Chapter 1

Adam is still thinking about the sex when they get to the theatre.

The night is cold, and the red brick building of Cherry Lane Theatre is warm and inviting. Beth holds his hand, not quite tight enough to feel comforting. Her fingers feel like they might simply slip out of Adam’s, like water cupped in the palm of his hand. He tries to hold tighter, but when he does, she flexes them and shakes his grip off.

He thinks, as they wait in line at the box office, of how she’d waited for him to take off her clothes for her as if it was obvious that he should do it. Taking clothes off other people is ridiculous, it always leads to fumbling and takes much longer than if you just took of your own clothes, which you know how to take off because you put them on in the first place. Still, once they’d sorted that out, sex with Beth was nice. Odd: he’d asked if she had lube somewhere, and she’d just laughed and said I’m a girl, Adam, which was apparently supposed to mean they didn’t need lube. It would have been easier with a water-based lubricant, Adam thinks as he picks up the tickets, rips the two apart and hands one with Beth. She’d probably like it more with lube, if she tried. Perhaps he should surprise her with some, next time. Adam doesn’t like surprises at all, but it’s beginning to seem like Beth might.

Adam picks up a program from the usher in the lobby. Beth is looking around, as if she’s seeking something; Adam hands her a program too, but apparently that wasn’t it, because she keeps looking. Perhaps she’s just interested in the history of the theatre; it was constructed as a barn silo and used as a tobacco warehouse and a box factory before it was converted into a theatre in 1924, so there’s plenty to look at. He doesn’t mind; it means she isn’t trying to catch his eye, like she sometimes does. Beth seems to need eye contact as reassurance of something, and it makes Adam’s stomach twist that each time he gamely stares into her eyes, he isn’t quite sure of what he’s reassuring her of. It feels a little bit like he could be lying, without even knowing it.

Daddy!” Beth’s voice bubbles out of her, high and delighted, and Adam startles. She’s smiling wide, wider than she even smiles when they’re alone together, and there is a man making his way towards them with sandy blonde hair and an answering smile that reveals sharp teeth in the front of his mouth. “What are you doing here?”

“Seeing the play, of course” says the man who is clearly Beth’s dad, opening his arms to give her a hug. He’s dressed in a simple black suit and has his hair slicked back, though it looks like he hasn’t shaved for several days. He has an accent that Adam can’t quite place, which Beth doesn’t share, but then, that’s common enough in New York. Adam twists his hands around themselves nervously. Beth’s dad has a perfect right to go to a play, of course, same as anyone else. Adam just wishes that, out of all the plays they could have chosen for tonight, they hadn’t ended up at the same one.

Then Beth’s dad turns to Adam, and says with that same sharp-toothed smile, “And who the fuck is this?”

Beth giggles. “Daddy, language,” she says, and turns to Adam. “Sorry about my dad,” she says. “He’s a big fancy accountant, so he doesn’t get to talk like that at work. So it kinda just… all comes out.”

Beth’s dad glances down, shakes his head, and leans towards Adam. “Don’t let her give away all my secrets just yet,” he says, but he doesn’t get too close, and doesn’t try for the kind of conspiratorial eye contact that Adam hates, and that is nice. Beth takes a breath but Adam gets there first: he holds out his hand and says, “My name is Adam Raki, it’s a pleasure to meet you.” That much, at least, is easy. It’s the parts after the introduction that don’t usually go great for Adam.

Beth’s dad takes his hand and shakes it firmly, just shy of too much pressure on his fingers. “I’m Nigel,” he says. “It’s a pleasure to meet you too.” Nigel’s hand is strong and warm, and for a moment Adam wishes he wouldn’t let go.

Beth is grinning, looking back and forth between them, and then Adam says the first thing that comes to his mind, which is, “Are you a single parent?”

The smile disappears from Beth’s face, and Adam remembers that saying the first thing that comes to his mind is rarely a good idea.

Nigel looks at Adam, and then he looks at Beth, then back to Adam. His smile, however, only grows wider, and he says, “Sure fucking am. My wife–”

“My mom,” interrupts Beth quietly. “She’s not your wife any more, daddy.”

“My wife,” says Nigel again, “Ran off with some American cocksucker when Beth was just starting high school.”

Adam tilts his head. The lights in the lobby flicker briefly, indicating five minutes before the start of the show. “We’re in America right now,” he points out. “So most people that she could run off with would be American c-cocksuckers.” He stumbles over the profanity, but using the same words that someone else has used when responding to them verbally is one way of making sure you’re making yourself understood, Adam knows.

To his surprise, Nigel laughs. He slings an arm around Beth, who winces but then giggles a bit and relaxes into the embrace. “Guess you’re right,” Nigel says. “I can see why Beth likes you. She’s always reminding me I’m not in Romania any more, too. Anyway, can’t much blame my wife, not when I’m such a cock myself. But I did one thing right, and that was that me and my little girl are thick as thieves.”

Beth keeps her shoulder tucked snugly against Nigel’s but reaches for Adam’s hand. “I’m glad we ran into you, daddy,” she says. “I wanted Adam to meet you, anyway. Come on, the show’s about to start.”

They make their way into the theatre, and Adam is surprised to find that Nigel’s ticket is right beside theirs. He turns that over in his mind, wondering what the odds are. Well, the sections of the theatre are divided by price, so at least that makes it slightly more likely that two individuals both buying inexpensive tickets around the same time might end up together. He tries to put it out of his mind. Adam happens to be holding the ticket next to Nigel’s seat, and he only realizes once he’s sat down that perhaps he was supposed to offer that ticket to Beth, to sit beside her dad.

If Adam has unintentionally broken a social rule, Nigel doesn’t mention it to him. He places his forearm on the hard armrest between them, his big warm hand just slightly inching into Adam’s space. Adam usually hates it when people at the theatre do that, though he has to acknowledge that it isn’t really anyone’s fault, and is more down to the design of the chairs than anything else. After all, if there is one armrest on each side of every seat, how are the two people on either side supposed to negotiate who uses which armrest? They would have to plan it out ahead of time– but then of course the neighbour on your right deciding they wanted to use the armrest on their left would mean that you would have to use the left armrest as well, and then the neighbour on your left wouldn’t have the option of using their right armrest, so really it would be better if there were simply a rule about who was allowed to use which armrest in the theatre. Or if each chair came with two armrests.

Adam wrenches his mind back from that tangent. Nigel is leaning towards him like he’s going to say something, and what he says turns out to be: “You’re a ballsy motherfucker, aren’t you?”

Adam thinks back to Nigel’s greeting– and who the fuck is this?— and decides that profanity doesn’t necessarily translate to anger or sadness, when Nigel uses it. So he thinks on the actual question, and feels a flush of pleasure rise to his face.

Nobody has told Adam he’s a ballsy motherfucker before, in those words or any other. Plenty have said the opposite– teachers telling him he needed to get over his fear of being social with other children, the whole damn world telling him that his need for routine and familiarity made him weak and pitiful.

“I don’t think I’m really qualified to say,” he hedges. “I could be, or it could just be that I don’t know the right things to be afraid of.”

Nigel nods. “A wise man,” he says, and there’s another thing Adam’s never been called before. Smart, sure. But not wise.

“I was raised by a single dad too,” says Adam. It doesn’t follow anything in their current conversation, but he suddenly wants Nigel to know.

“Were you,” says Nigel. “And what does your dad do?”

“Smells terrible, probably,” says Adam. “He’s dead.”

Nigel tips back his head and roars with laughter, and Adam stares at the way it reveals more fully a tattoo on his neck of a naked woman. Beth looks over too, from the other side of Adam, and says, “That was a terrible joke, Adam. You’re lucky daddy has an awful sense of humour.”

“It wasn’t a joke,” says Adam, “He probably does.” But he’s smiling a little, because Nigel’s laugh is infecting him like a pleasant virus. And too much of the truth can be a joke sometimes, too, Adam knows. It’s the only kind he’s good at, though it’s usually unintentional.

“Fuck,” chortles Nigel, wiping at his eyes. “Okay, you got me. Next question, kid: what do you do?”

Adam hesitates. It doesn’t make sense to be embarrassed about being unemployed. Plenty of people in America are unemployed, and many of them are quite intelligent. Still, he’s aware it’s not the kind of thing that most people would be proud to tell their girlfriend’s dad.

“I was an electrical engineer,” he says. “But I got fired.”

“Fucking sucks,” Nigel says, but is nearly drowned out by a gasp from Beth. She leans around Adam and says, “Adam! Daddy can give you a job! Right, daddy? You must have something at the firm. You must need a secretary or something. Right?”

Adam nearly says I don’t want to be a secretary on reflex, but then he doesn’t. He is unemployed, after all, and he needs a job. And besides… Nigel actually isn’t so bad, despite his language and the extremely ugly tattoo. He thinks maybe he wouldn’t mind being Nigel’s secretary, if it meant he got to keep the apartment.

“I… I don’t know, Beth,” Nigel is saying hesitantly, and Adam feels a surprising clench of disappointment.

Beth waves her hand. “You found something for that waitress with the bad boss that one time, didn’t you?” she says. “I’m sure you’ll find something for Adam. He’s very smart and hardworking. I’ll just drop him off at your office on Monday morning.”

“I don’t know if that’s a good idea,” says Nigel, and he’s staring hard at the fabric of the curtains at the front of the theatre. Adam is just about to open his mouth and say it’s OK, don’t worry about it, when Beth says, “Is it because that trial thing you were telling me about? I thought you said it was just some complicated accounting thing, and it’ll be cleared up soon?”

“Trial?” says Adam, and the lights start to dim, so he only barely catches a wince on Nigel’s face that he can’t quite interpret.

As a hush falls in the theatre, Nigel reaches across Adam’s lap to pat Beth’s hand reassuringly. “Of course not,” he says. “The trial is nothing at all, sweetheart. Don’t worry about it. I’ll find something for Adam.”

Chapter 2

When they get back from the play, Adam first stops off at his apartment, to file the program book for The Confession of Lily Dare away with all the others. He feels buzzed, slightly aroused, and not tired at all. It wasn’t a play that Adam would have chosen on his own, but he also likes not choosing. A play is like a miniature study in human emotions: you get to see real people portraying them, and then guess what they mean and what they’re going to do as a result. Then, you get to check your answers against the ending of the play. It’s easier that doing the same thing with real people having real emotions, because there are always so many more emotions flying around the room in any face-to-face interaction than could ever fit inside of a play.

Lily Dare had been about a woman who starts out as a convent girl, then becomes a singer, and then a prostitute. It seems unbelievable, when Adam thinks through the story backwards, that anyone could ever change that much; but when he saw it play out in front of his eyes, it had all made perfect sense.
Perhaps that’s how everyone is, he thinks as he brushes his teeth and cleans his genitals with a washcloth: you start out as the person you think you are, and gradually change into something unrecognizable. Certainly, Adam’s dad would have been surprised to learn that his son was dating a pretty elementary school teacher that he’d met in his apartment building, and he hasn’t even been gone for that long. Perhaps he’ll do more things that his dad would scarcely believe, later. He can’t tell if the idea of transforming as much as Lily is exhilarating or terrifying.

He knocks on Beth’s door, and she opens it with a smile. She’s changed out of the clothes she’d gone to the play in, and into a shimmery nightgown that only brushes her mid-thighs.

“Do you want to have sex again?” says Adam.

Beth rolls her eyes, and grabs him by the hand to pull him inside. “Okay,” she says, “yes, but you don’t just ask like that, okay, Adam? Like, try to romance me a bit.”

Beth’s apartment has more expensive furnishings than Adam’s, but it’s still cozy and bright. He scowls and looks around the room. “Establishing consent is an important part of any sexual encounter,” he points out. “How am I supposed to know you want to have sex, if I don’t ask you?”

Beth’s arms cross over her chest, and she rolls her eyes again. “Because I opened the door wearing a skimpy nightie, and I– well–” she sighs. “Okay, I guess I shouldn’t just tell you to read my body language, huh.”

“No,” says Adam emphatically.

Beth sits down on the couch. She pulls her knees up to her chest, and Adam can see that she’s wearing a black thong underneath the nightie. It looks uncomfortable.

“Okay,” says Beth. “Fine, sorry. let’s just– don’t ask me right away, okay? I just want to talk for a bit, first. You know, unwind.”

Adam sits down beside her. ‘Talk about what?”

She shrugs. “Just– you know, your day? The play we just went to? Whatever.”

“Your dad was nice,” says Adam.

Beth smiles with half her mouth. She’s tracing a thumbnail up and down the crease where her calf presses into her thigh. “He’s my favourite person in the world,” she says. “And he’s kind of an asshole. He wasn’t kidding about that part. But I love him anyway.”

“What’s he on trial for?” asks Adam.

Beth wrinkles her nose. “I don’t know, really. He says it’s not important. Just– accountant stuff, I guess, someone thinks his firm did something wrong.”

“Wrong how?”

Beth shrugs. “I don’t know, Adam. It doesn’t matter, okay? He’s going to be fine.”

“When’s the trial?”

“How should I know?” snaps Beth. “I don’t need to go, because it’s all going to be cleared up. It’s not a big deal.”

“Beth,” says Adam, “Depending on what something wrong means, it could be a really big deal. Your dad could go to jail. Why won’t he tell you what it’s about? That seems–”

“Why would you say something like that, Adam?” Beth jumps to her feet, heading away from him and then walking in a tight circle around the carpeted living room. She levels a glare at him, accusing. “Look, my dad’s not perfect, but he’s not a criminal, okay?”

“Okay,” says Adam quickly. He might not be great at differentiating emotions, but it’s pretty obvious that Beth is angry now. Which is ridiculous, because clearly the question of whether Nigel is going to go to jail or not is the most important thing they could possibly discuss, but when he says “Sorry, we don’t have to talk about that,” Beth returns to the couch and sits down again, so apparently not talking about it is the way she thinks this should go.

Beth is breathing hard, chewing on her thumbnail now. It’s going ragged; Adam wants to grab her hand and pull it out of her mouth for her, but he’d hate if someone did that to him while he was stimming, so he doesn’t.

“Do you still want to have sex?” Adam asks. He’s not at all sure that he does, any more; suddenly he just wants to be alone, in his own bedroom where nobody is going to yell at him for fucking up and saying the wrong thing.

Jesus, Adam. No, I don’t want to have sex. Talking about my dad going to jail doesn’t make me horny. Fuck.

They lapse into silence. Beth has one palm pressed into her forehead, staring vacantly at her own knees. Adam isn’t sure what to say any more, so he just thinks about Nigel saying you’re a ballsy motherfucker, aren’t you, like it was a good thing. Asking a girl if she wants to have sex when she’s still angry probably qualifies as “ballsy,” but somehow Adam doubts that’s the kind of thing Nigel was thinking of.

“Okay,” he says finally. “I’m going to go home now.”

Beth rouses somewhat, and unfolds herself from the couch. She stands awkwardly clutching her shoulders, like she’s cold. She probably is, in that nightie. “Okay,” she says. “Sorry I… sorry.”

“It’s okay,” says Adam. Then he remembers the other thing Beth and Nigel had talked about at the show, and adds, “Do you think your dad will really have a job for me?”

“Oh!” says Beth more brightly. “Yeah, of course. Look, why don’t I just take you down to his office on Monday? Even if there isn’t anything for you to do right away, you can just…” she waves her hands vaguely.

“Sure.” It seems strange, to just show up at someone’s office without them actually offering you a job, but Adam figures maybe Beth knows better than him what is strange and what isn’t.

“I’ve never actually been inside,” laughs Beth as they walk to the door together. “Daddy always joked that the boring virus would infect me if I came in, and I’d never be the same again. You’ll have to report back.”

“Okay,” says Adam, and turns around in the doorway to look at her. It’s easy to mirror her smile, now that she’s giving him an affectionate and easy one. “Sorry I messed up the conversation, Beth. And that we didn’t have sex.”

Beth shakes her head. “It’s fine,” she says. “I think we’re both just tired.”

“I’ll think about you while I masturbate, instead,” says Adam, and thinks for a moment that he’s miscaluclated terribly when Beth’s face first goes blank with shock. Then, she explodes into peals of laughter that remind Adam uncannily of Nigel’s.

Adam grins at her, and she leans forward to hug him. He wraps his arms around her and holds her tight, so she’s burying her face in his shoulder and doesn’t even try to look him in the eye when she stammers, “Okay, I– I will too.”

“Good,” he says. “Goodnight, Beth.”

“Goodnight, Adam.” She closes the door, and Adam is left alone.

He goes back to his apartment. He brushes his teeth, even though he already brushed them before because he’d thought he was going to kiss Beth, because brushing your teeth before bed is a good habit even if you’ve already done it. He changes into pyjamas, and slips underneath the cover of his (small– not big enough for two, even if Beth had wanted to sleep at his place instead) bed.

There’s lube in the drawer of the bedside tables, along with a box of condoms (missing three: two are in his wallet, and one is in the trash in Beth’s bedroom) and a black silicone vibrator with a flared base.

Like he promised, he calls to mind the image of Beth in the nightie that apparently is supposed to tell him that she wants to have sex. It’s nice, she had looked nice in it, but as he pumps a dollop of slick into his hand, his mind wanders back instead to the evening at the theatre.

Something about it nags at him, the unlikeliness of it. There are eight and a half million people in New York City, and the main stage theatre at Cherry Lane has one hundred and seventy-nine seats. And Nigel had shown up just like that, and just happened to have seats beside them.

He’s distracted eventually from the vagaries of probability by his stiffening cock. He strokes firmly, little wet sounds rising from underneath the blankets. It feels good, simple and uncomplicated and with no need to think about anyone but himself. Sex with girls is nice, it feels different, and sometimes they do things to him that he can’t or wouldn’t have thought of doing to himself. But masturbation is comforting, and right now comfort is what he wants.

He has already thought about Beth, after all. He wasn’t lying to her when he said he would, and that feels important. But it no longer has anything to do with Beth in her nightie when he reaches back into the drawer with one sticky hand and pulls out the vibrator.

He’d bought it in college, after attending some mandatory residence sex-ed thing where one of the handouts was an advertisement for a sex toy company. It had come in a discreet box to his dorm room and had featured prominently in his personal life for his first year of college, until the novelty wore off eventually. Now he uses it sometimes, same as he has sex with girls sometimes. Right now, though, there’s something about being filled up, about driving the thing into him until he can’t think straight, that appeals to Adam.

He spreads lube over the silicone, and immediately presses it to his opening. It has a tapered tip and is relatively small, and Adam is aroused enough that it feels good to simple press until his body’s resistance gives way and the toy slips right in. His own gasping breath sounds loud in the empty room in the way that only sex-sounds ever can, and the fullness and weird pressure inside him immediately feels so good that he rolls onto his belly, pushing his cock against the mattress, to get a better angle holding it and wiggling it around inside him.

He rolls it in a slow circle to catch on his prostate and then pulls it out a little, feeling how it catches on the sensitive rim and then pulls with a slow slick slide out. He gets his entire fist around the hilt of the thing, and finally, when he’s comfortably settled with his face pressing into a pillow and his cock smearing on the sheets, pushes the button.

It springs to life, a high buzz that sets his entire mind on fire. He can’t think of anything but more, more of that, and he pulls it out and slams it back into himself as hard as he can from the awkward angle he’s in. He’s rutting against the mattress beneath him, and it’s not going to take long– it never does, like this– he just wishes it was more, harder and faster and bigger, which is how he knows he’s close. He always feels nearly crazed with the need for more, right up until the moment that he comes.

Harder, faster, bigger– he wants all that, always does. And then a new desire pops into his head; warmer, the instinctive keening need for flesh on flesh. He imagines for a moment the vibrator as a cock, instead of an inanimate toy; but besides his own, he’s never really gotten near a cock, and the image of being fucked with one is hazy and indistinct.

Adam comes, moaning tiny yelps into the pillow, and in his mind he’s being fucked by fingers; big, warm, authoritative ones, which know exactly where to touch him, how to press inside him and open him up. The grasp of a firm handshake and strong hands inching into his space in the theatre over the imaginary dividing line of the armrest in between seats.

He pants, quick breaths warming the pillow and radiating out to the skin of his entire face. He feels nearly dizzy with the force of the orgasm he’s just had, and he still has the memory of Nigel’s hands imprinted on his mind like the aftermath of staring at the sun.

Chapter 3

Adam had never particularly worried about what to wear to work, before.

Nobody expects engineers to look good. Adam likes being clean and presentable, he likes well-fitting clothes washed with unscented detergent that don’t sag or pinch anywhere on his body, but the nuances of choosing items of clothing to send messages about one’s personality or competence are lost on him. So he knocks on Beth’s door at 8:15 Monday morning, wearing a grey shirt with a black jacket, and says, “Do I look like a secretary?”
Beth is in slippers and has one eye’s worth of eyeliner done, the wand of the makeup clutched between two fingers. She waves her hand at him. “Sure, you look fine,” she says. “I mean, who knows if you’ll even be a secretary. Whatever Daddy wants you to do.” She retreats into the bathroom, where the fan is still running from her shower. Adam sinks down onto the couch and tries to figure out why the phrase “whatever Daddy wants you to to” is echoing through his head like his mind is suddenly made of marble arches.

After a moment, he hears the sound of a hairbrush being drawn through long hair, and then the fan clicks off. “When you ask for him,” Beth says, emerging from the bathroom, “Daddy’s surname is Vasilescu, not Buchwald. I got my mom’s name.”

“Why?”

Beth shrugs. “Why not? Kind of patriarchal for you to even ask that.” She’s smiling, though, and then adds, “But honestly, I think he just figured his kid would stick out less in New York named Buchwald. He had me pretty soon after coming here, and…” she pauses, then trails off and shrugs.

“What?” says Adam.

“Nothing, I think he just wanted a fresh start.” Beth is rifling through the closet for a jacket, and Adam stands up and slips his own on. “A fresh start from what?” he asks.

“I don’t know, Adam, just life stuff,” says Beth, and her voice is beginning to take on the same quick, tight tone that it had had the night that Adam had asked about Nigel going to jail. Adam slips on his shoes and doesn’t ask anything further about Nigel.

Not asking about Nigel seems to go over better with Beth, as a general rule, so Adam resolves to keep the questions to a minimum. Anyway, soon he’ll be able to ask all his questions to Nigel himself. He hadn’t seemed to mind Adam asking about being a single parent; perhaps he won’t mind more.

Beth drops him off in front of an office building on her way to school. “His office in there,” she says, “I don’t know what floor, but there should be a directory or something. Okay?”

“Okay,” says Adam. Nigel Vasilescu. He’ll just go in and ask the first person he sees where he is. He feels his face flush hot and his fingers twitch with anxiety at the idea of just wandering into an office building and asking for a man he’s only met once, but he presses it down, taking deep breaths and imagining the air pooling in the bottom of his torso.

“He knows I’m coming, right?” he says, and his own voice sounds higher than usual.

“I mean, I told him at the play that I’d drop you off Monday morning,” says Beth. “Don’t worry, he does this kind of thing all the time. Mom and I used to joke that if we walked into a restaurant with a pretty server, Daddy would offer her a job before the meal was over.”

I’m not a pretty server, Adam wants to object, but they’re stopped in a zone that is technically not a parking spot, and a taxi honks at them from behind. “Okay,” he says, and then remembers to add, “Have a nice day at work.”

“You too!” says Beth brightly, and Adam is left alone on the busy pavement.
The inside of the office building matches the outside, rough brown stone giving way to polished marble floors and important-looking office workers who ignore Adam entirely. It’s difficult to tell whether it’s because he’s blending in so well, or because he’s blending in so poorly that it’s immediately obvious to them that he’s not even worth looking at. There is a directory on the wall, which he squints at. There are multiple accounting firms on it, but Nigel’s name isn’t listed anywhere.

He swallows. It’s logical that the main directory might not list absolutely everyone in the building. A creeping part of him wants to just walk out of the office tower and not come back, pretend this never happened– but what would Beth say? He turns that over for a moment, but the idea of leaving without really trying to find Nigel only actually fizzles out when he realizes that it’s not Beth’s judgment he’s afraid of. He actually just wants to see Nigel again.

There’s a security guard at a desk tucked in the corner of the lobby. She looks up as Adam approaches, bored already, and Adam stammers, “Um, I’m looking for someone?”

The guard just stares at him, and then eventually says, “Yeah?”

“Oh,” says Adam, “Oh, um, his name is Nigel Vasilescu. Can you tell me which floor he works on?”

The guard pulls a binder out from underneath a pile of papers, and shuffles through a few pages in it. “Vasilescu,” she mutters, running her finger down a list of names. Then she shrugs and closes the binder with a snap. “Not here, sorry.”

White static starts infringing on the corners of Adam’s mind. “I’m supposed to meet him at his office,” he says, and his voice comes out higher than usual.

The guard shrugs. “Got the right building?” she asks.

The static recedes. That’s probably it; Beth hadn’t meant this building. Adam had just not understood the instructions, as per usual, and gone into the wrong building. He ought to try the office buildings on either side; Nigel will be in one of them, and he won’t need to tell either Nigel or Beth about his stupidity going into the wrong one.

“Probably not,” he forces out, “Thanks,” and scurries away.

The building to the left is identical in feeling if not in actual construction. It doesn’t have a directory, but it does have a secretary, his desk in the middle of the entrance and in the middle of a row of turnstiles that employees have to swipe access cards at to even get to the elevators. He searches through a list on his computer, instead of a binder, but the result is the same. “Nobody named Vasilescu in any of the offices,” he says. “Sorry.”

The building on the other side has no directory and nobody working there, just a door with keypad access. Adam wanders up and down the entire block, asking in every building, which takes about twenty minutes. On one had, the routine of approaching someone and asking for Nigel gets a little easier with practice. On the other hand, with each shrug and bland apology, his stomach twists in on itself like a complicated knot of anxiety.

He considers going back to all of them, and checking if there’s a Buchwald instead. Perhaps Nigel had changed his own name to fit in, too. He considers expanding his search, doing more blocks and more buildings– but there are a nearly infinite number of office buildings in New York. He could spend weeks asking after him, and never get near the right place. Assuming the right place exists.

Just thinking about either of those options makes him want to curl up and cry, though. So even though it feels like giving up, he doesn’t. There’s a cafe in the lobby of one of the buildings across the street. Adam ducks in and orders a coffee.

“You okay?” says the barista. Adam looks down at the hand he’s holding out with two dollar bills in it. It’s shaking, trying to emulate the tapping of his other hand against his leg. He feels vaguely sick. “I just need to sit down for a bit,” he bites out. That’s a normal thing to say, after all. Normal office workers in suits need to sit down for a bit, sometimes. She won’t know that he’s on the verge of having a meltdown over failing to find his new job before it even started.

She laughs, waves her hand at the cafe seating; it’s mostly empty, just a few people tapping away at laptops and ignoring him. “Be my guest,” she says. “I’ll bring you the coffee.”

Adam sits down heavily by the window. The chair is uncomfortable, and the woman off to his left gives him a glance when he pulls his feet up onto it, his shiny black dress shoes up on the worn wood, and hugs his knees. It’s warmer and safer in the cocoon of his own body. He stares at his knees and his own rhythmically tapping hands. A coffee appears in front of him, with a film of swirling cream on it that he can’t remember asking for but appreciates nonetheless. He stares out the window at the hypnotic neverending parade of busy people walking by.

Eventually, when he remembers to take a sip of the coffee and his hands are steady enough to hold it, he finds it is cold. He makes a face and puts it back on the table.

“Need a fresh one?”

The barista is back, and she’s holding out another mug, this one steaming slightly.

“I…” Adam hesitates, then digs around in his wallet.

“On the house,” she says. “Hey, it’s just a shitty morning at work and you need to recuperate a bit, right?”

Adam lets out a shaky breath, and gingerly reaches out to grasp the new mug. He doesn’t feel much like talking to anyone, but almost without his conscious control, the truth pours out of him: “Not really a shitty morning at work. I think I’m still unemployed.”

“Oh, sucks,” she says easily. “Well, just keep applying. I’m sure you’ll find something.” She wanders off.

Adam tamps down his instinctive anger at the triteness of that advice, drinks the new coffee, then gets up and starts walking home. It’s a long walk, but he needs it to think about what to tell Beth.

By the time Beth is home from her day at work, he still hasn’t decided. Beth gets upset when they talk about Nigel, and Adam can’t figure out the pattern of what’s likely to upset her. It seems ludicrous that she would be angry at him for having failed to find the correct office building– but then, it had also seemed ludicrous that she would be angry at him for being concerned about Nigel going to jail. So by the time she knocks on his door, after Adam’s usual dinner hour and while he’s just cleaning up from the meal, he still has no idea what he’s going to say.

Beth is all smiles. She barges in an throws her arms around him, and Adam hugs her back even though all the places they touch feel too hot and too tight across his skin. “How’d it go?” she trills, and the image of the way her face pinches when she’s upset for no reason Adam can figure out passes through his mind like a flashbulb, and–

“Great,” says Adam, and it feels like the verbal equivalent of vomiting unexpectedly.

His head buzzes. Beth is grinning, chattering, but he can barely hear her.

He had just lied to her. He lied to Beth, and now she’s happy and proud of him, and thinks he has a job with her dad, and now he has to lie again, and again and again every time she asks, and hope that she doesn’t ask Nigel about him before Adam can find out where the hell Nigel actually works.

He thinks me might actually vomit. He wanders unsteadily towards the bathroom, but no, he’s just dizzy and nauseous, he leans against the wall and presses his hands to his forehead and oh god how could he have possibly have done something so recklessly, insanely stupid

–“Adam?”

Beth’s hand comes down on his shoulder, and it feels like being branded. He flinches violently and she yanks it away, eyes wide.

“What’s wrong with you?” she says.

He knows she didn’t mean it like that. Or maybe he just ought to know, it’s what Harlan would say, oh, Adam, she didn’t mean it, you know that, kid, but maybe he doesn’t know it well enough, because she sounds just like everyone else. Something is wrong with him. He’s too stupid to keep a job, too stupid to find a job even when one lands right in his lap. Stupid, stupid.

“Is this because of your– brain thing?” she asks, and brain thing is really not any better than what’s wrong with you, but at least it’s a question he can answer. “Yes,” he grits out. “Please leave, Beth.”

Mercifully, she does.

Adam curls on his bed. He stares at the spacesuit across the room, and wishes he was actually in outer space. It seems like the only place that’s far away enough to get him away from the mess he’s just made. He stares for a long time, until eventually he drops off to sleep.

The apology-for-a-meltdown routine is one Adam knows well. He remembers his dad practising with him, the right words to say to someone after he’d lost his cool around them. There’s nothing wrong with getting overstimulated, Adam, he’d said, But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t upset other people to have someone yell at them unexpectedly. Same as it would upset you, if someone yelled at you. So he shows up at Beth’s door the next morning wearing a suit, again, and with a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach, ready to say sorry, but she just hugs him before he can even get the words out and says “I’m glad you’re feeling better.”

He isn’t feeling all that much better, but he can’t say that, so he forces himself not to fidget too badly in the car on the way to the office building that Nigel doesn’t work in. Beth drops him off with another cheery smile, and says, “I’m so glad this is working out. Have a good day at work!” before leaving him standing on the pavement, just like the previous day.

He’s brought his laptop, this time, and he goes to the same cafe as yesterday. He surfs job sites, and puts together resumes, and the barista he’d met on the first day brings him free coffee every so often. He goes home and tells Beth that work was fine, a little boring, and she just rolls her eyes and says “god, you’re just like Daddy.”

So he keeps it up, even though it makes him feel like he’s constantly on the verge of a precipice that he won’t survive falling off of. He goes to “work,” and drinks coffee and then wanders around the streets of New York when he can’t drink any more coffee. Beth is happy and somehow calmer, like Adam having a job was the one missing piece in the puzzle of their perfect relationship. Adam doesn’t bring up Nigel, terrified that he’ll prompt her to ask her dad about him.

After a few days, he starts wandering more than sitting in the cafe. Adam loves New York, loves the way the business of it somehow turns itself around to feel like anonymity, like he’s alone not in spite of but actually because of how many people there are everywhere. He doesn’t worry about which areas he’s walking in– his dad had always worried about that, said that Adam’s inability to “read the room” was going to get him in trouble taking a stroll in the wrong part of town. But there is no room to read, he’s outside, so Adam just keeps walking. It’s better than sitting in his apartment, where he would surely always be worrying about Beth being done early some day and finding him on his way in the door or to the laundry room . This is anonymous. Safe.

Anonymous, that is, until one day he turns a corner and spots a man with sandy blonde hair and– bizarrely– a pale blue shirt spotted with prints of tiny dogs all over it.

He stares in shock, trying to convince himself that it can’t be, but it is. Nigel hasn’t seen him, is walking in the other direction. He doesn’t look like an accountant at all, but he looks purposeful.

Adam hangs back for a few moments, until he’s far enough away not to be noticed, and then starts following him.

Chapter 4

Adam stands outside the back alley door Nigel had disappeared through.

The alley is muddy and full of potholes in the pavement, and Adam has already turned one leather dress shoe from black to reddish-brown by stepping in one. The wind is beginning to pick up, and his neck feels cold. He wants to go inside. He wants to go back to his cafe, or home.

But if he goes home now, he’ll wake up tomorrow for another day of pretending to have a job kicking himself. He has a chance to figure out where Nigel really works, and leave Beth out of it entirely. From the back, this building doesn’t look much like the type of office that an accountancy firm would work in, but there must be some explanation.
The building is large enough that it takes up most of the centre of the block. It’ll be easy to just go around to the other side and walk in the front door. And, even though the prospect of even more lying makes him feel even more nauseous than he usually does these days, perhaps it would be best to pretend to have just wandered in off the street.

“Are you looking for someone?”

Adam whirls around. A tall, blonde woman is making her way towards the door. She has a tiny purse slung over one shoulder and an enormous gym back slung over the other, and yes, she’s definitely heading for where Nigel had gone in.

“Um,” says Adam. It’s ridiculous, that he should be nervous asking for Nigel at a building where he knows Nigel is inside, when the previous week he had walked all up and down a row of office towers asking for him in places he was relatively sure Nigel wasn’t. But it still takes all his willpower to squeak out, “Nigel? Nigel, um, Vasilescu?”

The girl’s eyebrows shoot up into her hairline. “That’s his last name?” she says. “Shit, everyone here figured he didn’t even have one. He’s just Nigel.” She swipes a key-card and pulls open the door, holding it with one hand and gesturing Adam in. “You working a bachelorette, or what?”

Adam peers into the door like something dangerous might come out. It’s just a hallway, though, dingy and full of detritus. There’s a shelf with an assortment of old boxes, a propane tank, a snow shovel, and what looks like an enormous hula hoop sitting just inside the doorway.

“Are you going in, or what?” says the girl.

Adam goes in.

He follows her mutely down the corridor to the end of the entranceway. It’s carpeted in thick grey fuzz that once had a pattern on it, and the entire place smells like a combination of cigarettes and french fries. Through the walls, there is the a faint pounding; the sound of loud music bleeding though from a relatively well-insulated room. The first hallway branches out into two others, and the girl who let him in points him to the right.

“Nigel’s office is the last one on the left down there,” she says, and hoists the gym bag up higher on her shoulder, and then Adam is alone.

The faint pounding sound feels like it is coming simultaneously from the walls, the soles of his shoes, and Adam’s own heart. He starts walking slowly down the hallway in the direction she’d indicated, and the boxy walls seem to spin around him.

He’d been planning– as much as he’s capable of planning in this state– to stand outside Nigel’s door for a little bit. Waffle, build up his courage, take his time convincing himself to knock. As it turns out, he doesn’t get the chance. The door is open at the end of the hallway, and in the moment that Adam realizes that he’s visible from inside the office, Nigel looks up from his desk and gasps.

“Fuck!” he exclaims.

Adam immediately retreats, heart pounding nearly out of his chest. Nigel has jumped up from his desk and is gesturing, in a pattern Adam can’t quite identify, and his mouth is moving and Adam is just on the verge of actually turning tail and running back down the hallway when his words filter through. “Come in,” he’s saying, and then “Oh fuck, fuck, Adam, I’ve really fucked it up now, haven’t I?”

“What?” says Adam.

Nigel’s arm-waving mentally resolves, into a clear picture of Nigel gesturing him inside the office. Adam isn’t entirely sure he wants to go in, but he does anyway; for the same reason he followed Nigel in the first place, for the same reason he’s been pretending to have a job. It’s simply too late to do anything else.

Nigel closes the door behind him. The office smells like pine instead of like cigarette smoke, and has another layer of insulation such that the pounding of music drops to barely noticeable the moment the door closes. It’s actually quite a bit nicer than the hallways would suggest, and Adam breathes out slowly, looking around. Filing cabinets, a big desk covered in papers and a sleek, top-of-the-line computer; it looks pretty much like an accountant’s office should. Something inside him relaxes: Beth must have simply had the wrong street name, taken Adam to the wrong place. And now he’s found the right office by accident, but it’s fine, everything is going to be fine.

Nigel, Adam realizes after watching him for a moment, does not seem to think that everything is going to be fine.

He’s pacing along the far side of the room, keeping well away from Adam, which Adam appreciates. His big hands are tangling in his hair, sandy blond strands being tugged and pushed into disarray. He’s muttering “Fucking stupid, Nigel, that’s what you are.”

Which sounds bizarrely, suspiciously, like something Adam might say to himself. So, too, is the way Nigel is clenching his fists like he wants to destroy something with them, taking out the violence on his own scalp instead of the furnishings around him.

Adam is pretty sure that Nigel isn’t autistic– Beth would have mentioned that, surely– but he can recognize a meltdown when he sees one. So it’s with a confidence that he didn’t feel a moment ago, that this is a situation he’s actually experienced with, that Adam strides across the room and puts himself in Nigel’s field of vision, present but not too close. “Nigel,” he says, calmly but a bit louder than his normal speaking voice, “I’d like you to stop and focus on your breathing for me.”

Nigel just looks up at him wildly, mouth slightly open, hands on his head, a muttered fuck dying on his tongue. Adam forges ahead. “I’m going to count,” he says. “You’re going to breathe in for four counts, hold the breath for six, and breathe out for eight. One, two, three, four…”

Adam raises his palm gently as he counts, miming an inhalation, and Nigel just stares. For a moment Adam is alone, just performing an instruction of a breath, and then finally Nigel joines hi. He heaves in a gulp of air, holds it according to Adam’s instructions, and sighs it out. They repeat, breathing together, until Nigel’s fists unclench and he drops suddenly back down into his chair, face in his hands.

“Can you tell me what the problem is?” says Adam, just like his dad used to ask him, where no, I can’t tell you and I don’t know were always acceptable answers. Nigel maybe doesn’t know that, though, so he adds, “It’s okay to say no.”
Nigel huffs out a laugh, shakes his head. “If you know, then Beth fucking knows,” he says, and drags a shaky hand through his hair again. “Fuck.

“I haven’t told Beth anything,” says Adam, because that’s it, isn’t it, that’s the truth that’s been gnawing on his insides for the entire past week, and it’s true regardless of the fact that he’s not entirely sure what this conversation is actually about. Then, “Knows what?”

“That I’m not a fucking accountant?”

Adam stares. He stares at the filing cabinet, and the shiny wooden desk, and the sheafs of paper. “What are you?” he says.

Nigel’s head juts forward, eyes squinted, mouth slightly open. His mouth is wide and soft-looking, even now, and Adam focuses ion it right up until Nigel says, “Are you fucking blind? Did you not notice all the titties in your face on your way in?”

“Titties?” says Adam, feeling like he’s slowly receding from the reality around him. Then he thinks of the girl who let him in, and her big gym bag, and the way she’d asked You working a bachelorette, or what?

“I came in the back,” Adam manages. The air around him feels too heavy now, everything caving in on him. The suit he’s still wearing to keep up his stupid ridiculous lie feels like it’s shrunk, and the inside is made of barbs scraping across his skin. He reaches up to loosen the collar, and chokes out, “This is a strip club.”

“Yeah, it’s a fucking strip club.” Nigel is frowning, watching Adam try not to collapse onto the floor. Then Adam decides there’s really no point to the effort, and he slides down the nearest wall, curling in on himself like he’s been kicked. “I lied to Beth,” he says. “I lied to her, I couldn’t find you at the office you were supposed to be at and I lied to her and told her I’d been working for you every day.” And then, because the situation seems to warrant it, he adds, “fuck.”

He doesn’t realize that he’s practically hyperventilating himself until Nigel’s shadow hovers over him, and he opens his eyes to look up into Nigel’s concerned face.

“Okay, let’s, uh… let’s try that breathing thing together again, okay?” Nigel says. “That shit worked for me.” He starts counting, and Adam breathes. Nigel’s voice actually is soothing, despite the fact that he owns a fucking strip club.

After a minute, Adam feels warmth at his side, and turns his head to watch Nigel slide down the wall beside him. They huddle like that for a moment, each cringing into the wall in their own little bubble of space and misery.

“Well… thanks for doing that, kid,” says Nigel, once the silence has stretched on long enough that Adam had started to wonder if they were going to break it at all. “Not telling Beth, I mean.”

“I didn’t do it for you,” says Adam shrilly, and discovers he’s angry. It’s difficult to come up with exactly why, though, so he just takes a phrase from Nigel, and finishes with, “Fuck you.”

Nigel’s shoes are planted firmly on the ground, elbows resting on his knees. He stares in between his own legs, shaking his head slightly.

