After the panic, the fury and finally the numb acceptance, Nate had plenty of time to meditate. Not just on his predicament, though that dominated his thoughts at first, but about everything beyond that as well. Life in general became of blur of memory and emotion as his body morphed from uncomfortable to unbearable until settling on desensitized.
The cloying cement leaked into every crevice, every fold of his skin. Into his ears, his nose, around the thin layers of his eyelids. There it hardened, encasing him more firmly than his ancestors in their lost and buried catacombs.
How long would he suffer this? How long until the cement cracked and crumbled as this building’s foundation felt the weight of the structure bearing down upon it? A decade or two? A century? A millennium?
He could still taste the last breath of air on his tongue, its gentleness in his throat. He could smell the freshly fried donuts from the shop down the street, hear the ringing of the old church bell as Sunday mass let out over at St. Peter’s, the stained glass windows likely shivering in their frames with every pounding pass of the clapper. But it was all memory, for he could hear nothing, see nothing, taste nothing. All he could do was feel…and that was the last thing he wanted, both physically and emotionally.
Jordan would have sighed and shook his head, and not in amusement. Exasperation, irritation and stretched-thin patience vying for control over his features. Nate could envision the way Jordan’s voice would drop an octave deeper. His eyes going shadowed, looking through Nate rather than at him.
This is the last time, Nate. I’m not a plaything, I’m not your keeper. I can’t keep chasing after you to bail you out.
Nate cringed inwardly as he remembered how arrogantly he’d tossed his head, his hair scarcely moving from all the gel he’d put in it that morning. I’m indestructible. I don’t need a keeper and I certainly don’t need you chasing after me. Oh, how he’d laughed in Jordan’s face, the alcohol in his system still running his mouth more than his brain had been.
The crestfallen expression he’d expected never came. Instead, Jordan had merely nodded in acceptance, as if he’d been anticipating Nate’s response. As if he’d been ready for it. Then Jordan had simply picked up his wallet, his keys, his cap—the bright letter representing his favorite team faded from years of wear—and walked away.
Nate pushed the memory aside forcibly, feeling the panic renewing itself before he regained control. The cement held him in an embrace so different than the one he ached for now. Jordan’s arms had ever been soft and welcoming and unconstricting, falling away the moment Nate shifted. Jordan had always known what to say, when to say it and the best times to say nothing at all. Jordan had always been there, quick to pull Nate from any situation, after every fumble.
I’m indestructible. I’m indestructible. He let the words pound through his skull, willing himself to not just believe them, but to hold them to his heart, let them staunch the burning pain that continued to scald him despite the words’ truth. I’m indestructible.
And yet, every second that ticked by without Jordan there to provide rescue, Nate lost more and more conviction even as he repeated the words in his mind. He was alone. Indestructible in body, yet fragile of mind, locked in a cement coffin that could never kill him. Just drive him mad. How long had it been now? Minutes? Hours? Days?
Time had already become meaningless. How strange.
He learned to meditate through necessity. A quiet slowly folding over his harried thoughts with occasional bursts of anger that Jordan wasn’t coming or bouts of self-admonishment at his own incapability.
It’s not enough to not be killed.
Jordan had said that after the incident in Southern France, in that quiet little town with its undercover network of warmongering hackers. The one that had destroyed the lives of a few young kids, kids old enough to have flying fingers and mad programs, but not old enough to know when they were truly loved. Jordan had wanted to do that job quietly. To keep the younger ones alive.
Nate had just waltzed in, got the info his employer wanted and left, uncaring that he had led other people there. More dangerous people.
It’s not enough to not be killed. It’s not enough that their bullets won’t hurt you or that their knives can’t kill you. You have to try and do more than that. Be more.
Nate hadn’t understood then. He wasn’t sure he understood now. After all, the network in that little town had caused more deaths than they’d had to give. Most of his jobs were like that. Why else would he be called?
Though, now that he thought about it, he wasn’t the one they called. They called Jordan. Jordan handled those details. Jordan told Nate which plane to board, which country to fly to, which group or building or area to infiltrate. And now Jordan was gone.
