by Natsumachi (馬遅夏海)
illustrated by beili
What’s Blond Ali up to? Are you trying to run away? Is your ass going to bring me anything but trouble? He didn’t say any of those things.
“Where are you staying?” Rostem asked.
“I booked at a serviced apartment, but I haven’t checked in yet.”
“You thought you’d still get in at this time? Forget it.”
This boy had really been distracted from practical considerations, even from eating a meal. Which was why Rostem was sitting in a café in the middle of the night with this boy who called himself Sohran and looked irritated even while eating chicken pudding under his hospitality.
Earlier in the day, Rostem had received a message on his work phone from Blond Ali–some vague message that he should expect a surprise coming his way. Recently they’d helped each other in sorting out a long-term security business contract that had gone through their old connections. Southern oil was contentious even before factoring in the encroaching guerilla army pushing in from occupied cities. Protecting the interests of the right people would be lucrative business.
However, Rostem hadn’t thought much of the message. He had gone out for dinner and a dragged-out evening of drinking with an old work acquaintance who was in town, got home late, and found this lurking in wait for him.
When the boy had asked, “Are you Rostem Ebrahim?” in awkward Turkish, Rostem had let the remaining good mood of the drinking carry him into asking, “Are you the surprise, then? So, Ali still thinks it’s funny to send a whore to my door, huh?”
In retrospect it was surprising that Sohran hadn’t punched him while he was chuckling and trying to find his apartment key.
Hearing the words, “I’m your son,” had been less funny, but still sounded so unreal that after hearing them only once, Rostem believed the boy had just gotten his words mixed up. He’d been able to confirm the connection to Ali though. Yes, he recognised Ali Dawud; and Rostem was still waiting for this to be some sort of shit joke of Ali’s, though they had established that Sohran wasn’t a prostitute.
After his terse introduction, Sohran didn’t speak much, and probably couldn’t, though he did understand a damn sight more Turkish than he could form into neat sentences.
“Well, I can offer you my couch,” Rostem said. When he insisted, Sohran almost looked grateful, though it was difficult to tell from his narrow range of expressions. From the beginning he had been covering everything under guarded stiffness. He didn’t smile or instantly act friendly. Perhaps it was because of the way Rostem had initially spoken to him, but his eyes had no warmth.
Sohran watched intently, appraising him, and it made Rostem uneasy.
Rostem spoke up, trying English. “Look, I’m sorry for offending you earlier, but isn’t this something Dawud put you up to?”
Sohran hesitated before shaking his head. “Not exactly,” he answered more smoothly. “But he said it would be educational to see how you live.”
Rostem laughed to himself. “Compared to him, or what? That son of a bitch.”
“I didn’t come here for that though.”
“So, what, you’re going to insist you’re my son, and then? Are you after money? Believe me, you’d get more from shaking down the bastard who sent you.” If he could just shut this down here, he’d sleep easy.
It had been more than coincidence and circumstance that Rostem hadn’t returned to his village life during or after the war. After discarding politics and ideals, he’d kept moving forward, each time carrying less to be weighed down by, even if it meant leaving behind things that had once seemed important. Including that baby who could have grown into this young man by now, if he’d managed to survive.
“I don’t need money,” Sohran said, but he sounded less certain of himself now, shy and confused.
Rostem shifted into a more genial tone. “That’s good. But you still haven’t said what you actually want.”
“I don’t know yet.” Sohran let more of his tension drop and looked tired enough to drowse off in the café seat.
Rostem smiled. When he stood to leave, Sohran followed.
On seeing the interior of the apartment, Sohran took in everything about the run-down place with curiosity. Naked lightbulbs made the rooms bright, but even so everything was overlaid with grey layers of decades of neglect. Poorly applied paint was cracked and flaking in too many spots to count, and the carpets were worn out. It didn’t bother Rostem; like many of the places he’d lived in this was a temporary stop, nothing personal. He wouldn’t be here much longer, and when he came back to this city–if he came back–he could go anywhere else, pick any other apartment where the landlord didn’t care who he was as long as he paid the rent on time and didn’t complain about minor problems.
While Sohran accepted the offer of showering, Rostem went through the single duffel bag he’d brought with him. He found the bare necessities and no other personal items: a change of clothes; simple toiletries; a French passport under the name Sohran Dawud, nineteen. If that made him Ali’s son, going by the years he was either a bastard or adopted. Rostem laughed humourlessly and tossed everything back.
Shortly after, the shower stopped and Sohran stepped out with a towel around his waist. Though nearly as tall as he, Sohran was slim and looked like he hadn’t fully grown into his limbs yet. Not Rostem’s usual type, but his sober boyish appearance would have appealed to him in bed. With only a glance to where Rostem sat in the living room, Sohran picked up his bag and went back into the bathroom.
As nice as it would have been to end his evening with a bit of relaxation, it could have been worse. More than a decade out of the Party and Rostem still sometimes dreamt that someone would come after him.
After Rostem pointed Sohran to the couch and blanket, he was glad to finally shut the door of his bedroom behind him. Confusion and desire distracted him.
As unlikely as it was that this skinny brat who couldn’t even grow a beard yet was sent here to get him, Rostem didn’t sleep deeply, keeping at the level where his mind was still alert to the stranger’s presence, and would shock him awake at any unusual sound. When Rostem woke early and checked from his door, Sohran was asleep on the couch and had left the lamp nearby on.