“I know,” he says finally. “But thanks anyway. Beth– the accountant thing, it’s just what we told her when she was little. I was always planning on telling her the truth when she was old enough, but then my wife left–”

“Her mom,” Adam interrupts.

“What?”

“Beth said she’s not your wife any more,” says Adam. “So you shouldn’t call her that.”

Nigel’s fist clenches. “I stood in a church with her and said until death do us fucking part, kid. And neither of us are dead.”

Adam considers that for a moment. “Your marriage is dead,” he says finally. It’s not an original phrase– he’d heard Harlan say it about his obnoxious neighbours, once– but he thinks this is probably the kind of situation that it refers to.

Adam has absolutely no idea how to interpret Nigel’s face in the space of the moments before he says, “But then Beth’s mom left, and Beth chose to stay with me. And I didn’t want to make her regret that decision.”

Now that the clammy claustrophobia of panic has receded, Adam feels cold. He wants nothing more than to be at home. “I need to go,” he mumbles.

Nigel swallows, and Adam watches the way his throat bobs with the action. He’s both horrified and somehow thrilled at his own desire to wrap his hands around Nigel’s throat, for this. Not to hurt him. Just to feel it, the way he wants to feel something breaking as an expression of his own anger.

“i won’t tell her,” he blurts. It feels almost the same way as the first lie to Beth had felt, like it came from somewhere too deep inside him to contain, like the decision had been made without consultation with his conscious mind. This time, though, he is rewarded by a soft smile on Nigel’s face. He’s relieved, if Adam had to guess. And it makes him feel good to have caused that.

“Thank you,” he says, and pushes to his feet. He offers Adam his hand, and Adam takes it; lets Nigel pull him up nearly without Adam’s help.

Nigel turns to look back at his desk, then goes behind it to start rifling through the drawers. He pulls out a wad of bills, and counts a few out. “Call a cab,” he says, holding them out towards Adam.

I’m not a child, I have money of my own, Adam wants to say, but although it’s true that he does have a little bit of cash on him, the money in general is running out quickly, and he hadn’t been planning on using it to take a cab. Nigel waves the bills impatiently, and Adam takes them.

“Consider it an advance,” he says. “Shit, I guess I’ve got to find something for you to do. Are you good with numbers? You seem like you’re good with numbers.”

The stereotype would be more irritating if it weren’t, in Adam’s case, true. “Yes,” he says slowly. “Why?”

“Jesus, kid, you’ve been pretending to work for me for the last week, least I can do is pay you for it. And if you need a job, and you don’t mind seeing the occasional titty, I can find something for you to do.”

A job. Nigel is offering him a job– he just needs to keep it a secret from Beth. Still, it’s a smaller lie than the one he’d previously been telling her.

“I don’t mind seeing the occasional titty,” says Adam.

Chapter 5

It should be better.

This is less of a lie than Adam was telling before, after all. He no longer has to worry about Beth asking Nigel about Adam and discovering his deception. In a way, there isn’t even any deception any more. Adam just has to tell Beth that he’s working for Nigel, and apparently now that’s going to be true. She’s stopped even asking for details.

She’s stopped asking for details, because she’s well-conditioned. She’s used to it from a lifetime of being told not to ask questions, that it’s too boring to talk about, that it simply isn’t for her. She’s used to being lied to. Of course she took to it so easily.

Adam sits on his couch the evening after he finds Nigel, feeling like he is suspended physically with indecision. Half of his traitorous body wants to run to Beth’s door and come clean. Tell her everything, even though some of the secrets aren’t his to tell. The other half wants to curl up under a weighted blanket and never move again.

Adam generally doesn’t spend a lot of time imagining other people’s feelings. It’s difficult, frustrating work, and he’s wrong half the time anyway. But he doesn’t have to imagine what it feels like to have everyone you care about talking around you. He doesn’t have to imagine being lied to, not being trusted with the truth, or being left out of a secret. He knows all of those feelings intimately, and now–

“Adam?” Beth’s cheerful voice drifts through the door, and her cursory knock follows a moment later. “It’s open,” Adam calls, because he’d left it open knowing that Beth would turn up eventually.

He hears the door swinging open, the rustle of shoes coming off. He stays put, as if not going to greet her could possibly buy him enough time to decide.

“I just talked to daddy!” Beth says. “He says you’re doing amazing. He says you’re the best secretary he’s ever had.”

Adam opens his mouth, and for a moment he thinks it’s all a lie is going to come out, but then he surprises himself by laughing. Really laughing, the way people laugh when they’ve been told a joke that they subjectively think is excellent but Adam usually thinks is just contradictory and irritating. Except this joke does actually seem funny, and it’s one Nigel is telling him, though Beth.

“What?” Beth comes into the living room, sock feet shuffling along the hardwood. She’s grinning. “What, you don’t think you’re doing well?”

“I am doing great,” says Adam, and somehow now that Nigel has taken the choice away from him, or maybe made the choice for him, it feels easier. Besides, that’s not a lie; he’d found Nigel, and now he has a job, and Adam is going to see him again the next day. He is doing great.

He wonders if Nigel would think it funny if tomorrow, Adam tried to parley his supposed extreme secretarial competence into a raise. He imagines Nigel’s face scrunching up with laughter, and determines that he’s going to try to make him laugh somehow.

“Good,” says Beth. She sinks in beside him on the couch, and Adam reaches over to put an arm around her.

“Did I tell you that I asked one of the other teachers about you?” Beth says.

“What do you mean, about me?” Adam says. “I don’t know any other teachers. Besides the teachers I had in school, I suppose, but I don’t think you’re working with any of them.”

“About Asperger’s,” Beth clarifies.

“Oh.” Adam stares at the coffee table. It’s not like there’s a rule against Beth talking about him with other people. People talk about their boyfriends and girlfriends all the time. Then it occurs to him to ask, “Why? Are they autistic, too?”

“What? No, of course not,” says Beth.

“Why of course not?” Adam says. “I’ve taught robotics workshops for kids. I’m a good teacher. I know a lot of things and I communicate them clearly and logically.”

Beth pushes her self up so she’s facing him instead of leaning into him. “Okay, okay,” she says, and something about the word “okay” make it sound like she’s not actually agreeing, which grates on him. “Look, the point is, she told me you’re not dating material.

Adam swallows. The words seem to buzz around in his head like an irritating fly, entering and then knocking around with no purpose or resolution. Not dating material. “Are you breaking up with me?” he asks, because that seems like the only logical conclusion to this conversation.

“What?” exclaims Beth. “Adam, no. Why would you think that?”

Why would I think that? The feeling of not dating material being the mental equivalent of a fly he can’t swat only intensifies. He wonders for a moment how Nigel would respond to being told that about himself, but he can’t imagine anyone saying that about Nigel. Can’t really imagine anyone not wanting to spend time with Nigel, once they’ve met him. Except his ex-wife, Adam recalls; and when it comes to her, Nigel seems to employ the word fuck liberally. Adam can’t quite come up with a response that includes the word fuck, at the moment.

Instead he says, “Why are you telling me that, then?”

Beth shrugs helplessly. Her mouth works for a moment with nothing coming out, and then she says, “Because… I wanted you to know? That I’m choosing to be with you even though other people think I shouldn’t?”

Beth wants him to know that she’s choosing him even though he’s damaged. Even though he’s defective. Even though he’s not dating material.

Adam finally figures out where to put the word “fuck.”

“So you want to be praised,” he says, “For lowering yourself so far as to be with someone who’s not fucking dating material.”

Beth’s mouth is hanging open. She runs a tongue over the bottom one, pink and full and now shiny with spit, and Adam considers the fact that if she hadn’t said that, they might be kissing by now. He’s not sure if he would want to turn back time or not. Perhaps it’s better to know.

“I thought it would be romantic,” she says helplessly. “I’m not… lowering myself, I just…”

Adam waits, but apparently the sentence is finished. He can’t come up with anything to say. The feeling of being physically suspended between two options has come back, but this time instead of one of the choices being to tell Beth everything, one of the choices is to smash something, and the other is to curl up and cry.

At least he no longer feels conflicted about lying to her. Which surprises him– being angry with someone doesn’t change his moral code, or the way untruths get under his skin like crawling bugs– but it’s the best thing about his current emotional state, so he decides not to question it.

“Okay,” says Beth slowly, after a very long time. “You’re clearly upset. I’m going to go.”

Adam doesn’t say goodbye. The door to the apartment clicks shut, and he lies on his side and wishes everything about the whole world were different.

When he wakes up, there is hazy sunlight streaming through the uncovered window. His mouth feels sticky, and his neck aches.

Adam sits up, and the first thing he realizes is that he’d slept an entire night on the couch. Adam doesn’t do that. There is a bedtime, and there is a bedtime routine. Sometimes there are deviations from the routine, which Adam hates but occasionally needs to put up with. But he has never simply… forgotten to do the entire thing.

The second thing he realizes is that it is nearly 11 AM.

He lurches from the couch unsteadily, every limb feeling like it’s forgotten how to move. His head pounds, and he gets halfway to the kitchen to get a glass of water before deciding it’s more important to dress and brush his teeth as quickly as possible, and stumbles off in the other direction.

He and Nigel hadn’t decided on a time, of course, but 11 AM is late by the metric of every job and educational situation Adam has ever had, so he can only assume that means he late for this, too. Beth had been dropping him off at “work” for the past little while, but Adam had been going to her place in the morning first; either she had left without him because she assumed he was still angry, or she’d knocked on his door and he’d slept right through it.

Adam has no idea if he’s still angry. The only good thing about this situation is that he’s too panicked to give it much thought.

There’s no time to have a shower, so everything still feels grubby and sleep-addled by the time Adam is dressed and looking at himself in the mirror. He’s still wearing a suit, having no alternative ideas as to how secretaries in strip clubs are supposed to dress. His eyes feel crusty. He splashes a little water on his face, which barely helps at all, then calls a cab.

By the time he gets to the club, adrenaline has nearly replaced the haziness of oversleep and the discomfort of the disrupted routines. It’s nearly noon by the time they roll up, Adam having nearly come to profanity at every snarl of traffic the cab encountered. He doesn’t want to disappoint Nigel, and he has jsut showed up half a day late to his first day at work.

The cab drops him off in front of the club, the cab driver for some reason winking at him when he pays his fare. Adam gets out, and stares up at the enormous billboards. The largest one, flanking the doorway, has an enormous silhouette of a presumably naked woman, the background red and likely backlit in the dark, the silhouette inky black. More lurid posters coat the outside walls, advertising specific events or performers. Adam doesn’t look at them.

He pulls open the front door. There is a ticket booth, and a woman with a mass of black curls pulled back into a ponytail just sitting down inside it. She looks at Adam, and gives him a smile.

“Dancing doesn’t start until five, sweetheart,” she says, “But the bar is open.”\

Adam wants to tell her not to call him sweetheart, but he stays on taks and says, “No, I’m here to see Nigel,” instead.

“Oh!” She grins, and her teeth are very large and white. “You’re the one he said was going to be helping him with office stuff! That’s lovely, we’ve needed a sweet little nerd around here for a long time. Do you know how to get to his office?”

Sweet little nerd? thinks Adam, but he just shakes his head. He’s not sure where the back hallways is in relation to the front of the building, and he doesn’t feel like wandering around lost.

“I’ll bring you,” she says, stepping out of the booth. “I’m Lacey. I dance usually, but I broke my fucking foot a few weeks ago.” As she sets off through the large set of double doors off the lobby, Adam sees that she is indeed wearing a boot, although she’s not particularly favouring the other leg. It must be mostly healed.

“Sorry to hear that,” he mumbles, and enters the main room after her.

It’s an enormous space, big enough for several little enclaves within it. Much of the floor space is taken up with tables of varying sizes, seating between two and ten people. There’s a bar all along one side of the room, and bleacher-style seating in the back, and scattered chairs nearer to the front. At the front of the room is a large stage with two poles, which reach all the way up into what must be a catwalk area above.

Lacey points towards the stage. “Static,” she says, and then jerks her finger a little, “and spin.” Adam has no idea what that means, and decides not to ask.

He follows her through a swinging door to the side of the stage marked “staff only,” and down a series of corridors. Normally he would be trying to memorize the path, since he’s going to be working here and should know the layout of the place, but he’s distracted by nerves again. When she stops, it actually takes him a moment to realize they’re in front of the same office Adam had ended up in yesterday.

“Thanks,” he says, and Lacey answers, “No problem. See you around…?”

Adam stares at the door, trying to steel himself to knock.

“What’s your name, pretty nerd?” says Lacey, who is still standing there.

“Adam,” says Adam, hoping fervently that now that she knows his name, she’ll never call him anything else ever again.

“Adam!” the door wings open, and Nigel is there.

“I’m sorry!” squeaks Adam. “I’m so sorry, I fell asleep, and then I didn’t set an alaam, but I usually do, this isn’t normal for me–”

Nigel squints. “What? What’s all this about?”

“I’m so sorry I’m late,” says Adam, “I fell asleep on the couch, which I’ve never done before in my life, but it was because–”

He pulls up short. It was because he’d had a fight with Beth, but maybe he shouldn’t tell Nigel that. He wants Nigel to like him, after all, and Nigel might take Beth’s side, and then– Adam isn’t sure what he would do if then, but it gives him a cold knot in the pit of his stomach.

But then, maybe he should tell Nigel. Say Beth and I had a fight because I was upset that she told me her colleague said I’m not dating material because I’m autistic. Perhaps Nigel would think he’s not employee material, either. Adam thinks would hurt, maybe even worse than not being dating material, and he can’t quite figure out why.

Perhaps it would be better for Nigel to reject him now, before Adam gets his hope up.

“Jesus.” Nigel rubs at his eyes. “Kid, this is a fucking strip club. You’re lucky I’m even here, half the time I don’t get in until mid-afternoon. Come whenever you want to, okay?”

“Oh,” says Adam. “Okay.” Now that he thinks about it, it makes sense that there wouldn’t be much going on here in the mornings.

Nigel holds the door to the office open. “And you don’t need to wear a fucking suit,” he says. “In fact, don’t. It’s going to weird people out.” Adam is halfway to panicking over the responsibility of having to choose something appropriate to wear, when Nigel adds, ‘Wear jeans and a t-shirt.”

“Okay,” says Adam. There’s nothing he can do about his dress for today, but at least he can take off his jacket. It’s hot and constrictive anyway, sitting heavily on his shoulders. He shrugs it off and then hangs it on the coat-stand by the door.

Nigel is looking at him when he turns back around, eyes trailing over Adam’s chest and shoulders, and then he simply says, “That’s better.”

Adam swallows. It is better, and now he has no idea what to do next.

“Want the tour?” says Nigel. He bounces on the balls of his feet. “Look, it’s not much, and I might not be able to tell my own family about it, but I’m fucking proud of this place.”

Adam nods, and Nigel ushers him out of the office again.

Chapter 6

“Two main levels back here,” says Nigel. “Upper level is mostly offices and dressing rooms. Lower level…” he waves his hand. “Other things.”

Adam casts his mind around, trying to piece together what other things might mean. “Are those other things the reason you have a court date you won’t let your daughter attend?”

Nigel is leading the way down the corridor that his office is at the far end of, and at that, he stops in his tracks and turns around. Adam stops too.

“Adam,” says Nigel seriously. He seems to be advancing slowly, and Adam is suddenly aware of just how much larger than him Nigel is, and the fact that he has just openly asked about Nigel’s criminal activities.

“Yeah,” says Adam, and it comes out as a whisper.

Nigel seems to invade his space casually, and Adam is backed against the wall almost without noticing it happening. Nigel braces his arm against the faded, slightly sticky paint. It looks like a casual posture, but he’s close enough for Adam to feel the heat radiating off of him. He’s not sure if he wants to lean towards it or away from it, so settles for freezing stock still.

“I’m a fuckup in a lot of ways,” says Nigel. “but I promise you, any other things that might go on under my roof are…” he pauses. “Don’t know the word in English.”

Adam can hear the shaking of his breath when he draws it in to say, “Above-ground?”

“No,” says Nigel decisively. “Not that. Careful. But more than that. Perfect.”

“Meticulous?” suggests Adam.

“Yes.” Nigel grins, and the sharp teeth at the front of his mouth that Adam had noticed that night at the theatre faintly glint. “That sounds right. Meticulous. Got it?”

“Yes,” breathes Adam.

Time feels like it suspends for a moment, then snaps like a twig. Nigel huffs out a laugh and pushes away from the wall, and Adam doesn’t have time to interrogate his own gut-deep feeling of regret.

“No,” says Nigel loudly, carelessly, as he sets back off. “The court shit is because a bunch of drunk fucks got in a fight a few months ago.”

It’s possible– likely, really– that Adam shouldn’t ask. It’s the kind of thing that Beth would elbow him in ribs for, hiss Adam! and remind him that there are some things better left unsaid. And he’s learned that there are plenty of things better left unsaid to Beth, questions that cause her to get upset with him in ways that are utterly confusing and best avoided.

But Nigel hadn’t reacted to his last question in the same way as Beth reacts to his questions. He hadn’t even seemed angry, or if he was, it’s a kind of anger that maybe Adam wouldn’t mind seeing again, for study purposes. He didn’t raise his voice or tell Adam that he was dumb or wrong for asking. He was just… closer. And quieter, and more intense.

If that’s the worst that can happen, then Adam very much wants to ask.

“What does that have to do with you, then, if it was an altercation between clients?”

Nigel glances back, and one side of his sharp-toothed smile is showing. “Threw them out, didn’t I? Might have been a little rougher than totally necessary, but I don’t like that shit going down here. Saw enough of it back home.”

Back home. Adam remembers American cocksucker, and says, “You don’t identify New York very strongly as your home, do you?”

They’ve reached another hallway, more brightly lit. On one side is a set of heavy double doors labelled “TO STAGE,” and on the other side are a series of smaller numbered ones. “Smart mouth,” says Nigel, and presses a finger to Adam’s lips like he can physically silence him with a touch. “My turn to talk now.”

Adam doesn’t say anything. He blinks and runs a finger over his lips where Nigel had touched them. He considers sprinting into the nearest dressing room to scrub the taste and feel of the other man’s fingers off of his skin, but then the moment passes, and the impression seems to sink into him. He flicks his tongue out, lapping up the alien touch like he can somehow integrate it into himself and make it fit.

It doesn’t work.

“I don’t like being touched without permission,” he blurts out.

“Oh,” says Nigel. “Sorry, kid. My bad.”

“I’m not a kid,” says Adam, and it comes out even smaller and more confused.

I don’t like being touched without permission, but I’d like you to ask permission to do that again.

Nigel breathes out hard through his nose, half a laugh. “Well, I’m just cocking it all up today, aren’t I,” he comments. “Okay, come on. Obviously, this is the stage. You were in the main entertainment room, but we can go through it again later. Show you behind the bar. You drink?”

Adam is still busy trying to formulate something along the lines of I told you I didn’t like to be touched and you didn’t ask why. Why didn’t you ask what’s wrong with me? when the question comes along. “I’m… not in the habit of drinking alcohol,” he says. “My dad used to refer to it as a social lubricant, but I don’t think it works on me.”

“Unlubricateable, are you,” says Nigel cheerfully. “Well, if you ever want to drink alone like a sorry motherfucker, plenty of our clients would tell you that our bar is the place.”

Nigel gestures to the dressing rooms. “Two private ones,” he says, “two general women’s and one general men’s.” As if he’s expecting Adam to comment, he adds quickly, “Those motherfuckers make more in a night than I make in a week. If I were twenty years younger, I swear to God.”

“I’m sure someone would still pay to see you dance naked,” says Adam.

Nigel bursts out laughing, for the third time of their acquaintance, and it sends a warm glow through Adam. They’ve stopped outside of the last door of the hallway, and Nigel reaches his hand out, then abruptly pulls it back. He’s still chucking when he says, “okay, can I ruffle your fucking hair for that, kid?”

“I–” says Adam, halfway to reflexively saying don’t touch me. “Okay,” he says instead.

Nigel slings his arm roughly around Adam’s neck, a benevolent kind of chokehold, and grabs a fistful of his hair with the other hand. It’s not exactly a ruffle, if Adam had to come up with a definition of the word, and it’s a little painful, but not unpleasant. He struggles against it a bit, more an experiment than genuine distress, and Nigel’s hand lets go and smooths over his scalp before letting him go. Adam giggles as he pulls away, and Nigel is shaking his head. “Nobody would pay to see me dance naked, that I promise you,” he’s muttering under his breath, apparently more to himself than to Adam. Then he says, a little louder, “Okay, look sharp. This is where we keep the ones they do pay to see dance naked.”

He raps on the plain set of double doors at the end of the hallway. There’s a strain of downtempo, sinuously thumping music emanating from inside, and there is a pause, then a thump, and then a woman’s voice yells, “Come in!” Nigel swings open the door.

Adam peers in, and his first thought is that it looks like, well, a gym. There are large mats stacked along one side of the room, and smaller ones scattered over the floor. A few metal racks hold large, brightly-coloured exercise balls next to an array of weights and large rubber bands.

The only features of the room that make it look like anything other than a smallish gym are the floor-to ceiling poles; eight of them in total, two that have some sort of special mat with a hole in the middle stacked underneath. Adam follows their lines up to the ceiling, and notices that evenly spaced between each pole there is a heavy-duty looking clip dangling down from the reinforced beams of the ceiling.

There are three women and one man in the room; two women are standing together beside one of the poles with the mats underneath. They’re both slightly sweaty, and one is fixing her long hair back up into a ponytail that’s more a rat’s nest of tangles than anything else. Another woman is standing off to the side holding what looks like a thick hula hoop wrapped entirely in white hockey tape, and the man is on his back on top of a thin mat. He sits up as Adam and Nigel enter.

“This is the training room,” says Nigel, and the woman with the hoop grins and waves. Adam recognizes her; she’s the one who had let him in, the first day he’d found Nigel here. “This is where the magic happens!” she says, and Nigel points to her: “That’s Olga,” he says, “Angela and Autumn–” pointing to the two by the pole– “and Danny.” Danny waves for a moment before a timer beeps on his phone, and he immediately goes back to an exercise that looks like some terrifying variation on a sit-up.

Autumn is stalking towards them. She’s wearing what looks like a pair of black underwear with cutouts over the actual cheeks of her ass and a matching bra with complicated straps around her shoulders, but somehow the effect reminds Adam more of a competitive swimmer than what he would imagine a stripper to look like.

“Ooh,” she says. She’s looking at Nigel, but she glances sidelong at Adam when she says, “Who’s your new friend?”

Nigel shoves her shoulder roughly, playfully, and Adam has a moment of ridiculous jealously. That’s just how he is, he reminds himself. Nigel touches everyone. And now he’s going to touch you less than other people, because you made him ask. Stupid.

That entire chain of reasoning is rapidly spiralling out of control, but Adam is brought back to the present by the conversation going on around him.

“Adam is going to be working in the office, Nigel says emphatically. “Doing– nerd shit.”

“We’ll get him in here eventually,” calls Autumn, wandering away and towards one of the poles. She bends over– giving Adam and Nigel a view that presumably other people pay a lot of money for– and pulls what looks like a small pin out of the ground, placing it on the windowsill.

Then she runs full-tilt back towards the pole, and in the moment that it looks inevitable that she’ll crash into it, launches herself into the air and catches the thing halfway up. There’s a creak as it starts spinning, first slowly as she splays her legs out in another presumably expensive view, then faster as she pulls in, holding herself nearly flush with it but climbing slowly up hand-over-hand as it spins her faster and faster.

Adam knows he must be staring, but so is everyone else; Nigel chuckling softly when Adam audibly gasps when Autumn somehow rotates her entire body around like a cartwheel in the air using nothing but the still-spinning pole for leverage.

“Yeah,” says Danny who has finished his set and is sitting up, “We’ll start you off easier than that, Adam. She’s a national champion. You’ll get there.”

Adam has no idea what that’s supposed to mean, but it makes Danny grin when he squeaks out, “Okay?”

Olga is dragging a ladder out from the corner, and Adam kind of wants to see what she’s planning on doing with it, but Nigel is retreating back through the door, beckoning for Adam to follow him. He waves at the dancers in the room, and Danny calls to them, “See you soon, Adam!”

They’re in the cavernous main entertainment room, Nigel showing him the seating options and the bar, by the time Adam has arranged his thoughts enough to say, “National champion?”

“What?”

“What’s she a national champion of?” Adam asks.

“Pole dancing,” says Nigel, and it must be in response to Adam’s expression that he says, “Look, I just sign the paycheques around here. Don’t get it into your head that I actually control what goes on out on the stage. Most of the motherfuckers that come here couldn’t care less if they’re watching a national champion dance or someone off the street who happens to be willing to hump a pole for cash. But the girls wanted a training room, so they got a training room, and then it…” he waves his hand. “Got out of control. Some of the shit they do on that thing, I swear to god they should be in the Olympics. Who am I to fuckin’ stop them.”

“So… you ended up running an elite athletic training facility by accident,” Adam muses.

Nigel chuckles. “Pretty much. I’m not that much of a fucking pushover in all aspects of the business, I promise you.”

There is a pause while Adam decides. He could simply not ask, and Nigel would probably keep him right out of it.

But for some reason, he doesn’t want to. He wants to know more about this strange, incongruous life that Nigel has built for himself out of such wildly opposing parts.

“Okay,” he says. “Show me the rest of it.”

Chapter 7

“You’re kidd–” Adam stops himself. It doesn’t sound quite strong enough. “You’re fucking kidding me,” he amends.

Nigel scrubs at his hair. He has the decency to not quite meet Adam’s eyes. “Yeah,” he says. “I mean, no. Not fucking kidding.”

Adam pulls on one of the many filing cabinet drawers labelled “payroll,” at random. He picks one timesheet out at random. “This is from 1999,” he points out.

“Yeah,” says Nigel, “I mean, we have to keep all that shit. We’re a law-abiding business. Could get audited.”
“So you keep the law-abiding paperwork in the cabinets on this side of the room,” says Adam, “And the other stuff on the other side.” he gestures to the other side of the cramped basement room, where sure enough, the array of filing cabinets are dusty black instead of dusty grey. “And you do all the calculations by hand, and sign every single cheque yourself, on both sides.”

“Yeah.”

“You realize there’s software that can do that for you, right? At least for the legal stuff.”

Nigel shrugs. “There wasn’t when I started out pushing drugs in a club in Bucharest.”

Adam files that away: Bucharest. A place to run a search on later, look up if there are any strip clubs there that are older than Beth.

“Okay,” says Adam. “This isn’t my area of expertise, but I can do it for you.” He looks up at Nigel, suddenly wondering if that’s even allowed. He’s asking, after all, for all of the information on the strip club both as legitimate business and as centre of operations for what appears to be a cocaine importation business.

He could, Adam is dimly aware, take all of this to the police. Even with what he knows now, it would probably be enough for a warrant, and he could tell them exactly where to find the (meticulous, as promised) records of every felony Nigel has ever committed. Well, at least the ones in the U.S.

He isn’t going to. He’s decided that much already, and he nearly reels with the realization of it: if you’d asked him a week ago if he would willingly work for a man like Nigel, expose himself to legal risk for his sake, Adam would have said absolutely not.

He could, if he were better at lying, convince himself that it’s because he’s Beth’s dad. It’s normal to do favours for the family members of the person you’re dating, after all. It would be normal to want to prevent Nigel from going to jail for Beth’s sake.

That isn’t why he’s doing it. Adam is a terrible liar, even to himself.

He’s doing it because he wants to. He wants to spend more time with Nigel, wants to know his secrets, wants Nigel to come to him with things he can’t tell anyone else. Things he can’t tell Beth, his mind whispers.

Nigel reaches up and scrubs at his hair worriedly, and Adam watches the thin blond strands stick up and then droop down slowly. “I’m not that great with computers,” he says.

Adam waves his hand around the room. “If you can keep this place running like this,” he says, “You’ll be able to learn to use payroll software. I promise.”

“Okay,” says Nigel. “And… the rest of it?”

Adam shrugs. “Depends on your needs,” he says. “I get that you need to keep records, but… is it really such a good idea to keep it in filing cabinets? Kind of hard to slip into your pocket and run with, if the police descend on you one night.”

Nigel’s mouth twitches. “Shit, kid,” he says, “I’ve made a criminal mind of you already.”

“Maybe,” says Adam, and smiles. It shouldn’t feel good, to have Nigel talk about him that way. “But I’m right.”

“Yeah, you are. But aren’t there– I don’t know, ways of police getting to shit on computers, too?”

“Absolutely,” says Adam. He sinks down into a chair, drumming his fingers against his knees, and Nigel leans against the wall opposite. “I need to know more about the business,” says Adam, “So we can draft a security protocol.”

*

Within a few hours, Adam is entirely immersed in the “other stuff” side of the room– records of the drug trade in the strip club going back more than twenty years. He’d thought it would be disturbing, but it’s fascinating; and every time he asks Nigel a question, Nigel seems more and more eager to explain. They’d hammered out a basic plan for record-keeping: two copies of the data, one in a hidden safe in the club and one in a safety-deposit box that Nigel, apparently, has under a false name. Now Adam needs to teach Nigel how to use the electronic record-keeping without exposing himself to unnecessary risks, which might necessitate upgrading the computer system.

He’d started out trawling through the records purely to get a sense of what kinds of data he’ll be working with, but by this point, he’s just gawking. Adam pulls a piece of paper out of a cabinet, asks Nigel to explain it, and inevitably it touches off a story so bizarre and outlandish that at one point he wonders if Nigel is making them up.

“Are you making these stories up, Nigel?” he asks.

“No,” laughs Nigel. “No, I don’t need to make any more of this shit up. There’s plenty of it that’s real.”

Adam swallows. He believes Nigel, and maybe it doesn’t say good things about his intellect that he’s willing to believe someone whose crimes he is holding evidence of in his own hands. “I don’t like being lied to,” he says in a rush. “Sometimes people lie and think everyone will know they’re lying, and think it’s funny, but I don’t. I don’t understand jokes like that, and it just upsets me when I find out it was a lie all along.”

Nigel had been sitting slumped against the opposite wall while Adam sits in the records room’s one chair. Now he raises his head from where it had been slouching between his knees, to look Adam in the eye. Adam’s gaze slides away, but that doesn’t seem to bother Nigel; he only wants his face available for inspection, but doesn’t demand it.

“Then I won’t lie to you,” he says. “Ever. Deal?”

Adam swallows. The offer makes him feel warm and comforted, despite the fact that it is realistically unenforceable: the whole point of lying, after all, is that the person being lied to doesn’t know that it’s happening. And…

“You lie to Beth,” he points out.

Nigel’s tongue smooths over his lips, and Adam watches the nervous movement. It leaves Nigel’s mouth pink and shiny.

“I… yeah, I do.” He winces. “I don’t want to, Adam, it makes me feel like shit, but… that’s how lies work, isn’t it? You tell one small harmless one to a five-year-old, and then it blows up in your fucking face until you can’t break yourself free of it.”

“You could tell her.”

“I could.” Nigel straightens his legs, shoes scuffing down the dirty carpet until his legs are splayed out carelessly in front of him. He looks a lot younger, like that. Like he couldn’t possibly be running this entire place. And yet somehow older, and more tired. “God, can you imagine? She’d freak the fuck out. And she’d be right to.”

Adam can imagine. Actually, he doesn’t have to; he’s seen how Beth reacts when Adam says something stupid or thoughtless. And Adam can’t exactly blame Nigel; he’d started lying to Beth for exactly the same reason, after all. Just not wanting to see her upset.

It still doesn’t sit right with him, though. Adam would also freak the fuck out, if he were in Beth’s place, so it’s hard to blame her for the hypothetical.

He’s saved from having to formulate that into a response from a knock on the door. Nigel calls “come in,” and Autumn pokes her head in.

She’s practically transformed from how Adam had seen her that afternoon. Her hair, shaved close to her head on the sides and close to her neck, instead of being pulled up into a bun out of the way, cascades down from a high ponytail in glossy black ringlets. Adam can’t quite describe exactly what she’s done with her makeup, but it strikes him as halfway between war paint and something a clown might wear. When she pushes the door open more fully, he sees that she’s in stocking feet– if the fishnets with holes large enough to put a fist through could qualify as “stockings”– and is carrying shoes that are both platforms and heels at the same time, and must add at least five inches onto her total height, when she puts them on.

“Olga’s admirer is here,” she says to Nigel. “He’s behaving himself, and she didn’t want me to tell you, but–”

“Christ,” says Nigel, hauling himself up and pulling a cell phone out of his pocket. “It’s almost nine. Adam, you should have stopped me boring the shit out of you rambling on about my fucked-up life.”

“I liked it,” says Adam honestly. “I didn’t notice the time.”

Nigel fishes around in his pocket and pulls out his wallet. Adam’s heart pounds, because Nigel did that once, when Adam had ended up here by accident, but he doesn’t know what it’s supposed to mean that now he’s doing it again.

He hands Adam a few bills. Probably more than he really needs to get home. “Take a cab, Nigel instructs. “Wait with Lacey in the lobby for it to arrive. You’ll get to see some of our clientele, but that can’t be helped. Don’t go outside until it gets here.”

“Okay,” says Adam. “Thank you.”

Autumn gives him a look that would be impossible to interpret on a normal face, let alone one painted with that much eyeliner and glitter, and winks. “Good first day at work?” she says.

“Yes.”

“Okay, quit it.” Nigel seems to be addressing Autumn, not him. “I’ll help out on the bar for a while, keep an eye on things.”

Adam waves awkwardly, scurrying off down the hallway with Nigel’s cash clutched in his fist. He thinks to shove it in his pocket before he gets to the side door to the main room, which will take him through to the lobby.

From the other side of the doors, he can hear music so loud that it feels like a physical force. It pulls him up short for a moment: he really, really doesn’t want to go through that door, like every fibre of his being is compelling him to turn around. He could go out the back. He could even walk around to the front of the building, and wait with Lacey just like Nigel had told him. But he knows that isn’t really what Nigel meant. He wanted Adam to stay safe inside the building until he gets in the cab, and Adam has to admit that Nigel probably knows better than he does how to stay safe around here.

So he stuffs both fingers in his hears, ducks his head down, pressed a foot against the door, and makes a beeline across the room.

He has the vague impression of low light, pounding that seems to tear through his chest like a second heartbeat, coloured spotlights illuminating the stage, and not much else. He bursts through the doors to the lobby and immediately bends over his knees like he’s just run a marathon, gasping.

Legs mill around him. “A little early to be that fucked up, don’t you think?” he hears a male voice chuckle, and he pulls his phone out of his pocket to summon a rideshare, hoping to be out of this lobby as fast as possible. He’s still slightly hunched over into his phone when he hears Lacey saying, “What the– oh, you’re Nigel’s new obsession. Hey, you okay?”

He straightens up. She’s in the little ticket booth, and there’s an extra seat behind the window that she’s beckoning to. Adam straightens up, nods, and slides in. Behind the glass, the noises of the chaotic lobby and the pounding of the music through the wall is muted. The next man in line steps up and says “member,” sliding a card into the tray under the glass. His voice sounds amplified in the small room. Lacey scans it, gives him a winsome smile as she says ‘Thank you!” and slides it back.

“Sorry,” Adam says. “It was just loud.” He thinks back to Autumn, carrying her enormous heels around backstage, and wonders if the noise bothers the dancers, too. Or perhaps it’s just him, and everyone else like it just fine. After all, people are paying to go in there.

“Oh!” says Lacey. “I’m surprised Nigel didn’t tell you already. If you’re going to be spending much time in the bar room– wait, what’s your name?”

“Adam.”

“He must want to hide you away in the back. Are you going to be bartending at all?”

“Er,” says Adam, mind racing. They hadn’t discussed that as part of his duties, but then, it seems like even Nigel bartends sometimes. Perhaps it was just assumed. He feels slightly queasy.

“Okay, clearly you’re not,” she says, and laughs, and Adam is too relieved to wonder why suddenly that’s so obvious. “Which is why he didn’t offer. But still– Nigel insistes every employee has a customized earplug fitting, all costs paid. You have to go to this fancy clinic to get your hearing tested and have them made for you, but they’re awesome. They’re vented so they don’t make you feel, you know–” she scrunches her nose up– “stuffed up.”

Lacey tilts her head and taps her own ear, and Adam can see a small piece of pink plastic in her ear; he wouldn’t have noticed it if he weren’t looking. “And they come with filters so you can block out loud noises but not normal conversation,” she says. “Anyway, if you’re going to dance or bartend, Nigel will send you to get some. Don’t worry, you’re not the only one who can’t stand it in there. I don’t know why people pay to be deafened, personally.”

“I don’t know either,” Adam says.

Lacey shrugs. “People are a mystery,” she says. “Maybe they all hate it, and are just tolerating the atmosphere for the privilege of seeing our hot asses.” Her teeth flash as she sends him a grin while sliding a ticket under the glass to the next customer.

“Probably,” says Adam. He feels more cheerful, suddenly, knowing that all the dancers in there are wearing earplugs. Like it’s a secret he’s in on, and he’s not so odd after all. Perhaps he’ll get some earplugs, and will be able to brave the room after all. Considering what Autumn had done in the training room, he thinks he’d like to see her perform.

His phone buzzes, and Adam jumps up. “My ride is here,” he says. “Thank you for letting me sit with you.”

Lacey waves at him as he fights his way out the front door, and Adam collapses into the back of the rideshare car.

They pull away from the club, and Adam stares through the window looking back at it.

He realizes he hadn’t even asked what time he should show up tomorrow. Somehow, he no longer feels all that anxious about it.

Chapter 8

It’s not like Adam isn’t used to lying awake.

He usually sleeps fine, except when he doesn’t. It used to take hours to get to sleep when he was in high school, replaying every social interaction in his head, wondering how he could have done better. After Dad died, he’d lay awake every night for nearly a month, desperately trying to stop thinking about what his body looked like. How quickly it was decomposing in its coffin, if the wooden box had yet collapsed in on him and buried him in dirt. He’d wished he could cut those thoughts out of his own mind with a knife, but he’d laid in the dark anyway, still, because it’s what his dad would have told him to do. Sometimes it can be hard to get to sleep when you’re overwhelmed, he’d told Adam over and over when he was alive. But even if your mind won’t go to sleep, you can at least rest your body. Just lie quietly and rest your body, Adam.

So Adam does, he lies in bed with the bass thrum of the nightclub still seemingly pounding in his ears even though he knows he wasn’t in the room long enough to sustain any actual hearing damage. He lies in the dark and instead of picturing his father’s decomposing corpse, he pictures Nigel. Nigel leaning easily against the wall across the room from him, Nigel grabbing his shoulders and putting a hand in his hair, Nigel touching his fingers to Adam’s lips.

Only now he isn’t resting his body, because it feels like there’s an electrical current thrumming through him, and despite the fact that it’s two and a half hours past his usual bedtime, he’s never felt so awake in his life.

Adam sits up. He is alone in his apartment. He’s seen Nigel’s payroll, and at some point during their discussion of Nigel’s business, Nigel had slipped in casually the amount he was planning on paying Adam. It’s enough. It’s more than enough for him to keep the apartment, and comfortably. The apartment he and Dad had shared, but his, belonging to Adam alone, paid for with his own money.

He wants to go for a walk.

It’s not the right time for a walk, it’s bedtime, and Adam has no plans to give up his habits and routines any time soon. But whatever the reason, right now he wants to go outside, and he is alone. Perhaps the only upside to being alone is that he can do whatever he wants.

He pulls on running shoes and a jacket; it’s getting cooler at night, and it’s nearly one in the morning. Nevertheless, the ambient light of the city rises above him and cars drive noisily down the street. He realizes that he’s stopped hearing the traffic, even though it’s audible from his bedroom. It’s simply an unchangeable part of his existence.

Nigel feels like that, now, after less than a week. Like Adam has always evaluated his sentences before saying them to see if he can find a place to put the word fucking, just to make him smile.

Adam’s feet carry him to Central Park, to where he’s taken Beth to see the raccoons, that night early on. He’s hoping to see the raccoons, and so preoccupied staring into the bushes that he fails to notice someone sitting on the bench.

“Adam!”

He whirls around– and it is, of course, Beth, sitting in the spot he had showed her, waiting for his raccoons to come out, under a clear sky that he still hasn’t taught her nearly enough about.

“Beth!” he says. He really has no idea if he’s pleased to see her or not, even though she’s his girlfriend so really he probably should be pleased. He sits down beside her. “I haven’t seen you in a long time,” he says.

“Yeah.” Beth’s voice is quiet and brittle. “Well, I guess that’s what happens.”

That’s the sort of statement that Adam is well aware he’s better off avoiding attempting to interpret altogether. It makes no sense to him, but clearly is extremely meaningful to her. “Have they been out?” he asks, gesturing to the bushes.

Beth swallows. “Not yet,” she says, a little more clearly. “Maybe they were waiting for you?”

“Raccoons are very intelligent animals, and probably could be trained to recognize specific humans if given sufficient motivation. But since I don’t feed them, I don’t think they would have any particular associations with me.”

“Maybe you should feed them.” Beth smiles a little, but not enough to definitively indicate that it’s a joke. Besides, plenty of people do feed wildlife.

“They have no trouble feeding themselves,” says Adam. “It wouldn’t be good for them, to try to make them reliant on me. Or any human.”

The ambient noises of the city and the park press in on them, a type of silence more soothing than actual silence. Adam thinks about it, and decides he is glad that he found Beth here.

“Self-reliant,” Beth says finally. “Like you?”

