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How Brittle The Bones

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(1994)


A symmetry of absences. Mirror images reflecting empty spaces, voids filled with unkept promises. It’s what they are, what they have always been. They are containers, a thin layer of skin holding blood and bones, and deadly intent. They are murderers and victims, a full package if there ever was one, and they are all for free. Their cost is an empire, it is pain and death. They are a wound. Something that can’t heal, will not heal, will not forget. Peter knows this, he knows it all, he knows it well.

It’s rush hour in Manhattan, it’s always rush hour in Manhattan. New York is not his favorite place. It isn’t the people. Peter can handle masses, does better in them, in truth. It’s the act it puts up, pretending to be alive, the single green shoot sprouting through the cracks in the garden of bones, and toxic waste and cement dust that serves as exoskeleton for the sprawling mass of human bodies moving to and fro, like cells down arteries and veins. Cities are cemeteries, places people go to die, to bury dreams and numb their pain, and have their hopes extinguished. There are no bright futures, because time is simultaneous and this version of the present has no light. Nothing grows, without the sun. 

The part he does like is watching. If one pays close attention, stares down at the multitude of fluorescent lights and cars and people, if one listens, it’s equivalent to watching a composer construct and deconstruct, build a piece from scratch and alter, move his hands over the keys in a crescendo, a melody that rises and falls at given intervals, predictable. Every city has a rhythm, a set array of sounds that repeat, like a pattern, over and over, and only end to start again. He likes watching, so he’ll sit out on the fire escape, like today, and he’ll stare.

Olivia wants…something. He’s not sure what, he’s not sure there’s anything he has that is worth giving. It’s not comfort. If she wanted to be comforted she would not flinch every time he puts his hands on her, no matter how deliberate the touch. Like she’s afraid, repulsed. If she wanted to be comforted it would not be him she’s following around, trying to make her presence in every room he’s in seem coincidental, not meeting his eyes. And he hates Larson, the fucking fool, dead and rotting these past six months at the bottom of the river, he hates Bell for giving the order, hates Nina for putting her in charge. And he hates her, the perfect little soldier, just a little. Obedience is a flaw, when dictators with god complexes or CEOs of multibillion corporations call the shots.  

The past few months have been difficult on all of them. Nick and him, they’ve been trying to give her space, to let her heal. They have been waiting, he has been waiting. For a sign, for a word, a gesture. For anything that might tell him to approach, that it’s alright to speak, to touch. He just wants her back, that girl he knew, the one that could make him smile. He misses her, his best friend. Peter doesn’t believe in love. He’s seen too much, at fifteen, to believe something without flaw exists. If he did, he knows, he would have told her he loved her a long time ago. He would have whispered it, like a secret as she fell asleep beside him on the couch, her head in his lap, Nick mumbling gibberish in dreams against his side. But it won’t happen, because Peter’s good at lying, very, very good, but in this there’s only truth: love does not exist. It’s a social construct, built on ages of despair, one more mechanism for coping. He won’t lie to her.

Peter stands, and stretches. His knees pop. They’ve been doing that ever since he hit a growth spurt last spring. He knows it’ll pass, eventually, but eventually is not now, and they hurt. He grimaces, and climbs down the stairs because when you think of the devil and he doesn’t magically appear you gotta look for him, the slacker. Or her, in this instance. It’s not like he can stay away, anyway. He is tired of waiting.

The lock on her window has always been ridiculously easy to pick. He could probably do it with his eyes closed and his hands tied. Today, though, it is unlocked, the alarms deactivated. It’s how he knows she has been waiting for him — she always triple checks her locks, sleeps with a knife under her pillow even though they’re outfitted with a security system to rival the pentagon, paranoid. It’s as close to an invitation as he’ll ever get. He takes off his shoes (god forbid Nina Sharp finds shoe prints on her floor, whenever she gets home) and steps inside.