Rostem went in quietly, passing across the floor with patience to remain silent. The feeling of concentration and detached awareness of his body excited him even outside the context of a dangerous situation. When he saw Sohran’s sleeping face tucked into the blanket, was practically close enough to breathe on him, Rostem was surprised that the sleep wasn’t faked. Though Sohran was frozen in tension and frown-lines cut in between his brows, his mouth remained unselfconscious and slightly open. Part of Rostem wanted to catch him around the throat and pin him down just to show him how foolish he was.
Instead, he switched off the lamp, as it was already dawning through the windows and thin curtains. Sohran twitched together and scrambled up. They just looked at each other, then at the knife under Sohran’s hand, and then Sohran looked away sheepishly. It was a sort of hunting knife in a rough leather sheath, and Rostem studied it more out of interest than alarm. He wondered how skilled Sohran would even be using the thing against another person.
Seeing Sohran’s face in the morning light, his tiredness, Rostem felt almost sorry for the kid. It seemed like he’d turned up on a whim of Ali’s and hadn’t thought ahead in any sensible way.
After Sohran excused himself to go to the bathroom, taking his knife with him, Rostem carried on as normal, making coffee and then realizing he hadn’t asked whether Sohran wanted any. He would at least send him off with breakfast; he could feel benevolent when a problem was on the way out.
Later, when Sohran thanked him and announced he was leaving, Rostem was ready with his wallet. “Wait, wait, do you have enough cash for transport? Here, and a few lira in case you get hungry, go on,” he said, shaking the notes close to Sohran’s empty hand.
Sohran didn’t take his money, saying, “I can look after myself.” He patted his duffel bag instead of saying goodbye.
Rostem stood at the window where he could look down into the courtyard. Cold drafts blew through the old window frame. Sohran appeared out of the shadow of the building, and stopped under the almond tree. He turned around and lifted his face to the windows. The shape of those fierce wide eyes, those shapely eyebrows, that nose, those lips–were they holding something familiar? Rostem rubbed at his eyes. Let him stay away, and let the past stay in the past. He didn’t need some sort of cinema melodrama.
Towards lunch he picked up his coat and keys and went out. He walked without thinking of a destination, keeping his head down. In the old coffee-house, the typical handful of retired men played backgammon, smoked, and gossiped for hours. It was boring normalcy. He sipped tea, joined in some rounds of cards, and hummed along to nostalgic folk ballads.
It was going on midnight when Rostem stopped in the courtyard under the almond tree. How he had enjoyed eating green almonds as a child. The windows of his apartment were dark and empty and calm as the night. The lingering smell of cooking from other doors cheered him up because he had already eaten and his belly was warm.
However, in front of his door was a crouched lump with a dark head. Rostem stopped on the approach, and a face looked up. There was alcohol in the air already from a distance; there was dirt on his face and clothes, and when Rostem got closer it was blood. It had already dried out and crusted in the places it had smeared. Under his nose it was still thicker and fresher.
“Didn’t think you’d be back,” Rostem said, not hiding his irritation.
Sohran raised his voice in Kurdish. “Ahh, some people act so high in their own country, but elsewhere they’d be treated like fleas on a dog’s neck.”
Rostem chuckled. He almost missed the youth that went along with that sort of anger, that let him get into a brawl over some throwaway slight and feel justified.
Sohran scowled and licked at the blood on his lips, and Rostem rubbed there with his thumb. Suspicious but still, Sohran kept his chin up. Rostem took in the shape of his full lower lip, the nervous flick of his tongue, and mixed blood and spit.
When it got too much, Sohran shoved his hand away with a grunt. He shook his head and stood up too quickly, becoming dizzy on his feet. He grabbed Rostem’s arm and blood smeared from his fingers. Rostem got the apartment door open while Sohran was trying to keep himself upright on his jacket. As soon as they got in, Sohran stumbled to the kitchen sink and vomited. For a long while he stood there letting the tap water run over his face.
Rostem leaned against the kitchen counter and passed him a towel. “You should get out of those filthy clothes and shower before you crash out.”
Sohran accepted Rostem’s support to get into the bathroom. Under the blood and vomit he still smelled of alcohol.
While they were standing in front of the shower and Sohran was still leaning on him, Rostem wondered whether Sohran would make it clear that he should get out now to let Sohran get on with it, or if he should just leave regardless of Sohran’s shaky balance.
Sohran had imposed on him already, arrived with hostility and bitterness of the past piled up ready to drop on him. Rostem couldn’t understand why had he returned at all in this state. Was it a change of tactic from harassing him? Did he expect Rostem to feel sorry for him like a miserable little mutt?
Sohran was still holding onto him with one hand while he tried to open his jeans. Rostem resigned himself to staying. He helped with taking off shoes, socks and narrow jeans.
In truth he was curious, despite the blood and vomit and dirt, to see more of Sohran. Since he was meant to believe this was his flesh and blood, at least it was an opportunity to accept or reject that based on physical proof.
