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The Serpent Under It

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Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t.

— Lady Macbeth, Macbeth, Act I Scene V


 

 

He feels woozy leaving the courthouse. Not drunk on triumph as he expected to be, but robbed. Roy’s jeering taunts are ringing inside his skull, and follow him out, like Marty is carrying him out within himself. His own maddening shadow.

Outside, the statue of Lady Justice is standing perfect, and blind, so fucking blind, she isn’t impartial, she isn’t objective, she’s a goddamn fool, and so is he, and what has she done, what has he done, what has she let him do? Guilt and panic crawl up his spine and settle in his bones, in his throat, turning him rigid.

The Alibi is a familiar friend at this point, and so is vodka on the rocks. The name of the joint has never seemed more poorly chosen: a last laugh at any lawyer who’s come here with their case falling apart. Marty hasn’t lost a case in a while—not since far back into his days at the D.A.’s office. He hasn’t lost this one either. His case is a win, it’s rock solid. It just happens to be a complete fucking lie.

They’re each other’s alibi now, in this disgusting farce.

He can’t feel the taste of alcohol on his tongue. Still gets reasonably buzzed before taking a taxi home. Feels prickling hot all over. Always feels too fired up after a wrapped case, but never like tonight. There’s so much energy busting out of him he could raze the whole goddamn building to the ground. Instead, he settles punishingly in front of his tv system and sets on rewatching the tapes.

 

 

——o——

 

 

Two drinks in, at midnight, the only thing Marty’s really focusing on is self-pity. He’s fast-forwarding through all his footage of Aaron (Roy), trying to catch the tells of his furtive performance, his bird-with-a-broken-wing act.

It made him insufferable with Naomi and Tommy, that he bought into it, because they didn’t understand why he cared. He’s not a man who cares. The justice system doesn’t care—not about the truth, not about guilt, only about facts and how you present them. He has never cared before that. Has sneered at lawyers who said any differently, because anybody who acts like a white knight in their business or claims any sort of altruism is simply a lying narcissistic prick. Only he became exactly that with Aaron (Roy). Whatever else he said before, however much he despised the white knight routine, but it felt good to save him. Felt good in his gut—and you never trust your gut, or that your client is telling the truth, you learn not to care if they’re innocent. He’ll have to relearn that particular skill, apparently.

Two bottles in, and facing dawn, and courting a mother of all hangovers, Marty comes up with a scattered list of questions, of things that just don’t add up. But he’s drunk by now, and passes out without figuring out anything. He eventually comes to some definitive conclusion, but by then he’s back in the courtroom, watching Aaron make his lunge for Janet, only this time he’s helpless to stop him, he’s running, but he’s not getting any closer, and Aaron looks up at him with his Roy smirk, and carves a letter ‘A’ into Janet’s forehead as she screams—

He’s awoken by the nastiest sound ever devised in the known universe, which turns out to be his phone. He groans and shoves a pillow over his pounding head until whoever it is, stops. It must be Naomi. As soon as the ringing ceases, he crawls out of bed and strategically knocks the receiver off its handle to prevent that sound from ever happening again and goes to take a leak.

Showered and mostly emptied of alcohol fumes, he settles balefully in front of his tv system and looks through the footage again. Looks at Aaron Stampler’s innocent lying face, paused there, and the pictures of the murder scene scattered on the table in front of him, a perfect contrast. What was the word Janet used? Heinous. The room on the photographs is wrecked. The death was a struggle. Rushman fought for his life. Aaron fought for his life, too.

And the question is, and there are so many of them, actually, trying to form up in his head, but the question, the main thing that he’s having trouble with, is: if there was never this innocent lamb? If this is all an act? If he was always the punk-ass murderer who threw Marty around his cell, mouth filled with poison and bile and anger. If that was the only thing that ever existed. Then why the fuck any of this happened? Why the hell didn’t he take one look at Rushman and bail?

 

 

——o——

 

 

It’s half insane for him to go to Elgin, what with the speed with which he fled the county jail. The nurse directs him to the ward, and when he greets Marty, it’s all “Aaron.” There are witnesses, after all, other nurses, so they can’t be anything else other than Marty Vail, the accomplished attorney, and “Aaron”, the grateful victim.

“Oh, hey, M-M-Mister Vail,” he stammers out, in his “Aaron” voice, so perfectly earnest. Marty still hears no phoniness there, none at all, and he hates it.

Aaron/Roy smiles at him, with a tiny shrug of the shoulders, as if saying, Sorry, counselor. Gotta stick to the role. His eyes on Marty betray him for only a second, turning suspicious and hard. Scary hard, or maybe scared hard, or both. That Marty is here to turn him in, somehow, or otherwise screw up his stay here.

Marty simmers impatiently, waiting for the nurse to leave them. As soon as she’s gone, his eyes are on Aaron/Roy, sharp like talons. Waiting, weighing.

“Well, fucking fancy meeting you here, counselor,” Aaron/Roy says with a sharp grin. There’s phoniness in this, at least: in how much he’s overdoing the crasness in his hurry to remind Marty what his true colors really look like. “Did not expect any visits from you, I gotta admit. D’ya cool off? No hard feelings, right?” He is sneering, and knows very well the hardness of Marty’s feelings.

“Hello. Roy,” Marty says evenly.

His eyes flash briefly, dangerously, and his sneer becomes even sharper, but he swallows whatever his response was going to be and stares at Marty like a snake. He who moves first, loses. His old law professor used to say that everyone thinks in a chess mindset. There are those who favor white, who like the head start. And those who favor black and see reaction as the true winner. Marty has always fancied himself to be versatile. But here before him now is very much a player of black; Aaron/Roy is all reaction.

“Oh. I’m sorry,” he says in response to the flinch. “What should I call you?”

“Might as well call me ‘Aaron’, while we’re here, I reckon.”

“I think I’ll stick to Roy.”

Aaron/Roy sneers at him, but doesn’t hurl any more colorful curses. They have no witnesses, but anyone can walk in at any moment, and he’s not about to risk one of his foul-mouthed outbursts.

“I am curious though. Where did ‘Aaron’ even come from?”

Aaron/Roy gives him an impassive look; only the sneer deepens. His face is taut, eyes narrowed, it’s still a ‘Roy’ face, not an ‘Aaron’ face. He’s not saying anything. It’s a new behavior that Marty doesn’t know what to do with.

“I mean, everybody wanted Rushman’s murder solved yesterday, the trial was rushed, no proper investigation. Nobody even bothered to check anything. So. Tell me. Are you even nineteen? Are you even from Creekside? Or was it the ID you had on hand, or something? Did you steal it off of somebody? Did you murder him too? The real Aaron Stampler?”

Aaron/Roy only snorts. His expression shifts fully into ‘Roy’s’ sneer of disdain. Like he’s the only one who knows what’s what. Marty hates that look on him.

“Sure,” he agrees, leaning back, arms crossed, pleased with himself. “Maybe I did kill ole’ Aaron. Maybe I killed a bunch of other people you ain’t even heard of. Whatever helps you sleep at night, counselor.”

“No,” Marty cuts him off, voice cold. “I want the truth.”

“The truth?” Aaron/Roy laughs.

“You were set for death row! I saved your life. You owe me.”

Aaron/Roy shifts forward like a snake striking, his demeanor shifting from taunts to cold fury in a blink of an eye. Marty does his best to stand his ground, but he thinks he jerks anyway, and he thinks Aaron/Roy notices.

“I saved my own life,” he says with a quiet menace. “I owe you dick.”

“Thank you, I’d rather not,” Marty says flatly, just to be petty. A childish rejoinder. Aaron/Roy narrows his eyes even further, glaring at him from under his brow.

“Without my play, all you had is a murderer,” he says. “You had no idea how to protect me.”

“Don’t be so sure. I’ve helped plenty guilty people to get off.”

“Funny,” Aaron/Roy smirks. “So did Bishop Rushman.” His tone is mocking him, and Marty flushes and backs off. He didn’t mean to go there, and doesn’t want him to go there either. It’s still a vile thing, an inexcusable thing, whomever it happened to, Roy or Aaron.

“Don’t do that,” he says in a low voice.

“Why?” Aaron/Roy laughs. “Does it make you uncomfortable? Talking to a preacher’s fuck-toy?” Marty winces, and he laughs again. His voice, unlike ‘Aaron’s’, is purposefully jarring, like there’s metal in it. “Didn’t you hear me the first time around? This is all you get with me, counselor.”

Marty looks at him, and the stupidest thing about it all, about this transformation, is that he misses the paradigm in which there’s only ‘Aaron’, and Aaron isn’t sick, just innocent. Some third party’s responsible, and he nails Shaughnessy for it, somehow, and that’s the story he wants. Aaron/Roy is sneering at him, and it’s not the story he gets.

 

 

——o——

 

 

Molly is planning a paper on Aaron/Roy’s case. Possibly, even a book. She tells him about it with what constitutes as excitement in her overall phlegmatic demeanor.

“Tell me, doc,” he says tiredly. “Are you actually any good?”

“Pardon me?” she raises her eyes at him apprehensively.

He didn’t mean to say it. He’s here on business, plain and simple, because she knows the case, or thinks she knows it. He shouldn’t jump at her throat for failing just as hard as he has. But the sight of her fills him with a singular desire to shift blame on someone other than himself.

“Nevermind,” he mutters. “I have a question about our case.”

“The case is over, Mr. Vail,” she says evenly.

“Well, it’s not like I’m gonna immediately forget about him,” Marty returns in the same even tone. He knows his is fake; he wonders if hers is too. “I’m still… entrenched.”

She shrugs, indicating that he may as well ask his questions.

“How would you diagnose Roy as a separate entity? I know that’s probably unmedical,” he raises his hand, seeing that she’s about to object. “Humor me. What is he, as a person?”

She considers him for a long moment. “That’s actually not hard. It’s a classic antisocial personality disorder. They’re impulsive, aggressive. Easily escalate everything into a fight. No regard for the lives of others. No understanding of morals or emotions. No capability to plan.”

Marty listens to her with a frown, and a sense of growing inconsistency, because that doesn’t fit at all. “Roy” has been many things: actually, all of these things. But the whole act of them together has not been impetuous; it was meticulous and cunning. Planning was required. And understanding of morals and emotions, too—to play the other half. There’s theater, there’s charm in selling who “Aaron” was. Can’t fake that kind of empathy.

“In a way, it makes perfect sense,” Molly muses, oblivious to Marty’s dilemma. “They exist in a perfect counterbalance to each other. Aaron is moral, and compassionate, and sensitive. And it ends up hurting him. So he creates a ‘Roy’ who is unconcerned with either of those things that hurt Aaron so much. He’s the antithesis defense mechanism.”

Marty flattens his lips, unimpressed. “Thank you, doctor,” he says, trying his best not to sound disdainful. In his head there is a whispered secret, that the opposite is true. “Aaron” was the defense mechanism. There never was an Aaron.

