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Caleb's hands are tied above his head. It doesn't feel the way he'd pictured, reading websites about getting tied up or trying to do it to himself; there's a strain running down his sides, a stiffness in his wrists, and his arms are beginning to tremble. The rope lies in smooth coils against his body, licking a cool track — wrists bound together, arms up and bent at a sharp angle, exposed against the air. Red hair and goosebumps, despite the ambient temperature.

Nathan is lying beside him on his stomach, watching him.

"You know, you could have a good body."

"Thank you," Caleb says, because he has no idea what else to say under these circumstances. His shoulders are starting to hurt. "That means a ton, coming from you." They are both naked now, shamefully and incomparably naked — Nathan looks natural, like an animal, like a carved thing of beauty. If you were going to design a good-looking guy by committee, maybe this wouldn't be it, but his crystal intensity has Caleb's motor running at a steady thrum even as fear prickles down his throat.

"If you worked on it, I mean." He traces a finger down the slope of Caleb's stomach.

Caleb shifts his legs.

Nathan rises up onto his knees, fondling a big palmful of Caleb's chest in a way that makes him shiver and all the tiny hairs on his body rise — Nathan's body is disproportionately slinky for its heaviness, and the anticipation of more touch makes Caleb stiffen.

Easy, casual: "You search for face slapping a lot, huh. Are you into that?"

"When it's with a girl."

At this point, why lie? Caleb is going to get hit, and he's going to deserve it.

"Doing the smacking, or getting smacked?"

(He already knows, right? Nathan already knows this. He already knows every naive, awful, degrading thing Caleb has ever searched for.)

"I don't fantasize about hurting women." That's what Nathan is driving at, isn't it? Caleb half expects this whole thing to turn inside-out and backwards again, that that's what Nathan is testing and not anything to do with artificial intelligence, just garden-variety male chauvinism. He'll ask him to hurt Ava, or to help take her apart, or to shut her down.

Nathan seems like the kind of guy who'd watch snuff films. But Caleb is not that kind of guy, he doesn't watch violent porn, he doesn't watch women get hurt — he hasn't watched that kind of thing in a long time, not since he learned better. The women in his videos all look like they want to be there, and they are always — almost always — on top.

Nathan is prickling, and his voice is suddenly, poisonously quiet. "Nobody asked you that, Caleb."

"But that was the subtext, wasn't it."

Nathan swings his legs over the edge of the bed and leans to cup Caleb's face in one hand. There's a drunken edge to his movements, a fluid unpredictability. His hands are proportional to the rest of him, but they are also warm, and for a split second Caleb's eyes flutter back into his head with the certainty that Nathan will hit him. Wanting it, not wanting it.

"I don't like what you're implying, by the way, but I'll let it go. You like getting slapped more than you like slapping. Strap-ons freak you out. You like rope, but you've never had somebody to tie you up."

Stiffly, Caleb nods. Nathan continues. "You saw it in a movie somewhere. That's how everybody learns everything now. An accretion of stimuluses. You didn't even know it was happening."

Girls tying up girls, girls tying up guys. Nathan has steady hands.

He positions Caleb's legs, first one and then the other. Caleb isn't exactly resisting, but he doesn't want to think about how he got so good at orienting strictly passive bodies. He moves Caleb's feet into alignment too, one after another, and it's so impersonal — like rearranging office furniture — that Caleb forgets to feel exposed.

"That's good," Caleb says, feeling prompted even though Nathan has said nothing. This much is all right; it's not a knock on how Nathan likes to fuck. Caleb doesn't even care how he likes to fuck — he just doesn't want to think about it with regard to somebody defenseless.

Because it does feel good — his bonds are tight but not unpleasantly tight, like a firm grip, and his neck nestles against the pillow at a natural-enough angle. The temperature in the room isn't sterile-cold like the lab or Ava's cell or Caleb's bedroom — it's radiant with warmth, in a way that must have picked up since they started here. He hadn't noticed it with clothes on. The lights on the walls shine amber.

"Great," Nathan replies, cheerfully. "This is how you like to fuck, huh? Why this and not some other way? You learned it by watching."

Now watch.

Nathan drops his head down low and does a thing with his tongue that does not make an appearance in Caleb's porn bookmarks. His tongue is quick and wet and his fingers dig in to hold Caleb open — Caleb starts to bend back in a full-body squirm but the ties on his wrists dig in as a disincentive. Caleb keeps track of his breaths, one by one, instead of somebody else's wet mouth — Nathan wants him to jerk around and whimper and he won't give him the satisfaction, at least not yet. His wrists are starting to ache.

Nathan raises his head a little, and now his beard is scratching in between Caleb's legs.

"You don't have to be quiet," he says, "no one can hear you."

It isn't reassuring.

In here Nathan's goal for their time here is actualized — or one goal, buried somewhere down a long list of protocols and intentions. Here they're not boss and underling, or host and guest, or god and disciple, or captor and captive. They're just — two guys. If he can think about Nathan's hands or his own small helplessness he can slip away into a reverie of sex instead of focusing on the massive cosmic helplessness of being a million miles from anything

He's slick with spit but Nathan must correctly interpret his terror of being fucked on that alone — Nathan's lube comes in a little blue bottle and he rests it for a second on the ledge of Caleb's hip; he holds up his hand in reassurance to show Caleb the shining trickle down his fingers. It's not like he won't feel it when Nathan touches him.

Caleb Smith wheezes. "I know what you're—" What he's trying to do. A little bit sleight-of-hand, a little bit sleazy. It's humiliating and it's sexy and Caleb is horrified.

"I know, I know, I know, I'm just showing you. You want it done right."

Caleb arches his back, stiff and spindly — Nathan underneath and working in until he's two fingers deep in him, finding something crucial as he withdraws and beaming with pleasure when it makes Caleb gasp.

