LEN BREATHED shallowly, afraid if he pulled air in too deep, the sticky mass rolling in his gut would rise and choke him. If he closed his eyes, he could imagine himself splitting in two. It was a gory, flesh-and-blood division and fucking hurt like hell.
He wanted to punch Vance in the face. He wanted to curse him. He wanted to leave him. The hollow space inside him deepened and yawned emptier than ever at the thought, and the sticky mass teetered on the edge of it. If it fell in, filled the hole, nothing else could ever live there. The edges of the abyss pushed outward, and Len clung to the ugly mass of emotions, desperate to control it as that expanding blackness made it ever harder to breathe.
He couldn’t leave. Vance had given him that small taste of what could be.
Boston had been… heaven. Tranquil, despite the horror of “breaking up” with Trevor. As painful as that had been—as painful as it still was—it had, at the time, seemed to have a purpose.
His gaze drifted across the magazines strewn over the coffee table. He wondered absently why they were there. Surely no one sat in here waiting for anything. No one needed reading material to pass the time. One glossy cover in particular caught his notice. The man depicted on the cover was as familiar to him as his own face: Trevor—Damian—for this was a picture of the lead singer of Firefly in full stage persona. This wasn’t Len’s childhood friend Trevor but Trevor’s stage mask, Damian.
Trevor’s face was hidden under Damian’s caked-on goth makeup, false lashes, spiked hair, but the eyes, like shards of broken glass, peered out, bereft. Lonely.
Lenny felt the stab of rejection as if the image was glaring directly at him, full of blame and anger.
The picture had been taken recently, possibly leaving a venue where the band had played, or maybe it was Damian on the way out of a bar. The headline, even half-hidden under another magazine, speculated on the bandages peeping from under leather gloves on both hands and the haunted look in his eyes.
Was he in trouble? it asked. He could just imagine what the article would say: Did the injuries have anything to do with the band’s lead guitarist making a sudden exit from the band? Had they been in a fight? Was there bad blood?
Yes, yes, and a heaping helping of fuck yes.
Lenny, said lead guitarist for Firefly, had attacked Damian in a fit of uncontrolled rage, done that damage to his hands, hurt him so that when he looked out from behind the safety of Damian’s badass goth exterior, Len could see the hurt and helplessness his friend Trevor had felt. He could feel the recrimination that the rest of the band had heaped on him just before they’d kicked him out of the band and told him to get his shit together before even thinking about coming back.
Leaving the band—no. He shook his head against that thought. Getting kicked out of the band had been humiliating. It had hurt. It had, he knew, been necessary.
But Vance had been there, steady and reassuring.
Len started. Across the coffee table, his therapist watched him over the black plastic rims of her glasses. He liked her. Liked her glasses and her lip gloss and the way she pulled her dark hair back into a tight bun, liked her neat cardigans and pencil skirts. He even liked her name: Lenore Stanton. It was a nice, no-nonsense sort of name that fit the rest of the image. It was all so severe and serious, and yet, her blue eyes were soft, and she reminded him a little bit of Alice. He’d put money on this woman wearing garters and lace under all that severity, where no one could see. He often wondered which side of the cuffs she preferred.
He jumped again and met her gaze.
“You said”—she glanced at the pad of legal paper in her lap—“He had been there.” She looked back at him. “I assume you mean Vance.”
“And that had been reassuring? His being there for you?”
Len swallowed but nodded again and reached for the bottle of water she always made sure was handy for him.
“We’ve talked about this,” he said, then took a drink and carefully screwed the lid back on.
“Tell me again.”
“Why?” he asked this time.
She lifted one nicely plucked brow.
Drawing in a deep breath, Len focused on his hands and rubbed one thumb over the calluses on the tips of his left-hand fingers. “He’s strong,” he said, hoping that would be enough.
“Strong.” She smirked, a feminine sort of expression that wasn’t quite mocking, but conveyed something more like amusement. “I would imagine. He’s what? Six foot four?”
“But that isn’t what you mean, is it?”
Again, Len shrugged.
Lenore leaned forward. “Ace was strong too, wasn’t he? He was a big man?”
