Spoilers: Through "Shifting Equilibrium"
Rating: M, for a bunch of sex.
Summary: She used to stare at that tattoo incessantly, when they lived together. It used to drive her mad.
"Are you really here?"
"Yeah. I really am."
He smells the same, is the first thing she notices, like laundry detergent or a fresh cake of soap. Neela has always liked that about him, that no matter the kind of squalor in which they were living or the kind of filthy clubs he played at with his band, he always smelled like he lined his pockets with dryer sheets.
Clean, like that.
What do you do, after a moment like this one? Do you have lunch or go for a walk or find a broom closet to hop into? She doesn't know what they are. She's given up Duke, she's come to this swampland, but for all her dithering she hasn't actually thought beyond this one gesture and she doesn't know--
"I can get out of here," he says, in that low quiet way of his. "Give me five minutes."
Neela nods. She'd give him anything, in this moment, but she doesn't dare say that aloud.
You don't need a coat in Baton Rouge in March. Neela peels hers off on the way to the parking lot, and the skin on her arms prickles in the sunlight.
He takes her to his apartment; they sit on his couch and drink beer. He's got a band she doesn't recognize on the stereo, bass thudding softly like a heartbeat. Ray is the only person she knows who still traffics in cds, the tactility of them satisfying to him somehow, the feel of them in his hands.
His place is airier than she expected, not like the cave they shared in Wicker Park where weak-tea sunlight trickled through the grimy windowpanes for a grand total of fifteen minutes a day. It always smelled like egg rolls for ten seconds after you walked into that apartment. They lived like bears. Neela misses it terribly.
"Where are you staying?" he wants to know, nudging her foot with the toe of his Chuck. If you didn't know any better, you wouldn't be able to tell there was anything wrong with his legs.
"I rented a place over by the hospital," she tells him. She's still very nervous, which she knows is absurd. "It's quite nice. A bit sterile, you know, but new places always are."
He nods, runs his thumb over the mouth of the bottle. "Could have stayed here. Roomie."
"I didn't know," she says. "If you were...living alone."
"Could have asked."
"Sure," she says, laughing a little. "That's not presumptuous. Hi, Ray, are you living with your girlfriend? And if you are, could you boot her out so I can come to stay?"
Ray shrugs. "You can presume whatever you want."
She glances around when he hoists himself up off the couch and heads into the kitchen to get them another round. She recognizes his posters from when they lived together, a couple of old medical books he's been carting around since university with bright orange "Used Saves" stickers on the spines. An enormous spider plant that had been hers once, that had been almost dead until he'd made its revival a personal crusade. "How you gonna kill a spider plant?" he muttered, the first time he saw it.
"I'm not the nurturing sort," she'd replied.
Now, he comes up behind the couch and presses the cold, damp beer bottle to the back of her neck. Goosebumps rise all over her body. "Thanks," she says, reaching back to take it, but he catches her hand and presses it to his chest for a moment before wrapping her fingers around the bottle. His body is warm, and Neela thinks of stones baking in the sun. She drains half the beer before she looks at him again. "So," she says, swallowing. "No girlfriend, then?"
He smiles a little, settling back onto the couch. "No girlfriend."
"I'll bet." That's when he kisses her.
It's soft at the beginning, an open parenthesis, an aside. He sucks lightly at her bottom lip, bites it a little. "You taste beery," he says, smiling against her mouth.
"Piss off," she replies, and kisses him again. His beard rasps against the side of her face. She'd be lying if she said she hasn't been a little preoccupied with his mouth for as long as she's known him. Lips you could take a nap on, Abby said once.
Something like that.
The sun is starting to set. He has a deck and the sliding door is open. Neela can hear a bird and she can't identify its call, but she knows for certain it isn't a pigeon. She cannot remember the last time she encountered a bird that wasn't a pigeon. Ray's tongue is sliding across her collarbone. "I think about you," he begins, so quiet she can hardly even hear.
