Adam visits a river in his dreams. It isn’t his river of stars, not exactly. It’s more real than the fairytale images his brain conjures in the daylight—his river is nothing like the real thing, but it calms him all the same.
This place is full of rushing water, green and murky. The sun filters through the trees and dapples his hands and face. He has the niggling sense that where he’s standing is an actual place that exists in the world, although he’s certain he’s never been there. Maybe he saw it on television once, an image lost to the stew of memory, regurgitated and remixed while his brain sleeps on.
But that doesn’t explain the scent. It smells like salt water and pine. When something brushes his legs in the water, slick and fast, he feels the drag of skin and scales. In the corner of his eye, a thing with feathers. He’s afraid to turn his head to look.
Adam knows what dreams are. He knows that they don’t mean anything, that they’re the unconscious processes of a brain at play, filing away things thought and seen and heard during the day. Unspooling memories for longterm storage.
He knows this, and yet he can’t shake the feeling that someone is there in the dark of his mind, watching him. Waiting for him.
When he wakes, he wakes with a start.
* * *
Adam doesn’t know what he was expecting, but it wasn’t this. He expected threats, maybe. Photographs. Something to taunt him and turn his stomach inside out. The envelope holds nothing menacing, just a short letter on a piece of expensive paper.
I hope this finds you well, or as well as can be expected under the circumstances. I apologize for leaving the way we did. Time was a pressing concern, as I’m sure you understand. I’m writing because we believe it would be beneficial for you to begin a therapeutic relationship with a trusted counselor. As it’s unlikely you’ve already done so, I’ve taken the liberty of including two suitable candidates.
Some sexual assault victims have a preference for gender when selecting a therapist. I’m uncertain which you prefer, so I’ve included both a man and woman. I expect you’ll want to do your own research, but I can attest that they’re both excellent psychiatrists who specialize in trauma recovery. Feel free to choose whomever suits you best. Pick someone who makes you feel safe.
Both of us send our regards.
There’s no signature. He didn’t think there would be. He doesn’t need a signature to know who it’s from. He traces his finger across the phrase both of us and jerks it back as though he’s been bitten.
He might have preferred threats and photographs. This makes him feel… guilty. Complicit. It makes him feel so angry he could scream.
He slides down the wall to the floor and sets the paper down with shaking hands. He flattens it out, pressing the creases out of it with a thumbnail once, twice. He stares at the words like they might change into something that makes sense. They don’t.
Beneath the body of a letter, there are two names along with phone numbers and addresses. Marcia L. Brown and James K.D. Jacobs.
Adam neatly folds the letter and puts it away, then screams into a pillow until he’s hoarse.
* * *
Nigel feels like sunshine. It feels good just to stand beside him.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Right now Adam is pacing the floor of his apartment while Nigel watches him from the couch. They’d agreed to meet here this time—Adam’s suggestion. Nigel is a wrench in his routine, but he’d like to keep to it as much as possible. The outside is too loud. There are too many people who look at him and too many things to look at. It’s less overwhelming here.
Adam hadn’t quite realized how hard it would be, though, having Nigel in his space. (His bed is right there and what if Nigel holds him down and what if his neighbors aren’t home and he screams and screams and—)
Nigel sits on the couch and watches him pace.
“Would you like something to drink?” Adam asks.
Nigel holds up his glass of water. “You already got me. Adam, do you want to sit down? You’re making me nervous with all the pacing.”
“Oh. Sorry, I—uh.” Adam bolts into the kitchen to stand in front of the refrigerator, staring into the open door.
He hears the clink of a glass being set down, the heavy footfalls behind him. He still jumps when Nigel’s voice sounds so close to his ear. Nigel closes the refrigerator door gently. “Come sit down,” he says. “Please.”
Adam looks at the floor. He’s acting weird. He’s being a bad host. He’d invited Nigel over, and Nigel feels like sunshine, but—
“It’s alright, darling. I’m not going to hurt you. Is there a reason you don’t want to? Something I can do, or not do, or…?” Nigel’s voice is gentle. He cocks his head and his hair catches the sunlight. It paints his cheek and lip golden, and Adam wants to taste, to see if they’re as smooth as they look.
Instead he blurts it out, says, “I was raped. Recently. I—I’m nervous around strangers. I’m nervous around men, but I like you a lot.”
Nigel does not seem surprised. He runs a hand through his hair, says, “Yeah, I figured it was something like that.”
“What?” All the air leaves Adam at once. “You can tell? Can everyone tell?”
“I doubt most people can tell. You’re just—you’re twitchy in this certain way. I’ve known people who were twitchy like that, girls mostly. Girls whose old man touched them the wrong way or who got jumped walking home from the club.” Nigel nods at him. “How about you, your dad? Ex-boyfriend?”
