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a gift you give yourself

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              Peter Lukas loves waiting rooms. A&E, dentist’s office, airport terminal—even the near-empty sanctuaries of Catholic churches when the confessionals are open—of the many, many liminal spaces he tends to occupy, waiting rooms are some of the only places where one can be utterly alone while utterly surrounded by people. Everyone existing in their own individual worries: the test results, the unknown pain, the fear of flying, the anticipation; everyone wallowing deep in their own quagmires, isolated, cramped in to uncomfortable chairs surrounded by strangers. No one looking at anyone else, too caught up in themselves to glance around the room. Nervous heartbeats, sweaty palms, jittering legs.

              The source of their fear is less important than their solitary experience of it. To the Lonely a waiting room is a king’s feast.

              The waiting room of the Magnus Institute, such as it is—the reception desk, a cohort of understuffed round-backed chairs, flush green carpeting that has been trodden to within an inch of its life, walls panelled with the same austere wood they have been since the forties—is one of his favorites. The ceiling is ridiculously tall, and the windows out to the street beyond are much too ornate and interesting for the room they open onto. The juxtaposition of old prestige and ill-suited banquet chairs. It all feels slightly wrong, and he loves it.  Like sitting in the middle of a candy store. The paranoia that is the source of each visitor’s visit keeps them especially mum, especially self-contained, where their fear can swirl untethered inside them, closing them off. No one dares look another person in the eyes here. They are here to be judged, and waiting, unhelped and unaccompanied, for judgment to be passed down, is—Peter has found—an exquisitely lonely thing.

              He could sit here all day, drinking it in. Even when it doesn’t rightly belong to him. The flavor doesn’t matter so much, though of course it is a special treat to smell the stagnant rainwater of his own god on the people passing through these doors. There is one such visitor in the room right now, where he is waiting, legs crossed, foot moving to an unseen rhythm, smiling to himself. A young man with skin so pale Peter can practically map the veins underneath from ten feet away. He reeks of damp concrete, of a decade of dust, of blind white unseen things growing under rocks. When the receptionist—a nice young woman with bright silver earrings—calls his name, he seems startled to have been noticed at all. His eyes are wild. Peter savors that solitary smell as he walks past.

              He has been waiting for over an hour to see James Wright. The young woman behind the desk keeps casting him sympathetic looks, though her eyes can never fix on him for very long. They tend to slide off him, like water off a stone, and she returns to her papers with a look of vague confusion on her face. Peter doesn’t mind the wait. He is absently hoping that the Head of the Magnus Institute will forget that they had an appointment at all.

              He doesn’t make a habit of visiting this place. One of his cousins is usually happy to go when called upon, but most of them are out of the country, and the others are similarly indisposed. He’s here to receive a biannual report. Or maybe an expense briefing, or something like that. He isn’t entirely sure. He can count the number of times he has been inside this building on one hand, and the number of times he has met James Wright on two fingers, and beyond the admittedly excellent feeding ground of the Institute’s waiting room, he can’t say the place has much going for it at all.

              Finally, the phone rings on the receptionist’s desk, and he watches her lean into it, speaking quietly, and then hang it up neatly on its cradle. He has, pleasantly, already forgotten her name. She smiles a winning smile at him—in his general direction, rather—and gestures to the interior door.

              “At the end of the hall,” she says. “He’s ready for you now.”

              “Thank you,” he says, unfolding from the uncomfortable chair.

              The door, however, opens before he takes a step toward it, and out comes a young man holding a heaving stack of filing folders braced underneath his chin. The abrupt entrance startles Peter, sends a ripple through the carefully-curated, fearful peace of the waiting room, and he takes a step back to let the man pass.

              “Pardon me,” says the newcomer, sidestepping Peter, putting his stack of folders down with a sound of effort on the receptionist’s desk. He lowers his voice just a little bit to speak to the young woman, under the earshot of the people waiting in the room. Peter hears him as he steps through the still-swinging door. “Can you sign off on these for me, Sarah?”

              The receptionist’s answer, irritated, is cut off by the door closing behind him, and he is alone in the Institute hallway. It is huge, the floor tiled, looking suitably academic and prestigious, nothing like the waiting room at all. Intended to instill a sense of awe and integrity, he’s sure. Reading desks, unoccupied, stand at intervals. The ceiling is high and dripping with dark, serious-looking lights.

              On a standing placard in front of him there are directions with arrows and white letters: Research Department. Library. Human Resources. Artifact Storage. Archives. Stairwell. He ignores these. The hall stretches back a decent ways, with other corridors branching off, but the nicely-polished old-fashioned oak door at the end is the one he wants.

              He walks past the reading desks, peering into a few of the adjoining halls as he goes. His footsteps echo deliciously. He sees a woman in a suit skirt and black pumps coming out from the corridor down which Human Resources is located; a few younger people, college-aged, emerge chattering amongst themselves from the direction of the library. Doors opening and closing. Nobody pays him any mind. He sees the young lonely man from the waiting room, sitting on a cushioned bench at the far end of one hall, staring out into nothing, presumably waiting to be called in, further down into the Research Department, to give his statement, and then he is at the door.

              James Wright, reads the placard next to it, fussy embellished brass nameplate. Institute Head.

              The meeting, in the end, lasts a grand total of fifteen minutes. James Wright is an plain individual with icy blue eyes that seem wholly mismatched to his face. His voice, too, doesn’t fit; it’s smoother and more posh, and more uppity, than a man looking like James Wright has any business being. But Peter likes him, in spite of or maybe because of all that. Wright has the air of someone who knows exactly who and what he is, and exactly how much power he wields—over the Institute, over everyone in it—even over Peter, sitting in a chair carefully positioned so that he is just an inch or two below Wright’s line of sight from behind his desk. Peter likes confidence. What he doesn’t like is the feeling of being watched, intently, from all angles of the room. It makes the hair on the back of his neck stand up, and more than once he drifts, losing track of what Wright is saying or laughing about, inching into the Lonely for a moment of relief.

He is glad that Wright hands him a hefty document before he leaves, presumably containing the bulk of what was discussed—he would be damned if he could remember a single word of the conversation.  Something about end-of-year expenses, a few choice promotions, significant research, a few items of interest inventoried since a Lukas’ last visit. All very perfunctory, and uninteresting, and bureaucratic. Though he doesn’t mind at all being in Wright’s presence, by the end of it Peter cannot wait to be out of here and back on his ship.

              When he makes his way back down the grand hallway, through a throng of researchers who part for him like the sea without giving him a second glance, the sheaf of papers tucked under his arm, he is startled—again—by the abrupt opening of the door to the waiting room, and the emergence of the same young man as before back through it.

              This time, he sees Peter, and gives him a half-smile, an in-a-hurry smile.

              “Hello,” says Peter.