She’s in the living room, in shorts, bare feet folded under her on the chair as she turns the weathered page of a book he knows she’s read a thousand times. The one about a boy with his name, who dies in the end, for love. He doesn’t say anything about it, he has never said anything about it. He doesn’t think she reads it for the content. It’s one of the few things she has from another life, from her house on the base, before it burned.  She knows he’s here, of course. The line of her shoulders is tense, and it stings because there was a time his presence was welcome, relaxing.

“Hey,” he says, leaning against the wall opposite her, only a murmur loud enough for her to hear. Olivia closes the book, sets it gently on the coffee table to her right, and looks at him. She gives him a smile, or what passes for a smile these days. 

“Hey,” she says back, looking him over. There’s something strange in her expression, something like curiosity poking at his mind. It’s more initiative than she’s shown in months, so he doesn’t block. He just wants to be around her, and that’s something she already knows.

“Where’s Nick?” he asks. His door was open, his room empty when Peter peeked inside as he walked by, and it’s unusual for him to be out when Olivia clearly hasn’t left the house all day.

She shrugs.

“Dunno. He didn’t say. He’s enjoying himself, though,” there’s no resentment in her voice, in fact, there’s no emotion. She’s really good at that, too good.

“How do you feel about doing the same?” 

“Running errands?” she says, an eyebrow raised, purposefully dim. She’s baiting him, for the first time in what seems like years, and Peter feels like maybe someone should cheer or applaud. This is a runner up for the longest conversation they’ve had in the past three months, maybe two if he includes that time they got the takeout order wrong at Gianni’s — Peter has been counting. He snorts. 

“Enjoying yourself. Y’ know, fun? That thing you do when you don’t really give a shit about whatever it is you’re actually doing because you’re getting a kick out of it? There may also be actual ass kicking and/or laughter involved, but that’s optional.”

Olivia blinks, “what did you have in mind?”

 

******

 

They end up sprawled side by side on Nick’s bed, Die Hard playing on the VHS they’d bought him for Christmas a couple of years ago. They don’t really celebrate, there’s nothing to be thankful for, but Nick has always insisted they at least find each other something, if only to make the date on the calendar count. Christmas and birthdays, the two things Nick has declared sacred. 

This is about the thirtieth time they’ve seen this movie, and Olivia has been able to recite it from memory ever since Nick bought the tape, about a year back. It is not the only film in his collection, the one that’s almost big enough to cover the left wall of the room in identical black rectangles the size of one of Peter’s hands,  but it’s never failed to amuse her and it doesn’t seem like it’s about to start. Everything is silly: the loudness of the violence, the sound of celery being smashed into puree every time a punch connects on the screen, the way blood looks more like ketchup than anything else after every kill. It’s decidedly a fantastical account, she knows this from experience. She’s killed men. Not many, and not often, but she has. It is both a whole lot messier and much more simple than Hollywood makes it look to audiences that would like to be in the center of the action, however subconsciously. It’s also quicker, most of the time. She does not particularly enjoy killing. That’s not to say she regrets any of her kills, they were all jobs, numbers on a board, orders that she has been taught to follow. It’s what she’s been made for, just one more thing that sets them all apart.

Action films are more like comedies, to her kind. It’s the reason she’s always preferred them over other genres. Drama titles reek with a particular brand of idealism that she doesn’t find palatable, they mostly end up well, and the ones that don’t are too close to reality for her to truly enjoy — art imitates life, perhaps, but she doesn’t want to pay for tragedies other than their own. Actual comedies are a waste of time, even if there’s one or two that she’s never been able to resist, mostly due to Nick’s insistence and Peter’s particular persuasion. Most sci-fi looks like a fictitious account of their every day reality, so those are usually discarded or held up for cold dissection and analysis of facts, unless the title happens to start with Star something, and then the house becomes a battlefield to rival Waterloo, because Peter and Nick have never been able to agree on which is best. On this she mostly sides with Peter, there’s something about Star Trek that always manages to pull her in, however reluctantly, whenever she catches him watching on TV. Horror’s mostly bullshit, but it’s a reminder that monsters do exist, that they wear human faces and hide behind warm smiles (she knows this because she’s one of them). She never goes anywhere near one of those, regardless of the fact that the boys seem to enjoy them far too much.

