Adam doesn’t quite work up the nerve to invite Nigel into his bed, but he doesn’t get up either. They spend Christmas Eve night on the couch together, and Adam’s sleep is deep and dreamless.
He wakes with a resounding thud as he’s startled out of slumber by the sound of heavy footfalls.
Adam blinks and looks around bleary-eyed as he takes stock of his surroundings, trying to reorient himself to waking up in an unfamiliar space. It takes a few seconds for his brain to come back online, for him to remember where he is and why. His cheeks flush a little at the why. He fell off the couch, and he sits up and rubs his shoulder where he’d struck the ground on his way down. Nigel is still asleep beside him, face open and unconcerned, mouth slack and lips parted. He looks younger when he’s asleep. Less tense. Less dangerous.
It’s morning, and Adam’s apartment is warm and flooded with light. Christmas morning. He wonders if Nigel might want to get a tree with him after all. It’s late for that, but that only means they’ll be able to find an inexpensive tree if they go. If anything’s open. If Nigel even wants to.
There are a lot of ifs.
There’s that sound again—not footsteps at all, but a heavy, persistent knock at the door. Adam frowns. He isn’t expecting anyone. He takes another lingering look at Nigel and levers himself up off the ground, careful not to make too much noise. He better get the door if he doesn’t want Nigel to be disturbed.
He pulls open the front door before the person can knock for a third time. There’s a man he doesn’t recognize standing there, young and looking like he’s just come in from the cold. He’s wearing a jacket and beanie still pulled down around his ears. It’s kind of funny how people from California dress like it’s actually winter.
“Can I help you?” Adam asks.
“Packages for Adam Raki.”
Adam looks around the man. There are two large boxes stacked beside him, one nearly as tall as the man himself and the other short and squat.
“I didn’t order anything.”
The man shrugs. “They look like gifts to me. Wrapping paper and everything.” He holds out a clipboard. “You gotta sign for ‘em.”
Adam hesitates. No one sends him packages. He doesn’t get mail except for bills.
He swallows hard because that’s not quite true, is it? Not anymore.
The last package was terrible. He had nightmares about it for a week. He should decline the delivery, send this back, make the man take it back to whatever truck it came out of. He should shut the door and go back inside, curl up on the couch with Nigel and not imagine the look on Hannibal and Will’s faces if he declines, because surely they’ll know. And yet—
Some part of him is curious. A small, awful part that he didn’t know existed until recently. Until after. That part of him feels new.
They do look like gifts.
Adam makes an impulsive decision. He signs his name to the offered paper like signing his soul away to the devil.
The delivery man helps Adam take the packages inside because they’re too heavy for him to carry on his own. By some miracle, the racket doesn’t wake Nigel. When he leaves after wishing Adam a Merry Christmas, Adam’s left standing alone in his entryway with the two boxes. He stares at them, at a loss for what he should do next. He kept them, so he must want them. (He does and he doesn’t.)
They’re wrapped in a deep emerald green paper that looks expensive. It’s faintly iridescent and catches the light when Adam moves around it, circling the boxes as though they might combust.
He sighs. He should take these to his bedroom.
If he can even get them into the bedroom.
He looks at Nigel again, still fast asleep, and feels a twinge of something that might be guilt. He sighs and goes to put on a pot of coffee. It’s too early for this, and his shoulder still hurts. He doesn’t think he can move those boxes on his own anyway, and he doesn’t want to wake Nigel by tearing off the wrapping paper. They can sit for the time being.
The routine of measuring out the coffee grounds and pouring it into the filter paper is comforting. He gets down two mugs—a new part of his routine—it used to only be one, and the little change makes him smile. He putters around in the kitchen for a while longer, putting away the dishes left in the drying rack overnight, but soon the fragrant smell of coffee permeates the apartment, and predictably, Nigel rouses at the scent. Olfactory memory is fascinating.
He comes up behind Adam in the kitchen and waits until Adam acknowledges him before wrapping his arms around Adam’s waist from behind. They touch now, easily and often, but there are still certain types of touches that are hard for Adam. He doesn’t like surprises, for one—doesn’t like being grabbed when he doesn’t know it’s coming.
Adam smiles despite himself, despite the worry over the boxes in his entryway that makes him want to chew his nails. (They wouldn’t really send a body, right? Not a whole body? They’re heavy, but surely they’re not that? Bodies must be heavier.)
He pours a portion of coffee into each mug and hands one over, and they stand in the kitchen sipping their drinks. The quiet companionship is nice, and the heat soothes Adam’s throat where it’s still aching from last night. He thinks of it and shivers.
“Penny for your thoughts?”
“I was thinking about giving you oral sex last night.”
Nigel chokes on his coffee. “Fuck, kid. Warn a man before you say things like that.”
Adam frowns. “You asked.”
“Guess I did, didn’t I?” He nudges Adam’s shoulder with his. “Good memories?”
