Hear him shift in the night, hear the sob catch in his throat, hear him mumble your name and know he’s reaching out for a dead man with your face. Cherubic expression in the morning, placid lies. Of course he’s fine, of course he’ll rise and make breakfast and casual conversation, and maybe you imagined it all. You know a heart beats somewhere deep, but you’re scratching through rock with bloodied fingers. He teases you with flashes of humanity, tells jokes that carry the sting of pained truth, shies away when he catches you looking. He places himself out for your approval and dances away when you might give it.
You kiss him and he kisses you and you wonder which of you truly feels it. He fucks you as though he’s trying to fill an empty space in himself that only he can see. You span your hands over him and feel the vitality and the beating heart he hides, the pace of his breathing, the sheer electricity of him, and you know that he sees himself as only skin over some great chasm of need. Look at me, you wish. Look at me and see how I look at you. Look at yourself the way I see you.
He is there and not, close and distant all at once. You hold him in your hands like water and feel the moment you lose him. You want to crack him open and excise the hurt from him, find the shivering core and bring it into the light. The words are on the edge of your lips, waiting to tumble, but you never ask the questions. Would he tell the truth? you wonder.
You pull him closer, feel the warmth of his body against yours, the momentary hesitation. When he touches you, you know that he holds himself back, gives all of the shell of himself to you but nothing more. You know that you could weave a pleasant fiction with him, between the lies he tells you and the ones you wish to believe.
You wrap around him, cocooning him, imprisoning him. Tell me what he did, you say, at last, and you do not let him go. He goes stiff in your arms. You wait for him to move away, to reject you. He does not move, but you can feel the hummingbird thrum of his pulse, desperate and alert. His breathing seems to fill the whole room, and you are suddenly sorry that you’ve done too much, pushed him off a cliff with no assurance that you’ll be at the bottom to catch him.
He tells you, quietly at first, spreading the ugliest stories out around him for your appraisal. You know that he’s trying to scare you, disgust you. You listen. You hold him and you stroke his hair and you keep together the shuddering pieces he has splintered into. You tell him that it’s enough, that you’re here.
Go on, then, he says. Do what you want. He is open to you, supplicating, expectant. You see the smooth paleness of his throat, turned up to you like a flower reaching for the sun. There are hollows where your thumbs would fit, and you know that he hopes you will.
You don’t move to strike him, and it agitates him. What are you waiting for? he asks. Have I disappointed you? His eyes go dark. Or can you not do what he could? He moves your hands around his throat. It’s easy, he says, his voice on edge. Just do it.
No, you tell him. You move your hands away, and he flinches. He says: I’ve upset you. He is slipping out of your grasp and into the blackness that you can’t navigate. You try to reassure him, but he’s already left you. You walk along the edge of the swamp and watch him sink out of sight. He is small and cold against you. You imagine that you could crush the breath out of him and it would bring him back to life.
You are not him. You will not be him. You will not do the things he did.
Come back to me, you say. You run your fingers over the cords of his neck, up the contours of his jawline. Where had he bruised best, bruised easily?
Please, he whispers. His eyes are desperate and searching. Hurt me.
You do it all at once, without thinking, shove him flat and straddle him and slap him with stinging hardness. He gasps, excited, aroused, forgiven. You press your hands to his neck, squeeze, and he writhes. You know that he looks at you through drowsy eyes and sees the other you. It doesn’t feel now that there’s much difference.
Are you happy now? you ask. You squeeze harder, with enough force to reawaken the bruises. Are you?
You can feel his erection straining against his pants. You move and kneel between his spread-eagle legs, free his cock, slowly, listening to his hissing exhalations. The head is already slick and messy, and he whimpers at the contact. Don’t, he says. Has he ever wanted to be touched? Did he ever crave that from you — the other you — and did he ever get it? You realize that he’s told you the things the other you did, but not what you knew. What of him, you wonder, did the other you discover? How much of his body did you map out and control? What parts of him were closed to you?
You would like to parse this out into some intelligible algorithm, some problem easily solved. rearrange the blood and bone of him into a series of codes and figures. Weigh the balance of cruelty and kindness in each hand and quantify it. He watches you, breathless, anxious, waiting for you to strike him again.
You did do this. You would do this. You stare at the redness of his cheek and war silently with yourself. He's greedy for you to mark him, to draw blood. Please, he says to you like a dying man. You shake your head. You can't do it again. He pulls himself up and grabs your wrists and begs you.
You can't. You have to, he says. He thinks of you as some immovable creature of iron and stone who can crush him in your hands.
It shames you to look at him, and you move away from him. Get up, you say. Get dressed. You have done this to him, but there is no satisfaction in it. You hear him call your name as you leave, but you cannot turn back.
You sleep in separate rooms that night. He greets you in the morning, brittle and beautiful, held entirely at arm's length. You understand the kindnesses he begged for then and the cruelties you inflict now, but an apology is stillborn. You talk to him, but he does not raise his head, does not meet your eyes.
You ask him: Would it be easier if you went back? and his head snaps up.
Do you not want me? he asks.
You feel a great surge of warmth and protection toward him that you know must be smothered in the crib. He would vanish into dust if you touched him, and you would never be able to collect him again. He must have been shining and bright and whole once, before the other you devoured him. If he would let you, you would sift through the wreckage and find what of him has been left intact, rebuild him again.
You speak softly to him. I’d like you to stay, but it's not my choice. You wish you could say: Are you happy here? Do you want to be here?
He picks at a loose thread of skin at the edge of his finger, glances at you. I think you should get to work, he says. I’d like to be alone right now.
