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“You have paint on your neck,” Ras says, brushing his fingertips just below Nate’s chin.
Nate stops breathing for just a moment. He and Ras haven’t done anything even a little sexual, but he wants to. Sometimes he wants it so desperately he feels dizzy with it, but the fear always holds him back. It’s not an emotion he fully understands; he’s had a lot of sex in his life, most of it an exchange of one sort or another, and he’s used to the mechanics of it by now, and the way his mind separates from his body, the pleasure a distant, shameful sensation. With Ras it might be different, or it might be exactly the same. Nate is afraid to find out.
“And this,” Ras says, his finger moving to the feather tattooed on the side of Nate’s neck, an elegant blue curve that starts below his ear and disappears beneath the collar of his shirt. “Does this go to something?”
“Yeah.” Nate swallows, and for a moment the wanting overcomes the fear. “Wanna see?”
“Yes,” Ras says.
Nate has never backed down from a challenge, from the edge of a cliff, no matter how far the drop. He’s not about to start now. He pulls off his sweater, a thick blue one made of a fine, soft material that Ras bought for him just a week ago, and then his shirt.
He stands there, exposed. His many tattoos don’t cover the constellation of scars—different shapes, sizes, and origins—that mar his body. On his left arm, a dead tree grows along his bicep, the roots twining around the marks left by burns and cuts that line his forearm. The biggest design covers the entirety of his unmarred back.
Ras looks Nate over, and Nate struggles to stay still, to not hunch over and cross his arms and hide his body from the scrutiny. Now that he stands there, exposed in a way he hasn’t been to anyone in years, he realizes the sight of his body is more likely to inspire revulsion than passion.
“Nate,” Ras murmurs softly, awed. “You’re gorgeous.” And Nate realizes the nature of the gaze sweeping over his body. It’s not condemnation darkening those green eyes, but lust.
The realization sends blood rushing through Nate, the surface of his skin heating and the rhythm of his heart accelerating. When Ras puts his finger just below Nate’s elbow and traces one of the tree roots inked into his skin, then slides that point of heat up along the crooked trunk on Nate’s bicep, he draws in a sharp breath. Ras is kind enough to pretend not to notice, and Nate is both relieved and disappointed when Ras pulls his fingers away from Nate’s shoulder and doesn’t trace the jagged tangle of dead branches that juts out across his shoulder, to where a crow perches above his heart.
“Doesn’t mean anything,” Nate says, defensively. But that isn’t true. The dark bird is a symbol of death, watching over Nate, summoned by the many times he has wanted to die. “It’s just a picture I liked.”
“Hmm.” Ras runs his finger along the feather on Nate’s neck. “What about this one?”
Nate opens his mouth, but between the fear that makes his throat feel dry and the hot desire that makes his pants too tight and stifling, he can’t think of a single thing to say. He turns around so Ras can see that the feather is the tip of a wing. The wing, gracefully unfolding upwards, belongs to a phoenix that covers Nate’s entire back, all sweeping lines and elaborate feathers. The asymmetrical curves of the wings rise above a blazing fire, the flames dancing in unpredictable patterns like they keep twisting up above his shoulders and into the sky. It’s a twin to the painted phoenix on the wall downstairs.
Nate stops breathing for a moment when he feels Ras’s fingertips press gently to his back, and then trace the lines of the tattoo. It’s been so long since anyone has touched Nate, and he can’t remember anyone ever touching him like this, in a way that makes him tremble and ache and want to beg for more.
“This is beautiful,” Ras says, and Nate feels warm hands close around his shoulders, hot breath in his ear. “You are beautiful.”
He wraps his arms around Nate and holds him close. Nate closes his eyes and lets himself drift in that embrace, trying to stretch out each second as long as he can. This is what he always wanted from a man—not just sex but this tenderness that feels like a salve on his wounded soul.
“Is this okay?” Ras asks.
Nate has never felt so torn, scared and wanting at the same time. Like he’s a starving stray cat, and Ras is holding out food, but he’s been beaten enough times to be wary. He knows he can trust the fear. The fear has kept him alive. Still, he says nothing, hoping that Ras will make the decision for him, that Ras will either embrace him or reject him, and all he will have to do is follow.
“Nate.” Ras’s hands land on his shoulders. “Look at me, love.”
Nate turns, slowly.
“I like you,” Ras says, looking him in the eye, sincerity written across his face. “I want to be with you. Whether that means we’re friends or something more is up to you.”
Nate swallows, hard. He doesn’t understand what’s happening to him, the heat that’s flushing his body and the desperate fear that accompanies it. Half of him exists as he is now, twenty five years old, strong, stable, and yearning for intimacy with the one man who’s ever cared even a little about him. The other half is sixteen years old, in Troy’s shitty apartment, doing something he doesn’t fully understand, something that scares him, so that Troy will hold him for a moment afterwards, and then get him high.
“You don’t remember,” he says, his words rushing desperately from his lips. “You don’t remember how I was back then. I used to be an addict. I used to fuck for money and dope. I used to—”
Ras presses his fingers gently to Nate’s lips, cutting short his ugly confession. Nate feels hot with shame and self-loathing. They taught him a lot of things in rehab, but not how to handle this moment, where he feels like a water glass overfilled with emotion, and still Ras pours more in, with the tender way he tucks a lock of Nate’s hair behind his ear.
“I don’t care about any of that,” Ras says. “If you don’t want this, that’s okay. If you’re afraid, that’s okay. But don’t ever think that you don’t deserve it.” Ras’s gaze doesn’t waver, and his green eyes look remarkably sincere. And Nate realizes he might never get another chance like this. In his twenty-five years this is the first time he can remember being touched with such tenderness. It may never happen again.
“I’m scared,” he whispers. “But I want to.”
“You have nothing to be afraid of,” Ras murmurs. “I’ll take care of you.”