Adam can’t quite look at him head-on, but he takes in Nigel in pieces. Nicotine-stained fingers with brittle fingernails, a collared shirt that stretches tight around thick, muscled arms. When Adam skirts his eyes up toward Nigel’s face, he sees crooked, sharp-pointed teeth and a half-naked woman winking from his neck.
“What’s your name, gorgeous?” Nigel asks.
He’s handsome, but that’s not what pushes the wind from Adam’s lungs. It’s not even that he looks dangerous with a fang-lined grin and sleepy, hooded eyes.
It’s that he looks just like Hannibal.
There’s a moment where Adam can’t identify the feeling he’s having. Where the prickle along his skin and the fluttering in his stomach might be the first stirrings of attraction, and his heart might be speeding because he’s happy and not because he’s still struggling to calm down after Freddie. The seconds stretch between them, full of clear, bright possibility—
—and then Adam can identify the feeling just fine. It’s nausea and illness and a need to peel his skin right off, and his ears start ringing, and he’s sick on Nigel’s shoes.
“Whoa! Whoa, kid.” He’s stepping back, away, out of the line of fire, and Adam is so stupid, why is he always so stupid. Now this stranger is going to be angry, going to yell at him, and—
Hands are on his shoulders, steering him, pushing him down onto the bench behind him, and Adam doesn’t even think. His arm swings out and his fist connects with Nigel’s nose.
“What the fuck! Kid.” Nigel is glaring at him, pressing his nose which is freely pouring blood, and Adam is hyperventilating.
He looks like he might hit Adam or yell, but something he sees must change his mind about how mad he should be because he takes one look, and his face softens.
“Hey,” he reaches for Adam’s shoulder. Adam makes an involuntary keening noise and cringes back against the acrylic wall—stupid—and Nigel lets his hand fall. “Okay, okay, no touching, got it.”
Nigel takes a step back, and it helps, a little. The air gets a little thinner, feels less like it’s choking him. Adam can breathe. He can. He closes his eyes and thinks of a stream. He’s never seen a stream except on tv and in Central Park, so his mind makes do. He thinks of the cascading light of the cosmos reflected over his bedroom walls, imagines a river of stars. He wades into them barefoot, feels them tickle his shins.
"Jesus, are you okay?"
He keeps his eyes squeezed tight and shuts it all out. Nigel who’s still saying something, the cars driving by, the people staring at him. He knows stars smell like combustion, like burnt fuel and soot, but in his mind the stream smells light and clean. Like laundry detergent and fresh bread. There’s a woman’s voice in the distance, and the stars are all singing.
He opens his eyes after several minutes have passed and he feels… better. Not good—he feels tired and wrung out, but he feels more in control. Less like he’s going to lose his mind, shatter into a million pieces, a million points of light. He’s surprised to see that Nigel’s still there, with blood dripping down his nose and chin looking at Adam like he doesn’t know what to do.
“You didn’t have to stay,” Adam says. You’re supposed to apologize when you’ve done something wrong. “I’m sorry for hitting you in the face. And for throwing up on your shoes.”
Adam doesn’t know what he’s expecting. For Nigel to be angry, probably, so he’s surprised when Nigel laughs. It’s a big, sudden laugh that makes Adam start.
He’s too tired to be properly angry, but his face darkens. “You don’t have to laugh at me.”
“I’m not laughing at you, gorgeous. It’s just my fucking luck, isn’t it? Just my luck to meet a damsel in distress with a face like an angel and a mean right hook.”
His face. Adam brings a hand to it automatically. He shares a face with someone, and it isn’t an angel. It isn’t an angel at all.
Nigel sighs. “I’m fucking this all up, aren’t I, darling?”
Adam shakes his head. He’s doing this wrong. Why does he always do everything wrong? “It’s not you. It’s— I’m not good with people. I never have been, and I am even worse at it now. I’m sorry to have bothered you and thank you for saving me from Freddie.”
He sticks out his hand to shake. Nigel eyes it for a moment before rolling his eyes and ignoring it.