It’s funny, how they’ve built the illusion of normality around everything they do. This, here, lying beside him mouthing lines of dialogue that he’ll respond to under his breath is representative of the way they’ve always worked, minus Nick. Except if things were normal his arm would be around her waist, his hand warm against her thigh as they laughed at any and everyone of  Bruce Willis’ ridiculously complicated stunts. Instead, he watches her, a foot of empty space between them on Nick’s king sized bed, and thinks she doesn’t notice. It’s all he does, nowadays, it’s what their interactions have been reduced to, and she knows the blame is hers. She hates it. 

She hates that he’s tentative, that he refuses to touch her because he thinks she doesn’t want him to. Hates that she has no idea how to ask, to tell him it’s alright. Hates that every time he does touch her she tenses on instinct, because she can’t predict his hands on her the way she would if she could feel him the same way she does Nick, if she could know which way he’ll go before he does. Peter is hesitant, restrained in a way he’s never been, like he’s afraid, like he’s…disgusted. And maybe she makes him a little sick, because she’s broken and ugly underneath, and he’s always liked to fix things but he’s realized he can’t fix her, and maybe he feels like it’s his job to be around, to pick up her slack, just in case she really does go out of her mind, some day. Because no matter what they say, she failed. She got that information, but she failed. 

Maybe he doesn’t touch her because he no longer wants to. It’s something she has failed to consider, because this is Peter, and he’s the boy that has kept them sane with his hands and his wit and his ability to make the direst of circumstances feel like child’s play, and she doesn’t want to think she might have lost that too. 

Olivia reaches out, and grabs his hand. Peter startles, tenses. He turns a little, just enough to fully face her, and she can see him swallow heavily but he’s not moving away, and maybe she can breathe a little better now.

“Liv?” he asks, shortening her name with a sigh, like there’s not enough air in the room, and he looks at her with an expression so complex that she has no idea what he feels, not even when she peeks into his head and tastes it for herself, “is something wrong?”

She shakes her head, because there’s an endless list of things that fall in that category, each one greater than the next, but he’s not one of them. He’s always patient, always worried, always there. And she wants him. She wants him because he understands, because he knows her in a way that no one else ever will, because it’s give and take and he never asks for more than she can give, because he looks into the darkness that no one else has ever seen, that Nick chooses to ignore to save her from it and himself, and he does not pull back. She has kissed him before, that one time a couple of years ago when they’d gotten roaring drunk on a couple of bottles of scotch that he’d found stashed inside Bell’s desk (they’d replaced them later, and he’d been none the wiser, but she still remembers the hangover the next day. Poor Nick hadn’t made it to the bed all night. It’d not been pleasant). Olivia kisses him now, sober, simply presses her lips briefly against his as he forms another word, captures his lower lip between her teeth, her eyes open, testing his reaction. 

Peter doesn’t melt into the kiss. The notion is laughable. It’s more like snapping, like she’s cut some tether that held him still, and he opens his mouth under hers without hesitation, his brow furrowed, eyes shut tight, almost like it hurts. He’s crushing her hand one second, and then he’s releasing it, bringing his hand up to cup her face as the other slowly circles her waist, pulling her closer, his palm large enough to cover the entirety of her cheek and then some. His touch is always light, but it’s also solid. He’s not possessive, just assertive, but she never thinks of going anywhere. He’s warm to the touch, warm in the back of her mind, inviting. The kiss is sloppy, unfamiliar until he slows them down, rubs at the corner of her mouth with his thumb like he’s showing her the rhythm. It’s…tender, she thinks, if it can be called anything.

It’s too much. Olivia takes a shaky breath, presses harder against him and curls her hand on the short hair of his nape, trying to segue into something that feels a little less like he’s ripping her chest open and crawling inside without permission. She’s not cut for that sort of thing, and she doesn’t want him to believe she is, doesn’t want to disappoint him. She drags her other hand between them, down his chest, where his heart beats just a little too fast. Down, until she’s cupping his crotch, over his jeans, where he’s already hard beneath her palm. Peter groans into the kiss, separates her lips from his to breathe. This is something she can handle, something she understands. 