Rostem found himself gently helping Sohran pull his t-shirt past his scrapes and bruises. Sohran shook his thick black hair and pushed it out of his face, which was still between handsome and adolescent. His nipples perked up on his smooth chest, and he held his arms awkwardly in front of him, but perhaps he was only cold. Close up, Rostem could get a good look at this slight but strong body, with its firm curves, and soft skin a shade paler than his own and not as marked by life.
He could place where some of these patterns would have come from in his family–many of them from his cousin and wife. But he could also find himself in Sohran. There were undeniable ties between them. The more he looked, the more Rostem was drawn in, and not in the most paternal way. Logically it was strange, and should have been worrying, but the pleasure of looking at Sohran as familiar, as his son, couldn’t part him from his increasing attraction.
Sohran didn’t meet his eyes, but his body language had been unwinding to this point of trusting docility. Rostem wondered where his guarded attitude had gone, while Sohran held onto him, waiting for the water to get warm. When Rostem told him it was all right, Sohran modestly turned before pushing down his underwear. Rostem got a good look at the fine shape of his ass before Sohran closed the shower curtain between them.
Sohran didn’t take his sweet time to wash, not enough for Rostem to sink into thoughts before he was back on the task of getting a towel and helping the shaky kid dry off.
With the blood gone, Rostem took a better look at Sohran’s swollen nose and reassured him it wasn’t broken. Sohran murmured wordlessly, holding his arms out in front of him, drawing attention to where he’d bruised and scraped his hands and forearms.
“You want some disinfectant and plasters for that?” Rostem asked.
Sohran looked at him with drowsy dark eyes. “Uhn.”
Rostem sat on the toilet lid and stood Sohran in front of him so he could apply the disinfectant and band-aids. In Sohran’s hands he knew it without a doubt–his fingers were younger but proportioned like his, neither long nor short, with nails that were rounded and more long than broad, trimmed down neatly.
Rostem couldn’t find the reasoning for it, but he was getting behind the novelty of this, caring for someone. Being around Sohran was the ambivalence of attraction and confusion, and now tenderness that had no logic except between their blood. Sohran flexed his fingers, and gave a nod of approval. He remained standing patiently when Rostem lingered over the moles on his hands.
Was Sohran now so meek because he believed in their connection and that it mattered? Did the history of their blood mean that much despite years willfully spent apart?
“You really are my son, aren’t you?” Rostem asked, speaking more to his sense of fascination. Though he’d contributed nothing to Sohran’s upbringing, a sort of warm pride filled him.
Sohran shuffled between his legs, and the sharp smell of medicine and adhesive filled Rostem’s nose as Sohran touched his face, tentatively. He trailed over the bridge of Rostem’s prominent nose and thick eyebrows, which he hadn’t inherited; the shape of his mouth was similar, as well as the strong chin and jaw he’d still grow into.
Rostem enjoyed this, the slow awe between them. Having Sohran standing in front of him with only a towel over his shoulders renewed Rostem’s curiosity in his body.
He traced over the scars and patterns of moles in front of him, and Sohran’s skin prickled into gooseflesh. There were old scars that were pale and deep, and pink where skin had been scraped up more recently. They were only small details of all the things that had happened in a life he had barely known about, barely thought about.
Sohran’s skin was soft and tempting to put his mouth on, or to mark for the satisfaction of his more sadistic tendencies. But Rostem wanted to soothe over the scars that were already there with all gentleness, because Sohran was already his in a way no-one else had ever been.
Rostem brushed his lips against Sohran’s chest for an instant. He was reassured by Sohran’s continued touches, fingers combing into his graying but still thick hair, like Sohran understood his confusion and desire. His stance was curved down towards Rostem, from his rounded shoulders to his drooping head.
“I wasn’t there for your circumcision,” Rostem realized, turning his attention lower. Like on his head, the hair in Sohran’s groin grew thick and deep. His prick had turned a little stiff with his nervous excitement at being examined and caressed in detail, and he tried to hide it.
Sohran trembled between Rostem’s hands. Rostem wondered where this mood could go. He looked into Sohran’s face, but saw a wry expression.
“You weren’t there for anything. Were you even still around when I was born?” Sohran asked. His bitterness broke the comfortable spell. But even while bringing out his grievances, Sohran remained close and touching him.
Rostem could have apologized, saying things as if he wanted forgiveness. It wasn’t forgiveness he cared about. Each time he’d done something he’d thought he’d regret for ever, his priorities had reshuffled and he’d found contentment again. He hadn’t regretted leaving his family long enough to try returning, or even to find out where they had gone after the war so they could reunite.
And Sohran hadn’t been eager to establish an emotional and friendly reunion either. He should’ve been satisfied with knowing that it had been the right thing to remain apart, with their own priorities that didn’t need to cling to the past.
However, right now Sohran trembled with unknown amounts of bitterness he was still holding back. His breathing was so tight he almost sobbed when he said, “You weren’t there when I needed you.”
Though Sohran remained silent after that, tears began to run down his cheeks.
It would’ve been like Rostem to be annoyed by the sense of demand on him to be understanding, but accepting the truth in Sohran’s claim as his son had skewed his emotional reactions. He didn’t have to think that he wanted to do it before he stood up and gently held Sohran’s face. He wasn’t expecting it, but it turned out to be a comforting gesture that Sohran sought more of by leaning into him. He accepted the sudden weight of Sohran falling against him when Sohran gave up his determination to be resentful. Some part of himself Rostem hadn’t needed for a long time let him murmur soft nonsense without embarrassment.