 

 

——o——

 

 

Here’s a list of inconsistencies Marty throws together in his worn notebook as his self-punitive nights with the VHS continue, armed with a pen and too much alcohol and too little sleep.

  • He overdoes it with the stammering that first meeting. Makes a whole spectacle of his own last name, and catches Marty’s amused stare, and then for a second, just for a second, he’s defiant, when he repeats it, clear and true. (Marty might be misremembering it, but that’s how he recalls it in hindsight, trying to catch him at being both of his parts.)
  • His face, the light in his eyes, the life in them, when Marty announces the verdict—it’s the moment he’s been fighting towards the entire time. This pure gratitude and relief and ecstatic joy and giving something to this boy without taking back. It’s worth everything. For about two minutes. Before he holds it up and destroys it all.
  • “I don’t know who’s capable of such a thing,” Aaron also says in his memory, and Marty’s helpless against it, but the thing is, a truly heartless person wouldn’t be able to lie like that. He wouldn’t have known the feeling.

Those are some of the things he remembers, but memories aren’t tapes, so he rewatches everything Molly has shot for them with a vengeance.

  • She asks him about sex. A simple medical question, they don’t know anything about Rushman’s hobby yet. Marty leans forward and mutters to himself, “What are you thinking here, Roy? You were sleeping together, sort of. It was just for someone else’s benefit. But you lie about it, and then you don’t, so what are you thinking?”

    ‘The thing is, she went away,’ ‘Aaron’ insists on tape about Linda’s absence with a pitiful lack of surety. She went away, like what kids say about pets, ‘little Buster went away to live on a farm.’ (I had to kill that cunt, ‘Roy’s’ voice slithers in his head.) She’s dead. Marty doesn’t doubt it. He does begin to question whether or not it was truly Aaron/Roy who put her down.
  • The hard thing about watching the tapes is the performance that he knows is happening every second. It’s a funny, disorienting feeling—to miss an act, to mourn a lie. To know that ‘Aaron’, for all his kindness, was capable and culpable, would have been one thing. But there’s no ‘Aaron’ for him to miss. He’s been carefully constructed, like a recipe: a pinch of earnestness, a dollop of naivety, a sprinkle of guilelessness, et voila—you have yourself the ultimate victim. He of the helpless disarming smiles, and shared bonhomie, and tapping into the primal core of everybody’s savior complex. Marty wouldn’t have thought he had one, but there’s really no other word for it. Not for how he latched on to the need to vindicate every wrong done to his client.

    He wonders how ‘Roy’ even came up with the idea. Or whatever his actual name is, whatever his real history.

 

 

——o——

 

 

He is startled awake by his phone ringing loudly into his ear. It’s way past his normal waking hours, but watching videos till your eyes are red into the dead of night will do that to you.

“Hello,” he croaks into the phone.

“Hey, Marty. Are you planning to ever show up at the office again?” Naomi asks. Her voice is careful, only the barest hint of concen.

They’ve won. They’ve won big, and he’s been riding them hard because of how much it mattered to him, how much the client mattered—and she’s been expecting him to be in for days now, bright and early and celebratory, and riding that wave of triumph, and ready to take on the fucking world. Maybe finish that war with Shaughnessy that he started.

She knows something has to be up for him to be wallowing instead.

“Yeah,” he says tiredly. “Soon. You’re holding down the fort?”

“You know it. A lot of people want you now, Marty.”

“Any of them from the D.A. office?”

“No.”

“Alright. Well, keep me posted. I’ll be back soon.”

“Marty. Is everything alright?”

“Take care, Naomi.”

 

 

——o——

 

 

“I don’t know why you’re surprised, Marty,” Aaron/Roy says the second time Marty comes over. A smirk hides in the corner of his mouth, nasty and unattractive. “You said it yourself: the only truth that matters is the one you spin for the courtroom. So I did. And you did. You created me.”

Marty narrows his eyes at him and turns the phrase over in his head. “Where did you get that from?” he asks. He barely remembers having said that, and he’s pretty sure it wasn’t to ‘Aaron’.

Aaron/Roy nods towards a magazine lying face down on the table. Marty turns it over. It has him on the front cover.

“I really liked your article,” Aaron/Roy says, amused. “There’s exactly zero percent of who you are in that whole exposition. Pure bullshit. You’re a better actor than me.”

Marty throws him a sharp glance, and Aaron/Roy grins, egging him on.

“I’m not,” he says. “I’m just a lawyer. Bullshitting is my business.” He considers the ‘actor’ remark. “Tell me, how did you even come up with ‘Aaron’?”

“Why, do you miss him?” Aaron/Roy grin turns even nastier, taunting him and his weakness. Marty keeps his eyes steady on him, and Aaron/Roy scoffs and looks away. “I ain’t you,” he says.

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“I don’t do shit pro bono.”

“You know, I can make life very difficult for you,” Marty says, in a voice that doesn’t sound like his own voice to him. He’s the man who believes in innocent, even when proven guilty, and second chances, and standing up for your client. He shouldn’t feel this monumentally betrayed.

Aaron/Roy looks at him suspiciously. “My evaluation lasts a month,” he says.

“Yeah,” Marty agrees easily. “And then what? You weren’t sentenced to a month. You weren’t sentenced at all. In the eyes of the law, you committed the crime, no doubt about it, and yet, legally, you are not responsible. You’re both acquitted, and not. You will stay in the care of the state until such a time that you’re deemed safe to release to the public. You think you can fake that? You think I can’t lean from my side and get you to stay here?”

Aaron/Roy bores into him with a baleful stare, and blows out air through his nostrils.

Marty sighs tiredly. “Just talk to me.”

“You wanna know about ‘Aaron’?” he sneers. “I know how I look,” he says, and his expression briefly turns angelic. It makes something coil unpleasantly in Marty’s gut. “That’s all there is to it. I used it.”

The thing is, he had to have been pretending long before the murder. People would have noticed if this was just for the defense. Other choir boys. Alex Cox. ‘Aaron’ must have existed before, begging in the streets of Chicago, for pity points, taking advantage of people’s sentimentality the way he took advantage of Marty’s.

“And then got used for it,” he whispers flatly, trying to find the truth of it in the spaces between Aaron’s explanation.

Aaron/Roy looks almost normal when he snorts and says, “Yeah. Guess it backfired something special.”

 

 

——o——

 

 

They have put Alex Cox up at a motel after finding him that evening. He could be a material witness, and they weren’t about to turn him in to the cops, where he could run his mouth, or get stabbed, or something. They weren’t about to just leave him to his own devices, too, not after hearing about the rape.

The beggar’s nest was like another world altogether. It was hard to imagine this was where Aaron came from; hard and sickening. Afterwards, Marty couldn’t go to the rectory, not looking like swill, covered in grime and sweat of the slums. He went to his apartment and stood in the shower, letting the water beat across his back and turning Alex’s revelation over in his head numbly. Like having to touch hot coals—reaching for it, and jerking back, and reaching again—trying not to think about it, but thinking about it, and trying not to imagine, but imagining, what the hell was on those tapes, what kind of sex stuff.

Alex Cox was like a wild animal, cagey and scared, when they caught him. A belligerent asshole, but, really, the same kid who was chewed out and spat back by the gutter. Mistrustful. Angry at the whole fucking world. Too young for this shit, and fragile, and so very hurt, so very betrayed. A kid that shouldn’t know the taste of a needle, or what it’s like to be raped. But what a funny thing, perception, isn’t it? Because Marty treated him as hostile, but treated ‘Aaron’ differently, because, well, ‘Aaron’ looked like a boy scout, didn’t he? Turns out, the difference between them is how much smarter Aaron/Roy was about his presentation, how premeditated.

He visits Alex at the motel—they have promised him a payout on the way out of the trial, and Marty has come to deliver on that promise, and to ask him a few things.

“Can I ask you a simple question?” he says, counting the money in front of Alex. “Has Aaron ever behaved strangely with you? Differently? Has he ever seemed violent at all?”

Alex’s eyes are earnest and confused. “The stammerer?” he asks, and shakes his head, like Marty’s crazy for even asking.

“Right,” he says. “How about Linda? Was their relationship… good?”

Alex shrugs. “They were in love. Or as much in love as people like us ever get to be.”

Marty doesn’t have to ask what he means by that.

 

 

——o——

 

 

The Archbishop’s quarters, when he’s there for the first time, are a scene of a much worse crime than he knows. All he sees is the murder scene, and past that: the hypocrisy. Hard not to go there, what with the Scarlet Letter carved into Rushman’s chest. And even without it, it’s plain to see.

The room is drowning in luxury. Real leather, fine to the touch, and silk sheets, even finer. Brocade curtains. Cashmere blankets. A veritable home theater. And a giant crucifix right above the gilded bed. Marty stares at it for a long time and wonders how it never fell down and caved Rushman’s skull in.

He knows now, very palpably, very uncomfortably, that the night of the Charity Ball he must have heard Aaron sing, with that boy’s choir, and never paid it, or him, any mind. And the next day the murder will happen, because that same night the Archbishop, guzzled up on that fucking charity, will charitably decide he wants to fuck a choir boy.

Marty has talked to the Archbishop before. Not anything important, just the polite necessity of sucking up to your boss’s boss, or whatever Rushman was to Shaughnessy. He wonders if there was any sign at all. If he could have caught something if only he paid closer attention. The truth is, he’s seen plenty cases like this tried. Hasn’t worked them himself, but he’s excellent at his job not for nothing: he’s seen pretty much everything this and that side of the law. Nobody ever knows. He’s a lawyer. He should really know better. But that’s the whole problem, isn’t it? He has long since stopped thinking like a lawyer where this case is concerned.

 

 

——o——

 

 

“So. Funny story,” he says back at the office. “The kid is compos mentis.”

Naomi frowns. “What do you mean? They fixed him already?” She and Tommy look at each other.

“No,” he says, “I mean he was compos mentis when he did it. He was always compos mentis. The entire time.” They stare at him like he’s speaking in tongues, and he sighs. “He’s guilty. He did it. He faked the MPD.”

Tommy starts laughing and shakes his finger at Marty. “Allegedly?” he asks.

Marty gives him a curt smile. “No. Again: fact, but I appreciate that you keep trying.” He sags into his chair. “He faked me out.”

He rubs his brow and can’t quite meet their eyes. Rearranges some stuff on his desk aimlessly.

“Okay,” Naomi says carefully. “So what, Marty?”

He looks up at her. “So what?”

“Clients lie. And sure, this is a big one. But. You’ve defended guilty people before, Marty. That’s your job. You’re not the jury, you’re the attorney. And you’ve won the case. So, who cares?”

He does. He cares. He doesn’t know how to express it properly. She sighs, and knows why he’s silent anyway. It’s not like it wasn’t completely fucking obvious how attached he was to the ‘Butcher Boy.’