"Look, I can't just leave you alone like this. You’re shaking like a leaf, and I wouldn’t be able to sleep thinking something happened to you. Is there—shit, I don't know, is there someone I can call to pick you up or something?"
“No. I catch the bus home.” Adam’s eyes widen as he realizes what he’s said. Now this man knows he lives somewhere along the 15 bus line. He could find Adam and do things to him, never mind that he seems nice. Will seemed nice too. Adam’s been so good about not talking to strangers and now this. It’s pathetic that all it takes is someone being nice to him. Pathetic. Stupid.
Nigel keeps talking, oblivious to Adam’s self-loathing. "Okay, uh, do you live far from here? Can I call you a cab or something?"
Adam can't talk past the panic clawing up his throat so he just shakes his head.
Nigel runs a hand through his hair with another sigh. “Christ, kid. You’re not making this easy, are you? I really don’t want to leave you here. Is it okay if I wait with you until your bus comes?”
Adam should say no. He should say no and tell this man to go away. But he’s so nice, and Adam is tired, and he feels like crying again. A couple looks at them as they walk past, holding hands and whispering to one another while they stare.
“Hey! Fuck off and mind your own business,” Nigel snarls at them. He’s stopped bleeding, but there’s blood dried around his mouth. He looks terribly frightening. The couple must think so too because the girl gasps and the man pulls her away by the arm as they hurry down the street avoiding eye contact. “Stupid fucks,” Nigel mutters.
If Adam thinks back on it later, he’ll identify that as the moment he decided to say, “I’d rather walk. I live about half an hour away if you’d like to walk with me.”
For a moment Adam wonders if he’s said the wrong thing, if that’s too much to ask of a stranger who probably has other things to do today, but Nigel smiles at him. “I’d love to, darling.”
He doesn’t try to touch Adam, doesn’t offer to help him to his feet and doesn’t put a hand on his shoulder, his arm, or any other part of him. He does keep himself between Adam and the road, shielding him from traffic and glaring at people until they look away. It’s then that Adam decides to say, “My name is Adam.”
Nigel grins, slow and crooked and easy. “It’s nice to meet you, Adam.”
* * *
"I'm sorry again," Adam says. "About your shoes."
They talk and walk at the same time. It’s easier when he doesn’t have to face Nigel, when he has grass and buildings and dogs to look at instead. He sees more walking than he does from the bus window, passing familiar shops and parks in slow motion.
Nigel chuckles. "It's not the worst these shoes have seen, darling. Don't worry about it."
Adam tilts his head. “Why do you keep calling me that?”
“Calling you what?”
“Darling, gorgeous, kid.”
Nigel shrugs. “Why not?”
Adam’s brow furrows. “That’s not a reason.”
Another shrug. “Reason enough to me.”
“That doesn’t make sense.”
Nigel lifts an eyebrow. “You mean to tell me you never do anything just because you want to? Just because you feel like it? Not everything has to have a reason. Some things just are.”
“Asking you to walk me home,” Adam says after a long stretch of silence.
“What about it?”
“Something I did just because I felt like it, without a good reason.”
Nigel slaps a hand over his heart like he’s been wounded. “I’m hurt, darling. You mean the pleasure of my company isn’t reason enough for you?”
Adam frowns, wondering if he’s said something wrong. “No, I mean you—” he cocks his head. “You’re joking, aren’t you?”
“I’m joking,” Nigel agrees. “You’re a strange kid, Adam.”
Adam has heard those words a lot, or if not those exact words, then ones just like them. They don’t sting when Nigel says them, though. Nigel says them with a smile, like it’s part of a joke and Adam is included. Like Nigel wants to laugh with him and not at him. It makes Adam want to smile too.
* * *
The walk is pleasant. It clears Adam’s head, and he finds himself surprised and disappointed when it comes to an end, when they find themselves outside familiar wrought iron gates.
“This is where I live,” Adam says.
Nigel nods, looking up at the apartment building. “Nice place.”