Perhaps Rostem should have felt more remorse, but under the surface of feeling sorry for Sohran’s miserable state, he was full of strange contentment and calm satisfaction in trying to comfort his son, in holding him. He couldn’t even compare his feelings to anything in his memories.
Sohran held on to Rostem’s shoulders and cried until sniffling wasn’t enough; he sobbed while snot ran over his upper lip like on a child left unattended. While Rostem was murmuring nothings, he found he enjoyed Sohran’s raw crying that demanded attention and comfort from him. In his soft warm skin he’d laid himself open.
Rostem kissed Sohran’s cheeks, and continued like that, kissing all around: the gaps between his fringe, his temples, over his thick black eyelashes. He whispered to shush him, and Sohran gripped Rostem’s wrists while his knees went soft. Eventually, his weariness caused him to run out of energy even for sobbing.
With a wad of toilet paper, Rostem wiped away the tears and snot as carefully as blood.
He carried his slim boy into the bedroom, and Sohran just gave in to him, accepted this patronizing handling, and kept close enough to touch Rostem as if he was now afraid to put any distance between them. Rostem went through the motions of dressing and putting him to bed, remaining in a pleasantly calm and almost joyful state he didn’t understand. Things Rostem would have found rather pathetic from someone else took on an endearing quality with Sohran.
Already exhausted, Sohran quickly drifted off once he was tucked under the blankets. When Rostem was sure he could leave Sohran alone, he went into the kitchen to get himself a drink and some perspective. His mind had little commentary though, besides this still being a bloody mess he didn’t need. Mostly he wanted to sleep, too. He considered taking the couch, but he didn’t like the idea of leaving Sohran alone in his bedroom; where if he snooped around he’d find some confidential material Rostem hadn’t bothered to lock up, and a Glock in the bedside table. While getting ready for bed, Rostem took the pistol and a few papers and stashed them in the strongbox.
He settled down on his side of the bed, and then took one of Sohran’s hands in both of his. It was warm and limp, and he didn’t give it up as he fell asleep.
As usual, Rostem woke before the dawn call to prayer. Soft and fluffy, Sohran’s head was pushed in under his chin. Disheveled hair with more softness and curl to it than his own stuck around Sohran’s face and nape with sweat. Because he didn’t need to move yet, Rostem drowsed off a while longer, with Sohran’s warm breathing steady on the exposed top of his chest. When he woke again later, Sohran was clinging onto him with enough intensity to dig his nails in.
“Bloody hell, take it easy,” Rostem said, trying to nudge Sohran into letting go without hurting him. He could have shoved and flung Sohran off the bed, woken him roughly, but he put up with it, although he couldn’t reason why accepting that Sohran was his son was enough to make him care.
Sohran remained stiff, trying to squeeze him closer, and grinding his forehead against Rostem’s chest. He was breathing quickly, and probably he was still asleep; so Rostem let him be.
After some minutes, Sohran let go and moved away until they were no longer touching. There he sank into deeper sleep again, and Rostem watched him feeling slightly irritated. His skin stung where Sohran had raised scratches.
He took the opportunity of being unentangled to get out of bed. From the kitchen, Rostem kept vague attention on Sohran’s location. When he was on his second coffee, Sohran pinged in his awareness. He followed Sohran’s progress: shuffling to the bathroom, bedroom, living room, and finally appearing in the kitchen doorway. He stood there looking hung-over and disoriented by waking.
Rostem had to make the first move by saying good morning, to which Sohran answered politely in Turkish. This turn from hostility was still strange to Rostem, but he wouldn’t discourage it. He made simple toast breakfast, and tea when Sohran asked for it.
In daylight and soberness the closeness of last night couldn’t be recaptured. When Rostem squeezed Sohran’s shoulder on the way to reaching for a cupboard, Sohran sidled away. But they weren’t particularly uncomfortable. Sohran was still unguarded, more shy, and it put Rostem at ease.
Unsure of what to do while Sohran was hanging around, Rostem said he had some work to do, and sat in the living room with his laptop. He suggested Sohran get some more sleep if he had a headache. In his stilted way, Sohran said he wasn’t sleepy.
“You know, you can speak Kurdish to me if that’s easiest for you,” Rostem said. He could understand, even if just thinking of suddenly trying to speak his mother-tongue was like contemplating pulling something up from his intestines.
Sohran gave him a startled look. Perhaps he’d forgotten that he’d been speaking it all the previous night. Then he relaxed, and tried a vague smile.
“Okay,” Sohran said, looking more comfortable to return to Kurdish.
While working, Rostem was distracted by his ambling around and opening and closing cupboards in the kitchen. Rostem got up to see what he was doing.
“What’s the problem?” he asked.
“You need food,” Sohran said, as if this was a dire situation.
Though he found Sohran’s seriousness amusing, Rostem tried to be serious as well. “There are basics there, but if you’re really hungry we can go out. What do you want to eat? There are plenty of good cafés close-by.”
“What about cooking?”
Rostem shrugged, and said, “I like to eat out.”
