, white light sparking in front of my eyes; and when you thrust your hips again I strike my hand against the floor and practically scream.

“Oh fuck, fuck, it’s so…it’s…oh, I can really feel you. Oh God.”

“So. You like it after all don’t you? How remarkable you are.”

“It hurts.” It does, it does, and I don’t even care.

“Yes indeed,” you say. “Exquisite pain.”

“You like it too,” I gasp out through gritted teeth. “You like hurting me. You always have.”

“Because I know you can take it. No matter how much I’ve hurt you it’s only ever made you stronger.”

“Shit, keep telling yourself that.”

“It is true – your courage is infectious. You bear pain admirably.”

Oh fuck, of all the crappy awful timing. “Don’t,” I say piteously. “Don’t do this now. I don’t want to think…it’s too…for God’s sake, for once why can’t you just stop.”

You ignore me, holding the back of my neck as I struggle against your grip and letting me moan and writhe with increasingly helpless pleasure as you fuck me into submission. “All the agonies and loss and senseless suffering which has gripped you by the throat over the years,” you say, “yet see how every adversity nurtured some latent power? You have an uncontainable instinct that holds you up, elevates you into something extraordinary.” You push into me again, almost violently, and I cry out over and over as you lean forward and whisper directly into my ear: “Why do you think I risked everything to come back for you?”

Your hips are slamming up against me and it’s like your voice is literally coiling into my head – I’m so filled by you that I can’t contain it all, can’t think, can’t be, there’s nothing except you – and I can feel myself starting to lose it completely. I’m aware of the noises I’m making, breathy and broken and desperate, begging you to fuck me (please, please, please), telling you how good it feels, how much I need it, pounding my whole weight against you and frantically trying to chase a release that feels just seconds away. You hardly even need to move now, I’m doing all the work for both of us. The awareness of it all is phenomenal, as if every nerve is alight: nothing hurts, everything hurts; it’s the best thing, it’s the worse thing; I’m blessed and cursed and damned and exalted and I don’t even need to touch myself because simply fucking myself on you is going to be enough to make me come. My fingers are scrabbling helplessly against the floor – arms quivering so badly it’s becoming difficult to hold myself up – and you eventually have to lean down and hook an arm round my torso to stop me pitching over. My skin’s so slick with sweat your hand slides over me, and the when you dig your teeth against the back of my neck I can feel my whole body begin to tremble and tighten around you, the sensation more than enough to start tipping me over the edge.

“I’m close,” I gasp out, “I’m so close, ahh, I’m going to come.”

“Beautiful,” you say – and then immediately pull away from me. I make a small, bereft wailing noise at the sudden loss, pushing back into an empty space. I can feel myself blinking in confusion; my eyelashes damp with unshed tears of pleasure/pain and my throat raw and hoarse.

“Oh fuck, no,” I say desperately. “What are you doing? Please don’t. Please...I need it, I need…”

“It’s all right I know exactly what you need. Not like this though – I want to see you. I want you to be patient and wait a little longer. Can you do that for me?”

You lean over and kiss my shoulder blade, then move away entirely so you can sit upright with your back against the couch. I stay slumped where I am, panting and shaking and too overwhelmed to do anything, and in the end you have to reach out for me and lift me onto your lap; gripping my hips and carefully guiding me down until you’re deep inside me again. You keep your eyes fixed on mine the entire time and I can feel my own eyes widening at how feverishly intense it is, trembling and gulping in desperate gasps of air as you run your hands up and down the ridge of my spine.

“Breathe Will,” you say quietly.

“I can’t, it’s…it’s just so…”

“Just breathe with me.” You give me a few seconds to calm down, and I hide my face in the side of your neck. “Is this good for you?”

“Oh yes, oh God. God.”

“Move your hips so you can really feel it.” You put your hands round my waist to help me, and I make an experimental rocking movement.

“Perfect,” you say. “I want you to ride me like this. Take your pleasure.”

“Oh yes,” I sigh into your hair, “yes, yes, yes.” You gently push me upright so it’s easier for me to move and I arch myself towards you, almost sobbing at how good it feels as we hit a perfect rhythm: you curving up to meet me whenever I push down. You kiss me with incredible care and thoroughness – brutal-hard, then tender-gentle – and right now it’s as if there’s nothing alive in the world except for us: no other sound, no other movement, nothing except for the helpless gasps I’m making, the sound of my hot damp skin sliding against yours, your occasional murmured words of praise or encouragement. It’s like scouring a piece of wood, burnishing and sanding off one another’s splintered edges each time we touch. Christ, why weren’t we doing this years ago? We should have done this years ago. We’ve wasted so much time. I suddenly feel a bit desolate, weighed down with the silent reproach of all those miserable, twisted, misused years. The sense of them is so acute it’s as if they’re actually stood there watching me: shrouded and tattered and accusing, like as many dead bodies.

“Open your eyes Will,” you say softly – and I realize you can tell that’s something’s shifted; that I’m retreating into myself. You say my name reverently, as if it’s something sacred; my dull, ordinary name, which pronounced by you is elevated into something hallowed and extraordinary. “Stay here,” you add. “Stay right here with me.”

You’re gazing up at me with a very intense expression, and when my eyes meet yours you reach up to stroke my face. I take your hand, entwining our fingers together; and I look down at you, staring up at me. Your eyes are very bright, almost glistening, and it’s like you’re seeing me: stripping back the layers and artifice and really seeing me for everything that I am – everything that’s flawed and fucked up and crumbling – as if it’s endlessly artful and fascinating, something beautiful. Your life’s endeavour, your masterpiece. A work of art. I say your name but you don’t respond, just carry on gazing at me with your lips very slightly parted…and I feel with a sudden surge of clarity, fierce and unmistakable, that right now I’m everything to you. Right now I’m your whole world. In that one look you’ve cut out your heart and put it in my hands.

The awareness of this – the power it gives me, the openness it confers on you – is overwhelming. I fall into you, whimpering slightly, at exactly the same moment as you move forwards so you can pull me against you and wrap your arms tightly round my back. We rock against each other for a while, searching out each other’s mouths almost frantically, then you hook your arms over my shoulders and lift me up and forwards, pushing me onto my back so you’re on top of me. The way I’m confined by your weight makes me feel safe, and I wrap my legs round your waist, trying to pull you as close as possible.

“We are going to be so good together,” you murmur into my hair.

“We already are.”

“And always have been. I knew you would come to me eventually. I was always prepared to wait; to wait for as long as it took.”

“You were?”

You draw back a little so you can look at me, then smile slowly and smooth my damp hair out of my eyes. “Of course,” you say. “You were worth waiting for. So much potential Will. But a piece of artistry requires infinite time and patience.” You push into me and I moan softly and tip my head back so you can kiss my throat. “Ho visto l'angelo nel marmo e scolpito fino a quando l'ho liberato,” you say.

“I don’t know what you mean. Oh God, don’t stop, that feels so good.”

Michelangelo’s words to Benedetto Varchi. In regards to creation; the virtues of patience and vision, and the necessity of waiting: I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”

I go very quiet, just gazing up at you, and you stare back with that faint, inscrutable smile on your face.

“You’ve been waiting a long time,” I say eventually. “You’ve been waiting years. I thought you’d given up on me…Maybe you should have done.”

“No.”

“It’s won’t be easy,” I say quietly. “It can’t.” It can’t and almost certainly won’t. Because you frighten me. And I frighten myself. And I don’t know how to be with you because I don’t know what you want me to be.

“Naturally,” is all you reply.

I remain staring up at you. You have that look in your eyes again, and I suddenly remember my words from years ago: “You’re right, we are just alike. You’re as alone as I am. And we’re both alone without each other.”

A long beat of silence, just staring, our eyes skimming over each other’s faces. We both look sad; we shouldn’t be sad right now. “Please.” My voice has gone very low and you have to lean in to hear. “Promise me you’ll never stop waiting.”

There’s a pause, then you repeat my name as if it’s the words of a prayer and press your forehead against mine. And I desperately cling onto you, grinding up against the heat of your body and finally having the most intense orgasm of my life with one of your hands cradling my head and your other arm wrapped underneath my back. I can’t stop shaking afterwards and you smile down at me, stroking my face and murmuring something in a language I don’t recognize while I gaze pleadingly into your eyes the entire time and try to silently convey everything that’s going on inside.

All this started with a salacious hypothetical: What kind of transaction would we have? Me trying to be daring; gleefully pushing my boundaries in what was supposed to be a mindless sex game and which you’ve manged to weave into something imbued with a far deeper meaning. Because the simple truth is that I really am giving myself to you – mind, body and soul – and I think I know what you’re giving me in return. I’m bartering with you for the biggest thing I have to offer anyone – My Self – and you’re repaying me in kind. We’re both just material beings after all; even you – easily tattered and rended and difficult to patch back together. But we were ready to die for each other and now we’re ready to live for each other as well.

Neither of us will ever, ever say it: I love you. But it’s there all the same…and I know that you can feel it too.

*****

Afterwards I fall asleep on the floor with my head on your chest, waking up after an unspecified time to the realization that you’re picking me up and depositing me on the sofa. I mumble bad-temperedly and you laugh.

“I was going to put you in the bed,” you say, “but I knew you would wake up before I could manage it and be outraged.”

“I don’t like being carried.”

“Oh yes,” you say, “your infamous independence.” You smile at me and I smile back, and it strikes me that while neither of us are going to make any direct mention of how gloriously intense that all was, we’re still both aware and are pretty damn pleased about it.

You raise an eyebrow as if acknowledging what I’m thinking (surely not though…not even you. For God’s sake), then crouch down next to the sofa and ruffle my hair. “Look how flushed and bright-eyed you are,” you say fondly. “You look wonderfully debauched like this. Rather elegant too – elegiac, yet still bold and mischievous.” You give me a slightly malevolent smirk. “Like the Sidler etchings of the Victorian rent boys.”

“I don’t think Victorian rent boys have the monopoly on this.”

“Perhaps not. But there is an undeniable air of waywardness; one of the ‘panthers’ which whom Oscar Wilde used to dine.”

Dine?” I say. “You just can’t help yourself can you?” This is actually an understatement; I suspect you have entered some secret competition which requires bringing oblique cannibalism references into every conversation.

“Where you are concerned,” is all you reply, “evidently not.”

“Anyway, how do you know what Victorian rent boys looked like? Did you see them first hand? You’re thinking back to your youth aren’t you; all Hansom cabs and gaslight.” I pretend to affect surprise. “Were you Jack the Ripper?”

“My dear Will, you must realize that this constant harping on my age does not reflect particularly well on yourself. It means you are obliged to add ‘gerontophilia’ to your existing list of mental peculiarities.”

“I may as well, I suppose. The more the merrier. Anyway, what about your peculiarities – does everyone in Victorian London go to so much trouble to satisfy their own sex workers?”

