by L. Rae
illustrated by cloven
“Hey, Nico. On your left. That’s the one.”
Jeremy shoulders the other boy, nodding his head towards the small room off the church foyer. Against the remaining shreds of floral wallpaper, a figure turns towards their voices before flickering out of existence. A bare lightbulb sparks to life in its place, illuminating the room like an old movie reel, snapshots of the space rather than a cohesive setting.
“Ah hell, it’s fucking with the lights,” Jeremy grumbles, rubbing a hand under his nose, numbed to the touch and flushed red with cold, “So it’s either nearly out of juice or just messing with us. What’s your call, Mon?”
“For once, I wish it were the second scenario. Honestly, I can barely get a reading off of him.” Monica closes her eyes for a moment, pressing the pads of her middle and ring fingers to the talisman centered at the dip of her throat, the prehnite stone glowing fainting under her touch. Jeremy watches the muscles at her temples work, trying to convince himself that there’s something in the other room worth their time.
“Maybe if we got closer?” Nico interrupts quietly, almost as if talking to himself. Jeremy frowns, shifting to press his shoulder to the other boy’s. A foggy breath clouds in the space between them as Nico exhales slowly, glancing at Jeremy out of his peripheral before Monica opens her eyes with a grimace.
“Doesn’t matter how close we are, Nico. You know we can’t communicate with any spirit if it’s flickering like that.” Monica pauses, frowning as the figure appears again for a moment, knelt in the doorway now. The three of them watch as the suggestion of a hand scrapes at the chipped paint on the doorframe. She turns back to Jeremy with furrowed brows: “Who the hell gave you this lead anyway, Jem? This one’s not nearly cohesive enough to bring back with us.”
Jeremy sighs, October winds from the caved-in ceiling catching underneath the collar of his jacket and raising goosebumps along the back of his neck. “It was just some teenager out on 12th avenue. At least the lead turned out to have some substance.”
“Nothing we can work with, though,” Monica adds, pulling her hat down around her cloud of tight curls, strands peeking out between the knitted threads. “We’re mediums, not miracle workers. It looks like it’s about to descend anyway.”
Jeremy glances to Nico, the other boy looking pained at the thought.
“No one deserves that, Mon,” Nico mumbles, voice low as he stares at his sister. Jeremy moves to fist a hand in the other boy’s jacket as a preemptive measure. Though Nico looks like he’s going to pull away at first, he eventually leans back into Jeremy’s grip, lips pursed into a thin line.
“You’re acting like I’m the one who killed it,” Monica hisses in return, offended.
They’re silent for a moment, watching chips of paint fall to the floor, each scratch punctuated with a low, whining cry; a wounded– something, Jeremy thinks. Someone, Nico would argue.
It’s that distinction that nearly killed him six months ago.
Jeremy watches the spirit, eyes catching on the silhouette now curled beneath the bare light bulb, shadowy and distorted in the uneven lighting of the church reception hall. The filament sparks once, bright, and then fades to a gentle glow. The shadow that had been feeding it sinks between the cracks of the rotting hardwood, wilted weeds marking a second grave in the space before them.
“Well.” Jeremy can feel the blood flowing through his fingers again as the spirit’s presence dissipates. He purposefully looks away from the hard line of Nico’s mouth, the crease in Monica’s forehead, and turns on his heel. “Let’s go. There’s another lead on Roosevelt.”
Once the spring of his ninth year began to melt the late snows of March, she gave him a duffle bag and told him to pack. Quickly, before your father gets home. They went north on a charter bus, far enough that the seasons seemed to reverse along the desolate roadsides, and April felt like February had returned just to spite them.
A Motel 6 in Milwaukee was their home for the first few months while Jeremy’s mother found work in the city. She’d confided their situation with a member of the front desk staff, and a hefty, empathetic woman named Sandy had enthusiastically promised to keep them safe from anyone looking for them. But after five months of covering bedbug bites with band-aids, eating microwave meals, and getting punched at school for sporting a Cardinals cap in overwhelmingly Brewers territory, Jeremy’s father never showed. It had been the last expectation either of them ever had for him.
His father became sort of like a ghost after that, when Jeremy only heard about St. Louis when the Cardinals were at Miller Park for a rivalry matchup, and his mother’s clear, unblemished skin no longer seemed like an oddity.
Jeremy saw his first real ghost when they scrounged up enough money to move into the top unit of a duplex in Westown. Jeremy remembers his mother’s initial hesitation, the rent too low for the location to settle her suspicions. It was only during the middle of the night on a Thursday, startled awake by the smashing of a car window in the motel parking lot, that his mother finally began packing what little they had.
Jeremy didn’t know his first ghost was a real ghost, of course. Harold, the man he later learned was killed for his wallet behind a convenience store in the Northside, had seemed ordinary when he’d opened the door of the Johnsons’ ground unit the next morning. What hadn’t been ordinary was the way the sunrise had filtered through the thinning oak branches in the front lawn, catching on Harold’s form long enough that, just for a moment, Jeremy could see through him and into the kitchen where a boy and a girl sat watching them.
He had nearly dismissed it as a fluke, settling to believe that the glare off the glass door had reflected at an odd angle into his eyes. He would have continued to assume this if Harold hadn’t noticed his startled expression, and winked.
Living with ghosts, Jeremy realized with time, was nothing like the movies he used to watch in the motel despite his mother’s warnings. The Johnsons, Mrs. Jas and Mrs. Lore with their children Monica and Nico, they learned, were in the business of communicating with the dead and assisting wandering souls to the infamous Otherside.
Mrs. Jas had once explained it to Jeremy as a sort of spiritual taxi service, picking up spirits at the roadside and bringing them to their “final destination,” as it were.
“We’re just there to give them that extra push,” she’d explained, her wild cloud of tight, black curls tickling Jeremy’s shoulder as she leaned down to his level, “We’re the hands that untangle them from all the forces pulling them this way and that, and guide them to the light they keep reaching for.”
Save for the occasional spirit floating up through their kitchen floor in the morning, phasing through Jeremy’s bowl of cereal and starling him into choking briefly on his spoon, the Johnsons’ deceased guests were entirely harmless. Jeremy actually found himself enjoying their company, though he enjoyed the company of the living, breathing Johnson twins more.
Monica used to call him “the brawn” to what Jeremy assumed was their collective “brain” when they were young, when he towered over the twins and carried around a baseball bat like an extra appendage. Jeremy is bigger still, muscles defining in early adolescence under the duress of several part-time jobs. But Monica and Nico are taller now, slim and lean against his own compact figure.
His memories from those early days always include them: two mops of hair, dusty brown and tangled in waves across their foreheads and over their ears. Monica has more freckles, but Nico’s are clustered: on his cheeks, across the bridge of his nose, the tips of his ears. They’re even more evident in the summer months, when the three of them spend most of their time poking around decrepit churches and overgrown car lots.
Jeremy clicked with the twins like a missing piece, like a breath fully circulated in the lungs and exhaled with a satisfying rush.