“You’re right,” he says, drawing up his mask back. “Legally, I’m elated. Personally? Kind of a bummer.” He shrugs. “Also. You’re my team. So I wanted you to know.”

 

 

——o——

 

 

In another reality, he imagined a different kind of dinner. He was so close he already envisioned it all: himself, high on victory, and taking her out to a fancy restaurant, and then maybe seeing if there is a road that leads back to them. Instead, they’re back at The Alibi, and he feels wretched about what he has put her through, and he’s also elbows-deep in his investigation.

He still offers Janet the only thing he can still give her.

She snorts, and chases it with her drink. “I can’t go work for you. That’s a terrible idea.”

“So don’t. Work with me. Partners.” He gives her his most charming smile. She seems immune to it.

“You don’t have partners, Marty. You have to be the top dog. And anyway, that’s not the point. With you, for you, I can’t.”

“Why not?”

Because, Marty! Because, inevitably, we’ll end up screwing again. Because, no matter how smart we are, we’re idiots who wilfully forget all the reasons it was so bad.”

“It was never bad,” he objects.

She laughs. “Not the sex, Marty. But everything other than that.”

“It was never bad,” he says again, and she frowns.

“Yeah, Marty. It was. You don’t know how to be with people. We won’t work together, and we won’t work together. We’ll end up having quickies in the middle of cases, sneaking off, and you’ll always make me feel inferior as a lawyer, and you’ll never commit, because you’re incapable, and. God. I used to love you. Not love you, but, as a lawyer, I admired you. We already screwed that up big time. I just. I wanna keep this. Even if I want to slap you every time I see you, I at least still want to see you. If we carry on, we’ll just become like those divorced couples where the exes only sic dogs on each other.”

He sits there, and isn’t that a nice dissection of his personal flaws as a human being. “It’s a standing offer,” he says, like she didn’t just use him for darts practice, small needles piercing everywhere. It stings less than he thought it would. Maybe, deep down, he already knew all that. Maybe, what he really wanted, was to have a friend comfort him. In his mind, he can picture it: them lying in bed, and him telling her everything, and her compassion and support. Probably wishful thinking. She’d yell, infuriated, and they’d have a fight, and it would all be just like she’s saying: they wouldn’t work, and he’s just being a selfish coward, looking for someone to be in his corner, no questions asked.

 

 

——o——

 

 

There’s an exposé running on Aaron Stampler the next time Marty visits. He has it playing on tv with no sound on. Watches the screen with a kind of morbid indifference. They are showing the protestors around the courthouse. The signs they carried were all a Jesus-loving freakshow. Burn in Hell, Bastard. Jesus Knows the Truth. An Eye for an Eye, The Boy Must Die—a real proud Christian moment, right there. Marty has to wonder if any of it got to him. Probably not, he has to figure. Another sign flashes across the screen, saying: God Bless Rushman. Aaron/Roy curls his lips.

“Enjoying yourself?” Marty asks quietly, scanning the room for the remote to turn this shitshow off. “Nothing like a bit of mirror-gazing.”

“Something like that,” Aaron/Roy says, clicking the tv off himself. “I have laughed, in bitterness of heart, at the contrast between what I seem and what I am.”

Marty narrows his eyes. “Hawthorne?” he guesses.

Aaron/Roy smirks. “Got it in one.”

“And here I thought you didn’t like him.”

“Add it to the ever-growing list of all the lies I’ve told you,” he snorts.

“So why not just carve the letter ‘A’? Why the convoluted reference to his private library, to the page in his book?”

Aaron/Roy grimaces. “Well, he isn’t Heather. He’s Chillingworth, at best, jeez, keep up, will you?”

“Are you Heather?” Marty studies him.

“You know I ain’t crazy, don’t you? I’m not imagining my life as a fucking book,” he says dismissively.

“But you like Heather.”

“Of course I do.” He shrugs.

“You’re a little bit like Heather,” Marty says.

Aaron/Roy looks at him, with his dark heavy eyes. “The scarlet letter was her passport where others dared not tread. Shame, despair, solitude had been her teachers, and they have made her strong.

“Made you strong too, huh?”

“That remains to be seen.”

“Quite the memory for that book you have.”

“Nothing else to do when you live like I did, except dog-earring favorite passages and learning them by heart.”

“Most people, when they choose a quote to put on their skin, go to a tattoo parlor,” Marty says sardonically.

Aaron/Roy laughs. It’s almost a normal sound, an honest response, softer than his theatrics.

“Books are just a mirror of humanity. There’s something oddly satisfying about finding the right quote to fit with the right person. That one fit Rushman perfectly to a T. Hawthorne’s good at getting people like that.”

“Does Hawthorne has anything to say about me?” Marty asks, amused.

Aaron/Roy’s eyes weigh him, startlingly bright, and he says, “You had still hoped that virtue wasn’t all a dream. Now you are undeceived. Evil is the nature of mankind.”

 

 

——o——

 

 

Molly doesn’t believe him when he finally breaks it to her.

“You’re mistaken,” she says, in her crisp professorial voice. Her lips are thin and taut and faintly scowling.

Marty shakes his head. “He duped us both,” he says. Because that’s what happened. Because he cannot allow her to be under her illusions. Because he wants to talk to a fucking shrink about it.

Because for all that he’s told Naomi and Tommy, he’s still alone with this thing, and he doesn’t want to be, and she would get it. She does get it, it’s written all over her face and all throughout her denial.

“You’re not qualified to tell—”

“He showed me. Plain as day. Shifting from one into another, and saying things, and—he did it, doc. He knew. And he faked it.”

Molly looks onto the desk in front of her, her face pinched and pale. He waits for her to work through the humiliation of it, and then through the same disorienting loss.

She gets it, above all else, because at the end of the day she cared about him too.

 

 

——o——

 

 

There are less people living in Creekside than on his block. Two apartment complexes worth of people. It’s a quaint little town, innocent and out-of-touch. Easy to see where the ‘Aaron’ performance came from. The entire town is exactly like Marty’s impression of the ‘Aaron’ he thought he knew.

The girl working the cash register at the fuel station gives him his change. He deposits the entirety of it into her tip jar. Call it his good Samaritan act of the day, or maybe just a bribe. She stops chewing gum and stares at him, wide-eyed.

“You know Aaron Stampler?” he asks, now that that’s out of the way. In a town this small, he imagines everyone knows everyone.

“Yes, suh,” she says.

He nods. “You know who I am?”

She looks him up and down. “You’re that lawyer man who got him off.”

“Yeah. Did you know him well?”

“Caint say that I have. He’d come in for a soda pop or sumth’n sometimes. Half his family’s daid. Only his daddy left. Thank the Lord his son didn’t do nothing after all.”

Marty snorts a little at that, but nods. “You know anyone who could tell me more about the family? Someone who knew him well?”

The place the girl sends him to is the best approximation of a library this town has ever seen. The name on the door states: Libros Lendings & Loans, which is slightly nonsensical if Marty knows his Spanish, and it looks like the town has pooled together to provide the content. Most of it is the types of classics you would find in any southern household, and home ec type of DIY guides, holdovers from previous generations, all donated without regret. The guy who runs it, no-last-name Owen, is only eager to reminisce.

“Good-natured boy,” he says easily, when Marty asks about ‘Aaron.’ “Didn’t believe none of it that he’d kill a priest.” He shakes his head and side-eyes the tv accusingly, like the tv itself is the liar. “Read a lot. Haunted my library. Or, well, not much of a library to the likes of you, I reckon. Just a couple of roomfuls.”

“Why did he run away?”

Owen gives him a knowing hawkish glance. “It’s a bit odd, ain’t it? Asking about it now that the whole business is over?”

Marty smiles pleasantly. “He’s still my client,” he lies smoothly. “I’m still helping him through the fallout of it all. I’d like to help, but—family seems like a sore subject.” He keeps his face soft and earnest.

Owen shrugs. “No big wonder there. His mum passed on early from us. Nice lady. Hard for a single working father to raise two kids, leave ‘em at home, unattended.”

“Two?” Marty repeats.

“Aye. The older one had himself a little accident when he was little. Was never quite right after that. Stammered a lot. Old Stampler let Aaron off to school with the rest of the kids evenshually, but not his oldest. The boy couldn’t take care of himself. Aaron tried to, but what can a kid do? He felt bad leaving his brother alone, I could tell.”

Marty’s gut tightens, and he feels like a gundog on a hot trail. “And where’s this brother now?”

Owen looks grim. “Dead. Some say, their old man did him in himself. Couldn’t cope no more, and he been drinking heavily, too. So. You ask why Aaron ran off? Plenty of whys right there. People settle in places like this, but not everyone’s cut out to live here. Small rural town, and then you go out to Louisville, and see the world, and you read about it, and you don’t want to work the mines, or the farms. And then your old man starts whipping you. Pick one. Or pick all of them.”

“What was the brother’s name?”

“Benjamin.”

“Hm.” Marty squints. He was nearly expecting ‘Roy’. “You wouldn’t have any pictures, would you?”

Owen shakes his head, amused at the idea. “Don’t think even his daddy has any.”

Marty contemplates it briefly, then figures maybe the yearbook in Louisville will have it. If he figures out what school it was. If it’s even worth looking for at this point, which, honestly, it probably isn’t. All he wanted was to make sure that Aaron/Roy was telling the truth about where he came from.

“You saw him on the tv though, right? While the trial was happening? Saw his face?”

“Sure did.”

“And did he seem… changed to you at all?”

Owen shrugs. “A little taller, sure. It’s been ‘bout five years. But, you know how it is: he looks like the same kid to me.”

Marty nods thoughtfully, like it makes sense to him, when it doesn’t. “Thanks,” he says absent-mindedly, tapping the counter, and leaves.

He supposes he’d have to drop the air quotes he’s been using in his head. It’s Aaron after all, whatever he himself may insist upon. He wonders where the hell ‘Roy’ came from. Maybe nowhere at all. There isn’t an easy key that solves the puzzle—Aaron seems to be constructed from too many pieces, and Marty may have traced the name and the stutter and the broken home back to Creekside, but most of it, he’s sure, Aaron has picked up on the road, and there’s no way for Marty to trace it. Maybe he doesn’t have to.

Sitting in his car, outside of town, Marty thinks about Alex again, about the wild pity he felt for him. And how he was right, that Aaron’s exactly the same. He’s just smarter, downright conniving about wearing his masks. Hard to peel all the layers away. But beneath it all, it wasn’t a lie. Aaron was still somebody who went through hell and needed help. However much he may have tried to obfuscate that reality, it didn’t make it any less true.

 

 

——o——

 

 

His first law professor had a thing for quaint little aphorisms. Keeping them on their toes, reminding them to think like lawyers. ‘If your mother says she loves you, get a second opinion,’ was what he told them on the first day of class. Which seemed like a mean-spirited joke about the cynicism of practicing law at the time, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t about the lawyers at all, it was a truth about the clients.