              “Hello,” says the young man, making to move past him again. When he does, Peter can see a name tag pinned to the breast of his green knit sweater vest, where it had been hidden behind the files before: E. Bouchard. He can’t be more than twenty-two, twenty-three—short and trim, his hair blonde and immaculately coiffed, his skin healthy-looking, his clothes clearly ironed and crisply-appointed. Even his shoes are shiny. He has an upturned little nose and a mole beside his right eye, and when he moves past Peter there is a wave that follows after. It had been lost before in the fearful fog of the waiting room, but back here in the wide-open hall with its high, high ceilings, it rises sweet and familiar to Peter’s nose—a smell, just underneath a frankly dreadful cologne: of dead forgotten flowers in brackish water, of empty wind, of barren space. Peter watches him maneuver past, pick up his pace, trot with purpose down the foyer toward the corridor that houses the library, and that smell lingers, wraps around Peter’s nose and mouth and narrowed, appraising eyes.

              Whoever this E. Bouchard is, he is extremely, tantalizingly lonely.

 


 

              Peter makes an excuse. Not solely for the purpose of trying to find this E. Bouchard again, but he cannot deny that it is on his mind. It has been five months since his last visit to the Magnus Institute, five very long and wonderfully lonely months at sea, and more than once he has thought about the young man in the hallway, most particularly because of that scent: Peter has smelled a hundred thousand different people’s lonelinesses, but he has never encountered that exact perfume before. It fascinates him. It plagues him. It shouldn’t, but he cannot help it—so he takes this to be a tentative sign from his god, that something about this person is worth investigating. So he makes an excuse to visit again.

              The receptionist has been replaced with a slightly older man whose name Peter also immediately forgets upon learning it. Expecting him to ask to see Wright, he looks slightly confused when Peter waves him off.

              “I’d like to use the library, if I may,” he says politely.

              Brow furrowed, the receptionist points him back through the door. “Second corridor on the right,” he says. “Can’t miss it.”

              “Thank you,” says Peter.

              The Institute proper is much the same as he remembers it. Empty reading desks, high ceiling, polished tile floor. The entryway near Artifact Storage is more crowded, with a few employees having a clearly raucous conversation, holding takeaway coffees in their hands. None of them notice him. Their laughter fades as he takes the corner toward the library.

              The library is just as tall, well-appointed, and impressive as Peter had imagined it to be—only fitting for a place like this. The point of pride, he’s sure. Two stories, massive shelves flush almost to the ceiling, with a narrow walkway running around the perimeter of the room. It is busier in here than he has ever seen a room in the Institute: research assistants browsing the shelves or poring over stacks taller than their heads at paper-scattered desks, university students taking feverish notes or squinting at unreadable text with their chins propped in their hands. At the reference desk a middle-aged woman with a severe grey bun and horn-rimmed glasses looks up at him with mild distaste and then returns to her computer.

              On another day, Peter thinks, he might genuinely enjoy a look around this place. The smell of old book glue and decaying paper is wonderful. But today he wants to find something very specific, and so he approaches the woman at the desk.

              “Hello,” he says. “I’m looking for one of your employees. Might you be able to help me?”

              She looks up at him again, and he begins to think her look of distaste might just be the way her face is arranged. “Yes? Who are you?”

              He smiles. “My name is Peter Lukas. I’m looking for a Mr. Bouchard. I believe that’s his name.”

              She doesn’t seem fazed by his name, but she does blink at him from behind her glasses. “Bouchard? What do you want him for?”

              “He was helping me on a research venture,” he says smoothly, lying across the backs of his teeth, “and I’d like to speak with him, if it isn’t too much trouble.”

              The woman sniffs. She turns her rolling chair, leans toward her desk phone, and presses a button on it. “Elias,” she says, stiffly, into the earpiece. “Someone here to see you.”

              Peter waits at the desk, smiling at the woman every time she catches his eye. Her look of annoyance deepens every time. She types very loudly, hunting and pecking for each key with her long fingernails.

              After a few minutes, he sees a door opening in his peripheral vision—the glance he gets of the interior before it closes again is very brief, but he sees row upon row of metal upright filing cabinets underneath a sickening fluorescent light. He recognizes the young man who comes out, tugging on the cuffs of his sleeves. Catches his eye, and E. Bouchard’s brow furrows slightly in confusion as he approaches, winding through the study tables and college students walking by with books in their arms.

              The reference librarian turns fully away in her chair once E. Bouchard approaches, and Peter can practically feel her tuning them out.

              “Hello,” he says, when he has reached the desk. The way his eyebrows pull in toward the middle is incredibly charming. “Can I help you with something?”

               “Mr. Bouchard, is it?”

              “Elias. Yes.”

              “Elias. My name is Peter Lukas.” Peter puts a hand on the young man’s shoulder and steers him a little away from the desk, further out of the receptionist’s earshot, though he is pretty certain she has forgotten he was ever there at all. Elias’ brows lift at the mention of his name, and his eyes immediately widen a little more with interest. Peter lies with the ease of someone who has been lying all his life—which, to be fair, he has.  “Mr. Wright has informed me that he is considering you for a promotion.”

              Elias contains a laugh, but only barely. Peter can feel it. “I’m sorry? A promotion?” A smile worms its way across his face. Something about it is very slightly unkind—though it’s only a smile—the kind of easy smile that means it is his natural one. “Are you having me on?”

              “Not at all,” says Peter. He pulls out a chair and Elias sits in it seemingly without thinking. His posture is very straight, but some of his blonde hair has fallen out of his quiff. Peter sits opposite him and leans on his forearms, fingers laced. “As you may know, my family has a vested interest in the Institute. I told Mr. Wright that I’d like to meet you personally before any promotional offer was made.”

              Elias’ smile takes a quirk of confusion, but he holds it admirably. “If you say so,” he says.

              He had not been wrong. Now that he is within close proximity to the young man that lonely reek is just as powerful as he remembers it. It fills his head with visions of roses wilting in vases, cold cement, miles and miles of empty glacial ice. He feels a wholly pleasant shiver running down his spine.

              “Tell me about you,” says Peter brightly, and opens himself up.

              If anyone else in the library feels it, they do not react, except perhaps to hunch a little further into their books, or feel a little jolt of dizzy unpleasantness on the walkway up above. Elias, for his part, doesn’t flinch, though Peter knows he must be feeling it, a ripple of sudden melancholy like gooseflesh rising and falling on his skin.

              “Well,” he says slowly, “I’m a graduate. Oxford. I’ve been here two years. Two and a half, maybe. I can’t remember.” He shows a little of his teeth when he smiles then, and that answering wave of solitude grows a little stronger. “I’m a filing clerk—do a bit of everything, though, really—acquisitions, record-keeping. Shelving, if they need it. Sorry,” he says, “but what position did you say this was for?”

              “I wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise,” says Peter. “What about outside of work? Any hobbies?”

              Elias looks a bit more put off at that, but he answers, though he takes his time. “Not much outside of work,” he says, and Peter feels a tinge of that melancholy seeping into his voice, leans into it, relishing it. “That is, I don’t really go out. Don’t have many friends.” That’s it, Peter thinks, nodding. Elias furrows his brows again, as if unsure why he is saying it. The words trip out almost of their own accord. “No family in the city anymore either. Don’t much like anyone here, either, if I’m being honest. I keep to myself, I suppose. Why do you want to know?”