“Yes,” Adam nods. “Good memories.”
“Good.” Nigel’s eyes crinkle at the edges when he smiles.
Adam takes a minute to just take him in, soft hair that hangs in his eyes and an easy smile as he stands barefoot in Adam’s kitchen. His shirt is rumpled, and Adam knows it would smell like Nigel if he buried his face in it. He wants to bury his face in it.
Nigel is leaning against his kitchen counter, drinking from his NASA mug and staring out the window. It’s early enough that there’s condensation clouding it over still, not much to see past a pane of fogged glass. His Adam’s apple bobs when he swallows, and Adam stares at the muscled line of his neck, wonders how it would feel to have Nigel swallowing around him, holding Adam in his hands and telling him how beautiful he is. What it would look like if Nigel was on his knees instead.
The thought sends a hot thread of lust right down into his stomach, and it isn’t at all unpleasant.
He’s looking away for Adam—because Adam likes looking, but he doesn’t always like when people look back. Adam isn’t good with people, isn’t good at understanding their motivations or reading their feelings, but he knows that this is for him. Because Nigel cares for him.
He’s about to suggest that they try sex again, that maybe Nigel could touch him this time, that they could try something new, when he’s startled out of his own thoughts by the clink of a coffee cup against the sink. Nigel gives him a long, lingering kiss. He tastes like arabica beans, and his tongue is fever hot from the coffee.
“I’m going to have a shower,” Nigel says. He stretches and the hem of his shirt rides up, exposing a sliver of skin, a flash of silvering hair.
Can I come? is right on the tip of Adam’s tongue, but Nigel gives Adam one last squeeze, and then he’s gone.
That’s—better. It’s better There are boxes in his hallway anyway.
* * *
Adam manages to drag them into the living room without doing injury to his back. He doesn’t bother trying to be neat about the wrapping paper. He’s too nervous, too impatient now. He tries not to think about the fact that he’s trying to finish before Nigel gets out of the shower—tries not to think about what that means.
He isn’t hiding. He isn’t doing anything wrong.
The gifts might be from Beth.
(They’re not from Beth.)
Beth might be what people call a best friend. She’s who Adam talks to when he needs to know about something—why people do what they do, how he’s supposed to act in situations he doesn’t understand. He tells Beth about the things he doesn’t understand, and she tells him when she feels overwhelmed—when everyone just wants too many things and she isn’t sure how to stand up in front of them.
It’s a friendship built on mutual help. Friendships can be that.
Beth was the person he called. Now she seems more like a relic from a different life. She might have sent him a Christmas present, but she’d probably have sent a card if she sent anything at all. She certainly wouldn’t have sent something this large. The cost of shipping alone must have been outrageous.
But Beth wouldn’t have sent a card because she probably wouldn’t have remembered. She’s his friend, but she’s selfish, and he doesn’t really mind it. Selfishness is easy to understand.
He tears away the last of the paper, and his breath catches as he sees the lettering printed along the side of the first box. It’s repeated down the length of the other: Orion Telescopes & Binoculars. He finds a knife in the kitchen and scores each box carefully along its seam, cutting through the tape so he can lift the lid.
He can’t stop the enormous grin that spreads over his face when he clears away the packing foam and looks inside.
It isn’t a body at all.
“They got me a telescope,” he breathes.
For handful of seconds, Adam doesn’t think about the implications.
He doesn’t think about the givers, he simply enjoys the gift, lets the feeling of raw joy suffuse him. He holds onto it like a lifeline.
It isn’t just any telescope. It’s a really nice telescope, a SkyQuest XX12g, a twelve inch Newtonian reflector on a Dobsonian base. It can be programmed to find any celestial body in the sky, to track its movement as it ticks toward the horizon. It’s something Adam could theoretically afford to have bought for himself but that he wouldn’t—it’s too extravagant, too much of an unjustifiable expense.
Adam doesn’t realize he’s pressing his hands to his mouth until Nigel’s arrival startles him into pulling them away.
“Who got you a telescope, gorgeous?” Nigel stops short when he gets into the living room, blinking at the mess of wrapping paper and packing peanuts surrounding Adam. “Whoa. When you said telescope, you weren’t fucking kidding.”
“It’ll be much bigger when it’s put together,” Adam explains, already chattering excitedly. He tap the box in front of him. “This is the base. It looks like it shipped in pieces with its component panels stacked on top of each other.” He taps the other box, the larger of the two. “This is the reflector, the part that gathers light and brings it into focus. The eight trusses can be removed and reassembled without tools so you can fold it up and put it in a car.” He looks up at Nigel, grinning. “We can go stargazing. I want to show you Mars. We might be able to see one of the polar ice caps if there isn’t too much atmospheric turbulence.”
Nigel grins like Adam’s happiness is contagious. “Sounds great. Want to spend Christmas night watching the stars? I bet we could carry this to the park next door.”