From Sohran’s skeptical frown, that wasn’t a good answer. “I saw a good market yesterday. Do you like lamb or beef more? Hopefully apples are still fresh at this time of year,” Sohran said, leaving Rostem bemused by his swift non sequiturs.
Sohran was pulling off the baggy pyjamas Rostem had dressed him in, and found his jeans and a clean t-shirt.
“Lamb or beef?” he asked, pulling on his jacket. Rostem said lamb, and Sohran gave him a quick nod before going out.
Rostem shook his head and went back to the couch.
When Sohran returned, it was with more bags than were practical for one person to carry. Rostem was too surprised to say anything right away.
With someone else he would have been put out by this assumption of fitting into his life, and of the implied offense to his ability to provide for a guest. But it was like Sohran had woken with a similar sense of intimacy, a sense of trust–they would look after each other in the ways they understood.
Still, Rostem muttered, “You know, you really didn’t have to buy so much.” He took up some of the bags. “How did you even get all of this up the stairs?”
Sohran shrugged it off even as he was rubbing his reddened, bandaged hands. Rostem picked out the fresh items to store in the fridge: meat and cheeses, yoghurt, cream, vegetables, herbs, and fruit. Just looking at all this was making him hungry. Rostem inspected the remaining bags and found Basmati rice, a whole bottle of pomegranate molasses, high-quality stock, chickpea flour, various spices and so on.
“Isn’t this a bit much?” Rostem asked.
Sohran gave him a look like he was embarrassed for him. “You don’t understand how much it takes to feed two people normally.”
“Well, true…” Rostem said, stroking a hand over his chin. “But who’ll cook all this?”
“I can cook,” Sohran said, taking pride in the fact.
In the evening, Sohran did cook dinner, and Rostem was astonished by what he managed to prepare.
“Who taught you to cook like this?” Rostem asked. When he was growing up, there’d never been any question about men staying out of the intricacies of baking, and preparing family meals. He’d only learned some basics out of necessity in the military, where women and men had shared tasks more equally. As if to ward off his judgement, Sohran said that it was important to be self-reliant and capable of cooking nutritious meals.
“A man doesn’t need to marry to eat well at home,” he added.
“Not if he has you around,” Rostem said, and Sohran looked more bashful than the dry comment had warranted. Any obligatory questions about Sohran’s future intentions of marriage, and whether there was already a match, were swept along when Sohran urged him to try the aubergine.
Sohran began talking about the ingredients and the local marketplace, and Rostem struggled with his sentences and the vocabulary of herbs and spices. But the spicy aubergine and fresh yoghurt melted on his tongue.
His boy had grown up and turned out to have this much enthusiasm, care, kindness and warmth in him that Rostem was finally seeing. What father couldn’t feel happiness at that?
With little fuss Sohran came to stay properly; he cancelled his hotel apartment and brought over his other luggage. They agreed to share the bed since it was wide enough for two–enough that they could sleep each to a side without touching if they wanted to.
Often they did touch, though. When they were still half-asleep it was easy to seek each other out without over-thinking. It began with that, and they started a routine of moving away, then back together during the night. Rostem would get twitchy being close for too long, but while he slept he’d come back to Sohran. Sohran was similar; after a little snuggling he’d move away and only return in his sleep. The bed became a simple and warm nest.
After a while they were choosing to draw nearer consciously. They’d touch and hold each other, testing the intimacy before moving into their separate space again, into comfortable silence. They remained in a pattern of platonic affection, but it flowed into moments of desire that left them both flustered. It was nervous pleasure that they held back from and smothered in lazy cuddling.
Rostem was still affected by ego, liking to see parts of himself reflected back to him in Sohran. But he was also becoming more attached to Sohran’s particularities, and his individuality as he opened up more.
Leaving behind that first impression of scorn and dead-eyed stares, once Sohran had decided to stay at Rostem’s side he was full of tentative smiles and curiosity. When he grinned so that it dimpled his cheeks a little, it gave his whole face warmth, and could move Rostem in a current of how right they were together.
With his attachment, Sohran seemed to figure out and adapt to get the most from Rostem in a good mood. With his wide brown eyes he could give patient and hopeful looks. He’d push into the petting to his hair, and make little content noises rather than going on in words. When they were close and Rostem had him lazily in his arms, Sohran nuzzled him often, and used his nose to boop when it had healed enough. Despite Rostem’s suspicions, this pet-like behaviour in bed seemed to be quite platonic satisfaction for Sohran, and Rostem found he liked it more than he’d thought.
His little bids for attention and affection were as cute as a kitten’s. Rostem hadn’t known pets as such sweet comforting creatures in the village when he was growing up. There’d been ruthless bug catching, cats that were half-feral, herding dogs or annoying strays that wandered in from the hills and caused trouble, the partridges that were doted on by his grandpa, and the livestock that gave them means to survive. And if it was a tasty creature it ended up in the cook pot. To simply cuddle and caress and dote on was a novel concept.
It was gentle interaction that deepened Rostem’s sense of wanting to care for and not hurt Sohran. It made his desires more gentle too, spending time just stroking over Sohran’s skin and tickling him a little. He liked hearing the wordless sounds and mumbling like a human version of purring contentment. To find this ease between father and son had turned his attitude more playful than with someone he was just sleeping with. Unlike anyone else could be, Sohran was more charming because he was his son. When Rostem let in glimpses of fantasies, he mostly wanted the sex to be like this too, to have Sohran while he whimpered in pleasure and wiggled closer between Rostem’s arms.