Len squirmed deeper into his chair, as if he could weasel out from under her gaze. “Bigger than me, yeah. So?” So wasn’t everyone bigger than him? Hell, Lenore, with her safe little flats and prim, comforting office wear, was bigger than he was.
“So you go for big guys.”
“Sure. I guess.” Trev wasn’t that big. Tall, but hella skinny.
“Why?” Her question knocked thoughts of Trevor away.
“What the fuck does it matter? You’re supposed to be trying to help me figure shit out with Vance. What has that got to do with Ace? He’s dead anyway.”
“I’m here for you, Len. If Vance is good for you, fine. But I’m here to help you figure out you.”
Len stared at her. He could feel the tearing inside again, imagine his rib cage splitting in two, blood and guts spilling out onto her nice, geometric-pattered rug.
Vance kept him together.
“Tell me what you’re thinking,” she said.
Len looked out the window at the skyline. Which part? The macabre belief his entire being was slowly ripping apart? Or the certain knowledge only Vance could hold him tight enough to keep him in one piece?
“No is not an option, Mr. Stevens.”
“You’d think I’m crazy.”
She smiled, and it was a kind, understanding expression. One that said, That’s why you’re here, without making it an insult or a judgment.
“You ever hear that Adam Lambert song? ‘Underneath’?”
“I quite like Adam.” She wrote a brief note on her pad. “Do you think that song applies to you?”
He shrugged, caught himself even as she pursed her lips in disapproval, and let out a snarl. “Only the bloody, screaming bits.”
True to form, she didn’t flinch. “Not the part about inviting someone to see that in you?”
Len clamped his lips shut.
“Do you think you’re the only one to feel this way, Mr. Stevens?”
“Well, I didn’t write the song, so probably not, no.”
“Whoever did write the song found a healthy outlet.”
“Goody for them.”
“So it’s not impossible.”
I have an outlet.
He wanted to say it.
I have Vance, only he doesn’t want….
The wet, ripping sound that came next proved to be a groan from Len’s lips. It wasn’t his heart separating from his body. It only felt that way.
“Tell me about Ace,” Lenore said, startling Len out of his pain.
“You were with him a long time?”
“Few years.” Len went back to studying his hands, picking at the calluses and twisting his rings, trying to remember the last time he’d played his guitar, failing, and moving back to the calluses.
“You stayed a few years with a man who abused you.” She wasn’t asking, like it was a question. She just said it, bald and nonjudgmental. Fact. Truth.
So she wasn’t asking, because it wasn’t a question. He had stayed. Why?
Which, of course, was the question, and he stared at her a long time.
“He was strong,” Len said quietly.
“A strong man who couldn’t face the world without drugs in his system. Who couldn’t control his temper or his jealousy.” She leaned forward, elbows resting on her notes, her pen lightly balanced between her fingers. “A strong man who hurt a weaker man because he could.”
“He wasn’t perfect.” A bright-red spot had appeared on the back of his right hand. He rubbed at it, trying to get it off. “I never said he was perfect.” The tingle began near his wrist bone and shimmied through the back of his hand up his fingers just before it began to sting.
“Does that help?” Lenore nodded to his hands.
Heat scrabbled up Len’s neck and into his cheeks. He dropped his hands to the chair arms and gazed out the window.
“Sometimes, physical pain takes the focus away from what else is going on,” she offered, along with a tissue from the box on the table between them.
He stared at the transparent scrap of white and the way the sun shined through it.
“The hurt can be a distraction.”
Len took the tissue and pressed it to his hand, watching the small spots of red seep through.
“Sometimes we think we deserve it. Or that it’s easier to let it happen, or that if we let the beating happen, it will be the last time and the person will feel better. Do better.” She touched the backs of his fingers. “Or because it feels so good when it finally stops.” She shifted forward on the sofa and touched Len’s knee. “Sometimes, it’s because we like to feel the pain, and when it goes away, it takes all the mess inside with it and we feel new again for a little while.”
He looked at her hand, wondering why she’d touched him, at the tissue now stuck to him by blood, and finally, at her face. “So what does that make me?”