"You like this?" Like bad dirty talk, but he's serious, guiding his knees up and his heels back around Nathan's waist — easing in, sharp. His hand is on Caleb's chest, over his heart, and the sweat is already springing up where their skin is in contact. Caleb can feel his pulse hammering against Nathan's palm.

"I like it." That's what these guys like to hear, but he doesn't have it in him to embroider it with anything else, and it already comes out like an obscenity.

"Great. Remember to breathe, dude." Nathan mouths against his throat, which doesn't make it any easier to breathe.

There's little flashes, sideways flinches into another scene entirely — where maybe they met earlier, in college, in high school, and Nathan is showing him the ropes, one guy to another. If he tries Caleb can shift into that version instead, where he asked Nathan to do this instead of receiving a proposal.

"Do you want me to pull out?" Nathan is pressing a hand through his hair, a fumble — Caleb is choking with desire, tight with fear. The strain is not entirely unpleasant, but it's all-new.

On the brink of pain: "Would you do it if I asked you to?"

Nathan laughs with genuine pleasure and slips in deeper.

This doesn't have to be bad. It's not even as bad as it could be. Nathan knows his way around sex — the fact that Caleb is living and breathing must be a real novelty item. He ought to be disgusted, and he is — thinking of who else Nathan might have fucked here, thinking about Kyoko and about Ava and maybe others. Like contractors maybe, corporate heads and department chairs, or maybe Nathan had a live-in electrical engineer long enough to get this place online, and then he fucked him, and then he—

There might be a dozen other rooms just like this, all of them made for fucking in. Nathan could tie him to a different bed every night before he'd get bored of him, and only the scenery would change.

The muscles stand out in Nathan's shoulders, the press of his hips is easier now and Caleb can let go — he makes a sound and then another, and it seems to amuse, Nathan's hands rove over his chest for a moment on their way down to tweak at his dick. He's trailing come, warm against his belly — flushed with blood, but still soft.

Nathan's hands are everywhere, on his ankles or steadying his knee, bending him back to fuck him deeper — every push is a tug on Caleb's bound wrists, a twitch in his core.

It isn't quiet, neither of them are. Caleb tries not to look at him face to face, but he's bathed in small impressions anyway — through half-shut eyes Nathan's beard is a dark blot, his eyes are a unified dark gash of shadow, his open mouth is flushed. Caleb has always been a champion fantasizer, but everything he could run to is cast in doubt now — all the girls look like Ava, Ava bending over or turning at the waist, Ava smiling, Ava sucking his fingers with a mouth that zaps like a battery. Brushing out her hair (wig) or stepping out of her dress (costume) or sitting attentively. In his mind's eye she's neither laughing at him nor afraid of him.

Nathan's body heaves against him, his arms gripping and pinning Caleb in place — the side of his hand presses against Caleb's throat, pressing into his shoulder joint with careless deliberation. Don't order — just think.

Pressure, heat, intrusion, salt and sex. Fucking and being fucked. Passivity and activity. There is a camera in the corner of the room, recessed behind glass, and it's watching both of them.

He can sink into it, drown in it. Nathan's fingertips caress Caleb's cheek, and he leans into the touch. Nathan's hands are warm, and Caleb twists his own fingers. The ropes slacken exquisitely.

"Caleb."

"Yeah?" He's blinking and sweating, seeing Nathan through a halo of pale eyelashes, watching him make movements ineligible for interpretation.

"Just checking. Hey, Caleb!"

Nathan's open hand strikes him across the face — Caleb exclaims sharply, back arching, and the bedsheets hitch up under his twisting legs. Nathan grabs him and presses down on his hip, hard.

"What the fuck!"

"How was that? Was it like you thought?"

Nathan seems to get a charge out of it — swiping from Caleb's smarting cheekbone to his lip with a thumb. Caleb opens and shuts his mouth.

"That's not the point—"

He backhands him again, not to please him but to shut him up — all hard-bone knuckles, no sharp smarting lick of skin this time but a teeth-rattling knock. Caleb doesn't yelp this time. He's frozen in place, any and all words struck from his mouth.

"Did that not do it for you?" Nathan is laughing, shifting around on top of him — the sudden excess of slickness is a reminder that his boss isn't using a condom. Maybe it didn't do it for Caleb, but it sure did it for him.

"Like shit it did," Caleb sputters, but his eyes are prickling.

"Yeah, well. This shit's always different than you planned it." Nathan pulls out and leaves him dripping, without any dignity.

It wasn't about that, whatever it is that Caleb's into, it was about — something else, something next-door to intimacy.

He is very pointedly untouched until Nathan sinks down between his legs and takes Caleb's dick in his mouth.

Flushed and twisting with embarrassment — he gets hard in an instant, like he hadn't been while being fucked — his erection springs up with traitorous ease and Nathan is mouthing at his dick, his balls, at the soft inside of his leg with a sort of indiscriminate attention. Nathan sucks him off, jerks him off with his still-slippery fingers — and Caleb's seeing spots, the amber lights set into the walls are shining even through his closed eyelids. There are no windows in the room they are in right now. There might as well be no doors.

If it's a punishment, Caleb is being let off easy. Nathan drags a climax out of him, and wipes his mouth against the sheets.

Slack, now. Quiet, now. Caleb is no longer thrashing against his bonds; he sinks down passive in a position of strain and is too shattered to complain. Nathan falls heavy against him, shaking a little with banked laughter. Maybe he'll untie him eventually, or maybe this is a test of some heavy-duty problem solving.

"You wore me out. I forgot how much work this is." He presses a sticky kiss to Caleb's stomach, bumps against him with his stubbled scalp. "You've been a good sport, man, a real pal."

Just problem-solving. Theory and practice.