“When they look like you then almost assuredly yes.”

“You should ask me for your money back. Not that I’d give it you, you understand, but you should at least ask.”

“Well, the sight of you in flagrante is so beautiful it really its own reward.” You tug me forwards so there’s room for you on the couch too then lie behind me and drape one arm over my chest, lightly trailing your fingers over my skin – and it makes me realize how touch-starved I’ve been, because at times these soft, simple caresses feel almost as good as the sex.

“I am going to have you again before we leave,” you say. “Repeatedly. How much do you think you could take?”

I have a sudden lurid image of myself being fucked up against a wall, so exhausted and sated I can barely stay upright, and you wrapping your arms round me and using all your incredible strength to hold me in place. The thought of it is an almost unbearable turn on.

“I could take it,” I say.

“I am quite certain you could, although I give you fair warning that you will barely be able to walk straight afterwards.”

“Just as well I don’t have anywhere to be then isn’t it?” I roll over a bit to give you more room and notice that the newspaper is only a few feet away, still facing up on page 4. “Oh God,” I say in feigned horror, “Jack just saw me come.” Then my phone suddenly goes off, shrill and insistent, and I jump so sharply I knock the back of my head against your chin.

“Dammit,” I say irritably, “who the hell’s calling me at 3am?”

“There is only one way to find out,” you reply in a bored voice, as if random calls in the middle of the night are the most tediously mundane thing imaginable. I disentangle myself from your arms, grumbling under my breath the whole time, and try to hunt down my cell. This turns out to be easier said than done, because it’s in my pocket, and my pocket is attached to my jeans, and God only knows where they ended up – and by the time I finally locate it (and have stubbed my foot on the table and yelled ‘shit!’ and you’ve closed your eyes and adopted a look of nobly resigned suffering more suitable for a martyr tied to a stake), it’s only seconds away from going to voicemail. I frown at the screen; the number’s not withheld, but neither is it a recognized one from my contact list.

“Hello?” I say cautiously. For a surreal moment I imagine it’s going to be another of the silent calls, and have to remind myself that this can never happen again, because from now on we’ll be together.

“William,” replies a quavering voice, “is that you?”

Oh for God’s sake. “Hey there Mr Haversham,” I say, struggling not to sound irritated. “You okay?”

“I’m sorry to disturb you at this hour, but, well…”

“Don’t worry, it’s fine” (it’s not). “What’s the problem?”

“Well…well I heard a commotion out front. So I went to take a look…”

“Yes?” I say, with a level of feigned patience that’s fucking epic.

“I mean I probably shouldn’t have but…I…oh, Son, it’s your car.”

I immediately go cold. Christ of course it was going to be something serious, how could I be so complacent? All the sex has made me stupid. “What about my car? Mr Haversham? What’s happened?”

“Someone’s gone for it William…I mean really gone for it. Slashed the tires, smashed the windscreen. And, well, I’m sorry to say they’ve just been real mean and splashed red paint all over. Everywhere. Looks just like blood. You never saw something so awful.” (Well…to be honest I probably have). Oh fuck. I glance at you and you raise your eyebrows.

“And…and…”

“What? Mr Haversham? What else?”

Teeth, William.” His voice spirals into a wail. “Human teeth. Just scattered there on the hood.”

“Jesus.”

“I’ve never seen anything like that, it was…oh, it, was…”

“Mr Haversham, please, it’s okay but I need you to think carefully. Was there a note anywhere? Did you see a note? In capital letters? Did you see anything like that?”

“No. No…I don’t think so. No note. Oh I don’t know! I don’t know William.”

“It’s okay,” I say soothingly, “it’s fine,” (Christ, it’s clearly not, but what else can I possibly tell him?). “Are you in your apartment now?”

“Yes, yes. I’ve locked the door.”

“Good. That’s very good, that’s great. Have you called the police?”

“No William. Oh, I should have done that shouldn’t I? I oughtn’t to have called you first, I should have…”

“It’s okay, it’s fine, you did the right thing. You’ve done everything right Mr Haversham. I’ll call them now.” (I won’t. I need to see the scene myself – undisturbed and first-hand – before a load of district cops have tampered the fuck out of it). “I’m not in the city at the moment, but I’ll come back first thing tomorrow. I mean today, this morning. Stay in your apartment in the meantime and don’t open the door if anyone knocks.”

“You never saw anything like it William,” he says piteously, and I consider reassuring him on that point before realizing that it will accomplish exactly two things (‘jack’ and ‘shit’) in terms of making him feel better ('Fake blood and human teeth! Why, my dear Sir, that’s nothing. Let me tell you about the time I…'). Oh fuck, I’m getting hysterical. Do not get hysterical. I murmur a few more soothing platitudes then hang up and place the phone on the table very slowly and carefully.

You pull yourself upright and look at me with your head slightly to one side. “What has happened Will?”

Oh God, of all the conversations in all the world, this is not one I can have while I’m naked. I grab your coat and wrap it round my shoulders, and you wait patiently. “My car’s been vandalized,” I say at last. “You know, just the usual – tires, windscreen, red paint and human teeth.”

“Oh,” you reply. And this is such a fabulous level of understatement that I give a snorting laugh and immediately feel calmer. I can’t help appreciating the way you just take this in your stride rather than losing your shit and freaking out like anyone else would (and which I am fairly tempted to do myself). I take a deep breath, encouraging myself to relax, trying to get back into the version of myself from five minutes ago (the real version). It’s weird really, like the late night phone call reignited an entire response set from months ago. It’s fine, I think, soothing the stubbornly frightened part of myself in the same way I soothed Mr Haversham. Everything’s different to how it was before; you’ve forgotten that you’re not on your own anymore.

“Matthew Brown?” you say.

“I’m not sure yet. Probably.”

“But not definitely? Interesting.”

I laugh again. “I suppose that’s one way of putting it.”

“Oh yes, most certainly it is interesting. And not, I suppose, entirely unexpected.”

“I’ll have to go back and check it. You know that right?”

“Indeed you must go back.” You stretch your arms behind your head. “Not least because Jack Crawford will come to hear of it otherwise and assume some harm has befallen you. It would be extremely inconvenient to arouse his attention quite so soon.”

“Yeah,” I say gloomily. “Matthew Brown sure has epically shit timing.”

“Matthew Brown is epically execrable in most instances. No artistry at all.”

“If it was him.” Images of the inspector (acting on Matthew Brown’s half-witted behalf?) flash into my mind, closely followed by Sanderson’s venomous, crooning voice: “from what I hear it’s not me you should be worrying about”. Christ, this sucks. Why, for once in my shitty life, can’t things be straightforward? I just want us to be able to leave. Now. Right away. Why can’t we leave…is it really that much to ask? We’ve already gone through so much to get to this point, several lifetimes worth of trial and misery. I look at you a bit helplessly and you give me a grim smile.

“I suppose things will become clear,” you say. “They must. It cannot be long now.”

“Yes, I know…It’s going to really start soon isn’t it?”

“Oh yes,” you say. “It is going to start. It has already started.” You stretch again, like an enormous jungle cat, and frown into the distance. “We must compose ourselves: the curtain has risen and the performance is ready to begin.”

Chapter Text

It’s too early to go back to the apartment, but I’ll never be able to sleep now. I pace around for bit in an aimless kind of way; then belatedly realize I’m still wearing your coat – and the fact I’m naked underneath it makes me bear an unfortunate resemblance to a sex offender primed for a spot of indecent exposure – so opt to have a shower instead so at least I can be naked with dignity. I flail under the water for ages, dousing each aching muscle in turn and relishing how spacious and gleaming the stall is after the squalor of the apartment; and get so absorbed that I don’t notice you’ve prowled in behind me until I feel your chest pressed against my back.

You don’t say anything and neither do I. You just reach out for the soap then rub it between your hands and start washing me in a leisurely, casual way; as if it’s the most natural thing in the world, as if we’ve been doing it for years. Your hands are so coiled and powerful – even engaged in a soothing gesture like this it’s incredibly obvious – but the slipperiness allows your palms to glide straight over my skin and I can feel my eyes flutter closed with blissfulness at how good it feels. Oh God, I’m clearly insatiable; if it were physically possible I’d be hard again by now (and no doubt proffering myself to you on all fours). Although I bet you probably could, if you wanted – no doubt your refractory period is supernatural, just like everything else. I sigh happily, which turns into a gasp when you trail your hand down my spine and gently slip your finger inside me. It’s not entirely clear whether you’re trying to start something (re. a supernatural refractory period) or you’re just being incredibly conscientious in the task of cleaning me up; but I still let out a low moan and let my head fall against your shoulder, trembling slightly, and arching my back to meet the long slide of your finger. “That feels really good,” I say quietly.

You wrap your other arm round my torso and lightly rub your cheek against mine. “I know; you like it so much. Do you remember the first time I touched you like this?”

“Y-e-s.”

You make an amused noise then kiss my temple and withdraw your hand, reaching out again to the caddy for the hotel’s complimentary shampoo. You begin washing my hair without being asked (as if I’m a five year old), and I’m about to snap at you to stop before realizing that I actually quite like it.

“Your hair is getting long again,” you say.

“Hmmm, I know. I’ll cut it.” I press up against you without even thinking about it, and screw my eyes closed to stop the shampoo seeping in. “Maybe I could shave it off,” I add as an afterthought. I suppose I should really; it’s such an easy way of altering my appearance. Although I don’t even bother suggesting the same to you because you never will (in fact you’d probably rather be arrested first).

“No, it is fine,” you say. “It rather suits you. You know the trains will begin running soon? You could leave in just over an hour.”

“Yeah, I will.”

“Do not be too downcast. This is extraordinarily inconvenient, but hopefully will not delay our departure.”

“God I hope not,” I say gloomily. But surely it will; how can it not? I tip my head back slightly and you brush your fingers over my cheekbone. “I’m still waiting for you to admit it, by the way.”

“Admit what?”

“That leaving my car behind was terrible advice.”

“Oh yes,” you say. “It was rather terrible, wasn’t it?”

“It was disastrously bad.”

“Well, every cloud has its proverbial silver lining. Imagine all the satisfaction you are going to derive from reminding me of it at regular intervals for the rest of our natural lives.”

“Every hour, on the hour.”

“Excellent.” You push my head under the spray to rinse the shampoo off (although possibly just as revenge) and I squirm a bit under your hands.

“You should really use conditioner,” you add.

“Ugh, that is never going to happen.”

“It would make your hair a little less…”

I prod your leg with my foot. “I suggest you choose the forthcoming adjective with extreme care.”

“…unruly.”