A parent’s love is supposed to be unequivocal. And being a lawyer is about learning to question and to demand proof even of things that seem like a given. Because in the court of law, chances are, they aren’t.

But for all that he knows they aren’t, for all the cases he’s tried, and observed, and read through, where fratricide, filicide and the likes of it were the focal point. For all that he knows shitty families exist. For all that he’s seen their dirt inside and out in the courtrooms, talked to survivors, talked to the culprits, listened to the stories of abuse, and betrayals, and insane justifications. For all that he’s supposed to know. You can’t know. If you didn’t grow up in a disturbed household, you can’t ever know.

What’s that Tolstoy phrase about all unhappy families being alike? Or was it Nabokov, later, turning it on its head? He gets those openings mixed up sometimes.

Looking at Aaron, Marty doesn’t know. Knows, but doesn’t. There is no knowing this. He thinks of his own family, inevitably—his family that let him do everything, and supported him always, and any minor bumps and fallouts on the road, that’s just normal human fallacy. And he tries to fit that other life, the horrible one, onto his own past, like ill-fitting clothes—and he knows people are made of stern stuff, and maybe he is too, and others have survived for years in homes like this. But he can’t imagine surviving a single day.

Aaron doesn’t look like he would have had it in him either. Maybe that’s the difference, is that he didn’t have a childhood, he didn’t live a childhood, he survived it. He could have been less flayed, less beaten bloody, otherwise, and then who knows what kind of a man he would have turned out to be. Marty has no idea anymore.

 

 

——o——

 

 

“What the hell are those?” Aaron asks him next time he visits.

“Brought you some books,” Marty says neutrally. He is aware it’s weird, but is choosing to ignore it. He needed to do something, after Creekside.

It was a tougher process to pick them out than one would expect. He wanted to go with the classics, but then Joyce is too religious, and Faulkner’s too sexual, and Beckett is too out there, and Poe is too depressing. No Oates, no Orwell. Definitely no Hawthorne. He ends up with some Raymond Carver, and Jack London. Neutral and noncommittal.

Aaron examines the stack of books skeptically, like he expects a poisonous snake to spring from out of them. His jaw is tight and moving, like he’s physically working on pushing out a question. Marty will have no answers for him.

“I’m not staying today,” he says quickly, and Aaron looks up at him, his eyes suspicious and angry. Marty just nods and exits out of the room. It’s still a novelty: to think of him as just Aaron. To know that ‘Aaron’ and ‘Roy’ both were an act in equal measure. That he did not spring a murderer. That he helped someone who needed it after all.

 

 

——o——

 

 

Janet still looks fiendishly beautiful and put together. Looking at her, you wouldn’t know her life’s in shambles. She looks up when he arrives at their table, and her eyes are flinty. She drops her smoked-out cigarette into her half-finished glass of vodka and instantly lights another.

“Chain-smoking now?” he smiles wryly at her.

“Suck a dick,” she mutters around the cigarette. “Wrecking your life against a pole at full speed will do that to you.”

“I’ll drink to that,” Marty says, and raises a hand, summoning the waiter. “Two of whatever the lady’s been having.” He turns back to Janet. They’re silent for a while.

“Shaughnessy’s gunning for you,” she says, studying him. “You may end up ousted from the city faster than I am. Out of the state, if Shaughnessy has anything to say about that.”

Marty gives her a flat look. “Shaughnessy hardly has time to say anything about you or me, what with him being too busy answering questions about his own corrupt little deals.”

“Oh, please. You think shit doesn’t stick to you, Marty, but it does. You’re in the gutter with me, and you better wake up and wise up.”

Marty smiles placatingly. “Can I offer you a piece of wisdom?”

“I’m not coming to work for you,” Janet says sharply.

“I’m not asking. This time. But, you were on your way out, weren’t you? Planning to run for Senate?”

“Yes, I’m sure they’re all tripping over themselves these days to offer me the prestigious position of driving a garbage truck for them.” The tip of her cigarette lights up angrily, as she sucks a long breath in. Her fingers twist nervously around it. “You remember Silverman?”

Marty chuckles, surprised. “Yeah.”

“You tore him up something special in court.”

“It was just his ego that I roughed up.”

Janet snorts. “Roughed up so good that he ended up quitting and went to teach at the U of C.” Her face gets a distant, vaguely appalled look. “I might have to do that. God, I’d be horrible at teaching. I hate kids. It’s a thankless miserable job, most of them don’t amount to anything at all.”

“Hey. Hey, now,” he covers her hand with his to stop her spiraling. “Don’t start sending your resumes yet. I might know a guy.”

Janet looks at him, slightly exasperated, but also the tiniest bit trusting. She lets her hand rest underneath his.

“Alderman Martinez.”

“City Council,” she says slowly, weighing the option in her head.

“You’d like him.” He traces over her knuckles with his thumb. “He’s pragmatic, exceedingly careful. Uncompromised. Never took bribe money. Catholic. And he hates Shaughnessy. The whole package, right there.”

“How kind of you to save me right after you destroyed me.”

He gives her a rueful smile, stroking her hand again, before withdrawing. “I didn’t mean to. I only meant to win.”

She snorts. “Oh, don’t make that face like you regret it. You’ve won, you saved your adorable altar boy. Everyone goes home happy.”

Marty rearranges his expression into a smile. “Just thinking about what you said to me that day. About my timing being awful. I’m beginning to realize that.”

Janet studies him with a frown. Thinks he probably means them, and her expression grows wary and forbidding. She has no idea what he truly means, who he means. If only he’d realized the truth just a little sooner. Instead, he destroyed a friend for nothing.

 

 

——o——

 

 

Aaron is out in thirty days, just like Janet feared. Just like Marty feared for a while, too. It’s half that the government-run wards are underfinanced and lax, and half that they’re all charmed by him. After the truth of what Rushman did, no politician wants to press for a prolonged stay, there is no outward influence there at all. So a few days in advance Marty gets a call from the hospital, a courtesy. He hears them out, and sets out to make plans that are very different from what he might have originally intended.

He thought it was going to be a witch hunt, this next chapter of his life. He told the truth of it only to the people who mattered, as a warning. Keep your eyes peeled. I’m going to make it right. That sort of thing.

But that’s not the story.

The story instead is one of: forgiveness; bargains (with others, but mostly with himself); the ambiguity of truth; the reclamation of victory. Turns out, he wasn’t robbed of anything after all. Wasn’t lied to nearly as much as he thought he was, and was lied to in more ways than he was led to believe. Turns out, he wasn’t duped into helping a killer. He was duped into believing the killer had no remorse.

 

 

——o——

 

 

Aaron’s released with nothing but mandated monthly check-ups as his leash, and it’s a loose leash. They just expect him to comply. All they see is ‘Aaron’, and ‘Aaron’ would listen to them. But Aaron—the no-air-quotes-Aaron—runs away.

He’s not very good at it, actually, it turns out. He wasn’t very good at it the first time, either, if you think about it: he did get caught, after all. This time, it’s Marty who trails him from Elgin to the train station with little difficulty. Sees him swing by the halfway house where he apparently had a stash. Just enough cash for a ticket. Marty boards the same train and waits for departure. It’s a two hour ride, and he stays put for most of it: he doesn’t have any illusions about their ability to spend that much time side by side. Only when the scenery starts breaking into the cityscape once again does he move up.

And sits down next to him.

Aaron glances up briefly, expecting a stranger, and then does a double-take and freezes, and bristles.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” he says tightly. “What is this?” He slides as far away from Marty as the seats allow, like he’s half-expecting to be prison-shanked right there and then.

“Just catching a train,” Marty smiles pleasantly at him. “What’s in Milwaukee?”

Aaron sets his jaw. “The absence of Chicago,” he bites out. “Are you here to arrest me again, counselor?”

Marty chuckles, and doesn’t rush to explain anything to him. “Would that I could.”

“Are you really that fucking desperate? What’s your plan, anyway? To shadow me for the rest of my natural life? Waiting for me to slip up? Huh? What the fuck is this?”

Marty gives him a perfectly innocent look. “I told you. Just catching a train.” Aaron wouldn’t believe the truth out of his mouth anyway.

“You realize this ends one of two ways: I either punch you out, or I cause a scene,” Aaron hisses. “And you know I’m a very good actor.”

“I wish you wouldn’t,” Marty says simply. “There’s a third option I’m foreseeing.”

“Is that right?”

“It involves you being curious enough to see where I’m going with this.”

Aaron’s eyes are hard. “I’m not that curious,” he says grimly.

Marty curls his lips into a smile. “I’d call you a liar, but that would be redundant.” There is a flash of a smirk on Aaron’s face before it’s gone. “Let me drive you to a hotel. We need to talk, and that’s not a conversation for public spaces.”

He planned it all out, the big reveal, wanted it to happen once Aaron is free—except he didn’t account for how painfully awkward it was gonna be to catch a taxi together, and ride together to the nearest Hilton.

“If you’re trying to play mind games with me, it isn’t working,” Aaron hisses at him on the way. He is tense all over. Marty suspects that Aaron’s half-expecting that he wants him all alone in a hotel room to murder him.

It’s fraying his own nerves, this whole situation. Once they are in a hotel room together, he locks the door, and walks into the bathroom to splash some water into his face. He leaves the bathroom door open, but he doesn’t expect Aaron to bolt, not when they’ve made it this far. He does expect him to start tossing the room, or something. Aaron’s never been above throwing a spectacular tantrum, and this is kind of a well-meaning kidnapping.

Instead, Aaron walks across to the window and stares out of it passively. Marty exits the bathroom and remains by the door, watching him, prepared to put out any flames if he explodes. There’s no explosion. He turns around to face Marty, and his face is clear and smiling, and it’s his ‘Aaron’ face. Marty balls up his hands into fists.

“Muh-Mister Vail,” Aaron says quietly, happily, in his ‘Aaron’ voice, because ‘Aaron’ has always been glad to see him.

“Cut it out. ‘Roy’,” he returns viperishly.

Aaron shakes his head minutely. “N-No Roy here, Mister Vail. Only me.”

Marty grits his teeth and ignores him. He won’t engage in this pointless charade. He moves around the room, busying himself with minute issues, and Aaron doesn’t try intercepting him, like Aaron would. He just stands there, by the window, being ‘Aaron’ who never knew how to move around, never properly fit into the geometry of the world at all. He stays still. But he does not stay silent.

“I l-let you down, Mister Vail. You—You were—all set. To vi-visit me at Elgin. And I wasn’t there.”

“Will you cut it out?” Marty mutters quietly.