It seems like it works. He moves his hand away from her face and helps her unzip his pants without a word as he moves to kiss her jaw, his breathing heavy. He’s never questioned her decisions. He smooths his palm over her back, over her ass and the back of her thigh, hitching her leg over his hip to fit himself to her, leaving small bites on his way down the side of her neck, marking a trail with lips and teeth and tongue until she’s panting. She pushes his pants down with hands and feet, inch by inch, until they’re low enough on his legs for him to kick off the rest of the way, throwing them off the mattress without finesse — not that she cares. Her shirt follows soon enough, his hands greedy, touching everywhere they can, like he needs to memorize her, lest she disappear. 

And then he’s moving them around, rolling to the side until she’s flat on her back, his hips nested firmly between her legs, his weight pushing her down, down, down. It feels like being pushed over a ledge, like missing the last step down the stairs, and she’s somewhere else, and there are windows all around her and it smells like fear-sweat. Her breathing hitches, and she shakes, and just like that she’s pushing him away. 

She hears him curse, but she can’t look at him. She shuts her eyes and forces deep breaths down her throat, trying to rid herself of the queasy feeling bubbling at the bottom of her sternum, thumping her head against the top bar of the headboard, willing him to be angry at her and not the world. She can work with anger, she just doesn’t want to see the pitying look at the bottom of his stare that’s sure to be there when he looks at her. And why is he still kneeling there, why is he still waiting? Can’t he see there’s nothing left that might be worth his trouble? 

Her hands are shaking.

“I’m sorry,” she whispers, and it doesn’t sound like her at all. She’s sorry she’s a failure, and she's sorry she’s dragged him down with her, and she’s sorry there’s nothing more to her but this. She swallows, and waits for him to leave so she can break in private. Just a little more, just a little harder, please, and thanks but I think you missed a spot, it really isn’t bad enough.

“Please, explain to me what the fuck you’re sorry for,” he says, gruff, his voice restrained, and he’s closer than she expects, sitting beside her on the bed, his hip against the outside of her thigh, “because I still don’t get why you’re apologizing when I’m the asshole trying to get in your pants, and let’s not stop there: explain to me why you’re the one that’s sorry that some sleaze ball fucked you and you couldn’t do shit about it when your orders said you needed him alive. And while you’re at it, enlighten me, and let me know why the fuck everything’s your fault.”

Peter huffs, when she has no response (because really, there’s nothing she can say to make it better, not even to save him from herself), and slumps a little, like someone’s zapped his strength away. He rests his head against her shoulder, lets his hand fall softly on her collarbone, his thumb drawing circles on the hollow of her throat, in time with her pulse against his palm. He just waits, and waits, and waits.

 “You’re not a machine, ‘Livia, it’s …it’s ok to feel like this,” he says it softly, so softly. Soft enough that she can pretend she never heard.

Would he be here, she wonders, if he knew how wrong he is? She doesn’t think she wants the answer.

“You are kind of an asshole, aren’t you?” she asks instead, kissing his temple, trying to steer him away from meaningful conversation. She’s no good discussing feelings.

“The one and only,” he says, catching on, indulging her because he always indulges her, and some habits are too deeply engrained to break, because even though he’s better, he’s no good at it either. 

He lets his hand fall down to rest above her hip, dragging his knuckles slowly down her chest, under her breast, until he’s cradling her ribcage, pressing his fingers in the small spaces between her bones. He pulls her to him then, until she’s somehow straddling him, flush against his chest, his hands flat on her bare back, and warm, his head fitted gently on the downward slope of her neck. Peter breathes softly on her skin, and Olivia shivers. He touches her too naturally, at ease with physical comfort, the way he’s always been, and he’s too close. 