Nate wondered idly whether they’d get credit for this last one. Probably not. Jordan probably didn’t even care. Might not even know Nate had gone since he’d forgotten his folders, his binders in the hotel when he’d gone. Leaving everything behind. Nothing but a phone number in Nate’s phone that he’d never bothered to memorize and even that had likely changed by now.
He walked through their jobs. All the jobs. From the first, when they’d just met, Jordan a presence in Nate’s life that seemed overbearing. To later, when Nate had discovered just how pliable he could become in Jordan’s embrace. To even later, when he had thought Jordan was taking it upon himself to try and change Nate. The arguments had been less arguments and more wry discussions because really, Nate had always thought Jordan’s worry had been over Nate getting hurt. And, well, Nate couldn’t get hurt.
But it hadn’t occurred to him that he could be immobilized so completely. It must have occurred to Jordan though.
The regret started out bitter. A bad taste in the back of Nate’s mouth. It made him curse Jordan, an emotion wickedly close to being hate emerging from the pain and all the blame he could muster away from himself. But that didn’t last. Didn’t even fester. The feeling burned itself out as Nate remained trapped, shifting back and forth between wake and sleep on a schedule that meant nothing to the world beyond the thick block that had become his prison.
It was as the regret finally became something more powerful, the blame coming back around to land squarely on Nate’s own encased shoulders that he began to truly understand Jordan’s side.
He’d been coasting. He tried, but failed at coming up with anything they’d done that had actually challenged him. Because he’d never bothered to listen to Jordan, because he didn’t feel as if he needed to since in cases like this, Jordan had always been there to rectify the situation. That had been Jordan’s part, or at least that’s what Nate had always thought. That had been a wrong assumption. Wrong twice over to shove it in Jordan’s face.
The worst part about the waiting, locked within the cement with only the occasional vibrations to keep him company, was the thought that he wouldn’t be able to apologize once he finally escaped. Even a century trapped would mean Jordan would be long gone, buried back in his home town. Maybe next to a man who had treated him far better than Nate ever had.
His heart squeezed, pulling him from his meditation. He spent the time after that painful thought imaging the happy life he hoped Jordan would have, the one he certainly deserved. That eased the way into a far clearer meditative state, removing the last layer of churning guilt and pain. Pain, because he could be hurt. He saw that now. Because the thought of never seeing Jordan again…
Nate began to pray, like the way his mother had taught him when he’d been a child. She’d shudder and grip his hands together every time he showed without a bruise or scratch upon him after some daredevil stunt. Then she’d pray with him. For him. And for the world around him. For the boys and girls who thought they could do the crazy things he did. For the one who died from mimicry.
He’d never considered it his fault. Not then.
Yet Jordan’s voice came louder in his ears, overbearing no longer. That was just frustration and worry in his tone. It’s not enough to not be killed. You have to try and do more. Be more.
What he’d meant was save more. Care more. Think about the others who could be affected. All things Nate hadn’t known how to do, his mother’s muttered prayers making little sense to him as a child. They made sense now. She hadn’t been worried about him, as he’d thought. She’d been worried about the others, same as Jordan.
Nate’s prayers were slightly different, still self-focused though he recognized that now, for he wanted to see Jordan again, to make sure Jordan at least knew his words had done their job. So Nate prayed for the building to crumble within ten years, twenty…thirty. Some decent time that would allow him to claw his way out and find Jordan before Jordan was gone for good.
The words became route, a circular pattern forming as he repeated his desires in between memorizing what he’d say to Jordan when the chance finally came. He sifted through memories time and time again to make sure they wouldn’t escape, lingering on ones of Jordan likely far more than he should.
Jordan’s kind eyes sparkling in the light by the river in San Antonio, his hair ruffling in the wind blowing in from the Pacific or dripping with rain before they could get to the airport in Dublin, him breathing heat into cold hands as they’d walked back to their car…Nate couldn’t remember where that last image had been. He’d been more focused on how badly he’d wanted to get back to their hotel, back to their warm bed.
And those memories came faster, hotter and tortured Nate more than the cement entrapping him ever could. Jordan’s lips grazing over Nate’s skin. Their bodies moving in sync. A rhythm between them that transcended any music. The sheets tugged and rumbled, Nate’s head slipping off the pillow, his chest growing tight, his groin tighter.