“To be honest unruly hair is very low on my list of priorities right now,” I say with some irritation. Then I brace myself for the inevitable pompous sermon about how There Is No Reason To Appear Anything Less Than Soigné At All Times, but you’ve obviously lost interest in my hair (I can’t blame you…it’s as boring as fuck when all’s said and done) because you suddenly spin me round so we’re facing each other. My feet slide perilously on the tiles and you have to grab my arm to stop me falling over; your grip’s so tight it makes me wince.

“You know, you could always just ask me to turn round,” I say. “You don’t need to manhandle me every time you want my attention.” I briefly consider the attractions of getting to the point where I could manhandle you right back, but promptly abandon it on realizing I couldn’t possibly be bothered to commit to the years of weight-lifting it would inevitably require.

Naturally enough you completely ignore my motion for cessation (forthwith) of all manhandling. “I was intrigued by what you said before,” you say.

I push my hair out my eyes and squint at you through the shower spray. “I said a lot of things.”

“When you told me that you didn’t choose to be here, you just couldn’t choose not to be. You were being genuine.”

“I was. I know.”

“I should like to hear more about that.”

I can’t help groaning inwardly, because the shit has just royally hit the fan and typically you’re more interested in opening up my head than having a practical conversation about the shovelling of said shit. I reach behind me and turn the water off. “I don’t know what you expect me to say.”

“I do not expect anything in particular,” you reply. You follow me out of the shower and casually knot a towel round your hips. “I am merely interested in whatever you might wish – or not wish – to divulge.”

I sigh a bit and grab a towel myself, drying off quickly and efficiently (unlike you, who’ll just preen around for ages in a robe like a Geisha girl) and attempting to delay for a bit longer – because quite frankly I can’t face having an earnest conversation about determinism at 4am after some maniac’s dumped teeth and fake blood on my car. Although if I’m going to be living with you on a permanent basis then I suppose I should get used to it…the expression ‘thin end of the wedge’ comes to mind. I grab some clean clothes from my bag and start getting dressed, feeling increasingly self-conscious at the fact that you’re blatantly stood there staring at me. In the end I can’t bear it anymore. “Please don’t,” I say.

“Don’t what?”

“Do…this. Do what you’re currently doing.”

You don’t reply, just continue pinning me in place with one of your intensely contemplative looks, and I sigh again because I know what you’re thinking; you’re remembering what I said to you once before, in another city, another country (another lifetime): “Even as the possibility of free will dissipates, my experience of it remains the same. I continue to feel and act as though I have it.”

“I know what I’m doing,” I finally say. “I have made a conscious decision.”

“You are conscious of your choice, yes. Of the actions which will result – less so.”

“Perhaps.”

“And of the causes through which those actions are influenced, even less.”

“I guess. Can you honestly not say the same? Can anyone?”

Of course you don’t answer this, just look thoughtful. “I expect you would like to renounce it?” you say at last. “Your volition. Your responsibility.”

“No. No, I wouldn’t actually. Okay, so maybe I’m not fully aware of all the determinants which have brought us here – brought me here – but it doesn’t change the fact it’s an autonomous choice.” You’re still staring. God, this is like being in some shitty philosophy seminar. “I said I wanted to leave with you and I meant it,” I add.

You don’t say anything in response, and I drop my eyes first and begin fastening my shirt. Vaguely I wonder whether you’re concerned I’m going to change my mind (again), but somehow it’s difficult to imagine you being plagued with the type of insecurities that normal people have.

“I’m going to collect some more clothes when I go back,” I eventually say, a bit awkwardly. “Did you leave anything you need picking up?” I don’t expect that you actually have, but the silence is becoming oppressive and it’s the only thing I can think of to break it that doesn’t involve teeth, determinism, or the disclosure that your manically intense stare is starting to freak me out.

“No, I brought everything with me. And do not take too many clothes. Jack will go through your apartment when he realizes you are missing and you do not want to arouse his suspicions. Make sure your leave your passport somewhere he can easily find it.”

“Yes, I know.”

“I will begin arrangements for a new passport today. I shall need a signature from you which I can copy. Not your true one, obviously.”

“Obviously. Why do you feel it necessary to tell me not to use my real signature on a fake passport?”

“You are quite right. I apologize.”

“It’s fine,” I say, because it’s suddenly occurred to me that maybe – just maybe – you’re genuinely concerned about getting out the country successfully and this brooding over details is your way of showing it. The fact I’m inferring such mundane concerns (just minutes after discounting you as capable of them) makes me realize, with a jolt of surprise, that I’m attempting to humanize you.

“Is there a pen anywhere?” is all I say.

You hand me yours, a gleaming Montblanc fountain pen with a slim gold line running down both sides. I blot the paper on the first few attempts.

“It is because the nib adapts to the angle and style of its owner’s handwriting,” you say. “The pen is a monogamous instrument.”

“Not anymore. It’s just cheated on you.”

“It is at your disposal,” you say with a smile.

I smile back vaguely (because only you could anthropomorphize an overpriced pen with such impressive gravitas…for some reason Hamlet declaiming to Yorick’s skull comes to mind), then push back the chair and begin ferreting through the backpack for Jack’s gun before realizing – too late – that it’s wrapped in the t-shirt I gave you the first night you came back. I don’t want you to know I was sentimental enough to bring it, so in desperation position myself so my ass is blocking your view in the vague hope you’d rather look at that instead.

“Excellent,” you say, “I was about to suggest the gun myself.” Oh for God’s sake. You’re going to say something aren’t you? Any minute now…any goddamn second. I hastily try to fabricate an alternative sentimental scenario for packing it, but the only thing that comes to mind is that it was the treasured possession of some (unspecified) dearly departed, and I can’t help feeling that the truth is actually preferable to claiming I’m carrying round a festering Queens of the Stone Age t-shirt because it once belonged to a beloved corpse. At any rate the agonizing is a waste of time because you don’t mention it after all. Instead, entirely as predicted, you pull on one of the hotel robes and stretch yourself out on the sofa with your eyes closed like a commercial photoshoot for luxury living. I gaze at you, a bit wistfully, and can’t help thinking what a better complement the hipster from yesterday would make as opposed to me with my nightmares, night sweats, unruly hair, festering t-shirts, and propensity for attracting maniacal stalkers with fistfuls of human teeth to merrily scatter on my car like fucking confetti. Not that you care about the maniacs, I amend to myself; in fact you probably quite like them. As for the rest though, God knows. I suppose I could at least cut my hair and try to acquire some clothes that make me look less like a cerebral lumberjack.

Neither of us says anything, and for a while I just stand there watching you. You are rigidly still and appear to have gone into battery-saving mode, but then you abruptly come back to life again and reach for your phone. Hideous shrieking opera music immediately starts blaring out of it, and you bask down again contentedly on the couch like the cat that got the canary; every canary…all the canaries. It’s completely awful, like a load of squalling old tomcats (old tomcats fighting their way out of a set of bagpipes), but I feel like I can’t ask you to turn it off without looking like some sort of enormous philistine so reluctantly elect to suffer in silence instead. Even though I can’t genuinely suffer in silence (if only), thanks to the obnoxious tenor in the background wailing away in simulated death throes. Not that it would be possible to sing that loudly if he was really dying. It really wouldn’t be possible; human lung capacity reduces perimortem at a percentage volume of…

“You are still here,” you say pointedly.

“Yeah, I guess I should get going soon.” Now it’s come down to it I no longer want to leave. “I’m not sure how long I’ll be.”

“No indeed,” you reply. “Hopefully it will not be too time-consuming, but it is hard to know for certain.”

“Yeah.” I hesitate for a few more seconds, opening and closing my mouth like a fish; an unpleasant thought is nudging at the back of my skull, and whilst it seems a bit outlandish I can’t quite shake it off. “The car,” I eventually say.

“Yes?”

“What was done to it.”

“Hmm.”

I take a deep breath. “The fact it was teeth. Teeth. You don’t think…?”

“No.” You open your eyes and give me one of your supercilious looks (which you must have been cultivating while you were away because it’s turned into a sort of leer). “I think that is highly unlikely, considering his condition when we last saw him.”

“I’m hardly suggesting a supernatural explanation,” I say irritably.

“No, of course not. I am being glib; I apologize. But nor do I think anyone is acting on his behalf.”

“Did he have any family?”

“I have no idea.”

I frown a bit, nibbling on the rough skin around my thumb. It’s actually really difficult to imagine someone so profoundly unlovable having a troupe of outraged relatives waiting in the wings and howling for vengeance. I don’t even bother canvassing the possibility of him having friends. Although…

“What about fans?” I say.

“I don’t know Will. But surely the memento is too tenuous. Why teeth rather than some kind of bombastic dragon symbol? Someone wishing to avenge him would hardly refer to a despised media nickname.”

“Yeah I guess.”

“You are not convinced?”

“I’m not unconvinced. I don’t know. I could be wrong. I probably am.” It’s hardly like it would be the first time.

“Or you may not be, although I have to say I do not think it is particularly plausible. Nevertheless, I respect your judgment; your perceptions are sometimes mistaken, yet you inevitably reason correctly from them in the end.” Which sounds somewhat flattering, until it’s pared down to its basic translation of: ‘you often fuck it up, but generally manage to salvage a solution from a mountain of wrong information. Good for you – keep that shit up.’

“It’s just – there’s something that’s been bothering me.”

“And what is that?”

“Matthew Brown,” I say. “That night in the alleyway…You know he was on the internet pretending to be you?”

“I do know that, yes.”

“Well I asked him how he got access to a phone and he said someone smuggled it in for him.”

“And?”

“And I said it looked like he had his own fans now and he said yes.”

You crack your eyes open again. “Did he?”

“Yes. Yes he did.”

“Interesting.”

“Do you know what I’m wondering?”

“What are you wondering?”

“I’m wondering if there’s a chance Matthew Brown is the dog chasing the car, when what we really want is the driver.”

“Hmmm.”

“Is that all you’ve got to say? We still don’t know if the inspector was genuine. And there’s this guy at work…” I fill you in about the Sanderson Situation, and you look profoundly irritated.

“Perhaps I should introduce myself to him before we leave,” you say when I’ve finished.

“God, no, don’t do that! ‘Low profile,’ remember. You said so yourself.”

“I did. But I do not like the idea of someone being so incredibly rude to you.”

“It’s fine.”

“I beg your pardon, but it is not fine.”

“It is, really. I don’t care.”

“Well I’m afraid that I do.”

“Don’t. Please. Don’t overcomplicate things. Let’s just get this shit with my car sorted and go.”

“But we have not left yet,” you reply languidly, “we are still here.”

“Yes, well, I’m not thinking about where we are. I’m thinking about where we’re headed.”

When I say that you snap your eyes open again, then abruptly get off the couch and draw yourself up to your full height. It’s actually quite intimidating. I inadvertently take a step back; and of course you notice immediately and arch your mouth into a very faint smile. “Come here,” you say.