Lenore set her pad and pen aside on the couch as she sat back and clasped her hands in her lap. “No different from the rest of us, Len. Masochism isn’t abnormal. It’s just another way to be. Like gay, or musically inclined.” She smiled. “Or short.”
Len stared at her for a long moment before looking away out the window again. “Ace.” He eased the tissue off his hand and checked for bleeding. “It wasn’t about that.”
“So what was it about?”
“I didn’t make him happy.”
“Translation: you made him angry, and he hit you.”
Another shrug. “I guess.”
“So if my daughter drops my favorite vase and I get angry, it’s okay to hit her.”
Len snapped his head around. “Of course not!”
Lenore smiled. “Of course not,” she repeated gently.
“A kid doesn’t know any better,” Len said. “I wasn’t a kid that time. I should have been able to figure it out. Figure him out.” It was a pretty lame excuse.
“I didn’t say how old she was. Or if she’d dropped it on purpose. Even still, I’m an adult, and I do know it isn’t okay to hit someone in anger.”
Len said nothing.
“Or frustration, or impatience, or for any reason outside a negotiated arrangement.” She paused and Len swallowed. “Safe, sane, and consensual, Len. Do you know what that means?”
He nodded. “Sure.” Vance had talked about it, but it was only talk.
She waited, watching him.
“What?” he said after a while.
“Is that the sort of arrangement you had with Ace?”
Len snorted. “Nothing about Ace was sane,” he said.
She waited some more.
“Or safe,” he admitted.
Still, she waited, and watched him carefully.
He sighed. “Or consensual. Not all the time.”
“And what parts of your relationship with him weren’t consensual, Leonard?”
“I don’t want to talk about this,” Len said quietly.
She was very good at waiting.
Shrugging himself deeper into his chair, he bit at his lower lip and found himself once more rubbing at his hand, now smearing the blood over the unblemished skin. “So he knocked me around a bit,” he mumbled. “And no, I didn’t like it.”
“Knocked you around a bit.” She handed him a new tissue.
God. Why did she always repeat what he’d said? He glared at her notepad, still sitting on the sofa next to her, but she didn’t move to pick it up.
“Exactly what does that mean, Len?” she asked at last.
“What it says.”
“He pushed you?”
“Hit you? Punched you?”
“Yeah. ’Course.” He rubbed that hand with the tissue.
Lenore leaned forward again. “Choked you?”
Len realized he was, in fact, touching his throat with his maimed hand and swallowed hard under his fingertips, remembering. He nodded. Or he tried. He wasn’t sure if he actually managed movement.
“It must be terrifying, knowing someone has your life in their hands and you can’t do anything to take it back.” She spoke softly, and very, very gently.
Len nodded once more. “He was so strong. He could hold me down and—” He shook his head violently. “His one hand fit around my neck.” He demonstrated with his own, remembering the reach of Ace’s big hands and feeling the difference where his fingers were smaller, shorter. Weaker. “What was I supposed to do? Let him kill me? So I just let him”—he dropped his hand to his lap—“instead. So what? It was better to submit to him.”
“Leonard, that isn’t submission. That’s—”
“Don’t!” He got up abruptly and stalked to the window. “It was whatever it was. He’s dead now, so what difference does it make?”
“Does Vance know?”
Len turned to face her. “He doesn’t have to know. Ace is dead and gone. It’s in the past.”
“No one knows,” she said, studying him.
Len faced the window again and stared out. “You do.” That should be enough. But parts of him ripped away inside, and it didn’t feel like enough. He looked at the sidewalk, a floor below.
Vance was sitting on a park bench talking to a woman who was young-looking. She had a stroller and a dog with her, and he was petting the dog as she spoke animatedly and smiled into the stroller. He’d be nice to her, and coo at the baby, but it was the dog he cared about. It was always the dog, or the cat, or the horse, or whatever animal was a part of the moment. It was almost like people, to him, were just big, two-legged, really dumb animals he had to deal with sometimes.
“It was between me and Ace,” Len said, “and it stopped when he died. What difference does it make now?”
