“Here. Drink this, sweetie.” Will hands Cliff the little cardboard box—apple-flavored Juicy Juice with the straw already sticking out the top—and the older man takes it meekly.
Will runs a hand through his hair as Cliff sucks down the sugar-water, looking innocent as a child. Not for the first time, Will wonders how he got here. This is certainly the strangest stray he’s ever brought home.
Cliff sits on the throw rug, legs splayed out in front of him as he drinks his juice. After a half-second’s deliberation, Will gets down on the floor with him, groaning as his creaking knees protest. He sits beside Cliff, who immediately leans into his side, solid and warm. Will threads his fingers through Cliff’s hair automatically, smoothing it back. It’s the same thing he does with his dogs. Cliff turns his face into Will’s shirt and sighs, and Will can’t resist pressing a kiss to the top of his head.
The moment is interrupted by the loud sound of a juice box running dry. The cardboard hollows out while Cliff sucks on it, trying to get the last bits of juice from the tiny straw.
“Can I have more?” he asks. Will could swear he flutters his eyelashes like that on purpose.
Will kisses his forehead. “Okay, but just one. Too much sugar isn’t good for you.”
Cliff pouts, but his frown gives way to a sunny smile when Will returns with another cold apple juice.
There are crayons and papers scattered around the den where Cliff has been sitting. Will fingers the edge of one. “Is it okay if I look?”
Cliff worries his bottom lip, and for a second Will thinks he might say no, but he eventually nods.
Will picks up the nearest drawing. It’s not particularly well-rendered—it looks like any child’s drawing, which isn’t to say that Will could do any better. Sometimes Cliff asks to color together, and that’s the extent of Will’s own artistic endeavors.
There are stick figures wearing military clothes in Cliff’s drawing. Most have X’s over their eyes, and red rivers gush from various points on their bodies. Some are horizontal, lying in a pool of fire engine red blood. A jagged black smudge rules the lower edge of the frame. The other drawings are more of the same, with the distinction that the black blob takes up more and more of the page each time. The last drawing that Will picks up is almost entirely black, the lines fierce and frenetic.
“They’re nice drawings,” Will tries.
Cliff fixes him with a look that would be utterly out of place on an actual child but is nevertheless at home on this particular well-loved face.
“No they’re not,” he says with a hint of amusement in his voice.
Will laughs despite himself. “No, I guess they’re not.” He kisses the tip of Cliff’s nose. “But I like them because they’re yours.”
* * *
Everything is fine until bedtime. Sleeping is hard for Cliff at the best of times, but today the flashbacks have been particularly bad. The result is that Will can’t get him to go to bed for anything.
He tries reading to Cliff. He even draws a lavender-scented bath complete with foamy bubbles that pile high and threaten to spill over the top of the bathtub. He lets Cliff sit in it until his eyes begin to grow heavy, and then he bids him stand and gently towels him off.
He does everything right, and bedtime is still a fight. Eventually Will is tired and drained and running out of patience. He’s thinking about all the papers he still has to grade before class tomorrow, and well.
What happens is entirely his fault, really. He knows Cliff doesn’t like to be touched without warning, that he startles easily. He knows why Cliff startles easily, and that it’s nothing to hold against him. But he forgets, just for a moment. Just a moment of impatience and boredom—just long enough that he takes hold of Cliff’s shoulders to try to press him into bed in a moment of lapsed judgment.
The reaction is outsized and immediate.
“No!” Cliff says. He hits Will across the face, and they both stand there blinking at each other for long moments, equally shocked.
It didn’t hurt. Cliff didn’t hit him that hard, but that’s not the point. They’ve never hurt each other before—that’s the point. Their weird relationship, such as it is, is the one place free of that, for the both of them.
Cliff recovers first. “Shit,” he says, surfacing from wherever it is he goes when they pretend this way. “Fuck, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to do that. Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” Will says, shaking it off. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
“Fuck,” Cliff says again. “I’m so fucking sorry. I should go. I’m sorry, that was—”
Will can see him looking for his street clothes, looking for his shoes so he can get up and leave. He can feel the self-loathing and reproach radiating from Cliff in thick, nauseating waves. He can see it in the white of his knuckles, in the fists that are balled so tight he can see the way Cliff’s nails are biting into his palms.
Will wants to comfort him. To tell him it’s okay, that he has nothing to apologize for. He wants to kiss it better, to fix it with juice boxes and bandaids, but he knows that isn’t how it works. That’s not how any of it works. Cliff doesn’t live in a place where sweetness can reach. He wants to earn forgiveness.