Adam frowns. “Not really,” he says. “I rely on a complex structure of routines and supports, as well as the larger context of society at large. Same as they do, I suppose. They don’t forage in the park; these–” he pauses, watches as a raccoon finally waddles out of the bush. “These fuckers,” he inserts, “overturn garbage cans for food. So they rely on human society, too.”

Beth looks at him oddly, and his face feels warm. “You never swore before,” she says. “I’d say that Daddy’s rubbing off on you, but he always said he’s not allowed to talk that way at the office, so he had to let it all out at home.”

Adam’s mouth feels dry. He watches as the raccoon, evidently a mother, is joined haltingly by three kits following curiously behind her. She leads them in trundling across the pathway and into the trees behind Adam and Beth’s bench.

“I’m cold,” says Beth. “I’m going home.”

Adam stands up with her, even though what she’d said technically wasn’t an invitation for him to accompany her. He wants to go home too, now; the thrumming energy he’d felt as he lay in bed has dissipated into bone-deep tiredness.

They walk in silence, and Adam looks up at the sky as they wait to cross the street. He hadn’t told her anything about tonight’s sky, but then, Beth hadn’t asked. He has learned that sometimes it’s better to wait to be asked.

They stop outside the entrance to his apartment, and Adam turns to face her. He should kiss her; this was a date, or something like one, and that is what’s done. She’s still his girlfriend.

But when they draw up, he finds that she is too far away to easily lean in and kiss, and he feels held back somehow. Like there’s a much larger space in between them to step across than the few small feet that there really is.

“It was nice seeing you,” he says instead, which is true. “ We should go there again, but earlier in the night. It was past my bedtime, tonight, and I don’t usually feel like going out walking this late.”

“Okay,” says Beth quietly. “Yeah, maybe that would be a good idea. Make a go of being…” she sighs. “I don’t know.”

Beth looks strangely, indescribably sad, but it is nearly two in the morning, and Adam has to admit to himself that not only does he not know how to respond to it, he’s nearly too tired to care. He feels a small clench of guilt at that, because that’s not how good boyfriends are supposed to feel, but he’s too tired for much guilt, either.

“Goodnight, Beth,” he says instead, and closes the door as she heads to the stairs.

Adam sleeps well after that.

He wakes with his alarm, like every morning, and takes a cab to the club. He can afford it, and Nigel seems to like it when he takes cabs. He enters by the back door– Nigel had given him a swipe card, and instructed him to only use it during daylight hours– and heads to the office.

Nigel isn’t there.

Of course he isn’t there. Adam checks his phone, and winces; it’s nine-thirty in the morning, and Nigel had said that he often doesn’t get to the club until after noon. It’s not surprising; he’d probably stayed very late last night, even later than Adam was up.

He pulls nervously on the office door. It’s locked, and he has no idea if he’s actually allowed in Nigel’s office without him anyway. Perhaps he could try the records room, but it’s sure to be locked; and if it isn’t he’ll need to have a serious word with Nigel about that.

He’s on his way down the stairs when he hears the back door bang shut behind someone else and some loud, off-key humming. “Adam!” Autumn yells, and he turns to look at her as she pulls her headphones out.

“Hi,” he says. It shouldn’t floor him how much different she looks from her dance persona, but it does. She’s bundled up against the cold, and carrying a beaten-up old backpack as well as a gym bag. She’s wearing the stiff dark blue pants that Adam most associates with nurses, with greying running shoes underneath.

“Here to train?” she asks.

“I’m here to continue my updating of your office systems,” Adam says. “But Nigel isn’t here yet.”

“I know,” she laughs, and crooks a finger in his direction. “Ya screwed up, kid. Nigel isn’t here to save you, and now you’re going to have to get on a pole. Come on.”

She stuffs the headphones in her bag, and heads off down the hallway. She disappears for a moment, then sticks her head back to the top of the stairwell when Adam doesn’t immediately follow.

“Your safeword is ‘meathead,’” she says, “If you really don’t want to. But at least come have a go.”

She sets off towards the training room, and this time Adam follows, trying to process the idea that he now has a pole dancing safeword.

Autumn flicks on the lights in the training room, then adjusts the dimmer to a soft glow instead of the full glare they’re capable of. She dumps both bags on the floor in the corner, then reaches into the gym bag, turns to the wall and easily sloughs off her pants to pull on a pair of tiny spandex shorts. Underneath her jacket she’s already wearing a tank top that exposes bruises on her inner arms, which Adam is staring at when she turns around.

“The chivalrous thing to do is look away,” she says, but she’s smiling.

“Why?”

“Don’t really know. Seems kind of superfluous to insist that you can’t see my underwear.”

“Sorry,” says Adam, feeling wrong-footed and awkward. “I didn’t realize. I thought–”

“Hey,” Autumn interrupts. “I was just kidding, okay?”

Adam breathes a long breath out. “Okay,” he mutters.

Autumn nods, like he’s confirmed some suspicion of hers. “You’re not into the kidding. I get it.”

Adam finally, hesitantly takes his jacket off, and drops it on the floor next to Autumn’s stuff. It feels too easy: first Nigel, now Autumn just saying it’s okay. No lies. No kidding. Like they can just promise that.

It makes him want to push back, expose what must be the catch beneath it all. There’s always a catch. Better to find it now, than later.

“I have Asperger syndrome,” he says, a little too loudly for the echoey room. “It’s a form of autism that means I have trouble with nonverbal communication.”

Autumn grabs hold of one of the poles with both hands, letting her legs bed to stretch out her shoulders. “I thought maybe you did,” she says. “I don’t like to pigeonhole people if they don’t want to tell me. But my sister is autistic too, though she’s only ten, so we stopped using the Asperger’s label pretty much as soon as it was removed from the DSM.”

Adam blinks. “Well, that’s the label I grew up with,” he says. “Nigel keeps calling me ‘kid,’ but I’m nearly thirty years old. I don’t want to change it now. And people know what it means when I say it.”

“Not saying you should. Just saying you should tell me if I fuck up and make a dumb joke at you. Okay, take off your shoes and socks and come here.”

Adam bends down to untie his laces, and feels pathetically grateful for the small moment he’s able to entirely hide his face in his knee. He’s glad he said it, but now he feels like he’s waiting for the other shoe to drop. Autumn treated it nearly like he’d said nothing at all. Like it wouldn’t have mattered if he hadn’t.

He’s not at all sure whether he had been hoping that an abrupt termination of their friendship would at least get him out of… whatever this is going to be.

He leaves his socks stuffed inside his shoes, staring at how his feet look long and pale and awkward in comparison to hers. When he finally manages to lift his gaze from her red toenail polish and callused heels, Autumn is grinning and gesturing him towards the pole she was just on.

“You don’t need to look like it’s going to bite you,” she laughs when he steps toward it hesitantly. “Okay, we’re breaking the seal. Look. Just grab onto it with one hand and walk around it, to start.”

It shouldn’t be a difficult assignment, but when Autumn grabs onto a nearby pole and demonstrates, the way she walks looks so far away from how any normal person walks that it stops him in his tracks; she seems to float, her toes pointing and flexing as they whisper gracefully across the floor.

“Not like me,” she says. “Just walk like you walk, Adam.”

So Adam grabs onto the brass with his right hand, a little over his head, and walks. It had been a ridiculous thing to expect, that he would touch a pole once and immediately feel like a stripper, and something in him relaxes as he circles around the thing over and over without Autumn giving any further instructions.

It’s nice, actually; repetitive, like tapping his thighs, like counting prime numbers. Soothing. He starts putting a little more weight on the hand that’s holding onto the pole, allowing his body to swing slightly away on every step and the arm on the pole pull him in. It feels good. He counts out ten full circles around the pole, then swivels and grabs it with the other hand, walking the other way, and prays Autumn doesn’t comment.

“Do you like shit to be symmetrical?” she asks, and Adam cringes.

“Yes,” he says. “Sorry.”

“You’ll be great at this,” she says. “It’s ideal to learn every skill on both sides of your body, but most people favour their stronger side and put off working their weaker. Having a markedly stronger side leads to injuries, though, and it’s less convenient for choreography to always have to line up moves that fit together on your one good side. If you do the same number of repetitions of everything you learn, symmetrically, you’ll be the envy of everyone here.”

Adam finishes his ten circles of the pole on the other side, and as much as he needs to feel the symmetry to avoid going crazy with the feeling of being unbalanced, he does feel the awkwardness that Autumn must be referring to. Odd, how something as simple as walking in a circle should have a better side. Still, the idea that he actually has an advantage latches on somewhere in his mind, and he feels lighter by the time he completes ten full circles.

“Okay,” says Autumn. “We’re going to learn a spin. Start walking again– don’t worry, you’ll do it on both sides.”

Adam goes back to his first side, and Autumn talks him through putting his other hand on the pole, then using his slight forward momentum to take his legs off the ground, arrange both his knees at a right-angle, and let the pole spin him around until he lands sitting on the ground. It looks easy when Autumn does it, and feels terrible awkward when Adam does it, but after a few turns he finds himself walking faster on the entry and even pushing a little with his foot before taking his legs of the ground; wanting to go faster, get in more rotations before he ends up.

He does it on the other side, with Autumn looking on critically, and then she teaches him how to grip the pole with his arm around it and do crunches. He’s sweating by the time he’s done five on each side, and Autumn is practically gleeful.

“That’s the grip you’re going to need to remember to invert, soon,” she says. “Get upside down on the pole.”

That seems unlikely, but then, all of this seems equally unlikely, so Adam doesn’t comment on that. “This is really hard,” he says instead.

“Don’t sound so surprised.”

“I’m not surprised. I’m just saying that it’s hard.”

“Oh,” says Autumn. “In that case, you’re right.” She hands him a spray bottle that smells of alcohol and a folded-up washcloth. “I think you’ve had enough for today. Clean off your pole with that.”

Adam cleans the pole, and then puts his socks and shoes back on. Autumn begins her own training as he does, lifting herself from standing on the floor to upside down on the pole several times on– as promised– each side of her body.

“Thanks,” says Adam. He feels tired, and slightly nauseous, but pleased. “That looks amazing. You’re amazing.”

Autumn hops down. She’s breathing a little bit hard. “Thanks,” she says. “it’s nice to be appreciated. That’s pretty much what tonight is for, anyway.”

“What’s tonight?”

“Women and Queer Night. Every Tuesday. The only cis men allowed in the club are by invitation or in the company of someone who is allowed in. It’s basically an excuse to kick all our regulars out and invite our friends instead. And families, if they’re…” Autumn trails, off, shrugs. “You know.”

“If they’re what?”

“Not going to disown you for having a female body that’s allowed to be read as sexual?”

Adam bites his lip. It’s pretty clear she’s angry, but it doesn’t seem to be at him. “Are your family going to disown you?” he says.

She grimaces, and bends down with one hand on the ground and one on the pole. “They don’t know yet,” she says. “So I don’t know.”

“Didn’t you win a national championship?”

“Yeah.” Her voice is only slightly strained as she lifts her legs off the ground into a handstand, her limbs somehow seeing much longer upside-down than they were when she was standing.

“Your family should be proud of you,” he says.

She hitches her ankles together around the pole, and somehow ends up sitting on it, upright, gripping it with her thighs. “Yeah,” she says. “I’m just being a weenie, I guess. I mean, they were proud of me at my white coat ceremony. Somehow I doubt this is going to make a bigger impression.”

“You’re a doctor?” Adam asks.

“I’m a surgical resident. My dad told me that was all he ever hoped for from me. Not sure how that bodes on his end.”

“My dad’s dead. No matter what I do, he’ll never be proud or disappointed again,” says Adam.

There’s a long pause. “Well, shit,” says Autumn.

“I’m not too sad about it any more,” clarifies Adam. “Sometimes I am, but usually when I’m alone. And not right now.”

“Well, we’ll have to get you up on stage some time, then,” grins Autumn.

Adam has absolutely no idea what to say to that. He does have a pole dancing safeword, after all.

The door clicks open, and Nigel’s face pokes in. He’s scowling. “Adam,” he says. “We need to fucking talk.”

Chapter 9

Nigel scrubs his hands through his hair like it needs a wash. It probably does, and in fact Nigel rather looks like he needs a shave and a good nights’ sleep to boot, but this doesn’t seem like the time to mention that.

Adam is sitting on the chair across from Nigel’s desk in his office. He’d figured Nigel would sit at the desk, but Nigel had jumped up and started pacing pretty much as soon as Adam had sat down.

“I’m just,” says Nigel, “Trying really fucking hard to act rational here, okay?”

“Okay,” says Adam. Rational is good. He would much rather that Nigel be rational than, well, anything else. He isn’t sure why this is coming up in conversation now.

“And you’re making it kind of fucking hard.”

“What?”

Nigel squeezes his eyes shut. “No. Sorry. It’s not you, okay, Adam? It’s not your fault I’m a pervert who can’t keep his own brain in line.”

“I don’t think you’re a pervert, Nigel,” says Adam slowly. “Even if you run a strip club. After all, you’d agree it’s completely acceptable to want to go to a strip club, so it must also be acceptable to want to own one. And I understand not being able to keep your brain in line. I have trouble with that too.”

“Great,” Nigel chuckles, but it’s a short, despairing kind of laugh. He throws himself down on the desk chair. “I just want you to know,” he says, “That you breaking up with Beth is none of my goddamn business, and it has nothing to do with me, and doesn’t affect our work together, and in fact I’ve already fucking forgotten about it, is how little I plan on thinking about it. Okay?”

It takes Adam a minute to wade through that sentence. Particularly the bit where Nigel claims to have already forgotten about the subject that he appears to be attempting to initiate a conversation about, which Adam can only figure must be in some way untrue, and finally he manages to sort through all of the contractions and pieces of irrationality and says, “I haven’t broken up with Beth?”

He meant it as a statement, but when it emerges in the stale air of the office, it sounds like a question.

Nigel just stares at him, apparently needing as long to process what Adam’s said as Adam did for him.

“What the fuck?” he says eventually.

“I haven’t broken up with her,” Adam says, but his voice is weaker, less sure of himself. His mind races, trying to play a movie in his mind of the events of the previous night. He’s entirely certain that at no point had he said Beth, I am breaking up with you. He would have remembered that. He’s relatively sure that he hadn’t even said anything close to that. But the more he replays their final conversation on his doorstep, the more he gets the awful creeping, sinking feeling of having missed something in a conversation, and not even noticed. Make a go of being… I don’t know, Beth had said. Adam hadn’t bothered thinking about that sentence, because she’d said I don’t know which usually means that the statement is meaningless, doesn’t it, that’s the whole point, but he still has no idea how to account for what she’d said, and now Nigel thinks that he broke up with her, and Adam feels like he’s floating through space without so much as a tether to reality to hold on to.

“Did she… tell you that I broke up with her?” he asks finally. Perhaps, if he asks the right questions, he can figure out what happened from the other way around. Like troubleshooting an electronic system; testing each piece individually, narrowing in on the bug and fixing it. He can figure out what happened here and fix it, too.

“Called me in tears at two in the morning,” says Nigel. “Had to run out into the fucking alley so she wouldn’t hear the music from the club and ask where I was.”

So Beth had gone home from their walk, called Nigel, and told him that Adam had broken up with her. Adm twists his hands around each other, digging his nails into the flesh and trying to get a hold on his thoughts, which seemed to be slipping through his fingers like water.

Beth had heard something in their conversation, or seen something in him, that made her think he was breaking up with her. The familiar nausea at being misunderstood, at the idea that what he thinks he’s telling the world could be completely wrong, settles in the pit of Adam’s stomach. He had tried so damn hard to be normal for Beth. And in the end, it hadn’t worked.

He should feel even worse at the fact that not only was he completely misunderstood, he’d accidentally broken up with his girlfriend. Oddly, he doesn’t. When he thinks about the fact that, in Beth’s mind, they’re no longer together, the nausea actually lightens, recedes. Perhaps it’s better. If he can’t even convince her that he’s still her boyfriend, maybe it would be easier not to have to convince her of anything at all. Especially now that he knows Nigel’s secret.

Yes, it’s better. Adam knows that if he’d kept seeing Beth, eventually he would let Nigel’s secret slip. He wouldn’t mean to; it would just happen, like breaking up with Beth just happened.

“I mean,” Nigel says, breaking into Adam’s thoughts, “You’d barely seen her for weeks, right? Were you hoping it’d be better for her if you fucking ghosted her before breaking up with her? “Cause I don’t think that made it better, Adam.”

“No!” Adam bursts out. “I had barely seen her because I was trying to keep a secret from her, and I hate keeping secrets!” His voice cracks in a way he immediately wishes he could take back, when he says again, “I hate it!”

He realizes that there are tears threatening to burst from his eyes, and he’s twisting his hands together so hard his joints ache. He wants to slide to the floor and curl up into a ball where Nigel can’t look at him any more, or just disappear. Perhaps that would be better for Nigel, too. He squeezes his eyes shut and tries to ignore that fact that he is still there, and the room is pressing in on him like an itchy fabric.

Vaguely, he hears rustling on the other side of the desk, and Nigel muttering. It’s a moment before Adam realizes it’s directed at him: “Adam? Adam, can you fucking hear me, kid?”

He nods tightly. “Sorry,” he whispers. It’s not enough, probably, but it’s what he can do right now.

“Can I…” Nigel sentence trails off, and Adam opens his eyes to see Nigel standing in front of him. He’s about an arm’s length away; exactly an arms’ length away, in fact, since he’s stretching out a hand that is almost, but not quite, touching Adam’s shoulder.

He moves towards Nigel like there isn’t any conscious thought involved in it, like it’s just giving into gravity when he suddenly finds himself with Nigel’s arms wrapped around his shoulders. He’s leaning forward from his chair, and his face is about level with the bottom of Nigel’s ribs, so he turns his face slightly down and finds his nose pressed into his stomach. Nigel smells like cigarette smoke mostly, a little tang of sweat, but his shirt is clean and very soft and Adam finds himself rubbing his eyelids on the fabric minutely, feeling it on his softest skin. One big hand slides up his back to cup his head, holding him there, and he burrows further into Nigel’s stomach.

It feels like an eternity that he lives there, his heartbeat gradually slowing, the world coming back into focus. When it does, he realizes that he’s left a patch of unshed tears on Nigel’s shirt, dark and obvious on the light grey cotton.

“Sorry,” he says again, and it sounds stronger this time. He tries to pull away, not with any particular amount of force, and Nigel lets him go enough that his face is no longer pressed up against Nigel’s stomach, but keeps a hand on his head.

He looks up, and finds that Nigel is looking up, too, staring somewhere in the vicinity of the light fixture. That suits Adam just fine, though he’s aware that when other people avoid eye contact, there’s usually a reason for it.

“Shit,” mutters Nigel, and Adam can feel it rumbling through his body more than he can hear it. “This was… what I didn’t want.”

Adam flinches, and Nigel’s hands immediately tighten on his head and shoulder. “You didn’t do anything wrong, Adam,” he says. “okay, I’m just pissed of at myself, as per usual, because I’m a fucking idiot, but you– you’re perfect, okay?”

“Okay,” says Adam, even though he has no idea what that even means and nobody is perfect, anyway, that doesn’t even make any sense. He pulls himself closer to Nigel again, because the warmth of his belly and the soothing pressure of his hands on Adam’s head feel like the only thing he knows how to deal with right now, and Nigel lets him.

He breathes in Nigel, and when he thinks about accidentally breaking up with Beth, it no longer hurts very much.

They disentangle slowly, Nigel petting his hair softly before leaning back to brace himself against his own desk. Finally he says, “You’re going to stay friends with her, right, Adam? Shit, I couldn’t live with myself if I somehow…” he shakes his head. “Look, I know fuck-all about relationships, but I do know that having an ex who hates your guts can really fuck up your life. Not that– she wants to be friends with you, is all.”

Adam considers that for a moment. Being friends with Beth doesn’t sound bad. It sounds easier to keep a secret from a friend than a girlfriend. “I’ll stay friends with her,” he says, and Nigel’s face relaxes.

“Good,” he says.

Nigel doesn’t seem to notice the wet patch of drying tears on his shirt, or if he notices he doesn’t care. Adam wipes the rest off on his hands, and notices they’re slightly stiff from holding onto the pole that morning. It feels strangely good, despite it technically being pain. It feels like something else.

He ends up back down in the records room for the rest of the afternoon. Nigel unlocks the door for him and trails a hand across the back of his shoulders as Adam enters the room. He hadn’t asked, but it almost feels like just a continuation of the earlier physical contact. Or maybe he wouldn’t mind, if Nigel did it again without asking.

Alone in the records room, Adam opens his laptop and starts sorting through transaction records of illegal business, inputting them into the prototype of the secure program he’s building for Nigel. It should be scary, but it’s soothing, strangely, to know that criminal activity is just like any other business. Just numbers and dates that need to be stored, and kept away from prying eyes.

By the time it’s getting on suppertime, whenever he thinks about accidentally breaking up with Beth, it makes him feel lighter. It reminds him of pressing his face into Nigel’s shirt and leaving a patch of tears on him, and he has no idea how to feel about that, besides that he wants to see Nigel again.

He puts everything away, pulls the flash drive he storing the data out of his laptop and ascends the stairs. He needs to see Nigel again at least to give him the drive for safekeeping during the night, and he wonders if maybe there’s some other excuse he can come up with to stay later.

He finds Angela and Danny leaning against the doorway to Nigel’s office. Danny grins at him as he enters. “Autumn said she got you on a pole this morning!” he crows.

Adam smiles, and it comes out wider than he intended. “Yeah,” he admits.

“You coming tonight, then?” says Angela. “See some real pole dancing? The music’s quieter than usual, too.”

Adam hesitates. “I haven’t been invited,” he says. “Autumn said it was for–”

“You’re invited now,” says Angela. “Coming?”

Adam glances at Nigel.

“It’s the best show of the week,” says Nigel. “I’ll find you some earplugs and somewhere cozy to sit.”

Adam hesitates. He doesn’t ask the question he wants to ask, but somehow Nigel hears it anyway.

“With me,” Nigel adds.

“Okay,” says Adam. “I’ll come.”

Chapter 10

“Open your mouth,” Nigel says. He demonstrates for some reason, as if Adam might not know what an open mouth is. Adam stares, fascinated, at the way his teeth seem slightly cramped together, like there’s too many of them for his face. Well, there probably are, he reminds himself; after all, Adam had had braces as a teen, and he’d had to have a tooth extracted to make room for them all to line up in his mouth. Clearly, Nigel hadn’t. It doesn’t look bad. Just different. Adam wonders what pattern his teeth would make if he bit into soft plaster.

Adam opens his mouth. He can feel the way it does actually seem to open up the insides of his ears a little, leaving more room for the orange foam that he’s squished into a thin line. He feels it expand as he shoves it as deep as possible and then lets it go, expanding with an odd hissing noise.

“Okay?” says Nigel, and Adam nods. The foam plugs don’t feel great, but Nigel has promised to buy him a pair of noise-cancelling earmuffs for next time. And although he should refuse the gift, he didn’t say anything back, and now it’s too late. It feels the same as accepting the bills that Nigel is always handing him at the end of the day for cabs; both wrong and somehow warm and thrilling at the same time.

Adam doesn’t need to be taken care of; he’s fine on his own. It makes no sense that he wants Nigel to buy him things, even things he can afford. It’s greedy. He shoves it out of his mind.

Nigel’s hand is nearly on his lower back, not touching, just hovering. He’s guiding Adam towards the lobby down a side hallway that skirts past the performance hall; from the backstage area behind them, he can still hear the occasional high-pitched shriek of laughter. ‘We’ll go in through the front,” Nigel says, speaking loudly and clearly.

They emerge into the lobby and then enter the main hall through the wide double doors. It’s full, and music pumps out over the chatter of the audience, but as promised, the crowd is different: younger, more female, and gathered together in groups instead of huddled alone and avoiding eye contact.

Adam swallows. He immediately feels out of place, like every head in the audience ought to be swivelling to them to note that he isn’t supposed to be there. He stops walking, and Nigel’s arm hovering around his back accidentally makes contact with the lower curve of his spine.

“Sorry,” says Nigel absent-mindedly, pulling his hand away and looking around. “Over here, okay?”

Adam doesn’t look where he’s pointing, just gravitates backwards towards the warmth of Nigel’s hand. He ends up cradled in the crook of Nigel’s arm, more asking to be ushered forwards than anything else. He’s not sure he can move unless Nigel pushes him a little.

Nigel just glances at his face, then wraps his hand around Adam’s forearm where it hangs down at his side and tugs him forward. Adam feels nearly dizzy with the contact, the dark, the thud of the music through his earplugs, and the feeling of going where Nigel is leading.

Where Nigel is leading is a table that already has three people at it. One of them is a solid-looking man wearing a dark suit. He’s sitting next to Lacey, the dancer with the broken foot, who is resting the bulky boot on the man’s thighs as she leans back against another woman, who is glancing over Lacey’s shoulder at her phone screen. She grins and mouths something into Lacey’s ear, which Adam doesn’t hear.

“Nigel!” the man says, not quite standing, but unfolding as much as the foot on his lap will allow to reach and hand forwards. Nigel lets go of Adam to grasp it, smiling widely, and for a moment Adam feels a stab of panic and wants to turn away, but then the man looks at him, and says, “So this is the sweet thing that’s been distracting you.”

“Shut it, Darko,” says Nigel, and there’s an actual edge of menace to his voice, enough that Lacey’s eyes widen. She and the girl behind her share a significant glance, and Adam feels entirely left in the dust until Darko turns entirely towards Adam. “Well, it’s nice to meet you, then,” he says with a smile that seems to stretch slightly too wide for his face.

Adam holds out his hand. ‘My name is Adam Raki,” he says.

“I’ll be sure to look you up later, then, Mr. Raki, says Darko, subsiding back onto the bench. Nigel has procured two chairs, and gently leads Adam to sit on one of them.

“And this is my girlfriend Clara,” Lacey says, saving her hand at the second woman at the table. Clara has her arm looped around Lacey’s front, and she waves a little at Adam.

“Do you want something to drink, sweetheart?” Nigel says in his ear, and somehow in the dark and the loud music and Lacey using another man as a footrest while her girlfriend is right behind her, it hardly seems odd that Nigel might call him “sweetheart.” That’s probably just how people talk to each other, at events like these.

Adam hesitates. He doesn’t drink much; his dad hadn’t kept any alcohol in the house, and all of the kinds of college events where people tended to drink Adam had discovered quickly were the kind he’d rather steer clear of. The few times he’d gotten properly drunk, he hadn’t thought the feeling was much to write home about, anyway.

On the other hand, having something to hold might be nice. Everyone else has a drink, something to do with their hands, and Adam could use that. “Could I have a gin and tonic?” he asks. Harlan had bought him a gin and tonic in a bar once, after his had died and before Adam had settled into a new routine without him.
It had tasted sweet and bitter like he imagines chewing on tree bark might. He’d liked it, oddly enough.

“’Course.” Nigel looks pleased, and disappears towards the bar. Adam looks nervously at Darko, Lacey and Clara. He hadn’t counted on having to socialize without Nigel.

Lacey’s eyes follow Nigel for a bit, then she looks back at Adam. “He’s obsessed with you, you know,” she says.

Adam stares at her. She isn’t laughing, probably not making fun of him, although he sometimes has difficulty with discerning when someone is making fun of him. Even if she were, though, he can’t see why she would choose this way to do it.

There are a million ways he could respond to that and none of them seem quite right, so he settles on, “Can you explain what you mean by your usage of the word ‘obsessed’ in this context?”

Lacey just laughs, and Clara says something in her ear that Adam can’t hear through the earplugs, but he can read the word “adorable” off her lips. Then the lights go up on the stage, and Lacey lets loose a loud whoop, and Adam gratefully turns his eyes towards the front of the room.

Olga comes out on the stage with a microphone, and just as she starts welcoming the audience, Nigel returns and places a glass in front of Adam. He pulls up his chair a little to have a clear view of the stage, and then casually slings his arm over the back of Adam’s chair, and Adam no longer hears what Olga is saying.

Nigel isn’t touching him, but if Adam slid back in the chair a little and pressed his spine against the back rest, he could be. It makes Adam feel slightly dizzy with possibility and choice, and he fixes his eyes on the stage. Music has turned on, which sounds comfortably muted through Adam’s earplugs, and Olga and Danny are at first just walking around each other, then tangling their limbs with each other, and finally grab each others’ hands. Somehow, Olga ends up in a handstand with Danny holding her in front of his chest. Adam’s eyes go wide.

He moves his hips an inch back. Now that he knows he can essentially slide back into Nigel’s waiting arm, he feels simultaneously anticipatory and terrified. He watches Danny and Olga go through an entire series of strength manoeuvres with Olga being lifted, thrown and held, and when they finish and the audience applauds, Adam finally moves backwards the final little bit, as if it could have been an accident.

Nothing happens. Nigel doesn’t jerk away. He just slaps one hand against his thigh to clap, keeping the other arm where it is now pressed into the line of Adam’s shoulders.

It feels good. It feels good enough that Adam finds himself concentrating mostly on Nigel through the next few acts; a pole dancer that Adam hasn’t seen before, Angela on a set of raised wooden blocks that she does a series of increasingly more improbable-looking handstands on, Olga by herself on what looks like a reinforced hula hoop hanging from the ceiling. Adam pays more attention when Autumn comes on; she moves around the pole like it’s another person, her live partner in a particularly aggressive dance, and Adam is captivated enough that he barely notices that by the end, Nigel has his hand curled around his shoulder.

As a woman Adam hasn’t seen before hangs a length of flowing tissue from the rig where Olga’s hoop used to be, Autumn appears at their table. She’s still wearing the strappy black bra she’d performed in, but added plain grey sweatpants over the underwear that are apparently de rigeur for pole dancing. She fixes on Adam before anyone else at the table.

“You came!” she says, and sounds genuinely thrilled. Then she leans over and actually fluffs Nigel’s hair, mussing the fine blond strands like some strange half-naked version of a proud parent, and Nigel, inexplicably, just ducks his head. He tightens his arm around Adam’s shoulders, though, so that’s OK.

“Can’t believe you still show your face here, you useless fuck,” Autumn says to Darko, as the man budges up to make room for her on the bench. Adam is shocked for just a moment until he grasps her in a casual hug and she kisses him on the cheek, which must mean that she was saying something nasty in order to be nice to someone, which is a nuance Adam never catches. He’s glad that Autumn has already promised never to kid with him.

They all watch and drink for a few more acts, and gradually the feeling of Nigel’s arm around Adam’s shoulders starts to feel normal. It makes him want more; if they were sitting on the bench instead of on chairs, he could slide over and press himself against Nigel’s torso, too. It would be warmer, safe and cocooned inside of the curve of Nigel’s body. Eventually the music gets slightly quieter, and the audience gets louder. Olga stops introducing each act, and now only some of them are entering from backstage, and some are climbing right up from the audience. Most are still pretty impressive, with even the people who seem somewhat wobbly on their feet managing to haul themselves upside down on the pole.

Autumn taps the table in front of Adam to get his attention. “So, are you going to be up there next week, then?”

“Up where?”

Autumn gestures to the stage. “Dancing. Your big debut. Next week?”

Adam searches her face. Usually, when someone suggests that he do something outrageously outside of his normal habits, they’re teasing him. People at his old job seemed to think it was funny to picture Adam doing all sort of things that he was never going to do, especially not with them. But Autumn’s promised not to do that, and as he stares at her in the darkened room, he can’t find any evidence in her expression that she might have gone back on that promise.

Yesssss!” Lacey leans in, staring at him intently. “Autumn, are you teaching this one to dance?”

“Sure am. He’s a natural. Got a toe point Coach Ilya would be proud of.”

“Jesus, wonder what that sadistic asshole is up to,” Lacey mutters, and Adam has no idea who they’re talking about, but he does actually feel a small glow of pride at the mention of his toes. He used to squeeze a stress ball when he was anxious, but his hands started aching with the everyday exertion, and the physiotherapist Dad had taken him to for the pain had suggested an alternative; putting the same effort and concentration into pointing and flexing his feet. He’s never told anyone but Dad about the habit, usually hidden away inside his shoes or by himself in his apartment. But now apparently his feet are something to be proud of.

“I’m not any good,” says Adam. “Not like everyone else who danced. And I don’t like loud music, or bright lights.”

“We’ll turn the music and stage lights down, and the house lights up,” says Lacey easily. “And the point of tonight isn’t to be impressive, it’s to show your friends and family what you’re working on. Everyone loves seeing beginners, because it reminds them of how it felt when they first started.”

Adam bites his lip. He’s very aware that even his first refusal hadn’t exactly been a refusal, just a statement of preferences, and all of the obstacles he’d thrown up were ones that were easily overcome.

“You don’t have to if you really don’t want to, Adam,” says Autumn gently. “It’s scary at first, but you’ll feel amazing after, I promise. And everyone would love to see you. Right, Nigel?”

Nigel squeezes Adam’s shoulder. “I know I would love to see you dance,” he says, low and right into Adam’s ear. Only for him.

“I don’t have a routine,” he says. “I’ll look different from everyone else.”

Lacey laughs loudly. “Different from everyone else is what this crowd loves. I could go up there and hump the pole with my foot in this huge dumb foot brace and they’ll love it.”

Everyone but Adam laughs loudly, and Autumn and Darko immediately stand up to user her out. “Go! Go, do it!” Autumn chants, and as soon as the previous rather drunk person vacates the pole, Lacey awkwardly clambers up to the stage, her booted foot thunking against the wood. Adam can’t help but smile as they watch her walk unsteadily around it. She tries a couple spins, but the heavier foot gets in the way and she lands awkwardly, laughing, the audience cheering louder than they had for most of the real acts.

Adam isn’t sure he cares all that much about an audience cheering for him, but he wants Nigel and Autumn to look at him the way they’re looking at Lacey now: a kind of familiar, easy pride that people don’t usually level at Adam. He doesn’t usually let people get close enough to him to like him even when he’s doing something silly.

He takes the last sip of his drink, and Nigel immediately grabs the glass and goes to get him another one. He watches Lacey finish her makeshift routine and bow exaggeratedly to hollering from the audience. Clara is filming on her phone, Darko is rubbing the indent Lacey’s boot had made in his thigh, and Autumn is alternately cheering and casting sidelong glances at Adam.

Adam is good at figuring out his own feelings. He’s had to be; if he can’t figure out what other people are feeling, he can at least ask them, and that means needing to share a succinct summary of his own emotions. So it shouldn’t take quite as much effort as it does to turn to Autumn and admit, “I want to do it.”

Her face breaks into a smile, and Adam continues, “But I’m scared. I can’t figure out if I’m more scared than I want it.”

“I was scared shitless, the first time I got up on a stage,” Autumn says. “Nearly puked in the warm-up room.”

Adam isn’t certain that he wanted to know that vomiting was a possibility. Still, Autumn seems thrilled right now. “And you’re not scared any more?” he says.

Autumn chews on her lip. “Nerves before performing are an instinctive physical reaction,” she says. “It’s the same fight-or-flight response that saved you from being eaten by sabre-toothed tigers in the old days, and your body hasn’t updated the software to adjust to modern performance situations. You’ll never really get rid of the sensation, I think. But my body has mostly learned that being on stage isn’t that kind of threat.”

“Sabre-toothed tigers were extinct by the end of the Pleistocene,” says Adam. “That’s not really a realistic threat.”

Nigel arrives back, sliding another drink down in front of Adam. “What the hell are we talking about now?” he mutters.

Autumn grins. “And there’s no real threat to you from performing on a stage, either,” she says. “Your body only thinks there is. So yeah, sometimes I’m scared.”

“You’re scared of your dad seeing you dance,” says Adam. It’s probably a rude thing to say, but it’s not often that he has an intuition about how someone feels, and now his mind is pulling him back to their conversation in the training room. He can’t imagine having achieved something like Autumn has achieved in her sport, and his dad dying without even knowing about it.

Autumn tilts her head to the side, licks her lips. “Maybe I am,” she says. “Like I said, I’m just being a weenie. He’s a good guy. The worst that can happen is he’s weirded out for a few days.”

“He’s your sabre-toothed tiger,” says Adam, and he feels Nigel’s arm snake back around him, holding tight around his shoulder just where it had been. He leans into it.

Autumn holds out her hand across the table. “You dance next week,” she says, “And I’ll invite my dad.”

Adam reaches across and shakes it. “Deal.”

Chapter 11

Adam is aware that the only constant in the universe is the speed of light in a particular reference frame. Only in the system of harmonic motion between two bodies can time become relative within that system; everything in existence is undergoing constant motion and mass differentiation. One small human’s perception of the passage of time, however surprising to that observer, is trivial compared to the rules that govern solar systems and galaxy clusters.

That doesn’t make the passage of time of the week in between his first Women and Queer Night at the club and his second make any more sense.

He works on the secure program for Nigel’s financial records, and time always passes quickly while he is working. It’s easy to get lost in the challenge of cryptography, emerging hours later clinking into the sunlight. It’s not his area of expertise, but it becomes one of them very quickly. Time only seems to slow and stretch, taffy-like, when he looks up from his work for a moment to see Nigel across the room. Nigel has taken to sitting on his laptop in the records room across from Adam, getting up every so often to take or make a phone call. He stays just outside the room for the ones where he speaks in a normal voice, and halfway down the hallway for the ones where he shouts curse words and threatens whoever’s on the other end of the line with exaggeratedly painful deaths.

Which should probably bother Adam more than it does, but after every phone call that Adam wasn’t really supposed to hear (admittedly, he sometimes presses his ear to the door) Nigel comes back into the room, takes a deep breath, and settles himself back down with a smile in Adam’s direction.

Adam has always been aware of his own capacity for violence. Meltdowns, smashing things, the uncontrollable panic and anger that seems to squeeze around his heart and force itself outwards through every cell in his body– it doesn’t happen often, any more, but it does happen. Dad had told him once that it’s something that happens because he’s autistic, that neurotypical people don’t have to deal with.

Adam thinks he might have been wrong, though, because every time he sees a newspaper there are stories of people hitting or even killing each other, people who must have been feeling the same thing in that moment as Adam feels when he’s having a meltdown. He thinks, when he reads those articles, that they must not have had parents and teachers who knew to teach them how to not take out the violence inside them on other people. Dad would probably remind him that just because he’s feeling something doesn’t mean everyone else is, but the longer he lives in New York on his own, the more Adam suspects that everyone he sees on the street is just one wrong move away from snapping just like he does.

Which should maybe be scary, but instead it’s reassuring. He’s heard Nigel lose his cool, and he’s heard him muttering mantras about slow breathing to himself outside the door, before he allows himself to come back in with Adam. He knows Nigel’s capacity for violence– hell, he has hard evidence of it in the files he’s helping to organize– and he knows that Nigel doesn’t want it to accidentally take it out on Adam. Not hurting other people by accident is the most Adam asks for from himself when he’s upset, so it’s only fair to hold Nigel to the same standard.

So when Nigel is back sitting calmly across from him, Adam looks up from his work which seems to make time slip by like water, and studies Nigel’s face. He learns how Nigel’s face looks in the moments before he realizes Adam is watching him, and then he gradually learns how to see the changes that occur when Nigel realizes Adam is looking, and tries to pretend that he hasn’t, so that Adam can keep looking undisturbed. Then eventually, every time, Nigel cracks and glances up, like he can’t stand to not study Adam back for a moment longer. Adam looks straight back at his computer the first time it happens, and then he finds himself, almost without any conscious decision to do so, challenging himself to hold Nigel’s gaze for longer and longer periods. They’re still tiny glances, probably, by anyone else’s standards, but every time he forces himself to stare at Nigel’s eyes, he catches more tiny movements of his face that are too complicated to parse. It’s a bone-deep kind of uncomfortable, that he keeps coming back to like pressing on a bruise. In the moments that his eyes are on Nigel’s, time seems to abruptly pause in its previous flow, stretching and twisting until Adam breaks it off and comes up for air like he’s been underwater for a long time.

Nigel gives him money for a cab home every day. It’s an unnecessary ritual; Adam is on proper payroll, now, and he could certainly pay for his own cabs. Even if Nigel insisted on giving him a separate transportation amount, he could easily just add it into the direct deposits. He doesn’t, though, and Adam doesn’t ask. Every day, when Adam is ready to go home, he stands and says goodbye to Nigel, and Nigel fishes in his pocket for a battered leather wallet and pulls out two twenties. He hands them to Adam standing close to him, the heat of his body something that Adam wants to lean into; but perhaps touching Nigel while they’re working, under the bright fluorescent lights of the records room, would be different from touching him in a dark room with loud music and a drink in front of him. Adam doesn’t quite know, so he waits for Nigel to touch him, instead; the brush of his fingers, almost accidental, as Adam accepts the bills. It’s a little more than he actually needs for the taxi ride, especially since he’s usually going home long after rush hour. The change collects in his wallet.

He goes to the club early every day, a couple hours before Nigel ever shows up, and meets Autumn and a rotating cast of other dancers in the training room. He’s afraid at first that everyone will be watching him, either laughing at him or (somehow equally as disturbing) cheering him on in the loud, uncomfortable way that people say “you can do it!” when they don’t really care about him. They don’t; though; after an initial greeting, everyone simply concentrates on their own training. Adam watches Autumn for a bit, usually, before doing a simplified version of her warmup himself. At first she teaches him skills that she thinks he should learn, and a few times, he asks about moves that he’s like to do.