Adam nods, already distracted by the directions for assembly. He shouldn’t put it together now, of course. If they’re going to move it anywhere it’ll be easier to do in pieces, but he could construct the base in advance. It’d be easier still if he had a car. They can see the brightest stars and a few nearby planets from the city, but there are other things—galaxies and nebulae he could show Nigel if they could just get somewhere without so much light pollution.
He bites the edge of his thumb and flicks through the manual. “Nigel, could you teach me how to drive? Do you know how to drive? We can drive to one of the designated International Dark Sky locations if you do—there are four in California.”
It takes him a minute to realize he hasn’t gotten an answer. He frowns and looks up.
Nigel’s face looks like a stormcloud. He looks angry. Very, very angry.
The smile falls from Adam’s face, melting into confusion and finally understanding. Nigel is holding a card that Adam had missed in his excitement. There’s an envelope on the floor near his feet, ripped open now, heavy cream-colored stock and Adam’s name written in a looping, ornate hand.
“Adam, what the fuck is this?”
Adam flinches at his tone. “I don’t know. You read it, not me.”
Nigel reads aloud from the letter in his hand, and his voice gets louder with every word. “‘Merry Christmas, Adam. You should enjoy this gift better than the last one, although you might come to appreciate that last token of our regard more than you think. We’re both so pleased that you’ve started therapy and hope that you continue. Change is hard, but sometimes cutting away the old makes way for the new. Give Nigel our love.”
Nigel throws the card on the floor. “What the fuck is this?”
Adam swallows. He tells himself that he hasn’t done anything wrong, technically, but that feels like a lie. “A letter.”
“A letter from fucking who?”
“They never sign them.”
“But you know who it’s fucking from. Never sign—” His eyes narrow. “You’ve gotten more of these?”
“Just two. The one you saw, and then…” Adam walks to the drawer, pulls it open and draws out the letter. He hands it to Nigel who scans it while his mouth grows hard as knives. “That was the first one.”
Nigel takes a deep breath. “Okay. Okay, fuck. We’re going to put all this shit outside right now. Let the garbage men take care of it. You want to help me with that box?”
“It’s Christmas morning. There aren’t any city services today.”
Nigel growls. “Then they’ll take it tomorrow, Adam, fuck. Let’s just get it the fuck out of the house.”
Adam is looking at the floor. Looking at the sleek lines of the telescope peeking out from packing peanuts, lean and chrome.
“No,” he says.
Nigel raises an eyebrow. “I beg your fucking pardon?”
“No,” Adam says more forcefully. “It’s mine. I want to keep it.”
Nigel’s laugh is bitter. He drags a hand over his face. “Doamne dă-mi puterea. Adam, do you know what this fucking is?”
“A Christmas gift,” Adam says, stubborn.
“It’s a fucking leash! They’re setting their lead on you. Have you forgotten that you called me over—the whole reason I’m here, sleeping on your fucking couch is because they sent you a goddamn tongue in the mail. A tongue, Adam. A human tongue from some poor fucking asshole they killed.” He shakes the letter at Adam. “And you took fucking therapy appointments from them? What the fuck is wrong with you? Come on, you’re smarter than this. They’re digging their claws straight into you, and you’re letting them.”
Adam jerks back like Nigel’s hit him. “I’m what?”
Nigel jabs a finger into his chest. “You’re letting them! How the fuck am I supposed to keep you safe when you’re doing shit like this behind my back?”
Adam clenches his fists. “It’s none of your business.”
Nigel’s eyes narrow. “Sorry?”
And that’s it, Adam snaps. He loses it; he yells even though yelling isn’t how you’re supposed to solve problems. “It’s none of your business! None of it is your business. I didn’t ask you for this. I didn’t ask them for this. I didn’t ask you to live in my house. I told you to do the opposite. I told you to stay away from me so it wouldn’t hurt when you left, but you wanted to be here, so you’re here. You can’t blame me for that because I didn’t make you do anything. You can’t tell me what to do. I’m not a child, Nigel. I let you call me kid, but I’m not one.”
He’s panting and tapping out a quick, frenetic rhythm against his leg, and Nigel looks him up and down. He looks nothing like the man who’d called Adam beautiful. Who’d called him angel, baby, gorgeous.
“Could’ve fucking fooled me.”
It hurts. It hurts a shocking amount, more than Adam thought it would. Adam stands there with his mouth open, gaping like a fish. He tries to talk, but his words won’t work right and barely any sound comes out.
Nigel stalks over to the couch and scoops up his jacket. He grabs his cigarettes from the table and stuffs them into his pocket, takes his phone and his wallet and the gun too—the one Adam knows he has but Nigel never lets him see.
Adam’s heart is in his throat, and he only finds his voice once Nigel is at the door.
“Where are you going?”
“Out,” Nigel says, and he slams the door behind him.