However, with fascinating speed Sohran could pass into responsible seriousness, into control of his self-sufficient nineteen years, spend days on his own in the city, complain about politics, and not make the slightest childish fuss. Rostem’s approach to him usually shifted in tandem. He could treat Sohran like an adult, and he could coddle Sohran as tenderly as a kitten barely capable of doing more than snuggling to him and demanding food. In his own ways he’d enabled a cozy domestic situation Rostem had never greatly pined for, but enjoyed now.
On a rainy evening they ended up watching TV while lying on the couch, slotted together from knees to shoulders.
“I bet you looked that cute when you were a kid–those thick serious eyebrows,” Sohran said, pointing to the young protagonist of the film they were watching. Rostem scoffed, but he gave Sohran a squeeze in the circle of his arms.
“I wasn’t cute. My nickname was Big Nose, and even my sister made fun of me.”
Sohran laughed, and Rostem felt it all through his body.
Rostem stuck his nose into Sohran’s hair. The familiar scent of him was something he could smell on his pillow, and in the apartment when he opened the door. Sohran began to squirm at the touch of his bearded chin dragging over the bare skin at his neck and ears.
Rostem still found it confusing how okay he was with all this, responding playfully to their interest in each other. They had remained comfortable enough, and he’d accepted Sohran’s enthusiasm as reassurance. They hadn’t passed the edge of the illicit, satisfied with a little chaste kiss here and there, even as currents of desire pulled.
He’d avoided framing his joy and elation as if they were in a tentative love affair. Hadn’t they missed each other all this time as family without realizing? He already knew this felt like one though.
He’d been wanting more from the moment he’d explored his son’s body, and his son made eyes at him while trying to be casual.
Tonight Sohran had seemed more excited and bright-eyed, flowing between shyness and seduction. Rostem had felt it all evening that Sohran was testing the boundary. He wasn’t sure which way he should fall.
Right now his mind was drifting in their shared heat; Sohran filled his senses and it aroused him. He didn’t try to suppress it, and Sohran could feel his reaction. At first it startled him, but as Rostem wrapped him closer in his arms Sohran exhaled a moan. He began to move his hips quite deliberately to encourage Rostem to rub up against him.
Rostem realized he couldn’t passively take this–either he moved to take this further, or he pulled them back from the boundary.
Even as he wanted to continue holding Sohran, he gripped Sohran’s hip to stop rather than encourage him. “Shhhh, stop that,” Rostem said just to be clear, though he also tried to be gentle.
Sohran stilled. “I thought…” he said, voice full of apprehension.
Rostem tried to clear his head, find his calm logic. It mattered to him now that he could hurt Sohran. It messed with his detached standard. He shouldn’t let his usually self-centred strategic attitude make decisions about his child. He couldn’t just replace what he had with Sohran.
And he had to wonder about Sohran’s motivation here, too–about how far he had been willing to go. Was he trying to please, with whatever he wanted, the father who’d abandoned him now that they were reunited and living in this comfort? Or was he attracted to Rostem as a man while ignoring their blood connection? He wasn’t sure which bothered him more.
Once the silence had gone on too long, Sohran sat up, and Rostem’s loose arms fell away. Before Rostem could find the right decision, before he could get his words together, Sohran stood up and left the room. Rostem remained on the couch that night, too nervous to see Sohran’s face and sleep beside him.
Around dawn, Rostem went to sit at the little balcony table in the kitchen with his coffee, waiting to see whether Sohran would come in for breakfast, or go out directly.
When Sohran did pad in looking as sleepless as he felt, the first thing Rostem said was just the usual good morning. Sohran mumbled it in return and went for the coffee before he would even look up. Rather than starting the day with being in a snit with Rostem and passive-aggressively showing he’d fucked up, Sohran had withdrawn as if he’d been scolded and felt embarrassed. His face was flushed from coffee steam and nerves.
Would they both be happier now if Rostem had ignored any reason to justify their feelings? Rostem longed for a return to the natural comfort between them to resume. Much like many other situations where he’d chosen the complacency of pretending that nothing had happened and that everything was fine, he didn’t attempt to talk it out.
On the way to the sink, Rostem put his hand on Sohran’s shoulder and petted him. As if Rostem had pulled him in, Sohran leaned against his chest and put his chin over his shoulder. To let him know it was all right, Rostem gave him a squeeze in his arms. They sighed and relaxed into the moment, but Rostem didn’t let the contact drag on too long, and he didn’t indulge in a soft little kiss.
When Sohran wasn’t back by their usual time for dinner, Rostem grew worried that he’d gotten into some trouble again. He’d been expecting Sohran to arrive any moment for over an hour. He sent a message to Sohran’s phone, but got no response. He waited a bit longer, and then went to walk around the neighbourhood, looking for him and checking at the cafés they’d been to together.
This worried unease caught him off guard whenever Sohran was involved. Any police or ambulance siren within hearing could suddenly mean something to him. Even as he tried to use his indifferent centre to balance his thoughts away from sequences of grotesque violence and death, his emotions kept tugging him further. Would he even be contacted if Sohran was so injured he couldn’t do it himself? Would Sohran just disappear from his life again, outside the control of anything he could influence?