The cement couldn’t truly hurt him, not even when his shaft swelled with blood. His heart swelled further still, with emotion that swamped him with regret and nostalgia and longing to go back in time and berate his old self to appreciate what he had in those precious moments. His erection faded, leaving him with an internal pain that compounded the one already raw in his soul.
There was little more to do but follow that circle back around. The waiting became cathartic, penance for his sins. In between the memories and prayers, Nate would call up images of people—men, women, children. People whose lives he had impacted, but in ways he didn’t know, might never know. Some of them, many of them, might now be dead because of him, because he hadn’t listened to Jordan or asked for clarification on the words finesse or subtle when Jordan had used them in a pleading way.
Nate had the time to not just reflect and reevaluate. He also had the time to completely redirect his thoughts, determine his plans for the day, whenever it came, where he would be free once more. Though his plans ended up consisting of little more than finding Jordan, finding his job, and tackling those missions with the finesse Jordan had always stressed was important. Nate figured it might take practice.
But he was willing, more than willing, to do his best, no matter how lacking it might be at first.
That determination calmed the occasional bouts of fear, the moments when he went to draw a fresh breath and remembered he couldn’t, the moments when he thought about the lack of familiarity he might face…the moments when he realized Jordan might be dead already.
His will, and subsequent hope, became the only things keeping him from closing his mind off entirely. That and wrapping himself in his favorite memories of Jordan, intermixing those memories with dreams of Nate’s own creation to keep him from forgetting Jordan’s face or the sound of Jordan’s voice. That calm, collected tone that could become so harried and deep when he was upset…or aroused.
Jordan’s voice washed over Nate. Better words this time rather than the frustrated ones that had dominated Nate’s mind at first. I’ll see you tonight. Or I only requested one bed this time. Was that all right? And I can’t wait to see you. Hurry back.
Nate smiled inwardly. Eventually, that had become what Jordan would say on the phone after a job. No matter whether Jordan had agreed with Nate’s methods or decisions, Jordan had always signed off with those words. Sometimes a tired mumble, sometimes with an excited chuckle or a low hum of seductive suggestion, but always, Hurry back. And Nate would. Hurry his way back into a soft bed and softer arms where Jordan would prove just how much he’d missed Nate, just how much he’d been worried. And Nate had always whispered, I’m indestructible, thinking he was being comforting, though doubting now he’d given much comfort at all with those words.
Hurry back. Nate could hear Jordan whispering to him. A dream that overlaid itself within Nate’s memories. Hurry back. He lost himself in those words, feeling them, even if he could not hear them any longer.
Sluggishly, incredibly sluggishly, Nate came out of his mind enough to realize that the cement vibrated around him. A pluck-pluck-pluck feeling he heard less than he felt. It yanked him away from his dream-memories. Removed the overwhelming numbness he had accepted and shoved him forcibly into the reality of his body and all the discomfort he had forgotten. He would have shouted if he’d been able, but the cement locked around his jaw, vibrating his teeth.
He had forgotten the way air tasted, fresh on his tongue. All that was left was the hard coldness encasing his senses, stealing away all the pleasures, both simple and complicated. He cursed inwardly at whatever construction had begun anew atop of him. Cursed it repeatedly until, after a long, drawn-out period where he thought he would never know peace again, it ceased.
But the damage had been done. He lingered, more aware of the limitations of his body than he ever had been in his youth. He tried to sink back into the meditative state he’d found, tried to welcome the numbness. Yet, it remained elusively out of reach.
And then, just when he thought he could reach past the limitations of his body once more, the reverberations began anew. Louder, or seemingly so. Fiercer, or he’d simply forgotten the torture. He forced himself to ignore the vibrations, to call for Jordan’s voice.
Hurry back. I can’t wait to see you.
It seemed to work, dropping him far away. For but a moment, or a day, he couldn’t tell. And then a screeching in his ears. His actual ears. A screeching and voices. Shouting. A hum of electricity. The purr of an air conditioning unit. The sharpness of car horns. The rushing of wheels passing. Distant splashing of water thrown up on the curb.
And then he shifted. He had a second—this time he knew it to be that quick for he had no time to contemplate the implications—and then the concrete coffin he’d come to accept came crashing down around him. Crumbling to his either side, spilling harshly across his skin, hard enough to cut a lesser being as rough hands yanked him up. He tumbled against the pieces pulled free before him, tossed into the heap of concrete chunks and rubble as booted footsteps crunched away.