“N-no, Mister Vail, you haveta listen. I’m sorry. And I’m here now. You can ta-t—talk to me. All you want.” He pauses, waiting. Marty grips the edges of a drawer, facing away, and says nothing. Aaron keeps trying. “P—Please, Mister Vail. Ah—I know you wanted to see me.”

“What do you want from me here?” Marty finally snaps at him, twisting around. “What is the point of this? Huh?”

“And what the fuck do you want?” Aaron spits furiously back at him at last, at last, breaking the mold. “Isn’t this it? Isn’t that what you wanted all along, before I had to ruin your cozy fantasy? The innocent little dimwit, all needy and so very grateful to you, huh? Yeah? All compliant and happy to be rescued, and now we’re all alone in a single room together! Oh, what ever could we do?”

He sucks in a shocked breath as abruptly as he has started screaming, and clamps his mouth shut. The silence in the room is deafening, and Aaron’s eyes are wide, wary, like he cannot quite believe he said that; like he’s afraid of what Marty will do, how he will finally push back. Marty just stares at him, numb, and dismayed, and so fucking furious.

“You want honesty?” he asks sharply. “I think you got us mixed up, ‘cause if anything, you already fucked me.”

It lands between them like a slap, the word, the truth behind that word.

“Fuck!” Aaron yells, and grabs the covers from the bed, tears it in one violent jerk, then tosses it uselessly aside. The lamp from the nightstand follows, swiped in one furious swing. Then the bedside clock. A chair flies into a wall. This has been simmering in Aaron for the past month, past year, a murderous rage, against the entire fucking world, against its unforgiving realities. It discharges out of him now like a lightning strike, past the forced indifference he presents as his face every day.

The chair shatters into a dozen bits of wood, as Aaron picks it up over his head and smashes it against the wall again and again. Tears the phone right out of the socket, flinging it at the opposite wall with a loud clang. There aren’t a lot of drawers, but however few there are, he rips them all out and upends them—all the while giving Marty a wide berth, who is standing still in the eye of the hurricane, oddly numb and detachedly thinking that the tab on the room will run high. He’s searching for something to say, whatever the right thing is, and he isn’t sure if there is any. This has been a long time coming, and it’s deserved—it’s only that neither of them expected Marty to be here it. For that breaking point where Aaron gets to face how much has been robbed of him, pulled out against his will, how he had so little to begin with, is now spread thin, a careful construct of Hawthorne quotes, and put-upon innocence and biting deflection, and who even is he, who even is he…

Somewhere in the middle of it he starts crying, too. Marty wonders if that pisses him off, crying in front of him, or even crying at all. He’s allowed, as far as Marty is concerned. He doesn’t think Aaron properly cried over any of this yet.

His lashes are dark and sticky with tears, face red with it, and with shame, and fear, this sharp realization of what’s happening, enough to make him wanna mow Marty down and erase this from his memory somehow.

“Stop. Stop it,” Marty says evenly, reaching for his flailing limbs, trying to grapple him and subdue him. “That’s enough. Aaron. That’s enough.”

Aaron wrestles out of his grip, and all his careful avoidance is gone, it’s like back in the prison cells, where ‘Roy’ was never afraid to put his hands on him, to push, and Aaron’s fist crashes into his face with all his might.

It’s a strong punch, Marty’s face is lit on fire with it. He bends over, wincing, and lets go off Aaron. And Aaron stops.

“Shit,” he says, and breathes heavily, almost hysterically, and just stares at Marty, who stares back up at him, pressing his hand to his jaw. It’s throbbing. “Shit,” he says again, and looks around. Marty nods jerkily, because yeah, and goes back to the bathroom. Studies himself in the mirror, and that’s gonna bruise something special. He picks up a towel and wets it under cold water before pressing it gingerly to where the hit landed.

“You called me Aaron,” Aaron says from the doorway. Marty side-eyes him.

“Yeah,” he says curtly, still checking himself out in the mirror. “That’s your name. I know it’s your name, and I’m tired of not using it just because you think I will only mean your circus act.”

He starts walking out of the bathroom, and Aaron steps back, giving him space. He looks utterly defeated. Which is a little bit of good news, because Marty is tired of their passive-aggressive stalemate, he is tired of fighting him every step of the way. He sits down on the edge of the bed.

Aaron backs himself into a wall to give him room, and ends up just sliding down to the floor and breathing. Marty watches him as he tries to calm down and not be on the verge of tears. His fingers grow cold and wet where he’s holding the towel. He changes hands.

“You know what your problem is, counselor?” Aaron says hoarsely, looking at his knees. “You know what my problem is with you?” Marty watches him quietly, lets him talk. This is not actually a conversation anymore. “My problem is. There has never been a single fucking person who would have done something for me just coz. No strings attached.”

Marty could argue that point, but he doesn’t. It sounds like a gross over-dramatization, but really, he knows fuck-all about how thankless Aaron’s life has been prior to all of this. Aaron can be the only judge of his own bleak experiences.

“What about Linda?” he offers.

Aaron snorts, still a little hysterical, and looks up at the ceiling. “God,” he groans. “It hasn’t been bad, with Linda. But Linda only knew ‘Aaron,’ that ‘Aaron’. Was in love with that ‘Aaron’. Needed his innocence and naivety.” His face grows wistful. “She was kind,” he says softly. “She didn’t push it—but—she was still selfish about it, in her own way. The sex was only about her, you know?” His eyes dart briefly to Marty, then away again. Marty is listening without any expression passing over his face. “It was nice, for a change, to actually wanna do it,” Aaron says in a dull tone. “But tiresome, too, because I had to actively concentrate on not blowing my cover instead of getting off. Couldn’t say anything I might have wanted, had to keep my hands to myself, had to be stilted about everything. It was like a girl faking an orgasm, except backwards.” He sounds distant as he says all these things. Like they really happened to that ‘Aaron’, but not to him. “She would climb on top of me and do it for herself. It’s not like she ever thought ‘Aaron’ would be imaginative enough to fuck her. To be fair, ‘Aaron’ probably wouldn’t be.” He closes his eyes again, exhaling tiredly.

“My point,” he goes on after a while, “is that—you liked ‘Aaron’. You were kind to ‘Aaron’, because he deserved it, he was fragile and a victim. But not ‘Roy’, though, right? He went through the same shit, if you think about it, but you didn’t like ‘Roy.’ I knew you wouldn’t even before I invented him. I knew you wouldn’t like ‘Roy’, and—” his breath hitches a little, and he meets Marty’s eyes, “—I knew you wouldn’t like me. Because ‘Aaron’ was innocent, but I wasn’t. ‘Aaron’ didn’t understand how anyone could commit murder, and the only thing I don’t understand is how people do to other people what Rushman did to me and others. I’ve lived it and I don’t understand. But I knew what to do about it, so I did it.” He looks at Marty, his eyes hard. “My point is,” he says again, “I hated it. Hated you. You wanted ‘Aaron’. Just like everyone else. And I am so fucking tired of pretending for other people. And people fuck you over anyway. Especially people you make the mistake of liking. That was all I was waiting on, is for you to hurt me. So I did it first. You asked me about Miss Venable, and it was like a chessboard in front of me. And I saw the path where I could say, easily, that I don’t remember it in my brain, but the guards have said some stuff, so I knew I hurt her in my fugue state, I knew how and where. I could say something like that, and I could say it in a way you’d believe. I could have said a whole mess of things. But instead I told you the truth.”

“Truth is not what I would call it,” Marty says wryly. Aaron’s taunts that day still ring in his head sometimes.

Aaron chuckles. “It was more truthful than the other thing. I’m a piece of shit, and I needed you to see exactly that.”

Marty drops the towel, and sits on the floor across from Aaron.

“So what happened to Linda?” he asks instead of any other thing.

Aaron shrugs. “She was just tired. Every second of her existence hurt. And in the kind of surroundings that we live in? It’s too easy to check out.”

“Alex thought she left.”

“That’s what I told him. I found her. Got rid of her body. Nobody asks questions about people like us. But I knew I had to get out, then. And I also knew I had to make him pay first. I’m good for that, at least.”

They are silent for a while.

“There’s another thing you wanted to know, wasn’t it? Why I didn’t run,” Aaron says hoarsely.

“No,” Marty stops him, a little too quickly, and Aaron looks up at him. “You don’t have to talk about that. You don’t—” he stops, and shakes his head. “I know why you didn’t, Aaron.” Aaron looks startled and suspicious at that. “I know enough,” he amends. “You don’t owe me any explanations. You don’t have to tell me anything. Not unless it’s something you actually want to talk about.”

Aaron nods morosely and sighs, leaning back against the wall. “Okay,” he says, and nothing else.

Marty nods, too, a little relieved that Aaron knows enough to stop.

 

 

——o——

 

 

He ends up renting a second room in that same hotel. The bargain they strike is: Marty gets to shadow Aaron for a week, to make sure he is okay on his feet, maybe throw around some more of that charity he so despises. He spends the first night restlessly, worrying that Aaron will reconsider and bail on him. It’s a surprise and a relief when he doesn’t.

It’s the first time Marty actually knows, instead of guessing, that he is seeing the real deal. The real Aaron is a lot more like Roy, but not nearly as cruel or foul-mouthed. He’s resilient, and full of repressed anger, but still so very young at heart.

“So. Milwaukee?” he has to ask eventually. They are walking outside, and Aaron is eating a snow-cone: such a small pleasure, but he takes such delight in it.

“I can’t very well stay in Chicago, can I?” Aaron says bitterly. “They all know my face there, and, anyway, fuck Chicago.”

“It’s the third biggest city in the States. One would figure, you could have gotten lost in it if you wanted.”

Aaron scoffs. “That was the plan, wasn’t it? Look at how that turned out.”

“And what was your plan for Milwaukee?”

Aaron considers his shoes. “I’m not your responsibility, Marty,” he says. It isn’t hostile, it’s just a statement of fact how Aaron sees it. “I’m not your friend. You don’t have friends who are clients, anyway. Especially not the ones who are guilty, I bet.”

Marty thinks about the corpse of Joey Pinero, and says nothing to that. “What are you going to do, then? College? Do you even have a GED?”

“What do I need a college degree for?” Aaron snorts.

“To get a job,” Marty says reasonably.

“What job would that be?” Aaron looks at him. “What could you possibly imagine I could do?”

Marty gives him a soft look. “Anything you wanted. What do you want?”

“I’m a con man, Marty. I’ll con my way into charity. Easy as that.”

“I thought you hated charity,” Marty raises an eyebrow.

Aaron smiles. “Only from you.”

 

 

——o——

 

 

If he thought they’d have a proper send-off, with Marty making sure that Aaron is all set before parting ways, he should have known better. Aaron splits in the middle of the night just before their week is up, and this time Marty has no godly idea how to track him down. He’s left with no other choice but to head back to Chicago.