He doesn’t remember the moment they stopped being strangers. He doesn’t recall the moment when he memorized the cadence of Monica’s footsteps. He can’t pinpoint the first time he looked to the the uneven line of freckles on Nico’s face as a focal point, breathing slowly, beginning at his brow (one), eyelid (two), nose (three), cheekbone (four), mouth (five), repeating until his heartbeat steadied and fists unclenched.
It’s only in quiet moments, waking up on a dew-wet blanket near the lake, Monica’s cheek pressed to his bicep and Nico’s legs thrown over his, that he can really feel the presence of the two of them like a dense, achy knot just beneath his breastbone. It’s in those moments where he can’t imagine sacrificing anything less than himself to keep them at his side.
There are other moments, however, when he feels like throttling them himself.
Nico in particular, whether intentionally or unintentionally, possesses the unique ability to rile Jeremey up just as easily as he can calm him down. It’s his wide, sloping features and the way they make his frown seem deeper than others’ when he’s upset. It’s the sharp cut of his cheekbones and the shadows they cast towards his jaw that makes the other boy’s resting expression look perpetually grim.
Nico has a similar look on his face now, sitting across from Jeremy and Monica in the diner booth on Washington up from Roosevelt, their last lead of the night turning up another descending spirit beyond repair. The red plastic upholstery of the booth is stark and obnoxious in contrast to Nico’s bruise-blue pullover, and the entire image reminds Jeremy of a joke he heard when he was a kid: What’s black and blue and red all over?
Nico Johnson’s godawful mood ruining an otherwise wholesome diner aesthetic.
An invited punchline.
Jeremy follows the other’s vacant stare over his shoulder, the idle meandering of the waitstaff reflected in the dark surface of night outside the perpetually smudgy window.
Nico’s jaw works beneath his cheeks, and Jeremy finds himself unconsciously mirroring the motion, tongue between his teeth and brow furrowed. Irritation itches under his ribs as the scene plays out like a memory, annoying in its familiarity: quiet discomfort filtering through the air between them, igniting the end of Jeremy’s miniscule temper.
“Jesus. Lighten up, Nico,” Jeremy grumbles when he can’t stand the silent agitation in his throat any longer. He reaches into the communal basket of fries at the center of the table to occupy the growing restlessness in his limbs. “I’m getting fucking frostbite over here.”
He allows his fingers to linger on the plating paper in the basket, sustaining the crumpling sound until he notices the other boy’s fingers curl against his side.
“Jem. Stop that,” Monica speaks up beside him, chin propped in her palm, frown like a knife blade and tone even sharper. “Don’t be an asshole.”
“So no one’s going to say it?” Jeremy continues, ignoring Nico’s affronted expression. He shoves a fistful of fries into his mouth, jaw working double time to Monica’s exasperated sigh. He can practically hear the gears working beneath Nico’s skull, filtering the emotion from his tone, purposefully depriving Jeremy of fodder for the fire he’s stoking.
“Say what, Jem?” Nico asks. He sounds composed enough, but Jeremy notes the rigid cross of his arms, the straightness of his shoulders, and hard line of his jaw. He’s also clutching his talisman in between his thumb and forefinger, the leather twine stiff with the force of his grip. Jeremy nearly stops at the sight of the stone peeking out between the other’s fingers.
The talisman, a rugged prehnite that both Nico and Monica wear around their necks to help harness their medium energies, is a telltale sign of Nico’s fraying nerves. There’s usually a sort of rhythmic pattern to the course of Nico’s thumbpad around the stone, timed with his breaths: a quiet display of vulnerability that Jeremy would rather leave alone.
Now, however, all of them white-knuckled and stilted breaths, Jeremy can’t help but push on.
“Oh, you know” –Jem winces as Monica grinds the heel of her boot into his foot, but continues in stride– “this altruistic attitude you’ve got going on all of a sudden. You know descending spirits are a part of the gig, right?”
“I know it better than you. This isn’t even your gig.” Nico accompanies the “gig” with air quotes, and the talisman falls from his grip to rest on his breastbone. “Don’t condescend me.”
“Bullshit this isn’t my gig,” Jeremy snaps. “I may not be a medium, but we’ve always been a team. You’re not allowed to play that card and ignore what I’m getting at.”
“Which is what, exactly?”
“Your hangup on descending spirits all of a sudden!” Jeremy shouts, slamming his palm on the tabletop. Anger wells up from the depths of his chest, hot and fierce in its desperation to be conveyed. He continues before Nico can speak up, “You don’t have the energy to bring them all back, Nico. Sometimes you’re just too late. That’s life.”
Memories surface in the space between them; the pier, the disintegrating figure of little girl in sopping clothes, Nico crumpled in on himself, barely breathing. Jeremy remembers it as clearly as the first moments after waking from a nightmare:
Monica’s shrill shouts, her usual composure shattering with each shake of her brother’s shoulders, the desperate panic to find a pulse, fingers trembling too violently to sense a heartbeat. But it’s the image of the little girl’s descending spirit sinking indistinctly into the earth in the background of their hysteria that makes Jeremy nauseas with the pointlessness of that day: Nico comatose for six months, a spring and a summer gone for nothing.
Jeremy’s voice breaks, saturated with emotion, “Killing yourself for someone who’s already dead? It’s not heroic. It’s idiotic and it’s fucking selfish.”
Jeremy stares at Nico, and Nico stares at Jeremy as if daring the other to look anywhere else. Even Monica, blinking slowly out of his periphery, sits stunned in uncharacteristic silence. Several moments pass in which Jeremy feels close to tearing out of his own skin in fitful agitation before Nico finally stands to his feet.
“Then what’s the point?” Nico asks, voice high and thin. A broken sort of laugh bubbles between his lips, hollow and disconcerting. “Then what’s the fucking point?”
“Hey, Nico…” Monica whispers, reaching across the table towards him. “Of course there’s a point. We help spirits. We’ve helped a lot of spirits move on.”
“And all the spirits we didn’t?” Nico asks, sharp and balancing on the edge of hysterical. “Just because we didn’t get to them soon enough? No one deserves that. What’s the point if I’m not strong enough to save them all, if we’re not strong enough to save them all?”
There’s a stillness to the diner as even the waitstaff hangs back in the kitchen, the three of them a static phenomenon at the windows, stoney and stubborn. Jeremy clenches his fists under the table to distract from the ache in his chest, the way the feeling pulses at the strained desperation in Nico’s expression.
“And who’s supposed to save you?” Jeremy finally asks, pushing the question between his teeth. “What if we’re not around when you decide to be a hero?”
“I don’t need you to save me,” Nico combats immediately, tone quiet and lethal. When Jeremy scoffs, he visibly bristles, jaw clenching. “Fuck you, Jem.”
This time, Nico moves before Jeremy has the chance to respond with the venom held behind his teeth. The other boy shoves himself out of the booth, across the diner floor in five paces, and out into the night with only the desolate click of the door closing to mark his exit.
If it had been Jeremy storming out, he would have made sure that the door slammed. This, summed up into a singular event, was the main difference between them.