He moved his finger first, lifted it just enough to prove to himself he could. He moved onto his hand, nudging it slightly. Then he sucked in a breath filled with dust, relishing the taste of new air regardless that it sent him into a coughing fit that quickly turned to elated laughter.
The laughter lodged in his throat when kinder hands gripped his shoulders and shoved him to his back. “Nate? You good? You okay?” Those hands began to brush him off, the feel of them on Nate’s oversensitive skin like coals against his flesh.
His eyes snapped open, bits of cement slipping free from his eyelids. The world was blurry, but Nate would know Jordan’s face anywhere. But how much older? Jordan had grown facial hair, that much Nate could tell. He squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head.
“Are you okay? Can you talk?” asked Jordan, his voice loud in Nate’s ears, but so sweet. So very welcome.
He almost said it. Almost smirked and said, “Don’t worry, I’m indestructible,” just as he always would, but he remembered at the last second to swallow the habitual words down. He blinked a few times, trying vainly to clear his sight and said with a rough voice unused to speaking, “I am now.”
Jordan pulled him into a sitting position. “There’s not a mark on you.”
This time Nate felt the smirk rise to his lips. “It wasn’t my body hurting.”
Jordan’s hands paused, then fell away. Too late Nate realized how those words could be taken. He fumbled for Jordan, but Jordan had already stood, his shoes crunching over the wreckage of the floor. Then he was speaking to someone else, thanking them for a job well done, paying them for their discretion.
Nate scrambled to his feet, staggering over the rubble, almost sliding back into the hole he’d been freed from before managing to catch himself. By the time he looked up into Jordan’s face, he could see better, though he squinted within the brightness of the fluorescent lights. The door to the room—a room he suspected was somewhere on the base floor of a large office building—squeaked shut on the heels of whatever men Jordan had hired.
“What I me—”
“Here.” Jordan handed over a slim, leather-bound case. “New phone, contacts, passport and IDs plus information on whatever job the company has in store for you next.”
Nate took it instinctively, but didn’t bother looking down. “How long was I in there?”
Jordan’s jaw tightened. “Seven months. When I found out you’d dropped off the face of the earth I had to put together your last movements. Was difficult with the trail gone cold.” He sighed. “Luckily, you’re predictable, loud and memorable.”
“When you found out…”
“They called me, to hire me to find you.”
Nate’s heart sank, but he smiled slightly. “Glad they did. No one else likely knew me well enough to go through all that trouble.”
Jordan nodded. Then they fell silent for a moment. Jordan’s face came into focus finally. He seemed put together, calm, if uncomfortable with the situation. So he’d never come back. Never called looking for Nate. When he’d left, he’d meant it. The clawing hand of grief closed around Nate’s throat, but he shook it off. He had words he needed to say. Words he’d practiced.
“Jordan.” He paused to steady an unsteady heart. “I want to apologize.”
Jordan lifted a hand as if to ward off Nate’s apology. “There’s no need—”
“I need to,” insisted Nate. When Jordan dropped his hand and pressed his lips together, Nate went on, “I need you to know that I’ve thought about everything you said. Not just when you left, but all the things you’d been trying to get me to understand before then. I never thought about anyone else. I never stopped to give the indirect consequences of my actions any thought. Mostly because I believed I wasn’t responsible.
He took a deep breath. “But I am. My actions, whether I like it or not, affect a great many people. And they can be hurt, many of them have been.”
He probably looked a mess. Cement dust over his clothes, his hair full of oil. He hoped that didn’t matter when Jordan looked up, a question over Nate’s sincerity in his gaze.
“I wanted you to know this. That I don’t just plan to think in the way you taught me, but to actively engage all my jobs with that mentality from now on.”
“That’s—” Jordan had to cough to clear his throat. “That’s good. I’m glad to hear that.” He nodded one too many times and his eyes flicked sideways to look at the door.
“I also wanted to apologize for not coming after you.”
Jordan froze, his gaze fixated on the wall behind Nate’s head.