Chicago isn’t exactly waiting for him with open arms—not with Shaughnessy still in power. But there are other doors opening for him, promising with them a much needed change of scenery. The truth is, Marty can’t bear to stay in this city either, not when he knows the true depths of the corruption going on there on the government level.

Among the various offers on the table there is one to go to New York, be a part of a firm there. He considers it. Makes a trip there, and checks it out. Tries one case with them. It takes a couple of months, it’s not a rush job. As they wrap up, he accepts it on a more permanent basis, and says his good-byes to Chicago.

Janet is all settled with Martinez, so there’s at least one person he’s left in good hands. She makes him promise not to be a stranger. Naomi is starting a family, so she has no plans to uproot her life and leave, even if they both loathe to be losing one other. It’s a tough parting. Tommy, on the other hand, surprisingly doesn’t mind the move, even though they’re less than friends. There is very little for him to settle, and he joins Marty in New York.

Marty isn’t Chicago born, but he is Chicago-bred, in a lot of ways. He has given his best years to this city, and he ends up missing it more than he expected. Somewhere along the line of the Rushman case he appears to have lost his pragmatic bone—he wouldn’t have thought a landscape nostalgia is his style, but there it is. He misses Lake Michigan, and its crowded beaches. He misses the architecture, an actual city’s architecture instead of the forest of concrete which is NYC. Misses the hole-in-the-wall across from his former apartment. Misses The Alibi and Malört—or maybe he just misses drinking with Janet.

The job keeps him busy enough not to ponder these things too much. Case by case, day by day, he passes the winter—the one thing he doesn’t miss of Chicago is how unrelenting it used to be there, whereas here there are actual seasons, and snow doesn’t tend to stay up until April. He spots an odd homeless man, now and then, and resolutely doesn’t think about Aaron, how he used to spend his winters while travelling the roads upwards from Creekside, or how he is spending this one.

He wonders what Janet would have made of his existence here. Him both thriving and cowering in his new job, trying to lick his wounds after the Rushman case has broken him open. She’d probably laugh herself sick, and she’d be right. It’s goddamn hilarious.

 

 

——o——

 

 

It’s the middle of May, nearly seven months later, when there’s a knock on his door late one evening. Marty isn’t expecting anyone, and he frowns, puzzled, as he crosses the apartment. The sight of Aaron punches all air out of him, and he stands there, dumbstruck at the sight of him, hands in pockets and smiling wryly.

“Hello, counselor,” he says around a smirk.

“Aaron... What are you doing here?”

“Oh, you know, passing through town, thought I’d drop by,” he says matter-of-factly.

Marty frowns. “How did you even know where to find me?”

“Naomi gave me your address.”

“She just gave it to you,” he echoes skeptically.

“I’ve made some compelling arguments,” Aaron shrugs. “Also, I’m pretty sure if you don’t call her within two minutes, the police will swoop down on this place.” Marty snorts. Aaron looks at him. “No, I’m serious. Call her, she’s only half-convinced I’m not here to murder you.”

Marty laughs openly at that, because the situation is too incredible, but he complies and picks up the phone to dial the familiar number.

“Hey, Naomi,” he says, keeping his eyes on his guest. “So I see you’ve sent a friend my way.”

“Stampler made it to you?” she asks, with the barest hint of tension to her voice, but Marty hears it anyway. “Did I do the right thing?”

“Yes,” he smiles. “Thank you. Just thought I’d put your mind at ease.”

“Okay,” he hears her exhale a held breath. She hesitates and says, “Be careful, Marty.”

“You too,” he answers, wilfully ignoring her meaning, and clicks the phone off. He’s still looking at Aaron who has stepped inside the apartment and is looking around, fingers tracing Marty’s bookcases, eyes scanning the lived-in space. He looks good, wearing a good suit and a clean haircut.

“What are you doing here?” he has to ask. “Are you okay?”

Aaron snorts. “Why, do I have to be in trouble to come find you? I’m fine, Marty, you can relax. I’m doing alright for myself.” He hesitates. He looks it, too. He’s wearing a fine suit, one he fills out nicely, too. Looks healthy and put together. “I’ve got a job. It’s going well. I thought I’d drop by Chicago and look you up, but you weren’t there anymore.”

“Why?” Marty asks again.

Aaron shrugs. “Can we not do this?” he looks at him. “Can I just be an old friend popping by, and you offer me a beer, and we just shoot the shit about nothing in particular?”

Marty isn’t sure he can let this go, but he can at least postpone it, and they both know that he’ll always let Aaron call the shots about how this relationship works.

“Kitchen’s that way,” he says.

He pulls out two beers from the fridge and offers one to Aaron. There’s a tattoo on his forearm, visible as he reaches for the bottle. It’s a string of words, Marty can’t make out the quote. “Nice souvenir,” he says, nodding at it.

“Wanted something carved into myself, too,” Aaron says. Marty’s eyes fly up to his, startled. Aaron just shrugs; there’s a smile hidden in the corners of his mouth. For once, this isn’t something he says for shock value. It’s a gruesome reason, but it doesn’t make it any less true, or less morbidly funny.

“So, what have you been up to?” he asks, trying to keep his tone light and conversational, and not like his life hinges on the answer.

“I’ve done as you suggested. Gone to college for a few months. It wasn’t really my scene.”

Marty bites down any protest he might have to that. “You mentioned a job?” he says instead.

“Attorney-client privilege still applies?” Aaron asks him with a smirk.

Marty sighs. No conversations have ever been anything good when starting like that. “In perpetuity,” he says, because that’s also true. He will never betray Aaron’s confidence; Aaron has been betrayed enough.

“Corporate espionage,” Aaron says, which isn’t as bad as Marty was dreading. “I’m kind of good at it.”

“I can see how you would be,” Marty says. Can imagine it easily, Aaron slipping in and out of identities and in and out of spaces, knowing how to make himself look like a different person entirely, and knowing how to make himself invisible.

“I’m a partner at a law firm here,” Marty offers, to keep the conversation going instead of awkwardly grinding to a halt.

“So I’ve heard,” Aaron smiles into another swig off the bottle.

The silence stretches, and Marty sighs, and sits down across from him, “Aaron, why are you really here?”

Aaron looks away and stares into a spot in the distance only visible to him. “So, that college thing,” he says slowly. “Wasn’t exactly the clean break I needed. It was a new leaf, new experiences, all that jazz, you were right. But people there didn’t know me, which turned out to be less of a solution and more of a problem. Their lives are so different from mine, it wasn’t taking the edge off, it was doing the opposite. They can’t ever really know me.” He looks at Marty and offers him a crooked smile, “And, for better or for worse, you know who I am. You know all the crap I’m carrying around, and with you it doesn’t feel like baggage. It’s just something that is.”

Marty studies him for a long moment, not sure what to do about that. “You have a place to stay?” he asks.

“I’ve got money,” Aaron says, which isn’t exactly an answer as much as it is a border drawn warily between them. He isn’t here for charity, is what he means; he doesn’t need to depend on random acts of kindness—which is exactly the sort of freedom that Marty wanted for him anyway, so he can respect the silent message.

“You wanna crash here tonight?” he asks all the same.

Aaron nods, a faint smile returning tentatively to his lips, and Marty has forgotten how weak he’s always been for that smile. “Yeah, thanks,” he says.

 

 

——o——

 

 

The real irony is: there are still two halves at war in Aaron. The kid that half-starved his way up to Chicago, the one that had to learn the habit of never refusing the offer of a free meal, or free lodgings, or free comfort. And the young man who has learnt that nothing in the world is actually free, and that kindness can mask the truly horrible kind of cruelty. He both wants and resents Marty’s easily offered friendship. (It’s the easily part he takes issue with; he’d be less skeptical if the friendship was grudgingly given, but Marty can’t help how he feels either, so they both have to make adjustments.)

It’s an odd sensation, having him here. He remembers, a lifetime ago, missing his shade, missing his act, the tentative friendship between the lawyer and his client. He doesn’t miss it anymore, but he did miss Aaron, and the real honesty that has sprung up between them in Milwaukee and on their way there. It’s like something’s coming full circle, but he hesitates to put a name to the feeling.

In the morning, Marty is woken up by a polite, but loud cough. He startles in the chair where he has evidently fallen asleep while working on the case. Aaron is standing a few feet away, his face conflicted. He’s very careful avoided shaking him awake, he realizes. The reason for that is painfully apparent: he’s been touched too many times without his consent to ever consider even waking someone by casually touching them. The sentiment is both sweet and nauseating.

“This doesn’t look comfortable,” Aaron says.

Marty straightens up, and his spine cracks. “It wasn’t,” he says dryly. “I’ll be right there,” he waves vaguely in the direction of his kitchen. “Help yourself. There’s eggs, toast, lingonberry juice.”

“Yeah, I tried it,” Aaron tells him. “It’s godawful.”

Marty shrugs and stifles a yawn. “Sorry, my B&B doesn’t come with a continental breakfast.” He looks at the clock. “I need to be at the firm soon.” He looks up at Aaron and swallows. There isn’t a completely desperate way of asking Will I see you again?

Aaron simply shrugs. “I have work too. Thanks for letting me crash here.”

Marty nods. “You’re welcome here anytime,” he says, and means it with his whole being, and hopes that Aaron knows he means it, too.

 

 

——o——

 

 

“So, tell me about your job,” Aaron asks him two evenings later, when he decides to randomly drop by again. Marty spent the two days leading up to it thinking up ways to track him down again, and he’s disproportionally relieved when Aaron just shows up at his door again at an odd hour.

“It’s different,” Marty says, not sure how to explain it to someone with no law degree. “Good different. Challenging. Less of defending murderers,” he says wryly, before he can think better of it. He didn’t even mean Aaron, is the funny thing. He was thinking of Joey Pinero, and the Williams case before that.

He doesn’t notice the silence until Aaron breaks it.

“Does it bother you?” he asks quietly.

Marty looks up at him, and for a moment doesn’t know what conversation they’re having anymore. Then he sees Aaron’s eyes, calm and bright, and swallows.

“Does it bother you, counselor?” he asks again. “A murderer sitting in your apartment, drinking your beer.”

“You’re not a murderer,” Marty replies automatically.

Aaron raises an eyebrow at that. “I very much did commit the crime. Planned it, too.”

“He deserved it,” Marty says quietly.

“Being justified isn’t the same as being innocent.”

“Sometimes it is,” Marty offers, but he can see from the stubborn press of Aaron’s mouth that it’s not a satisfying answer to him.

“You were set on the ‘not guilty’ verdict for me. That’s what you believed about ‘Aaron,’” he says, finger-quoting the name. “But guilty by reasons of insanity is still guilty.”