“Being forced into any kind of intimacy you don’t want is a big deal, Len.” Lenore joined him at the window. “It can make you very afraid to share that kind of closeness with anyone else.”
“Wasn’t having any issues with that until you brought all this shit up again,” Len spat. “Vance and I were just fine.”
As if the power of his name drew his attention, Vance looked up at their window.
He was so beautiful. And anxious. It was there in his eyes, the set of his jaw—even under the wide, affable Texan smile he flashed at the woman—and in the hitched set of his shoulders. He hunched as though he was dragging a yoke attached to something heavy, and the heavy was Len. Still, he looked up and he waved. Len touched fingertips to the glass and smiled.
Outside, Vance nodded, but didn’t smile. He rarely smiled lately.
“Why do you think that is?” Lenore asked.
“Why do you think he doesn’t smile?”
“Did I say that out loud?”
Lenore rested a hand on his shoulder. It was such a clinical gesture. Maybe she meant it to be comforting, but without crossing any lines into intimacy or friendship, it meant nothing. “You talk to yourself sometimes. Do you ever wonder what you say out loud that he hears and wonders about?”
“Didn’t know I did that.” He twitched and she removed her hand.
“Funny thing about behaviors, Leonard. We can’t change them if we don’t acknowledge them.”
That drew his attention, and he looked over at her. “You saying I should quit talking to myself?”
“Stop lying to yourself, is perhaps the more immediate issue.” She went back to her sofa to gather up her notes and pen. “Something to think about for our next session.”
“Time’s up, huh?” Len looked back at the bench outside. The girl, dog, and stroller were moving down the sidewalk. Vance had disappeared. Len wondered if he had told her he had to go because it was time to collect his messed-up boyfriend from the therapist.
“I think we made some progress today,” Lenore said. “Don’t you?”
Len wanted to shrug. Vance hated it when he did. It wasn’t a proper answer, he said. You couldn’t sit on the fence. You had to pick one thing or the other. There was no room for maybe or I’m not sure.
Was it progress to admit he’d been too weak to stop Ace taking whatever the hell he’d wanted? How did that fit with knowing he’d give Vance the exact same thing? Anything the man asked for. If he’d only ask for something. Anything.
“Seems like you have a lot to think about.” Lenore was using her kind voice again.
Confusion pushed Len back into his chair. “What’s the difference?” The whole thing was just too heavy, like that sticky ball of emotion. Too unwieldy. “It was my choice with Ace, same as Vance.”
Lenore was shaking her head before he’d finished speaking. “Vance doesn’t hurt you to get what he wants.”
Len opened his mouth and closed it again. She was right. He didn’t. What Len might want—or wish for—was a different matter.
“Wanting pain isn’t the same thing as having pain inflicted upon you. Ace took your choices away, one by one, until you only had one left. The one he wanted you to choose.”
It wasn’t that this was a difficult concept to grasp. Len wasn’t an idiot. He knew the difference between rape and submission, being hit and being given the pain he craved.
Admitting what had happened was one thing and not the other took away the last bit of power he had. Ace was dead. There was no way to take back from him what he’d stolen.
The sound of knocking made him jump, and he realized he’d been staring into space.
“Time’s up,” he said, stretching the faintest of smiles over his face.
“For today,” she agreed.
“You going to tell him all of this?” That fear sat like lead in his gut and added to the weight of the messy ball. It dragged him down, pulled at the fragile connections he’d managed to stitch himself together with over the session. If Vance knew, he’d be even more cautious, maybe refuse everything Len wanted, everything he hoped for.
“You’ll tell him yourself,” Lenore replied with confidence. “When you’re ready.”
She opened the door, a professional, friendly smile on her face for Vance.
“Mr. Ashcroft. Come in. We’re just finishing up.”
Slowly, Len stood, dragging that lead ball with him.
“Hey, darlin’.” Vance’s smile was stretched, forced. Still, it was a smile, and he held out his hand.
There was no part of Len that did not want that offered comfort. If his stumbling rush to it was undignified, so what. If he knocked Vance back a step throwing himself at him, still, Vance caught him, held him, kept him, one more day.