“I was going to call. Not that it matters now. I was going to let you know after I finished the job that…” The words fizzled away, slipping free from his mind. He froze, unsure. This hadn’t been part of what he’d memorized. “That…”
Hurry back. I can’t wait to see you.
“That I was going to hurry back because I couldn’t wait to see you.”
Jordan’s eyes drifted closed and his brow furrowed as if he was in immense pain. “Nate…” he said with a slight shake of his head.
“I thought you’d be dead by the time I got free of that coffin.”
“Coffin?” Jordan’s eyes reopened and a quizzical expression replaced the pain on his face. “You can’t be hurt.”
“I can’t die,” corrected Nate. “But…I discovered that I can be hurt. I’m not indestructible. Not even close.” He tapped the leather case against his palm, nervous now that he was winding down. “And I’m just glad I got the chance to tell you.” He then turned the case around and unzipped the top, his movements stunted with self-consciousness and nerves. “Okay. Work. Hopefully they’ll let me get something to eat first because I’ve been dreaming of ice cream sundaes and pizza. I’d take them smothered together if any place will serve it.” He flashed a smile toward a startled Jordan and headed for the door, pizza and ice cream sundaes the furthest thing from his mind.
Nate paused, the case open in his palm, balanced there, though the ID with his smiling face blurred. Moving slowly, he twisted his head to look at Jordan. “Was there…something I missed?” Something he hadn’t even considered as he’d laid stuck for all those months?
Jordan didn’t seem angry though. His calm did seem more of a facade at the moment, a face he put on to hide a tortured emotion echoing Nate’s own. A well of pain deep enough that hope bubbled to the surface within Nate.
“You’re not going to try and win me back?” Jordan lifted an eyebrow in abject disbelief.
For a moment, Nate continued to stare at Jordan. He hovered, rocking up on his toes before turning his back more firmly on the door. “It’s been seven months. I assumed you’ve moved on.” He smirked. “It’s not as if you’ve been locked away in cement with your cock unable to get hard.”
Jordan sighed, some of that familiar exasperation creeping into his tone as his voice lowered slightly. “I didn’t have to take that job when they called. Didn’t have to come find you. They would have sent someone else. Might have taken a little longer, but you’d have been found eventually.”
“Maybe. Maybe you just wanted to chase after me one more time to prove you were right.”
“I wasn’t trying to prove anything,” said Jordan quietly.
Nate looked down at the open case in his hand. He’d had dreams, unrealistic, naive, and lustful dreams. Each one ending in a similar manner, with them together once more in a glorious burst of perfection that belied Jordan’s actual perception of Nate. He hadn’t mapped out what he’d do, what he’d say, if a chance appeared before him. A real chance, not the over-hyped ridiculousness his brain had created.
“What are you saying?” he asked. When Jordan didn’t answer, Nate looked up.
Jordan didn’t meet Nate’s gaze as he finally said, “Nothing. I’m saying nothing. Good luck on your next job. Don’t get caught again.” He summoned up a tentative smile that fell flat, his eyes glazed over.
“If I do, will you come chase me down and save me?” asked Nate, attempting to add some levity to the situation.
Jordan shrugged and said with a chuckle, “I might.”
Nate snapped the leather case closed, the sound muffled, though the zippers clicked lightly. “Well then, you might as well come with me now. It’ll make your job easier later. Not that I think I’m going to need you. I’m going to be far more careful from now on, but you never know.” He hesitated only for a second before offering his hand. “Pizza?”
Cement dust settled behind Jordan. The air conditioning kicked off, leaving a blank expanse, nothing left to fill the silence but the rush of car wheels in the wet pavement outside that drifted in through the closed window. The empty shelving around them sat filled with possibility. The hole within the floor a hopeful rebirth.
Jordan smiled gently, his lips pressed tightly together and his eyes crinkling. “As long as you don’t smother it with ice cream.” Then he reached up and slipped his fingers over Nate’s, the touch burning hot, blessedly gentle and entirely unexpected. Nate swallowed as he closed his fingers over Jordan’s.
“No promises,” he whispered.
Then he staggered into Jordan’s embrace, letting the leather case spill to the ground, his passport skittering over the floor, his new phone popping open. Not in that moment, but in another one later that night, after pizza and dessert and seven months of need exploded within a soft bed, Nate noted Jordan had already typed his number into that phone.