Adam flinches. Something crawls up his throat, a feeling that might be anger and might be panic. He swallows around the feeling, tries to swallow it back down.
“Not my dad, not— I don’t have a—” He swallows again. Gulps down air. Why does his throat feel so sticky? He’s breathing too fast, but he can’t slow down.
Nigel holds a hand up to his cheek but doesn’t touch. He lets his hand fall before Adam can lean into it. “Look, I—that was shit of me. It’s none of my fucking business, yeah? Forget I asked.”
Adam breathes. He finds his stream, wades in a river of stars.
“No, it’s okay,” he says when he can talk again. “You didn’t make me tell you. I brought it up. I decided to. It’s not wrong that you want to ask questions.” He squeezes his eyes shut tight because it makes it easier to say the words, and they come out all in a rush. “Have you heard of Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham?”
Nigel frowns. “The cannibal and his faggot boyfriend?”
“Nigel.” Adam opens his eyes to glare at him. He doesn’t like homophobic slurs, and anyway it doesn't make sense when he thinks he and Nigel might be dating.
“You know the man they—” He takes a deep breath. He can do this. He tries again. “The man they assaulted. It was—that was me.”
“Oh, fuck,” Nigel says. And then, “Oh, fuck. Shit. Do you want to—I don’t know, do you want to talk about it?”
Adam considers it. Nigel doesn’t like talking about feelings, and it’s nice of him to offer.
“No,” he decides eventually. “Not right now. But… maybe sometime? I think I want to talk about it with you.”
“Whenever you want, sweetheart. Anytime you want.”
* * *
It’s easier to go to the couch with Nigel once he knows, although Adam doesn’t know why that should be true. Nigel promises not to touch Adam unless he says it’s okay, promises not to do anything Adam doesn’t like.
Adam believes him.
It’s Tuesday, and Nigel stays until it gets dark. When it's dinnertime, Adam makes mac and cheese for the both of them, and they eat it sitting side by side at the kitchen table.
“You’re supposed to take the seat across from me,” Adam tells Nigel, who just grins.
“My dad, Harlan, Beth,” Adam says, ticking off names on his fingers. “The occupational therapist I had when I was nine.”
Nigel looks around. “I don’t see any of them here. What do you say?”
Adam grins back. Nigel’s smile makes it easier to smile too, like a moon reflecting the sun. “I say it’s okay. I like it.”
Nigel’s foot jostles his under the table, just a glancing brush, and Adam smiles around a bite of Amy’s.
They settle on the couch after dinner to watch a movie. Adam doesn’t really watch tv, doesn’t care for most shows, and the ones he does like he can watch on his computer, so he never bought a television. It means they sit close so they can both see the laptop screen.
Nigel smells like cigarettes and cologne as he scrolls through movie options, flicking through Adam’s Netflix account.
“Do you watch anything besides space documentaries?”
“Sometimes I watch behind the scenes footage of classic films. And interviews with actors. The ninth episode of the ninth season of Inside the Actors Studio featured one of the only recorded instances of Julie Kavner performing the voice of Marge Simpson live. She usually disapproves, but she agreed to do it with her face hidden behind a cardboard cutout that time.”
Nigel raises an eyebrow. “You don’t say.”
Adam smiles. “Mostly I watch space documentaries, though.”
“You don’t find that stuff boring?”
“Never. I like space. I think it’s fascinating. It’s so vast, and there are so many things we still haven’t discovered. It’s why I like working at the observatory. Well, one of the reasons. What do you do for a living, Nigel?” It occurs to him that he hasn’t asked yet.
“Nothing as interesting as what you do, gorgeous.”
“That’s not a real answer.” And then, because he wants to know more about Nigel, “Do you like space?”
Nigel hums. “I guess I never really thought about it. I lived in the city my whole life. Hard to see the stars, even if you do bother to look up. I mostly didn’t. Still don’t, to tell you the truth.”
“Maybe you just haven’t had it explained to you by the right person.”
“Maybe so. You gonna teach me about space, kid?”
“I could, if you want. I want to take you to look at the stars.”
“Sounds great,” Nigel says. “But first I’m going to teach you about good movies.”
Nigel picked a movie while they were talking, something Adam’s never heard of with a rugged male lead and a pretty blonde actress, but that Nigel claims is a classic. A few minutes in, Nigel asks if he can put his arm around Adam, and he nods. They settle in like that, shifting to make themselves comfortable, and Adam leans his head against Nigel’s shoulder. The story is a little boring and a little hard to follow, and before long Adam is watching Nigel’s face more than he’s watching the screen. Nigel laughs at the parts that are funny and mutters to the actors during the fight scenes.
“You’re not watching the movie,” Nigel says, but he doesn’t sound upset. He looks at Adam, and his eyes are the color of moss before Adam looks away.
“I like looking at you,” Adam says softly.