Jeremy stares at the basket of fries still at the center of the table and thinks about Nico sidestepping the bus stop on the corner, preferring to walk home when he’s in this type of mood. Jeremy imagines Nico checking every pocket before he finds his apartment key (inside jacket pocket, on the left) and shoves it into the lock. The key sticks, it always does, and Jeremy can perfectly picture the disgruntled exasperation on the other’s face as he forces the turn of the key, kicking the base of the door past the threshold for good measure.
The lights won’t be on when Jeremy and Monica eventually follow him home. The living room only ever rests in the faint blue glow of the stereo’s power button at this time of night.
Monica hums the tune of “This Charming Man” as the two of them climb the stairs to the third floor. Jeremy adds a verse of “There is a Light That Never Goes Out.” It’s a game they’ve played since Nico discovered the band in middle school: which of The Smiths’ songs will greet them in his absence?
Tonight, Monica wins.
These universal beads of knowledge tuck themselves at the forefront of Jeremy’s conscious, idly pestering him as he draws from a cigarette hours later, legs dangling off the balcony of their shared apartment. The ache from the diner is still there, rooted in his chest like a toothache. While preoccupied, he barely notices it at all. When his focus shifts, however, it becomes unbearable like a breath he can’t catch, an itch he can’t scratch.
Jeremy stubs out his cigarette, slipping back into the living room past Monica’s sleeping form on the futon in front of the TV and up to the door of his shared bedroom, shut but not locked.
He sidesteps Nico’s textbooks and piles of his own dirty laundry until his knees hit the edge of his mattress and he slumps backwards into ruffled sheets. In the moonlight drifting in from between the window blinds, the space between them seems muffled, tensions already cooled to a simmer in the hours since the fight.
There’s a moment when Nico’s form in the other bed appears too still, and Jeremy’s heart seizes on reflect, nausea rising in his gut. It’s only when the bundle of blankets rises and falls one, twice, three times, that Jeremy finally slumps back against the opposite wall and runs a hand down his face, cursing between his fingers.
Sleep has not come easily for a long time, and tonight, Jeremy realizes as the clouds shift in front of the moon and drown the room in pitch darkness, is no exception.
Monica’s intuition has always been stronger than Jeremy and Nico’s, a sort of clairvoyant quality she had inherited from Mrs. Lore. Little things, the color of the sky, the direction of the wind, the shapes bus fumes took in the open air after spilling from the exhaust pipe all set her off.
On that day, Jeremy remembers Monica saying the lead gave her a bad feeling.
“I mean, Lake Michigan in March?” she hissed, leaning forward across the aisle towards the back of the bus, hands thrust into her coat pockets and glaring at the both of them through those old, thick-framed glasses she used to adore, “Are you fucking kidding me, Nico?”
“The witness described the spirit as a small girl,” Nico replied, glancing over his shoulder and pulling the cord as their stop appeared around the corner, “That means she still has substance, Mon. We’re gonna check this thing out.”
The setting of Jeremy’s more recent nightmares mirrors that Tuesday afternoon, sun setting low in the sky just after five o’clock. The suggestion of a storm had descended around noon, no rain, but a wind like the devil summoned it himself. Jeremy had looked out over the lake from the shore, air currents raging over the distant expanse of water. Miserably gray waves hurtled against the sides of the stoney pier jutting from the beach with terrifying force, biting winds prompting careless feet towards the water’s edge.
It only took a single, cautious step onto the pier for the spirit to appear before them.
Perhaps the spirit had resembled a little girl when the witness had first seen her, but there was little of a human being, much less a little girl, remaining in the figure on that evening. Figure, even, seems too specific of a term for descending spirits, torn to fragmented parts by forces only the dead are seemingly subjected to.
In his nightmares, Jeremy finds himself experiencing something similar, unseen claws digging under skin and into the seams of his bones. They come from all directions, though the strongest of them rises from under his feet, curling around his ankles, tearing the fabric of his pant legs to shreds, finding traction in the fibrous muscles of his calves and pulling. He usually wakes before his vision sinks completely below the surface of the earth, jerking up and pulling back the sheets to confirm the existence of his body in one physical shape. Jeremy has never given the existence of Heaven and Hell much thought, but if either place exists in some form or another, he’s sure the hungrier, greedier of them resides below.
The spirit on the pier moved in an orchestrated way, reduced to fractions of action played out in snapshots of form and substance. One moment the spirit lingered at the center of the stoney walkway. A second later, it teetered at the pier’s edge, whipped about in elongated tendrils of shadowy matter by the wind. Only when the spirit’s form spilled over the edge did it make a sound, a high-pitched shriek cut off by the distinctly choked noise of water filling lungs.
Over and over the spirit continued the actions, like a videotape scratched to ruin except for a few morbidly short seconds stuck on repeat.
Jeremy simply watched, biting at the inside of his cheek and fisting his hands in his pockets. Sometimes all they can do is watch as spirits disintegrate at an exponential rate, losing more and more of their substance with time until nothing of their living soul remains. These splintered snapshots of the moments just before death mean little else than the inevitability of descension.
“I hate it when they do that,” Monica moaned, flinching away from the spray of waves and shivering with cold, “C’mon, we should go.”
Really, Jeremy shouldn’t have been surprised when Nico did the exact opposite.
It was Jeremy’s mother who had first described it to him years ago, the concept of being empathetic to a fault.
“I’ve always told you to be kind, Jeremy,” she’d said, stirring a pot of chicken noodle soup on the stove top, hand bent at her hip in a way he’d always thought was very motherly, “To treat others how you would want to be treated? Put yourself in their shoes?”
Jeremy had begrudgingly nodded his head, knees bouncing on the tile below the kitchen table, willing the soup to cook faster so he could run it down the stairs where the Johnsons hovered around a feverish Nico.
“There’s being empathetic,” she had continued, leaning forward to adjust the heat, “and then there’s what Nico does.”
“What Nico does?”
“You know I’m not all that familiar about what goes on downstairs, but…” She had trailed off, pulling the pot from the stove and reaching into the cupboard above her for a tupperware, “That boy gives so much of himself, his energy and whatnot, to these spirits. So much that he doesn’t leave enough for himself, and he gets sick. There’s empathy, Jeremy. And then there’s empathy to a fault.”
Jeremy remembers the words bothering him, the way they perfectly summed up the one characteristic about Nico that he had never been able to identify himself. He chewed the thought over as his mother ladled the soup into a tupperware, snapping the lid in place and pacing over the Jeremy with the soup in one hand, oven mitts in the other. “Take this downstairs. Careful now, it’s hot.”
On that distant Tuesday, Jeremy noticed Nico’s lack of presence at his side first. Walking back down the pier, trailing after Monica, he remembers missing the scuff of Nico’s shoes across the stone, the noise of the other lifting the hood of his jacket over his mess of hair when it finally began to rain.
Jeremy noticed all of these things before he felt Nico’s sudden and complete absence.
A punch to the gut had left more air in Jeremy’s lungs than the exact moment Nico’s soul nearly vacated his body. One moment, he had felt whole. The next, he became overwhelmed with the indescribable sensation of something essential, almost physical, being removed from him, left with only a numbing sense of loss in its place.