Marty shakes his head, blindsided by this conversation, and tries to gather up the frayed reasons why Aaron’s wrong. “You’re just—you’re not—guilty, Aaron. I didn’t believe it when I met you, and I didn’t believe it when I knew your hands committed the crime, and I don’t believe it now that I know your mind and your heart committed them as well. It’s just—A person has to be human first for it to have been a murder. What Rushman did, to you and others? I don’t care how many charities he ran, how many things he did to offset what happened in his sex chambers, how he lifted the city up to justify his sick twisted secret. That wasn’t ever gonna be enough. It wasn’t human.”

Aaron’s face changes. He looks touched, but unconvinced.

“You can’t be fucking Plato in a courtroom, Clarence,” he says softly. “Law isn’t for such philosophies.”

“Isn’t it? Tell it to any lawyer who has ever tried to defend the very existence of the First Amendment. Yours truly included.” He smiles wryly.

“The First Amendment?” Aaron blinks, confused.

“The worst fucking thing in the entire Bill of Rights. I’ve heard a lawyer defend a sex offender’s right to go to a chat room populated with kids, and that prohibiting them to do so infringes upon their rights as citizens. Probably thought up the whole defense in five minutes. I mean, from the legal standpoint, it’s open and shut, right? So why does your stomach churn when you hear it? Law isn’t supposed to feel like that, is it? But the First Amendment protects all kinds of shit. Are convicted criminals allowed to publish memoirs? Where is the fine line between defamation and freedom of speech, obscenity that depraves society and freedom of speech, opinions so vile and vulgar they destroy a part of another human’s soul and freedom of speech? If a redneck were to approach my friend Tommy and call him the n-word and spout all kind of Aryan shitstain vileness at him, the kind that dehumanizes you in the worst way, is that freedom of speech? Law is all philosophy, Aaron. That’s why they both originated in fucking Latin.”

“I—don’t think that’s true,” Aaron smiles, amused.

“No,” Marty smiles back. “But it sounded neat.”

He comes closer to Aaron and puts a careful hand on his shoulder. “You can’t equate law with morality,” he says, “‘cause they aren’t the same. You can be both guilty and innocent at the same time. And, for the record, I don’t care what verdict got slammed on our case. You did what you did. You can sit here and drink all the beer you like.”

 

 

——o——

 

 

Marty isn’t sure Aaron even has a place in New York. He suspects the nights he spends elsewhere are spent at motels—and there are less and less of those nights, since he isn’t objecting to Aaron crashing on his couch.

What he certainly does have is his job, and Marty is both impressed and concerned with the choice of it. It’s dangerous, and borderline illegal, and seems like a misapplication of Aaron’s considerable talents. Then again, not every job accepts people without any degree or recommendation just on their own merit.

“Have you thought about investigative journalism? You could do the same thing you do now, but for different reasons. You don’t even have to work for an edition. There are blogs for everything these days.”

“I don’t think it pays quite as handsomely,” Aaron counters. “Plus, it’s not all corporate spywork. I’m building a ring of trusted sources and trusting clients, and they know my skillset, what I’m good for. More often than not I get to play the fixer these days. There’s power in that. Having control over events and their presentation.”

“I’m sure I can’t relate,” Marty snorts into his coffee mug. Putting a spin on things is basically his whole trade.

 

 

——o——

 

 

The problem, or maybe the truth of the matter, becomes apparent one evening, when Marty comes home to the sound of water running in the bathroom. He sets his briefcase carefully on the table, and walks through his apartment, shedding his jacket and tie.

“Aaron?” he calls out with a frown. The sound of water abruptly stops, and Aaron emerges from the bathroom, sleeves hiked up and his hair slightly damp. Marty stares at him. “What’s wrong with your hair? Why are you—blonde?”

“Don’t worry, this is a temporary dye, it’ll come off in a few days,” Aaron says.

Which still doesn’t answer the question of, “Why is it in your hair?”

“I went to see your person of interest, Paterson,” Aaron says, completely blasé. Like Marty hasn’t told him about him being scarily mobbed up.

“And being blonde was your disguise?” he asks instead, working up to being angry.

Aaron looks at him. “Yeah,” he says calmly. “As was what I was wearing, and what I was saying, and how I was saying it. My manners, my accent. Don’t take me for an amateur, counselor.”

Marty pinches the bridge of his nose. “Aaron. What were you thinking? You can’t just do something like that.”

“Really?” Aaron says flatly. “‘Cause I did it, and you were right, he is involved, so now you can just lean on him with the intel I gathered, or have Tommy lean on him, and have your witness.”

Marty shakes his head and pinches the bridge of his nose. “Okay. Okay. But if it has been anything else, you realize that this was nearly entrapment.”

Aaron grimaces. “How so? I’m not in law enforcement.”

“You lied completely about who you are. Whatever you found, if I don’t get it from Paterson myself, is inadmissible.”

“I seem to remember you having Tommy testify to burglarizing the rectory,” Aaron says snidely.

“Yeah, and it was nearly tainted evidence, but everybody cared too much about avenging Rushman, so they let it slide. You can’t be my P.I., Aaron, you have to see that. I can’t ever put you on a stand, that would be a colossal conflict of interest.”

“Why?” he snorts. “I don’t work for you.”

“You practically live here!” Marty explodes.

The truth of that statement hangs loudly in the space between them.

Aaron stops whatever it is he was doing, tidying up, and gives Marty an odd, pointed look. Marty freezes as well, and bites on the inside of his cheek.

“I didn’t mean it like that,” he says quietly.

No? the raise of Aaron’s eyebrows seems to convey. “How did you mean it?” he asks calmly.

“I didn’t mean it like anything,” Marty says.

Aaron is silent for a moment. “I know I nearly live here,” he says quietly. “I know why, too. The question is, do you know why? Is your why the same as mine?”

Slowly, he comes up to Marty, looking as unsure as Marty feels. His muscles remain locked in place, hypnotized by this entire scenario. Aaron’s leaner than him, so he forgets sometimes that they’re the same height. Aaron might even have a few inches on him. It works out in his favor now. Carefully, every so carefully, he puts his hand on Marty’s shoulder, thumb touching his neck. He looks him right in the eyes, looking for some sort of an answer—Marty has none to give—or maybe permission, before he inclines his head and softly brushes his mouth over Marty’s lips. It’s light as air, and then he is stepping back again.

“I should go,” he whispers. “I’m sorry.”

He’s out the door, it slamming behind him, before Marty regains any control of his muscles or brain power to chase after him.

 

 

——o——

 

 

Funny, how he used to think that the images of Aaron would haunt him, but when they do, it’s for an entirely different reason.

The things is, he both has and hasn’t noticed. Sue him. He has never looked at ‘Aaron’ like that, because ‘Aaron’ was his client, completely devoid of agency. And he has never looked at Aaron like that either, because Aaron is too furious at the world, too shut off from anything like that.

Correction: he has never allowed himself to look. Not until Aaron shatters that barrier and makes him.

And Marty barely knows how to be in a relationship with a perfectly put-together woman, he’s apparently too self-obsessed for that. He definitely doesn’t know what he can offer Aaron, who’s an even worse mess than he is.

He wakes up in the middle of the night because of a sixth sense, a presence, rather than any sound. Sitting up, he blinks in the darkness, and Aaron’s sitting on a chair at the opposite end of the room in sullen silence. It should really freak him out more than it does, this casual b&e, but Marty is just relieved to see him again more than anything else.

“Jesus fucking Christ,” he curses under his breath anyway, because his heart is still hammering. “Aaron.” He sits up and tries to get out of the bed.

“No, stay,” Aaron says, and Marty pauses.

“Can I at least put on a shirt?” he asks.

Aaron hides his eyes and shakes his head. Marty stays where he is. He understands what this is intuitively, it’s a power move. Aaron needs to feel as much in control, and to have Marty at his most uncomfortable to even talk about it. That’s fair. Marty is prepared to give it to him.

“Do you want me here?” Aaron asks quietly. He doesn’t mean the room.

Marty swallows. “You know that I do.”

“Even if nothing else ever happens,” Aaron says. “Would you still want me then?”

“I couldn’t remove you from my life even if I tried,” Marty says softly. “And I don’t want to try.”

Aaron looks lost at the admission. Like he expected it to be a deal-breaker. It truly isn’t.

“I don’t have anything figured out,” Marty offers in the ensuing silence, because it bears saying.

Aaron’s answering smile is lopsided. “That’s kind of comforting, actually.”

“I know one thing,” Marty says. “You shouldn’t do anything you might regret.”

Aaron looks at him. “What do you imagine I’ll regret?”

Talking about it is like walking on thin ice, but he figures, he’s only saying the truths they both know. “You’ve only had ugly things done to you. And I don’t think you know the difference between love and attraction. And I can’t promise that I won’t ever hurt you, if only simply by accident.”

“I do know the difference, you vain piece of shit,” Aaron snorts, unoffended. “And I can’t make that promise either, so we’re kind of even.”

“Fair point, counselor,” Marty nods.

“Hey, that’s my line.”

He’s smiling, but he’s beginning to look uncomfortable now. They’re talking about a different thing now, and Marty’s near nakedness is becoming more of an issue.

“Can I put my shirt on now?” he asks quietly.

Aaron is still hiding his eyes, but gives a jerky nod. Marty slips out of the bed, wearing only his boxers, and walks over to his wardrobe to pull out a t-shirt to throw on. Still looks significantly less dressed than Aaron is, but less distracting now.

“I can’t really do most of the things you’d expect from someone else,” Aaron says, not looking at him. “The way I feel about you has very little to do with sex.”

“Okay,” Marty says carefully.

“I don’t even jerk off in the shower, you know,” Aaron says, brutally frank. “Or anywhere. The ability to treat sex as a fantasy has long since left me.”

Marty’s mouth feels dry. “You were hurt,” he says. “It’s natural.” It feels like a stupid platitude to be saying it. Like he has ripped it out of some godawful self-help book.

“It’s not just that,” Aaron shakes his head. “I used to trick when I was making my way from Kentucky to Chicago. Not a lot, but sometimes, when money was tight. Just some throat action. It didn’t seem like a big deal then, you know? Plus, I figured, I’d meet a girl eventually, and it wouldn’t matter what I did with some guy in the back of his truck, or whatever. No association.”

“But I am another guy,” Marty finishes for him. What was that thing Aaron said to him earlier? Part of the solution, part of the problem.

“It’s not like I think of anything else when I think about you,” Aaron says quickly, with a hint of urgency, like he expects Marty to think the worst, to rethink the entire thing based on this information. “I don’t fucking remember them at all. It’s just—in my experience—most of these things don’t seem very pleasant.”

Marty’s chest feels tight. What Aaron is saying is that he knows the logistics of fucking, knows how to get people off, but not how to make it feel good for either of them. He was never an active participant.

“We can figure it out,” he says softly, sitting on the edge of the bed. He isn’t expecting anything to happen tonight, or even in the near future, but the offer is there.

Aaron looks depleted by this conversation. He also looks like he doesn’t want to leave. Marty sighs and cocks his head. “Do you want to stay?” he asks softly.