              “I find it useful to have a complete picture,” says Peter, with a smile.

              “Sure,” Elias says, and he is looking very fidgety now, very uncomfortable, and so Peter pulls back a bit—closes himself just a little, enough to give the young man space to breathe. He must feel it, because he relaxes immediately, and his smile returns, with its vague, unaccountable unpleasantness, and Peter feels a prickling of immense satisfaction.

              “Elias—Mr. Bouchard,” Peter says, standing, offering his hand, which Elias takes respectfully. His handshake is firm, even if his expression is still one of confusion. “I would very much like to speak to you further about your future at the Institute.”

              “Alright,” he says.

              “Perhaps dinner?” says Peter, adding, before Elias can open his mouth, “On the Institute’s account, of course.”

              “Dinner?”

              “Yes,” Peter says pleasantly. “A more relaxed environment.”

              “Oh,” says Elias. His bewilderment is clear, but there is a glimmer of curiosity in his dark brown eyes that Peter likes very much. He looks at Peter from the corners of those eyes for a moment, looking up and down his face, analytical, taking in, no doubt, his pale skin, his neatly-trimmed beard, his mask of an expression, trying to puzzle him out. An impossible task, but Peter admires him for trying. “Alright,” Elias says slowly. His smile creeps a little further up his face, as if he has caught on to something secret and mischievous, and he gently removes his hand from Peter’s, places it primly in his trouser pocket. “Did you have somewhere in mind?”

 


 

              Peter does, in fact, have somewhere in mind. He does not make a habit of going anywhere with other people, much less taking them to dinner, unless he intends to woo them onto his ship and out to sea and then straight into the Lonely—when he is doing that, there is a chic little place he likes to go, on the top floor of a tall, window-sided building with a view of the Thames. Extremely exclusive, prohibitively expensive, and therefore largely empty at all times, and very impressive to his potential victims.

              Elias, to his delight, is impressed. He hides it well, though—looks over the wine menu with a carefully-conceived air of boredom, orders with perfect French pronunciation. Something about him is incredibly artificial, and Peter finds that he is deeply excited to get his fingers into whatever little cracks he can find in this young man—those not many friends, those no family in the city cracks. Elias is, to put it mildly, ripe for the Lonely, tailored perfectly to his god, and he is fascinated—and a little irritated, if he is honest, that such an interesting specimen has already been somewhat claimed by the goddamn Eye.

Over their wine, of which Elias orders the entire bottle, he tells Peter about his education—the lecturers he liked and didn’t like, the state of student housing, his distinct lack of companionship. Whether he means to talk about that or not, it comes out, drawn by capillary action to Peter, sitting across the table, drinking it in. By his second glass his posture has loosened and his tie has, too, and a little bit of color is sitting high on his cheeks, and he admits that his hobbies mostly consist of smoking pot and interminably working on a manuscript that refuses to bow to his whims. When Peter asks after the topic of the manuscript, Elias rambles for fifteen minutes, mostly academic jargon that holds little to no interest for his listener, and perhaps no interest for him, either—he talks as if from a distance, sounding rote, as if trying to convince himself as well as Peter that the thing is worth pursuing. When he is done he has a faint scowl on his face and is turning the base of his wine glass around and around on the white tablecloth. Peter, helpfully, pours him another.

He asks what Peter does—what his interest in the Institute is. The color on his cheeks deepens and his eyes glisten with interest when Peter tells him, about the Tundra, the shipping runs to Africa and South America. Usually, when Peter is telling someone about the ship, it is in an attempt to lure them onto it—it is rather nice to be, for once, speaking of it with no ulterior motive. (No motive yet, anyway.) The fondness he feels for her, her great steel weight resting silently in the docks, waiting for him, utterly empty, must come through, because Elias’ mouth softens a little.

Finally, their food comes, and he is so busy enjoying the aura of Elias’ loneliness—and, if he is honest, admiring the snobbish, charming beauty of his face—that he almost doesn’t answer when Elias breaks their mundane back-and-forth, smoothes the cloth napkin across his thighs, and says, “This promotion, then—”

              He had almost forgotten about his ruse. “Yes,” he says, sliding back into it with ease.

              Elias looks down at his plate and then back up, an obviously-calculated flirt of the eyes. It has the intended effect. His mouth twists up in something of a smirk. “Somehow I get the feeling there isn’t one.”

              “What makes you say that?”

              “You’ve been looking at me like a dog eyeing a steak for an hour,” Elias says.

              Peter leans back in his chair, opens his hands a little. The lie slips off his shoulders as easily as he had put it on. “You’ve got me,” he says.

              “So what is this?” Elias pushes a bit of roast duck across his plate meaningfully, looking him in the eye.

              “A business dinner.”

              “What business are we doing?”

              “Alright. What would you like it to be?”

              Elias narrows his eyes at him, but in an appraising way, calculating. It’s not the usual narrowing of the eyes that Peter sees in sailors who are close to catching on to his game, the way their bodies go rigid in preparing to flee from him, whether they know it or not. It’s the look of someone evaluating the options on a chessboard, and it delights him.

              “Do you find me attractive?” he says eventually, with a crisp sharpness to his voice, to make clear that his question will brook no hesitation.

              “Very.”

              “Do you make a habit of lying to your subordinates and then taking them out to expensive dinners?”

              “Technically,” Peter says brightly, “you’re Wright’s subordinate, not mine.”

              He is still searching Peter’s face with his dark eyes, considering. “What comes after this?”

              “Are you having a nice time?”

              “The food is good,” says Elias. He inclines his head as if ceding a small defeat. “The conversation—enjoyable.” And then, as if to ward off any genuine softness, he curls his lip and adds, “The wait was intolerable.”

              “I, personally, love a good long wait,” Peter says, smiling. “Have I made you at all uncomfortable?”

              “No.”

              “What would you like to happen next, then?”

              Elias takes a thoughtful sip of his wine. Red against his fair skin.

              “I presume you’d like to fuck me,” he says, never once batting an eyelid.

              Peter tilts his head a little. He hadn’t, actually, considered it. His drive in returning to the Institute had been more to be certain of himself than anything else—find this intriguing young man, enjoy his peculiar loneliness for a while—perhaps feed into it, feed off it. See if it were primed to be exploited. He thinks about James Wright’s smug assumption of superiority, and thinks it would be nice to filch something from the Eye, if only for a little while. But that—he is almost embarrassed to admit it, now, but he hadn’t really thought of it.

              “In my experience,” Elias says drily, “that is what most men your age want when they take men like me to dinner.”

              “Are you averse to it?” Peter takes a sip of his wine, watching him closely.

              “Not particularly,” Elias says. “And you are something of my type.”

              “Oh?”

              Elias’ answering smile is just a little bit nasty. “If you weren’t, I wouldn’t be sitting here.”

              “You suspected from the off, then.”

              “That it wasn’t a business dinner?” He scoffs a laugh. “I’m not going to be up for any promotion in this lifetime.”