“Still hoping to get in my pants?” she asks, mouth pressed against his hair, because she can still feel the throb of his erection against her upper thigh and she needs to distract him, needs for him to move away, if only for a while. She wants him to joke, to make it better, to make her laugh and pretend that nothing’s happened, that his embrace is inconsequential, meaningless. She rolls her hips a little.

The human body, unlike the mind, has a predictable set of responses to determined stimuli. Peter doesn’t make a sound, doesn’t acknowledge her question, but his hips thrust up to meet her, rubbing slowly, deliberately, and Olivia thinks she knows the answer. He moves his head from her neck, leans back on his hands, away from her, and stares, and she’s never really seen him look at her like she’s a code his mind can’t break, a puzzle he can’t solve, but he’s doing it now and she’s not sure she likes it. She feels wobbly, unsteady. His hand reaches out, brushes her hair away from her face, and his fingers linger. He kisses her, this time, and it’s not asking questions, and it’s not demanding, but it’s Peter and it’s hungry, and if she digs her nails too hard on his scalp, if she draws a little blood on the back of his neck, it’s all his fault.

Peter is fluid, effective. He unzips, and unsnaps and unclothes until he’s got them naked, perspiration starting to leave wet trails on the locks of hair above his ears, and she needs to remind him to get a haircut later on, when she can think of something other than getting him completely horizontal. He’s too warm, too intense, too close for comfort in a way that has more to do with the friction of his mind against her own than with the feel of his body moving under her. It’s too much, he’s too much, and she’s the only one affected because he hasn’t stopped trying to pick her apart with hands and lips and he’s not even in her for fuck’s sake. She grabs his wrists, and her hands are shackles. She can’t let him have this, she can’t just let him wade through her like he owns the place. It’s all she’s got left, all that remains of her, and it’s twisted and it isn’t pretty but it’s hers and he can’t have it. It’s not like he’ll like it, if he finds it.

The results are immediate: his whole body freezes, his muscles tense up. His eyes are open, questioning and looking and blue, so, so blue. Part of her wishes he’d just leave, stand up and go, but Peter is persistent and he’s patient, and she might think him foolish but she wants him here, wants this just as bad as him.

“Ok, you’re gonna need to tell me what to do, here,” he says, a little breathless, a little frustrated, her hands still tight around his forearms (she wants him not to leave), “because I’m clearly doing things wrong, and I think I’m getting whiplash.”

And Olivia can’t help it, but she laughs. She laughs because he’s too sweet by half, because this whole situation is beyond ridiculous, almost edging into a comedy of errors, and he’s still trying. Because if she doesn’t laugh she’ll cry and all her tears dried up months ago. She props her forehead against his, and finds him smiling wryly.

“Good to know I’m still amusing.”

“Oh, shut up,” she tells him, closing her eyes, “I…I’ve got an idea.”

“Hmm?”

She lets go of his hands, pushing herself away from him to reach down under the bed, where Olivia knows Nick is most likely to have thrown yesterday’s pants. She finds them soon enough, and with them the leather belt that had made her look for them in the first place. Peter raises his eyebrows at the sight.

“Oh,” is all he says, licking his lips, staring at her like she’s both something he hasn’t seen in months and something he’s never seen before. He scoots back on the bed, leans against the headboard, raising his hands to grab the topmost iron bar, signaling approval.

The belt is sturdy, flexible enough. She would’ve preferred using rope, but she doubts Nick keeps any in the room, and going out the door is out of the question. She loops the belt around each hand, leaving room enough to avoid cutting off the flow of blood as she fastens the buckle as tight as it’ll go.  

He’s a sight, naked, sitting back against the pillows with his hands tied behind his head, his throat bared as he looks back at her from under eyelashes so long they should be criminal, his cock flushed red against his belly, legs stretched out without a care. 

“Like what you see?” he asks, his voice an octave lower than she’s used to. There’s something vulnerable about the expression on his face, usually so controlled, always in check. It’s a little unsettling. Arousing but unsettling, or perhaps unsettling because it’s arousing. 

“Maybe,” she says, tilting her head to the side like she’s seriously considering it. Teasing him, because it’s the only thing left that’s familiar in this whole situation. 