Nigel pulls him in a little closer with the arm around his shoulder. “You can keep looking if you want.”
“Can you—” Adam stops. He isn’t sure it’s is a normal thing to ask.
“Can I what?”
“Can you keep watching the movie? So I can look.” Adam feels himself blushing as he says it, and Nigel’s mouth goes soft before it curls up at the corners.
“Sure thing, gorgeous. Anything you want.”
Anything you want, baby. Will, a warm mouth on his body, fingers inside him sparking pleasure he didn’t want, stubble scraping his thigh—
But he isn’t there, he’s here. He’s here, and he’s determined to be here now, with Nigel. His breathing grows shaky, but Nigel doesn’t turn to look. He watches the movie like Adam asked, rubbing his fingers lightly over Adam’s arm. His hands aren’t wandering; they’re just stroking the little patch of skin below Adam’s shirt sleeve, just soothing. Grounding.
Adam studies Nigel in profile, the slope of his nose, the bump of his chin, the lady winking from his neck. His lips stick out in a pout, and Adam wants to, he wants—
“Can I kiss you?” He asks. But, “Can I kiss you, and can you just hold still and let me? I don’t want you to touch me or kiss me back, I just want to—I want to see what your lips feel like.”
“Close your eyes,” Adam whispers.
He does, and Adam leans in. He brings a hand to Nigel’s face and rubs his fingers along his jaw, feeling the sharp planes of bone and the slight rasp of stubble against his palm. He pulls a little, and Nigel turns his head, obliging. Adam drags his hand up, sliding his thumb over Nigel’s lips, testing. They’re warm and dry and just the slightest bit chapped. Soft.
Adam sighs on an exhale and pulls his thumb down a little, catching Nigel’s bottom lip and watching the way it moves. He leans in.
It’s a chaste kiss, just a brush of skin on skin. Nigel feels softer like this, and it’s strange thinking of any part of Nigel being soft. He’s so loud and full of energy, so many hard angles and sharp lines all at once. Adam stays there for a second, just letting their lips just rest together. Just breathing each other’s air. He smells more like cigarettes here, but it isn’t bad; it’s just different.
Nigel stays perfectly still and keeps his eyes closed. Adam can see them flickering beneath his eyelids when he pulls back to look. He kisses him again. Adam parts his lips this time, just a little. Just enough to suck Nigel’s bottom lip between his, to run his tongue delicately along it. Once, twice. Nigel’s breath speeds up; he can feel it in the little puffs of air where their noses meet.
Adam feels brave.
“You can kiss me back,” he says.
“I’ll be gentle,” Nigel promises.
He angles his head and catches Adam’s lips in his. He doesn’t touch but hums appreciatively when Adam’s hands come up to frame his face, to fit them together better. Adam whimpers at the feeling of a tongue sliding against his, soft and pressing. Offering and not insisting.
He wants to get closer, wants to kiss without craning his neck, so he gets up on his knees and climbs into Nigel’s lap, settling himself so they can kiss, so he can get closer to that soft slide of tongues and lips. Everything is fine until it isn’t.
He brushes against Nigel’s erection by accident, and Nigel groans. His hands come up to grip Adam’s hips automatically. It’s such a small sound, such a little thing, and Adam immediately tenses up all over.
He’s on the other side of the room before Nigel even gets the chance to ask what the matter is. Stupid, awful.
“Hey, I didn’t mean—”
“I mean I wasn’t trying to—”
“I know.” Interrupting people is rude, but, “You didn’t do anything wrong. I did,” Adam says, hands fisted tight in his hair, pulling hard enough to hurt.
“Whoa, whoa, hey. Fuck, kid, don’t hurt yourself. Everything’s okay.” Nigel brings his hands up like he’ll make Adam stop. Puts them down again. Sighs when he realizes he can’t help Adam. (Adam can’t even help himself, so really, how is anyone else going to?)
It’s Tuesday. It’s late. He should be sleeping by now, and if he thinks about that for too long, he’ll panic.
“You didn’t do anything, but. I think I want you to leave now. I’m sorry, I’m just. I’m tired.” He looks into Nigel’s eyes even though it’s too much. He wants Nigel to understand. He wants Nigel to be good at this in the way that he isn’t, but mostly he wants to stop making everything terrible. “I’m sorry,” he says again.
“It’s okay,” Nigel says. “I’ll go.”
He grabs his jacket, and Adam walks him to the door. He can’t look at Nigel, so he looks at the floor instead. Twists his hands together even though it makes the joints of his fingers creak.
Nigel doesn’t try to kiss Adam on the mouth again, but he brushes a lingering kiss to his temple. Adam’s eyes flutter shut at the touch. He leans into it. “I’ll see you soon, gorgeous.”
Adam wishes he understood people well enough to know if Nigel means it.