              “I’ll come up with a better lie for next time, then.”

              He truly laughs at that, and Peter is surprised at how pleasant his laugh is—compared to the general air of priggishness that seems to be in every other facet of him, his dress, his expression, his smile, it is airy and clear and perhaps a little too loud. The man behind the bar frowns in their direction.

              “You’re a strange one,” Elias says, crossing one leg over the other beneath the table. “I like you.” His smile is amused and flirtatious, and Peter cannot believe he hadn’t thought of fucking him earlier. Now that it is on the table between them, it feels stupidly inevitable. Peter is not usually one to bow to his carnal instincts so easily, but he sees no harm in it.

He can only imagine how heady, how fragrant, how ear-splittingly thick Elias’ loneliness will be when he is flush against his body, with neither love or care for him, to be gone before morning, to leave him exhausted and terribly alone, feeling used, abandoned. If he plays his cards right, if he does it in just such a way, the high will follow Peter for a week, and Elias will feel just a little more unaccountably miserable, just a little more isolated and bruised than he had before. It will baffle him, how dreadful he feels. He will puzzle for months why a one-night-stand has left him feeling so bereft. It will make no sense to him, and this will drive it even further down into his mind, muddle him up, make him strange and turned inward. No friends, no family. It is amazing what a careless fuck can accomplish for the god of fearful solitude.

              “Yours or mine?” Elias asks, once they have left the barren restaurant and are huddled in their coats near one another, and since Peter’s mine is the cold steel cabin of a cargo ship, he ducks into a taxi with him, and listens to him rattle off his address in the same prim, aggravating tone with which he speaks to everyone who is doing him a service. He sits against the door in the back, a swathe of seat between them, like an impenetrable gulf, and Peter watches the lights of London slip dreamily by out the window, dizzy with the aura of him.

 


 

              Elias’ flat is exactly what Peter expected of him—not that he sees much of it once they’re inside. The neighborhood is posh and well out of range of a filing clerk’s salary, which means someone much richer than he must have gotten him into it—a parent, perhaps, or a generous grandmother. The kind of gift one gives to a relative to ward them off for a long time afterward. He catches a glimpse of heavy shelves lined with perfect rows of books, interesting furniture, a thick ornate rug underfoot—but over it all a distinct pall of something off. The books, he sees, while Elias is unwinding his scarf from around his neck in the hall, are old, with tattered covers, the pages black with grime. The furniture ratty, likely purchased second-hand, shadows of their former selves. The rug filmy with dust. And everywhere that overpowering scent of his loneliness: cheap supermarket bouquets trampled underfoot, and storm drains, and winter air, and desolate islands locked in desolate lakes. He feels drunk with it already.

              Elias has clearly been working himself into the mood on the ride from the restaurant back—when he practically drags Peter by his shirtfront into the bedroom at the end of the hall, with its sagging four-poster and the crack in the otherwise spotless ceiling, he kisses Peter hungrily, all teeth, startling him. He rolls easily into it, though—grips Elias’ waist, slim under his rough hands, soft and pliant under his white dress shirt. It’s a sharp, unpleasant kiss from a sharp, unpleasant man, and Peter cannot wait to get him naked, see how sharp and unpleasant the rest of him might be. To that end he reaches for the buttons of Elias’ shirt, for the loose tie around his neck, and already Elias’ hands are Peter’s belt, yanking on it like a petulant child, as if annoyed that it is not coming apart more easily in his fingers.

              They don’t speak. Peter doesn’t care what Elias wants from this encounter, and he knows Elias doesn’t care what Peter wants, either. The narrow room is loud with the sound of their breath, bitten and exchanged, and the coarse tug and pull on shirts and trousers, little sounds of effort. Elias kisses him with surprising violence, as if trying to suck the life out of him, palming greedily at Peter’s stiffening cock, grinding his teeth into Peter’s lips. It’s so needy and entitled that it almost annoys him—he pushes Elias, naked now, backward onto the mattress with perhaps more force than necessary, and Elias looks up at him and parts his legs with a look of venom, an ugly smile, an I dare you.

              He is careful. Careful in that he fucks James Wright’s filing clerk from behind at a brutal, punishing pace, still mostly clothed, shoving Elias’ head into the mattress until he snaps at him in pain and irritation. Careful in that he uses not nearly enough lube. Careful in that he smacks Elias’ hands away from his own cock more than once, leaving him straining and aching against the sheets, smearing wet onto them as the bedframe shakes and rattles against the wall. And yet for all that Elias refuses to be bested—fucks back against Peter’s hips with painful smacks of their flesh together, reaches behind him to dig his fingers into Peter’s thigh and force him deeper. He twists at what must be a bone-wrenching angle so that he can look Peter in the face when Peter comes with a shudder and a snap of his hips inside him, his face defiant, that wretched smirk playing on his lips, like he’s won some kind of game to which Peter was not privy.

When Peter finally pulls out of him and lets him touch himself, and watches his come dripping pearly down Elias’ thighs, and listens to the bitten-off cry when Elias finishes, shuddering and arching and pointing his toes against the mattress, he is both intrigued and furious to find that the lonely stench of the room has not changed at all. It is just the same as before, and Elias—looking flushed, ruined, and incredibly satisfied—rolls over, gets to his knees, and kisses Peter with infuriating tenderness. Peter, bewildered, stares at him.

He doesn’t know. It would be impossible for him to know what Peter is. Yet here he is, practically purring, entirely unfazed by what has just been done to him, despite how careful Peter had been, how intent on his purpose of wrecking him and leaving him for the scavengers.

Unacceptable. And fascinating.

“Stay the night,” Elias says, breathless, grinning. “Or don’t.”

 


 

He doesn’t stay the night, but he doesn’t stay away, either.

In the intervening weeks between their second encounter and now, he has had a long time to think. He had been angry, mostly with himself, for a few days afterward, uncertain where he had gone wrong. He had intended to prod the bear, as it were, to see if Elias were a good candidate to be pushed completely into service to the Lonely, and instead he had been either outsmarted or simply outdone by a man twenty years younger than him and oblivious to the realities of the world.

He is not used to being denied what he wants.

But after a little while his anger had softened into curiosity, and from there into fascination. He has never met anyone so lonely and at the same time so resistant to its pull. Elias is an anomaly, and Peter wants to know more.

So he visits the Institute again, but waits outside it, smoking in the pissing-down rain, his collar turned up around his ears, waiting for the end of the workday. Institute staff depart in waves, squeezing out through the front doors, umbrellas popping up like mushrooms as they step out onto the street. They move past him without a second look in his direction. For a moment his eyes follow the trajectory of a middle-aged woman, nearing fifty, perhaps, with prematurely greying hair and an academic slouch and a startling presence that practically clears the pavement around her—he watches her slink off down the street in the opposite direction, mesmerized, somehow.

“What happened to fuck me and forget me?”

A nudge at his elbow, and Peter looks down to see Elias, his dark eyes smiling upward.

“Is that was I was supposed to be doing?” Peter says, without skipping a beat. “Goodness me.”