She crawls between his legs, scattering small bites on his thighs, rubbing slowly up his knee. His breathing expands under her touch, and she can almost hear him swallow when his throat contracts, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down. She makes her way up until she’s sinking the sharp edges of her teeth on the crest of his hip, her other hand rubbing circles on the smooth skin below his navel, and he gasps. She runs her tongue over the imprint of her teeth and blows cool air on his skin. He growls, a little. 

Olivia chuckles, and makes sure to look him in the eye before she takes his cock into her mouth. 

“Fuck,” he groans, and the headboard clangs as he pulls on his restraints, his jaw clenched tight. He makes little noises, quarters and halves of syllables, of curses. He bangs his head against the wall, and it makes a hollow thud, his hips twitching up of their own accord, “fuck.”

When she lets him go, with one last lick and a soft ‘pop’, he’s positively quivering, gulping air down by the mouthful like a drowning man. She sits up, swinging her leg over his hips until she straddles him, hands splayed on his chest to brace her weight. She licks at his mouth, sucks a drop of sweat running down his upper lip before he lands a bruising kiss. The drumming of his heart is mad, relentless. She leans forward so that she’s pressed against his chest, her cheek on his, and drags her nails across his nipple until he hisses in her ear. It feels good, makes her powerful. Almost peaceful.

“You’re awfully good at this,” he says, nibbling on the corner of her jaw as she combs her fingers through his hair, letting him regain his breath.

“You think?”

“Mmm, yeah,” he kisses her cheek, the corner of her mouth, making his way inward until he’s back at her lips, parting them slowly, tasting her like she’s a treat he’s not used to getting after dinner. He’s tender, and she has no idea how to tell him that the feeling’s wasted. He manages to crowd her, in a room that’s empty but for them, with his hands bound with another guy’s belt behind his head. She pushes away, and he bends his legs on reflex, his feet flat on the bed, cradling her. 

Olivia reaches down behind her, strokes his cock once, twice, and feels him biting at her lip as she guides him in. She shudders, and bites back to keep a moan from fleeing the confines of her throat, feeling him stretch her as she settles on his hips, resting her back against his thighs. He hasn’t stopped watching her, and his eyes are feverish, scanning every inch of flesh before him like he’ll find treasures on maps traced on her skin in invisible ink if he looks hard enough, the muscles in his arms shaking with the effort he puts them through in relieving the tension on his wrists, knuckles white around the bar she’s tied him to like he needs it for support.

Being tied down is driving him crazy, the need for tactile reassurance urgent and instinctual, but it’s imperative that he not touch her. An offer hard to resist, because she’s seen him dismantle radiators without blinking, and has witnessed him play sonatas on the baby grand upstairs like a maestro, and she knows what those hands might do, can do, would do, if she let them. But she can’t, she can’t. She needs to do this for herself, she needs to know that she’s still sharp enough to cut, good enough to kill. She won’t be cowed. It’s only sex, and he’s just a boy — a man, and she needs to be more than this. She is more than this. She can’t be afraid. She’s not afraid.

If only he’d stop looking at her quite like that, everything would be alright.

She needs this to be something other than affection. It’s not about affection, not about comfort, and it doesn’t really matter how good he feels, thrusting slowly underneath her. Sex is about power, about restraint. About control. It’s a weapon, more lethal than many she knows, and she intends to use it, wear it like armor underneath her skin. That way, it cannot hurt her. Weapons can be used, abused, but they never feel a thing. In the end, that’s all she’s meant to be.

 

******

 

You have got to be fucking kidding me.

Sure, Nick had left the house to give them some space. A blind man could have seen they needed to work on actually talking to each other like functional human beings sharing a house. Or at least manage a conversation longer than three words and unrelated to food. But he was most definitely not expecting them to jump each other’s bones the moment he set foot on the fucking subway (he had been waiting for them to actually fuck for too long to say that part surprised him). He was also not expecting to feel like someone was sucking him off when it happened, because as far as he can tell he’s still stuck inside the subway car, the lights are still on above his head, the banshee screeching of the breaks is still ringing clear as day, and the hundred-year-old lady sitting dangerously close to him is still telling him about her lovely granddaughter in hopes he’d like to meet her some day. There are also no hands, mouths, or other such extremities attached to his very clothed hard on at the moment, so, either it’s all in his head or he’s gone raving mad.