I hesitate, but even as I’m obeying I can’t help thinking how much I’d like to respond with: ‘No. You come over here…you officious, lazy bastard.’ And one day I will – just, not today.

“Closer,” you say.

Now I’m nervous; I can’t work out where you’re going with this. I shuffle a few paces forward then stop again.

“Closer.”

“Why? What do you want?” You don’t answer, just keep staring at me with that faint half-smile, and I dutifully move forwards until I’m stood directly in front of you.

You reach out and deftly tuck a strand of hair behind my ear. “Why are you suddenly so unsettled?”

Because you’re fucking terrifying when you want to be. “Because…because I don’t know what I’m going to find when I get to my apartment.”

“But that is in the future. Why are you so nervous right now?”

I sigh, but I know there’s no point lying to you; you’d know immediately. “Because I’m still not used to this,” I say, slightly awkwardly. “How different it is.”

“Your reactions are very ingrained aren’t they?” You briefly look thoughtful. “Entrenched yet near the surface; buried in shallow graves.”

“If by that you mean there’s still a lot about the situation that I need to come to terms with, then yes.”

“Yes. You claim to be discounting where we are in favor of where we are headed, but I am not entirely convinced it is not the other way round.”

I glance up at you sharply. “That’s not true.”

You open your mouth, almost certainly to begin disputing this, and I have an overpowering urge to ask you why – just for once, just this one time – you can’t simply shut the fuck up. I lean forward and kiss you instead, and while it’s initially intended as an underhand silencing technique I get lost in it very quickly (embarrassingly so) and end up gasping into your mouth and hitching my entire body against you until you have to put your hands on my waist to keep me steady and prevent me toppling us both onto the floor. I make a moaning sound and you wrap your arms round my back and press your face against my neck; I can feel you smiling into my skin.

“You are very responsive today, aren’t you?” you say. “And as charming as it is, you know that what I am saying is right.”

“You always think what you say is right. You are tautological. You are a classic redundancy of propositional logic.”

This makes you laugh, but I know you’re not done with it yet; you’re nowhere near done. “I suppose I should go,” I say, with a reluctance that’s only partly feigned. “The sooner I get this sorted out the better.”

“Yes, I suppose you should.” You let go of me and lean back against the wall with your arms folded. “Please be careful.”

“Yes, of course.”

“And do not be too hasty in discounting what I have said.”

I open my mouth and close it, then settle for simply nodding in response.

“Good.” You tilt your head back slightly, then add: “I shall wait for you.” And I don’t know whether you mean today, or if you’re referring to what you said last night, but I just smile anyway – because I know that you will.

*****

I genuinely intend to get the train, but at the last minute say ‘screw the expense’ and get a cab most of the way home instead. It’s stupid really, there’s no way I can afford it. But while I know you’d give me the money if I asked, you’re already paying for the hotel (at God-knows-what exorbitant rate) and the idea of being dependent on you for handouts – or at least any more than is absolutely necessary – is pretty unbearable. The driver keeps trying to engage me in conversation the whole time, and I keep shutting him down, until it starts to turn into a sort of competition over which of us can be the most persistently socially awkward and oblivious.

In the end I drown him out by replaying your comments about free will, and this is ultimately successful because they’ve bothered me more than I want to admit so it’s easy to get absorbed in considering them. Everything you’ve said so far suggests to me that you don’t think I really know what I’m doing…and a part of me is now asking the same question. I scowl to myself, tugging away fretfully on the same strand of hair. I meant it when I said I’d go with you; I really meant it. I know I did. So what’s your problem? What did you say; that I’m unconscious of “the causes through which those actions are influenced” (God, you’re so affected – why can’t you just tell me to get my shit together the way a normal person would?). Maybe you feel that I haven’t fully thought through the implications. Briefly I remember last night: “No matter how much I’ve hurt you it’s only ever made you stronger.” And me, frantic: “I don’t want to think about.” Maybe that’s the issue: I haven’t allowed myself to think about it. Not really, not in the way I probably need to. In fact that’s almost certainly your whole point: you want me to look my decision in the eye and truly comprehend what it’s going to mean for me – including the tsunami of shit and misery it’s been built on in the first place. Except that I don’t want to, because then I might lose my nerve and change my mind…And I don’t want to change my mind. Oh God, this is entirely your fault. The whole reason you stayed away this long was to increase the chances of me going along with your Grand Scheme when you finally did bring your smug, self-congratulatory ass back again. And now that I have agreed – agreed to something you’ve wanted for years – you’re making me question it. Or, no…not making. More like encouraging. Suggesting and implying. In other words you’re doing what you always do. I sigh again, then realize I’ve still got your pen in my jacket pocket and take it out and cling onto it in a rather pathetic way.

The cab pulls up, and the driver is still waxing lyrical about football scores and laboring under the mistaken impression that I’ve been listening to a fucking word he’s said. “A pleasure talking to you son,” he adds cheerily as I pay him. Oh God, I feel guilty now…I spent the second half of the journey ignoring him and the first half imagining different ways to garrotte him with his seatbelt. I give him an overly generous tip (the wages of guilt), and he drives off and leaves me standing on the deserted street with my shoulders hunched and my hands in my pockets. A spiteful gust of wind is blowing the trash down the sidewalk and from a few blocks away I can hear the unmistakable drone of a police siren. I sigh, almost imperceptibly. Time to go to work.

The car’s parked in an alley at the side of the building, and despite the daylight and the sounds of the city in the background it’s still unnerving – even for me. Briefly I picture Mr Haversham, with his gnarled old hands and arthritic joints, creeping down to investigate in the middle of the night like a withered version of Magnum PI. I hope I’m as badass as that when I’m his age (if you live that long, my inner pessimist unhelpfully supplies). I double-check in both directions to confirm that no one’s watching, then inch up hesitantly to see the extent of it. Jesus. It’s bad. It’s really bad; no wonder Mr Haversham was so freaked out. Nevertheless after the initial wince of distaste wears off, the first thing that strikes me is how incredibly staged it all is. It’s too symmetrical, too precise. Too controlled. This isn’t something that’s been done in blind anger, but carefully and meticulously for maximum effect. I have no idea whether this is a good sign or not…not that there can really be a good aspect to this. Most likely it’s simply irrelevant. Fucking hell though, it’s so weird. Really eerie. God knows what Jack’s going to say when he sees it. And the awareness of this starts bothering me all over again, because the last thing I want right now is to become the focus of Jack’s attention. Oh to hell with it, we’re leaving anyway, who even cares anymore? If I get rid of the teeth then it’s only regular vandalism and a splash of red paint – I could just mention it to Jack in passing, say it was some local kids (then he can start grousing and ranting about how shiftless the younger generation is; he’d enjoy that…I’m practically doing him a favor).

I feel pleased with myself for this plan, as if I’ve just dodged a bullet. I take a series of photos on my phone so you can see it if you want to then, shuddering slightly, gather up the teeth. I was kind of hoping they’d turn out to be plastic (or animal) but there’s no doubt that they’re human (and real), and at that point my conscience gives a guilty twinge. Maybe I should tell Jack after all; if these belong to murder victims – which surely they must – then they’re important evidence. I hover a bit longer, then with a miserable wrench force myself to replace them on the bonnet. I suppose it doesn’t have to overcomplicate things; it should be easy enough to pin on Matthew Brown. It probably was him, there’s no real proof to the contrary and it’s still the likeliest explanation. Then it’ll be just one more event to add to the file and Jack won’t pay as much attention as he would have done otherwise. But there’s absolutely no sign of a note, and the absence of one concerns me.

Despite selflessly choosing To Do The Right Thing, I still can’t face speaking to Jack quite yet so opt to delay a bit longer by collecting the clothes I need and leaving my passport in the equivalent of a ‘hey, over here FBI, see how entirely in the country I still am!’ location. I haul myself up the stairs and waver for a bit outside Mr Haversham’s door before my conscience gets the better of me – again. Shit. I hate my fucking conscious sometimes – and dutifully end up knocking. After he’s freaked out for a bit (and I’ve tried to calm him down again), and I’ve refused a drink (while thinking he clearly needs one), and he’s repeated several variants of me being ‘a very good boy’ for checking up on him (and I’ve reproached myself internally for being A Very Big Fuck Up for causing it to happen in the first place), I finally get to sit down and already feel utterly exhausted. He eases himself onto the sofa and sits there clutching his stick between his knees, peering anxiously at me over the top of his glasses. It occurs to me that the same gesture probably makes me look equally confused and doleful, and make a mental note to stop doing it – like, right fucking now.

“I hardly know what to think,” he says. “Who would do such a wicked thing?” He stares at me, blinking in bewilderment, and I realize he’s expecting me to answer.

“I don’t know Mr Haversham.”

“Wicked. Plain wicked.”

I make a non-committal noise, but the fact is I no longer really relate to these kinds of adjectives, superstitious and antiquated as they are. Words like ‘wicked’ and ‘evil’ are a distraction – dark forces, Original Sin, all that bullshit – a convenient means of detaching, displacing and explaining away. It’s lazy and inelegant: the notion that ‘evil people do evil things because they’re evil.’ Finding a humane explanation for inhumanity is far more interesting. Briefly I think of my own maladjusted surplus of humanity – empathic and imaginative to a dysfunctional degree – and how it became submerged by your inscrutable capacity to both conceal and showcase your own moral vacuum.

“People can be dreadful can’t they,” says Mr Haversham with feeling. Yeah – sing it, brother. He knots his hands together, then jerks them up and down as if stroking a phantom pet. “There are some terrible things in the world,” he adds.

“Yes. Yes there are.” Well I can’t really argue with that can I? Me, of all people, should know about the terrible things. I’m soaked in them, marinated in them; I trail my fingers through them on a daily basis.

“Dreadful that it should be your car, a nice young man like you.”

“Y-e-a-h.”

“You watch yourself, won’t you William?” And I tell him I intend to, even though I lost the fortitude to watch myself quite a while ago. Why would I even need to anymore; you scrutinize me more than enough for the both of us. Although of course the problem with that is that you keep most of your findings to yourself, unleashing them in bursts or doling them out in short sips – basically whenever it’s most convenient for you to thrust your opinion in my face like a loaded gun. I try to work out at exactly what point I handed my sense of myself over to your (highly dubious) stewardship, and belatedly realize that Mr Haversham is anxiously staring at me.

“You’ve gone very quiet,” he says. “You must be so worried. I’m sorry that this has happened to you.”

“It’s fine,” I say. “I’ll be fine. Thanks, though. I appreciate your concern.”

He nods at me, his old head bobbing up and down like a Halloween apple, and I allow myself to gently tune out while he starts pronouncing over how the city’s going down the pan and the country’s going to the dogs, and that something like this would never have happened under President Carter, and how evil people can be, and don’t I think it’s a terrible shame? By the end it’s starting to sound faintly biblical, as if he thinks a vandalized car is a signifier for The End of Days and we’re all going to hell in a handcart; and I keep trying to nod at the right points and make commiserating sounds, even though I’m not really listening to a word he’s saying. About how wicked it all is. How evil.