Most of the things he things he’s going to be able to do, based on them looking easy when other people do them, are completely outside of his grasp. Autumn just laughs when he asks about a position she does all the time, both hands gripping the pole and body held upside down with her legs straddled above her head. She drags over some special mats, two semi-circles with a hole in the middle for the pole and velcro to attach to each other, and says “Sure, give it a try.” Adam grips the pole, manages to jump one foot a tiny bit off the ground, and promptly collapses onto his back on the mat.

There are some things he asks about that he can do, though. He sees Olga spinning around serenely in a position that looks like she’s flying, body flat with her belly pointing towards the ground and the pole gripped between her thighs. Autumn grins when she sees him looking. “Yeah, you could learn a Superman,” she says. “But you’re going to have to take off your pants.”

Adam looks at Olga again, and he can see that it’s true. Her legs are crossed at the ankle, the pole locked in place between her upper thighs, and it’s easy to see that the pressure and grip of the bare skin is what’s keeping her on, and it wouldn’t work any farther down the leg than she’s holding it. He’s aware that other people are often nervous or ashamed of undressing around other people, but has never quite understood it; everyone knows that everyone else is wearing underwear under their clothing, after all, and that they have genitalia under that. And everyone in the training room is basically wearing fancy underwear, so there’s no reason Adam ought to be in jeans. He shucks them off and leaves them in the corner beside his bag.

He’s wearing soft cotton boxer-briefs, which Autumn takes in with a professionally appraising glance. “That’ll do fine,” she says. “If you want to add in something requiring skin grip in your routine, Danny could loan you something prettier.” She sets up the circular pole mats again, and lies down on her stomach on them, backing up so that she has one leg on either side of the pole.

“It’s going to hurt, at first,” she says. “It’ll stop. Pain is in the brain more than the body; at first your brain perceives the new sensation as a threat, but as you work the skill more, your nervous system learns that it isn’t, and you’ll stop bruising. Peripheral desensitization. Your brain is amazing.” She shuffles her thighs a little up the pole, hooks her ankles around each other, and reaches behind her to grip the pole with one hand, lifting her entire body off the ground so that she’s held only by her skin on the pole. “Like this. Just try it from the ground, then when it feels comfy we’ll try ways to enter it from higher up.”

Adam takes her place, awkwardly shuffling back to get his legs on either side of the pole. He wraps his thighs around it, and sure enough, it feels like the skin is going to be ripped right off. It seems impossible that he could ever do this and not feel pain, but Autumn’s explanation makes sense; and certainly it doesn’t seem to hurt her, so it must be true. The idea that his brain could simply decide that it no longer needs to feel pain in response to a certain stimulus is fascinating, but he files it away to examine at a time when his thighs don’t feel like they’re on fire.

He manages to reach behind him and hold onto the pole for a split second before collapsing belly-first onto the mat, half-laughing and half-panting. Autumn is nodding. “Good!” she says. “That was a great first try. Give it two more shots, and then we’ll move on. We’ll come back to it at the end, and do a few more every day. You’ll have it in no time.”

That seems doubtful, but Adam decides to trust her. They go back to the sequence of simple spins and a single inversion that Adam had been working on, and he doesn’t bother putting his jeans back on.

The next day Danny brings him a pair of extremely small, stretchy shorts. The material is soft and actually pretty comfortable, and Danny waves his hand. “Keep them,” he says. “I have lots. Let me know if you want that pair that says ‘slut’ on the ass instead.”

“I don’t think that pair of shorts would accurately describe me,” says Adam, but then he thinks about the fact that he’s starting to get sexually aroused just from Nigel sitting beside him, and wonders if perhaps he’s qualified for the ‘slut’ shorts after all. He knows the word is supposed to be derogatory, but Danny doesn’t seem to mean it that way.

He knocks on Beth’s door one night after dinnertime, a few days before the show. He wants to see her, and besides, Nigel had explained that Beth had assumed he was breaking up with her because he had ignored her for weeks at a time and then “acted like just a friend,” when they finally ran into each other whatever that means. But Nigel had also wanted Adam to be friends with her, and maybe if Adam had been acting like just a friend accidentally, he can act like a friend on purpose, too.

She answers the door with a smile that only wavers a little bit, and invites him in for tea. Adam doesn’t drink much of the tea, some sort of chamomile with a nut milk in it that makes it feel greasy on his throat, but he successfully deflects questions about his job by telling Beth about the time Dad had taken him to visit a friend who was a ham radio operator, who sometimes made contact with the International Space Station’s amateur radio station. He explains to Beth how to calculate the times of day from any point on Earth that the ISS will be within range, and describes the 144 MHz FM rig that his dad’s friend had had in the backyard, and how sometimes the astronauts on the ship make contact with ham radio operators just for fun n their spare time. Beth listens attentively and actually seems interested in some parts, and then when Adam remembers to ask “And how are you, Beth?” she just shrugs and says, “Pretty good. I have a new guy, actually, but I don’t know if I want to talk about it yet. It’s pretty new.”

“Oh,” says Adam. The idea of someone else dating Beth is odd, but something unclenches inside of him at the idea that Beth is intentionally keeping something secret from him. It makes it easier to not tell her that her dad runs a strip club; being just friends, apparently, means they’re allowed to keep secrets from each other and not be lying. He thanks Beth for the tea, untouched on his side of the table, and hugs her before he goes back to his own apartment.

Adam used to fall asleep thinking about the position of the ISS at that moment; skimming two hundred miles above the earth at seventeen thousand miles an hour. These days, he sometimes falls asleep thinking about the warmth of Nigel’s arm around him. Sometimes thinking about Nigel doesn’t put him in the mood for sleep after all, and that’s nice too. He tries to imagine Nigel watching him dance, and finds that he can’t conjure up the image. He’ll have to wait for it to happen in reality.

Chapter 12

The clothes might be slightly different, but the training room before the show feels just like the training room at any other time. Everyone is warming up, but they’re not maniacally focused on their own routines. Autumn is jokingly trying to take Danny’s place in his and Olga’s pairs routine, holding Olga’s hands palm-to-palm as Olga repeatedly tries to balance in a handstand. They weave around the room, wobbling crazily, and Danny shouts instructions from the floor. Autumn is strong, and muscular where Olga is waiflike, but Olga is much taller than her and they probably weigh about the same; eventually Autumn says “OKAY COME DOWN PLEASE,” sounding strained, and Olga does, laughing.

Adam tries to laugh with them, and doesn’t quite succeed. He hasn’t yet ruled out vomiting. He tries to convince himself that if he were going to vomit, he would have needed to actually eat something to vomit up; and since he was too nervous to force much down for either lunch or dinner, surely that must lower the risk somewhat. Instead, he’s just reminded that as well as being anxious, he’s also extremely hungry.

He huddles on the floor in the corner instead, managing to avoid rocking back and forth only on the narrow technicality that rocking back and forth with one’s leg on a foam roller apparently qualifies as “warming up.” He’s wearing the shorts Danny gave him and nothing underneath– he’d tried various pairs of underwear underneath them, but they had all felt odd and constricting, and as he looks around the room, it doesn’t look like anyone else is wearing underwear underneath their outfits.

Autumn keeps glancing at him. She’d given him plenty of preparation for the event itself; described how the emcee (Lacey, tonight) will have an assistant (probably Clara) who’ll come get the next act from the warmup room right before they’re needed, so there will be a moment but not too long of waiting in the wings backstage before going out onto the stage. She’d described how the room looks from the stage itself, how they’re going to turn the stage lights down and the house lights up a bit for Adam but it will still feel bright compared to the gloom of the wings. “You might decide you’d prefer the house lights down, next time,” she’d said; “It feels brighter, but that way, you won’t be able to see the faces of the people in the audience. Anyway, see how you feel and we can adjust.”

Adam had been too tongue-tied to say anything about the easy assumption of next time; he can barely imagine the world still existing after this time, like all of his planning for the future has a specific end date and it’s impossible to make any plans for the person he’s going to be after he does this.

She hadn’t said anything about nerves. Adam wonders, watching her play around and cast glances at him every so often, if it was because she couldn’t tell that he was so nervous he felt like it heart was going to explode, or if it wasn’t the sort of thing that you talk about. She’d talked about it before, of course. She’d said that she used to feel this exact same way, and sometimes still does. He can’t tell if she feels that way now.

Instead, he gets Danny; who’s apparently doing a juggling routine tonight, of all things, although he isn’t all that good and drops the balls numerous times as he tries to go through his act. Eventually he sighs and makes his way over to Adam.

“A famous juggler,” he says, “Once said that he always tries to drop a ball exactly one time per performance. Less than that, he knows he’s not challenging himself enough. More than that, he knows he’s bitten off more than he can chew.”

“You’ve dropped a ball eight times so far in your warmup,” points out Adam.

Danny laughs and mimes a knife to the heart, which is silly because Adam is just stating facts. “Ouch!” he says. “Well, luckily, biting off more than you can chew is the name of the game tonight. Nothing this crowd likes more than cheering someone on as they chew chipmunk-like on their own incompetence.”

“Oh,” says Adam. “Okay.” Once he sorts through the bizarre metaphor, that’s actually somewhat reassuring.

Then, bursting forth from him unbidden, Adam blurts, “What if I go out on stage and forget my routine?” He can imagine it– doesn’t want to, but the idea presses in on him claustrophobically– bright lights, upturned faces, and him standing on stage next to a pole with absolutely no idea what to do.

“Then you’ll make one up,” says Danny.

“What if I can’t?” Adam doesn’t even know what that means, what kind of nightmare scenario that would imply, but now that he’s opened the floodgates, he can’t stop himself from asking.

“Then you’ll do whatever you can do,” says Danny calmly, like the question is an entirely reasonable one.

“I don’t want to do this,” Adam says. His heart is racing, and black clouds are beginning to seep in on the edges of his vision. How could he possibly do his routine like this? He’s not even sure he would be able to stand up right now. “I can’t– I have to–” his words choke off. He can’t possibly do this, and yet the idea of pulling out now makes him feel like crying.

“Adam.” Danny shifts, kneeling on the floor in front of him so that he’s filling Adam’s entire field of vision. “Adam. Look at the clock in the corner.”

There is, indeed, a clock in the corner; a big gym-style one with glowing red digital numbers down to the second, which can be reset to time exercises. Adam glances at it, confused.

“While I’m talking,” says Danny, “I want you to breathe along with the seconds on the clock. You’re going to breathe in for four seconds, hold the breath for four seconds, and breathe out for eight seconds. Okay?”

Adam nods, still somewhat confused, but he stares at the clock and starts breathing.

“What you’re feeling is normal,” says Danny. He holds up a hand, cutting off Adam’s protest that that can’t possibly be true before it even starts. “It’s normal. I know it doesn’t feel like it, and it might not look like it when you see people who are practised in dealing with performance activation, but it is.”

Adam starts letting out the breath he had been holding, and uses the air to say, “Performance activation?”

“That’s what psychologists call the state you, and everyone else in this room, are in,” says Danny, sweeping his hand around. “It’s your body and mind gearing up for an activity that’s going to take energy, and that to some extent frightens you. The fact that it frightens you is good news. When you’re frightened, it indicates that we care about the outcome. Caring is a good thing; it’s a positive trait, it’s what carries us through the hard parts and makes hard work worthwhile. So the first thing I want you to hold in your mind is that this feeling is evidence of you caring, and that reflects well on you.”

Adam breathes in, holds his breath, and lets it out. It no longer feels quite so much like the air is fighting to escape from him as he holds it, and his heart is starting to slow down.

“The second thing is,” continues Danny, “When I say that you and everyone else in this room are in the same state of activation, I mean it. There’s a reason it’s called activation, and not anxiety. Right now, you’re experiencing it as anxiety, because you haven’t yet had years of practice understanding, harnessing and enjoying it. That’s normal. It’s going to take a long time before you’re used to it enough to experience it as anything other than anxiety, but the important part is that you believe it’s possible.”

Adam glances around. He hadn’t noticed it before, but now that he’s looking at everyone in that light, he can pick out behaviour that could, maybe, be attributed to what Danny’s talking about. In the opposite corner from Adam, Angela and a man that Adam hasn’t met yet are both jumping up and down, staring each other straight in the face as they bounce. It’s a bizarre display of energy, but Adam can see how it might feel good to do that. Olga and Autumn are trying bizarre tricks on a pole, falling over each other and laughing at a volume well above their normal speaking voices. Another woman is huddled in the opposite corner from Adam, her eyes closed listening to something on a large pair of over-the-ear headphones. Her fingers and legs twitch every so often, moving like she’s imagining larger movements in her head, which is probably exactly what she’s doing.

“You’re going to feel nervous tonight,” finishes Danny. “And every time you think you can’t stand the feeling, I want you to think to yourself, this is exactly how I’m supposed to feel, and I’m going to enjoy it. It will feel fake at first, but I want you to keep telling yourself anyway. Okay?”

“Okay,” breathes Adam. This is exactly how I’m supposed to feel, he thinks, and that actually does seem to help the gradual downshift of the roaring pulse he can feel in his neck. At least– according to Danny, anyway– there isn’t something wrong with him, and he’s probably not going to drop dead of a heart attack, no matter how much it feels like he might. I’m going to enjoy it produces a lot more internal skepticism, but Danny had told him to think it, and having instructions to carry out feels good even if he doesn’t quite understand them yet.

Clara knocks on the door and beckons Autumn to the stage, and Adam’s stomach clenches again. He’s supposed to be after Autumn. She glances at him as she leaves the room. “Have fun,” she says brightly, and now that he’s paying attention for it, he can hear the way her voice is slightly high and brittle. “You’ll come sit with me after you’re done, right?” she says. “Save me from horrifically awkward conversation with my dad? He’ll love you.”

“Okay,” says Adam. After still feels like a foreign concept, so it hardly feels like anything to commit to something in whatever nebulous space might exist then. Autumn seems to relax at that, and she shuts the door to the room behind her.

Adam swallows hard and stands up. His legs still feel slightly tingly and wobbly, but they hold him. He spreads his fingers wide, looking at the small callused patches developing on his palms, and gently starts to swing his arms in circles, feeling the small crackles and pops in his upper back as his body uncurls from the position he’d been huddled in on the floor.

He tries a few parts of his routine; he has no problem climbing up the pole, which sometimes causes him to slip down ungracefully, and takes that as a good sign. By the time Clara comes back and beckons to him with a smile he’s gone through most of his tricks: the climb, two different spins, an inversion which he can hold for a few seconds, and finally the superman. He enters it by hooking one leg around the pole and pushing his body into position with both hands on the pole; it still hurts his thighs to hold it for too long, but somehow the pain matters less now that his entire body is humming with nervous energy.

Clara leads him down the hallway and past the large double doors to backstage. It’s dark save for the flow of the stage and a small strip of blue LED lighting along the floorboards. He hears the end of Autumn’s music, and his entire body feels like it ratchets up a notch of anxiety. This is exactly how I’m supposed to feel, he thinks, and even inside of his own head the reassurance feels panicked. I’m going to enjoy it– ENJOY it? How could I ever–

“Chalk?” Clara is holding out a bottle of liquid chalk, and Adam realizes that his hands are indeed sweating like anything. He accepts it and squeezes a portion out, and the substance immediately makes them feel drier. At least he won’t slip off the pole, then.

From the wings, he can see the light balance of the performance hall change; slightly dimmer stage lights, slightly brighter house lights. He tries to peer nervously around one of the lengths of curtain in the wings to the audience. Nigel is out there somewhere, surely. The thought makes his stomach settle a little. Nigel wanted him to do this, so he’s going to do it. It doesn’t matter if, in this moment, he feels like he’d rather run a million miles away. He has to do it, can convince himself he has no choice in the matter, and somehow that makes it better. He tries smiling, and finds with something close to surprise that the muscles in his face are willing to do it. Autumn had said that it looks better if you’re smiling when you walk out on stage, even if you don’t feel it. At least he can get that part right.

Lacey is introducing him, and he realizes too late that he’s forgotten to listen to what she’s saying about him. The audience claps, and Clara claps too, and then somehow Adam’s body is carrying him forward into the glow.

The first thing he sees is the eyes. Eyes that seem to glow out of the faces they’re contained in, turned up at him on his vantage point above him. When he speaks to someone face-to-face, all he has to do is avoid eye contact himself, and then he won’t see his conversational partner’s eyes. This is different, though; he can’t avoid the gaze of the people sitting serenely around little tables scattered throughout the room. He recalls Autumn’s warning that having the house lights up might be worse, and wishes he’d listened.

He tries to tear his eyes away from all the other goddamn eyes, and find Nigel. He can see the table that they sat at last week; Darko is there, and Autumn is sitting stiffly beside a man who must be her father. There are two empty seats, and plenty of room on the bench, and Nigel isn’t there.

Nigel isn’t there. It feels like the moment stretches on for forever, but it must take place in only the space of a second, because Adam hears his music click on through the speakers. He can feel his pulse pounding like his heart might be trying to escape through his neck, and his legs feel wobbly again, but there isn’t anything to do but start moving. He grabs onto the pole, and starts walking around it; slowly, carefully with each step, like Autumn taught him. He loves watching the way she walks when she’s performing, every movement full of meaning. He breathes a long breath out as he walks. He looks only at the pole, and the entire room full of eyes fades into the background.

When he grabs hold of the pole for the spins, his arms feel surprisingly strong. He’s starting to sweat even through the liquid chalk, but suddenly all of the energy that made it feel like his body was trying to tear itself apart has somewhere to go. He grips harder than he needs to, kicks his legs higher than he ever has before in a windmill kick, and smiles when his momentum lands him gracefully on the other side of the pole. That felt good.

it only feels better as he does the rest of his climbs and spins; he slips a little, once, and ends up back on the ground, squatting a little bit awkwardly. Then he suddenly remember the way he’s seen Olga cover up a fall by standing up with her body like a wave, ass-first and then followed slowly by the head and a wave of the spine, and he tries it. He hears a whoop from the audience, high and excited, but doesn’t stop to wonder who it was. They’re not up here with him; he can be all alone right now, if he just keeps going.

He finishes a tiny bit before the short snippet of music that Autumn had cut for him; holding his superman pose, thighs burning, heart pounding. He’s rushed through all of his movements, he realizes; too fast, too much energy. The position that he can usually only hold for a scant second he feels like he could spend ages in, now, so he spends the last few seconds of the song looking out into the audience, waving his free hand with a flourish to the rising applause.

It’s easier to ignore the eyes; he only cares about one pair. And he tries to fight down the disappointment that rises up to battle with the elation already washing over him that Nigel isn’t here. Nigel runs this place; he’s important. He’s probably off taking care of more important business somewhere else.

The music ends, and Adam hops down from the pole. He’s breathing hard. The smile on his face, far from feeling forced-on, feels like he couldn’t get rid of it if he tried; it’s cracking his face open with the force of his relief and pride. He’d done the entire routine, and he’d made a few mistakes but nobody cares about them. Autumn is standing up, cheering loudly; he grins and waves at her before walking off stage.

Clara catches him by the arm. “You were amazing!” she says, over the applause that isn’t stopping from the hall. “Go out there and bow again. And then leave the stage on the other side.”

Adam does. The lights have been adjusted for the next performer already, and this time the entire stage feels like a miasma of light and heat, and the eyes in the audience are nearly invisible. It’s better this way; if he’d done the entire routine like this, he could have believed that Nigel was watching.

Still, he feels like all the blood that was trying to pound terrifyingly out of his body mere minutes ago is now fizzing like champagne in his veins. The sensation doesn’t make any sense: he’s done now, so he ought to be returning to normal. Instead he feels like he wants to go again, like he could probably do any number of tricks like this, like he could do anything.

He leaves the stage off of the other side this time, as per instructions, and the difference between the glare of the stage lights and the gloom of the wings that he actually walks blindly into something.

Something warm and tall and moving. “Adam!” Rough arms catch him, prevent him from toppling over, and Adam grabs on to Nigel’s shoulders. Nigel is grinning even more widely than Adam feels like he is, bouncing on the balls of his feet. “Shit, sweetheart, you were amazing, I had no idea you could do–”

Adam stares up at him, watching Nigel’s mouth as he talks, relief finally washing over him and making him feel practically weak. Nigel had been watching. Nigel had come backstage, just to see him up close and greet him first after he was done.

Adam still feels like he could do absolutely anything on the planet in this moment, so he does. He grabs onto the fistfuls of Nigel’s shirt that he’s holding, tilts his head up, and presses their lips together.

Chapter 13

Kissing Nigel isn’t like kissing anyone else that Adam has ever kissed.

For one, he tastes like cigarettes and the sour, sharp burst of alcohol. It’s not bad, exactly, because if Nigel put those things in his mouth, and wanted to taste them, then Adam wants to taste the echo of Nigel’s want on his tongue. And Nigel isn’t gentle with him the way girls have been, who hesitated and waited for Adam to decide what to to and guess what they want. Nigel grabs him by the neck, big hands fitting around the place where his shoulder meets his throat and thumbs pressing almost too hard just underneath his collarbone, and Adam feels the grip like a reassurance.

He sags against Nigel, his sudden burst of confidence ebbing but replaced by the bone-deep knowledge that he did something right with it. Nigel wanted this, and somehow Adam’s body had known that even though his mind hadn’t. Nigel’s tongue squirms against his, and Adam can hear himself make a small, surprised noise.

Nigel pulls back. He’s breathing hard, lips slick and gleaming in the low light of the stage wings. There’s music just starting up, startlingly close to them, and Adam glances behind them just in time to see Danny drop his first ball. He seems distracted, and when he stoops to pick it up he glances right at Adam and Nigel– whom, Adam realizes, of course he had been staring right at from the other side of the stage immediately before entering for his act.

Adam isn’t embarrassed, exactly, but he remembers now that Autumn had asked him to come sit with her and her dad afterwards, and the rest of the world suddenly rushes back in. Nigel’s hands stroke from his neck down his arms to his wrists, and Adam glances up at him uncertainly.

“What do you want, baby?” Nigel murmurs, and Adam isn’t sure if anyone’s ever called him baby in that exact tone of voice before, but if they have, it certainly didn’t make him feel like this. “Want to get out of here? Or go out and have a drink?”

“Will you… come with me?” Adam asks, abruptly afraid that he could accidentally say the wrong thing and end whatever’s happening right now. I want whatever is going to get me more of you, is the real answer, but that’s not really a proper choice, and anyway, he did promise Autumn.

Nigel laughs softly. “I wouldn’t let you go out there without me, looking like that, if you paid me,” he says.

Adam frowns. “Why? Everyone who’s allowed to come to this show seems very respectful.”

“Wouldn’t want them getting too respectful,” says Nigel, which doesn’t make any sense, but he’s going to come out, so Adam grabs him by the hand and leads him around the back to the training room, where he puts on a pair of soft sweatpants and a t-shirt. Clara grins at him as she shows up to get the next performer, and Adam surprises himself by bursting out, “I did it!” before she can get a word in.

“Fuck yes, you did,” she says, and she’s grinning equally at Adam and at Nigel when she says it. Adam is suddenly no longer sure what he even means by it, but in any case, he can’t keep the proud smile off of his face.

Adam and Nigel slip into the audience through a side door, make their way towards the same table where they’d sat last week. He only drops Nigel’s hand when they arrive there, and Autumn jumps up excitedly. “You were amazing!” she says. “How did it feel?”

Adam thinks back. He remembers feeling terrified, wishing that he didn’t have to do it. He remembers, vaguely as if it had happened in a previous life, feeling as if this moment, the after, couldn’t possibly even exist. But all of that seems hazy and unreal now, shoved aside by the enormity of his elation and the way his fear had twisted in on itself and transformed into something bright and powerful while he was onstage.

“Amazing,” he says. “I want to do it again.”

Autumn pumps her fist delightedly, and then turns to her dad, who is rising from the seat beside her. “Dad, this is Adam,” she says. “He’s in charge of digital recordskeeping and security here, and he learned that entire routine in just a week. Adam, this is my dad, Kenny.”

Adam sticks out his hand. “Pleased to meet you, Mr– ah, Kenny,” he stammers, suddenly realizing that he’s never called a friend’s parent by their first name in his life, and unsure of whether that was supposed to change once he became an adult. He hasn’t made enough new friends as an adult to be able to test the question.

“Lau,” says Autumn’s dad, and Adam relaxes– at least that answers that question. Mr. Lau is tall and severe-looking, and Adam can’t tell if he only assumes that because now Adam is slightly uncomfortable, but he gets the sense that he’s trying his best to pretend to be at ease, and not quite making it.

Out of the corner of his eye, Adam sees Darko slapping Nigel vigorously on the back. They’re talking loudly and excitedly in what Adam assumes is Romanian, and Darko keeps looking at Adam. Usually it feels terrible to be spoken about in a language you don’t understand, but since Adam can guess that they’re talking about Nigel kissing Adam, and Nigel looks so happy about it his face might be about to crack open, it doesn’t bother him too much.

They’re all about to sit down, and at that exact moment Danny shows up, so there are more introductions and everyone shuffles to make room around the table. Autumn disappears for a moment and then returns with a gin and tonic for Adam and something small and noxious-smelling for Nigel, and finally Adam ends up curled up on the bench beside Nigel, feet tucked underneath him, nestled under Nigel’s arm. He feels Nigel’s lips ghost over the top of his forehead at his hairline, and hears Darko’s bark of laughter. Autumn and Mr. Lau are right across from them, her looking absolutely thrilled and his eyebrows somewhat raised at the configuration.

He wants to kiss Nigel some more, but they’re at a table full of people, so he probably shouldn’t. He leans into Nigel’s side and forces himself to look straight ahead, instead.“And what do you do?” Adam asks Mr. Lau, because he’s been to enough parties to know that’s what people ask each other when they don’t have anything else to talk about.

Mr. Lau glances to the stage, where a woman is doing something extremely awkward-looking on the suspended hoop, then looks back at Adam and says stiffly, “I’m a professor in the centre for cosmology and particle physics at NYU.”

Adam nearly jumps out of his seat at that, his arms flailing out in excitement and one nearly hitting Nigel in the face. Nigel grabs his arm and pins it to his side, solid and safe, and Adam lets himself be held even as suddenly very little of his attention is on Nigel.

“I got to help in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey even though I was actually an engineering student not a physics student,” he says, and then nearly loses track of his words altogether in his excitement as he tries to get out “and we worked on correlating galaxy structure with star formation history, and some of my friends got to go visit the Auger Observatory in Argentina because of their research projects and I could have gone and now I wish I had but I was too anxious about it because I’m autistic and I don’t like airplanes or hotel rooms or not being in New York but now that I’m older and better at surprises and trying new things I think I should have gone, because then I graduated and I ended up working in electronic components for childrens’ toys but then I was fired, and now I work here.” Adam swallows.

“Well shit, that’s a tale of woe,” Nigel laughs, but he says it at the same time as Mr. Lau leans in and says “Really? Who were you working under? It was probably before my time,” and Adam decides he can probably ignore Nigel for now. Nigel will still be there at the end of the night, Adam is now sure of it.

So Adam ends up barely noticing that in the time that he and Mr. Lau are talking about everything from cosmic ray air showers to exotic x-ray transients, Autumn has refreshed his drink twice. By the time the acts on stage have devolved from choreographed performances to drunk people climbing up to hump the pole, Adam is leaning somewhat dizzily against Nigel’s shoulder while Mr. Lau talks animatedly about the plasma dynamics of the collapse of massive stars, and Adam can’t remember the last time he felt this happy.

Eventually the house lights raise slightly, not a demand but perhaps a modest suggestion that the remaining patrons start to think about heading home. Adam glances at his watch, and Mr. Lau pulls out his phone to do the same, and then says, “Well, shit. Didn’t think I was going to be here until four in the morning.”

“Neither did I,” admits Adam, and puts his hand over where Nigel’s is warm and now slightly sweaty against his side. Nigel looks like he’s teetering on the edge of sleep, and Autumn is actually slumped over the table, staring vacantly into space with a vague, sleepy smile on her face. They’re the only ones left at the table, Darko and Danny having apparently taken their leave without Adam even noticing.

Mr. Lau stands up, and Nigel seems to take that as his cue to rub at his eyes let Adam free of the heavy grip around his torso. Mr. Lau rummages in his pocket and produces a pen and a receipt, which he scribbles on the back of and then hands to Adam. “My email address,” he says. “If you’re serious about this stuff, and you certainly seem to be, we are sometimes able to fully fund grad students. I doubt the stipend would be as generous as working for a strip club, but it’s something to think about.”

Adam just stares. The receipt is from a hardware store. Mr. Lau’s writing is very neat. “Okay,” he says. He puts it in the pocket of his sweatpants. Then he says, “What if you need to return your hammer to the store?”

Mr. Lau just laughs loudly, and when Adam tries to stand up to shake his proffered hand, but finds himself rather unsteady on his feet. Nigel chuckles and stands up to steady him, and when together they manage to get out from between the table and the bench, Autumn opens her arms in an invitation to a hug. When he hugs her, she murmurs in his ear, “oh my god, thank you so much. You were amazing. And my dad loves you. I thought this night was going to be horrible, and you made it amazing. Thank you.”

Adam just grins stupidly, letting himself fall back against Nigel. He’s not entirely sure what he’s being thanked for; he’d just talked a lot about galaxies, and usually people ask him to stop when he does that. The world spins slightly in a way that should probably be frightening, but Nigel is holding him by the shoulders, and the room is finally emptying out until it’s just him and Nigel and two black-clad stage guys shouting affably at each other about something to do with the rigging.

He turns around, pressing himself into Nigel’s chest, and feels Nigel’s arms link behind his back. “I want to kiss you again,” he mumbles. His head lolls slightly on his shoulders, and then he is struck with a thought. “I want to have sex with you. Can we have sex?”

He feels more than hears the rumble of laughter in Nigel’s chest, but he also feels the way Nigel’s hips press forward a little in response.

“We can have as much sex as you want when you’re not completely soused,” says Nigel, and that’s a good promise, Adam will have to make sure to remember it even though it feels like most of his thoughts are running through his brain like water. “Where’s your bag?” Adam feels Nigel almost let go to grab it from under the table, and then he navigates Adam into the front hallway. Adam could walk by himself, he thinks, without Nigel holding him up. But Nigel doesn’t have to know that. He smiles to himself a little as he closes his eyes and lets himself be led. It feels a little like getting away with something, even though he no longer knows if he needs to get away with anything, with Nigel.

“I’d offer to come in the cab with you,” says Nigel, “But I don’t think that would be wise. Just in case.” Adam frowns for a moment, confused, then remembers. Beth still exists. Beth lives in his building. Beth would probably have questions if she happened to see her dad in a cab with Adam at four in the morning. Instead of being upsetting, though, the situation momentarily seems funny. He giggles, then hiccups.

“Jesus,” Nigel mutters, but Adam can crack his eyes open to see the smile on his face. Nigel shepherds him out onto the sidewalk, where there is in fact a cab waiting. Then, just like the end of every day, he rummages in his wallet for cab money.

Adam stares at his wide, strong fingers extracting the bills from his leather wallet. It makes him feel strangely exposed. It makes him want to kiss Nigel again. He leans in as Nigel presses the money into his hand, and Nigel kisses him wet and filthy and leaving Adam gasping.

Nigel steps away, grinning, looking at Adam like it’s a test of his ability to stand up on his own. Adam can stand just fine; he was mostly faking being so drunk he needed help walking. At least, he thinks he was.

Nigel opens the door to the cab for him, and Adam slides into the dark and quiet of the car. He watches the neon lights of the club disappear as they drive away, Nigel standing on the sidewalk and waving at him like getting one more glimpse of Adam, even though they’ll see each other tomorrow, is still the most important thing in the world.

Chapter 14

Hard rain makes a particular stark blatting sound as it hits the metal fire escape outside of Adam’s apartment. It used to bother him as a child, as many things bothered him. New York is full of sounds through the night, wildlife both human and animal, cars and cabs, and the unidentifiable noise detritus that used to keep him up at night wondering what it was.

That’s just life in the big city, Dad had shrugged at him. Sometimes you hear a sound and you don’t know what it is. Even if you ran out onto the street to investigate every single one, you still wouldn’t be any the wiser, for most. So just close your eyes and try to rest, OK, Adam?

(Chaos theory says that apparently-random outcomes can be the result of deterministic systems that are merely highly sensitive to initial conditions. Adam thinks about deterministic chaos to fall asleep, lulled by the promise that every unknown in the city outside could eventually be modelled with the right analytical techniques.)

Adam had bought a white noise machine, after Dad died. It had been a strange new thing to have in his life, after nearly thirty years of careful evening routines and getting used to being jolted awake every so often and having to soothe himself back to sleep. Suddenly his rest was accompanied by a strange, occasionally monstrous-seeming noise. But it seemed to actually work, if he managed to fall asleep; he was woken up less often by extraneous noise. The brain learns eventually to calibrate to the level of disturbance around itself, and constant noise raises the threshold for what kind of interruption merits waking up for.

Adam wakes up to the pounding of rain against metal. The first thing he realizes is that he’d forgotten to turn the noise machine on before falling asleep last night. Then he realizes that he’s actually kind of glad for it, because the idea of screeching white noise would be sandpaper against his brain right now.

His head aches. Adam had pulled his fair share of all-nighters with friends in college, but they were mostly the kind of all-nighter where everyone sits in a little private study room in the library together, sipping cans of Red Bull until nobody’s sure whose lips have been where, staring at messy equations on a whiteboard until their eyes cross. He’d certainly woken up feeling not-quite-right after those, but he’d never felt quite this fuzzy and impermanent.

He blinks the crust of sleep out of his eyes and coughs a little. His mouth is dry and tastes awful, and he distinctly recalls kissing Nigel with it not twelve hours ago.

Adam braces himself up on his elbows, staring into the clean white of his bleached sheets. He remembers the heat of even the half-powered stage lights on him, the glowing eyes of the people in the audience, and then crashing into Nigel’s body in the wings. He glances down and realizes that he’d fallen asleep in the clothes he’d stumbled into the apartment in; the shorts that don’t say slut on the ass feel like they’ve carved lines into his hips, and press tight against his habitual morning semi-erection. The sweatpants overtop crinkle as he shifts his hips on the bed, and he reaches into the picket to pull out the hardware store receipt with Mr. Lau’s email address on it.

He recalls vaguely feeling invincible and triumphant last night. The feeling lurks just out of reach in his mind, behind the press of the headache. He puts the receipt on the bedside table, then pulls off the sweatpants and shorts underneath. They leave pink lines on his hips where they’d dug into him all night, which he rubs at absently to feel the ache fade away.

He vaguely wants to masturbate; has a memory of Nigel murmuring we can have as much sex as you want when you’re not completely soused into his ear. It feels so hazy that for a moment he isn’t actually sure if it even happened, and a wave of panic crests over him. People at college used to talk about drinking so much they don’t remember what they did the previous evening. Does Adam not remember? What if his memories are wrong, altered somehow? What if he never kissed Nigel at all?

He picks up the receipt again, stares at Mr. Lau’s neat handwriting. It brings back the memory of Nigel’s arm around him, how Mr. Lau had been skeptical and uncomfortable until he and Adam had started talking about his work. It only really fits together one way. He’s certain that that much had happened, anyway.

He strips off his earthy-smelling t-shirt, too, and kicks all three garments onto the floor. Usually he doesn’t like things not being in their proper place, but that was before. For a moment, he feels swept with near-vertigo, wondering what else the kind of person who kisses Nigel does. Perhaps he puts clothes on the floor and doesn’t pick them up. It’s not outside the realm of possibility.

He’s almost hard, but he also feels somewhat nauseous and his mouth still tastes terrible, so he pushes himself up and staggers to the kitchen for a glass of water. It feels strange to be standing stark naked in his own kitchen. Perhaps that’s something that this new person that he is does, too.

An ache in his knees calls his attention downwards. There are large red spots over his kneecaps, forming into purpling bruises. For a single terrifying second he imagines himself on his knees, sucking Nigel off in an alley– but no, that hadn’t happened, surely he would remember if he had done that. But there was a moment in his routine where he spins a little on his knees, and he recalls hitting the ground harder than usual. That must be it.

He drinks more water. He thinks more about sucking Nigel off in an alley. He doesn’t really want to do it; it would be dirty and cold and liable to get them arrested for public indecency. For some reason, though, he wants to think about it. He wants to think about the shocked, turned-on look on Nigel’s face if he offered something like that.

He sits heavily back down on the bed, and reflexively reaches for his phone charging on the nightstand; but it isn’t there, of course. He’d forgotten to plug it in. His bag is cast aside in a corner of the room. He roots through it for the phone, and some of the fog in his mind clears enough to realize that if he hadn’t plugged in his phone, he also hadn’t set his alarm. And thus–

–it’s nearly 2 PM, Adam realizes, staring at the face of the smartphone with its battery almost worn down. More panic, a reflexive stab of it in his gut, and then his rational mind takes over and reminds him that he works at a strip club where his boss usually doesn’t get in until the mid-afternoon. He is allowed to be late. Nigel is probably expecting it, actually, if Adam’s memories of the previous evening are real and Nigel has those same memories from the other perspective. Holding Adam tight as he drunkenly made his way out of the club; handing him a wad of cash on the sidewalk and kissing him deeply while the cab driver looked on and rolled his eyes.

He clambers into the shower and turns the water on hot. For a moment he puts a hand on his cock, and then he takes it off and cranks the temperature down. He doesn’t want to think too hard about why he does it; it still seems somehow presumptuous to assume he’s going to have sex with Nigel ever, let alone today. But if he hadn’t just hallucinated the entire previous evening, it’s at least worth consideration. He grits his teeth against the cold and feels butterflies start to erupt in his stomach again.

It’s not that he’s afraid of having sex with Nigel, exactly. But it is a new idea, one he hadn’t quite allowed himself to think about head-on before, despite the fantasy constantly flitting around the edges of his consciousness. It turns out the thought of it happening in reality is enough to feel like a replay of last nights’ nerves. Which is both ridiculous– sex isn’t a performance— and somehow calming. He’d made it through the performance, after all, and enjoyed it. Once he’d gotten on stage, all he needed to do was what he practised. He remembers Autumn telling him to imagine an audience in the training room, her and Danny and Olga all sitting stony-faced on one side of the room to make him nervous during a run-through of his routine. Visualization, they’d all agreed, does wonders for nerves.

Adam stares at the white tiled wall, the thought making his cock twitch again. He hasn’t had sex with a man before, but not out of any particular design; women had simply always been more demonstrative of their availability, and the few men in college who’d indicated sexual interest in him had all been in some way undesirable to Adam (and in some cases, actively horrible to him.) He has a vibrator, and uses it often, but he’s never really connected that to a sexual act with another person.

It had helped, to do the pole routine while pretending there was an audience. More than just doing the routine by himself in the training room would have. Maybe this is the same.

He allows himself to up the temperature on the water a few degrees, until it’s comfortable, and sits down on the floor of the tub. It has a few chips in it, rusted-out segments under the enamel that scrape against the skin of his ass and lower back.

They would do it lying down. Traditional, in a way; Adam on his back in Nigel’s bed. He thinks about the room in the apartment that used to be his dad’s; the way he had always peeked in as a kid and waited for permission to enter, looking around at the calm grown-upness of the space in contrast to the themed bedspreads and glow-in-the-dark stars in his own bedroom. It seems unlikely that Nigel’s bedroom will have much in common with Adam’s dad’s; but in his imagination it has something of the same quality anyway. A personal sanctuary. Adam lies down awkwardly on the floor of the tub. Water pounds against his belly, and he wriggles until it sprays comfortably on his sternum, not splashing too much on his face.

He reaches down. It would be so easy to just jerk himself off, but he forces his hand well away from his cock and instead presses a finger into his hole. It feels good, too small and too gentle but the point of this is visualization, after all, so he tries. Autumn had said it takes some time to get the hang of imagining something in detail, especially when you don’t know all the details of it to visualize. Would Nigel say something to him, while he inserted a single thick finger into Adam’s ass? Would he kiss him, or maybe pump his cock at the same time? Perhaps Nigel would assume that Adam hasn’t felt this before, that everything about the experience is new to him.

You can put more in, Adam thinks at the hazy imagining of Nigel he’s trying to draw up. I penetrate myself with a vibrator often. He has no capacity at all to imagine Nigel’s reaction to that, but squirms and manoeuvres two more fingers inside of himself anyway.

For a while he just writhes on the floor of the tub, trying to predict Nigel but mostly just thinking of him. Thinking about what it might feel like to have the tip of his cock slip into him, bigger than fingers and warmer than a vibrator and swollen at the head so that the widest part slips in first. There isn’t really any way he can recreate that sensation by himself, so finally he has to decide if he’s going to come of not. I need this from Nigel, he thinks desperately. I don’t want to come today without him.

He manages to wrench his fingers away from his prostate and sits up with a gasp. Water pounds against his skull and runs down his face. For a moment he just pants, then relaxes back against the edge of the tub and sighs. If he’s going to be in a fit state to exit the shower any time soon, he should probably get moving.

He turns the temperature down and washes thoroughly, and by the time he’s managed to get out of the shower and dressed, it’s nearly 3:30, and there is a knock on the door.

For a single second every fantasy comes rushing back, but suddenly adjusted; Nigel is here, and he’s going to lay him out and fuck him on Adam’s bed, with the space suit hanging across from them. He opens the door, heart pounding.

“Hi!” says Beth, and all the air seems to rush out of Adam at once. It’s a relief that it wasn’t Nigel, he thinks: Nigel shouldn’t be here. Beth could see.