And yes, there is a difference.

Give a guy a little leeway, he’s only fourteen, he’s male, he’s healthy — he’s easily excited, but damn, whatever it is that they’ve got going on back at the house, he can rest assured that they’re enjoying themselves. He could really use a helping hand right now. And for the ancient being sitting by him to shut up, yeah, that would be nice. Nick shifts in his seat. He wipes his forehead with shaking fingers, tries to think of ugly things. Of how much he hates summer in New York, how every street smells like a pint of warm piss with a side of rotting garbage under hundred degree weather, of sweat-stained armpits on white t-shirts and the texture of raw egg going down his throat. 

That’s when the contender for wrinkliest palm on planet earth falls on his thigh, and squeezes, and Nick realizes that he’s got bigger, potentially harder, problems at hand.

But of course, only he would get the mummy’s cousin as a neighboring passenger the same day he goes on a rampage of accidental sexual arousal contagion on the MTA’s red line. He seriously needs to get the fuck out of this place, away from these people before he finds himself the instigator of a metro-wide orgy courtesy of Massive Dynamic’s biochemical department, because really: What don’t they do?

The moment the metallic doors open a fraction, Nick is running down the station — whatever station, he had no time to look — and into the nearest restroom he can find. He thanks whatever higher power’s listening when he finds the facilities empty but for a cleaning bucket that has clearly never seen use and an abandoned, solitary mop. He closes the stall’s door and leans against the peeling plaster of the wall, fumbling with his button and zipper ensemble, actually thankful that he’d forgotten his belt in yesterday’s pants as he manages to push his jeans and boxer shorts down. 

 

******

 

Peter wants to speak, but his throat won’t let him.

He’s choking on words he’s always meant to tell her, things he’s been remiss not mentioning. He’s choking because he looks at her, gorgeous long limbs and a universe of freckles, a heartbroken expression in her eyes, and he knows they’re not words she ever wants to hear. And the words, they weigh on him, they put pressure on his chest, occupy the oil-slick space between his skin and hers. They won’t leave his mouth (he won’t lie, he won’t lie).

Olivia licks the sweat off his sternum, bites down hard on his nipple. His hips stutter, loose the rhythm for a beat before he catches on, his feet slipping on the mattress. She buries her head on his neck, her weight braced against his chest. He can feel the strain of every breath, the press of her breasts as she slithers back and forth, and he wants to reach down, to smooth his hands down her back, cup her ass, feel the shaking muscles of her thighs under his hands as he moves inside her. He just wants to touch her, to pull her closer, hold her body tight against his own, but he pulls at his restraints and they won’t give. The leather chafes against his wrists, rubs them raw, but he can take it. He can take it. 

She’s quiet, makes little sounds sometimes, whimpers and muffled groans, and the occasional moan when he gets the angle right, and he knows he could do better if he could touch in kind, but she doesn’t want his hands. He’s got no illusions. He’s a vessel for her torment, a container for her sorrows. He’s always a replacement, the third part to her puzzle. 

And maybe that’s the reason he’s a little rougher than he wants to be, why he draws a little blood from her lip, sucks hard on her skin, until he hears her hiss. Replacements never fit quite like the original thing. 

He moans her name as she moves away, sits back against his thighs, drawing him deeper, and he’s almost there. She’s hot and tight and wet, and she fits perfectly around him, and if he’s woken up just now before the final stretch he’s going to kill someone, if she doesn’t kill him first. Her breathing hitches, her fingers digging into his thighs as her back arches. Her mouth falls open but there is no sound, eyes shut tight like there’s too much light, and then she’s convulsing around him, clenching tight as she falls apart. She kicks a little, on reflex. Peter makes a strangled sound, and follows right behind.