I called you evil once didn’t I? Because you were so destructive, I said. You didn’t care. “Evil is just destructive?” you replied. “Storms are evil, if it’s that simple.

Except you were right and it’s not. It’s nowhere near that simple is it? Not anywhere close.

*****

I make my escape from Mr Haversham as soon as is decently possible, then drag myself up the final flight of stairs to my floor. Oh fuck, I’m so tired; I’ve had virtually no sleep for the past 24 hours. My limbs are like lead and my brain is stuffed with cotton wool and cement, and I have to take a moment to prop myself against the wall and rub my temples which are pulsing and throbbing in a herald of the familiar start of a headache. I aimlessly rummage around for my keys, then pause outside the door of the apartment to send you some photos of the car with a brief explanatory note of: Lk @ ths.

Your reply comes a few seconds later: You appear to have misplaced your vowels.

“Well why don’t you kiss my ass,” I say out loud, “you pedantic…” and then I look a bit closer and go extremely still – because it’s incredibly obvious from the thin parallel scratches that someone’s picked the lock.

A thin trickle of fear and anticipation flashes up my spine like iced water and I carry on standing there, taut, immobile and frozen in place; each nerve straining. There’s no sound from beyond the hallway, no way to know if whoever broke in is still there. They could have fled by now, they could be long gone. Or they could be right behind the door, grinning and leering and lying in wait, listening to me breathing and lingering on the other side. I slowly reach down into my coat, trying to be as quiet as possible, and for a truly hideous moment I think I’ve left the gun at the hotel before realizing it’s in my pocket – on the opposite side to where I’d usually put it. I was too distracted when I left, that’s the problem. Too distracted by you. Christ I need to be smarter than this.

I take a deep breath – frozen in place, wavering over my various options – and knowing full well that whatever I choose right now could have irreversible implications. Do not collect, I think wildly, do not pass Go. I could just leave, I suppose…I could do that. Creep away silently down the hallway, then run down the stairs and call Jack. Or just run: run back to you, then gloss it over afterwards and pretend it never happened. But even as I’m thinking it I know that I’m not going to do either of these things. Firstly, because this could be a chance to finish it; it could be the chance we’ve been waiting for. And secondly, deep down in a part of me that I’m reluctant to fully acknowledge right now, I know that I want this confrontation. I want the opportunity to unleash myself. If you can’t move heaven – raise hell.

I take another deep breath, covering my hand with my sleeve to preserve any possible prints, then gingerly push the door open with the very edge of the handle and wait. Nothing.

A bit further.

Nothing.

Shit, it’s almost an anti-climax: all dressed up and nowhere to go. I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting, only that it wasn’t this stretching silence. Maybe an eerily sing-song “Hello Mr Graham!” Maybe that. I draw in my breath one last time, then push the door fully open and step inside. My body’s gone onto autopilot, like it thinks it’s doing a training exercise: identify, establish, protect, secure, survey the scene, check the periphery, control physical threat with minimal contamination. Any minute now Jack’s going to flick the lights on and bellow “cover your corners Will!”

From the sight and sound of things, it seems just like it did when I left it yesterday. Gloomy and dim because all the curtains are drawn, dust motes dancing in the weak dribbles of sunlight, junk mail piled precariously by the door, a faint buzz of static from the refrigerator like a drowsy fly. If I close my eyes I could probably see aftershock impressions of you and me from the past few weeks, moving and speaking and touching each other, like flickering images on a film reel. But that’s just the sight and sound of it, because the first thing that alerts me – immediately and shockingly – is the smell.

It’s unmistakable and I’ve encountered it far too many times to ever be in any doubt. It’s the smell of the abattoir, of the charnel house. The smell of slaughter. It means that somebody is dead or dying and I realize, with something like horror, that it immediately associates itself with you.

My heart is pounding madly but my hand is steady, and I keep the gun primed straight in front of me and follow behind it into the living room. And it’s in there that I find him.

The last time I saw him I was in his office. It was less than a week ago: I broke his ruler, and he told me I was crazy and stressed and stupid, and that no one would ever believe someone like me could be sleeping with another man. Then I left and forgot all about him, and now he’s here…right here in front of me. Mark. It’s Mark. It’s the janitor. It’s Mark the fucking janitor – suspended from my curtain rail, cruciform style, with his entire torso hacked open.

“Oh shit,” I say faintly.

And at almost that exact moment my phone goes off. I numbly reach into my pocket to take it out, not once taking my eyes off the grotesque tableau in front of me. Finally I glance down. It’s a text. Number unknown.

Hello Will. Isn’t this fun? I hope there’s room for one more to join the party.

And then a few seconds later, another one:

Expect me.

Chapter Text

The sane, sensible, effective thing to do would be to call Jack; and this is undoubtedly the course of action that a sane, sensible, effective person would take. So needless to say I do the exact opposite and call you instead.

“It’s been set up to look like you,” I say bluntly.

“Hmm,” you reply. “Hardly.” You actually have the nerve to sound affronted, as if preserving your maniacal reputation is the most important issue at hand.

“Look, who’s the forensics expert; me or you? Take my word for it, people are going to assume. Of course I can tell it’s not, but…seriously. No one else will. Or at least not until I’ve had to spend hours convincing them.” I already feel slightly sickened and depleted at the thought of it. “On the other hand you might get lucky, and they’ll think it’s me instead.”

“No note?”

“No note. Strong grounds for discounting Matthew Brown.” Likewise the text; why ‘Will’ rather than ‘Mr Graham’? Why not all in capital letters? Unless it’s some kind of double-bluff. Is it? Surely it’s not. Oh fuck.

“You are certain?”

“Of course I’m certain! God, I’m looking right at it.”

“What do you mean ‘you are looking right at it?’” you ask sharply “Do you mean to say you are still in the building?”

“Yes, where else would I be?”

“You should leave immediately.”

“It’s fine. I’ve checked the whole place – there’s no one here.”

“On the contrary, the speed with which that message arrived is strongly suggestive of someone watching you.”

“Look, remember what we discussed about the whole ‘over-protective’ thing?”

“Will,” you say, “I assume you would rather I did not come over there myself?”

“What? No! Of course not.”

“Well if you wish it to remain that way, then you will leave the building and wait in the street. Stay on the phone until you are outside.”

“Oh for God’s sake,” I say sulkily, “it’s fine.” But I pretend to obey anyway (partly because I secretly quite like it when you go all masterful).

“Are you leaving?”

“Yes,” I say, while remaining exactly where I am.

“Are you nearly outside?”

“Yes.”

You sigh. “You are not, you little liar. You are still stood exactly where you were, gazing at an amateurishly mangled corpse.”

“Where are you, are you still in the hotel?”

“I am.”

“Well, you should stay there for the moment. Don’t go out.” Even as I’m saying this I realize that we are starting to fuss over each other like a pair of old women; it’s possible you think the same because there is a slightly awkward pause.

“You have contacted Jack?”

“No, not yet. I will though. I’ll have to.”

“Of course.”

I open my mouth to say something conventional and formulaic about being glad we left yesterday, but then change my mind halfway through because I’m not glad at all. I wish we had been here; we could have finished it there and then. I could have explained to Jack that someone had broken in, that it was self-defence and yeah, okay, the body’s been mauled around a bit, but it’s not my fault – look, I’ve just caught you a dangerous criminal you ungrateful old shit, stop lecturing me about excessive force, you should be giving me a goddamn medal. As an afterthought I invent a medal-giving ceremony and force Kade Purnell to make an excessively servile, ass-kissing speech about how amazing I am while I look suitably modest. I smirk at this image, and add a few more press photographers and some additional superlatives for Kade Purnell to choke on.

“Are you still there?”

“Yeah. I’m still here.” I sigh heavily as reality reasserts itself; what’s actually happened rather than what-might-have-been. “Oh shit. Shit, this is really bad.”

“It is, indeed.”

There’s another pause. “We won’t be going anywhere for the time being,” I say. “Will we?”

“I am afraid not. This is not the kind of thing from which it is possible to simply walk away.”

I sigh again. “Look, I should probably get going. I’ll talk to you properly tonight – we need to decide what we’re going to do.” I hesitate and take another look at the ghoulish, swinging spectacle in front of me and shudder. “And then try and work out what the hell is going on. But I really need to call Jack.”

“Yes, of course. Be careful.”

“Always am,” I reply. It doesn’t sound even remotely convincing.

You don’t say anything else, and after a pause I hang up before dialling Jack’s number and giving him the most concise-yet-comprehensive summary I’m able to muster (“Oh shit!” he says. “You’re not wrong,” I reply). I ignore your instructions to wait outside the building, but as a compromise sit on the floor in the hallway with my back against the wall. I take your pen out of my pocket again, turning it over and over in my hands.

The fact hasn’t escaped me that – thanks to you – there’s a high probability people will assume I was somehow involved in this. I’m under no illusions about what my reputation is (not to mention that as alibis go, I am well and truly fucked). Maybe Jack won’t buy it, but plenty of other people will. In fact I can already see the next few days as if I’ve already lived them: the CSI team rolling up and me having to sit tamely by and tolerate them rifling through my apartment – my life – and no doubt flinching and raising their eyebrows, then exchanging loaded glances with one another that of course Will Graham would live in such a weird, horrible place. The gleeful headlines on TattleCrime. The conversations that are going to cut off mid-flow as soon as I walk into a room. The fact that you and I are now trapped here for the indefinite future, because if I abruptly vanish after this then the whole FBI really will be after me. And caught with the helpless, hopeless, sickening knowledge that someone is hunting me, and probably you as well, and that for the time being there is nothing at all I can do about it except wait. Hello Will…Expect me…Expect me. And that for as long as you and I are together, this is the type of thing that’s going to happen over and over and over again.

I close my eyes and tip my head against the wall, then promptly have to jerk it upright at a clatter of footsteps and someone saying “Hey, Will!” It’s the girl that lives two doors down from me. I haven’t seen her since you came back, but before that I used to bump into her quite regularly; I helped her with her groceries a few times, fixed the valve on her air conditioning…neighborly stuff. She dropped a couple of hints about us going for dinner sometime, but nothing ever came of it and she wisely desisted when she began to realize how utterly shattered and bereft I was. Oh God, I can’t remember her name. Something to do with flowers, I think. Rose? Daisy?

She smiles at me, although it’s a bit of a nervous one. I don’t blame her – I probably look slightly unhinged. “What are you doing down there Will?” she asks. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” I say. “Thanks. I’m just, um…waiting to meet some friends.”