Nico had never seemed so small, crumpled in on himself. The spray of waves plastered his hair against his face, freckles looking almost alien in contrast to the complete lack of color in his face.
In the minutes before the ambulance arrived, Monica had taken Nico’s talisman and held it against her own in her fist, her lips a fevered blur as she mumbled prayers in languages Jeremy couldn’t identify. All he could do was keep his ear pressed to Nico’s chest, his thumb against the other’s wrist, holding his breath and straining to detect a heartbeat at either location.
Against the grey skies, patterned with the red and blue lights of emergency vehicles, the image of the spirit sinking gradually beneath the cracks in the stone pier, unseen and insignificant, haunted him.
Months later, the memory still teased the edges of Jeremy’s sleepless conscious, the image of the spirit appearing outside the Johnson’s living room window before sinking beneath the sill in eerie similarity to that night. More than once, Jeremy found himself leaping out of the reclining armchair only to find the window boxes empty of flowers, let alone descended spirits.
Exhausted, Jeremy would return to Nico’s bedside, folding his arms on the edge of the sheets and watching the subtle rise and fall of the other’s chest until his eyelids inevitably drooped and sleep finally took him like a benevolent thief.
An entire spring and summer passed this way, one restless bout of existence after another. Days, weeks, and months blurred into one monotonous nightmare. Jeremy avoided sleep if only to prolong the moments just after waking up: hurried panic to check if Nico was still alive.
Below the surface level of fear, the unshakable anticipation of mourning, an entirely separate realization became readily apparent. The realization, morbidly comical in timing, pestered him from beneath his skin with each long look he caught Mrs. Lore or Mrs. Jas giving him. The truth to it, infuriatingly obvious each time leaving Nico’s side took all but physical intervention to achieve, terrified him.
Jeremy has always been touchy, affectionate in a way that the twins had to get used to in time. But the mid-September morning when Nico finally woke up, however, was unprecedented compared to any past event Jeremy could call to mind.
Hands in hair, hands in hands, Nico watched him with eyes just barely open, smiling faintly when Jeremy’s bottom lip began to tremble.
”Hey, Jem,” Nico whispered, fingers trembling as he pressed a thumb to the edge of Jeremy’s cheekbone, rubbing at the grease stain smeared there. Jeremy always left the garage in a hurry during those months, barely bothering to look in a mirror before returning to Nico’s side.
It wasn’t the first time Nico had wiped away grease stains, pressing the pad of his thumb to his tongue before rubbing at Jeremy’s cheek. As a teenager, the sentiment had embarrassed him. With time, however, Jeremy found himself purposefully leaving them if only to watch the familiar roll of Nico’s eyes, the fond ”You’re hopeless.” that often followed.
”Hey, Nico…” Jeremy mumbled, gathering a shaky breath afterwards.
“So, what’d I miss?”
”Too much, asshole,” he replied, the snap to his tone lacking force as the words caught in the back of his throat, restricted with emotion. He’d stood up to retrieve Mrs. Jas, Mrs. Lore, and Monica from the kitchen, but Nico’s hand caught him first. Quirking an eyebrow, Jeremy settled back on the bed, very aware of the points where Nico’s weak grip met his skin.
“Hey, wait. Just you for a minute, Jem.” Nico turned his head to cough into his shoulder, gathering another shaky breath before turning back to Jeremy, thumb finding the soft pit of his palm, “I missed you.”
“What do you mean you missed me?” Jeremy asked. He had meant to sound suspicious, but he remembers the question coming out with much less conviction, “You’ve been comatose for months.”
“Wherever I was,” Nico replied, eyelids fluttering a bit with residual exhaustion, his grip on Jeremy’s wrist slipping until Jeremy gathered his hand again, “I missed you.”
Even as Nico’s family eventually flooded into the room, a worried chatter of voices and barely contained sobs, Jeremy held tight to Nico’s hand beneath the sheets, cold to the touch where his ran warm. Nico, for all his lack of strength, managed to hold on just as tight.
There was something dangerous in it, something reckless in standing at the edge of a tremendous fall knowing that with one more step, he would never recover.
The realization, of course, was that he was already falling.
In the late afternoon following their fight, Jeremy prods open the door of their bedroom with his foot, unceremoniously shucking off his work jacket and stepping over to the mirror hung on the closet door. He’s in the process of rubbing a particularly dark grease stain from his forehead with the heel of his hand when he notices Nico curled up in bed in the mirror’s reflection, textbook tucked under his arm and surrounded by mostly illegible note cards.
Nico’s bed isn’t an unfamiliar place. Jeremy spent countless nights tucked against Nico’s back as a child, a habit that continued, more or less under sober circumstances, into adulthood. There’s something welcoming to the orientation of the other’s mattress tucked into the back corner of the room, fairy lights strung unevenly along the walls. Outwardly, Jeremy blames the heavenly quilt Mrs. Lore made Nico for his tenth birthday and Jeremy has envied ever since. Inwardly, he attributes the habit to something else entirely, unvoiced and unsuccessfully ignored.
Holding lingering anxieties an arm’s reach away, Jeremy toes off his boots and drops a knee to the edge of Nico’s bed, nudging the other gently in the shoulder.
“Move over,” Jeremy prompts, biting his lip to stop the grin tugging at the corners of his mouth as the other’s expression crumples to one of sleepy discontent. A low, irritated groan escapes between Nico’s lips, followed by a complete lack of compliance to Jeremy’s suggestion, and Jeremy exhales dramatically before forcibly shoving Nico over to make room for himself at the edge of the mattress.
“You are the worst,” Nico groans with impressive force for someone just awakened. Jeremy fights another grin as the other weakly shoves a textbook at his side in retaliation. “This is my bed.”
“There’s a draft over on my side,” Jeremy says, though his voice lacks any real legitimacy in the quiet air between them. “You know, because of the window.”
“That’s always your excuse.” Nico sighs, rolling towards Jem and pressing his cheek into the pillow, eyes still closed and hair sticking up at an impressive height. “You’re never cold anyway.”
“Fine. I run warm, you run cold. You should be thanking me.”
“Just shut up.”
A minute passes with only the static sound of the ceiling fan rotating above them and the idle drone from the television on the other side of the door to fill the space of the room. Jeremy finds himself in the terrible circumstance of wanting to roll right out of bed again while also wanting to move closer until he can feel the warmth of Nico under his clothes, to remind him of the reason why he’s doing any of this in the first place.
He’s never denied being an asshole in execution, but his good intentions tend to get lost in translation.
“Look, Nico. I’m sorry,” he says, the words sounding uncomfortably strained with rehearsal.
“Yeah, I know,” Nico mumbles in reply, and Jeremy watches as the other boy stretches his arms above his head with a low noise from the back of his throat, wrists curled to reveal blue veins raised at their base. His eyes linger too long on the exposed skin between the waistband of Nico’s sweats and the hem of his shirt, fingers itching.