He was glancing through the evening crowd in a pedestrian zone in the commercial district, trying to find Sohran’s face, black hair that curled at the ends, black padded jacket, narrow blue jeans, dark blue sneakers with red accents. All he saw were couples coming and going from the cinema, groups of youngsters laughing and shouting, and tired workers tearing into kokoreç buns.
His phone startled him by vibrating in his hand and chiming to announce a new message. Coming home now, was all Sohran said in his message. Relief and annoyance made Rostem’s fingers clumsy on the tiny on-screen keyboard, and he just typed out ‘ok’. He pocketed his phone, and remained standing where he was near the food kiosk’s warmth and light for a few moments. The late-night air was chilling, but he walked home slowly.
Nevertheless, the apartment was still dark and empty when he got back. Sohran returned a little later, smelling of alcohol again, but he didn’t look drunk or injured. In fact, he was smirking a little.
“Where were you? You couldn’t even answer your phone?” Rostem asked, between irritation at having worried and having something to worry about.
“I was too busy to check my phone every five minutes,” Sohran said, as though nothing about this mattered.
“Have you eaten yet?” Rostem asked, sure that starting by upbraiding Sohran would only make them both angry. When Sohran said he was hungry, Rostem went to put something together in the kitchen. There was still part of a large sesame-topped flatbread, leftover soup, and various condiments that they shared.
Sohran was slow in eating, unlike his usual focused attitude that would ignore everything else when he was enjoying his food. This time he chewed absentmindedly, licked his spoon slowly, pulled out bits of the bread’s soft centre and squished them between his fingers.
While he wiped around his soup bowl with a bit of bread, Sohran said, “I was going to hook up with a guy from the bar.” He was still in a different gear, more adult and sure of himself. Whether this was a confession of guilt or meant to provoke him, Rostem couldn’t tell from Sohran’s flat tone. In the first place, he couldn’t find conviction behind Sohran’s words.
The more Sohran said in his wry way, the less Rostem believed. Sohran’s reasoning of returning when he did, only because the man suddenly got a call that his wife was in labour, was too much. Even as Rostem chuckled along, it sounded like a scene from a TV melodrama, or something he would find in one of the absurd paperbacks from the corner store. If Sohran had really wanted to get laid, there wouldn’t have been a shortage of opportunity if he went to another bar. If he was trying to become a better liar, he was failing.
At the same time, Rostem was drawn into it, into the fantasy of Sohran being flattered and attracted by an older married man, of sleeping with a stranger. And yet, in a perverse way, Rostem had wanted to believe his little boy was still a virgin in his awkwardness and abrasive attitude with strangers.
Sohran was breaking it down for him though, as if casual sex wasn’t even a big deal for him. He delivered his play with narrowed eyes and smirking; and Rostem encouraged his tactic, laughed and prompted.
They lapsed into silence as their chuckling ran out. They sat there, not yet touching, but watching the cues of their bodies.
Showing some uncertainty, Sohran asked, “Are you coming back to bed tonight?” He was holding himself still in a way that was a conscious effort not to fidget.
Rostem copied his conscious stillness, refusing to fidget despite the nerves in his limbs and the jump in his pulse. How much should he read into this?
Sohran was always a little hopeful and open in a way Rostem saw as part of his age, and the way a son would take his cues from his father. A further reconciliation to the familial closeness they’d been enjoying would make sense. Still, the unrealized possibility of more enticed him.
“Why?” Rostem asked, careful to sound neither too blunt nor eager.
“It’s just that I still want to jerk off, but it’s uncomfortable to do it in the bathroom. Do you mind if I do it in bed?” Sohran asked in a rush.
Hiding his surprise, Rostem picked at the short beard hairs along his jaw. “And if I come back to bed?”
“I don’t know,” Sohran said with coyness that had so far been lacking tonight. He was mixing reckless and cute. Rostem was sure now: if he offered something, just a little step further from what they already had, Sohran would take it. Within their own logic of comfort was it even a risk?
“Can I watch you?” Rostem asked, not caring that the breath packed into his chest turned his voice rough. To him it was something small, but already electrified his body in its potential.
Sohran ducked his head with a smile. “Yeah,” he said, and practically squirmed where he sat.
Rostem leaned over to ruffle Sohran’s hair, and Sohran lifted his head. He was wide-eyed, lightly flushed–his darling again, ready to be coddled in bed.
“All right, you go ahead. I’ll clean this up first,” Rostem said. Eager to get going, Sohran gave him a quick nod and stood up. He took a few steps towards the bedroom, and swayed as he glanced back. Rostem nodded at him to carry on, then he began to gather up the plates and cutlery.
He rested his hands on his knees. It was one thing to fantasize and talk, another to follow through. He couldn’t know if this would be okay, but if he stayed here thinking too much he’d remain.
Sohran had his eyes closed, head tipped to the side, and didn’t look at Rostem when he pushed the bedroom door further open. He was lying on his side of the bed, blanket down around his splayed knees with his sweatpants; his underwear was pushed just low enough that he could rub over his balls, and then give his cock a few loose strokes.