Minutes trickle by, stretching out like hours, the ticking of the clock replaced by the even interval between his breath hers. She lies on his chest, sweaty, boneless, and he’d treasure the moment if he could feel anything above his shoulders.

“Liv,” he says, his voice gruff. 

“Hmm?” She hums against his skin.

“I can’t feel my hands.”

Olivia looks up at that. “Um. Right, sorry,” she says, reaching above him to undo the belt with clumsy fingers. 

The rush of blood into abused extremities is akin to plunging feet in scalding water after walking barefoot in the snow, like needles digging deep into the muscle. Peter winces, and flexes his fingers experimentally as he brings his arms down, careful not to touch her. She surprises him, takes his left hand in her right as she lies back down on him, kneads feeling back into strung out tendons and sore muscle, her head fitted tight under his chin. 

He takes it as permission, envelops her in the other tired arm, throwing it around her back like a rag. She doesn’t protest, doesn’t tense, and so Peter finds himself running prickling fingertips down the sharp nobs of her spine, his cheek lazily pressed against the top of her hair. He lulls himself to sleep, breathing deep. And if he notices she’s wide awake as he lets go of consciousness he pays no mind.

 

******

 

Nick leans on the jamb, lingers on the threshold to his room. He has no idea how to feel, probably because Olivia has no idea how to feel. The shower shuts off, the tap creaking slightly, the way it always does after it’s been open for a while. He leaves the light off, lets Peter rest. It’s a day for surprises. 

He drops his bag just inside the door, takes off his socks and pads barefoot into the kitchen, gets himself a glass of milk. She finds him, soon enough.

“I didn’t hear you come in,” she says, toweling down her hair, wearing sweats he’s sure used to be Peter’s — or his, he can’t remember.

“You were in the shower. Had fun?” it’s not like he’ll turn a blind eye to the fact that a) he had to jack off in a subway station, b) they (finally) fucked, c) They fucked in his room, d) They fucked in his room, and they didn’t wait for him — ok, scratch that last one, it might be putting too much on their plates just now. She blushes prettily. She does everything prettily. Except, perhaps, kick his ass for voicing that thought, so he keeps quiet.

“Not your business.”

“See, I would’ve respected that, even though I could feel it all like I was the one fucking him, I would have respected that. Except the sweaty, naked guy who, by the way, could make a living off his ass, is passed out on my bed, and that guy happens to also live in some secluded, dusty corner of your chemically exceptional brain, so no, I ain’t buyin’ that, darling. Besides, he’s my friend, he would want me to do damage control in case his performance was subpar,” he manages the whole thing with a straight face, and really, he should get an Academy Award. 

“Well, it wasn’t,” she says, but her smile is wan, and she won’t meet his eyes. Something’s very wrong in here, and Nick has an idea what that might be about, because she’s been stuck in a very delicate situation (though delicate is not a word he would associate with her) over the last few months, but he doesn’t like to make assumptions. He’s sussing her out, testing the waters. She’s closed off, wound tight around herself, and that jingles all the warning bells inside his head.

Sex complicates nothing. He knows this from experience. Olivia isn’t sentimental, and romance might as well stay dead where she’s concerned. Peter knows that just as well as him.

“So, what should I tell him when he wakes up in the middle of the night and finds he’s snuggled into me and not you?”

“I…Nick, don’t,” she says, finally looking back, hand outstretched like she can put the words back in his mouth if she tries hard enough. Nick mellows, that was all he needed to know. 

Sex complicates nothing, but feelings do. Feelings make a mess of everything they touch. 

“Hey, it’s fine,” he says, putting an arm around her shoulders, “I’ll just tell him he snores.” She chuckles despite herself, and he counts it as a small victory. They both know he’ll say nothing, because Peter will not ask. 

No, Peter will understand. He’ll understand too much and too little at the same time, and he won’t say a thing. The wound will heal or it will fester; either way, they’ll stick together. 

It’s what they do.