There’s something for Beth to see, that she really shouldn’t. You don’t need to be a social genius to understand that I’ve been masturbating thinking about your dad fucking me isn’t the kind of thing you’re supposed to say to your ex. Certainly Adam had been uncomfortable enough every time his dad had brought a woman home; he can’t imagine having it be your ex would be any better.

“Hi, Beth,” he says.

“I’m just getting home from the school,” she says, “And saw your lights were on. Can I come in?”

Adam holds the door open for her. He glances around the apartment, as if something here might give him away. Nothing will, of course, but the guilt in the pit of his stomach is saying otherwise. The idea of her being able to see his lights from the street disturbs him, even though of course she could see them before. It had never occurred to him that she might notice that he’s never home in the evenings any more.

She collapses down at the dining room table, and rubs a hand across her forehead. Adam stands stiffly in the doorway. “I’m worried about Daddy,” she says.

“Oh,” says Adam. His voice sounds high and panicked even to his own ears. She can’t possibly know. It doesn’t make any sense.

“He won’t tell me anything about this trial,” she says, and Adam’s legs turn to jelly with relief. He sinks down at the table opposite her, and notices that she’s slumped in on herself, holding her head in her hands. She’s tired, either by school or by worrying about Nigel, or both. “I think it was an accident that I even found out in the first place– we were having dinner and his phone rang, and… well, I kind of made him tell me what it was about. Some lawyer. But he clearly doesn’t want me to come, won’t even tell me when or where it is, and I just…” she looks up, meeting Adam’s eyes before they skitter away, and then stares at his shoulder and shrugs. “I figured maybe you knew something about it? If it’s something to do with the accounting firm, and you’re a secretary there? Secretaries know everything, Daddy always said.”

Secretaries know everything. Adam shoves his hands underneath his thighs, fingers digging into the seat of the chair underneath the weight of his legs. Threw them out, didn’t I? he remembers Nigel saying. Might have been a little rougher than totally necessary, but I don’t like that shit going down here.

Rougher than totally necessary. If some drunk strip club patrons were willing to press charges, rougher than totally necessary was probably an understatement. Maybe there were hospital bills to pay, or something. Adam imagines Nigel’s strong hands, the hands that had held him gently as they kissed, punching someone instead. Smashing a head against a wall, squeezing at some faceless former patron’s neck against the wall of the alley behind the club. It’s actually pretty easy to imagine, and Adam flinches.

Beth is watching him like a hawk. “You do know, don’t you?” she says. “Adam, were you ever going to tell me? I’m your friend.”

“No!” Adam spits out, panicked. “I– I don’t know, really.” Well, that much is true, at least– he has no idea just how badly Nigel had fucked up whoever it was. “There are lots of complicated, ah, things, going on at the firm,” he says, and that’s true too although very much not in the way Beth is going to understand it, “and I’m just a– a low-level worker, I don’t know much about any of the… complications that happen.” He curls his nails into his palms until his hands ache. He hates lying, and right now, he hates Nigel for making him do it.

Beth stares at him for a long moment, trying to read him (she knows, she knows– she doesn’t know, that’s impossible) and then tips her head back and sighs. “Well, can you find out?” she says. “I’m really worried about Daddy. He’s been getting more secretive, lately. We always talk about everything, and now it feels like he’s hiding something.”

“Okay,” says Adam. “Okay, I’ll try.”

“Thanks,” says Beth, and then in an instant she is up out of her seat and hugging Adam. She’s shaking slightly, which Adam can feel through her torso where his face is nearly mashed into her breasts.

He doesn’t want her to be hugging him, but he hesitantly winds his arms around her hips and hugs her back anyway. Adam thinks of his own dad, how as a kid they’d always sat down to discuss everything about their days over dinner before Adam was allowed to watch his show. It had carried over into adulthood, and when he’d died, Adam had found himself for the first time without a confidante; someone who understood his emotional life well enough for it to be worth it to sort through his thoughts and find ways to explain them.

It would have felt awful, if Adam’s dad had stopped talking to him like that while he was alive. Did feel awful, when he died, but dying can’t be helped sometimes. So it’s not hard to understand why Beth is shaking and making small gasping noises into his hair, like she’s trying not to cry.

He’s angry at Nigel for making this happen. But as Beth shakily steps back and wipes her eyes, muttering “sorry, sorry,” a heavy weight of dread settles in Adam’s stomach as he casts his mind over reasons why Nigel might not be talking to her. Nigel is probably talking less to her now because he has one more secret to keep, and that secret is Adam.

He reaches out and runs a hand down Beth’s arm. “It’s okay,” he says. “I’ll talk to him about it. I promise.”

Chapter 15

Adam’s laptop whirrs softly in the silence of the records room. It feels lonely and dull in there without Nigel, and he realizes Mr. Lau is right; he shouldn’t spend the rest of his career working for a strip club, even if there would probably always be something for him to fix or improve around here.

He hadn’t looked for Nigel on his way in. His stomach feels cramped with worry, and he has no idea if it’s because of the things he wants to do with Nigel, or the things he wants to say to him. It’s easier to hide out here, for now. Nigel will come find him eventually; he always looks for Adam. Or maybe he won’t, maybe something has changed and Adam doesn’t know the rules of this any more, and he doesn’t want to think about that option. Instead, he focuses on sitting on the floor of a tiny windowless room with only debugging to keep him company.

Which works, actually; Adam has always been able to lose himself in work when he tries. He jumps, nearly screams for a second when he realizes there’s someone else in the room with him, sitting down beside him.

“Sorry!” Autumn says. She’s laughing, sliding her back down the wall beside him. “Didn’t mean to scare you.”

“It’s okay,” says Adam, breathing hard but smiling with relief. Autumn isn’t Nigel, and he doesn’t know how to file away the fact that he’s glad. He isn’t ready to talk to Nigel, even if he practically couldn’t wait to see him just this morning.

Autumn glances at his screen. “No rest for the wicked, huh?” she says, and then corrects herself, “But then, you’re not ‘the wicked,’ so you should get to rest. Got a moment to hear all about how totally amazing you were last night, and how my phone is basically blowing up with texts from the women and queer night regulars asking who you are?”

Adam sets down his laptop on the floor in between his knees and stretches his hands above his head. The joints of his shoulders crack loudly. He tries to push the smile off of his face, but it doesn’t quite work. It’s not like he was trying to impress people, exactly. Besides Nigel, and Autumn, and maybe Danny and Olga and Lacey and in retrospect, Mr. Lau. But the thought of other people in the audience wanting to know who he is makes his face feel warm in a way that isn’t entirely unpleasant. I wouldn’t let you go out there without me, looking like that, if you paid me, Nigel had murmured low and hot in his ear.

“Thanks,” he says, despite the fact that Autumn is only passing on compliments from other people so it’s not really her the he should be thanking. “I… I had a good time.”

“I could tell,” grins Autumn. “And now, you and Nigel, huh?”

“Yes,” says Adam, which seems like the only possible response. Then he adds, “I think. I haven’t seen him yet today,” and almost without consultation with his brain, ends up blurting, “and I’m worried that I did the wrong thing and he won’t like me and I’m not relationship material, and that I’ve ruined everything because I only met him in the first place because I used to date his daughter Beth. And I don’t think I would like that, if my ex-boyfriend started dating my dad, if I had an ex-boyfriend and my dad were bisexual and not dead.”

Autumn’s mouth pops open a little and she just stares at him for a moment, then breaks into a laugh. “Wow,” she says. “Kinky. I like it.”

Adam swallows. “It’s not kinky,” he says. “I don’t think. I don’t know yet. But I don’t like him because he’s Beth’s dad; I just like him because he’s Nigel.”

“Okay,” says Autumn soothingly, “Okay. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.”

“It’s okay,” says Adam, and his voice sounds more wobbly than he’d like. Autumn pushes away from the wall a bit, sits a bit farther away from him so she can face him properly. She stretches her legs out to either side, toes on either side of where Adam is huddled in a wide straddle.

“Do you want my thoughts?” she says. “Or do you want me to leave?”

“I want your thoughts,” says Adam miserably, even though he’s not sure he does. If Autumn tells him that he should end things with Nigel before they even begin because it’s the right thing to do, he’s not sure he’ll be able to do it.

She licks her lips, looking around the room contemplatively. “If I were your ex, Beth, I think I would be upset by you dating Nigel,” she says, and Adam’s stomach drops. “I think that would hurt a lot, to see someone you used to be with dating someone else you know. Actually, I know that that much hurts. And I’m sure it would hurt all the more for it to be your dad.”

“Yeah,” mutters Adam. He drops his head forwards into his hands, grabs onto a fistful of his own hair, and wishes he could disappear.

“Pain is a part of life,” says Autumn. “It’s convenient to think we can go through life not hurting other people, and then we won’t get hurt ourselves, and anything that hurts anyone can be avoided.” She shrugs, and stares furiously at the wall. It allows Adam to look up at her face without making direct eye contact with her, and he can see that her eyes look like she’s holding back years. “My dad was nice about things, after we left last night,” she says. “I think it helped a lot that you were there and showing him that people who are interested in the same stuff as he is can be interested in this, too. But I could still tell that he was disappointed. It hurt him to see me here, dancing, being the person that I am here, because on some level he’s internalized that having a child who works at a strip club means he’s failed as a parent.”

“That’s not what it means,” says Adam hotly. “You’re a wonderful person. He hasn’t failed–”

Autumn waves a hand and interrupts. “That doesn’t really matter, though, does it? It doesn’t matter if his feelings are logical or not. They’re his feelings, and as long as he’s respectful to me about them, I don’t get to decide if he can have them or not.”

“I guess.” Adam rocks forward and back a few times, thoughtfully, feeling his weight redistribute rhythmically and come back to equilibrium. “I don’t know. My dad always taught me that I have to think extra hard about other peoples’ feelings, because I don’t always know what they are as easily as other people can tell what other people are thinking.”

Autumn shrugs. “Sure, that’s important,” she acknowledges. “But you seem to have done a good job already of figuring out what Beth is going to feel. She’s going to be upset, and she’s allowed to be upset. But just like I’m not going to stop dancing with my ass showing just because it upsets my dad, I don’t think you should decide who to date and who not to on the basis of someone else’s feelings.”

Autumn finally tears her eyes away from the wall and looks back at him, and Adam drops his eyes to his sneakers. Autumn thinks I should date Nigel, some part of his brain crows triumphantly, even as his mouth says helplessly, “but she’s going to be upset.” He knows it sounds stupid as soon as he says it, but it’s all he can think.

“She’s allowed to be,” says Autumn gently. “That’s not your business. Your business is what you choose to do with Nigel, based on how you and Nigel feel about each other.”

Something loosens in Adam’s chest. Not your business. It sounds harsh the way she says it, but for some reason he likes it. Not your business stops the screeching in his mind in a way that it’ll be okay doesn’t.

“Well, he said we could have sex,” he says.

Autumn throws her head back and laughs, pulling in her knees to hug to her chest. “Well, that sure sounds like a good start,” she says.

* * *

It turns out Nigel does come find Adam. It’s nearly 9 PM by the time he shows up, and Adam’s entire body aches from sitting on the floor staring at his laptop screen for so long, and he’s starting to get hungry. Autumn had brought him a Snickers bar from a vending machine a while after she had left to go train, but that had just made him hungrier.

He hadn’t put any thought into what he was going to do when he saw Nigel. When he saw him in general, sure; he was going to ask him if he would like to be in a relationship with Adam, and when they could have sex. But the exact moment that Nigel walks into the room in unscripted, and Adam discovers that what he does is lurch forward and wrap himself around Nigel in a hug.

Nigel holds him tight, not saying anything for a long time. Finally he pulls back a little, clearly sensing Adam’s strange, unsettled state of mind, and says, “Hey, you alright?”

Yes is on the tip of Adam’s tongue, because Autumn thinks that he and Nigel should date and he’d told Beth that he would talk to Nigel but it doesn’t have to be now, does it, surely not, but Adam is absolute crap at hiding his feelings, and his mouth betrays him. “I don’t know,” he says instead.

Nigel grips the back of his head like to hold it steady, looking at him. “Okay,” he says. “Well, I can’t promise to always be the greatest at feelings and shit, but I do know a hungry, tired kid when I see one. Do you want dinner?”

Adam blinks. “Not a kid,” he says, even as the idea of Nigel calling him kid suddenly takes on entirely new dimensions of meaning. He has no idea what they might be, and not enough time to catalogue them.

“But it’s okay if you call me that anyway,” he decides hastily, “as long as you think of me as an adult. And yes, I want dinner.”

“I am definitely,” says Nigel, his eyes running down from Adam’s face and over his chest, “thinking of you as a fucking adult.” He doesn’t let go of Adam’s head, and just to make sure that he still can, that this hasn’t evaporated in the harsh light of day, Adam leans in and kisses him.

This kiss is soft, with Nigel sucking on his lower lip briefly and gently prodding his tongue into Adam’s mouth in a way he would almost describe as hesitant. Adam stands on his tiptoes and presses his mouth to Nigel’s harder, moves forward with his body so their hips just barely touch.

Nigel is panting when he breaks away. “Do you want dinner at my house?” he asks, and then Adam realizes he may have a problem.

“I’m… kind of a picky eater,” he admits.

“Okay,” says Nigel. “What do you eat?”

The fact that Nigel has asked what he does eat, instead of what he doesn’t eat, makes this slightly easier. “My usual dinner is either Annie’s mac n’ cheese or rotisserie chicken,” he says. “I don’t mind salads but mostly just the salad that I make. I’ve never liked a salad that anyone else has made.”

For a moment he feels unimaginably fragile, feeling so much like a kid in exactly the way he doesn’t want to, unable to eat a proper dinner with the grownups. He hates it, but he hates struggling through new foods more.

Nigel shrugs. “Okay. Well, luckily we live in New York and there are grocery stores still open, and also, that kinda saves face for me since I’m a shit cook anyway. Pretty sure I can handle mac n’ cheese. And you can make the salad.”

Which is how Adam finds himself in a grocery store aisle, holding hands with Nigel like they’re a married couple going on a weekly shopping trip. It feels surreal, and he keeps glancing around wondering if anyone else in the store is looking at them. Surely they must be; the relationship feels so new and strange and novel that it’s impossible to imagine they don’t throw out beacons of strangeness to everyone around them. Nobody even notices them, though, as far as Adam can tell. It’s like every other public space in the city; people assiduously ignoring each other, trying to go about their business with the least overcrowding from the teeming masses of humanity as possible.

He puts two boxes of mac n cheese into the basket that Nigel is holding at his elbow, and some lettuce, peppers and celery. Nigel assures him that he does at least have olive oil and vinegar, and when they get to the till, Nigel steps up first and pays for the basket without even looking at Adam.

Adam trails behind, watching the cashier load their dinner into a bag. It’s not a role he’s had too much practice with, even when Dad was alive. As soon as he was tall enough to see eye-to-eye with a cashier, Dad had insisted that Adam be the one to handle the transaction even when they were together. It was good practice, he said; make brief eye contact, say hello and thank you in the right places, keep a pleasant expression on your face until you turn away and you can go back inside yourself. Adam had hated it at first, knowing the cashiers were watching his dad hand Adam a credit card and then direct him to pay for their groceries. But he first time he’d gone grocery shopping after Dad was dead, he’d realized that he was glad he wasn’t doing this himself for the first time. Even if he didn’t understand the rules of mortality, how someone could just be there one moment and gone the next, at least he’d been properly taught the unspoken rules for how to buy groceries.

Now the rules are flipped. Nigel just grunts at the cashier, who ignores him in return and gives him the total in a bored voice. Adam watches him tap his debit card against the machine, grab the grocery bag, then hold out his hand for Adam to take. Like it’s his rightful place.

They take a cab. Adam sits in the middle seat in the back so he can press his shoulder against Nigel’s, and stares out the window at the passing city. Nigel gives an address in Brooklyn and gradually the blinking neon lights and seediness of the area around the strip club fade away and are replaced by modest-looking but monstrously expensive houses. When they pull up outside, Adam notes that there’s a lawn and even a driveway, though there’s no car parked in it. Adam, who has seen and filed away the receipts for rental cars used for purposes that he won’t attempt to guess at, is aware that that’s out of choice, not inability.

They ascend the steps to the house. The lawn is trimmed neatly, and there are flower baskets hanging from the awning of the porch. All and all, it’s exactly the kind of place that he would have pictured Beth growing up, before he had met Nigel. And it’s exactly the opposite of the kind of place he’d imagine Nigel owning if Adam only knew him as the owner of a strip club. Which is probably the point; with the amount of money that Nigel makes owning a strip club, he can afford to pretend at the life of a wealthy, law-abiding citizen.

Nigel holds the door open for him. Everything inside is warm polished wood and tasteful furniture. He imagines Nigel and Beth at an upscale furniture store, picking out the sofa, and the end result fits the picture perfectly. It makes him feel nervous. He’d know, theoretically, that Nigel must have a lot of money. But seeing it in this context feels different.

“I know, I know,” says Nigel, throwing his keys down on a side table in the entrance. “It looks like a fucking accountant lives here. Because one’s supposed to.” Then he turns to look at Adam, who is removing his shoes in the entranceway, which he’s always done in his own apartment, but now he abruptly has no idea if you’re supposed to take your shoes off in a house like this. “Actually,” says Nigel softly, “You’re the first person who’s ever been in this house knowing where the mortgage payments come from.”

Adam wanders into the living room. There’s a gas fireplace and a mantel with a mirror above it, too high up to be useful as a mirror. He steps closer to look at the pictures, arranged above the fireplace carefully, like an art exhibition. There’s one that’s clearly a graduation picture of Beth– he can’t tell whether it’s high school or college. There’s one of a three-person family in front of the Eiffel tower; Nigel, Beth, and the woman who must be her mother. They’re smiling, all holding some sort of food items in their hand that Adam can’t make out from the photo. It’s darkening, with the tower lit up behind them, and all three are smiling.

The third photo is a black and white picture of a short, stocky woman. She’s holding a watering can, squinting into the camera as she waters an unidentifiable tangle of plants growing against the brick wall of a house.

Adam has a picture of a woman in his house, too; not above a fireplace but on a shelf, where it’s been as long as he can remember. He knows it was put there by his dad, probably after his mother died, but since Adam was three at the time, he doesn’t remember it being placed. It’s just always been there. He dusts it, sometimes, when he remembers.

He can feel Nigel behind him. He has to say it. He has to say it now, while he stares at the photo of the woman that he can only guess must be Nigel’s mother, or he’s never going to.

“Beth is upset,” he says quickly. “Because you’re keeping something from her. She can tell. I think you should tell her, Nigel.”

He stares harder. The woman with the watering can swims before his eyes. He feels Nigel’s hands hesitantly on his shoulders. “Adam?”

He turns around, and clutches at Nigel’s shirt, and somehow they end up collapsed on the couch together, Adam curled up practically in Nigel’s lap. It feels nice; it feels like a place to hide from the fact that he’s just told Nigel to tell Beth that… that what?

That he and Nigel kissed? That they bought groceries together under harsh fluorescent lights? That Adam wants to spend an eternity curled up warm in his arms?

Nigel nuzzles into his hair, and Adam shivers. He hopes, fantastically, that Nigel has forgotten what Adam said already. Or perhaps that he hadn’t heard him.

He feels Nigel’s head lift a little, and he gestures at the photos above the fire. “My aunt,” he says. “Mama’s sister. She worked for the ministry of culture, and when a small group of musicians were sent to Greece on a tour, she got me a job as an agent and minder for them. Basically a fucking bodyguard. All five of us– the musicians and I– defected, and ended up in a refugee camp in Greece. We were surprised to see each other, all of us. Two of the musicians were a couple, and they were surprised to see each other as well. Even they had been too afraid too tell their beloved of their plans.”

Adam looks back up at the image, this time small and fuzzy from across the room. He tries to fit this new information overtop of what he had assumed: aunt, not mother. Her expression is indeterminate; she’s smiling, but not quite. She could be simply surprised by the camera, or she could be deeply unhappy. Adam has no idea.

“I’m sorry that I don’t know anything about Romania,” says Adam, his voice is muffled slightly by Nigel’s chest. “ I know that George Gamow, the cosmologist who discovered alpha decay via quantum tunnelling, tried to defect from the USSR by kayaking across the Black Sea. He failed because of bad weather, and later he got out by going to a conference in Brussels, and Marie Curie helped him stay.” Adam swallows. “That’s probably not relevant to you. Sorry.”

Adam feels Nigel’s chest shaking, and looks up to see that he’s laughing. “Not really, no,” he admits. “But good for him. I don’t think I would’ve kayaked anywhere. I was making good money. I wasn’t doing good work, but I was making good money. I was young and stupid. Tatiana was worried for me. She thought I was going to end up dead, smuggling drugs and– well. The other stuff I was doing. I probably would have. She had to convince me to take the job on the tour.”

“Did she tell you to defect?”

“Christ, no.” Nigel’s arms tighten. “That would have been insane. But I knew she was hoping, so I did what she wanted.”

“Is she still alive?”

“No,” says Nigel. “She died in the revolution. She was outside of a restaurant in Bucharest where she had taken me sometimes as a child; the protesters set up a barricade there for a while. If she had lived for four more days, she would have seen her cause victorious and Nicolae Ceaușescu executed.”

“I’m sorry,” says Adam. It’s what you’re supposed to say what other people tell you about someone dying, but it still doesn’t feel quite right. His questions press up against his chest like birds with beating wings, so numerous that he can’t even sort through them to let one out. He tries to imagine Nigel, staying in Romania and dying next to his aunt, and it makes his stomach clench. He thinks about Nigel living in a refugee camp, maybe Adam’s age or younger. He wants to know if Nigel lies awake at night wondering if Tatiana suffered as she died, or if it was quick. He wants to know if Nigel had a comfortable place for him to sleep in the refugee camp, if he knows where his co-defectors are now, if they came to America too. He wants to know if Nigel had a beloved that he left behind, too, or if the kind of man that Tatiana had tried to save him from being wasn’t the sort for that kind of attachment.

The questions are too heavy, and they sink down in him without a ripple. Nigel strokes a hand down Adam’s back. “You’re right,” he says. “I should tell Beth about us. There are a lot of things I should tell Beth, but I’ve tried to protect her from me. As much as I can.”

“You’re a good person,” says Adam fiercely. “And Beth is smart and capable. She’ll be okay.” He knows the first part is true, with a sudden blazing conviction that blots out all the memories of shady dealings hidden away in the basement of the club. He hopes the second part is, too.

He can feel Nigel’s swallow, his throat bobbing against Adam’s head. “I’ll tell her,” Nigel promises. “After this trial. I’m going to get some fucking community service or something, and I just– I don’t want her to see me like that. I can show her the good parts, the training room. Bring her to the Women and Queer Night night show, if she’ll come.”

“That might be awkward,” Adam points out. “I don’t think she’ll want to see me, for a while.” It stings a little less to admit that, after he conversation with Autumn.

“Okay, maybe not that,” Nigel laughs. “But I want to tell her about you. I’m proud of you, baby, I want everyone to know that you want me.”

Adam shivers. “Okay,” he says, and feels a wash of relief. He’s talked to Nigel about Beth, and Nigel is going to come clean– just, not now. And selfishly, Adam is glad. He’s not sure he’s ready for that, either.

Chapter 16

“I used to put frozen carrots and peas in the mac n’ cheese,” says Nigel, leaning his hip against the counter and stirring the pot of pasta. “When I let Beth have it. Read in a parenting book that you have to make your kids eat vegetables or some shit.”

“Good thing I’m not your kid,” says Adam, drizzling vinaigrette over the salad. “And anyway, this is vegetables.”

Nigel lays the wooden spoon down across the pot, which is bubbling away merrily, and comes to stand behind Adam. He doesn’t come quite close enough to box him in against the counter, but Adam can feel his warmth against his back, and he leans backwards into it just to see if Nigel will catch him and hold him.

Nigel’s hands caress down his shoulders but it’s careful, perfunctory, the kind of touch that two people making dinner together can spare while still keeping their minds on the food.

Adam likes routine. He likes categories, filling blocks of time with appropriate activities and then making sure that they’re carried out properly. His life goes round and round like record player that Dad used to have, before he got rid of it when Adam was nine and said it was dumb to have a record player when you could just buy CDs. Adam hadn’t cared what medium they used to play music, but he’d missed the steady circular motion of the record player, after it was gone. He’d used to watch it, mesmerized and soothed by the way its steady movement was both recursive and novel, each spin looking the same to the naked eye but creating different sounds from the rotation preceding it.

Being with Nigel is like picking up the needle on the record player; suspended in air and held, his thoughts and routines allowed to spin slowly down. It should feel terrifying, the extent to which working for Nigel has upended his life, all of his usual habits no longer applicable. Instead it feels like relief. Like the very routines he’d set up to try to protect himself from the outside world had been strangling him instead.

So it should matter to Adam, that they’re in the middle of a chunk of time very clearly delineated as belonging to the making and eating of dinner. It would usually make him anxious that he can feel the hunger pangs starting to gnaw at his stomach– anxiety at the physical sensation of hunger being the natural result of having one’s lunch stolen one too many times in grade school. He should be glad that Nigel is stepping back, leaving him alone, waiting until later.

It doesn’t matter. He just wants Nigel to come back, come closer. “I masturbated while thinking about you this morning,” says Adam.

That gets Nigel’s attention. Adam has only turned his head a tiny bit to see Nigel’s reaction when Nigel steps back in and reaches forward, his hands cupping the bottom of Adam’s jaw. Warm fingers pressing just where his face meets his neck.

Nigel angles his head up, but he’s not forcing Adam to make eye contact with him; he’s inspecting him, like Adam is some kind of rare and precious jewel. “Did you, now,” he breathes.

Adam nods, and feels the way Nigel’s fingers tighten against his chin. It feels nice. Being held always does. He wants more. “I penetrated myself anally while pretending that it was your cock,” he says. “But I didn’t allow myself to orgasm.”

“Jesus fucking Christ, Adam.” Nigel pulls him closer, laughing helplessly. “You can’t say things like that.”

“Oh. Sorry.” Adam blinks, desperately trying to figure out where he’d gone wrong, if he’d misread the situation and come on too strong sexually with Nigel just like he had with Beth. “Sorry, it’s just, I thought–”

“Fuck. You can say things like that. Okay, I’m going to be really fucking literal here, to avoid confusion. Please say things like that as often as you like.”

“Oh.” Adam sighs in relief, and then gasps at the feeling of Nigel leaning down and sucking on his neck, right underneath the jawline on the left side. It’s completely unexpected, that his neck should send a bolt of arousal straight to his cock, although he knows intellectually that hickeys are acknowledged to be a sexual mark, and that some people have them. He’s never seen the appeal before, though.

He turns his head the moment Nigel releases his skin with a wet smacking sound, turning his head. “You have to– whatever you do to one side, you have to–”

“–do to the other, I know,” finishes Nigel, his mouth opening on the exact same spot on the right side of Adam’s neck. “Your overinvested pole dance coach,” he continues between sucks, “told me that you’ll make a great dancer because you insist on training each skill equally on both sides. Not sure she realized she was giving me sexual intel, but…” Nigel draws away and looks up and down Adam’s body, gaze lingering on the bulge in his pants. “It turns out I also have a very vivid imagination, when it comes to you.”

Adam wonders, for a moment, if Autumn perhaps actually did suspect that she had been giving Nigel sexual intel, with that tidbit. The thought doesn’t bother him all that much.

What does bother him is that Nigel is stopping. Adam slumps towards him, unashamedly needy. “More,” he demands.

Nigel catches him by the hips, preventing Adam from pushing all the way up against him. “So,” Nigel murmurs, “You didn’t let yourself come.”

No,” whines Adam, which really should be all he needs to say to communicate so now I’m desperate, please touch me more, but for some reason Nigel keeps holding their bodies apart, looking thoughtful.

“Did you like waiting?” Nigel asks, and his voice has gone low and rough. It sends something very like fear, but not quite, through the pit of Adam’s stomach. (It should be fear. Nigel has killed people, Adam is almost certain. Maybe not in America, not directly, but at least indirectly. Adam has seen the careful records of weapons outlay in the records room.)

And now Nigel lets him push in close, close enough that his mouth lines right up with Adam’s ear. “Did you like the idea of me being solely responsible for your orgasm? No relief until I say so?”

Adam whines. He hadn’t thought of it exactly like that, not as he sat on the floor of his shower fingering himself this morning. But now, the idea worms into him so insidiously that it feels like it must have been there all along. It takes root so deep that it feels like the complete truth when he whines, “Yes.”

And that must be the right thing to say, because Nigel rewards him with a hand slipping down, pressing firmly over the bulge of Adam’s cock. Even through the cloth of his pants and underwear Nigel’s hand is warm, and it feels shocking to suddenly have it there. Cruder than Adam could have anticipate, and better.

“Aah–” he pushes into it, unashamedly humping into Nigel’s hand. It doesn’t matter that this wasn’t what he anticipated, that even as he cups Adam’s cock with one hand Nigel reaches over to turn down the heat on the boiling pot of pasta with the other. Nigel lets him thrust, pushes back against his needy movements and then grabs Adam around the shoulders with his free arm. It gives Adam leverage, and then Nigel starts pulling Adam rhythmically against him in time with Adam’s efforts so it feels like his entire body is trapped in the heat and warmth of Nigel. He pushes his face into Nigel’s shoulder, nearly under his arm, where he can smell the spice and musk of deodorant applied not-quite-recently enough.

Adam is going to come in his pants, he’s going to be left sticky and panting in the middle of Nigel’s kitchen, and he can’t even find the breath to tell Nigel that he’s close until–

“I think that’s quite enough of that,” Nigel murmurs in his ear, and pulls away.

Adam can hear his own blood in his ears. His erection aches pressed against the fabric of his clothes, and his knees are so weak that he would fall over if it weren’t for Nigel still holding him up by his shoulders.

“What?” he gasps.

Nigel reaches down again, but it’s only to draw a single light, teasing finger up the seam in between Adam’s legs, over his aching cock, up his stomach and chest and finishing with a teasing pinch to each nipple through his shirt. Adam jerks with it; his entire body feels alert and sensitive.

“No relief until I say so,” says Nigel. “And I don’t say so. You haven’t eaten your dinner yet.” He twists the dial on the burner to off. “Pasta’s ready.”

Adam just stares with his mouth hanging open, brain still trying to catch up to the situation, as Nigel mixes the cheese powder with milk and butter and mixes it in with the pasta. He grabs two bowls from a cupboard that contains two bowls in total– the first indication Adam has seen that the facade of this being a respectable family home is just that, a facade– and ladles some of the mac n’ cheese into each.

He holds one out to Adam, and eyebrow raised. “Ready for dinner, gorgeous?”

Nigel is seriously going to make him eat dinner with his cock harder than it’s ever been in his life.

Which just turns him on more. God, why is Adam so turned on by the idea of not coming? That doesn’t make any sense.

He dazedly accepts the bowl. Nigel brings two plates, and Adam follows with the bowl of salad into the dining room. The dining room is small, carpeted and with only a small wooden table and chairs: three chairs, as opposed to the two bowls and two plates in the cupboard. There’s a laptop, a sheaf of blank paper, and an unidentifiable, straggly plant sitting on the table, all of which Nigel clears off and places on the floor.

Adam sits down, and adjust himself obviously in his pants. If Nigel left him like this, surely Nigel would be okay with him adjusting his dick at the dinner table.

Nigel just runs a hand affectionately through his hair and sits down beside him. “Alright, sweetheart?”

“Yes,” says Adam. He frowns at the bowl of familiar cheesy pasta. “I’m very aroused,” he adds. It feels weird to contemplate eating in this state. Like his body can only focus on the satiation of one hunger at a time, and now it has two that are both gnawing on him equally.

“Do you like it?” Nigel grabs some salad for himself with two forks, at the same time as his foot sneaks out and strokes over the top of Adam’s underneath the table.

Adam twitches at the contact. He stares into his food some more, and almost involuntarily tilts is hips forward to get the tiniest bit more contact with the chair. “I wanted to come,” he says in a small voice, “but– yeah. I like it.”

“Good.” Nigel’s gaze is hot and obvious on him, and he gestures at Adam’s bowl. “Eat your mac n’ cheese.”

Chapter 17

“Tell me about your– sky shit,” says Nigel. “The thing you worked on in university. That you were telling Autumn’s dad about.”

Adam chews a mouthful of macaroni. He is reminded of dinner with Dad, how he used to make Adam talk to him about his day while they ate, even the little things that Adam didn’t think were worth talking about. We’re practising making conversation, he’d say when Adam protested that he just wanted to focus on eating.

Talking feels like just one more thing to juggle, along with eating and trying not to rock his hips into the chair uncontrollably to get more pressure on his cock. He knows he could tell Nigel no, that it’s too much, that he just wants to focus on the food. But as soon as the thought strikes him, he realizes that Nigel probably already knows this is hard for him. Making conversation in the middle of sex would be hard for anyone; that’s the point. It’s a challenge, and Adam is good at challenges.

So instead Adam talks about the Digital Sky Survey, and he watches Nigel’s eyebrows carefully and whenever they curl in his stops and asks if Nigel needs him to explain a term or a concept. He gets so excited that he ends up talking with his mouth full several times, but unlike Dad, Nigel doesn’t say a word about it. He just stares at Adam with a small smile on his face and hair falling softly into his eyes, and eventually he leans over and kisses Adam in the middle of a sentence, and Adam realizes his bowl is empty and he’s been talking for quite some time.

“You interrupted me,” says Adam crossly, the moment Nigel’s mouth pulls away. “I was going to say that I graduated before the work was finished, but the measurement of the imprints of baryon acoustic oscillations ended up succeeding in quantifying the expansion rate of the universe accurate to one per cent.”

Nigel stands up and brings their dishes to the kitchen, and when he comes back, he winds his arms around Adam and pulls him up from his chair and into his arms. “Don’t you think it’s a little creepy that the universe just keeps getting bigger?” Nigel asks. “I mean, when do we bump up against the edges of the fucking container, you know?”

“It’s not expanding into anything,” Adam mumbles, and he allows Nigel to exert gentle pressure on him, follows him as Nigel pulls him through the house, past some questionable wallpaper choices and childhood pictures of Beth hanging on the wall. “There’s no container. It’s the metric tensor governing the geometry of spacetime that changes.”

“Yeah, that makes way more sense,” Nigel grouses. “Shit gets farther way from other shit without actually going anywhere. Great.”

Adam opens his mouth to respond, trying to cast his mind across how to explain the Friedmann–Lemaître–Robertson–Walker metric to someone who by his own admission barely passed math in a Romanian high school several decades ago. Then some sort of parking break pulls in his brain, and he realizes there is no reason on Earth why he would need to do so, especially not when–

–Nigel is trying to distract him, Adam realizes. He’s been drawing him out, trying to get him to talk for the entire meal and after it, a gentle arm around Adam’s shoulders as he guides him towards Nigel’s bedroom. And now they’re here, and Adam has been so caught up in physical cosmology that he’s forgotten all about the fact that they’re about to have sex, and he can only assume that that was Nigel’s intention.

Which doesn’t makes sense. Why would Nigel want him thinking about something other than sex, when he’d already gone to so much trouble to make sure that Adam was hard and aching all through dinner, when he–

“Nigel,” says Adam, “Did you think that I was nervous?”

Nigel sits down heavily on the bed, and Adam looks around the room. It’s minimalist, the walls painted an off-white that isn’t quite tan, heavy black blinds over the windows– the blinds of someone who does a lot of his sleeping during daylight hours.

The bed is made, not overly fastidiously, a navy blue duvet cover hanging off of the edges. It’s the only theory, in Adam’s attempted excavation of Nigel’s thinking, that makes sense. Nigel thought that Adam was nervous to have sex with him, so he was trying to distract him until the moment it started happening.

If so, it wasn’t exactly a bad idea. Adam had been nervous, but most of it had evaporated into sheer arousal. Now that he is standing in Nigel’s room, staring at Nigel’s bed and trying to figure out what Nigel is thinking, though, it feels like it could make a comeback.

Nigel licks his lips. He looks up at Adam from the bed, his mouth soft, blinking hair out of his eyes, and then says, “Fuck, Adam, I kind of just assumed. I mean, I’m scared as shit.”

Adam stares. All of the air in the room seems to rearrange itself without anything having changed at all, which in the back of his mind Adam wonders if perhaps would be analogous to the expansion of the universe, a possible non-technical explanation of our inadequate human perceptions of spacetime.

“You’re scared… of having sex with me?”

“Not scared like I’m scared of fucking gunfights,” clarifies Nigel, and Adam immediately forces his mind away from the idea of Nigel in a gunfight because he could probably spend an entire evening melting down over that. “But yeah, fuck, I’m nervous, I’m man enough to admit that.”

“Oh,” says Adam, a possible explanation popping up in his mind. “If you’re nervous about being penetrated, don’t worry. I enjoy anal penetration and had been planning on asking you to penetrate me. I know it’s more of a pornography stereotype for an older, larger man to penetrate a younger, smaller one, but I really enjoy it when I do it to myself and–”

Nigel grabs his hips and pulls him down, so that Adam is sitting on the bed beside Nigel and leaning into his shoulder. “Adam,” he says. “That’s– okay, that’s good to know and I won’t pretend it hadn’t crossed my mind, but. Christ.” Nigel chuckles into his hair, and Adam can feel the slight trembling of Nigel’s hand on his shoulder.

“It’s not about– look, I’ve fucked boys before, okay,” Nigel continues, and Adam feels an irrational flare of jealously. Of course Nigel has had sex with people before, and it shouldn’t surprise them that some of them have been men. “But it was just that, fucking. They weren’t…” he sighs. “I’m not a good man, Adam, you know that, right?”

Adam wants to protest. Nigel is a good man, and Adam knows it from everything he says and does, and the way his employees talk about him like he’s a part of their own family, and the payments in the records room showing cheques cut to dancers and bartenders for no reason at all, no goods or services exchanged, just because someone needed money and the club had money to give.

But he also knows why Nigel is saying it. He knows what Nigel is trying to remind him of, and it’s the things he’s tried to avoid thinking of head-on. The drugs and weapons deals Adam’s seen the evidence of, the way certain business partners in illegal dealings are regulars for years, then simply drop off the face of the earth.

The most he can do is nod.

“Look, I’ve never fucked anyone that I wasn’t pretty sure was OK with being fucked,” says Nigel. “But when you’re in this line of work, you fall out of the habit of caring too much about other people. Sex is a business, it’s cheap, it clarifies who’s the boss and who’s the bitch, and I’ve put my dick in a whole lot of people that were just a hole to me. Most of the sex I’ve had since my– since Beth’s mom left, I looked down on the person I was having sex with. Because they were letting me degrade them by using their body like a fucking sex toy.”

“Circular logic,” Adam points out. “You don’t respect your sex partner, so they are by definition degrading themselves by having sex with someone who doesn’t respect them, leading you to respect them less.”

“Yeah. Circular fucking logic. I never said I was smart, either, Adam.”

“You didn’t have to. I knew you were smart from talking to you and seeing your business.”

Nigel’s arm squeezes around his shoulder. “Point is, I’ve fucked boys, but I’ve never had gay sex. Because gender doesn’t matter when you’re high out of your mind and trying to forget your entire life is a sham and you barely even recognize that the object you’re fucking is human, let alone a male human.”

Adam frowns and focuses his eyes on the sliding doors to a closet, positioned opposite the bed. “I think that still counts as gay sex,” he points out. But that doesn’t really seem to capture what Nigel is worried about, somehow. He thinks about the photo on the mantelpiece, Nigel’s aunt Tatiana with her watering can. He knows that Nigel grew up differently than he did; Adam had known that even before tonight. But it’s hard to fathom just how much differently. He wants to feel out the edges of Nigel’s life, figure out where he and Adam intersect. It makes him feel small to know so little.

“Was homosexuality illegal when you were growing up?” he asks.

“Well, yeah, but it’s not like I ever had much of a problem doing illegal shit,” says Nigel. “Illegal is fine. It just wasn’t done, you know? I mean, I’m sure it was— but homosexuality was supposed to be… a byproduct of Western capitalism, or some shit. America infiltrating our culture.” He shrugs. “Then I get to America, and find out they’ve been saying that the communists are the homosexuals all along. Who the fuck knows. Point is, nobody wants to be a filthy cocksucker.”

“Oh,” says Adam in a small voice.

Filthy cocksucker. The insult rings in Adam’s head, even though Nigel hadn’t meant it for him. At least, he’s pretty sure he hadn’t. After all, Nigel is sitting here with Adam, in his bedroom, wanting to have sex with him, despite filthy cocksucker.

Adam doesn’t want to be thinking about his dad right now– well, nobody really wants to be thinking about their dad during sex– but a memory floats through his mind. Adam in tears, throwing down his backpack on the floor as soon as they got home from school and pulling out a notebook where he’d started writing down the names that other kids called him. They weren’t imaginative, for the most part. Dork. Loser. Some kid hadn’t bothered to listen properly when Adam had said Asperger’s, and started calling him Adam ass-burger instead.

Adam remembers Dad hugging him close, patting his hair on the couch until he stopped crying. He’d promised to talk to Adam’s teachers again, but they’d both known it wasn’t going to do much. Sometimes people are just going to say mean things, Dad had told him, and even though he was mostly focused on how miserable he was himself, Adam had gotten an inkling too that Dad was sad, too. You can’t control what comes out of other peoples’ mouths. You can only control how it makes you feel about yourself.