You half-expect him to have let himself out with the morning breeze, but you find him at home. Perhaps he has stayed because you asked him to, and not because he wishes to. You do not ask him. You are in the same space now, occupying the same world, and you'll paper over the rest for now.
He greets you with politeness and kisses you without affection. He's good at this deference. You notice that he still smells of soap and that his clothes are freshly laundered, but his hair is askew and there's a spot in his lip chewed almost raw. You step back from him. Stop this, you say to him. I want you to be honest with me.
You do not want to be forceful with him. You wish you could sink into ignorance again, buy into the fiction he peddles. He'll offer his body up to you without reservation or hesitation, and you know for a while it would be enough. But you've already said the words, and they hang heavy in the air. He is poised on the balls of his feet, held in the moment before motion.
I was, he says.
You look at him and he seems very fragile and yet very sure of himself. Why did you want me to punish you? you ask him.
He tilts his chin up. Because i'm disgusting.
Who told you that?
My father, he says. Harrison Wells. He wraps his arms around himself and looks at the ceiling. His voice cracks. He is childish and lost when he speaks of his father and he bubbles over with venom when he tells you of Harrison. I thought he would love me when my father wouldn’t, he says, and his laugh is harsh and bitter. You remember the archived photos you found, the press clippings of achievements and brighter futures and better times. He looked at you, the other you, with an adoration so pure that it’s almost impossible to believe it could have been snuffed out completely.
You take a step towards him and he wards you away. I warned him, he says to you. I told him the accelerator would explode, and he threw me out because of it. Those people are dead because I couldn’t get him to listen.
No one would have gotten him to listen, you tell him. He had his plan and he was going to carry it out. There wasn’t anything you could have done.
I could have tried harder, he protests. His arguments are broken glass clutched in his fists, slicing him open, but he only tightens his grasp. If I’d been good enough, I could have saved them.
You could challenge him on this for hours and days and he would only grind the glass further into his palms. You could offer him salvation, and he would fashion it into a weapon. He is the villain of his own story. He has reshaped his own mythology and braided it into a noose. You want to cut him free, but he’s too far out of reach.
You know that what he craves is your hatred, your judgment, your rejection. His father set the course in motion, and each of them he encountered played their parts admirably. He’s waiting now for you to fall in line. Does he believe what he tells you, or does he only believe that it will earn your scorn?
You’re angry at the things he tries to sell you, at a man who would reduce his own son to this. But him you pity. He senses it, and it makes him as frantic as any caged animal. He licks his lips, sucks gently on the spot he worried raw. His fingers move in quick, jerky rhythms. He knows the script and he knows that you’re not following it, and he doesn’t know what to do.
It wasn’t your fault, you tell him. He flinches, almost imperceptibly. You watch the emotions play over his face, the rage and sorrow and fear, as he struggles to compose himself. To believe this is a betrayal of all that he’s created. Better the pain he knows.
Liar, he says.
You have no reason to lie. It would be easier to push him away and send him back to his earth. You could wrap this up tidily, the two of you easily-forgotten moments in each other’s lives. A more analytical man could call it a failed hypothesis, which feels too callous for you when considering another human life. There have been so many you’ve destroyed now. He is the line you’ve drawn in the sand.
He’s watching you like you’ve donned the hood and become his executioner. You realize that this, too, is another story he’s created for himself. He will sustain himself on your hatred for only so long before he’ll need it again, hollowing himself out more and more, losing sight of himself more and more. How long will it be before he goes supernova? How many betrayals can he force himself through; how many hurts can he endure?
You step forward and take him by the shoulders. He meets your eye, defiant now. So you came to your senses, he says. Where do you want me? The bed or the floor or just over the counter? I’m quite comfortable with all of it. Now he thinks he’s found your game, and now he’s safe again, Cheshire smile, hooded eyes. He’s quite good at this now, twisting everything you’ve said into something to suit his own ends.
You kiss him, and he goes lithe and responsive almost immediately, fumbling at your belt and tugging at your shirt. You catch him by the wrists. Be still, you tell him. and kiss him again, deeply, slowly, releasing your grasp so you can run your fingers across his jaw, through his hair. You find the sensitive spot at the nape of his neck and he makes a tiny, involuntary noise of pleasure. He’s anxious to get the formalities over with, but you take your time, drawing back when his kisses get too hungry and his hands begin to roam. He growls impatiently in the back of his throat, and you hush him in your gentlest tone, cupping his cheek and mingling your breath with his. He hisses pleas about how much he wants you, how he can hardly stand not having you inside of him, but you don’t quicken your pace.
He’s weak-kneed and trembling when you lift him into your arms and take him to the bedroom. You undress him with slow, methodical movements, running your fingers over the exposed skin until he shies away. You take him in your mouth and he gasps, too overwhelmed to protest. When he cums, he bites back a cry and involuntarily clutches at you for support. You swallow, lean towards his searching hands to ground him, listen to him take in great shuddering breaths as he returns to himself.
His body is warm with sweat, gone to limpness in the afterglow. The other you had never done this, you know. You wonder if anyone else had. Or was he always the one on his knees?
You climb into the bed next to him and he turns away, unwilling to meet your eyes. Why did you do it? he asks you.
Everything about him is rooted in the things he doesn’t say. You’re learning how to read the tiny, subtle cues he gives you. You focus on the set of his limbs, the rawness of his voice, all the answers he’s provided without realizing. Come here, you say, but he only huddles further from you.
You weren’t supposed to do that, he says, not chastising, only guilty. Your touch has unraveled and upset him. You know that he’s struggling to process the new order of things and coming up empty. You pull him towards you, rest your head on his shoulder, realize that tears are running down his cheeks. Neither of you speak. You hold him, silently, and do not let go.