“Well I hope you’re not waiting too long. Not on the floor!” I smile weakly and she hesitates. “Are you sure you’re okay? You look a bit…” (‘a bit fucked’ I mentally suggest), “I don’t know. A bit pale.”

“Honestly, I’m fine.”

“I haven’t seen you for a while.”

“No,” I reply unhelpfully.

“I thought you might have moved out, got a new place.”

“No, still here.”

“Yeah, so…what have you been up to?”

“Oh, you know,” I say vaguely. “This and that.”

“Well okay,” she replies, and I immediately recognize the look she’s giving me, because it’s one I get a lot. It’s the ‘My God, you look utterly wrecked…you poor tragic bastard’ look. Sure enough she adds: “A group of us are going to try that new bar tonight, the one on the corner of Main Street. Do you know it? They’re nice guys and you’d be welcome to join us. If you’re free? I mean, y’know, if you wanted?”

“Thanks,” I say, “that would’ve been great but I’m afraid I’ve already got plans.” God, have I ever.

“Oh well, no problem. Some other time.”

“Yeah, sure. Some other time.”

She hesitates again, then doles me out another smile and makes her exit. I numbly watch her as she walks off and she swings her hips a bit; she knows I’m looking at her. She’s wearing a knitted cap in rainbow stripes and her purse has little embroidered flowers down one side, and in that moment she seems like a mocking, hopelessly unobtainable symbol of the type of life (happy, healthy, safe and sane) which I am never, ever going to be able to have. As opposed to the type of life I’m currently living, which involves crouching on the floor guarding the entrance to a horrific crime scene and contemplating a future where, if you have your way, I won’t just be gatekeeping crime scenes but actively creating them. This is what you meant isn’t it? It’s what you were warning me about, to consider what I was really choosing. Because I guess you don’t want half-measures this time; I have to be either in or out. I always felt so strongly that I didn’t want normal – didn’t want rainbow wool and embroidered flowers – but as I hear the sound of the sirens wailing outside, I’m suddenly not all that confident that I really want this either.

Oh God, I wish you were here. Things would make more sense if you were here; you’d make it right. By which, of course, I mean wrong.

*****

Outside in the street some idiot is blaring ‘Hot Stuff’ by Donna Summer from their car stereo, and the soundtrack is so surreally incongruous that even Jack’s lips are starting to twitch with amused disbelief. “Sometimes I feel like I’ve wandered into a David Lynch film,” he says.

“Yes,” I reply gloomily, “I know exactly what you mean.” In the corner of my eye I can see one of the forensics team dragging your chair across the floor and have an overpowering urge to yell at him to get his hands off it. As anticipated it’s unbearable having them here – in fact it’s even worse than anticipated – yet brooding on its unbearability is also utterly pointless because I have no choice except to bear it. It’s like being invaded: pillaged and exposed, then ultimately discarded to sift through all the leftover shards. Jesus, why can’t they just get the job done and fuck off? I’m aware that Jack is looking at me with a concerned expression on his face. He can’t believe it’s happened, I don’t think; he wasn’t expecting things to escalate so quickly. Although to be honest neither did I. In fact the only person not surprised was you.

Jack (like me) finds the absence of a note strongly suggestive that this is not Matthew Brown’s handiwork. He is also (like you) inclined to discount my lingering Tooth Fairy anxieties. His favorite theory (as expected) is that it’s you. I keep giving him reasons why I don’t think it is, and he keeps shutting them down with “but look at it; just look at it” and I have to politely point out that I am, indeed, looking at it; upon which he starts repeating “well, let’s see what Price says back at the lab” in a highly condescending way until I want to scream. He wants to believe it, that’s the problem; his biases are skewing his judgement. He wants to think that this is his moment to finally catch you – captured, caged and displayed – with him vindicated in the process as an additional bonus. You’re his Great White Whale, the prize trophy that always eludes him one last time. He’s not even all that interested in the car, doubtless because it doesn’t fit his theory (even he has to admit that it’s the last thing you would ever bother to do). Matthew Brown signs his work, according to Jack, so if he’d done this there would have been a note. There almost certainly was a note on the car, but it was out in the open all night; it probably blew away. Don’t I remember how the same thing nearly happened with the note on the agents’ windscreen? How Andrews had to grab it back before the wind carried it off? “This doesn’t fit with Brown’s previous sequence,” says Jack, nodding sagely, and despite my best efforts to the contrary the current tally, nicely and neatly docketed, remains car: Matthew Brown; corpse: You. Cars and Corpses…it sounds like some 1950s detective novel. Christ. My cell is practically burning a hole in my pocket, but agonizingly I can’t tell him about the text because if I do he’ll confiscate my phone on the spot to trawl through the call log – and there’s no way I can risk anyone finding the exchanges with you which I have stupidly (stupidly) failed to delete.

“They think time of death was around 18.30,” Jack says, before adding (inevitably), “but Price will be more specific back at the lab.”

I realize I am anxiously and absent-mindedly tapping my hand against the wall in rhythm to ‘Hot Stuff’ (and how incredibly inappropriate it looks) so blush and force myself to stay still. Then I process what Jack’s said and start to frown. 18.30 is oddly precise (and high-risk, and thus incongruous – stuff like this is infinitely more likely to happen at night). In fact it’s as if the perpetrator watched me leave the FBI yesterday and wanted to time it for when I’d most probably be back. I inadvertently turn and glance at Sanderson, but he’s earnestly talking to one of his CSI team and behaving exactly like he always does. Surely he’s not that good an actor (he’s not you…or, come to think of it, me). Now he’s virtuously inspecting the couch with a scalpel and swabs, and the realization of what he’d say if he knew exactly what I’ve been doing on it (not to mention with who) makes me emit an involuntary snort of laughter that I have to hastily try and turn into a cough. God only knows what the samples will come back with. Oh well, I’m a young(ish) single man with a functioning libido, there’s no reason why I can’t jerk off on my own goddamn couch if I want to. At least I won’t be the one – unlike some people – who’s forced to spend hours analysing the results of my efforts through a high-precision forensic microscope. I give Sanderson a rather manic grin and he looks uncomfortable and drops his eyes first.

“Well, at least I was with you yesterday afternoon,” I say, “so I could hardly have done it.” I suppose I may as well bring it up first. I’m expecting (hoping) that Jack will laugh at this but he doesn’t; and my heart sinks a bit.

“Actually you could have. It would have been tight, but you could have done.” He holds up a hand. “It’s okay, I know you didn’t, but we need to cover all bases.”

“Oh come on Jack, if I had anything to do with this don’t you think I’d have gone to the trouble of creating a plausible alibi?”

“I know Will.” His voice is gentle – sympathetic. “But I’m not the one you might end up needing to convince. And given the potential link with Hannibal…”

“Yeah, I know,” I say gloomily. Images of Kade Purnell immediately come to mind; and God knows who else. It’s not like I wasn’t expecting it.

“So let’s just make sure we’ve got you covered straight out the gate. Where did you park your car at the Bureau?”

“I didn’t, I came on the train.”

“Okay, well what route did you take? You might show up on the CCTV.”

My heart sinks even further. “Well, obviously I didn’t come home last night Jack.”

“Obviously. So where were you?”

“I went to a bar.” I lower my voice confidingly. “I went home with someone.”

“Okay, who? Where does she live? We’ll get over there and have her alibi you.” He hesitates and clears his throat. “Well, not alibi, as such; not as formal as that. But you know…” he trails off awkwardly, and I have a truly awful feeling that I’m going to laugh with nervous hysteria because my brain has unhelpfully supplied an artistic representation of what his face would look like if I told him where I really was.

“I can’t remember,” I say. “I’d had a lot to drink.” Shit, that sounds so lame; it needs to be something more convincing. Oh yes, I know. I lower my voice even further, as if I’m feeling miserably shy and self-conscious, adding an anxious clench to my shoulders for extra effect. “Look, Jack, I mean I’d had a lot. The thing is, it wasn’t a woman…it was another guy, and…”

“Oh, okay, I see,” says Jack. “I see what you mean.” If he’s taken aback he’s too tactful to show it.

“It’s not exactly something I make a habit of, but I was really drunk, and he offered me a ride home, and…and…” And what? The stars were bright and the moon was full? I don’t actually have enough (i.e., any) experience with casual sex to take this touching story any further. I wave my hand around a bit instead. “You know how it is.”

Jack clearly doesn’t know how it is (at all) but kindly claps me on the shoulder anyway. Mission accomplished.

“Your personal life isn’t anyone else’s business,” he says, “so I appreciate your reservations about this. But Will, seriously, the sooner we can officially put you out of this the better, so if you remember anything...”

“I know Jack. God, I wish I could but I was so out of it I can’t even remember his name.” I pause for a few seconds, imagining this phantom version of myself who goes out and has mindless, drunken sex with total strangers in exchange for a free ride home (whilst his janitor is being brutally eviscerated on his curtain rail) and try to look suitably contrite on his behalf. Then I remember what I was actually doing, at which point my phantom self and I abruptly change places and it’s him looking morally outraged and me staring at the floor and wondering how the fucking hell I’ve ended up in this situation. How did I end up in this situation? It’s not like my Year Book entry identified me as ‘Student Most Likely Toalibi himself for a murder by having ecstatic sex with FBI’s Most Wanted (whilst pretending to be a rent boy).’

“Oh God,” I say, with genuine frustration. “How has this happened? Again. This is all so messed up.”

“I know Will. I know it is.”

“You don’t really though, do you?” I sound incredibly bitter but I can’t help myself.

“Well, no. I suppose not.”

“You don’t know what it’s like to stand in your living room while all your colleagues rifle through your stuff and have your boss demand you alibi yourself for carving up your janitor.”

“Will…”

“And no one believing that you had nothing to do with it.”

Will…”

“If this had happened in anyone else’s apartment…”

“Look,” says Jack heavily, “I know what went on was bad – really bad – and I know I let you down, but come on. What would you have done in my position? The real responsibility for everything that happened to you hardly lies with me does it?” I fretfully run my hands through my hair and Jack shifts on his feet, as if positioning himself for the knock-out punch. “We know exactly whose fault it was.”

As soon as he says that, it’s as if all the energy goes seeping out of me. “Yes,” I say quietly. “I know whose fault it was.”

“So if he is trying to frame you again…”

“He’s not. I’m certain it isn’t him.”

Jack sweeps on as if I haven’t said anything “I’m afraid it means that when a situation like this occurs people are going to raise questions. And they might not seem legitimate to you – or fair – but it won’t stop people asking.”

“I know,” I say, because this, at least, is indisputable.

There’s another pause while we both stare at the floor. “I’m sorry Will,” says Jack eventually, “I really am.”

“Thanks. Me too.”

“I still blame myself. You’d never have met him if it wasn’t for me.” I don’t know what to say to this, so ultimately don’t say anything and just continue staring at my feet.