Aaron looks up at him. His nod is nearly imperceptible. He takes a hesitant step forward, and ends up standing in front of Marty. Marty raises his hand and places it across Aaron’s chest, stopping him.

“Are you sure?” he has to ask.

“Why?” Aaron frowns.

“I don’t want you to wake up in a way you’re not used to, and think I’m someone else.”

Aaron presses his mouth into a flat line. “I won’t stab you or anything,” he says.

Marty stares at him, and Aaron shifts uncomfortably, not sure he should have made the joke. Marty allows himself a faint exasperated chuckle. “I’m serious, Aaron.”

“I’ve never woken up with anyone,” he says quietly. “I don’t know that I won’t freak out, but. I know it won’t remind me of anything.”

Marty lets his hand fall down in a stroking motion, half a caress. “Okay, then,” he says.

He doesn’t remove his shirt, and Aaron only removes his shoes before sitting on the bed with him. Marty looks at him, and slowly reaches for a blanket, and carefully arranges it around them. He lies on his back and listens to Aaron stretch out beside him. Carefully, he curls an arm around Marty, and Marty reaches out and caresses his hair in response. It isn’t anything sexual, just a gesture of warmth.

He isn’t sure how long they lie there like that, because the next moment he blinks up, and it’s morning. The bed is empty, but there are quiet sounds coming from the kitchen of a breakfast being made, a new day beginning, and it makes something tighten in his chest with a pain that is almost sweet.

 

 

——o——

 

 

Aaron stays to help him with the case next night. He’s been doing it a lot, it’s nothing unusual, but the shift in their dynamic is still there, hanging awkwardly in the space between them.

He ends up inching closer to where Marty is sitting, edging himself onto the armrest of his chair, and his presence so close doesn’t really put either of them in the headspace to be thinking about the case, which Marty figures out when he ends up having to reread the text he’s holding in his hand several times, and still not retaining a single word of it.

With a sigh, he puts the piece of paper down, and carefully looks askance at Aaron, conscious of him and his borders.

“You know, I’m at your imagination,” he says casually.

Aaron just stares at him, with an odd sort of longing. Balls up his hands into fists and hesitates. Marty waits on him, patient and utterly open.

“I don’t want to overwhelm you,” he says.

“That makes two of us,” Aaron chuckles.

“What I mean is, I could take the lead,” Marty says. “I myself am having no failure of imagination here. There are things I could do. But I don’t know that you would like any of them. So tell me to do something. Or do it to me.”

Aaron stops him by pressing a kiss to his mouth. It’s as light as before, mostly a hover, letting them both get used to the sensation. Marty inclines his head and completes the movement, while still keeping it lazy and nearly chaste. He kisses Aaron’s lower lip and takes it into his mouth, lets his tongue run over it, then draws back. And he kisses his upper lip and does the same thing—and Aaron sighs and opens his mouth wider and kisses him back, hands lifting from where he was bracing against the chair and finding their way to Marty’s face. Marty lets his hands land on Aaron’s waist, holding him in place, but not holding him, only a point of balance. Aaron lets his tongue slip inside his mouth, and Marty groans, and feels Aaron shudder in response, a good kind of shudder, the one filled with its own want. The carefulness of his movements opens up, and the kissing grows wetter, and hungrier, and more urgent by the moment. Marty pulls back, easing out of it, and looks at Aaron.

“Sit down,” he asks, rising out of the chair and twirling them around. Aaron swallows but plops himself down obediently. Marty kneels in front of him. “May I?” he asks softly, reaching for the hem of Aaron’s shirt, tucked into his waistline.

Aaron actually takes a moment to collect himself, which Marty is grateful for, that he is conscious of himself still and of his own limits. “Slowly,” he ends up saying.

Marty nods and tugs the shirt out and reaches beneath the hem, touching Aaron’s stomach. He shudders and sighs, and curls forward, resting his temple against Marty’s. Marty kisses his hair as he slowly works to peal the shirt off his back. Then he bends his head, and presses his mouth to Aaron’s shoulder, then to his bicep, then to the inside of his elbow. His wrist. His knuckles. Up across the arm again. To his collarbone. His chest. Aaron is sitting there, panting. His dick is half-hard already, and Marty properly gets down on his knees, and unzips his fly.

That’s the extent of his brilliant plan, is just to blow him. He’s enjoyed oral sex before, giving and receiving. Granted, this is the first time he’ll be doing it to a guy, but he’s a fast learner. For Aaron, though, this has always been about exploitation. The porn version of things, and not the good kind. Sucking men off for money. Pleasuring Rushman. Possibly doing things with Alex Cox because Rushman commanded it on camera. Aaron has only every done things in exchange for something, and hating it, and blocking everything out. So that’s all Marty can do, is do it out of want and love, and do the only thing that doesn’t bring up any memories, and hope that he makes Aaron forget the shadows of whatever else he’s been made to do.

He’s relieved to discover Aaron already twitching to hardness. Whatever he might have said about not treating sex as a fantasy, he at least wants it, wants him, which is a realization that strains his own trousers, but this isn’t about him, not right now. He doesn’t say any of the things he wants to, doesn’t call Aaron beautiful, even though he is, painfully aware that Rushman loved to sweet-talk to them, so he keeps silent. In the settling quiet, he sucks Aaron off, just letting him enjoy the ride, It’s not like any sex he’s ever had, this intense quiet, no words, barely any touching, but it feels right. It still gets Marty hard, too, so much that he begins to feel uncomfortable in his pants.

Aaron’s hands are gripping the armrests now, his knuckles growing white, and Marty raises one hand and puts it over his, a soft stroking motion, in rhythm with the strokes of his tongue. “Ghhn,” Aaron ends up exhaling, sending a spurt down Marty’s throat, which he takes care not to cough back out, and commends himself on his first-time effort. He waits until Aaron’s cock begins to soften before letting it slide out of his mouth, and Aaron hisses at how tender it feels. Together, they tuck him back in, four shaky hands required to do the job. Aaron sags into the chair bonelessly, and Marty gets up. His erection is plainly visible through his trousers, and Aaron looks up at him.

“Marty?” he asks, somehow folding all his questions into the sound of his name.

“Not tonight,” he answers with a smile that he hopes is saying Don’t worry about it, before making a beeline for the bathroom. He turns the water running and makes sure to keep as silent as possible as he hastily unzips his own pants and furiously rubs at his own cock that’s already weeping with pre-come, swallows back the groan of coming too quickly, too hard.

He does take the shower, washing the smell of sex off of himself, and putting himself back together, before emerging to face Aaron, looking as presentable as possible under the circumstances. He doesn’t pretend they both don’t know what he did behind the closed door. He hopes it wasn’t the wrong move.

Aaron is still sitting in the chair, head tipped back, looking loose and relaxed. He lifts his eyes and looks at Marty, and there’s a small smile playing on his lips. He extends his arm when Marty draws closer, and Marty puts his hand into his. Aaron draws him near and presses a kiss to his knuckles, nuzzles into his hand, smelling of soap. He doesn’t say anything weird either, silence still reigning over what has happened, but that kiss says all the important things anyway.

 

 

——o——

 

 

It takes a while before they ever progress to much of anything else. Giving or receiving. It surprises Aaron, the things Marty is willing to give him, but Marty isn’t about to make anyone do something in bed that he isn’t comfortable doing himself. It’s a learning curve for both of them.

They’re both getting used to this new intimacy. Figuring out what they like. For Marty, it’s about learning how to even be with another guy. How to let himself be as imaginative and as easy at it as he used to be with his girlfriends. It’s about mapping out the frayed uneven edges of what they’re both comfortable with. For Aaron, it’s about learning his own body. Things that he honestly enjoys, just him, no outward influence. Finding the spots where he’s sensitive. Then, some time later, it’s about learning Marty, because focusing on himself starts feeling too selfish instead of therapeutic.

He prefers to be on top for the longest time. It isn’t a sex thing, it’s every position of anything they do, even kissing, so that he’s never held down, or never feels held down, even if in his head he knows that Marty won’t ever do anything to him.

(It’s just another thing they figure out together, when it happens. He pushes Marty off and it takes him a few moments to wrestle his breathing back under control. He looks up at Marty, and looks helpless, and humiliated, and furious. His erection has begun to deflate, and he looks away, hiding his eyes.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

Marty exhales and places his hand on top of Aaron’s hair. Aaron closes his eyes and lets him.

“Tell me what went wrong.”

Aaron lets out a shuddering sigh. It’s still hard for him to talk about these things, especially in their state of half-undress, but he no longer thinks it will make Marty run, or something to that effect.

“I’m sorry,” he says again. “It felt good. It never feels good.” Marty presses his fingers deeper into Aaron’s hair at that, and Aaron leans into the touch. “It’s just—your weight on top of me—I freaked out, and I couldn’t do it anymore.”

“Okay,” Marty says, and kisses his temple.)

Marty wins his next two cases, and then loses spectacularly, and Aaron takes him out to dinner, and takes him to a fancy hotel for a stay in the penthouse suite, where they both relax, and Aaron blows him for the first time. It’s still an issue at this point, he cannot bring himself to kneel, but in that gorgeous room, feeling challenged, and having them both sprawled on the bed, he finally commits to it. It’s a thoroughly satisfying night for the both of them, and Marty manages to forget about the blow to his professional ego.

Amidst everything, Aaron is starting to pick up more and more of criminal law, and becomes a helpful set of hands. They spend nights pouring over Marty’s casefiles, with Aaron providing his own insights into Marty’s clients, as well as a smattering of snark. He never used to look forward to getting home quite as much as he does now. His romantic pastime used to be an extra appendage that he frequently neglected and paid attention to only some of the time. It’s an integral vital organ now that has wrapped around his entire being.

“Anything interesting?” he asks, coming home, glancing at the TV that Aaron’s watching. The bed dips under his weight. He lies down, and lets his head land on Aaron’s lap. A warm hand comes to rest on top of his head, petting his hair. He closes his eyes, and leans into the thumb stroking his temple.

“First Amendment is at it again,” Aaron says. Reno v. ACLU is in full swing, and ACLU is coming out of the gate with the old ‘freedom of speech’ defense. It’s all like Marty once told him: remind people of their constitutional rights, and you practically have the cat in the bag already.

He turns, and kisses the inside of Aaron’s wrist, and watches Aaron’s face soften before he leans down and kisses him. A soft, languid kiss that simply says, Hey there, and Welcome home.

“Stay in tonight?” Marty murmurs against his lips.

“You owe me a date dinner, counselor,” Aaron says seriously.

“Once my case wraps up. I’m bone-tired,” Marty sighs. The hand in his hair never disappears, and he closes his eyes, lets Aaron run his fingers through it.

Aaron smiles and kisses him again. “I’ll hold you to it,” he says solemnly.

Marty smiles, beginning to doze off. “All right,” he says.