“Been a few weeks.”

“It has.”

“Here to see Wright?”

“Here to see you, actually.”

“Why?”

Peter hesitates for only a moment, never letting his smile waver. “Curiosity,” he says.

“I’m not all that interesting.” Elias turns, and begins to walk away from him down the pavement. Without really thinking about it, Peter follows, as if following some unspoken order.

“I find you very interesting,” Peter says, falling into step beside him. It feels wrong and strange to do so—sends a prickling across the back of his neck. He cannot remember the last time he walked in step with anyone. He doesn’t make a habit of it. “I thought it might be a bit of fun to see you again.”

Elias, while he has been speaking, has pulled out a cigarette from a silver case, and is holding it between his teeth while he searches in his coat pocket for a lighter. “Did you.”

“Unless you’re averse.”

“I had a good time,” Elias says, and it almost feels like a dig, like an insult. “I wouldn’t mind having another.”

He pauses under an awning, out of the rain, and Peter leans onto the stone wall next to him, his hands in his pockets, watching Elias smoke. He squints charmingly when he inhales, his cheeks hollowing just a little. The way he is holding himself makes Peter think he knows he is being watched—being looked at—and Peter is certainly taking the opportunity to look. He’d forgotten about the little mole beside Elias’ eye. His long white throat is begging to be purpled with bruises, kiss-bitten. Out here, in the heavy smell of the rain, the fog of Elias’ loneliness is muffled, dampened, but Peter can still smell it, and any and all thoughts of irritation or anger have been driven from him by it. If he isn’t careful, he will find himself becoming addicted to it.

“I thought perhaps I could show you around the Tundra,” Peter says. It isn’t a ruse this time. He has been thinking more often than he’d like to admit about how good Elias’ particular solitude will taste in all that cold, empty steel.

Elias looks at him with surprising openness. “Really?” he says, sounding more excited than Peter has ever heard him, though it is still tempered, pulled back. Something about it gives Peter a little thrill of satisfaction.  The smile that comes across Elias’ mouth is genuine—certainly not what Peter had expected to see from him, today or ever. “I would like that.”

              “Plans tonight?”

              Elias scoffs. “Never,” he says, as if insulted at the idea. He takes Peter’s arm without asking, fitting his hand firmly into the crook of his elbow. “Show me, then.”

 


 

              They walk and take a short jaunt on the Tube and walk a bit more and Peter cannot remember the last time he felt as comfortable with another person as he does right now. It is disturbing to him. Compared to the fevered nastiness of their last encounter he can scarcely believe how calm and collected their conversation is now—he wonders if it is a show of triumph on Elias’ part, an assertion that he is, in fact, in control, that he has figured out that Peter was up to something that first night and is determined to prove that he is above it. Whatever it is, Elias is cool, relaxed, and Peter fluctuates between being impressed and intrigued and confused.

              He seems to have found a touchpoint on Elias with the sea. Elias asks a hundred questions on the journey to the dockyard and listens intently to Peter’s answers—never looking too overawed, but clearly fascinated: where all has Peter sailed to? Where hasn’t he been? What kind of cargo does he ship? Does he have very many employees? What is there to do, on a huge ship like that, in the middle of the sea, with no land around for thousands of miles? He admits, with the first hint of something like shyness that Peter has yet seen from him, that he has always had a childish sort of love for the ocean, and has always wanted to own a boat—not a big one, not an expensive one, but one all his own. Something he could cast off and vanish in if he ever got fed up with his life. And Peter, much to his horror, finds himself smiling while he listens, and it isn’t his usual, comfortable, artificial smile—it’s a real one.

              Elias’ dark eyes light up when Peter leads him toward the lowered gangway of the Tundra, her bulk lit against the darkening evening sky, unblemished steel painted white and blue curving away for hundreds of feet in either direction. He cranes his head back to look up toward the very top of her bridge. He looks suddenly much smaller than ever before, and not because of the size of the ship—it’s in the slackness of his jaw and his wide eyes, taking it all in with carefully-contained wonder.

              “What do you think?” Peter says, as he leads him up the gangway.

              Elias clears his throat. “Bigger than I thought,” he says, his voice level.

              He is not listening to a word Peter says as he shows him around the ship, and Peter is just fine with that. He isn’t really saying anything of note, anyway. They make a lap of her main deck, around the grave, silent sentinels of empty cargo containers, and then Peter takes him up into the bridge, shows him the empty space with its blinking lights and abandoned rolling chairs, whiteboards smeared with half-erased itineraries. His crew are on shore leave and most will sleep off-ship until they get ready to embark on Friday. He loves sleeping on Tundra when she is completely empty: her bigness could swallow him, on the bunk in his cabin, with layer upon layer of cold steel entombing and cocooning him, separating him over and over from the outside world. The brute sky above and the dark water below. He wonders if Elias can feel the inherent, desperate solitude of a ship this massive—if he can sense the way a shout from the stern toward the bow might as well be a shout into a hole in the ground. How one can wander among the cargo containers for hours and never meet another soul, even when all hands are on deck. How many strange echoes rattle around in those containers.

He was right about the smell. Coming down from the bridge, on the narrow metal staircase with walls and pipes and levers and boxes pressing in on them from all sides, Elias’ isolation wafts back behind him like cloying, heart-rending perfume.

“What do you think?” he asks again, when they are back on deck, loomed over by containers stacked ten high, the stars overhead blotted out by cloud.

“Lonely,” says Elias thoughtfully.

“Yes,” says Peter.

He follows Elias back toward the bow of the ship, watching him, his hands tucked neatly into his coat pockets and his eyes roving constantly this way and that, taking in all of it. He occasionally removes one hand to run his palm along the cold metal of the bulwark or a container, wiping his wet fingers dry again on his thigh.

At the prow Elias leans on his forearms against the railing, looking out and down toward the water, blackened by nighttime, lapping gently at Tundra’s hull. It’s a long, long way down. The wind stirs in his blonde hair, dislodging its coiff. He looks very pretty, Peter thinks, like that—his face a little pink with cold.

Elias glances at him after a little while in silence, and smiles with the corner of his mouth.

“I’d like to suck you off out here sometime,” he says, dropping it so casually that Peter almost laughs in amazement.

“I’ll have to keep that in mind,” he says.

Elias turns his gaze back out to the water. “When do you leave next?”

“Friday.” Peter leans against the bulwark, feeling it dig into the small of his back.

“Where?”

“Peru.”

“Peru,” Elias repeats, raising his eyebrows. “How long?”

“Not quite sure yet,” Peter says, aware, as he is saying it, that Elias is feeling for a dealbreaker. He forms his words carefully. “No more than two months.”

Elias frowns. “That’s a shame. Well,” he says, his eyes sliding back to Peter again, “if you’re still curious about me when you come back—I’d like to hear all about it.”

No question of that, Peter thinks. He highly doubts that two months at sea will be nearly enough to clear his head of Elias Bouchard.