“No, really,” Jeremy persists, and Nico finally cracks an eye open. His thick brows are furrowed, lips pulled into a frown that Jeremy knows so well. “I know yesterday meant more to you than just ‘I know.’”
If it had been anyone else, Jeremy would have left the conversation at that. Nico, unlike most people, possess a quality that makes it nearly impossible for Jeremy to leave him with half-assed apologies and generally anything less than his exposed soul on a platter.
It’s an invitation, the way Nico props himself up on an elbow to face Jeremy. There’s scarcely a foot between them, and Nico’s eyes seem browner after sleep, pupils thinning in the light.
“You’re going to make me say it, aren’t you?” Jeremy asks, and Nico simply nods, though the left corner of his mouth betrays him with the suggestion of a smile, eyebrows raised a fraction higher than just a second ago.
The emotion pitted in Jeremy’s chest feels so heavy, so visceral in its existence that words themselves fail him. They feel empty, hollow in the face of a force so all-encompassing of whatever the hell their relationship has been, is, and is becoming, that all Jeremy wants is to swallow them entirely and find another way.
In a moment of gifted coordination and lack of cohesive thinking, Jeremy rolls on top of Nico, straddling the other’s hips. The other boy has barely enough time to react before Jeremy sprints headlong into a mindless monologue.
“Do you even know how much you mean to me? That’s a rhetorical question, don’t answer right now,” Jeremy begins, sitting back on his haunches and looking at Nico’s headboard, pictures and postcards pinned to the polished oak. “When you were comatose I didn’t even know what to do with myself. It was like I was missing a damn arm and nothing seemed important or worthwhile unless you were going to wake up again.”
“No, hold on. I’m sorry I flipped out on you yesterday, but you gotta understand that it’s because I don’t what that to ever happen to you again, right?” He doesn’t mean to sound desperate, his voice has never sounded convincing with a crack at its center. “You deserve to feel strong and important but what the hell do we, do I, have to do to make you realize that you already are?”
There’s something else to the apology that lacks the confession harboring too close to his lips, he holds it back in a way he realizes has been a habit for a long time.
It’s the truth, but not the whole truth.
Another ear-splitting silence falls on the room again, all but their breaths and the undeniable sound of Jeremy’s heart trying to pound out of his chest punctuating the silence.
Nico’s talisman lies at a crooked angle on his chest, and in another thoughtless action, Jeremy reaches a hand down to trail the pad of his thumb over its coarse edges. While the rest of Nico runs cold, the stone feels warm to the touch, as if possessing a life of its own. The pale green sheen reflects back at him, captivating his gaze and drawing another long stroke of his thumb from the silver clasp to its pointed edge. With each moment, Jeremy feels his heartbeat slow, and the knot in his chest loosen to something manageable. The words come easier, grounded by the presence of the talisman in his grip.
“I’ve always been under the impression that we’re stronger together.” Jeremy’s voice sounds far away to his own ears, not quite a whisper, but similar in the breathy way the words leave his lips. Something seizes just behind his ribs, another confession, but not his own. The feeling, as familiar as it is foreign, washes unbinded through him for a split second before retreating. It’s so brief, for a moment Jeremy thinks he imagined it. Until:
The sound of Nico’s voice startles Jeremy back to the moment, realizing with a horrible shock that he’s never done this before. The talisman had always represented a private, intimate part of Nico and while it had always coaxed out Jeremy’s curiosity, it had never invited touch.
Stilling instantly, Jeremy expects Nico to knock his hand away and shimmy out from under his weight. He waits for it, so long that he nearly collapses under the weight of nervous anticipation. Instead, he’s startled when Nico reaches up to press the pad of his thumb against the curve of Jeremy’s cheekbone, rubbing away a smudge Jeremy had missed in the mirror. Feeling electrocuted, Jeremy takes a breath, his gaze flickering to meet Nico’s.
The other’s eyes are wide, clear with their attention on Jeremey, pupils like pinpricks. Jeremy can’t tell if the flush crawling up the other’s neck is residual of sleep or of some other cause entirely. All he can focus on in the imminent panic rising in his gut, and the urge to expel himself from the situation as quickly and spectacularly as possible. He would, if Nico’s touch weren’t rooting him to the spot.
“Fuck.” It’s all he manages before dropping the talisman from his grip, purposefully ignoring the sudden wash of cold seeping inwards at its absence, “I don’t know why I–”
“You too…” Nico says, weak as if out of breath. Jeremy doesn’t remember the last time he’s seen Nico so flustered, so legitimately lost for words. It’s quite the sight, he thinks: Nico Johnson flushed to the tips of his ears, lips rounded in a surprised gape. “I–”
“Nico! Jem!” Monica’s voice startles the two of them nearly out of their own skin, Jeremy gasping as Nico’s knees jerk up and connect at the base of his spine. Hearing footsteps approaching from down the hall, Jeremy swallows down the ache at his tailbone and rolls off the bed, falling ungracefully to the floor in an awkward heap just as Monica throws open the door.
“We’ve got a call on another lead–” She pauses at the sight of Jeremy on the floor, glancing between the two with an expression of mixed concern and amusement. “Were you two wrestling again? Either way, glad you’ve made up. We’ve got a spirit just outside of town. We can make it before dark if you two get your shit ready right now. Come on!”
As Monica’s footsteps fade down the hall again to her own room, Jeremy slowly rises to his feet. Out of the corner of his eye, he can still see Nico staring at him, the feel of his gaze like fingernails under his skin, prying, looking for something.
With a pervading sense of dread, Jeremy thinks he knows exactly what it is Nico is looking for.
Swallowing hard, Jeremy toes on his boots again without tying the laces, grabs his jacket back off his bed, and pulls a patchy beanie over his hair, blonde tufts curling out from his forehead despite his best efforts to pat them down. He eventually gathers the courage to look at Nico, sprawled just the way he left him, knees bent and spread out at an angle, sweater riding up just a bit.
If he were a stranger to the circumstance, the scene would encourage entirely different assumptions. Jeremy doesn’t think he’s even been more fucked.
“C’mon.” He finally manages, tossing Nico another jacket from the hook on the back of the door. Jeremy shoves his hands into his pockets, clenching and unclenching his fists to feel contained in his own skin and not like something irreversible has just transpired, knocking down every pillar of familiarly between them.
When he turns and walks out of the room, it takes every inch of willpower he has not to look back and make sure Nico is following him this time. Old habits, even in unfamiliar territory, die hard.
The lake, obviously man-made in both size and location, lies ominously still despite the wind curling under the hems of their jackets, chilling to the bone. It’s surrounded by trees still spindly at their trunks, branches like witches’ fingers lingering low over the water’s surface, bare except for a few persisting leaves. The sky, overcast besides the occasional appearance of an early moon, spreads an uneasy air over the lake’s eastern bank where Jeremy, Nico, and Monica stand with their boots sinking into the mud.
“Wow, this is really fucking creepy, Mon,” Jeremy says, whistling between his teeth as his turns to look over his shoulder as passing headlights briefly light up the space before drowning it in dim shadow once again.