The desire to do penance is one Will can intimately identify with. This isn’t healthy, but then they never pretended it was. He figures it’s a good thing he’s not a therapist.
He takes a deep breath. “Pull your pants down and come here.”
He sits on the edge of the bed to wait. He watches the order ricochet through Cliff’s brain, sees him go through confusion, anger, incredulity, and embarrassment. This isn’t something they do.
“What?” Cliff asks.
“You heard me,” Will says, keeping his voice calm and even. “Do I need to count to ten?”
Cliff hesitates, brows knitting together.
“One,” Will starts. He counts slowly. “Two.”
He doesn’t get to three before Cliff hooks his thumbs into the waistband of the pajama pants he wears whenever he’s at Will’s house. He takes a deep breath and pushes them down over his hips, baring his ass.
He shuffles over to Will, cheeks glowing a flaming red. Will pats his lap, and Cliff carefully drapes himself over it.
He’s too big for this; he really is. He’s taller than Will, tall enough that he has to brace his hands on the ground in order to keep from falling over.
“Thank you,” Will says. He doesn’t really know what he’s doing. He doesn’t have a script for his, so he talks, making it up as he goes along. “I’m going to spank you. Do you know why?”
Cliff doesn’t reply, so Will gives him a short, sharp smack on the bottom.
“Because I did something bad,” he says finally.
“No,” Will says firmly. “It’s because I care about you, and I promised to take care of you. Do you understand?”
Cliff doesn’t respond at first, so Will waits. He can wait all night if he needs to—he won’t make the mistake of being impatient again.
Long minutes pass. Finally, Cliff nods. It’s such a subtle movement that Will could have missed it if he wasn’t paying close attention, but it’s enough.
“Good,” Will says. “I’m going to give you ten, alright?”
Another nod, less hesitant this time.
He takes a deep breath and brings the flat of his palm down on Cliff’s ass, then repeats it on the other side. Cliff doesn’t move, doesn’t make a sound, so he does it again, one more smack on each cheek.
After the fifth strike, he leaves his palm in place, rubbing gently along the warmed skin.
“You’re beautiful, you know.” He strokes up Cliff’s back, up under the fabric of his shirt. “So fucking gorgeous.”
He brings his hand down again.
“Perfect,” Will says.
Cliff jerks against him. “Stop,” he says. “Please.”
“Just four more to go, baby.”
He shakes his head. “Not that. Not— you can hit me all night. Just, stop talking like that.”
Will runs his fingers over Cliff’s body, tangling one hand in his hair while the other plays over the curve of his hips. “But it’s true. Why can’t I say it?”
He knows why, but he wants to hear Cliff say it. Some lies can only be found when they’re dragged screaming into the light.
“Because I don’t want you to.”
Cliff tries to squirm free, but his position doesn’t offer him any leverage, and Will’s arms are strong enough to hold him in place.
The next two smacks are delivered in quick succession.
“Such a good boy,” Will says. “You’re always so good for me. I’m sorry I don’t tell you more often.”
“Stop,” Cliff says, loud and sharp and ringing through the room.
The skin on his sides ripples and changes, and Will watches, fascinated, as six long, cable-like appendages worm their way through Cliff’s skin. The tentacles circle around them like sharks. The ends burn like embers, and Cliff looks up at him with teeth bared in a snarl.
Will swallows. A moment passes between them, then another.
“Very scary,” he says finally. “But I still owe you two more spanks.”
He delivers them without enough force to actually hurt—hurting Cliff was never the point.
“What did you learn?” Will asks after, caressing the reddened skin of Cliff’s ass softly. The gentle touch makes him jump, and Will can feel the hard press of Cliff’s erection through the fabric of his pants.
“That you’re an asshole” Cliff says, voice muffled.
Will laughs. He taps Cliff on the back, signaling him to get up so Will can lay him on the bed. Cliff gasps as the reddened skin of his backside comes into contact with Will’s bedsheets.
Will gets into bed and lies beside him, stretching out a hand to stroke down the length of one long tentacle. It feels like being shocked and sticking his hand into ice water all at once. The inky, undulating matter shivers beneath his touch.
“Beautiful,” Will breathes. He presses a kiss to the tentacle’s skin, and it feels like licking a battery.
Cliff makes a strangled sound and hides his face in Will’s chest, and Will gathers him up in his arms. They pretend that Cliff isn’t the bigger of the two of them, that Will isn’t a monster. That life hasn’t broken them both in so many different ways.
“If you were small, I’d keep you in my pocket so nothing bad could ever happen to you,” Will says.