“Cold out here,” Elias says mildly. “You haven’t shown me your cabin yet.” The look he throws to Peter is suggestive enough; he smiles, and takes Elias’ arm, and turns back from the bow of the ship.

It is hard and rough and heated, but with nowhere near the violence of the first time, the disdain, the brutality. In the morning, he is troubled to find that the warmth of Elias curled under his arm is a warmth that he very much enjoys.

 


 

He was surprised to learn as a young man that the Lonely does not care one way or another about intimacy. It is neither encouraged or discouraged—it is only recommended that a servant of the god of solitude be mindful not to consider any attachment to be lasting. There is not a single couple in the Lukas family that is not divorced or separated or stricken in two by death. As long as it ends—and it must end—it is guaranteed to bear fruit for Forsaken. The outsider’s heartbreak pushes them further from connection and companionship, into the fear of forever-loneliness; the Lukas is either well-pleased by the sudden chasm, or heartbroken themselves. And the god is fed.

And so Peter does not feel heretical when he thinks about Elias Bouchard on that journey to Peru and back. He even thinks of him in the lifeboat drifting in the fog, the whistle at his lips, watching the barren universe lean in to swallow the young man he’d picked up in port in Chile. He wonders if Elias would feel the same shivering, giddy, hollow delight that he does, knowing he has fulfilled his end of the bargain for the hundredth time. He wonders if Elias would understand.

He does not feel like a bad servant when, as soon as he is able, he disembarks Tundra in London and makes his way as quickly as he can to the Magnus Institute. He hasn’t heard a word from Elias these last two months—exactly the way he likes it—and a very small narrow part of him is worried that something will have happened, that Elias will no longer be there, or will have forgotten all about him, or will have moved on beyond his reach. None of these would be bad things, necessarily, when it comes to the terms of Peter’s existence. But he is not finished with Elias Bouchard quite yet.

He catches Elias just as he is leaving for the day, coming out the front doors of the Institute with the springtime sun gleaming on his golden hair, and he is pleased when Elias sees him and grins.

“I’ve never seen a sailor as pale as you,” Elias says, after Peter has kissed him. He fussily rearranges Peter’s collar, smoothes it down. “Dinner?”

God help him, Peter Lukas thinks he might be smitten.

 


 

It lasts for a year.

When Peter is not at sea, he spends at least a few nights at Elias’ flat before the next voyage out, or Elias comes to visit him on Tundra after work. Peter is fearful that Elias will ask him to stay, to move in to his rich, dismal place, but he never does. He is fearful, too, that their closeness will dampen that intoxicating aura that Elias has, that smell of solitude—but the weeks of time apart, the lack of communication is enough to keep it sharp and pungent. They go to dinner in out-of-the-way pubs and restaurants frequented only by the very wealthy and the very discrete. They fuck, sometimes roughly, but more often soft and inquisitive now. Elias does suck him off at the prow of the ship, just as he had said he would, and Peter leans his head back into the port breeze while he does it. When Elias has swallowed and wiped his mouth on the back of his hand, he smirks up at Peter from his knees on the deck, looking for all the world like the smug, privileged prat he is, with his upturned nose and slick pink lips. He is soon hard enough again to slide right back in to Elias’ hot, slack mouth.

He volunteers to meet James Wright for the biannual report, much to his cousins’ surprise. In the waiting room of the Institute, he looks up at every opening of the interior door, in case it is Elias, peeking his head out to speak to the receptionist, who has, once again, been replaced. He is disappointed every time, and James Wright seems equally disappointed in him during the meeting, though Peter cannot put his finger on why. Their conversation, though light and friendly as usual, feels stale, feels manufactured. Wright’s posh drawl is subtly pointed and offended, and he almost asks what he has done to irritate the man, but he doesn’t.

“We’ve seen a great deal more of you than usual around the Institute lately, Peter,” Wright says coolly when they are finished, and he is showing Peter to the door.

“Keeping an eye on things,” Peter says. “You understand.”

“Of course,” says Wright, though his tone is unreadable, and Peter feels those ice blue eyes on the back of his neck all the way back down the grand foyer and out the front door.

He doesn’t see Elias that night, though he loiters perhaps a bit pathetically by the telephone at the dockyard for hours, waiting for a call. If his mother could see him now, he thinks. She would hardly be proud.

 


 

He drops by the Institute on Thursday afternoon, hoping to take Elias to dinner, and is unaccountably relieved when he appears out the front doors, looking just as he always does. They decide on that quiet chic place Peter had taken him to that first time—they have been back more than once, and Elias says he is feeling like French.

He is a little quieter than usual, though, and Peter is aware of it right away. The more comfortable they have grown around one another, the more easily they have been able to hold conversation, and it is a rare moment for Elias to have nothing to say. How was Sri Lanka? he asks, and Peter tells him, but he can tell Elias isn’t really listening. His gaze is somewhere in the middle distance, and when he nods or answers a question it is briefly, almost a little sullen.

He doesn’t mention it over dinner. Elias seems grateful when Peter appears comfortable to sit in near-silence with him. He watches Elias pick at his food, pushing it around the plate to make it appear as if he has eaten more than he has. He barely touches his wine. When Peter suggests that they make an early night of it, and go back to Elias’, Elias cracks his first real smile of the evening, as if relieved. On the cab ride Peter looks at him out of the corner of his eye, trying to get a sense of what is wrong. He can’t put his finger on it, and this troubles him. He is not used to Elias being quite this melancholy. He is used to Elias being rude, sneering, funny, condescending. The scent of his loneliness is, of course, and as always, wonderful—but there is a sour edge to it that he does not like. It isn’t familiar to him.

He lets Elias fuck him that evening, and Elias welcomes the opportunity. He does him proud, too—leaning over to lavish bites and sucking kisses on Peter’s throat and chest, leaving long fingernail scratches down his abdomen, holding his legs back until they shake, and smearing a hand through the come on Peter’s belly like someone feeling fine velvet. Peter loves to watch him come—the way his mouth drops open and his brows furrow, the way he shivers as if caught in a cold wind. When he’s done, Elias pulls out of him and lies down across his broad chest, sticky with sweat and semen, carding his fingers through the white hair on his breastbone.

Peter curls an arm around him, stretches out his legs across the mattress.

“Something wrong,” he says, not a question but a statement.

Elias sighs. Then he rolls off Peter a little, onto his back, putting an arm across his eyes. He chuckles.

“It’s stupid,” he says.

Peter waits.

Elias exhales hard through his nose, as if annoyed with himself. “I’ve got a meeting scheduled with Wright tomorrow.”

Peter smiles. “Finally getting that promotion, are we?”

Elias smiles back, swipes at him playfully. “No,” he says. He turns his head to look at Peter, looking suddenly morose again, a little solemn. “I think I’m going to be sacked.”

Peter furrows his brow.

“You’re not going to be sacked,” he says.

Elias raises an eyebrow. “A meeting at four o’clock on a Friday with the Head of the Institute? I’m going to be sacked, Peter. That’s how they do these things.”

“What in the world could they fire you for?”