“Please, you’ve lead us to abandoned insane asylums,” Monica replies, crossing her arms over her chest and clutching her sides. “You’re not allowed to talk.”
“We got some of our best finds there!” Jeremy persists. He can detect the strained casualness in his own tone, made only more obvious by Monica’s furrowed brows. “You remember Donny? Tabetha? Great spirits, lovely to work with.”
“Donny bit off his doctor’s index finger.”
“I never said they didn’t have some character flaws.”
“Hey, shh,” Nico hushes them, throwing up a hand in their direction. Jeremy follows the length of Nico’s arm, curious why the sleeves look so short on him before he realizes that Nico’s wearing his jacket. Marco’s Auto Shop. Milwaukee, WI spans clearly across the breadth of Nico’s shoulders, printed in tacky font, the letters scuffed and curling at the edges with use. He had tossed Nico the wrong jacket from the back of the door, and Nico had worn it anyway without bothering to correct him or switch it out for one of his own when Jeremy left the room.
Jeremy tries not to think about it too hard. Or about the way the jacket rides up closer to Nico’s waist when he lifts his arms.
Tearing his eyes away, Jeremy follows Nico’s gaze to the lake’s center. One ripple after another washes against the bank, unnatural in its uneven rhythm. Counting them, Jeremy can’t keep a pattern, and he strains his eyes to focus on the source, the surrounding area too dark to make out much more than a pitch black figure lingering just above the water.
The spirit appears more like an absence of substance rather than a collection of it, less of the boy who died here and more like the suggestion of him in the moments where the moonlight casts down at just the right angle. For split seconds at a time, Jeremy can see pale skin, shrunken and blue, dark eyes, and a gasping mouth reflecting in the water’s surface.
Its descension is obvious. Jeremy’s fingers and toes go numb with static cold as the spirit flickers forebodingly, the echoes of its death manifesting in a display of bubbles rising from the depths of the lake, punctuated with a faint gurgling noise that makes the hairs on the back of Jeremy’s neck stand on end.
Nico takes a step into the water before Jeremy or Monica can react.
“Nico, what the hell?!” Monica shouts, reaching forward to fist a hand in his jacket, the other boy stumbling back slightly as the silty bottom of the lake sticks to his soles. Jeremy notes the brief disappearance of the spirit, feeling the cold draft the spirit brings before he sees it, closer to them this time. Monica, wary but undeterred, tightens her grip on Nico’s arm. “The spirit’s already descending and you’ll freeze out there. What are you thinking?!”
“They’re worth saving, Mon,” Nico says. There’s a shift in his expression this time, bolder than yesterday, surer than all the other times he faced descending spirits. The furrow in his brow had always indicated a question, agonized over. Now, however, a solution, albit a tentative one, steadies him in his conviction. “I think it’ll work this time. I just need help.” Jeremy meets Nico’s eyes as the other looks over Monica’s shoulder at him, brow creased in an unvoiced question.
Monica looks over her own shoulder, whirling around and glaring at Jeremy as if it were his own inane idea planted in Nico’s mind. “You want Jem to help?”
“Wow. I’m offended, Mon,” Jeremy grumbles. It’s more of a habitual response than anything, as Nico still holds his attention, chewing at his bottom lip and holding his talisman tight in his fist.
“Look,” Nico speaks up again, stepping back onto the bank and gently pulling Monica’s gloved fist off of him, “I know I don’t have enough energy to bring descending spirits back myself. And I get that it’s selfish to kill myself over someone who’s already dead.” The clear echo of Jeremy’s own words spoken through Nico’s lips resonates in the air between them, even Monica’s eyebrows raising in mild surprise. “But I have an idea. I might not have enough energy myself, but if I use Jem’s as well…I don’t know. It might be enough.”
Monica stares between them, lips pulled into a tight line. The fact that she doesn’t immediately argue Nico’s logic is hope enough for Jeremy to wonder if it might work.
“Using a non-medium’s life energy,” she muses, sounding tentative but not argumentative, “as like an energy reserve? Has that ever been done before?”
Nico shrugs, fishing for his talisman beneath the collar of Jeremy’s jacket and pulling it out to grip in his palm. “If an energy deficiency is the problem, it’s the only solution I can think of. I’ve never heard of it being done before. But then again” –he pauses, looking from the prehnite stone in his grasp to smile faintly at Jeremy– “I’ve never heard of mediums and non-mediums having a bond like ours worth trying.”
It’s not so much of a realization as a reminder to Jeremy that when Nico smiles at him like that, a little embarrassed, a little lopsided, that he would fight anyone from any end of the earth to keep it there.
“I’m in,” Jeremy answers almost immediately, feeling the sturdy rightness of the proclamation as deep as his bones. “Let’s do it.”
“Nico, wait,” Monica says, prying her ear muffs off her head and handing them over to her brother, smiling softly. “You forgot yours, you reckless heathen.”
Nico grins, taking them from her and pulling them over his ears. A moment passes where Monica simply looks between the two of them before she’s hurtling herself at Nico and then at Jeremy, hugging them tightly around the neck.
“I’ll hang back just in case anything goes wrong,” she says, and Jeremy wraps his arms around the small of her back, hugging back just as tight. “Just be careful, all right?”
“Of course, Mon.”
Had he been driven solely on physical impulses, Jeremy would have leapt from the water the moment he stepped in, breathtakingly cold, stealing more air from his lungs with each squelching step farther into the lake’s depths.
“Why do we have to be in the water to communicate with the spirit?” he asks, teeth chattering together as the water seeps up his calves, finding the sensitive undersides of his knees and drawing another gasp between his teeth. “Fuck me, it’s cold.”
“The closer we are,” Nico begins, his own teeth clicking together despite his best efforts to breathe evenly, “the less energy it’ll take for me to communicate with the spirit. Less distance equals less exertion. Or something like that.”
“What if I freeze to death first?” Jeremy asks, cringing as their feet drop slightly on the uneven ground of the lake, the water suddenly at mid-thigh without warning. “Jesus fucking Christ.”
“Shh,” Nico whispers, this time close enough to press his palm to Jeremy’s mouth. It takes a significant amount of willpower for Jeremy not to bite him as Nico looks to their left. The spirit flickers closer, tendrils of shadow wriggling out from its otherwise indistinct form. Careful not to scare it off again, or prompt any other sort of vaguely threatening motion, Nico motions for Jeremy to step closer. He does, close enough that he can both see and feel each breath of air Nico exhales into the October air, each freckle stark against the flush of cold working across his cheeks and to the tip of his nose.
Nico turns, and Jeremy nearly forgets the cold when Nico sets a hand on his shoulder, guiding him close enough that they nearly bump chests: “Ready?”
Jeremy nods, nerves harboring under his skin in the form of restless tremors. Nico notices, reaching to place the palm of his other hand at the center of Jeremy’s chest, finding the line of Jeremy’s breastbone beneath his jacket and tracing it in gentle strokes with the pad of his thumb.
“Breathe for a second, Jem,” Nico prompts, his voice quiet and low but filling the space between them like a flood. They’re close, a step and a half apart, and Nico’s hand is much more of a grounding force than his own feet stuck in the muddy grime beneath them.