"--all the time."
"Yeah." He grabs her around the waist and hauls her into his lap, one leg on either side of him. He's a lot stronger than she remembers, a lot bigger in his arms and chest. "All the time."
There's not a soul to interrupt them and so they keep kissing, until the light gets redder and then blue. He holds her so tight. He slips one hand beneath the hem of her shirt, skimming her lower back, and when she feels how hard he's gotten beneath her she grinds herself against him, just a little bit. His eyes fly open and he gets this look on his face like she's set the paddles on him, actually shocked his heart. Neela grins. "Hi there."
"Nice to see you again," he replies, and tugs her blouse over her head.
He's careful. He takes his time. He plants kisses on her shoulders, runs the callused pads of his fingers just above her waistband. He flicks open the clasp on her bra with one quick twist and she gasps once, hard. She actually gasps, like some daffy heroine out of Jane Austen, but she can't help it. It's Ray. It's Ray, and now that the damn bra is off he just keeps looking at her with that expression on his face, the one that frightened her badly enough to move out of the apartment to begin with. She nudges his arms up and pulls off his t-shirt, flattens her palm over the tattoo on his back. She used to stare at that tattoo incessantly, when they lived together. It used to drive her mad.
He's still in the track bottoms he wore to work and they make a high zipping sound as she skims her fingernails over them. She slides her hands a little bit lower, toward his knees, until she can feel the mechanics of things underneath--she's seen his legs already, but it's different now, and she just wants to understand what she's dealing with--but he catches her wrists.
"I need you not to feel sorry for me."
The pitch of his voice is so low she almost doesn't hear him; there's a buzzing in her head. "What?"
"I'm serious," he says. He's looking urgently away. "I can't do this if I think you feel sorry for me."
Neela thinks of a rib spreader, that somehow he's cracked her chest--that is how badly she doesn't want him to feel as if there is anything like pity in her being here. How much she needs him to know it's always, always, always been want. "I've never felt sorry for you in my life," she manages, pushing at his shoulders until she can see his face. "You're too much of a pain in my ass." Bold, she snaps the elastic on the boxers peeking out of his pants. "Touch me."
That gets his attention. "Yeah?"
"Ray." She closes her eyes, rocks against him again. "Yeah."
So he does. He presses at the ridges in her backbone, scrapes his teeth over her jaw. She knew objectively he was going to be good at this--she lived on the other side of his bedroom wall for a year, did she not?--but she just--she wasn't expecting--by the time his nimble fingers work open the button on her jeans, she's restless. She's close. She climbs off his lap song enough to wiggle out of the rest of her clothes, for him to drop a kiss into the cup of her hip. She kneels between his knees and pulls at his waistband, runs her hands down the length of his thighs.
"Shh." He tastes of salt and soap. She thinks again of the pigeons always lurking about in the ambulance bay at County, how supposedly the amazing thing about pigeons is that you can send them off God knows where and somehow, someday, they'll find their way home.
"Oh, Jesus. Fuck. Neela, sweetheart. Come here."
She sinks down on onto him in one quick motion, his fingertips digging into the undersides of her thighs, and her first thought once he is inside her is that she cannot believe they have been apart for all this time, that she even lived through it. That either of them did. Neela squeezes her eyes shut against the idea of him and those fucking Vicodin, of him sinking like that without her to grab onto. It was something I had to get through on my own, he said to her back at Halloween, but fuck that, nobody should have to sit with that kind of suffering alone. Nobody. Especially not Ray.
"Sweetheart," he says after a few moments, and his breathing is broken. "I'm gonna--you gotta slow down."
But she doesn't want to, she wants to keep going, she is so fucking impossibly tired of slowing down, and she is trying to figure how she'll articulate this to Ray when she can't even catch her breath enough to make words, but he must see something in her face because he looks at her hard and shakes his head.
"Or don't," he amends, and she doesn't. She hangs on tighter and moves.