He shrugs. “Any number of things. I’m shocked it hasn’t happened already, to be honest with you. That Robinson woman has caught me smoking in the Archives more than once. Looked like she was ready to skin me for it.” He glances at Peter again. “I’m not exactly a star employee. And there’s the matter of my sleeping with you.”

Peter scoffs. “They wouldn’t fire you for that.”

“I don’t know. Whatever it is, it won’t be good.”

Peter reaches over, smoothes back Elias’ hair from his face. He is not often tender with him, but he feels it now—the air is close, clammy. He fears suddenly that Elias might be cold.

“Well,” he says, “if he does sack you, you can always come work for me.”

Elias smiles, the ghost of a smile. “Oh?”

“Of course. I can always use another hand on my ship.” He nestles closer to Elias’ warm naked body, and Elias puts his head on his shoulder, twining and untwining his fingers again through the hair on Peter’s chest. “See the world. Eh?”

“Maybe,” Elias says softly.

“But he isn’t going to sack you,” Peter says. “Why would he?”

He knows he isn’t convincing Elias at all, but Elias is gracious enough to put in the effort of another smile, a more familiar one. The one that’s just a little bit nasty, a little bit unpleasant. The one that shows the sharp edge of his slight snaggletooth. “You’re right,” he says. He tugs gently on a bit of Peter’s hair, a peppery little jolt of pain, and Peter grins. There’s his boy. “What would they do without me?”

 


 

He expects a call the next evening, whichever way it falls. Good or bad, he anticipates that Elias will want to tell him the news. But hours pass and Peter waits all that time by the dockyard telephone, waiting for it to ring, alone, and no call comes through.

He doesn’t get a call over the weekend, either. By the middle of the next week he begins to wonder if something very bad has happened. His long-honed instincts make him unable to feel too much actual dread, but it nags at the back of his mind, especially when he is lying awake on Tundra at two in the morning, the sheets cold and empty beside him.

There is every likelihood, though, that nothing of any note has happened whatsoever, and that Elias has simply forgotten about him for a while. It has happened before. So Peter takes himself to the Institute around closing time. It’s a blustery day, the sky thick with cotton-grey clouds, the sun weak and milky behind them. It cannot make up its mind whether or not to rain. It’s the kind of weather that drives people indoors at the earliest opportunity, and so he is feeling in high spirits, walking down the streets devoid of passersby, even though that worry is still worming around in his head.

Usually he would loiter around the front doors until Elias came out, but today Peter heads inside, into the heavy atmosphere of the waiting room, where two stragglers who have gotten the last appointments of the day are sitting in the uncomfortable round-backed chairs. The receptionist has changed yet again; when she looks up at him, he holds up a hand, a no need, I’m only waiting gesture, and her eyes slide right off him again.

He waits by the tall windows when the interior door opens to let in the first and then the second of the straggler statement-givers, and he watches it once five o’clock has hit on the clock over the desk, every time it swings open, letting out Institute employees. All looking much the same as always: recent graduates who haven’t yet realized they don’t need to wear full suits to work, research assistants yawning and rubbing their eyes, that grey-haired reference librarian, whole clusters of people drifting past him in chattering, personable waves. But no Elias, yet. He looks at the clock. It’s ten after five.

He considers going up to the receptionist to ask about him, and is about to do just that when he catches a glimpse of sleek blonde hair and turns in time to see Elias, separate from any cluster of coworkers, heading out the door.

“Elias,” he says, and moves to catch up with him. He emerges onto the street, blinking in the harsh, watery sunlight, and snags him by the shoulder. Elias stops and turns on his well-shined heel.

“Peter,” he says, blandly. “What a surprise.”

“I thought you might call,” Peter says. He reaches up to tug the brim of his cap down a little, to shield his eyes from the sun. Elias is wearing a suit Peter has never seen him in. He has a briefcase tucked under his arm and his green silk tie is in a complicated knot.

“Ah,” Elias says, “well.”

Something’s wrong. Peter takes a small step back, trying to get a better sense of him in the haze of daylight. The wind picks up, flutters the hems of Elias’ suit jacket and the collar of Peter’s coat, and then he realizes that the smell is gone. Elias’ very particular scent is nowhere to be found. Only the usual smells of London, and the threatening taste of rain somewhere. Elias is observing him from under bored, lowered blonde eyelashes, his icy blue eyes glittering keenly. But Elias does not have blue eyes.

“I do apologize. I suppose it would have been considerate of me to call,” Elias says, and a small smile creeps onto his face at the dawning look of confusion and disbelief on Peter’s. “But on the other hand, I don’t think you and I will be seeing much of one another anymore, Peter.”

He faces the street, and Peter stares at him in profile—just the same as ever, upturned nose, the mole beneath his eye, the pink moue of his lips. A car pulls up to the curb, and Elias gets into it without another look in Peter’s direction, and it drives away, leaving him there, stunned into silence, alone on the desolate street.

 


 

He does not have an appointment with the Institute Head, he tells the receptionist, but he will see him today, and the young woman, apparently unnerved by the force with which he says it to her, makes a brief call, her head ducked, avoiding his eyes.

“Mr. Bouchard will be with you shortly,” she says when she hangs up, and Peter—reminding himself to be cool-headed and collected—takes a seat in the waiting room, his back rigid, his expression, no doubt, foul.

He can’t even enjoy the atmosphere today. The room is decently full of all his favorite kinds of loneliness and none of it is appetizing to him. On any other day he would be drinking all of it in, feeling chipper and refreshed, but today he is too angry to spare any of them a second thought.

Shortly turns out to be twenty minutes, by which time Peter’s pulse is racing and his mind is a blank. He has not decided what he is going to say, or even if he’ll say anything at all. It has been a week since he last saw—the thing wearing Elias’ body, and he isn’t even sure if there’s anything he can do about it. He feels robbed. Raw. Cheated. None of that sits very well with him at all.

The receptionist barely has the time to open her mouth to direct him through before he is up and moving through the interior door. No moments taken to look around this time. He has seen it all before, and all of it feels very drab, very cheap, very pointless and manufactured to him now, the tiled floor and empty desks and chandeliers. He nearly runs straight into a young man coming out of Artifact Storage and hears something fall and break on the floor behind him as the hapless employee vanishes into thin air, shunted into the Lonely more by reflex than intention. He keeps walking.

He doesn’t knock—opens the oak door and lets it shut carelessly behind him.

“Come in,” says the thing pretending to be Elias, sounding utterly bored, without looking up from the papers on the desk.

Peter marches up to the desk. He is a big man and he hopes his bigness is at least somewhat intimidating. He nudges aside the brass nameplate on it—E. Bouchard—and plants his hands on the desk’s surface, leaning down and in to the face looking placidly back at him, mouth amused and eyes sparkling blue.

“This isn’t fair,” he says.

The thing blinks. “Good afternoon to you, too, Peter.”

“Jonah,” he grits out, and the blue eyes sparkle a little, impressed.

“My. How long did that one take you?”

“This isn’t fair. Give him back.”