This time, when Jeremy decides to count his inhibitions away, Nico’s eyes follow the path of his gaze. Brow, nose, cheekbone, jaw, mouth. Jeremy’s eyes linger on five until five becomes ten and his heartbeat slows to a steady beat beneath his ribs.
Noticing Jeremy’s heartbeat, the evenness of his breathing, Nico removes his hand from Jeremy’s chest to pull Jeremy’s right hand from his side, the other reaching for his own talisman.
Nico’s talisman is like a vital organ tragically displaced outside of his chest, lying vulnerable to prying hands. There’s something innately private about even the thought of touching it, the reminder of doing so flaring a flush of guilt up the back of Jeremy’s neck. The sensation of the stone in his palm still lingers, as though Jeremy had slipped his fingers between the gaps in Nico’s ribs to grip his heart, his lungs.
Yet here he is, Nico holding the talisman by its silver clasp, encouraging Jeremy to hold it like it would be safe with him, useful with him.
“Jem.” Nico’s voice is softer than he’s heard it in a long time, almost a whisper. He bumps the stone against Jeremy’s knuckles, his fingers still curled hesitantly towards his palm where Nico’s own fingers encircle his wrist. “Take it.”
Sucking in one last breath, Jeremy takes the bait.
He always does.
There’s a moment when Jeremy feels only the warmth of the stone, the pulsating force from it matching his heartbeat, as if calibrating to his own energy. Everything is still as their energies link, and then Jeremy feels it: a presence in his own veins, his own bones, that is distinctly Nico.
Nico’s energy washes over him like a wave rolling onto a bank, crashing down and sweeping through him head to toe and then receding. Jeremy’s own energy repeats the motion, a sensation like electricity but more innate to the human chemistry seizing from every crevice of his body and spilling into Nico’s talisman connecting them.
Jeremy’s witnessed spirit communication multiple times, but always as an outsider. Now, however, with the line between non-medium and medium blurred to a molecular level, he finds himself listening in on the plane of communication usually so far removed from his own comprehension.
The method of communication is not so much speech, but implied action. While their bodies don’t move any closer to the spirit, Jeremy feels Nico’s intent down to the fibers of his being. As if peering through a veil over his usual reality, Jeremy can just make out the figure of a small boy hidden in the shadowy recesses of the spirit’s descended exterior.
Tendrils of the dark matter root themselves well below the surface of the lake, down to a level that Jeremy’s sense of physical logic can’t comprehend. It’s Nico’s essence, his willpower manifested that begins to pull at the tendrils, yanking them apart to reach for the soul trapped inside.
It’s then that Jeremy realizes his role. He tries to imagine his physical, spiritual, and mental energy as something he can hold, something he can transfer to Nico through his talisman. It’s a clumsy process at first, energies slipping between metaphorical fingers as the echoes of the spirit’s death infiltrate and distract him.
Cold drifts nearer as the spirit moves towards them, and the violent shivering of his own body nearly breaks Jeremy from the connection, his physical reality reeling in too close. For a moment, his eyes open as the water undulates around them, washing up against the small of his back and shocking his system. He feels his focus slipping, shadowy tendrils penetrating the ripples of light emitting from the two of them.
There’s a boy to their left, an arm’s reach away. A boy and then a shadow. Doleful eyes and then a gaping mouth. An outreached hand, pale and thin, and then–
Jeremy can’t distinguish whether Nico’s voice came from outside or within the separate plane of existence he’s been pulled into, but the force of it, the promise and pleading within the single syllable, forces once last wash of energy from Jeremy’s deepest corners.
The energy spills between them in an excess, bursting from the talisman and spreading in coiling emissions of white-blue light up their arms, chests, and necks, glowing from beneath their clothes.
Jeremy nearly slumps over with the sudden absence of energy, not realizing his eyes had closed again until colors sweep in chaotic flashes across his vision, the space around him a disorienting mess of reality and unreality. He’s had more strength after running several miles, legs feeling like separate entities from him but still holding him upright. Now, however, they feel vanished entirely, along with the rest of his body.
It’s only when he feels Nico’s hand at his side, the other clutching tight at his shoulder that Jeremy can finally discern the physical boundaries of himself again, and everything else begins to fill into place.
Slowly, he opens his eyes, everything appearing far away and unimportant except for Nico holding tight to him less than a breath away. The other’s eyes are bright, wide in a disbelieving sort of way. His mouth is agape, titled up at one corner into an almost grin. Jeremy would usually be able to tell by the orientation of the freckle at Nico’s mouth, but they’re too close for said freckles to look more than dark spots blurred on flushed skin.
Jeremy finds just enough breath to ask, “Did it work?” before Nico’s hands grab at his face, settling against the ridge of Jeremy’s jaw with reckless abandon, and he kisses him.
It’s ungraceful, their noses knocking and teeth clashing in a movement that’s too fast, too heedless for them both to process. Previous inhibitions, hesitations that kissing Nico was a thing Jeremy felt he could do, should do, shatter as his hand drops to Nico’s waist and pulls him closer. The other tugs at Nico’s talisman around his neck, anchoring him as his lips find a rhythm to the kiss.
His teeth are still chattering, and Nico keeps punctuating the kiss with breathy laughter of giddy disbelief, but the rightness of it, the inevitability of it that rings between them makes up for each awkward click of teeth, each mismatched slide of their lips, numbed with cold.
When they finally pull away to catch their breath, Jeremy looks down to Nico’s talisman in his hand, the coils of light having receded from their skin. They still remain, however, in the stone glowing luminescent between his fingers.
Jeremy glances over his shoulder to where Monica stands whooping and cheering at the lake’s bank, the spirit having drifted discreetly towards her over the course of their immediate celebration. The sight of the young boy, still pale and sporting sopping clothes, but whole and freed of the forces urging his descent, elicits another giddy laugh from between Jeremy’s lips, one that Nico echoes when he presses their foreheads together.
“So,” Jeremy says, jaw aching with the force of his grin, “time to add ‘Successfully Rescued a Spirit From Descent’ to your medium resume, then?”
Nico only shakes his head, looking at Jeremy like he’s some sort of recently discovered phenomenon disguised as his usual pain-in-the-ass self. Which, Jeremy supposes, he kind of is.
Rather that replying, Nico opts to lean forward and kiss Jeremy until his lips, rather than the icy chill of the water, leave them breathless.
The lingering energy still spilling between them feels like fire licking under his skin, teetering on the edge of too much when Nico scratches his nails softly against the soft lines of Jeremy’s veins at his wrist. It takes everything Jeremy has in him to swallow the noise crawling up the back of his throat, shifting minutely in his seat to stave off climbing over his own seat and pressing himself to Nico, kissing him again and again.
When Monica finally drops them off at the apartment with little more than the promise to stay the night at their mothers’ house and a wink, Jeremy all but shoves Nico through the foyer of their building. All cataclysmic energy and restless longing, Jeremy presses Nico back against the mailboxes, curling his hands at the back of the other’s neck, pulling him down to press their lips together.