Then they had taken Adam’s notebook, and copied out each insult in big block capitals, and written together all of the good things that that being called that word meant about Adam. Nerd, dork, geek, know-it-all; all words that acknowledge how Adam’s brain retains information that seems irrelevant to other people and calls it up with accuracy and attention to detail. Loser, lame, fuckup; nonspecific insults that people use when they feel insecure, when faced with someone who hasn’t left them any openings for real insults.

(Even Dad had struggled with a positive spin to put on Adam ass-burger, but books about famous people with Asperger’s had started appearing on his bed after school: Thomas Jefferson, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Emily Dickinson, Andy Warhol, Lewis Carroll. Adam had read the one about Paul Dirac when it showed up, and let the rest pile up on his shelf like silent but encouraging companions in the land of ass-burger.)

You can’t control what comes out of other peoples’ mouths. You can only control how it makes you feel about yourself. Adam turns over filthy cocksucker in his mind, imagines Nigel being called that at the same age as Adam had been learning about the meanings behind insults. Imagines Nigel hearing other people say it, or perhaps an equivalent insult in Romanian. Or perhaps he had only learned it here, in America, learning what other people thought of his home. He remembers the first time they’d met, Nigel saying Beth’s mom ran off with some American cocksucker. Since Beth’s mom is unlikely to have a cock, clearly it’s not the act itself that he was referring to.

Adam imagines writing down FILTHY COCKSUCKER in a notebook with Nigel, filling in all the good things the words really mean, just like he’d done with Dad.

But then, Nigel isn’t really a notebook guy.

Adam turns towards Nigel. He slips one leg over Nigel’s lap, pulling himself over until they’re sitting chest-to-chest, Adam’s thighs straddled on either side of Nigel’s legs. Adam takes a deep breath. “Well, I want to be a filthy cocksucker,” he says.

Adam can see the stubble on Nigel’s face very finely from this close up, pale blonde with small patches of grey. He watches Nigel’s mouth, sees one corner turn up minutely and then force itself back down again.

“It’s okay,” says Adam. “Just because you don’t want to think of a certain word as a bad thing, doesn’t mean it stops feeling bad just like that.” He knows that from school, too; it takes practice to ignore insults, let them roll off of you and prop you up instead of pulling you down. Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent, Dad had quoted at him, but even he had admitted that withdrawing consent was maybe the hardest thing that Adam would ever do.

Adam rolls his hips. He’s no longer rock-hard and aching, which was probably actually helpful for his clarity of thought, but the heat of Nigel’s body and the feel of how closely their hips fit together is addictive, and he can feel his cock stiffening again. He leans in, close to Nigel’s ear just like he loves it when Nigel whispers in his ear, and says, “Today, I’ll be a filthy cocksucker for you. You can be a filthy cocksucker for me another time, when you’re ready.”

It feels illicit, thrilling, to give Nigel something close to instructions, and he pulls back to see Nigel’s reaction. Nigel’s eyes slam shut, and he takes a deep breath through his nose, which could be anger, but Adam can also feel Nigel’s erection in between his legs, and he thinks not.

“Fuck. Adam. That’s not– I don’t want to… degrade you. Like with… others.”

“Then don’t,” says Adam easily. “Just let me suck your cock.”

Nigel groans. “Okay. Yeah, fuck, okay.”

He pushes himself backwards on the bed and Adam goes with him, finding himself suddenly kneeling overtop of Nigel’s supine body. He braces his elbows on the mattress and lies himself flat, letting all his weight push down into Nigel. He wonders for a moment if he could hurt him this way, but it seems unlikely given the disparity in their weights, and anyway, he’s pretty sure Nigel would push him away if he really needed to breathe.

He leans down and kisses Nigel, feeling their mouths sliding against each other and their bellies pressing into each other and their cocks rubbing incessantly on fabric and the heat of another person. Adam realizes, somewhat distantly, that he’s never sucked a cock before, and he hadn’t looked up how to do it. It isn’t the sexual act he’d been preparing for this evening, and Adam likes to be prepared.

But it feels right, and somehow the fact that he can still feel Nigel trembling slightly underneath him helps. Adam was prepared and confident, but Nigel is frightened. Adam doesn’t quite understand his fear, it’s hidden in pieces of Nigel’s history and personality that Adam doesn’t understand yet, but he doesn’t need to understand it. Nigel has helped Adam calm down enough times before, and now Adam will help Nigel. It feels like a burst of supernatural confidence, almost like being on stage, to be able to do that for someone.

He tries to slip his hand down and undo the buckle on Nigel’s belt without breaking the kiss, but eventually admits defeat and clambers off to concentrate on the buckle. When even that goes too slowly, Nigel sits up and mutters “Undress– you, too, I want to see you,” and they both shuck their own clothes off, discarded on the floor beside the bed and the two of them sitting opposite each other, naked, staring.

Nigel has a pronounced bulge of musculature on his arms and torso, and a downy tangle of hair covering his chest, and Adam stares at the red length of his cock like it’s a personal challenge. He pushes Nigel back down onto his back, but before he can crawl down Nigel’s body to get to it Nigel is touching him: the flat palm of his hand through the hollows of Adam’s collarbones, down his sternum and tracing the spaces between his ribs, rubbing over his iliac crests and hands tracing firmly inwards and down to cup the base of his cock.

Oh.” Adam collapses momentarily back against Nigel’s chest, this time rubbing his cheek against the coarse hair there, just resting for a moment. He wants to suck Nigel, but he wants to keep feeling Nigel’s hands on him.

Nigel squeezes gently, one hand on Adam’s cock and one gently exploring his balls, a finger rubbing over his perineum. Adam thrusts forwards, can’t help it, feeling himself smear precome on Nigel’s lower belly.

“Fuck, yes,” Nigel sighs, and then kisses the centre of Adam’s forehead carefully. “Okay. Suck my cock, if you’re going to.”

Adam doesn’t need to be told twice. He crawls backwards, putting a firm hand on the inside of each of Nigel’s thighs and pushing them open, making room for himself between them. He looks up: Nigel’s eyes are closed tightly like he’s in pain, but Adam hasn’t even touched him yet. That seems to be a good sign, but Adam isn’t great at reading signs. “Tell me if you want me to stop,” he says. Adam can’t imagine that he would ever want someone to stop in the middle of a blowjob, but it seems like he should say it anyway. “And, um, tell me when you’re going to come, if that’s okay?”

Adam watches Nigel’s reaction nervously. He knows there are yet more insults intended for people who don’t swallow the semen of a sexual partner during oral sex– spitters are quitters— but he really doesn’t want to put semen in his mouth. And Nigel, who had gone to the grocery store just to get mac n’ cheese and salad with him, surely won’t be surprised by that, but Adam is still on edge until the moment Nigel looks down and runs his fingers gently through Adam’s hair. “Of course,” he says.

Adam nods, then resolves to ignore Nigel’s face and concentrate on his cock from now on. He grabs it at the base, and licks a long stripe up the underside from base to tip.

Nigel immediately moans and makes a little aborted thrust with his hips. Adam grins– that was easy to get a reaction. He closes his mouth gently around the head, and hears a litany of “ohfuckohfuckohfuck” from the head of the bed, and stops worrying even a little bit about not knowing how to do this. He knows how to do this just fine; he has a cock of his own, after all.

It’s easy and almost soothing once he finds a rhythm: pulling his mouth up and down the column of Nigel’s erection, following with a stroke of his hand to allow himself time to breathe, varying the position of his tongue against Nigel’s velvety skin. His neck is slightly sore by the time Nigel gasps “I’m going to come–” and he wonders, as he pulls his mouth off and catches Nigel’s semen in his hands, if perhaps it would be less sore if he were to suck Nigel off while he was standing. Adam imagines them in Nigel’s office at the club, Nigel braced against a wall and Adam on his knees in front of him. It sounds nice.

The room feels soft and muffled, and the sound of Nigel’s panting breath reaches Adam’s ears as if from far away. Nigel reaches for a box of tissues on the bedside table, then sits up with a groan. He holds Adam’s hands gently at the wrists, and cleans the come off of each finger carefully before leaning over throwing the wad of tissues in the trash.

He leans his face into Adam’s chest, burying himself there like Adam has folded himself into Nigel’s safety so many times. Adam wraps his arms around him, his chin on Nigel’s shoulder, feeling light and loving and satisfied, despite his aching cock.

“Thank you,” murmurs Nigel, and before Adam has had time to puzzle out whether or not you’re very welcome is the appropriate response in this context, Nigel’s hand is finally back on his cock. He shifts back, spreads his legs a little more, so that they’re face-to face and his entire front is open to Nigel’s wandering hands.

“What do you want, sweetheart?” Nigel whispers. “Do you want me to suck you, too?”

Adam shakes his head. “Just like this,” he says. “I want your hand.” Nigel reaches over to the bedside table again, opening a drawer and pulling out a pump-top bottle of lubricant, and when he brings his hand back it is still warm but also perfectly slick, and Adam presses his forehead into Nigel’s shoulder, feeling the heat in between their bodies and the way Nigel’s hand works him confidently. It’s different from the way Adam would do it, but that’s what makes it better; each touch and slide of fingers feels like a surprise, something he wouldn’t have thought of on his own.

“Will you touch my nipples?” he mutters into Nigel’s skin, and Nigel’s other hand immediately comes up to play with them, plucking it one then the other, growing bolder when Adam twitches and whimpers and wriggles closer for more. Nigel pinches him, and in the questioning space after the movement Adam moans “yes” and is rewarded with more pinches and twists of the sensitive skin. It builds like a slow-burning fire inside him so that when he finally comes, convulsing against the hot press of Nigel’s body, it feels like the release is happening to his entire body at once. Like sex isn’t really about sex organs at all.

Nigel cleans his own hands less fastidiously than he had Adam’s, just enough that he can grab around Adam’s shoulders without making him sticky and pull him back so they can lie down together. Adam nuzzles his face into Nigel’s neck. He feels unaccountably sleepy, and realizes that he hadn’t planned on staying the night at Nigel’s house. He hadn’t been letting himself think about it; but now, taking a taxi home to lie in his own bed sounds like more trouble than it’s worth.

“I need to brush my teeth if I’m going to sleep,” he says eventually, when the necessity of the routine itches at him too hard to ignore. “I have a travel toothbrush in my bag.”

Nigel kisses his temple. “You’re going to stay here, then?” he asks, strangely hesitantly.

“Can I?”

Nigel squeezes his eyes shut again, then opens them and strokes down the side of Adam’s face. “Please,” he says. “Whenever you want.”

Chapter 18

Adam wakes up to a hard kick to the shin. He jerk, flails around in unfamiliar bedding, and eventually heaves himself up to sitting, staring at the tangle of sheets that is Nigel.

The bedroom is dark, but tiny slivers of the artificial glow of street-lamps infiltrate the bedroom where the blackout blinds haven’t quite been pulled flush with the edges of the window. Nigel’s street is quieter than the one outside Adam’s apartment, but he still wishes he had his noise machine; he’s grown used to it, and the relative silence rings in his ears.

He looks down at Nigel, who is out cold, although his legs are still restless. The bed is big enough that if he were just a few feet over, Adam would be out of his line of fire, but Nigel is sprawled across the very centre of the mattress, and Adam feel uncomfortably boxed in.

He could wake Nigel, but he doesn’t yet. He feels pleasantly buzzed, awake and curious. He reaches for his bag, which he had dragged into the bedroom before collapsing comfortably on the bed again and letting Nigel stroke his back as he dropped off to sleep. His phone is half-dead, and it’s 1:30 in the morning.

He makes his way quietly out of the bedroom and down the hall to the bathroom, lacking the strong urge to urinate but without any other conceivable reason to get up and walk around. Nigel’s bathroom is clean and white, a toothbrush and toothpaste in the counter inside of a repurposed jam jar. Adam opens the medicine cabinet after he washes his hands, a mirrored box over the sink that he eases open with his fingers to quiet the magnetized click of the door. Band-aids, ibuprofen, extra toothpaste. A bottle of cologne from the drugstore, which he sniffs at and determines Nigel doesn’t habitually wear– it smells of alcohol and something halfway in between spicy and cloying, and Adam doesn’t like it.

He eases the cabinet closed, feeling a little guilty. You’re not supposed to snoop in other peoples’ houses, but then, he also knows that there are still degrees of violation, and looking in the medicine cabinet isn’t so very bad. Still, he feels somehow caught in the alive stillness of the house. He can’t figure out if it’s odd how much he feels like he belongs here, or how much he feels like he doesn’t.

There’s another door in between the bathroom and Nigel’s bedroom. The door is very slightly ajar, just a sliver of space that allows him to mentally categorize it as “open,” and peer in. He knew before he looked that of course it was going to be Beth’s room, but it is disappointingly free of things to identify her by. The bookshelf is perhaps hers, the books she hadn’t taken when she’d moved out, but there is nothing on the walls, and a twin bed covered by a plain blue cover.

Adam isn’t sure why he finds it disappointing, that there isn’t much of Beth in her old room. It isn’t that he wants to know more about Beth, necessarily; more that Beth is now taking shape in his mind as not just the adult that Adam knows, but the child that Nigel had. He knows that Nigel had come to America, after an unspecified amount of time in a refugee camp in Greece. He had gone into business with a strip club, and married an American woman– probably in that order, since the decision to conceal his profession from Beth had been made when Beth was very young, and presumably the strip club established enough that it was profitable and thus more worth concealing than finding a career he didn’t have to hide from his daughter.

Adam wants to know what kind of dad Nigel was, if he came home drunk from the club and pretended to have been simply out drinking with buddies. If he was kind to Beth’s mother, or if part of the pain in Nigel’s eyes when he had said I’m not a good man, Adam had been pain inflicted on her. Adam knows that Beth loves Nigel, so perhaps that means that he couldn’t have treated her mother too badly. But then, Adam has met many people who love people that they shouldn’t for no apparent reason other than familial attachment, so perhaps that isn’t a guarantee.

Perhaps it’s fucked-up in some way that Adam feels more interested in staying friends with Beth now than he had before– but the internal logic of this entire thing has become so twisted that Adam no longer knows which direction is up. He knows that what Autumn said had felt right to him; he shouldn’t make decisions about his romantic life based on who it might upset. And he knows that it’s dishonest not to tell Beth about this, to keep it from her even for a little bit longer– surely it will only make it worse, when Nigel eventually tells her.

But then, Nigel has been keeping his real career from her for over thirty years. This is bigger than Adam, and surely if Nigel has been lying that long, a few more weeks won’t hurt. At least, Adam assumes that the time frame is on the order of weeks; but then, he hadn’t really clarified with Nigel, had he?

He thinks of Nigel’s request that he stay friends with Beth, and Beth’s desolation at Nigel’s pulling away from her. It does make him want to comfort her, even if he has to keep lying for Nigel. Perhaps that’s the real measure of the kindness he can do for her: to keep her company and weather his own distress at the dishonesty of the situation. Keep it locked tightly inside, for Beth. For her sake.

That feels reassuring: to do something for Beth, not to her. He isn’t sure if it’s entirely honest on his part to frame it that way, but Beth’s childhood bedroom is shrouded in darkness and he can’t see any more without pushing the door open more, and Adam is getting tired again.

He’ll think about it in the morning.

Nigel is still sprawled over nearly the entire bed when he gets back. Adam licks his lips, feeling oddly nervous. This is Nigel’s bed. Adam wants to be able to make himself small, tuck himself into the corners and not be a bother, but he knows himself well enough to know that that isn’t going to work. He doesn’t particularly like falling asleep next to another person; the idea of existing inside the heat of someone else’s body sounds nice in theory, but he needs space to sleep.

He contemplates for a moment curling up on the floor, rather than waking Nigel, then shakes his head. That’s ridiculous. Not only is it ridiculous, but Nigel would probably be offended if he woke up to find Adam like that, and he would tell him to just wake Nigel up next time.

Adam slides under the covers, pulling and rustling at them intentionally in an attempt to wake Nigel up gently. He pokes at his shoulder when he doesn’t stir, and whispers, “I need more space.”

Nigel pushes up on his forearms, and Adam is momentarily distracted staring at his shoulders, the way the muscle curves gracefully into the bulge of his bicep. “Sorry,” Nigel mutters, husky with sleep and clearly only half-awake, and he shuffles way over to the other side of the bed, as close as he can get to the other side without falling off entirely.

Adam wants to tell him to come back, he didn’t need to go that far away, but Nigel seems to already be asleep. He stares for a minute longer, how the flesh of Nigel’s back is both soft and stretched taut over musculature and ribs. He lies down facing Nigel’s back, stretching out his and soon closes his eyes.

* * *

Nigel uses an alarm clock.

It takes a few minutes for that to sink in, since at the very moment of waking Adam is merely disoriented, and the only thoughts that occur to him are where am I? and what was that horrible beeping sound?

When he rockets to a sitting position and his heart finally stops beating so fast it feels like it’s going to erupt out of his throat, the world around him resolves into an understandable present: he is in Nigel’s bedroom, and Nigel apparently uses not just an alarm clock but the horrible beeping of a clock-radio, the kind that Adam has only ever seen in hotel rooms. The face of the thing is covered with a piece of cardboard, covering the glow of the numbers.

Nigel reaches over and smashes a hand on the top of it to turn it off. He’s sitting on the side of the bed, scrubbing at his face with his hands, looking somehow more tired than he had before they’d gone to sleep. The light coming in around the edges of the blinds is bright-white, the kind that somehow viscerally signals morning in the human brain without the need even to see the angle of the sun.

Adam frowns. “You use an alarm clock,” he says, stupidly. It’s not at all what he meant to say, but when he thinks about it what he really wants to ask is you never come in to work in the morning, I just assumed that you lie around in bed all day, which now that he thinks about it, sounds pretty insulting.

Nigel winces. “Not always,” he says. “But yeah, sometimes I’m not a lazy fuck.” He stands up, looking vaguely troubled, and Adam stares up at him: naked, vaguely scruffy, soft cock that Adam knows still has remnants of semen on it hanging between his thighs. Somehow, seeing Nigel’s body causally is entirely different from seeing it sexually, and almost more fascinating.

He looks troubled, though, and Adam can’t figure out why and has a moment of worry that it’s him, it must be him– it’s too ingrained in him to ask if anyone who is upset or angry around him might possibly be upset or angry because of Adam.

Then Nigel sighs and says, “You caught me on a bad day. Well. It was my fault– I should have told you last night that I’d have to get up in the morning.”

“I don’t mind getting up,” says Adam. “I don’t like sleeping in very much, it throws off my routines.”

“I have to…” Nigel licks his lips, and his eyes flick towards the closet. “Remember that trial that Beth was asking about?”

Adam’s eyes follow where Nigel’s had gone, and Nigel rubs the back of his neck and heads in that direction. He opens the closet door, and pulls out a suit that has clearly been waiting there for this exact moment.

“It’s today?” says Adam incredulously. He’d known it was coming up, and that Nigel hadn’t really wanted to talk about it. He’s not sure if he should feel insulted that Nigel hadn’t mentioned anything even with it looming right in front of him, or maybe honoured that Nigel had said something, in his own way; he’d invited Adam home to his house, wanted him to sleep in his bed, knowing that this would be the inevitable outcome. Adam was always supposed to find out, or at least, Nigel hadn’t taken pains to stop him. That’s something.

His heart lurches when he recalls his late-night resolution: to lie to Beth for Nigel, and think of it as lying for Beth, for her own good. It’s one thing to keep a secret that’s been hidden her whole life. It’s another to keep this locked up, the vast chasm of worry for Nigel that has opened in the pit of his stomach.

“Hey,” says Nigel. He throws the suit down on the bed, where it rumples in with the covers in a way it’s probably not supposed to, and reaches out to grasp Adam’s face between his hands: the same warm thumbs tracing he jawline, callused palms against his cheeks. “Adam, it’s fine. I told you it’s going to be fine. Would I lie to you?”

I don’t know, Adam wants to say. He doesn’t think Nigel would lie to him, but then, he’s been lying to Beth her whole life. What makes Adam so different?

Nigel sits down heavily on the bed, and Adam wonders if his answer had shown in his face, despite his silence. He wants to take it back, wants to say No, of course not, I trust you, but he can’t.

“Look,” says Nigel. “I… I really wanted to do this alone. It’s not a serious charge, and believe it or not this is my first run-in with the law in America, because I’m a paranoid motherfucker, and we do things right at the club even when they’re the wrong things. I’ve driven people to and from these things before, friends and employees, and it’s just a little room with a smelly fucking carpet where they get you in and out as fast as they can. So I really wanted to just get this shit over with on my own. But I get that I’m also maybe not the most reliable, and… if you want to come, if it would make you feel better to sit in a hard plastic chair in a windowless courtroom and watch them read the charge and me be sentenced to a bunch of picking up fucking garbage by the side of the road, then you can. Okay?”

Adam hears his own breath in the quiet of the room. it’s faster than usual, and Nigel is rubbing soothing circles on his back. It makes him feel even guiltier: that now, at a time when Nigel is the one who needs support, he’s sitting here soothing Adam.

Adam wants to support Nigel. He wants to make him feel better when he’s frightened, feels drawn back to the way Nigel had trembled just a little as Adam started sucking his cock, arousal and unexpected nerves drawing together in the tight bulge of his muscles under Adam’s hands.

And maybe he’s just too gullible, but he does trust Nigel. At least enough for this: he trusts at the very least that Nigel isn’t bluffing, that he would really let Adam come to the court date with him. Adam can understand his reluctance, though: maybe Nigel’s desire to do this alone is some distant cousin of the violent, irresistible urge to curl up in the fetal position and just exist apart from the world that Adam feels in the wake of a meltdown.

Adam cautiously raises the arm that’s pressed into Nigel’s shoulder, and puts his own palm flat against Nigel’s back, a mirror of the soothing motion Nigel is making on his. They sit there for a few moments, caressing each other, the morning air cool and still around them.

“It’s okay,” says Adam eventually. “I don’t need to come, if you want to be alone. Will you call me, afterwards?”

“Of course,” says Nigel, and there is humour injected back into his voice. “I’ll tell you all about it. Give you the play-by-play.”

Adam breathes out, and something releases in his chest. His hand is still smoothing over the bare skin of Nigel’s back, and he wants to feel more of him. He turns his head, and Nigel allows Adam to draw him in for a kiss, until Adam pulls back and wrinkles his nose.

Nigel laughs. “No kissing with morning breath, huh?” he asks, and Adam giggles, a little embarrassed at what could be perceived as his own prudishness. Nigel pulls him in for a hug, his chin on Adam’s shoulder, and it’s okay, it’s okay: everything feels like it’s going to be fine.

“Do you… need to leave right away?” Adam asks, and feels Nigel’s grin against the skin of his neck.

“I have time,” Nigel says. “What did you have in mind, sweetheart, a leisurely breakfast?”

Adam is momentarily confused, and glances down into Nigel’s lap to see that sure enough, he is getting hard, same as Adam is. “You don’t… actually want a leisurely breakfast, do you?” says Adam hesitantly. “Because I was thinking we could have sex again.”

Nigel laughs, reaches over, pulls Adam onto his lap. It takes some arranging, Adam wriggling his ass against Nigel’s thighs to line them up just right, but in a moment their cocks are bumping together, hard warm skin on skin. “No,” Nigel reassures him. “I would skip breakfast any time to have sex with you, darling. Just say the word.”

“Breakfast isn’t actually the most important meal of the day,” Adam mutters distractedly, pressing their torsos together, feeling the prickly gray hairs on Nigel’s chest rub against his nipples. He rests his cheek against the top of Nigel’s shoulder. “Eating breakfast has been correlated with better overall health in some studies, but–”

–and then Nigel figures out how to roll his hips so that their cocks fit perfectly together, and he brings one big warm hand to cup around both of their lengths together, and Adam forgets about details of study design and gasps as the thrusts down into the warm tunnel of Nigel’s flesh. It’s too dry, too sticky from sweat and precome and not quite slick enough, but he doesn’t want to stop to ask Nigel to get the lube. He just wants it to keep feeling this good, desperate pleasure just on the edge of pain, and from the way Nigel is thrusting raggedly into his own hand and against Adam’s skin, he isn’t thinking much about optimizing the experience, either. So Adam just holds on, clutches at Nigel’s shoulders and feels Nigel’s other hand come up to grab roughly at Adam’s waist too, gripping hard like he doesn’t even notice he’s doing it, and it only takes a few minutes of desperate friction before they’re shaking and spend and covered in each other, pearly droplets of come dripping down both of their thighs.

Adam leans forward, letting Nigel take his weight, panting in the smell of sex and Nigel. He places a hand on Nigel’s upper belly, feeling the movement of Nigel’s breaths in return, feeling right in his muscles that Nigel is looser and happier than he had been when they’d woken up.

“Shower,” Nigel mumbles eventually, and Adam finds them there together, almost without conscious thought. They don’t touch each other overmuch in the shower, just clean their own bodies and stare at the other, how flesh becomes both fascinating and prosaic as it’s being cleaned.

“You’ll call me?” says Adam again. He doesn’t want to bother Nigel about it, doesn’t want him to have to think about it any more than necessary, but he can’t stop the question from bubbling up in him nervously.

“I’ll call you,” promises Nigel. “Don’t worry about me, okay? Go to the club and learn something sexy on the pole to distract you.”

Adam ducks his head under the water to hide his grin. It’s not a half-bad idea.

When they’re towelled off and dressed, Nigel looking grim and uncomfortable in his suit with his hair slicked back, Nigel calls two cabs for them instead of one. They stand on the sidewalk outside of the house, and Adam accepts the bills that Nigel presses into his palm.

Sitting in the back of the cab, watching the car that Nigel is in pull away and turn the opposite direction, Adam pulls out his phone and texts Beth: Would you like to come for tea at my apartment tonight? I might be applying to graduate school. I want to tell you about it.

Chapter 19

“Ready for the wall?”

Adam takes his feet off the wooden box they were on. One of his toe joints makes a popping noise. He’s certain that his face is beet red, and it feels like the pressure behind his eyeballs is going to build up more and more until they fall right out of his face. It’s relatively unlikely, he reasons: globe luxations happen, but they’re usually as a result of blunt force trauma to the head. Surely just being upside-down– or, well, at almost a forty-five degree angle, as his case may be– wouldn’t be enough to pop the things right out.

Autumn had taken one look at Adam as he entered the training room, announced that he seemed like he could do with some distracting, and explained that it was a great day for him to start practising handstands; foundational and ubiquitous in pole dancing. Since she was entire correct that he’d come here to be distracted, Adam didn’t really have it in him to protest.

Now, having progressed from practising the shape of a handstand lying on his back on the floor (butt tucked in, lower back pressed against the ground, his abs shaking from only a few seconds in the position) to holding a plank position with his feet on higher and higher stacks of yoga blocks and boxes, he eyes the wall dubiously. His arms feel noodly and weak, and he feels strangely dizzy, even though everything he’s done has been merely holding a position.

“Last one,” Autumn says encouragingly. “Don’t walk them all the way up the wall yet. Just get used to the feeling.”

Adam positions himself, standing facing away from a wall that is already scuffed and smudged with hundreds of other peoples’ footprints. He puts his hands on the floor in front of him, spreading his fingers out with the second knuckle slightly bent and the palm of his hand pressing hard into the ground. He manages to walk about four steps up the wall behind him until the vertiginous feeling overtakes him and he only barely manages to get them back down before collapsing to his knees.

“Great!” Autumn seems to think it’s A-OK that Adam’s entire nervous systems feels like it’s overloaded, so he figures that must be normal. He fights the urge to curl up in the fetal position and fall asleep. Then he stops fighting the urge, rolls over onto his side and presses the side of his face to the cool varnished wood of the floor. He considers briefly just how many sweaty bare feet have been on the exact spot he’s currently nuzzling his cheek against, and then decides not to.

“Dude,” says Danny, “You fucking destroyed the kid.” Presumably he’s talking to Autumn, and he doesn’t sound particularly serious, because they both laugh. Then Danny’s voice comes closer: “Seriously, man, you okay?”

“Yes,” says Adam. He is okay, he finds; the nausea of being upside-down in a completely new way is fading, replaced by a pleasantly loose sensation. He doesn’t even care that he’s lying on the filthy floor, wearing a pair of sweatpants and nothing else. He hadn’t slept great at Nigel’s, and now it’s catching up with him. He wonders if it would be strange or unacceptable to sleep right here, and as soon as he thinks it realizes that there’s still a gulf between him and sleep, and he probably wouldn’t really be able to anyway.

Nigel’s. The urge to check his phone, which had been successfully kept at bay for a while by the handstand lesson, returns with a vengeance. How long do court hearings for minor charges last, anyway? Nigel hadn’t said when he should expect a call. Well, Nigel probably hadn’t known either: he hasn’t done this before, strange as that might be for Adam to believe.

The thought of Nigel being sentenced for a crime alone still makes Adam’s chest ache a little, and he almost wishes he had insisted on accompanying him– but not quite. He can imagine it, if he works through the associated emotions very carefully– Nigel’s embarrassment, his desire to not be seen in this moment. Not embarrassment at what he’d done– he seemed relatively proud of that, actually– but at the position it had landed him in. It is slightly ridiculous that a man should manage to business in so many illegal substances for decades with not a peep from the police, and then finally get dragged before a court for roughing someone up for getting too friendly with his dancers.

Adam opens his eyes. He stares across the room, where Olga and Danny are surrounded by mats on all sides. Danny grabs Olga’s hands, and she swings in between his legs balled up as tight as she can go; on the upswing, she lengthens out and ends up in a handstand above his head, his arms wobbling viciously as he tries to hold and balance her.

“I don’t think my handstand is going to be ready for that any time soon,” Adam says, and Autumn, now wiping down a pole across the room, chuckles. “Maybe not, but still. Given any thought to performing next week? I think we can come up with some new things for you to show.”

Adam sits up, and suddenly an idea glimmers in his mind. He hears Nigel again, intoning nobody wants to be a filthy cocksucker, how easily and fully he’d responded to Adam’s insistence that actually, he did. An insult converted into a point of pride. It’s not exactly the same thing, but–

“Hey Danny?” he says, and Danny, now flopped tiredly on a mat, lolls his gaze over to Adam.

“May I borrow those other shorts you mentioned, for next week’s show? The ones that say ‘slut’ on the ass?”

Danny grins. “’Course. Now you’ve got someone to impress, hmm?”

“I don’t think Nigel will be impressed by my wearing slut shorts,” says Adam contemplatively. “It’s not like it requires particular skill just to put on an item of clothing. But I think he might like it, just like he liked it when I called myself a filthy cocksucker.”

Danny bursts into laughter, and for a moment Adam thinks he’s gone too far, talked too much about sex even though someone else had brought it up first and people talk about sex all the time in the training room, but then Autumn says, with a smile so wide it seems to pull at the corners of her face, “So it went well, huh?”

Adam sits up, his sweaty hand feeling sticky against the varnished wood of the floor. His shoulders ache, but it’s a pleasant ache, and reminds him that the same pleasant ache that he was planning on feeling in his ass today is nowhere in evidence. So on that count, having sex with Nigel hadn’t exactly been a success.

Still, it’s a good memory in a stranger and more complicated way to think about the realization that Nigel had been, if anything, more nervous than Adam. It puts their entire strange courtship in a different light. Adam had assumed that Nigel was the one who knew what he was doing: touching Adam, giving him cab money, figuring out where his boundaries lay. He wonders if perhaps Nigel had felt exactly the same as Adam the entire time: blindly careening towards something completely unknown.

“Yes,” he says to Danny. “It went well.”

Deciding that he’s going to perform again gives him a bit of a second wind; Adam checks his phone, but when there are no new messages there, he manages to spend a few more hours exploring with Autumn how to string together his tricks in a slightly more complicated routine than he had done last week. They crank up the speakers as loud as Adam can comfortably stand it, and he lets the music suggest to his body what to do next. By the time his arms feel ready to give out and dump him on the ground, they’ve come up with most of a routine, and Adam has nearly forgotten all about Nigel.

He sits down on the hard wooden floor, legs straddled and splayed out on either side of his bag, a position strangely common to all of the dancers that he’d adopted at first consciously and now finds himself assuming my default. He pulls out his phone, and realizes that with the volume of the music in the training room, he’d missed calls. There are two from Nigel, and a text message: All done. Need to come to work for the night, Friday’s always full of handsy mofos.

It was sent forty-five minutes ago, and Adam’s heart picks up at the thought of Nigel trying to call him while Adam was busy learning how to climb a pole with the same sinuous wave of his spine on every climb as Autumn. There’s another text message, from Beth: omg, seriously?? Yes, what time?

He quickly dresses, and waves goodbye to the dancers still in the training room. The club is quiet, the particular kind of eye-of-the-storm calmness that it always has the day before a big night. He holds the door open for a procession of bartenders restocking from a truck out back, marvelling at how much alcohol seems to be required for a single night.

The door to Nigel’s office is open. Nigel is slumped over the desk, one hand idly running through his hair as he peers at his computer screen.

Adam hesitates at the door. Nigel looks tired and defeated, and for a moment Adam wonders if perhaps he would prefer to be alone for this, too. His stomach ties itself in knots. It was strange enough accepting that Nigel would want to do the trial alone– but how far does that extend? Adam remembers his own father, sending him gently to bed when once, as a teenager, Adam had woken up to the sounds of his only parent crying quietly in the living room. It’s okay, Adam, he’d said. I’ll be fine. It’s not your job to take care of me.

It had felt reassuring, at the time; that despite growing into ostensible adulthood, the relationship of parent and child was still intact. Adam’s dad took care of Adam, and Adam didn’t need to return the favour, because that’s what being a child means. Or at least, what it had meant until Dad had gotten sick, at which point nothing seemed to mean anything at all any more.

Perhaps his relationship with Nigel is to be the same, and Nigel wants to tuck all of the soft, sad parts of himself away and out of sight. It would be easier, in a way; Adam isn’t great at dealing with his own emotions, let alone other peoples’. But it makes him feel angry, too, in a way that he hadn’t been expecting. Because he isn’t Nigel’s child. It isn’t Nigel’s job to take care of Adam, so it isn’t Adam’s job to take care of Nigel either, but perhaps caretaking is a choice, sometimes, instead of an obligation.

He steps forward into the office, and Nigel looks up from his computer, his face breaking into a smile.

“Hi,” says Adam.

“Hello, darling,” says Nigel, and he pushes his chair back from the desk just enough that the space on his thighs beckons to Adam like it was built for him. He settles himself down without asking, sitting across Nigel’s lap, trying not to dig into the meat of Nigel’s thigh with his sitzbones.

He wraps his arms around Nigel’s neck and lets Nigel hold him, and it feels like being suspended in time; warm and loved and without any need to do anything but this. Nigel’s hands slide up and down his back, and eventually Nigel murmurs into his ear, “You’re cuddling with New York City’s newest graffiti remover. Prestigious, hmm?”

Adam lets out a bark of laughter, and pulls back to look at Nigel’s face. He still looks tired, but one corner of his mouth pulls up, and he nods his head towards a piece of paper on the desk. It’s a document from the court, clearly, and it does indeed sentence Nigel Vasilescu to 100 hours of community service for disorderly conduct.

“Turns out my customers don’t clean up quite as well as me,” Nigel grins. “The assholes weren’t particularly convincing.”

Adam breathes out a sign of relief that feels like it comes from the very bottom of his lungs, like there were alveoli that had been stagnant with worry for Nigel that can finally rejoin the exchange of gases that is their purpose. Then, when he hides his face in Nigel’s shoulder and hugs him tight again, he realizes that it’s not just relief over the light sentence: there’s relief about Nigel, too. Some part of him had been carrying a tiny, secret pit of worry that perhaps Nigel was lying to him, that perhaps this wasn’t what it seemed, that surely the sort of person who would hide his true career from his daughter for her entire life wouldn’t hesitate to deceive Adam, too.

He wants to apologize just for the thought, but Nigel wouldn’t understand the apology if he did. And anyway, he’s not all that sure he should apologize. However unfair, it had been a rational worry.

“Maybe I should become a graffiti artist,” Adam says instead, feeling slightly loopy with relief. “I could leave coded letters on the sides of buildings, and you could clean them off.”

Nigel’s laughter booms out of him, loud enough to startle Adam, and he stares at the way Nigel’s front teeth overlap slightly with one another as he throws his head back with mirth.

That’d be the day,” he wheezes. “They’d never suspect you, even if they caught you red-handed with a bottle of spray paint and a brick wall full of differential equations.”

Adam frowns. “I think they would actually suspect me, then,” he says. “Although it would be a first offence, so maybe I’d just end up on the cleanup crew with you.”

Nigel tightens his arms around him, and Adam settles back more fully on his thighs so that his side is pressed to Nigel’s belly. Then he thinks better of it and swings one leg around so that they’re chest-to-chest, his toes just barely making contact with the ground as he straddles Nigel’s lap.

His eye level is just the tiniest bit above Nigel’s, like this, Nigel’s longer torso not quite making up for that fact that Adam is sitting on his thighs. It’s the ideal vantage point from which to inspect the cartography of Nigel’s face, his scant blond brows and the roughness of his cheeks and the way his lips are both thin and plumped outwards, just begging for a kiss.

Adam kisses him, and Nigel immediately leans in and grabs low on his waist, panting into Adam’s mouth and practically forcing Adam to grind down on him. Nigel’s tongue tastes like toothpaste– he’d been expecting to see Adam, then, which gives Adam a feeling of fondness he’s not sure he’s ever experienced for anyone before– and underneath, the cigarettes that Nigel no doubt smoked outside the courthouse, calming his nerves. Adam imagines him, leaning against regal grey brick with his tie hanging loosely around his shoulders, and feels wildly envious of the passers-by who’d gotten to see him like that.

But then, none of them, none of the people who’d gotten to see Nigel waiting and nervous and casually leaning against a wall smoking, projecting the image of unconcern, get to see Nigel like this: writhing, his hips bucking up in jerky, aborted motions, eyes closed and mouth lax as Adam sweeps his tongue over his lips and then back inside.

It feels thrilling, to have this amount of power over Nigel. Adam knows Nigel is dangerous, knows there are people who are scared of him and with good reason. He knows Nigel probably has blood on his hands in some way. But he also knows that Nigel went to court by himself and in secret to be sentenced for roughing up customers who harassed his dancers. He knows that Nigel keeps a photo of his aunt watering the garden on his mantelpiece, and that he’s protected his daughter for her entire life from the reality of who he is.

And he knows that Nigel is apparently completely willing– not just willing, but so hard that Adam can feel his erection pushing up in between his thighs– to get off with Adam in his office, with the door open.

Adam pulls back, and watches how it takes Nigel’s eyes a moment to open, his face stuck for a moment with his eyes closed and his mouth spit-slick and soft. His mouth follows Adam’s for a moment, trying to recapture him, and the word that comes to Adam’s mind, so quickly and decisively that he has no way of evaluating where it came from or whether it’s accurate, is desperate.

So maybe it’s something new growing in Adam, the same urge that had made him ask Danny for a change of costume next week, that makes him lean in and deposit a chaste kiss on Nigel’s forehead. Nigel opens his eyes, and he’s smiling, he looks strangely content despite his erection demanding attention, and Adam licks his lips.

He has no idea if this is cruel or kind. He has no way to judge, before doing it, and he can’t begin to guess at Nigel’s reaction. But after all, Nigel had watched him eat mac n’ cheese while Adam was so aroused he wasn’t sure he could swallow. Perhaps it’s time that he return the attention in kind.

And Nigel so very clearly wants to have sex in his office, wants to– what? Bend Adam over the desk? Have Adam go down on his knees on the ugly grey carpet and suck him off?– but Adam needs time to think about it, needs to detangle associations of work and home and where it’s appropriate to have sex in his mind, before he can do that.

Maybe he’s not quite ready for this, but he can work with that. Adam has always been good at working with what he’s got.

He stares at the corners of Nigel’s mouth, how they twitch minutely with each sensation, and then reaches down with one deliberate hand to squeeze his cock though his black dress pants.

“I need to go home,” Adam half-whispers. “I’m getting together with Beth tonight.” He gives Nigel another squeeze of pressure on his cock, pressing his palm over what he is fairly sure is a damp patch of precome on Nigel’s lap.

Nigel’s head drops to Adam’s shoulder, and he moans. Adam can feel his erection twitch under his hand. “Fuck. Adam. You can’t… you can’t say things like that.”

“Why not?” Adam asks innocently. “I’m thinking of applying to Mr. Lau’s lab as a grad student. Beth is going to help me with my application. She’s good at that kind of thing.”

Nigel laughs, then, a too-aroused broken-off sound, and then his hand comes down on what he can reach of Adam’s ass, too hard to be simply a placing of his hand, but not quite hard enough to be a spank.

“You’re going to fucking kill me,” he groans, and Adam doesn’t like that kind of metaphor, it lodges uncomfortably in his belly to think of killing someone even in jest, but then Nigel squeezes the flesh of his ass and says, “Not literally. You’re going to… make me so hard I can barely see straight, and then send me off to work the busiest night of the week. God, you’re incredible, Adam.”

Adam is absorbed for a moment by the feeling of Nigel’s hand on his ass, the slight impression of how it had come down just hard enough to be surprising. He doesn’t want to get up, doesn’t want to get in a cab and leave Nigel here alone, but then, he’d said he was going to, and even the fact of him doing it seems to have had a profound impression on Nigel.

