—I turned away, clutched at the edge of the sink, both hands gripping tight, biceps trembling with the sheer effort of I didn’t even know what. Looking straight down, not seeing the sink, not seeing my hands, not seeing anything really. I fought a sudden wild urge to take my hands off the sink, dig my nails into my own forearms, carve long bleeding scratches there—that, anyway, for a start, and keep going from there till there was nothing left. It felt as if something was clawing its way out of my guts already, so why not meet it in the middle?
“Zeb—” Angry? Frightened? Frustrated? All three? I couldn’t tell. I heard it in my own voice, but it wasn’t a voice I knew. “I, I can’t—” I pried one hand off the sink, took hold of the adjacent doorjamb. It felt like pulling myself out of a hole. Like dragging myself out of quicksand, or maybe a tangle of bobwire. I still didn’t know why. All I could think was, go anywhere else, figure out the next thing then, just get out of there—
Somewhere behind me, I heard Zeb sigh. “It hurts, doesn’t it?”
It shouldn’t have stopped me because nothing should’ve stopped me but it did. I could feel the old wood of the jamb creaking under my grip, or maybe it was just my knuckles.
“Look at you. You’re shaking. I can see you’re shaking.”
I could feel it. The muscles in my back and shoulders were stiff, hard knotted, screaming. I was tearing myself apart. I wanted to tear myself apart. I wanted to rip the house apart, I wanted to, I didn’t know—just anything but this—but I couldn’t move, I couldn’t—
“—agh Jesus!” I yelped, slapping at my chest as a sudden spike of pain stabbed through me. Real pain, not stopping—Zeb’s hand there, under both of mine, I could feel surgical steel between my knuckles, between his fingers—my nipple, the piercing, he’d snaked his arm around my side and grabbed my tit and was squeezing— I batted his hand away and rounded on him, instantly furious, not even sure what I meant to do next, and—
—and he was grinning. The bastard—
“What the hell, Zeb! That hurt—” I reached out—he ducked my hand easily, dodged sidewise with the same grace I’d seen before, and suddenly was right up on me—I didn’t see the slap coming either, and—
“There you are.”
“Wh—what?” I shook my head, blinked my eyes clear, looked down into Zeb’s face looking up at me. He had green eyes, I saw. I hadn’t noticed before.
“Where were you?”
“I-what? Where was—” I thought back, trying to make this make sense. Where had I—oh. Barbed wire. Quicksand. Clawed fingers, sinking my nails into my own flesh, muscles tearing apart other muscles, blood pooling to drip—”ah, God damn! Would you—” Another stab of sudden agony like an ice pick in my tit. The other one this time, and he was twisting it—
“No! Stay here!” It was Zeb’s voice, but it wasn’t a voice I knew. I clutched at his hand on my chest but didn’t slap it away. Couldn’t, hell—I could’ve picked him up and thrown him if I’d wanted. Didn’t want to. My fingers twitched, tightened on his wrist, whether to pull his hand away or urge him on I didn’t know, and he loosened his grip before I could find out. Didn’t let go, though. I looked down again. He wasn’t smiling now, and in his eyes I read a warning.
“Stay here,” he said again. “Or I’ll—” His free hand darted toward my fly, and I twitched involuntarily back, and then he did smile in a way that—I had a foot and sixty pounds on him, and the bathroom door at my back, only one of us naked and it wasn’t me. Sure. And he still scared the hell out of me with that smile. Like ice down my back, and an answering warmth rising up out of my belly—
I leaned back against the doorjamb, and Zeb moved with me. It made me feel a little more trapped, and that made me smile. “Okay,” I said, chuckling. “Okay, I’m here, all right? I’m here.” The barbed wire, the quicksand, the torn meat and blood of me, all still there—but now as if circling at the edge of the light, wanting what lay within but not quite bold enough to dare being seen. I felt like laughing and didn’t know why. “You’ve got my attention. What’d you want it for?”
Zeb smirked. “Not for me. You idiot.” He poked me in the tit, right where he’d pinched me a moment before, and it stung like hell, and I laughed. “You were all tied up in knots. You’re not now, are you? That’s what I wanted. You. Thinking. And what do you want?”
I shook my head. “I don’t get it. Thinking what? What do I—?”
“You don’t get it. You will, though. What you were doing to yourself a minute ago.” He grabbed my nipple again, and the ring through it. It hurt. I didn’t mind. “Don’t go back there, or—” He gave a warning squeeze, and my breath caught behind my teeth. “But think about that. Think about why.”
I could stop him, I knew. Right now, easy as anything. But—he had a point, didn’t he? Why had I—it had felt like hell. It had been hell. Why’d I want to do that to myself? I mean, I didn’t want to do that to myself, did I? Pain was one thing, but that—and it hadn’t been the first time, either. Other friends, people I knew, who’d taken a similar interest, and I’d—oh, it hadn’t been so obvious, I thought, but then it hadn’t been so close, either, and what the hell was I fighting with anyway? In myself? Why tear myself apart so, over—
—times we’d been with friends, and she’d—times I was happily in conversation with people we both knew, and—but there weren’t so many of those around these days, were there?—and hell, the first time we’d met, she and that friend of hers, they’d—and what the hell was all this?—I’d met him, hadn’t I? Still living together when I came along. An angry man, I’d thought, angry and frustrated and—frightened? You could see something was tearing him apart, and—what had that been in his eyes I saw when he looked back at me? Was it—barbed wire, quicksand, the torn meat and blood of him, and all because—
“Oh, bullshit,” I breathed, and heard it in exactly a voice I knew. “Oh fucking bullshit—”
“Yeah,” Zeb said.
I reached my hand up and rubbed my face with it like coming out of a dream. I wanted to laugh, or maybe cry, or maybe both at once. Something hard against my face. Smooth, firm, dragging at my eyelids, shoving at my lip—
I pushed Zeb aside and grabbed the bar of soap. The miserable thing didn’t want to come off, and it hurt where it squeezed my knuckle, but after a little while there came the clink and clatter of titanium bouncing off porcelain, as the ring came to rest half under the sink stopper. The skin where it’d lain felt wet and hot and sore, and my face in the mirror was red and puffy as if I’d been crying, but the air was cool and kind.
“So, Nick.” Zeb said, standing at my shoulder, green eyes in the mirror boring into mine. “What do you want?”
Fire in my belly—I turned away from the sink, feeling the muscles in my back and shoulders bunch as I reached down either side of Zeb and plucked him clean off the tile, naked legs dangling till I pulled him in tight against my chest and belly, one arm under his narrow ass, other hand hard on the back of his neck, pulling his face into mine—teeth grating as I drove my tongue over his, biting at his lower lip as he melted against me, the taste of his mouth and the salt of his sweat and the incredible heat of him—