“I’m afraid that’s out of the question.” The thing—Jonah Magnus, he knows now—gestures to the usual seat in front of the desk, a few inches below eye level. “Please sit, and let’s discuss.”

Peter sits, though his back is rod-straight and his hand clenches and unclenches at his side.

“I presume you have questions,” says Jonah, with all the blandness of one conducting a performance review. He leans Elias’ body back in his chair, and Peter sees him crossing his leg, one knee bent out, the way Elias does—did. The voice is almost the same, too—a little deeper. The offness of it sends a prickle across the back of Peter’s neck. Jonah is looking at him as if he is very, very pleased with himself about something, and Peter feels his anger wilting, twisting. If he is not careful, he will lose control of himself.

“Him? Why?”

“Why not?”

“Did you do this to hurt me?”

“That would require me to give you a second thought,” sneers Jonah, “and I don’t make a habit of that.”

The look on Peter’s face must be one of pure venom, because Jonah leans forward across the desk, folding Elias’ hands neatly atop the blotter. It is so strange to see that body move when he knows that there is something alien inside it. He thinks unbidden of the fluid pliant way in which Elias’ body has always moved against his and feels a hard lump rising in his throat.

“Come now, Peter,” Jonah says, like a mother scolding a petulant child. “Let’s be reasonable. If anything, I’ve done you an incredible favor. You were dangerously close to becoming less than lonely.”

“I don’t care. I want him back. Use somebody else.”

“No,” says Jonah.

Peter resists the urge to pummel his fist into the arm of the chair. You are not here to beg, he reminds himself, but he doesn’t know if he’ll be able to resist. Once, as a child, he’d become far too attached to a pet rabbit for his mother’s liking and she had pried it from his fingers at the end, her painted nails digging into its fur until it had squealed, and he had stamped his foot and screamed and cried, demanding it back. This feels like that. He is a schoolboy pleading for his toys to be returned.

“Everyone in this building belongs to the Eye,” Jonah says. “I can, and will, do with them what I wish. Besides,” he says, laughing nastily, “you can’t tell me you weren’t considering feeding him to your own god.”

Peter swallows past the lump in his throat.

“Not yet,” he says, very softly. “I wasn’t finished with him yet.”

“Let this be a lesson to you, then—that of all the powers, the one whose fingers I detest most playing with my things are the Lonely’s,” Jonah says. His eyes are cold as steel, their icy glitter lost. Peter feels that uncomfortable weight of watchfulness pressing down on his shoulders, like a migraine twisting at the front of his skull. Jonah stands, Elias’ body unfolding smooth and elegant from the chair, and he rounds the desk, steps down onto Peter’s level, stands before him with hands clasped neatly behind his back, looking down at him the way one might look at the mud on the sole of their polished shoe. “Do you know,” he says, letting Elias’ own ugly smile spread across his face, “he thought that he might have been called in for a promotion?”

Peter makes a noise that might be a growl.

The grin widens. “I wonder who put that idea into his head.”

“My family will hear about this,” he says, and he knows even as he says it how weak and impotent it is. He says it because he has to, because he expects it of himself. The threat falls to the floor between them like a dropped china plate, and shatters just as easily.

“Do give them my love,” says Jonah, unfazed, “and don’t think for a moment it will get you what you want. The process, I’m afraid, is violent and irreversible.” For a moment, Peter thinks wildly that he might be about to kiss him—he leans Elias’ body forward, but only to take hold of the arms of Peter’s chair, brace himself up against them, get very, very close his face, pinning him in place. At this proximity, normally, Peter’s senses would be overwhelmed with the scent of Elias’ isolation, his favorite smell and taste and texture in the world, but there is nothing there—cold, clinical, sterile nothing. “I’ll tell you something else—he cried out for a great many people to help him, but never once cried out for you.”

“This isn’t fair,” he says again, his voice and conviction even weaker than before. It’s barely a whisper. He doesn’t mean it. He has never felt so shrunken, so small in all his life. Elias’ pretty face hovering an inch from his, eyelids lowered coquettishly, savoring his distress, breathing it.

Jonah frowns slightly, Elias’ rosy lips turning downard at the corners.

“Let’s not kid ourselves, Peter. Shall we?” His voice is cold. He sounds annoyed, as if Peter is a fly he has been trying to swat who simply will not die. He leans in even closer, until their noses are practically touching, and Peter cranes his head back, repulsed, suddenly, at the idea of their skin coming into contact. “Was it stupid, insufferable Elias you were attracted to? Or was it the knowledge that someone, someday, was going to rip him out from under you?”

His heart slows to a nervous crawl in his chest.

“Knowing what I know of you, and your ilk, and your god,” Jonah says, the frown turning as quickly as it had come back into Elias’ unpleasant grin, “you feel incredible right now.”

The problem being, of course, that he is right.

It has been building in him for days. The more human part of him refusing to acknowledge it. The Lonely part of him absolutely seething with giddy, dizzy delight. As if a hole has opened up under him and he has been tumbling down it, a surge of adrenaline and sour, stinging joy rushing through his body: more perfect even than the scent of Elias Bouchard’s loneliness is the screaming absence of it wailing against the back of Peter’s skull. Anger and posturing all for show, a performance for the part of him still tied to the world, the dwindling part, the part rapidly crumbling under Jonah’s glacial stare. He feels warmth blooming across the inside of his chest, feels light-headed and exposed, flayed open, bared to all comers, oh, he is lonely, he is robbed, he is betrayed, he is alive. He wants to reach up and wrap his fingers around Elias’ lovely throat and kiss that mouth with all the hurtling gratitude he feels for the thing behind it, violent and desperate, but he doesn’t. He is trembling under Jonah’s gaze, the blood pounding in his ears. He stares back, unable or disallowed to look away.

“You’re welcome,” says Jonah.

 


 

Peter Lukas loves waiting rooms, and he loves the waiting room of the Magnus Institute most of all. He has come to appreciate it more with every visit. Appreciation is a thing built slowly, over time.

The walls, the carpet, the uncomfortable chairs never change. The receptionist does, near-constantly, but he is used to that by now. Sitting here, waiting for permission to walk through the interior door, down the foyer to the polished oak office, is like coming home after a long time away. The air is swirling with solitary anxieties, each person a microcosm of their own fear, misunderstood, terrified that they will never be otherwise. Terrified that coming here will mark them forever, remove them from the world they live in, render them a passing ghost, outcast, wandering blindly where no one can see them.

He volunteers to come and see the Institute Head more often now. Whenever he is feeling a little too close to the members of his crew, whenever he is troubled by nostalgia or memory, or simply wants to be confronted by that deeply unpleasant smile, and how little it cares for him—how little it ever did. Jonah had been right, in the end. He knows that now. He is grateful for it now. He had given him a gift, and when he sits here, in this particular place, preparing to meet that particular man, with his smug, pretty, stolen face, the gift doubles ten and twenty and a hundredfold.

There is no better place than a waiting room to be utterly alone while utterly surrounded, and no more perfect waiting room than this one to remind him, when he needs reminding, that there is no  loneliness, no matter how sweet, that will ever taste better than his own.