“I’ll have someone drive you to the Academy,” says Jack kindly. “You can stay in one of the student rooms.”

“No. No, I don’t want to go there.”

“Well you can’t just go wandering off. Not after this. You know you can’t, don’t be so naïve.”

“Okay,” I say miserably, because what choice do I have. “I guess that makes sense.”

“Stay as long as you like – as long as you need.”

“Thanks.”

“We’ll help you find some new accommodation, although you’ll have to keep checking in with me. You know that right?”

“Yeah, I know.” I pause. “Jack?”

“Hmm.”

“You know I had nothing to do with this don’t you?”

“I know it.”

“Tell the others won’t you? Price, Zeller.”

“I’ll tell them.”

“And that TattleCrime headline…someone pinned it on the staff board. Can you make sure it’s been taken down?”

“Of course.” He puts his hand on my shoulder and gives it a squeeze. “I know this is a shock Will, but it’ll all work out. You’re not officially a suspect, and you’re not going to become one – not on my watch.” I catch his eye and he has the grace to look embarrassed. “You’re the victim in this. And it’s not as if we’re lacking alternative options.”

“Look,” I say, “about that…”

“Will, it’s understandable you want to convince yourself that he hasn’t come back, but you need to at least prepare for the possibility. We all do.”

“I know, but…”

“If I’m wrong, I’m wrong; but I’d rather not take the chance. I’ve already liaised with the field office. The operation on him has been reinstated back to maximum priority.”

“Oh,” I say faintly.

“And for heaven’s sakes keep it to yourself. The press is going to go ballistic when it breaks – complete frenzy – and we need to keep it quiet for as long as possible.” He looks exhausted just at the thought of it.

“I’ll keep it quiet,” I say. My voice doesn’t sound like mine. “Not. One. Word.” I can’t help noticing that neither of us are saying your name, as if it’s a bad luck talisman that shouldn’t be spoken aloud. He. Him. Like some urban legend or horror movie figure: say his name five times and he appears! There’s still no doubt who we mean. There was only ever one, wasn’t there? Only ever you.

*****

Despite Jack’s instructions about not wandering off I promptly do exactly that, and stumble out into the street for some air. I feel like I could throw up. There’s a crowd of people gathering opposite, drawn like magnets to the cluster of sirens and police cars and staring with unashamed curiosity at the safe, vicarious thrill of someone else’s catastrophe and I feel like screaming at them. Are you happy now? I want to ask them, Is this what you were hoping to see?

I’m numb. Shell-shocked. Like I still don’t entirely understand how everything’s gone completely to hell so quickly. I built a cocoon around us the past few weeks and now real life has reasserted itself like a knife shearing through the casing, flesh and bone. It’s like being shaken awake, like being slapped in the face. A raw and searing reality check. Because of you…because of you. Jack, looking pitying and resentful: “We all know whose responsibility it was.” Because of you, some people will think I was involved in this. Because of you, it’s feasible that I might have been. Because of you, I almost certainly will be in the future. And while I can blame you for the first premise, I can’t entirely blame you for the second – for the fact you just nurtured something that was already there – and I certainly can’t lay the last one at your door because I chose it myself. I stood in front of you this morning insisting how clearly and consciously I chose it. I lay underneath you last night staring into your eyes while we had sex – no, made love, Christ, because surely that’s what it was? – telling you how much I wanted you and everything you represent.

All those walls you built around yourself, brick by brick, layer by layer, one after the other your entire life. Me; finally someone capable of climbing over them. Look before you leap, people often say. I never really considered what I was going to find on the other side. I didn’t expect I was going to find myself there.

I take your pen out of my coat pocket again (your pretentious, overpriced, monogamous pen) and cling onto it, the exact same way I know – oh God, oh fucking hell – I’d cling onto you if you were here. I was so glad when you came back…so glad. Dazzled and delirious, like looking into the sun. I couldn’t see beyond the flare. I still can’t. I’m blinded by the light. Oh God, you knew this would happen, didn’t you? It’s why you asked, why you wouldn’t stop pushing it; wouldn’t let it go. “I didn’t choose to be here,” I told you last night, “I just couldn’t choose not to be.” You knew I hadn’t really acknowledged the enormity of what it was going to mean. And it is enormous; it’s fucking huge. The last time I felt something so huge, so enormous, I tried to kill us both. I threw us off a goddamn cliff.

He’s going to take me over, I think irrationally and desperately. He already has. If I go back now he’s going to take me over and there’ll be nothing left of myself and if I leave then I’ll never come back again. He’s waiting. He said he was going to wait for me. He always does what he says he will. I’m his ‘imago’: "buried in the unconscious, carried with us all our lives.” He won’t let me leave him. And I don’t want to, but I’m frightened of what will happen if I stay. I can’t be what he expects me to be but I can’t be on my own without him. I tip my head against the wall, almost relishing the pain of the brick scraping through my hair. He. Him. You. Because it is you, isn’t it? It’s always been you.

But I love you, I think; and there’s no denying the helpless simplicity of it. You’re my lover, my beloved, the love of my life. It could almost be at the level of cliché. It would be, if it weren’t for the final, terrible twist. “Dear Dr Phil, I am confused, please advise. I have fallen in love with the wrong person. We have many mutual interests, incredible chemistry, are intellectually compatible, and he understands and values me in a way that no one else ever has. However, there is a problem…The problem is that he kills people and cannibalizes them, so if I want to be with him then what does that make me? What should I do?”

Oh Christ I don’t know. I don’t know what to do; I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me. I don’t know. That’s the truth: pure and simple. Except when it comes to my life nothing is pure, and it’s never, ever simple.

I stumble round the corner of the building into the alleyway and stand with my back to the street, desperately trying to pull myself together – even though it seems like the harder I try the more I unravel. A few tears are starting to sting my eyelashes, and I realize I don’t entirely know what I’m crying for: me, you, or us. Maybe none of them, maybe it’s more for someone who’s not involved with any of this: the person I was supposed to be. I’m not mourning something that’s happened, but the loss of something that never had a proper chance. Then for a brief moment I think of my dad, and this is fucking fatal because it’s enough to nearly make me start sobbing for real.

“Hey,” someone says, and I spin round self-consciously. It’s the elderly homeless woman who sometimes shows up round here; the city outreach team periodically roll up to coax her into some hostel or clinic or other, but she always come back again. She’s staring at me with frank interest, her head slightly on one side like a bird’s, wisps of silvery blonde hair blowing across her face like feathers.

“Hey. Hey! You there. You okay honey?”

“No,” I say. “Not really.”

“Hurts, don’t it?”

“Yes.” I take my glasses off and stick them in my pocket, then drag my hand over my face. “Yes, it does.”

“They reckon it gets better.”

“Do they?” I say. “That’s good to know.”

“What you doing out here?”

“I live here.”

“Your momma know you’re out? How old are you?”

“Old enough,” I reply wearily. “Definitely old enough to know better.”

“No fool like an old fool,” she says.

I can’t help smiling at that. “Yes, you’re probably right.”

She smiles back at me, delighted with my response. “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. You know that one?”

“I’ve heard it, yeah.”

“You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”

“Abraham Lincoln.”

“Fool on the Hill.”

“The Beatles.”

“Fool for love. You got anyone that loves you honey?”

“I don't know...I'm not really sure. Love’s quite a funny one isn’t it?”

“How you mean boy? You mean funny ‘ha ha’, or weird funny?”

“Weird. I mean weird funny.”

“Fool’s paradise,” she says.

“Oh yeah. I definitely know that one.”

“Will!” bellows Jack from the end of the alley. “What the hell are you doing? I’ve been looking all over for you, get back here!”

“Who’s that? Is that your daddy?”

“No,” I say, before adding (disloyally): “thank God.” I rifle through my pocket and give her all my remaining cash, and she waves her hand at me as if giving me a benediction. I hope she is; I need all the help I can get. I trudge back up the alleyway towards Jack, but then pause before I reach him and dash out a hasty text to you with one finger and thumb: “JC taking me 2 Acdmy. I’ll b in touch when I can. They r looking for u, u need 2 go NOW.” I’m expecting you to reply with something supercilious about grammar and missing vowels but you don’t. No doubt you’re just sat there reading it with your eyebrows raised. ‘So Will has lost his nerve again,’ you’ll be thinking, ‘just as I expected – how terribly tedious.’ You’ll probably turn up in my room tonight with a carving knife to finish the job. No, no you wouldn’t do that. You wouldn’t. You’re not going to hurt me. You care about me, you…

“All units are on alert,” says Jack. “If he’s here, we’ll find him. God, just imagine it.” He actually rubs his hands together. “The arrogant bastard. Well he’s overstepped this time. You really are his weak spot aren’t you Will; he just can’t help himself. Will? Are you listening to me?”

“Yes, Jack. I’m listening.”

Jack frowns and peers closer at me: how pale I am, how haunted, my eyes doubtless pink and swollen around the edges. “You good?” he asks uncertainly.

No, not really; not all that good – but then not entirely bad either. In fact that’s the whole problem, isn’t it? If you were here you’d probably say something about having the courage to acknowledge one’s darkness before experiencing the power and possibilities of one’s light. But I don’t know if I have the right kind of courage…You always gave me credit for being better than I really am.

“I’ve got a good feeling about it this time,” Jack says happily. “I really think we’re going to get him. I really do.”

“Do you?” I answer weakly.

“Damn right I do, even his luck’s got to run out sometime.” He pauses, then frowns again. “Will, I have to say, you look terrible.”

But I am terrible; just like you are. Two terrors together. “I’m finding this a bit much,” is all I say.

“I’m not surprised. Look, why don’t you get going? I’ll have someone drive you over now. Get some rest.”

“Thanks,” I say. “I think I will.”

“And something to eat.”

“Yes. Thanks.” Christ, is that all I can say? Yes, yes, yes, thanks, thanks, thanks. I don’t want rest, or food, or a room at the Academy: I just want you. I want you to put your arms round me, and use lies to tell me the truth, and take all the wrongness and fashion it into something that’s right with your hypnotic voice and dark soulless eyes. I want you so badly it almost physically hurts. Except, of course, that I can’t, and none of that is going to happen. Because for your own sake you need to go; you were so certain they’d never look for you in city – and until today they wouldn’t have done. So you have to go; and after today, it’s impossible for me to go with you because Jack won’t let me out of his sight. It’s so fucking ironic that after everything that’s happened the decision has finally been taken out of my hands. Although maybe ironic isn’t quite right, because it feels more related to cowardice than anything else. I can frame it to myself as ‘I can’t go with you’ rather than ‘when the moment finally came I didn’t have the courage to accept you.’ I’ll have to sit in a tiny student room at the Academy and fade and pine away all over again, and know that you’re out there somewhere – dynamic and daring and larger-than-life – and that the scrutiny of the FBI and my own crippling fear is keeping us apart for a second time. At least we had those two nights together, I suppose. At least there’s that.