And anyway, he does have a meeting with Beth planned.

He kisses Nigel once more, on the lips but gentle, and Nigel lets him do it without pushing his tongue anywhere it doesn’t belong.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” promises Adam, and gets up to go.

Chapter 20

“This fellowship has an interview,” says Beth. She’s sitting on Adam’s couch, the lights low and her face lit by the glow of his laptop screen, a mug of chamomile tea on the table in front of her. Adam sits on the other end of the couch, toes tucked underneath him, feeling strangely nervous. Like maybe Beth, in scrolling through the application pages, might catch something that he missed that disqualifies him completely. No orphaned pole-dancing autistics with a history of job loss and an older boyfriend. It doesn’t say that, of course. Adam had read every word of it. Also, that would definitely be against the law. Still, he watches Beth’s slim fingers slowly scroll down the trackpad with worry.

She sets the laptop down on the table and picks up the mug, tucking her feet under her in a mirror of Adam’s posture, just like he recalls you’re supposed to do when you talk to someone. He wonders for a moment if she thinks about it, has to remember to put her body into a similar but not-too-obviously identical position to her conversational partner, or if she simply does it, that function taken care of by subconscious mental processes. “This looks really good, Adam,” she says. “How come you… I mean, why didn’t you go to graduate school before? After finishing your first degree? I would have thought it would be the obvious choice for you.”

The obvious choice. Yes, perhaps she’s right, Adam thinks. Perhaps it was obvious, too, to the company that he spent half a decade pouring everything he had into, until it turned out they really just wanted to make cheap toys.

And it had been obvious to Dad, and that hurts to think about: how he’d been so gentle, so carefully neutral, when he’d said well I just think it would be a bit of a waste, if you gave up on space to make toys. Carefully neutral and carefully cheerful, Adam realized later, moving gingerly and mindful of radiation nausea, not allowing himself to make any pronouncements about the path that Adam’s life should take. In retrospect, probably just beginning to realize that he wasn’t going to be around to witness too many of the consequences of Adam’s choices. It’s your choice should feel different when it really means I won’t always be here to make choices for you in any case, but somehow Adam had missed at the time that that’s what he was saying.

Dad had usually managed to avoid talking in riddles, always telling Adam exactly what he meant. But the riddles had grown more numerous towards the end, like he wasn’t even sure himself what he meant to say. Until eventually Adam had started wondering– quietly, blasphemously in the middle of the night when he could deny in the morning that the thoughts even happened– if perhaps it would be easier, when Dad was just gone. Dead bodies in the ground don’t require daily attention or puzzling over their wants and needs.

So he’d stopped talking about it with Dad, mostly. The words this is what I want to do sat strangely on his tongue, like they were a lie, only he couldn’t figure out if they were a lie or not. I want to prove that I can survive Out There In The Real World, where everyone thinks I can’t, would be closer to the truth that was trying to beat its way out of his chest, but if he’d said that to Dad, Dad would have squeezed his hand and said oh, sweetheart, with that sad look that Adam didn’t know how to respond to, and Adam didn’t want that. He just wanted to be an adult with a job. A normal person.

Nigel isn’t a normal person, for all that he has a house and a job. Autumn isn’t either, though she’s an actual surgeon, probably the epitome of neurotypical respectability if ever there was one. Nobody at the club would have understood Adam’s desire to prove himself in the confines of adult respectability, choosing to work on childrens’ toys over astrophysics precisely because it was the less interesting option.

“I was just scared,” Adam says to Beth, finally. Her face goes soft, and Adam wonders if she’s thinking that he was scared of the application process, or of not getting in. He’ll let her think that, if she wants to, even though it’s not true. He’s perfectly capable of putting together application packages, and if he doesn’t get in– well, it can’t be any worse than getting fired, can it? And now, he’ll have something to go back to. Nigel will say I’m sorry you didn’t get in, gorgeous, but there’s work for you here as long as you need it, and Autumn might ask if he wants a hug and he’ll probably say no but it would still be nice that she thought to hug him, and life would go on. Getting rejected doesn’t scare him.

“I can help you,” says Beth. “When I was applying for teaching jobs, I made Daddy help me by doing mock interviews. He wasn’t very good at it, but I am.”

“That’s a good idea,” says Adam. It is, actually; it will be exactly like running his pole routines through in the training room, but practising talking about himself instead of dancing. “Thank you.”

“Great!” Beth’s eyes light up, and she pulls a piece of paper and a pen towards her, starts staring at the description of the fellowship and scribbling notes. She looks like, well, a teacher, which she is. Beth’s job is to teach children how to behave, and maybe it’s not surprising that she seems to relish teaching Adam how to behave. It’s irritating, most of the time; Adam has never tried to pass himself off as anything other than exactly what and who he is, and Beth had seemed, for most of their short relationship, intent on reshaping him into one of her own storybook creations. But perhaps now he can use her skill for good. Beth can teach him how to interview well, and Adam will get into Mr. Lau’s fellowship program, and they’ll be friends, and all will be well.

* * *

Adam likes routine, is good at eking out routine even from strange circumstances, so for the next few days, he does. He goes to work earlier than Nigel, and spends the morning training; when Nigel arrives, they huddle together in Nigel’s office, Nigel having now set up a small desk for him at the other side of the room, where Adam tests code, inputs data and occasionally eavesdrops on Nigel’s phone calls. Some of them are about club business, and some of them are from the officials at the community service program he’s now a part of, setting up dates and times. Nigel is polite to them, puts on a voice that makes him sound more like the accountant his daughter thinks he is than the strip club owner that the state of New York knows him to be. Adam occasionally goes over to his desk to kiss him chastely in his office, but no more than that; they take a cab back to Nigel’s place, most nights, to eat dinner and have sex.

Adam had considered, briefly, making a list of sexual activities he wanted to do with Nigel. He even sits down to write it one afternoon, staring at a blank note on his smartphone screen until he abandons the endeavour and puts the phone away. As soon as he enters Nigel’s house, all of his plans seem to go out the window; moreover, it never seems to matter very much. Yes, most of their sex involves simple handjobs, or Adam sucking Nigel off for as long as it takes for his neck or jaw to become sore. But it feels comfortable, and that is new for Adam.

He’s spent so long convincing himself that interactions with other people should be uncomfortable– that he should make eye contact more than he wants to, twist his mind around paths of speech that make no intuitive sense to him, accept that the way other people do it is automatically right, and his instincts are automatically wrong– that it feels strange for him and Nigel to simply stay within a comfort zone with each other. One part of Adam wants to push out of it– you can’t stay only giving each other handjobs forever— but the odd new part of him that works for a strip club with no cognitive dissonance, trains in pole dance every morning, and is applying for a fellowship in astrophysics, is becoming aware that actually, they could, if they wanted to. They probably won’t, but they could.

So he has sex with Nigel, and then at some point Nigel hands him cab money and he goes home to sleep in his own bed. Sleeping with Nigel– as in, actually sleeping, not figuratively– turns out to be more trouble than it’s worth for both of them. Nigel is a blanket hog, and Adam wakes up too much and wants his white noise machine, and they both hate their space being invaded while asleep. Adam spends about five minutes wondering if they’re doing it wrong– couples are supposed to love sleeping in the the same bed, right?– before the train of thought exhausts itself and he simply stops caring what they’re supposed to be doing.

Beth comes over, on the nights that Adam is home early enough for a meeting. She dresses in suits and makes Adam wait in the hallway for five minutes before each practice interview. “The waiting is the worst part,” she tells him the first time she asks him to do it, “So it’s the part you need to practice most.”

It’s true, of course, which Adam remembers from the wait to go on stage; it had been fine once he was actually there. What’s surprising is that the effect seems to work just as well even when he knows it isn’t real. The moment he’s standing out in the hallway outside his won apartment, ugly carpeting and fluorescent lighting blaring at him, his stomach starts to twist itself in knots. All he’s nervous for, of course, is for Beth to open the door to Adam’s own apartment, shake his hand pompously, and ask him questions on his own damn couch. It makes no logical sense for him to be nervous for that, but then, perhaps that’s the point; to learn that his body’s fight-or-flight reaction have nothing to do with the threat level of the actual situation.

So he stands in the hallway and stares at his wrist, watching the second hand on Dad’s old watch. Breathing in for four seconds, holding the breath for four seconds, out for eight seconds, just like Danny had made him do in the training room as he panicked before going out on stage. At around the fourth mock interview with Beth, it starts to slot into place; the routine of panic washing over him, breathing along to the rhythmical ticking, and the clenched shaky feeling receding like the tide. Like it was always supposed to be there, never a threat.

Sometimes Beth asks questions about his old job in the mock interviews. He repeats, with minor variations, the answer they’d come up with together: My skills and interests are a good fit for positions where I’m able to work deeply on meaningful problems for a long period of time. I learned a lot of practical skills there, but ultimately there was a mismatch between my workflow and the tunaround times of commercial production. It has the benefit of being true, and pretty much what they’d say about him if Mr. Lau called for a reference, so Adam practices it in front of a mirror until the words roll off his tongue.

By the time the next Women and Queer night rolls around, Adam has his application package sent in to Mr. Lau’s department, and the bruises on the insides of his thighs from gripping the pole are nearly gone. He remembers Autumn saying, his very first lesson, that that would happen: peripheral desensitization, the nervous system learning that a new sensation is not a threat, and ceasing to respond with pain signals.

He hopes that the same thing might happen with the nerves, one day, but it would be admittedly a little optimistic to think that might happen after only one performance. So the evening of the show finds Adam again huddled in the corner of the training room, his ass this time adorned with the word SLUT in shiny silver lettering, trying to convince himself he isn’t about to die.

It’s slightly easier than last time, but not much. The fact that he’s gotten quite good at getting a hold of himself in the hallway outside of his apartment, waiting to be interviewed by Beth, is of some help. Still, compared to the interview practice– even compared to anticipating the actual interview– this feels like a completely different beast. The lights will be at full strength tonight– Adam’s choice, since the previous week’s situation of being able to see the faces of individual audience members hadn’t helped one bit. Not only is there the terrifying glare of lights to look forward to, his routine now consists of several moves specifically designed to emphasize, in a way Autumn and Danny assure him is charming and self-aware, of the insult emblazoned on his posterior.

He knows that other people seem to find it delightful, but it still makes him wonder, as the nerves hit and he starts to question every single life decision that has brought him to this point, if he’s really doing the right thing. Mr. Lau grudgingly accepts Autumn’s dancing– what would Dad think of Adam right now? Would he laugh and tell him he’s a cutie, like three dancers he doesn’t know have already done in the hallway? Or would he be carefully cheerful and neutral as he says Well, okay, it’s your choice, Adam, in the way that Adam is supposed to understand means he thinks Adam is making a mistake?

It hurts, Adam thinks, to not know which one it is; maybe more than it would actually hurt if Dad were alive and disapproving. Because, he realizes, Adam would keep going, even if Dad did disapprove. Which feels like a drop of honey-warm certainty, calming his shaking hands and ragged breath. He feels sure.

So Adam is nervous, but he knows he’s going to make it. He has no doubt this time that there is an “after” to be thought about, that time doesn’t simply stop at the exact point that he steps onstage with no conception of life possibly beyond that. He does his breathing exercises, and makes circles with his arms and hips and ankles, and then pulls out his phone and texts Nigel: Will you meet me in your office after my dance?

Chapter 21

“Hi,” says Adam.

He’s sitting on top of Nigel’s desk, the papers that he had found strewn all over it stacked neatly to the side. He still feels slightly tacky with sweat, the nervous sweat and the spotlight-sweat and the dancing-sweat all drying on his skin at once. The backs of his thighs stick to his calves as he folds himself up cross-legged on the surface of the desk, and he knows he must still look flushed and almost high. He feels high, but at least this time he’d been expecting it.

Counting on it, basically.

“Baby, you were amazing.” Nigel grabs him in a giant hug the moment he enters the room, completely ignoring the fact that Adam is sitting on dis desk. Well, objectively, Nigel is probably the sort of person who would sit on someone else’s desk without thinking twice about it, and although he probably knows intellectually that Adam isn’t, it clearly isn’t the foremost thing on his mind right now.

He crowds against the lip of the desk, his fingers running through Adam’s hair (more sweat, practically damp with brine, but Nigel doesn’t seem to mind.) Adam grins up at him.

He hadn’t been able to see Nigel in the crowd, this time. The lights were brighter, and they hurt Adam’s eyes and glinted off the pole in a way he hadn’t prepared for at all, but somehow he had still managed to put his hand on the pole for the first trick and then– well, then it had just happened. He’d nearly forgotten about the fact that Nigel was out there and Adam had the word SLUT emblazoned on his posterior until after the routine was over, and there was raucous applause and impolite whoops from the audience that he couldn’t see at all thanks to the lights practically blinding him, so he’d turned around and improvised some sort of odd backwards half-bow, his ass to the audience, and fancied that he could pick the sound of Nigel’s hollers out from all the rest of them.

Now Nigel is here, on Adam’s invitation– well, perhaps invitation is the wrong word, when it’s Nigel’s office that he was inviting him to. He’s pulling on Adam’s shoulders, urging him to his feet, and Adam stands a little unsteadily, the adrenaline having drained out of his veins sufficiently that his legs feel unsteady.

“Are you trying to make me jealous, you little tease?” Nigel says, and the words are harsh but that’s the point, isn’t it, Adam had called himself cocksucker and slut and allowed them to mean good things about him, so perhaps little tease is a good thing, too. Perhaps that’s what people mean, by kidding around: I love you so much that even bad things are good when I say them about you. It’s a nice sentiment, actually, Adam thinks dizzily as Nigel’s hands travel down the skin of his torso (he hadn’t bothered putting any extra clothing on after his act, which he’s glad for now) and squeeze the flesh of his buttocks. A pity it’s still difficult to tell when someone means it that way. Still.

He tries to answer the question anyway. “No,” Adam breathes into Nigel’s shoulder, feeling Nigel’s fingers trace over the letters on the back of the shorts. It feels odd and random, like they’re never going to get quite to where he wants them, and he presses forward to grind against Nigel’s leg. “No, I wasn’t trying to make you jealous. I don’t think there’s anyone else here that I’d like to have sex with, anyway, so it’s not really relevant.”

Nigel takes the hint of Adam’s near-humping into his thigh, and brings a hand around to cup his cock through the stretchy spandex of the shorts. Adam gasps, and then spares a moment for the fact that technically the shorts belong to Danny, and it probably isn’t polite to get pre-ejaculate on them, even if he’s going to wash them before giving them back. It’s rather too late now, though.

Nigel laughs into the top of his head and squeezes gently. “So I’m guessing you’d rather get out of here than stay and watch the rest of the show.”

Adam licks his lips and tastes the salt of dried perspiration on his upper lip. He’d thought he was being obvious, but perhaps not.

“No, Nigel,” he says. “I want to stay here and have sex in your office.”

Nigel pulls back immediately, his hand travelling from Adam’s groin up to gently cup his shoulders as he gets enough distance to stare Adam in the face. Adam stares at the wall instead, frowning, running though memories in his mind.

Nigel standing close to him as he pressed wads of cash into Adam’s hands, Nigel staring unabashedly at him as Adam works, Nigel reaching out for him and then aborting the movement, like he’d wanted to touch him and then thought better of it for Adam’s sake. Adam knows that people consider work relationships to be taboo, as well as sex in places that are not a bed, and also that things that are taboo are generally considered more sexually arousing than things that are socially acceptable. That’s why calling yourself cocksucker and slut is sexy; because you’re not supposed to be those things, or be labelled as such even if you are. So– he’d figured it wasn’t such a very wide leap of deduction to think that Nigel would want to have sex in his office. But perhaps he’d miscalculated.

Nigel looks frustrated now, or upset; he’s running a hand through his hair and then down his face, like he’s tired, squinting at Adam like he’s some sort of strange bird. Then he sighs and leans against the desk beside Adam, so that they’re basically sitting side-by-side. “Adam,” he says softly, “It’s okay. You don’t have to do this.”

Adam frowns. “Do what?”

Nigel waves a hand at the still-open door. “Gorgeous, I get that it’s… a lot, here. People are talking and thinking about sex all the time, and people dress to show off their bodies because they’re paid to do that, and sometimes they do it for fun too, but… I don’t want you to think that you have to do that for me. I don’t need to to dance sexy or call yourself a slut or let me have you in my office, just because I own a place where that shit is normal.”

Faint strains of music leech though the walls and floors from the performance hall, and Adam stares at the ugly matted carpet. Nigel’s words are kind, and it’s not that he doesn’t appreciate them. It’s just that– well, of course Adam doesn’t have to do any any of that. It had never crossed his mind that he did have to, and it feels ugly and sticky that Nigel could think that he was becoming someone different out of a sense of obligation.

It doesn’t feel like he’s becoming someone different. It feels like he’s becoming more himself. He wants Nigel to see that.

“I don’t do things that I don’t want to,” Adam says, and at first it comes out sounding small and somewhat lame, such a small thing against the enormity of Nigel’s misunderstanding, but then he thinks about it and realizes it’s more true even than it had appeared when he said it. He does things that are necessary, of course; nobody enjoys cleaning the house or commuting to work or deleting spam emails, and Adam can take care of himself. He isn’t a child. But the idea that he would do something he didn’t want to do merely to be liked— well, he’d given up on being liked for being someone he isn’t a long time ago.

“I don’t do things I don’t want to,” Adam repeats, stronger, and pushes himself up from leaning back against the desk. He turns around to face Nigel and then places hands on his knees and pushes them apart ever so slightly, making room for himself to stand inside of Nigel’s thighs. He stares at Nigel’s lips instead of his eyes, so he can see them twitch in amusement when he asks, “Do you believe me?”

Nigel lets out a soft sigh, then a bit of a laugh. “Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, okay, I can believe that.”

Adam breathes out deeply, too. He tightens his hands on Nigel’s thighs, and Nigel’s thighs tighten around him, boxing him in. “Do you believe me that I want to have sex with you in your office, Nigel?”

Now Nigel really does laugh, and he abruptly stands up and spins them around, so that Adam is the one partially sitting on the desk, and Nigel is pressing his knees apart gently. “Yeah,” he says, a little breathlessly, staring down at Adam’s spandex-covered groin. Then he seems to make a decision, and lets go of Adam for a single dizzying moment, to stride across the room and shut the door to the office with a decisive snap. He returns, licks his lips, then slips his fingers into the waistband of Adam’s shorts and tugs them down.

Adam has to lift his hips up off the desk to allow shorts to slide down, and he ends up sitting bare-assed on the wood. He’s half-hard, and Nigel immediately leans in to kiss him until Adam is clutching at his shoulders and thrusting desperately into thin air. He’s entire naked now, and Nigel is wearing jeans and a t-shirt, and for some reason that doesn’t feel odd or uneven, it feels like Adam wants to rub his sticky overheated skin against the rough denim on Nigel’s thighs.

Nigel lets him go at it for a few moments, then leans in and pinches the sensitive pink flesh of Adam’s nipples. Adam gasps and jerks, his sticky skin slipping against the desk, and Nigel just holds him, gives him a moment to recover his breath and then does it to the other side, his fingers squeezing until it hurts and then it does something other than hurt, and Adam mewls “yes” just in case it wasn’t sufficiently obvious to Nigel that Adam both never wants him to stop pinching and flicking at his nipples but also needs more, right now.”

“Yeah, you love that shit,” Nigel breathes. “What do you want, sweetheart? God, you’re so fucking hard. Tell me what you want me to do with you. Anything.”

Anything. Maybe it’s just dirty talk. People say things they don’t mean when they’re aroused, Adam knows that. But then, Nigel knows him. Nigel had promised that he wouldn’t ever lie to Adam, and he’s kept his promise. And there’s something about the way Nigel is looking at him, like there’s something he’s hoping for, practically waiting for, and on one hand Adam wishes Nigel would just ask for it but on the other– well, they’ve been doing this for long enough by now that Adam knows him. He’s seen the pictures on his mantelpiece, heard his stories of his childhood, and maybe just for this Nigel doesn’t want to ask. He wants to be told.

Okay. Adam can do that.

He takes a deep breath. “Suck my cock,” he whispers.

The air in the office feels very still and warm. Nigel licks his lips, and his eyes flick down to Adam’s erection, jutting up from between his thighs. Adam thinks about adding only if you want to, but possibly that would ruin the effect. And anyway, he’s certain Nigel knows that Adam doesn’t want him to do anything he doesn’t want to, any more than Nigel wants that for Adam.

Adam reaches a hand up. His fingers are still covered in the remnants of liquid chalk, so he stays well away from the seam of Nigel’s lips but touches the outer rims, just where the pink flesh meets the rough stubble on his face with a slight raised ridge. He runs one finger around Nigel’s lips, top and bottom, and tries to imagine them stretched wide around his cock.

Nigel is breathing hard; Adam can feel it hot and humid against his fingers, and Nigel’s fingers are gripping his waist nearly hard enough to hurt, and Adam glances down and can see the strain of Nigel’s cock against his jeans. It gives him the courage to blink up at Nigel’s stunned face and say, “I know you would make such a sweet cocksucker for me.”

“Jesus Christ, Adam,” Nigel growls, and then he’s being yanked forward, his thighs burning from the friction against the sweating wood of the desk, until he’s right on the edge and Nigel is sinking to his knees on the floor and drawing Adam’s cock into his mouth with no hesitation whatsoever.

Adam’s had his cock sucked before. It shouldn’t feel any different to have Nigel do it, but everything is different; Nigel laughs at his yelp of surprise that Nigel’s mouth is so incredibly hot inside and how the stubble on his cheeks rubs against Adam’s thighs and makes the skin there feel heated, until Nigel presses them farther apart for better access. He grabs the base of Adam’s cock with one hand and his balls with the other, just holding them like he can’t stand to have any part of him not full of Adam right now, and his mouth slides up and down like he’s been doing this for years.

“Touch yourself,” says Adam, because giving orders has been going great for him so far and there’s no reason to stop just yet. Nigel mumbles “fuck, yeah, yeah, okay” against Adam’s dick and lets go momentarily to fumble with his jeans. When his mouth returns it’s with only one hand to steady the base of Adam’s cock and the other working furiously just underneath where Adam’s line of sight is cut off by the desk.

Nigel’s rhythm gets sloppier then, apparently unable to both pleasure himself and keep an even rhythm and pressure with his mouth. It’s infuriating how each stroke is just out of reach of what Adam really wants, it’s awful in the best way, makes him squirm and whimper and nearly feel like crying at how not-quite-there he is, and he wonders if this is the entire point of sex with other people; not that they can give you exactly what you want but that they can’t, that the entire point is that everything is not quite the way you would do it to yourself and that’s what makes it captivating. Even someone who can reliably tell what other people are feeling can’t actually feel what a touch feels like to another person. Everyone is locked inside their own bodies and minds, but the lack of understanding can be pleasurable, not a flaw at all.

The pleasure builds slowly in a way that feels nearly alien, and Adam nearly doesn’t realize with enough time to desperately warn Nigel “I’m coming,” pawing ineffectively at his hair to indicate that Nigel had better pull off or risk a mouthful of semen. Nigel doesn’t take the hint, his mouth clasped over the head of Adam’s cock even as he starts convulsing, and Adam can feel his lips pursing a little as he tries to swallow before Nigel’s mouth disappears and for a moment Adam is in his own world, not aware of anything but his own body’s blinding pleasure.

After a moment, he hears a spitting sound, and looks up at Nigel’s wry face. He’s just crawled over to the garbage can and spat a glob of mixed spittle and semen into it, the mixture looking unpleasantly viscous and bubbly lying on top of a piece of crumpled-up paper.

“Sorry,” says Nigel sheepishly. “Thought I was going to be a fucking hero for a moment there. Turns out you’ve got the right idea about it.”

Adam hadn’t really been curious enough about how semen tasted to want to try it, so he’s glad to have confirmation that he wouldn’t have liked it. Nigel looks faintly ridiculous, grinning from all fours on the floor with his jeans and underwear pushed down just enough to loose his cock, still rock-hard and gleaming precome at the tip.

Adam pushes himself up a little, about to say something like want a hand with that, and then Nigel growls and pushes himself to his feet faster. “Stay right where you are, gorgeous,” he says, so Adam does, spread out boneless over Nigel’s desk. Nigel pushes his thighs apart again to stand in between them, his hard cock nearly brushing Adam’s softening one as he jerks himself hard and fast overtop of Adam’s body. When he comes, it lands warm on Adam’s chest and belly, and Adam stares down at the glistening lines, fascinated, until Nigel collapses beside him on the desk and wipes him off with a tissue.

Adam listens to the music bleeding through the walls and Nigel’s breath slowly returning to normal pace. He feels pleased with himself and very very tired, like all of the manic energy that flooded his body before the dance had suddenly run out.

Nigel grabs his hand. “That was amazing. You’re fucking amazing.”

If they were on a bed Adam would want to roll over and snuggle into Nigel’s shoulder, but they’re both half-on a desk, and he can’t comfortably do much besides squeeze Nigel’s hand back and smile at him. He wonders if he should say something about cocksucker or slut, try to articulate how those words make him feel now that he’s called Nigel the former and himself the latter, but he feels to content to bother. “I know,” he says. A drink suddenly sounds perfect, the only thing that this evening is missing. “Want to go out and watch the rest?”

Chapter 22

It’s ten in the evening and Adam is pulling Danny’s shorts back on in Nigel’s office, and then it’s midnight and he’s on his third gin and tonic, and then it’s two in the morning and he’s leaning against Nigel’s chest watching Autumn turn a deep shade of scarlet as the remaining patrons holler encouragement at her father, back again and this time stiffly climbing up the stairs to the stage and then awkwardly grabbing at the pole, gripping it tight with both hands and executing several perfect chin-ups, his grip slipping long before his arms would have given out. Adam joins in the audience’s drunken hollering and Autumn hugs Mr. Lau tightly when he comes back to the table, settling across from Adam again. Then it’s suddenly four-thirty and the clink of bartenders cleaning glasses and putting away bottles for deposit sounds loud in the sudden absence of music, and Adam has no idea how many of the glasses on the table were drinks consumed or partially consumed by him, and he’s neglected to ever put on sweatpants over his shorts so his thighs stick to the fake leather in the backseat when Nigel urges him into a cab and hands him money. “I’ll be spending tomorrow scrubbing graffiti,” Nigel says to him unsteadily, “If you don’t see me around.” Adam isn’t sure how much money it is and has trouble counting it accurately, but he gives all of it to the cab driver when they pull up outside his apartment building and the guy seems happy and allows Adam to get out of the cab without demanding further payment, so everything must be fine.

Everything is more than fine. Everything is wonderful. Adam jams his hip against the door of the apartment to open it, giggling at the way it unbalances him. Perhaps it has the same effect on the door. No, that can’t be right, doors are inanimate. He’s in the bathroom now. He doesn’t want to make the mistake of sleeping in spandex again. These shorts belong to Danny, and they have Adam’s sweat and pre-ejaculate on them, and will probably shrink too small for anyone but Olga to wear them if he puts them in the washer and dryer, so– probably best to just hand-wash them.

Adam pushes the shorts down and watches them pool around his ankles, the silvery lettering peeking out of the folds. He sways slightly, suddenly completely shorted out, like his brain was operating as a puppet controlled by strings that have suddenly been cut. Clothes. He’s no longer wearing any. There’s a hamper for dirty clothes, but the hamper goes into the washing machine. He blinks slowly. He should brush his teeth, probably, but the toothbrush is very far away. He’s never gone to bed without brushing his teeth before, and he’s never left clothes on the floor of the bathroom, but prior to tonight he’d never gotten a blowjob at work, either, so that’s alright. He kicks the shorts into the corner, where they languish behind a package of toilet paper.

His bed is very soft. Someone had made the bed this morning– it must have been him. Seems like that would be a lot of effort. He crawls under the covers and the impression of bright stage lights fades from behind his eyes.

* * *

As if his brain has some sort of handy but also excruciatingly hungover internal clock, Adam wakes up at 2:30 PM, and is immediately hit with the recollection, like a schedule is a physical weight pushing its way into his stomach, that his grad school interview is only a few weeks away, and Beth is supposed to come over after school today for another run-through. His head feels like it’s been stuffed with paper, and he stares up at the ceiling of his bedroom, wondering if it hurts or helps your chances of getting in if you’ve watched your would-be supervisor do pull-ups on the stage of a strip club.

Since it was too late to for Mr. Lau to have not seen Adam pole dance before they even met, that line of inquiry isn’t even worth pursuing.

Adam pushes himself up, taking stock of his body with something approaching curiosity. It’s not like he’s proud of having had too much to drink, like the kids in college who would always brag about not remembering the previous night had been. Being proud of a lack of memories always seemed like an odd thing to be proud of, to Adam, who has always carried around as many fact and figures in his head as he could. Wanting to not know something doesn’t make any sense. Especially if what you’d forgotten might have been a pleasant experience.

It would be impossible to forget Nigel dropping to his knees on the floor of his office, his mouth on Adam’s cock and Adam’s back rubbing against the grainy wood of Nigel’s desk. What came after that is a blur: Darko was there, and Mr. Lau had come back, and Danny had hugged Adam tight enough that he felt like his ribs were going to crack, and there had been drinks and more performances, both planned and impromptu, and now– ah yes.

Adam stagger to the kitchen for a glass of water, then locates his phone. His fingers are still slightly wobbly over the keyboard, and he thinks for a moment and then types,

My dad used to say it was nice to tell people when you’re thinking about them. You probably already know that I think about you when you’re not here, but since you’re spending the day erasing graffiti I thought maybe you would want a reminder to think about me too.

He bites his lip. It doesn’t really say anything, but he wants to talk to Nigel even if it’s about nothing. Which is odd; usually conversations filled with nothing are awful for Adam. No way to tell whether what you’re saying is appropriate or not, because there’s no topic of conversation that you’re supposed to linger on for too long. But he imagines Nigel getting his text, on his lunch break from some work crew out on the edges of the city, and thinking about Adam, and it makes Adam feel warm and loved.

He throws the phone down onto his bed and resolves to ignore it for the next little while; he has barely three-quarters of an hour before Beth arrives, since she’d just said she would come over on her way home from work. Her school finishes at three, and Adam has just wasted nearly fifteen minutes staggering around confusedly and waffling over a text message to Nigel.

Nigel. On second thought, he turns notifications for text messages off. It wouldn’t do to have Beth glance over at his phone and see– well, anything that might pop up on it.

By the time Beth knocks on his door, Adam is showered, dressed and eating a bowl of cereal that he mentally categorizes as breakfast but could conceivably be written off as a mid-afternoon snack. She’s cheerful, with the slightly-too-high edge to her voice that means she’s been spending all day talking to kindergartners and hasn’t yet managed to put her Adult Voice back on. Adam wonders if she notices that she does that, like the person she has to be for the students is an entirely different one from the person she is in real life. It seems like it would be odd, but then, she doesn’t seem to mind it. Perhaps both versions of her are real.

She settles on the couch with Adam’s laptop, reading over the email he’s received about interview day procedures for clues about what she should be drilling him on. She sends him out into the hallway to practice waiting, then calls him in for the now-familiar dance of handshakes, introductions, and questions. Adam talks about himself and his skills for a reasonable length of time in answer to each question, but stops before he gets too excited and starts rambling– Beth has given him an internal target of two minutes at most for each question, and a list of visual cues he’s supposed to look for in the interviewer to indicate they want him to stop talking at the earliest possible opportunity. They repeat the interview process twice, with different questions each time, then Beth says she needs a bathroom break before the third and leaves him with her notes on his performance to study for a few minutes.

She says he still needs to talk slower, which is frustrating because it’s also what she’s said the last two times they’ve practised this. Adam takes a deep breath and lets it out, trying to conjure up a rhythm of speech in his head that that feels natural and won’t allow him to rush his words out. Beth has written “SLOWER THAN YOU THINK YOU NEED TO” in giant letters underlined on the notepaper, so perhaps the point is that it won’t feel natural. Some things don’t at first, after all.

“What’s this?”

Adam looks up. Beth is coming out of the bathroom, and he takes another glance down at her notes then pushes himself up off the couch. “Okay, I’m ready to try one more time,” he says. “I’m going to talk slowly enough that I think I sound strange, this time, so please tell me whether I really do sound strange or not.”

Slut?” says Beth, and Adam finally looks at her properly. She’s holding a small scrap of black fabric in her hands.

Adam has one foot on the living room rug and one foot off of it. He had been about to head for the door, to prepare for another mock interview in the hallway. For a moment he feels suspended, as if between two strings, while his brain catches up to reality and he stops walking. There is a buzzing sound in his head. He stares at Beth blankly.

Beth stares back, and for a long uncomfortable moment their eyes meet and Adam feels as if his eyeballs themselves are stuck in place, and he can’t move them away from Beth’s narrowed eyes if he wanted to. Then he tears them away, and returns to staring at the shorts. She’s holding them up in the air, now.

“I don’t know,” Adam hears himself say. He hadn’t decided to say it, and it doesn’t even mean anything. Except it’s true: he doesn’t know what to say, doesn’t know what she’s asking, doesn’t know if she’s amused or annoyed or just curious. Deterministic chaos occurs when outcomes are highly sensitive to initial conditions, he recalls. But what if you have absolutely no idea what the initial condition is? Then you just get chaos, completely incomprehensible.

Now Beth does scowl. Which makes sense, because Adam’s answer hadn’t meant anything. “Well, who was wearing these, Adam?” she says. “Did you– are you hiring hookers now, or what?” Then her eyes widen. “How long has this been going on? Do I need to get tested?”

“What?” says Adam. “Tested for what?”

“For STDs, Adam!” Beth yelps, and she throws the shorts down on the sofa. “Forgive me for assuming that whoever left those in your bathroom might not be a paragon of safe sexual practices!”

I left those in my bathroom,” says Adam quickly. His toes ache from clenching and unclenching against the floor, and his shirt is beginning to feel tight and scratchy against his neck. Beth thought he was sleeping with prostitutes, and now Adam– well, he has to lie. He’s going to have to, there’s no alternative but to come up with something plausible and convince her of it and then stick to that lie for, god, as long as Nigel wants him to, until Nigel decides it’s finally time– finally fucking time, Adam inserts mentally, rage clenching in his chest– to come clean. Adam has no say in the matter.

Beth is approaching him now, carefully, squinting at him like he’s a zoo animal, standing there rooted to the floor sweating and shaking with his heart hammering out of his chest and his hands shaking by his sides, threatening to lose control of his limbs entirely. “Adam, what’s wrong with you?” she says, he voice heigher-pitched and speeding up as her words take on the quality of a stone rolling down a hill, gathering momentum as it goes. “What’s the big deal? Just– tell me what’s going on! You’re so goddamned secretive all the time now, Adam, I don’t understand what’s wrong with you, it’s like you like keeping me out of your life, if you don’t want to be friends you can just say so–”

He means to lie. Maybe there’s some part of his mind that, if he had just a few more minutes, would have gotten to work on crafting something plausible and arranging his features into a neutral expression and calming the raging fire in the pit of his belly that hates lies and threatens to rise up and consume him. But then suddenly the fire mutates and he’s not uncomfortable with lies any more, he’s angry. Angry that Beth is angry with him– just his luck that the one time he has no problem mirroring her emotions is when she’s furious– but angry with himself, too, and worst of all, angry with Nigel. Nigel is out doing menial labour he’d been sentenced to in a room all by himself, because he’d been so invested in keeping his secret life a secret that he’d pulled Adam in with him. And now Nigel is probably smiling over Adam’s text message, while Adam is here, crushed under the weight of his lie.

“I wore them to perform a pole dance routine at the strip club your daddy owns, Beth,” he says, and his voice sounds like a gunshot. It leaves the room absolutely silent and his ears ringing. “He’s been lying to you your entire life. I’ve been working at the club with him, and I love it, and I’ve been lying to you for his sake, because he wasn’t ready to tell you. And I hate lying, Beth, I hate it, and I’m done now.”

For a few moments the silence reigns, and it’s almost peaceful. Beth just stares.

Then she laughs. “Adam, what are you talking about?” she says. “Daddy’s an accountant.”

“He does some of the accounting for the business, yes,” says Adam.

Beth scowls. “If you’re just going to fuck around, I might as well leave,” she says. She reaches for her bag, and then hesitates, her eyes on the silvery lettering blaring the word SLUT from the garment on the couch.

Adam doesn’t need to work that hard to figure out what she’s thinking. Beth isn’t stupid. She’s never been allowed inside of Nigel’s work, never heard all that much about what he actually does on a daily basis. Daddy always joked that the boring virus would infect me if I came in, and I’d never be the same again, Adam remembers her laughing.

“Is– this– the trial–” she chokes, her face turned away from him.

Adam’s entire body feels like he’s been plunged in an ice bath as the reality of what he’s just done hits him. Fuck. Fuck. The word bounces around in his head, this thoughts utterly void except for blind terror. “I think you should go,” he says.

Beth has her phone out before she’s even out the door, and Adam doesn’t have to guess who she’s dialing.

Chapter 23

Adam goes shopping.

There isn’t anything else to do. He’d been planning on buying something new for the interview at some point, and now he can’t stand to be at home– there are echos of Beth everywhere, and a certain pair of shorts still lying innocently on the couch– and he couldn’t stand to go to the club, either. He’d like to train– Autumn always seems to know when he needs to be distracted by a new challenge– but he can’t. Very possibly, he can never go back there again. Beth will confront Nigel, and Nigel will hate him, and– well, it’s a good thing he’d applied for the fellowship.

Perhaps subconsciously, some part of him had known that he needed to move on to a new opportunity, because this wasn’t going to last forever. He would find a way to ruin it, like he ruins everything. His eyes burn. He stares at a rack of identical-looking black suit pants. The mall is awful, it’s loud and crowded and presses in on him until he can barely breathe, and he would regret having come if he hadn’t felt this exact same way in his own apartment, like all the other people tangled up in this thing were in there with him, squeezing his brain tight inside his skull.

He picks out pants, a light blue shirt, and then stands staring in front of a rack of ties. There’s a dark one with the imprint of planets on it, and his hand hovers over it. Are you supposed to wear a tie obliquely referring to your area of interest to an interview? Would it be too much, a faux pas, or would it be carefree and charming, like some sort of joke poking fun at his own single-mindedness? Adam has no idea. Beth would know, probably, but that’s all over now. If he asked Autumn, she would probably say that he should wear whatever tie he damn well pleased, but that’s probably all over now, too. It’s not like Adam can just waltz back into the training room in the club, having casually ruined Nigel’s life.

He puts the tie with the planets back on the rack and chooses a plain one. Maybe sticking to clothing with no words or images would be best for him, from now on. He checks his phone again. Nothing, not in response to his text message or after Beth had called him. Maybe he didn’t pick up. Perhaps he was busy working, and he still thinks that everything is OK. Maybe he still likes Adam. It’s a nice thought. For now.

He finds a jacket, tries on the whole lot, and barely sees himself in the mirror. It looks fine. It looks like a normal person staring back at him from the mirror, someone who doesn’t accidentally reveal secret strip clubs. He buys the clothes, wanders around the mall feeling miserable and overheated and anxious, until finally he can’t stand it any more and finds a side exit. His feet seem to carry him without his conscious input. Adam has no idea how long he walks for, the plastic of the shopping bag making his shoulder ache eventually, until he’s stopped in front of a cafe.

It’s a small cafe in the lobby of a large glass building, and Adam looks around. He knows where this is, and why some part of his brain had decided to take him back here: across the street is the office building that Beth had dropped him in front of, that first day, where she’d always thought Nigel worked.

He pushes the door of the building open. It’s not too busy, another regular morning with remote workers dotting the floor at one-person tables, tapping on their laptops.

“Hi!” says the barista at the counter, and sure enough, it’s the same person who’d given him a free coffee when he’d wandered in here having a panic attack. She tilts her head, squinting at him. “Good to see you,” she offers, which makes it sound like maybe she recognizes him, but he isn’t sure.

He stares up at the chalkboard above her head. He doesn’t recognize much of what’s on offer, but he’s really thirsty. “Italian soda” has the word “soda” in it, so he orders that and is relieved when the barista pulls out syrup and carbonated water, which seems like more or less what he’d wanted.

“So you found a job eventually, huh?” she says as she mixes the ingredients. “Not that I wanted you gone, but. You always looked so nervous whenever you came in here.”

Adam wonders if that means he doesn’t look nervous now. Maybe he doesn’t. “Yes,” he says cautiously. “I found a job.” Whether he still has one is a matter of debate. Do you really have a job if you’re too scared to go into it?

“Well, good,” she says. “Hard to hold onto anything good in this world.” She hands him a plastic cup with pink-tinted carbonated water in it. “Have a nice day.”

“Yeah,” says Adam, to himself since she’s moved on to the next customer. “It is.”

He drinks the soda slowly, sitting at a stool in front of the window, watching people walk past. Every time a tall man with sandy-brown hair walks past he startles, as if Nigel could be anywhere, but it’s never Nigel. Eventually he realizes that there’s no point in pretending not to think about Nigel: perhaps every passing stranger will start to seem like Nigel, until he gives in and calls him.

Adam feels nauseous with anxiety pulling out his phone, but there are no messages: not from Beth, not from Nigel. The dial tone sounds deafening in his ear as he waits for Nigel to pick up.

It’s only after quite a few rings, and when Adam is afraid he isn’t going to answer, that Nigel’s voice comes on the line. “Hello?”