“It is. It reminds me of where I lived in New York. The railings look the same although this building is three stories shorter and was constructed in 1991 while that one was built in the '70s. They’re two completely different styles of architecture. Many buildings in California are inspired by Spanish architecture, and the homes are often poorly insulated despite the cold temperatures the area can reach in the wintertime.” He cuts himself off when he sees Nigel looking at him with a strange smile on his face. “I’m sorry, I’m talking too much.”
“Don’t stop on my account. I could listen to you all day, gorgeous. You know a lot of things about a lot of things, don’t you?”
Adam swallows. He clenches his fists and blurts it out, "I don't want you to come upstairs."
Nigel blinks. Nods and leans in. "Okay, but only if you promise me one thing."
Ice water crawls down Adam's spine. He knew it. He knew it. No one is this nice. Nigel wants something, same as everyone. "What?" Adam asks, voice gone prickly and mean.
There's that crooked smile again. "Don't pick any more fights with mean little redheads when I’m not around."
For the first time in weeks, Adam smiles back.
* * *
Adam thinks about Hannibal a lot. He’s never far from Adam’s mind.
Adam doesn’t go to see a therapist. He still doesn’t want to talk about it even though everything he reads online says he should. Talking about the trauma with a trusted person is supposed to help him heal, but Adam doesn’t trust anyone and he doesn’t want to talk about it. He reaches for the breathing exercises Hannibal taught him often. Finds himself picturing his river of stars and letting their quiet light fill him.
He feels worse than he has in years, maybe in his entire life. He’s out of control and out of his depth, but he has fewer outbursts. The same men broke him and fixed him, and he doesn’t know how to think about that. He just… tries not to.
Hannibal was kind to Adam, sort of, but that doesn’t mean Adam’s not afraid. Hannibal features in all his nightmares, a slick, cool voice wrapping around him while he sleeps. Some nights the nightmares wake him. It’s bad when he wakes up scared, alone in the dark and for a second he’s not sure where he is. He feels like he can’t move and thinks maybe he’s still there—maybe he never got out.
But his arms aren’t tied and when he calms down he can move them, can push them trembling through his hair and shove himself up out of bed, can turn on the tap to brush his teeth and chase away the taste of blood where he’s bitten through his cheek.
Those nights are so bad, but the other nights are worse.
The other nights, when he wakes up panting and aching, cock straining painfully against his pajama bottoms.
The first night it happens, he very resolutely does not touch himself. He closes his eyes and counts to ten and wills the erection to fade on its own. It doesn’t work so he counts to ten again, then again and again. He gets back to sleep eventually, but not before the cloudy winter dawn seeps in through his windows.
Some nights it works like that.
Some nights it doesn’t. It’s maddening and it keeps him up, and he wants nothing more than the oblivion of sleep, so he touches. His hand finds its way to the brushed flannel of his pajamas, and he presses against the seam just to relieve some of the pressure. He sighs as soon as the heel of his hand makes contact, rocking into it just a little bit. It’s not enough; he just wants to go back to sleep so badly he could cry, so he snakes a hand beneath his waistband, pushes his pants low around his hips.
It’s the first time he’s touched himself in weeks, the first time anyone’s touched him since—since, and it feels good in a way that makes him feel sick. He hears Hannibal’s voice in his head when he curls his hand around his own skin. He lets his grip tighten, and one, two, three strokes and he’s coming, making a mess of his sheets and biting the hand clapped over his mouth. He feels ill afterward, but at least he can roll over and go to sleep if he doesn’t roll in the wet spot.
He just wants to sleep.
It becomes a habit. He tries to think of other things—anything. Anything else. Pornography, Beth, even Nigel from the bus stop. It ends with him chafing himself raw, half-soft and unable to come, sobbing into his pillow with frustration. So he does what works, tells himself it’s only logical. It’s just masturbation, it doesn’t have to mean anything. It’s a natural and healthy biological function, excellent for prostate health—
He knows that. He knows it, so why doesn’t it make him feel less guilty?
He touches himself and thinks of Hannibal’s voice in his ear, saying things he never said like good boy and that’s it and just take it a little deeper, you can do it, can’t you? and he comes so hard he sees stars.