It’s messy, punctuated with breaths not quite caught and laughs not quite finished, but so satisfying that Jeremy feels himself melting against Nico’s chest, fingers curled in the hair at the back of the other’s neck. Nico, for all his reservations and quiet contemplation, kisses back just as fiercely, hungry and eager and barely contained himself. This raw version of Nico, tongue and teeth, sends a shudder straight down Jeremy’s spine to where his feet ache from toeing himself up to the other’s level.
“Jem,” Nico breathes, and Jeremy hums his question between open-mouthed kisses along the freckled lines on Nico’s neck. He revels in the way Nico’s breath stutters in his throat when he bites down just slightly at the hinge of his jaw. “Jem, we should go upstairs. Now, c’mon.”
Nico usually takes a minute or two to open their apartment door, but with Jeremy’s hand in his back pocket, it takes slightly longer than usual, the kick at the base of the door carrying a heady kind of urgency. Jeremy laughs and then Nico’s tugging him him across the doorway, swallowing Jeremy’s laugh between his lips again.
They stumble to their bedroom, tripping over themselves trying to toe off their shoes, soaked socks making a squelching noise across the hardwood. Their jeans follow shortly after, left in a sopping pile just outside their bedroom door.
Nico falls back first against the rumpled sheets of his bed and Jeremy follows a heartbeat later, the scene mirroring one of just a few hours ago. This time, however, when Jeremy wants to lean down and catch Nico’s mouth against his, he does.
More than he feels the need to breathe, more than he feels the need to adjust himself where his arms are prickling numb pressed into the mattress, Jeremy needs to be as close to Nico as possible. His hands shove under the hem of the jacket Nico’s wearing, Jeremy’s jacket, to press against the skin there, leaving trails of goosebumps in his wake.
Nico gasps into Jeremy’s mouth, head tilting back at an angle, and Jeremy leans in to the capture the juncture of Nico’s neck and shoulder under his teeth, tongue lining the cluster of freckles pitted there.
There’s something awkward and something equally exciting and funny in the way that the two of them wrestle out of their shirts, the collar of Nico’s sweater getting stuck around his neck until Jeremy’s fingers undo the top two buttons. Unearthed from the tangle of fabric, Nico’s hair stands up at a familiarly ridiculous angle, wobbly grin tugging at the corner of his mouth when Jeremy raises an eyebrow at him.
“What?” Nico asks when Jeremy stops to stare at him for a moment too long, the beginnings of a full on flush working up the length of his chest. Jeremy’s eyes trail along the lean slope of Nico’s sides, the subtle curve of his ribs, the dip of his collarbones, peppered with smatterings of freckles along every inch. His talisman still hangs low at the center of his breastbone, prehnite stone pulsing a faint, green light in the otherwise dim room.
Jeremy presses his palm to the breadth of Nico’s chest until the glow of the talisman only shines through the gaps in his fingers, painting them both in a shadowy glimmer of green at their sharpest edges. Meeting Nico’s eyes, he gathers the stone in his grasp and lifts it to his mouth, pressing tongue and then lips to the coarse edge.
The talisman flares once, bright enough to leave Jeremy dazed, and then Nico’s hands are on him again, rolling them over until Jeremy is the one straddled beneath his hips.
“Fuck, Jem,” Nico breathes, low and close to Jeremy’s ear, “if you do that….” He trails off, but Jeremy gathers the general idea, hands sliding across the back of Nico’s neck again to span the width of his shoulderblades.
“Kind of a weird kink, but whatever,” he offers, cackling as Nico huffs indignantly into his neck, nipping at the shell of Jeremy’s ear for good measure.
“Shut up,” Nico growls, though Jeremy can detect the grin shaping his lips when Nico adjusts to kiss him again.
Jeremy almost makes another comment to fuel his obnoxious desire to do everything opposite to Nico’s wishes, but only manages a strangled sigh when Nico’s fingers work under the waistband of his boxers to palm over the bulge tucked hard beneath.
“Yeah?” Nico muses when Jeremy rolls his hips up into the his touch, his breath heavy and urgent in the tight space between them. “Like that?”
Jeremy’s known Nico long enough to detect the tiniest hint of hesitation in his question, masking nervous uncertainty with snide teasing. He allows one hand to cup the back of Nico’s neck, the other meeting Nico’s wrist at the dip of his stomach.
“Here, like….” Jeremy bites his lip between his teeth, shuddering at the feeling of someone else’s touch so low on his body. Nico’s hands are familiar, the soft pit of his palms, knobby knuckles, and wide pads of his fingers, but to feel them on his cock is enough to nearly drive Jeremy out of his mind. “Slow up and down, but then twist at the top just like– f-fuck, like that, Nico.”
Nico’s hands, cool to the hot flush of Jeremy’s cock, curl around the base, moving up and down his length just how Jeremy instructed him, less hesitant and more purposeful with each low noise Jeremy pants into his shoulder.
When his eyes flutter closed, Jeremy can still see the glow of Nico’s talisman behind his eyelids, balling tight and white like the knot at the base of his stomach. Like fire, the sensation of Nico’s hands on him licks underneath every surface of his skin, building to something too big, so hot for him to contain.
When Jeremy comes, it’s like a shock through his entire system, gasping nonsensically into Nico’s mouth when the other leans down to kiss him through it, enduring each jerk of his hips and shudder of his shoulders as he comes down. It takes minutes for Jeremy to settle back into his own skin again, sweat beading at his brow and panting heavily between breathy laughter.
“Jesus, Nico,” he gasps, heart threatening to burst through his chest with the force of its pounding, “who taught you to do that?”
“You did,” Nico replies, wiping the palm of his hand on Jeremy’s thigh and grinning devilishly at the other’s affronted look. “Literally just now.”
“Okay, smartass,” Jeremy scoffs, finding enough strength in his knees to nudge Nico onto his back again. His fingers still shake slightly from the endorphins running rampant through his veins, but his fingers work past the elastic of Nico’s boxers like it’s a practiced motion and not simply one he’s thought about over and over in the privacy of his own headspace. Nico sighs, eyes drifting closed and Jeremy can barely contain the enthusiasm in his grin. “Why don’t you do me the same favor?”
“Yeah, okay.” Nico lifts his hips off the bed, easily slipping out of his only remaining clothing and tossing it unceremoniously off the edge of the bed. Jeremy, in a moment of rare self-awareness, thinks Nico might be the most beautiful person he’s ever encountered.
Dark-featured and angular, Nico spreads out under him all long, lean limbs, vulnerable with his talisman pitted in the dip of his breastbone. The sight of him is enough for Jeremy to get lost in and it’s only when Nico’s finger glides under the slope of Jeremy’s chin that he focuses again.
Jeremy exhales, the linear constellation of freckles down Nico’s face only visible with the assistance of his own memory.
Brow, eyelid, nose, cheekbone, mouth.
One, two, three, four, five.
Jeremy follows the last number to its destination, a grounding point as he steps with finality over the ledge of this internal war he’s been raging against himself.
Never to recover.