Rostem leaned in the doorway, stopped by what he couldn’t see fully. He took in the flexing of Sohran’s arm as he slowly pressed his ass onto a finger or two of his other hand. The little bottle Rostem had mistook for hotel shampoo lay beside him on the bed.
He wanted to get over there and tug Sohran into his arms, feel him writhing. But Sohran looked so self-contained, he couldn’t get himself to just fall in beside him like he belonged there in that moment.
Sohran let out a frustrated grumble and lifted his head to look at Rostem. “Stop just standing over there,” he said.
Glad for the cue, Rostem went to him, stripping off his clothes down to his boxers on the way. Sohran watched him, still touching himself slowly. Rostem climbed in under the blanket on his side of the bed, and settled facing Sohran on his side.
Once they were so close, Sohran tilted his face away again, looking nervous. His breathing was shaky, but more from uncertainty than excitement.
This wasn’t the warm, easy quality they’d had when snuggling, and Rostem wanted to touch Sohran even more now, to soothe him and find the gentle pleasure in this. He brushed the side of Sohran’s face, and passed through his hair. Sohran shifted closer into this familiar affection.
“Can I touch you more?” Rostem asked, nudging Sohran’s cheek with his nose. Sohran made a noise of choked up agreement and nodded. He couldn’t get any words out while worrying his top lip. Rostem touched Sohran’s mouth with his thumb and got him to ease up. For further reassurance, Rostem gave him a brief kiss.
Disappointed with so little and encouraged by the shift in boundary, Sohran caught his lips, nipping playfully. Rostem was surprised, but went with it for a moment. The first touch of their tongues was a thrill that fizzled in his nerves. But he was still too cautious; he wanted to keep things light and gentle on his son. Also he was still interested to watch as he’d requested.
Sohran seemed aware of that part. He let go of his prick, and passed a hand under his t-shirt to push it up over his nipples. Rostem took it as a direction. He kissed and licked one small nipple, and enjoyed the shudder it sent through Sohran.
“Can you, uh, pull them down out of the way?” Sohran asked, tugging at his bunched briefs.
Rostem pulled both underwear and sweats down and over Sohran’s feet, and bundled them at the end of the bed. When Rostem looked up, Sohran had tucked his knees higher, had let them fall wide so he was opened up to view–smooth thighs, and sticky fingers thrusting up into his ass.
Under the surface sexiness, Rostem found it so trusting, so receptive to him. He could go to his knees for that, kiss over that pretty ass, tease in with his tongue. He pushed his gaze up to Sohran’s face. “Okay?” he asked, giving Sohran’s ankle a squeeze.
When Sohran nodded, Rostem lay back down and pressed his body alongside Sohran’s, too aware of their heat and his arousal.
Rostem resumed petting, taking his time while Sohran shivered at his touches. He brushed the insides of Sohran’s thighs, pressed his palm around Sohran’s tensed balls, and Sohran squirmed with his hips.
Sohran was moving his left hand steadily against his ass while curling his other hand around his dick again; the head of it had flushed a pretty dark red. It was the first time Rostem had seen him completely hard. Full of desire, he shifted down and sucked at the tender dip of Sohran’s waist as he might have around his cock.
Sohran huffed and tried to flex his hips up under Rostem’s hand. Needy frustration rolled off him, but Rostem had no intention of going so far tonight. He saw no point in rushing ahead. He kept Sohran as close in his arms as practical, and enjoyed his pleasurable gasps and whimpers as he’d longed to.
With eyes closed, he drifted into the sensuality of Sohran’s movements under his touch, the strong pulse under his skin, the scents of his body, the salty and sour taste of his mouth, the sweet and awkward shifts in his normally low and inexpressive voice.
Sohran tilted his head away, lips reddened from their kisses, panting. He suddenly began moving his hand around his cock in a rush. Watching him, Rostem was dazed by the heat and throbbing of his blood. He licked back into Sohran’s parted lips, and Sohran came.
While Sohran still looked hazy and was unwinding his cramped limbs, Rostem reached to trail through the streaks of cum on Sohran’s abdomen and chest. Flushed and evasive, Sohran nudged at his hand, but Rostem slipped his fingers through Sohran’s so that they were clasped. He kissed Sohran’s narrow chest before sitting up to reach for tissues. They let their hands fall apart. Sohran kept his eyes down while he wiped up, and then climbed out of bed to go to the bathroom.
Once he’d returned and put his underwear back on, Sohran stood in front of Rostem, hem of his shirt in his hands.
“Do you want… anything?” he asked. Apart from a little smile he looked sleepy.
Rostem looked down at his half hard dick in his boxers, but he didn’t feel compelled to get off. The atmosphere now was just nice and relaxed in a way he liked, comfortable and satisfied by Sohran’s tension unwinding. Despite his desire for Sohran, his lack of hurry surprised him only a little.
“No, just come back here,” Rostem said, patting the bed. Taking him at his word, Sohran climbed onto the bed close to him, and together they resettled, snuggling in to sleep.
Sohran snuffled near his chest. “Next time?”
Rostem replied, “next time,” just echoing what he’d already felt. Sohran let out a full sigh, and relaxed further into Rostem’s arms. The remaining tension passed out of Rostem, and sleep took over.
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