Jack deposits me in the back of a squad car, and I end up lying on the seat with my coat pulled over me. The driver’s a young police officer, especially wrangled over for the job. He doesn’t know who I am, just assumes I’m a trainee being driven to the Academy building on the strictures of the mighty Jack Crawford.

“You okay buddy?” he says. “It’s not all that bad a place you know, from what I hear. You don’t need to look so down!”

“I know it’s not so bad,” I say numbly.

“So who died?” he says, “It’s only the FBI - you look like someone died!” He thinks he’s being funny.

I ignore him and roll over so I’m looking at the seat. He coughs awkwardly then turns on the radio, and I lie with my eyes open, running my fingertips over my face and imagining it’s you touching me instead. “Only myself,” I mutter under my breath. “Only myself.”

Chapter Text

It’s growing dark by the time we reach the Academy and the building looks wan and sickly in the glow of the streetlights, as if it’s been dipped in flour. I automatically reach for my luggage before remembering that I don’t actually have any, then give the most cursory possible thanks to the driver before trailing inside and collecting the key that Jack’s rung ahead to have left out. My footsteps echo eerily through the deserted corridors and I see no one the entire time except for a lone janitor, dolefully swirling dirty water across the parquet floor with a mop. He lifts his head and stares silently at me as I walk past and I ignore him.

I find the room with some difficulty, and then promptly wish I hadn’t because it’s a deeply depressing identikit of soulless student accommodation everywhere: single bed, hard and narrow as an ironing board; a small smeary window; and a scuffed, rackety desk with a plastic chair and a battered Anglepoise lamp the same shape and color as someone’s kidney. I take off my coat and drop it on the floor, then go into the dingy ensuite bathroom and stare at myself in the mirror for a long time. You’re right: my hair needs cutting and I’m still too thin. I look like shit.

“What are you doing?” I ask the reflection; this person in the mirror who looks like a waif. Who’s thin and pale and wrecked, whose hair is too long, and who is making insane decisions, and who’s fallen in love with a monster and doesn’t care what that makes him. “What the fuck are you doing?” I say.

The silence is oppressive because of course I can’t answer this question, and in the end I draw back my fist and smash it into the mirror; then gaze at my sad Picasso face, mournfully distorted in the shards. My hand’s bleeding, black-blood-in-the-moonlight. I don’t care.

Now the basin’s full of glass and blood, and even though I’ve only been here 10 minutes I’ve already managed to make the room look like a crime scene. Oh fuck, what’s Jack going to say? Maybe I could tell him that I tripped, that it was accident, that…and then I realize I don’t give even the slightest shit what Jack’s going to say; he can say whatever he fucking likes and I’ll just tune him out. After all, there are so many worse things to break than a mirror. A promise. A confidence. A heart. I take a deep, jagged breath (do not cry, do not cry) then from the other room I hear the chime of my phone and have a powerful sense, without even looking, that it’s a message from you.

I immediately feel myself starting to quiver, the tremors reverberating through my whole body. Oh God, you know don’t you? Of course you do, you probably knew before I even left this morning. And you’re not going to be happy…you’re going to be angry with me; you’re going to be furious. Variations of what you might have to say start skittering through my head –

You will regret this…

I am going to punish you

Do you really think you can say ‘no’ to me?...

– and I make a small whimpering noise, a helpless pre-emptive of the pain and fear and chaos that’s inevitably lying ahead. Maybe you’re going to turn up tonight in my soulless little student room: blazing like a fiery avenging angel, eyes flashing and knife in hand. You probably will – there would be a kind of synchronous inevitability in it that would appeal to you. You’d cup my face again with your palm and gaze at me, and I’d just let you. You wouldn’t raise your voice. I wouldn’t try to run, because where would I go without you? This time you’d probably kiss me: you couldn’t before, but you would now. And last time you couldn’t kill me, but this time you probably will. Hold me, thrill me, kiss me, kill me. Oh God, oh God. But even as I’m thinking it – even as my hands are trembling, and my stomach’s churning, and the acidic spike of fear is twisting through me – I still know I’m not going to call Jack and tell him where to find you; that I’d let you come for me first before I’d turn you in.

I take one final hopeless look at my jagged face in the mirror then stumble out of the bathroom, jerky and numb as an automaton, and fumble blindly for my phone. I suppose it’s only fair that you’ll be angry. I deserve it; I’ve let you down again. I’ve let us both down. My heart’s pounding as I stare at the screen and I’m right, it is you:

Calm yourself, everything is fine. They will not find me. And unless you want me to I will not leave without you.

I read the message through three times then slowly place my phone on the desk, careful and cautious as if it’s made of glass. Well…okay then. A part of me wants to laugh, because after the agonizing of the last few hours the simple, benign sincerity of those 22 well-chosen words comes perilously close to anti-climax. And then I feel like crying, because of course I know what it really means. You’re entirely aware that I’m sat in a room somewhere freaking out; you know what I’m thinking. This is your way of saying that you’re waiting for me, just like you said you would. It means that you have confidence in me to make the right (wrong) decision. You’re not going to threaten or coerce. You’re just going to wait. And in that moment I have a sudden sense of how much I must really mean to you, because it’s obvious that unless I’m prepared to come to you consciously and wholeheartedly then you’d rather I didn’t come at all.

Now my legs feel like they’re going to give way, so I sit on the bed and run my hands through my hair. “I don’t know what to do,” I say; and I hate how small and piteous my voice sounds. But it’s true, so I say it again, and then again; as if by acknowledging it enough times the Universe will take pity on my humility and proffer up a solution. The sense of confusion is crushing, like trying to unravel an impenetrable Zen kōan: I can’t live with you but I can’t live without you. I can’t go with you but I can’t stay here on my own. In accepting you I can’t accept myself. I can. I can’t. I will. I won’t. I half want to smash something else to expel the tension, but there’s no point in fucking up the room any more than I already have, so settle for pounding my heel against the floor instead until the person next door bangs on the wall and yells at me to keep the goddamn noise down.

The pressure of it all is unbearable, and in the end I’m so wrecked and overwhelmed that I collapse backwards onto the bed and fall asleep on top of the covers, fully clothed and with my feet still on the floor. Inevitably I dream about you. You’re standing by the side of the cliff, imposing and statuesque with your hands in your pockets. I can see you very clearly, even though it’s completely dark where I am because the light’s missing – it’s all surrounding you. I want to go towards you since it feels like the right place for me to be, but I can’t because it’s impossible to move. Something’s holding me back, weighing me down. Just one step, I think, just one; but I can’t and you don’t make any attempt to reach me yourself. I try to say your name but I can’t even manage that, and in the end you just turn and start walking away without looking back. I want to tell you not to go, not to leave me again, but whatever it is that’s preventing me is too powerful and I end up sinking helplessly onto the floor. It can’t end like this, I think frantically, not like this, not after everything: you walking off and me sinking down…it wasn’t supposed to end like this. I open my mouth to call out to you but I don’t have any words for it and it’s at that point that I wake up: humiliatingly and gracelessly, screaming and flailing and gasping for breath. The person next door promptly bangs on the wall again. “Why don’t you fuck off!” I yell.

My clothes are drenched with sweat and the sensation is clammy and awful, so I strip them off and go and douse my face with water. My hands are shaking and the water splatters onto the floor, and I make a half-hearted attempt to mop it up before realising that I don’t care; that these tiny details don’t matter. That nothing else matters. My phone’s still on the desk and I want to call you and hear your voice but know there’s no point. I can’t expect you to solve this one for me; I need to find an answer on my own. And you obviously believe the same which is why you haven’t contacted me yourself.

This makes me think about you, and what you might be doing right now. I realize that it’s impossible to say; you could be doing anything. In fact the only thing I can say for certain is what you won’t be doing, which is crumbling and unravelling in the way that I am. Then I have an unnerving sense that somehow you already know what’s going to happen, as if I’m just going through the motions – limping and mutilated and miserable – to drag the remains of myself over a finishing line that you’ve already established weeks ago. You were certainly pushing it enough back at the hotel; by your standards it was positively unsubtle. I frown to myself and replay your words from this morning in my head:

I expect you would like to renounce it? Your volition. Your responsibility.

Your reactions are very ingrained aren’t they? Entrenched yet near the surface; buried in shallow graves.

You claim to be discounting where we are in favor of where we are headed, but I am not entirely convinced it is not the other way round.

When I thought about you before it pushed me over the edge, but now doing the same thing is calming me down; easing me onto a trajectory that’s quieter and more contained than a few hours ago. In fact I’m starting to feel vague contempt towards myself for my previous meltdown: collapsed against a wall and ready to give everything up on a panicked, self-pitying impulse. It was your message that started the change I think: as usual, you know exactly the right thing to say. If you’d threatened me I would have acquiesced; conversely, if you’d commanded what I should do I would have rebelled. As it is, the fact you’ve left me alone to choose my own conclusions has inspired the realization that I owe it to us both to at least try to unravel my current crisis. I can figure this out, I think. I can, one way or the other. All the information is there. I take a few deep breaths, the way you once taught me to do, and begin to mentally scroll through the events that brought me here; deconstructing everything in reverse.

Number one: You deliberately stayed away so I would miss you. And I did. I missed you so much I was half-maddened with it.

Number two: When you finally came back the intensity of the relief was such that I would have done anything you said. And I did. Because I agreed to leave with you.

Number three: You knew I agreed without fully acknowledging the implications. And that wasn’t good enough because you want me with you through informed choice. It’s just like everything else, just like you refusing to touch me until I was capable of fully consenting to it: the constant refrain of 'I want to hear you say it.' So you set me up to start questioning my choice. And I did.

Three, two, one…go.

All those ominous reflections about free will. And you were right – of course you were – because if my decision had been a clear, conscious one I’d hardly be sat here now. The premise wasn’t sound, and so the conclusion fell apart at the first sign of external pressure. My proposition was wrong. If p then q: logical rules of inference. A transformation rule. And it’s then, in that moment, that I finally know what I have to do.

It’s something so simple on one level yet so monumental on another because I have to compel myself to do what I’ve deliberately and actively avoided….which is look beyond the glamour and beguilement and scrape off the surface gilt and face up to the full reality of my situation. Who you are. Who I am. The exact nature of what it is that I’m ultimately going to accept or renounce. You told me this morning that I wasn’t thinking about the determinants, so that’s what I’m going to have to do. I have to really think about it. So I wrap myself up in a blanket and I lie on the bed, and I stare at the ceiling. And for the first time since I woke up in a hospital bed to find you gone, I really force myself to think about it.

I don’t spare you and – because I can’t hide anymore – I don’t spare myself.