Of course. Nigel doesn’t have caller ID, because he has a shitty ten-year-old flip phone that he swaps out frequently. Adam wonders if Beth had ever realized it was weird for her dad to change phone numbers so often.

“It’s Adam,” says Adam, and the silence on the other end of the line is deafening.

“I don’t really know what to say to you right now, Adam,” says Nigel.

Adam feels like he might vomit, but what comes out of his mouth is words, not bile. “You were supposed to e the one to tell her,” he says, and the anger is back, the anger he’d felt in his living room with Beth, realizing that this wasn’t supposed to be his responsibility. “It wasn’t supposed to be me, Nigel.”

“Yeah, well, I was a little concerned that my only daughter would decide she didn’t want anything to do with me,” says Nigel. “I guess I don’t have to wonder about that any more. Thanks, kid.”

Adam had stopped minding Nigel calling him kid. It was nice, even, something he didn’t say to other people. It hadn’t felt like an insult, until now.

“I’m not a fucking kid,” he says.

“Oh, I forgot,” says Nigel, and his voice sounds vicious even over the phone line. “You’re grown up enough to parade around it stupid fucking outfits and ruin other peoples’ lives. Sorry for forgetting.”

Adam isn’t aware that he’s curled up on the stool until one of his shoes slips and his knee knocks against the counter in front of him. His half-finished cup of soda goes flying, splashing audibly against the hardwood floors, and he turns around to see eyes on him, everyone glancing up at the commotion, like the pairs of eyes peering at him from the audience when he’s on stage but hostile, and he hears Nigel’s voice in his ear sounding conciliatory, he’s saying stuff like “Fuck, kid, sorry, I’m just–” but it’s too late, he can’t hear what Nigel is saying, he’s unsure whether or not he mumbles “fuck you” or if he just thinks it before he smashes the ‘end’ button on the phone and just exists, shaking and tapping and feeling tears roll down his face, until the barista mops up the mess on the floor (stupid, just letting her clean it all up by herself when it’s your fault, you ruin everything) and a fresh drink appears in front of him, and she pats him on the arm because he’d never asked her not to touch him without asking, and she says “don’t worry, happens all the time,” even though he’s pretty damn sure nobody in the universe has ever gotten themselves into this particular situation before.

* * *

Somehow, Adam manages to go home and sleep, and get up in the morning as if his life had some sort of purpose or direction. He washes the slut shorts in the sink with a pinch of laundry soap, and dries them on the plastic rack that Dad had used to use for his good work shirts. They sit there for a few days. He means to go in and give them back to Danny, eventually, but it never seems like the right day to do it, so he doesn’t. There’s still some work to do on the software he’s technically still in charge of, but he can do it just as well from his dining room table as he can from the corner of Nigel’s office, so he does. (Well, almost as well. If there are decreases in productivity associated with not having Nigel there to run fingers through his hair or drop a kiss on his forehead every so often– better not to think about them.)

Nigel doesn’t call. He doesn’t call and doesn’t call and doesn’t call, and Adam stares at the face of his phone and wonders as if from outside his body if he’s going to be the one to break the silence, noting with something approaching detachment that his hand is putting the phone down, because apparently he isn’t. He isn’t angry at Nigel any more; that had lasted all of a day, like smoke blowing away from a fire. Or at least, he can be angry intellectually– Nigel should have told Beth earlier, when he said he would, and Nigel shouldn’t have sworn at him or insulted him when Adam knows Nigel had liked his “parading around” as much as anyone else. But Adam also knows more about Nigel than Nigel probably remembers, usually.

Adam’s spent too much time digging through the records of both legal and illegal activities at the club not to know very well that Nigel is a drug lord with a short temper and a near-maniacal loyalty to the people he regards as ‘his.’ Adam had known that nearly from the beginning, and chosen him anyway– but he can piece together perfectly well why he would have a hard time figuring out how, and how much, to tell Beth of his real life. If Nigel had told her himself, it might have had exactly the same effect, of Beth deciding to cut him out of her life. Adam imagines himself in Nigel’s position, and it’s hard to imagine himself doing any differently.

It’s rare that Adam understands someone else closely enough to imagine their motivations, and he discovers he doesn’t altogether like it. It makes it difficult to be angry with Nigel. It makes it all too easy to imagine why Nigel is angry with him.

The morning of his fellowship interview, Adam pulls on the new clothes that he now realizes he probably should have washed after taking home from the store– they feel too crisp and scratchy against his skin, and they smell of department-store perfume. It’s too late now. He takes a taxi to Washington Square Park and finds his way to the small, tucked-away classroom where the interviews are being held. It’s just a door with a list of names on it and instructions to wait in the hallway at your appointed time. There are a few other people wandering up and down the hall and sitting on benches to study or scroll thorough their phones,.

It’s strange to be back in a school, even if only for an interview. Adam sits on a bench to wait and watches people walking past him. Nobody seems to intuit or care that he isn’t a student, and nobody gives him a second glance when his nerves get the better of him and his hands tap impatiently on his thighs. There’s a corkboard at the end of the hall full of posters: advertisements for elective classes, home-printed campaigns for student government with vague slogans about taking back the power of the student body, several plays and performances by student groups, clubs advertising membership. Adam’s eyes catch on a poster for the Quidditch club: apparently there are not one, but two teams that represent the school in international competition. It’s no stranger an idea than international competitions for pole dancing, he figures, and has a brief vision of himself running around with a broom in between his legs. No, probably not, he figures, but then, he can no longer really rule anything out in his increasingly strange life.

“Adam Raki?” A woman emerges from the classroom in front of him, peering around the hallway. Adam jumps to his feet. His hands are sweating. He’d forgotten all about whatever he was supposed to be thinking about in the space before the interview. He’d practised it with Beth; breathing exercises, going over his answers to questions, mantra-like affirmations of his preparedness and intelligence that Adam had thought were stupid but Beth insisted on him memorizing. Instead he’d somehow ended up puzzling over a fictional sport’s transition to reality.

“Hello, my name is Adam Raki,” he says, jumping up, which isn’t really the right thing to say since she’d started out by saying his name, so the correct thing to do would have been to respond to what she’d said, with something like that’s me, pleased to meet you, but it’s too late now. Fuck.

“I’m Norin,” she says, shaking his hand, and holding the door open for him to enter, “And this is my colleague Paul.” There’s another man sitting at a small fold-out table at the front of the room, where desks have been pushed aside haphazardly.

Adam shakes Paul’s hand and settles himself in the chair on the other side of the table from the two interviewers. He’d wondered if perhaps Mr. Lau was going to be one of them, but apparently not. He’s not sure whether he’s relieved or disappointed, and his anxiety ratchets up with a stab when he wonders if Autumn has mentioned to him that Adam has completely disappeared from the club. She wouldn’t tell him that, surely– what reason would she have to?

Adam realizes, too late, that Norin is talking. He can see her mouth moving, but the thoughts in his head are so loud that he completely forgets to pay attention to what she’s saying, and then she and Paul are sitting there silently, looking at him, expecting him to speak.

He’s thrown it away, Adam realizes. All that practice, and he’s managed to completely fuck up the interview in the first thirty seconds. It’s a good thing he’s not talking to Beth any more– she would have been disappointed. All her hard work for nothing. Turns out her not dating material isn’t the right material for anything else, either.

It’s oddly calming. Beth had failed: he’s fucking up the interview, and he isn’t going to get the fellowship. It’s disappointing, but Adam is good at being disappointed. At least it means he doesn’t have to bother remembering all of Beth’s rules for interviewing well. He slides back in his seat, unclenching his fingers and toes. “I didn’t hear what you said,” he admits. “I’m very nervous. Can you repeat the question?”

“Tell us about yourself and why you’re interested in this program,” Norin repeats, and even though the Beth in his head is saying Slowly, Adam, don’t let your brain get ahead of itself, remember what we talked about, and only two minutes so don’t get too in depth, remember how we discussed not bringing up specific studies or facts or equations, Adam, come on now– Beth is very much not in charge of this thing any more.

Fuck it, thinks Adam. He stares at the grey plastic of the table in front of him, opens his mouth, and lets the unvarnished truth spill out of him like water.

Chapter 24

Special relativity eliminates the notion, so essential to Newtonian mechanics, of absolute time. Of course, Adam’s body is a macroscopic object subject to the ordinary laws of motion. There’s no reason to assume that the strange, loopy passage of time from the beginning of the interview to the end is influenced by anything other than Adam’s perception of time, and yet he still startles when Paul raises a hand and says “Unfortunately that’s all the time we have,” and Adam realizes he’s been talking for– well, he doesn’t actually know, that’s the point– with minimal prompting.

He feels strangely triumphant. He’d catastrophically, utterly fucked up the interview, and it was okay. Life is going to go on. In fact, it was kind of fun, fucking it up: not just forgetting about but intentionally ignoring every since piece of advice and well-practised good habit that Beth had tried to teach him. He feels somewhat sorry that it’s over; he wants to see what else he can fuck up, how much more wrong he can get it.

“It was wonderful talking to you, Adam,” says Norin, extending her hand across the table. Adam doesn’t want to shake it, so he doesn’t, and eventually she retracts it and continues, “We heard wonderful things about you from Kenny– you’re friends with his daughter?”

Adam hesitates. It’s not that he cares any longer about giving the correct impression, but he’s genuinely not sure if that’s the case or not. Is he friends with Autumn? If she were to somehow find out that Adam and Nigel were at odds, surely she would side with Nigel, her boss and a man she’s known for years and seems to like well, over Adam, a strange newcomer.

“I’m not sure,” he says eventually. “I’m not very good at being able to tell whether someone is my friend or not.”

Paul laughs, and for the first time Adam realizes that Paul hasn’t tried to catch his eye once the entire interview. “Me too,” he says simply, and returns to writing something down. Adam had assumed it was notes on him, but now he peers onto Paul’s paper and realizes it’s covered in Sierpiński triangles, different portions shaded on each one. They look soothing, Adam thinks, and he gazes at them for a moment. Perhaps Paul hadn’t been paying attention to a word he was saying– or perhaps fractals help him think, and he had been listening very closely indeed.

“I usually just ask,” says Paul, as Adam is collecting his bag and heading for the door. “Thank you for coming in.”

Adam has the door closed behind him before he thinks to say, “Maybe I’ll try that.”

He takes a cab to Central park.

It’s daytime, and he doesn’t usually like the park in the day: it’s too full of people, and the day is sunny enough that he’s feeling a bit warm in his formal clothes. Still, there’s something about the strange sense of floating freedom that he still feels shrouded in that makes him want to be outdoors. It makes him wish that the day sky were as complex as the night sky to the human eye, or at least that the one visible star were safe to view with the naked eye.

Instead, Adam stands staring at the reflection of the sun in the water of the reservoir until it makes his eyes water. He can almost picture just from the reflection of the run, the paths of celestial bodies: the Earth around the Sun, the Moon around the Earth. It would be possible, theoretically, to keep adding bodies onto that pattern– a smaller moon around the moon, a sub-moon around the smaller moon, sub-sub-moons orbiting sub-moons, et cetera. Extremely unlikely in practice for too many bodies to be held in that pattern, particularly in circular orbits– but if you could set up a solar system of as many orbiting bodies as you wanted, and adjust the width and speeds of their orbits, you could make the tiniest sub-sub-sub-moon tract out any path in the Universe that you wanted.

Any path in the Universe. Adam feels random, chaotic. Dad is dead, he has no job, he’s alienated his ex-girlfriend, his boyfriend and very possibly all of his friends. The smallest sub-moon in such a system might appear to have motion that is random, but in reality, the setup is entirely different from deterministic chaos. Every aspect of such a system can be modelled, predicted, and arranged.

That doesn’t mean he knows how to arrange this. He tears his eyes away from the imprint of the sun on sparkling blue water, and it feels like giving up, in exactly the same way that he’d given up on the interview.

Perhaps he can’t determine his own path. Adam tries to drive towards something, and it remains stubbornly out of his reach, his orbit determined by forces out of his control. But he’s not helpless: perhaps he just needs to focus on problems outside his own system. He was the force that sent Nigel and Beth spinning apart: perhaps he can nudge them on a path that will lead them back closer.

Adam pulls out his phone and searches what to buy a girl to say you’re sorry. The top three suggestions are a gourmet cookie set, a necklace, and a teddy bear that says “I’m Sorry” on the belly, none of which seem particularly appropriate, and anyway perhaps the fact that Beth is female isn’t really relevent to this situation anyway. He searches how to apologize properly in the cab home instead, and reads about the necessity of giving up the idea of being right, using I-statements, and considering the other person’s needs and personality.

He buys a bouquet of flowers anyway, a block away from the apartment. Gifts had helped with Beth the first time, after all– he’d given her tea and a laundry room card.

It’s nearly evening by the time he arrives home, the sun starting to sink into diffuse orange light, and he can see the light in Beth’s apartment on. He doesn’t bother going back to his apartment first– the waiting is the worst part, he remembers from dancing and the interview preparation.

Beth opens the door quickly. Adam can smell something cooking from her apartment, a curry maybe, and realizes suddenly that it’s dinnertime and he hasn’t eaten all day. He’d been too nervous before the interview to eat anything. No matter; this won’t take long.

“What do you want, Adam?” she says.

“Nothing,” Adam says, and it’s the truth. He doesn’t want anything from her; not a girlfriend, not a life coach, not even a friend. “I just want to do what I can to fix what I broke. Even though it’s not mine to fix.”

Beth leans her hip against the door, and for once she’s not desperately searching his face like she’s waiting to catch his eye before she can speak to him. She stares at the carpeted floor of the hallway while she says, “You didn’t break anything, Adam. Daddy– my dad is the one who broke everything. You shouldn’t have lied, but he’s been lying my entire life.”

“I’m sorry anyway,” Adam ploughs ahead. “I shouldn’t have lied to you, and I didn’t want to, I hate lying but– I don’t mean this as an excuse, because a website I found says you shouldn’t offer excuses when you’re apologizing but only use “I” statements, but Beth– I lied for the exact same reasons he did. Your dad didn’t want to tell you the truth because he knew that he was doing something wrong, and every day that passed with his lie getting bigger only made it worse, but– he didn’t want to hurt you. And I felt the same way.” Adam concentrates on the feeling of his toes clenching and relaxing in his shoes, and keeps every other muscle as still as possible.

Beth breathes deeply. She stares at the carpet some more. “Thanks,” she says finally, then sighs. “Do you want to come in?”

“No,” says Adam. “I just wanted to say that– it’s none of my business, but I hope that you start talking to Nigel– to your dad again. I think he’s a good person and–”

Adam swallows hard. There’s no point in telling Beth that he and Nigel were– well, something. He’s not lying by omitting it, is the point, because they’re not. And if I couldn’t talk to him it would be awful, he doesn’t say to Beth. I can’t talk to him, and it is awful. But that can’t be helped, so at least one of us should be able to have him.

Beth nods slowly. “I will,” she says. “I will, I just needed some time.”

There. Beth will have Nigel as her dad again, and everything will be fine. Adam hasn’t broken anything, or at least not anything he can’t repair. It’s just that in order to repair something, you need to be outside of it. The rules of a system can only be understood from outside the system. Perhaps it’s right that Adam be outside of it, then. Outside of everything, and one day he’ll understand all the rules, even if he’s not in a position to apply them.

“I think I need some time… from you, too, Adam,” says Beth.

“Does that mean you don’t want to be friends for right now, or you don’t want to be friends ever again, and you just don’t want to tell me so?” he asks, because understanding other peoples’ expectations is important for planning and perhaps he might as well just ask. Like Paul said.

Beth drags a hand down her face. “Fuck, Adam, I don’t know,” she says. “Why would you ask something like that? I don’t know.” She’s frustrated. Frustrated with Adam, as always, because apparently even when they’re not romantic partners and only liminally even friends, Adam still has the power to frustrate her without even trying.

Maybe that’s his answer, then. “Have a good night,” Adam says, and Beth says “goodnight” quietly back, and closes the door, and Adam is alone.

Well, if you ever want to drink alone like a sorry motherfucker, plenty of our clients would tell you that our bar is the place.

It’s a bad idea, a thoroughly stupid idea. Adam doesn’t even like drinking. But Nigel’s voice floats through his mind– surely he’s allowed that? He doesn’t have to stop thinking about Nigel?– and he has change in the bottom of his wallet, a few dollar bills that Nigel touched once, probably drug money, and Adam might as well do his part to launder it through the New York taxi service, so he finds himself sitting in the back of one, staring at the streetlights coming on at dusk, before he’s even really decided to do it.

The front of the strip club is hideous. Adam had never really gotten a good look at it before: it’s painted with the enormous silhouette of a woman bending over, her arms on a pole, the shadow of her skirt riding up enough to suggest that were she real, viewers would be staring at her genitals. Apparently the name of the place is “PARADICE,” painted in peeling letters above the entrance, though Adam has never hear it referred to as such on any official documentation, or by anyone who works there, and is unsure of whether the name is a spelling error or an oblique invitation to gambling.

It’s late enough that there’s a small lineup in front of the box office but too early for the lineup to be particularly intoxicated. Adam stands in line and purchases a non-members’ price entrance from a girl he hasn’t seen before.

He’d brought his earplugs just in case, but the music is turned down low enough to allow conversation, and most patrons are sitting at tables eating fries and nachos. Adam stares at the stage as he heads to the bar, the lights low and two poles sitting empty on the stage. In a competitive set, he knows, one will be set up to spin freely and the other fixed in place, and the dancer has to demonstrate proficiency on both on one set. It feels impossible that he was on that stage not all that long ago. With a jolt, he realizes he never brought the slut shorts back to Danny– they’re still hanging on a drying rack in his bathroom. Well, it’s not like he was planning on actually talking to anyone he knows, anyway. He can bring them back later. Perhaps leave them in a bag hanging on a doorknob somewhere.

He’s still staring wistfully at the stage when he pushes himself onto a stool next to the bar. He sees the bartender draw up to him and readies himself to say whisky, please, as if he’s well-practised in the art of drinking alone like a sorry motherfucker, only then the bartender says “What can I get you?” in a voice Adam recognizes, and Adam startles his gaze away from the stage to look up at Nigel.

Chapter 25

“Whisky, please,” says Adam, because he hadn’t lined up anything else to say, and Nigel is standing in front of him, his fingers curling nervously on the slightly sticky wooden surface of the bar. And then, because there’s no point in not just asking now, he adds, “What are you doing here?”

“I own this place, is what I’m doing here,” Nigel mutters gruffly, and deposits the drink in front of Adam. His hand lingers on it, like he’s not sure whether he should relinquish it or not. “Do you want some ice?” he asks. “I’m a shit bartender, if you can’t tell.”

“Okay,” says Adam, and Nigel deposits a few ice cubes into the amber liquid. Adam takes a drink, and immediately regrets it: it burns his throat, and he nearly coughs it back up. He manages to avoid spluttering, and tries again with a much smaller sip.

Nigel’s fingers drum on the countertop. “But I’m specifically tending the bar,” he says, “because it’s a great place to meet a lot of miserable fucks who want to tell you all about how pathetic their lives are, so that you can feel sorry for them instead of moping around feeling sorry for your own damn self.”

Adam tries a slightly bigger sip. It feels better now, actually, something about the pain of alcohol sliding down his throat that matches with his mood. Nigel is right here, and Adam has no clue what this is or what they are to each other now, but Adam’s life has been feeling pretty pathetic lately, so if telling the bartender all about it is what you’re supposed to do, then maybe he should try it.

“Someone told me once that this was the place to come to drink alone like a sorry motherfucker,” he says, “and I think that’s what I am. So thank you for the drink.”

Nigel stares down at his feet, and breathes hard out of his nose in a way that could almost be a laugh. “Yeah?” he says.

Nigel hasn’t left yet– he seems to be settling in, actually, resting his elbows on the bar and leaning slightly forward onto them. Adam stares at the skin of Nigel’s arms spreading slightly against the surface. Perhaps this is a purely professional interaction, then. For a moment they’re interrupted by a man holding out a beer glass in a way that Nigel apparently intuits means he wants another, but then Nigel is back in front of him, and Adam says, “Well, the story all starts when I met a girl.”

“A classic beginning to a story of woe,” says Nigel.

“I don’t think the next part is a classic,” says Adam. “I’ve watched a lot of Inside the Actor’s Studio, and they never talk about playing roles where the protagonist meets his girlfriend’s father and falls in love with him.”

Nigel blinks, his eyes flicking up to Adam’s face, and returning to his hands when Adam doesn’t meet his eyes. He’s only telling the truth to a bartender, after all. It doesn’t matter that I have fallen in love with you is, he knows, something you’re only supposed to say to someone when you’re actually in a relationship with them. He’s simply saying what happened.

“Don’t watch a lot of American movies,” says Nigel, “But I don’t think they make them like that, usually, no.”

“Well, it turned out that the father had a secret,” says Adam, and this feels easier, as if his own life were a film that he’d seen a few weeks ago and is now explaining. It’s better than talking about himself. Perhaps I-statements are over-rated. “A secret he was keeping from his daughter her entire life. And the protagonist tried to keep the secret, because he didn’t want to hurt anybody, but it was the caring that ruined it, in the end. He cared too much about not hurting both of them, and eventually let the secret slip because he was– he is– fucking terrible at secrets, they make his skin feel like it’s inside-out on his bones, and he felt terrible about ruining everyone’s life and fucked up a fellowship interview on purpose but is still angry, Nigel. He– I’m still angry.”

Adam realizes he’s breathing hard, that he’s stopped describing a movie, and suddenly, that he is angry. The anger had been there, all along, just pushed down by sadness and confusion and the desire to fix what he’d broken, but now it’s back, and he needs Nigel to know. “I shouldn’t have been in that position,” he says. “It wasn’t– it wasn’t fair.” It sounds needy and pathetic, a grown man talking about fairness like a child on the playground, but he doesn’t care. This bar is where people come to be pathetic, after all.

Nigel’s tongue flicks over his lips and Adam looks at his face despite himself, despite still being angry. He wants to touch it. He wants there to be some parallel universe where things are back to the way they were, only different.

“I think,” says Nigel finally, “I need a drink.” He looks up and down the bar, at the younger bartender on the other side arranging glasses on a platter and bringing them out to tables, and says, “Will you come pour me one?”

“What?”

Nigel grins, and in a moment he’s clambered fully over the countertop of the bar, drawing confused looks from patrons on either side of them. He pulls up a stool beside Adam’s, and jerks his head towards the spot behind the bar where he was just standing. “Go on,” he says. “Pour me some whisky.”

It feels weird to stand up and put his foot on top of a surface intended for food and drink, but oddly good to press own with his heel and vault over it, landing on the other side more gracefully than Nigel had. The whisky bottle that Nigel had poured Adam’s drink from is in the array behind him, and there are glasses on shelves underneath the countertop. He pours rather more into Nigel’s glass than Nigel had given him, then puts it in front of him and says, “What’s your story of woe, then?”

Nigel drinks, then grins. “It all starts– where the fuck does it start? Selling drugs as a kid, I guess.” He holds a finger up to his lips. “Shh. There’s no such thing as drug addiction under communism.” He shrugs. “At least, there wasn’t much coordination of the thing. Small-time shit. Still, I never told Mama and Tatiana where the money was coming from, and they never asked outright. You just didn’t tell people things, in those days. Safer to keep your shit to yourself, no matter what your shit was.”

Adam thinks back to Nigel’s fellow defectors, the couple who had been surprised to find each other in the refugee camp. He tries to imagine living with a lie that big, and the scale feels impossible. It makes all other lies seem insignificant by comparison.

Nigel shrugs. “So, I kept doing it. I came to America, and it turns out lying works just as well here as it did back home, and fuck knows I’ve got enough to lie about. Had a daughter, and figured she was precious enough to be worth lying to.”

Adam bites his lip and stares down into his glass, which he realizes to his surprise is almost empty. He pours himself more from the bottle behind him. He’d tried that, with Beth. Precious enough to be worth lying to. He’d tried it as hard as he could, and it hadn’t worked. His fingers clench.

“And then,” says Nigel, “I met someone who made me realize there are things precious enough to be worth the truth.”

Adam looks up. Nigel’s shoulders are slumped over his glass, but his face is raised, and he’s searching Adam’s face for– something. Adam has no idea.

Adam swallows. “Just to be clear,” he says, “Are you referring to me?”

Nigel erupts with a surprise burst of laughter, and for a moment Adam feels drenched in warmth in the same way he had when he had made Nigel laugh at the theatre, sitting in between him and Beth for The Confession of Lily Dare. It infects him, and he smiles a bit, too, and pretends that he isn’t relieved to have it stated outright when Nigel leans back a bit on the stool and stares at the ceiling while he says, “Yes, gorgeous, I’m referring to you.”

Precious enough to be worth the truth. Well, Beth knows one truth, now, and not because Nigel had given it to her. “That’s not good enough,” he hears himself say, as if he were merely an observer outside of his own body. He immediately wishes he hadn’t said it, hadn’t had to say it, but it’s true. Nigel hasn’t done any truth-telling, yet.

He watches Nigel fingers on the counter, his strong capable violent hands, and tries not to think. The tips of his fingers are white where he’s pressing them into the surface of the bar. Finally he says, “I wasn’t sure if there was anything more to tell her. And anyway, I don’t think she wants to talk to me.”

“She wants to talk to you,” says Adam. “She said so. She just needs some time.”

“She’s going to need a hell of a lot more time if I tell her I’m dating her ex-boyfriend.”

A man chooses that moment to walk up to Adam and ask him if they’ve got any craft beer in this place. “Fuck off, he’s not a real bartender,” Nigel barks at him, and the man looks briefly confused and then shrugs and wanders off to catch the attention of the actual bartender down at the other end of the bar.

“We don’t have any craft beer, anyway,” mutters Nigel. “This is a fucking titty joint.” Then he takes a deep breath, and says, “Do I have any more truth to tell her, Adam? It’s your choice. You already know I’m a screwup of the highest order, and fuck knows I’ve screwed up with you, but– if you’ll let me, I’ll try again. Beth can have all the time she needs. I’m not going anywhere.”

Adam’s mouth opens, and nothing comes out. He’s pretty sure he knows what Nigel’s asking, but he wants to hear it out loud, needs to be certain–

“I’m asking,” Nigel clarifies, like he can read Adam’s mind, or maybe because he’d once promised not to lie to Adam and part of not lying is being clear with your speech when your meaning could be ambiguous and Nigel, despite all appearances from his history and career, keeps his promises, “Whether you’d like to– to be– to be in a fucking romantic relationship with me, okay. Because if you do, I need to call my daughter and give her some news.”

“Yes,” says Adam, because it’s as simple as that, and since he’s the boyfriend of the owner and therefore isn’t going to get in trouble, he puts his foot back up on the surface of the bar and jumps over it again, until he’s over on the same side of Nigel and then without any clear transition from one state to another he’s in Nigel’s arms again, being held tight enough it almost hurts.

It seems to go on and on, both of them just holding on and breathing and Adam’s face slightly damo against Nigel’s shirt, until his thoughts arrange into some semblance of order but the only thing that makes sense yet is to tell Nigel “I missed you,” first quietly and then again stronger, “I missed you, Nigel.”

One of Nigel’s hands comes up to cup the back of his head, his fingers drawing up through Adam’s curls and against his scalp in a way that feels like it should be unfit for public viewing, like Nigel is touching a secret part of him, and Adam shivers and presses closer. He feels the words rumble through Nigel’s chest when he answers, “Fuck, I missed you too, kid. You spend a few days scrubbing graffiti and talking with the other poor fucks sentenced to community service, you start to feel really fucking grateful for the shit in your life you’ve somehow managed not to fuck up beyond recognition.”

Adam swallows. “Do you really think– do you think Beth will be angry?”

He can feel Nigel’s answering sigh waft over the top of his head. “Probably,” he says. “But at least that’s her choice. Least I can do is give her all the information to make it with.” He pulls away. “No time like the present. I’m going to go to my office. Do you want…” he runs a hand through his hair, the blond strands sticking up at new angles. “Do you want to listen to the phone call?”

Adam thinks about it for a moment. It’s understandable why Nigel would offer: perhaps he thinks that Adam won’t believe he’s really done it unless he hears it for himself. He shakes his head. “You promised not to lie to me,” he says, “And I believe you. I think your conversation with Beth should be private.”

Nigel nods. “Thank you,” he says quietly.

Adam tips his head up, angling his lips towards Nigel’s, and Nigel leans down almost hesitantly, as if he can’t quite believe what is being offered. Adam presses into him, pushing his tongue into Nigel’s mouth briefly and tasting the whisky and the cigarettes underneath it, and then pulls back.

“I’m tired,” he says. Tired is an understatement; he feels wrung-out, both completely finished like a toy that’s out of batteries, and simultaneously on the verge of overstimulation. The events of the day are suddenly crashing in on him with a nearly physical weight.

Nigel presses a hand to his cheek and nods. “Will I see you tomorrow?” he asks, and Adam nods.

“Yeah,” he says. “You will.”

Adam starts to pull away, but finds himself caught and held by the wrist. Nigel pulls him back, his other hand reaching into his pocket for his wallet, and Adam smiles. Nigel hands him some folded bills; slightly too much for the cab ride, as usual, so that the extra collects in Adam’s wallet and reminds him of Nigel every time he reaches for change. Adam opens his hand to accept them, their palms pressed tightly together.

Chapter 26

Really?” Adam reaches behind his neck, feeling the meat of his trapezius doubtfully. After just a few tries, it already feels like the muscles is a hard knot of tension. There’s absolutely no way it could support the pressure of his entire body, even for a moment. “Are you… are you sure I’m in the right position?”

Autumn gets to her feet from where she’s sitting watching him. “The pole shouldn’t be resting against bone, and you don’t want it too close to your neck,” she says. “But as long as there’s room for your head beside it and a cushion of muscle where you make contact, yeah, that’s the position.” She demonstrates again: standing with her back to the pole, arms reaching up to grasp it above her head and her head off to one side, then pulling her feet off the ground into an upside-down straddle. Adam just stares.

“It looks so easy when you do it,” he says. Even though he knows there isn’t one, he still glances at the back of her shoulder when she comes down for a bruise. It seems impossible that someone could lift the weight of their entire body with that one spot, and not have something to show for it.

Autumn shrugs. “It is easy,” she says. “I don’t mean that in a condescending way, it just– I mean, it’s foundational. And things that are foundational become easy over time because you practice them every time you build on them.”

That’s true enough. “At least orbital mechanics can be computerized once you understand the calculations,” Adam grumbles. “You can’t automate getting on a pole.”

“You can automate motions of the body more reliably than you might think,” Autumn says. She gestures over to Olga, on the other side of the room, who is upside down on a pair of wooden blocks raised hip-height off the ground by metal poles. As Adam watches, she pushes off with one hand and the other block spins, swivelling her in a full rotation to come back around with her free hand back on the first block. “Olga’s been doing handstands ever day since she was– what, four?” Autumn calls across the room, and Olga nods, upright again, shaking out her wrists. “it’s not that it doesn’t take physical effort, of course, but our bodies are perfectly capable of automating physical actions that require energy.”

Adam considers the fact that Olga has apparently been doing handstands since she was four years old, and decides that he doesn’t feel envious. He wouldn’t have been well-suited for athletic training at four, and anyway, if he had learned this stuff back then, he wouldn’t be able to learn it for the first time now.

He positions himself in front of his pole again, reaches up to cup the metal with both hands. His shoulder throbs just from the light pressure of leaning on it, but he leans into the spot and pulls as hard as he can with his hands anyway. This time his feet manage to get mid-torso height, and Autumn claps. “Better!”

Adam smiles, and lines himself up to try it on the other side. It hurts, in the deep nauseous kind of way that he has started associating only with pole, but somehow too that specific pain has become tied to a sense of satisfaction. His feet kick wildly in the air for a moment and then he allows himself to rest, sliding his back down the pole and panting.

“I don’t think it’s going to be ready for next week’s show,” he says, a little hesitantly. He had walking into the training room in the morning with no idea how to approach the fact that he had been absent for nearly a week following the previous week’s show. He has no idea if Nigel had said anything, or if anyone had remarked on Nigel apparently discovering a sudden inclination towards bartending. But nobody had asked, Autumn had just hugged him, and Danny refused to take his shorts back, and now the training room is filling gradually with acrobats warning up for the day’s activities and Adam is, apparently, just one of them. He can be one of them here whenever he likes, without explaining anything.

Autumn laughs. “Yeah, might take a bit longer than that. But hey, you’ve got time.” She hesitates. “You’ll keep training when you’re done with the software work you’re doing for Nigel, right?”

“It’s pretty much done already,” says Adam, but Autumn just bites her lip like she’s still uncertain. Then she sighs and says, “Okay, I guess I should just ask– are you and Nigel together? It’s okay if you don’t want to tell me. Or if you’re not. You’re always welcome here, no matter what. Even if it’s just on the weekends when you’re busy with school.”

Adam winces. “I don’t think I’m going to be busy with school,” he says. “I was very honest with the interviewers. My– my ex-girlfriend tried to prepare me for the interview, to act normal, but I… didn’t end up doing what she said.”

From across the room, Danny bursts out laughing, and backs away from where he’s got a finger on Olga’s back as she twists herself into an improbable shape. “I’m sure,” he chuckles at Adam, “the very first priority of a bunch of astrophysicists is going to be to choose someone normal to work with.”

Adam narrows his eyes. “He’s being sarcastic,” he ventures.

Autumn is chuckling too, settling herself in a split with her back knee on a block raised off the floor. “Yeah, he’s being sarcastic. And– look, my dad is way too straight-laced to ever tell me anything confidential about students, but Adam, you were both pretty weird about space shit the night that you guys met. I don’t think he’d have encouraged you to apply if he thought you’d have to be a whole different person to get in. And as far as I know, all of my dad’s colleagues are just as weird as him about space shit. So.” She shrugs, presses down briefly on her front thigh and then bends her back leg and starts trying to touch her forehead with it, which means she’s no longer looking at Adam, and whatever his face is showing passes unobserved.

“Yeah,” he says as her face is turned away. “Nigel and I are together. And I’ll still come if I’m busy with school.”

* * *

The smell of macaroni and cheese permeates Nigel’s house, and there is an orange safety vest discarded next to the shoes in the front hall. Nigel greets him at the front door with a hug, and Adam holds on to him tightly.

“Thank you for coming,” Nigel says, the formality of it sounding strange on him. “Figured the place could run itself tonight. Shit never goes down on Mondays.” He smells like sweat and sun and the chemical undertone of whatever solvent he’s been spraying on walls all day.

“You’re welcome,” says Adam, because that’s what you’re supposed to say. He feels small compared to Nigel’s house; not just the size of the space compared to his own but the history of it. Beth had grown up here; Nigel’s wife had lived here. Nigel had once, younger than he is now, walked around this house before owning it, and imagined himself living there. Surely, he had never imagined anything like Adam for himself, when he’d bought the place. But then, Adam had never imagined anything like Nigel.

They sit in the dining room. Nigel had cleaned the place up, since the last time Adam had been here: there are no papers or laptop in sight on the table, and the struggling brown plant has been replaced with a tiny cactus. Adam stares at the cactus, and Nigel shrugs. “Got it at the dollar store,” he says.

Adam remembers, the last time he’d been here, Nigel promising to tell Beth about their relationship. I want to tell her about you. I want everyone to know that you want me. It had seemed true, at the time. Perhaps Nigel had even meant it. But he hadn’t done it, and Adam hadn’t pushed. He doesn’t want to push now, not now with bowls of macaroni and cheese in front of them and a strange maybe-plastic cactus between them when everything is going so well, but–

“Adam.” Nigel looks amused. “Spit it out. It’s not like you to be tactful.”

The pasta is good, not the boxed mac n cheese that Adam favours but possibly made with real cheese. He swallows his mouthful. “Did you talk to Beth?” he asks, his voice small and frightened. He’s not sure if he’s frightened that Nigel will say no– make some excuse– or that he’ll say yes, and Adam will have to decide whether or not to believe him.

“Right after you left, yesterday,” says Nigel. He clears his throat, pushes the pasta around in his bowl. “We’re going for brunch on the weekend, and then she’s coming for a tour of the club.”

Adam’s head jerks up. “Really? She’s not angry?”

“She’s fucking furious. But at least she wants to know what exactly there is for her to be furious about.”

Adam thinks about that. He feels oddly proud of Beth, for being furious. He would be.

“She says,” Nigel adds, “That I have to take her shopping, now that she knows all of my money is– ‘dirty titty money.’”

That startles a laugh out of Adam, and shakes a memory loose. “You warned me that I might see the occasional titty, when I started working for you,” he says. “I haven’t seen a single, um, one. Titty, that is.”

“You haven’t ventured in at peak hours. Come on Saturday to say hi to Beth, and say for the evening. You’ll see all the titties you can handle.”

Adam frowns. “Won’t it be– weird? Having me there, while you show Beth around?”

“Weird as shit,” says Nigel cheerfully. “Figure maybe it’s time to stop running away from it.”

“Okay,” says Adam. “I’ll come.”

They eat macaroni and cheese and some kind of frozen yogurt for dessert. The yogurt has chunks of chocolate in it, which Adam picks out with his spoon and pushes to the side of the bowl until Nigel sidles over and starts picking them out for him and eating them. He feels sleepy and relaxed by the time they load the dishwasher– Adam has never owned a dishwasher in the small apartment he’d shared with Dad, and regards the idea of putting dishes in a machine to be washed as halfway between magical and laughable– and by the time they are in the bedroom, he has nearly no idea how they’d ended up there.

“I want you to penetrate me,” he says, the moment Nigel leaves off kissing him for long enough for Adam to get a word in edgewise. “I’ve been thinking about it for so long. Did I tell you that? I thought about you– fucking me, the very first time we met. At the theatre. I wanted it.”

“Jesus,” Nigel mumbles. “You serious?”

“Yes,” says Adam, confused. “Why would I joke about that?”

“No reason,” says Nigel, and Adam finds himself pushed backwards and spread out on the bed. He pulls off his own clothes, because he can see where this is going and doesn’t want to wait any longer than absolutely necessary. “No fucking reason at all,” Nigel murmurs, “except sometimes I think I must have hallucinated you, you’re so fucking perfect.”

Adam swallows. Nigel is taking his clothes off, and apparently Nigel keeps condoms and lubricant in the bedside table next to his bed. “I’ve never been penetrated by a penis before,” he mumbles. “But I enjoy it when I do it to myself with a vibrator, so I think I’ll enjoy this too.”

He squirms, Nigel’s fingers making their way down to his entrance with little fanfare. He remembers Nigel’s face twitching with discomfort, the last time they were in this room together. Point is, I’ve fucked boys, but I’ve never had gay sex. Adam knows it’s not actually a good thing, that Nigel had only meant that he’d been objectifying and degrading his previous partners too much to even consider it real sex, but for some reason it makes his cock jump, to think of that. He’s pretty sure this is more than just fucking boys. This is a first for Nigel, too. Adam squirms and whimpers as Nigel’s lube-soaked fingers slick up his entrance, dip gently inside him to get him ready.

“I want your cock, Nigel,” he says, and Nigel lines himself up, workmanlike, and pushes against Adam’s hole with a firm, unrelenting pressure. Adam’s eyes widen. It feels simultaneously exactly and nothing like his own fingers and his vibrator. It feels warmer, and the way that the head of Nigel’s cock slips past his entrance and slides against his insides feels commanding. He’s very nearly pinned to the bed by Nigel’s weight, the roughness of the hair on his chest, his legs pressing against Adam’s.

“Okay?” Nigel asks, and maybe it’s just the position, the way he feels utterly trapped by Nigel’s body like a weighted blanket but so, so much better, or maybe he’s just been watching too much of the wrong kind of pornography lately– in any case, he can feel the stutter of Nigel’s hips when Adam whimpers “Yes. Daddy.”

Nigel’s answer is nearly a laugh, slightly strangled, and a snap of his hips so forceful that Adam slides back a little on the sheets. “Fuck, you can’t say shit like that,” Nigel laughs, and for once Adam is entirely sure that actually, that means he can.

Nigel fucks him rhythmically and with his arms fencing Adam in, squeezing him like Nigel can’t help it, and the pleasure builds slowly and more maddening than anything Adam could do to himself until he’s nearly crying as he shakes apart beneath Nigel and in between his arms. Nigel pulls back and pants “should I–” and Adam squeezes his eyes shut and whispers “keep going, come in me.” He catalogues the way it feels both less and more intense to have Nigel in him after he’s already come, how he can open his eyes and focus on watching Nigel’s face, analyzing the precise curve of his mouth as he thrusts into Adam’s body with abandon and then goes slack and just holds him, pulsing.

There’s no question about whether Adam is going to stay the night. He’d brought an overnight bag, which he’d deposited by the door, and Nigel laughs and directs him to the closet for a robe when he goes to get it. He brushes his teeth, then cleans the lube off of himself and wonders what it would be like to have Nigel come inside of him without a condom. He’s not sure he’d like it– but then, if he doesn’t, they don’t have to do it again. They have time.

Nigel curls around him, when he gets back to the bed. “Let me know when you need your space, baby,” he mutters, and Adam figures he’ll have to ask him to let go eventually, but for now, he’s comfortable. He leans into Nigel’s chest and breathes, the hair on Nigel’s chest scratching against his cheek.

He might hear Nigel murmur “I love you” before he falls asleep, but Adam isn’t sure. He’ll ask in the morning.