[Author's Note: The double tilde (~~) indicates a POV change.]

Part One

'It doesn't matter what they say: power, money, religion, in the end it's always about land. Always, all the wars, just land. Money comes from the land, power is had over the land, religion justifies ownership of the land. It's just land.'

He walked quietly behind the cameraman, almost bothered by how eerily calm he felt, as if the inevitability of ending up in the line of fire were nothing. The bullet proof vest weighed on his shoulders and chest, and everything there was scorching hot: the air, the ground under his feet, even the light that hit his eyes. The discomfort was throwing him off when he needed to be on full alert, concentrate on his surroundings, catch the first shadow of snipers walking onto rooftops or rounding corners. He tried, but his eyes wouldn't focus, and the raspy footsteps of the crew around him were deafening. He was going to die.

Might as well take some photographs, he thought, and was about to point his camera at the horizon when the dry snap of gunshots started coming from somewhere ahead. He turned the other way and ran without feeling his legs, spurred on by pure adrenaline. For a second, he thought he'd push even his mother out of the way if it meant reaching cover faster, suddenly not feeling all that blasé about dying. Next thing he knew, he'd turned a corner and was sitting on the ground, his back against a masonry wall.

He knew the drill, he was supposed to hold his legs close to his chest and make himself as small as possible, but all his limbs felt alien and he was going to suffocate in that fucking vest anyway. He threw the camera on his lap and placed both hands on the ground, tried to breathe. With the sounds of war as background noise, he looked down at the dust under his hand, moved his fingers back and forth, and that voice started playing again, 'There's nothing noble about it, Elliot, we're just like chimpanzees. It all comes down to territory.'

'It's just land', Graham had said, and they had thrown everything back at him, money, power, religion, but Graham spun circles around every one of their objections. At first, Elliot was very certain that Graham was pulling those things out of his ass to annoy people, as was his habit, but then he started to wonder if that didn't actually make sense. In the end, he caught that glint in Graham's eyes, the one he got when he succeeded in disrupting a conversation to the point where everyone was a bit disgruntled, so he just shook his head and chuckled quietly as he watched Graham admiring his own handiwork.

Land. It didn't matter if every single aspect of being human could be reduced to the ground beneath his feet. Power, money, religion, it all meant something, these words had meaning, they were entities in their own right. All you had to do was listen to the gunshots. 'Land', he scoffed. Only Graham would say things like that.

He went over the cast of absurdities he'd heard over the years with a disdainful laugh, before he caught himself staring at the ground, going over them again, the same absurdities, this time not knowing what exactly it was that he was feeling.

Until he knew.

Only Graham would say things like that.

*

He woke up in a bed covered in white sheets, the walls painted a baby blue, a window behind him, the curtains open letting in a grey light. He ran his eyes along a thin plastic tube connecting his hand to a transparent bag filled with transparent liquid, hanging from a hook that hung from the ceiling.

"You okay?"

He turned his head to the other side and Graham was sitting in a chair, a magazine open on his lap, doing his nonchalant Graham thing, as if Elliot weren't lying in a hospital bed with a tube connecting him to the building.

"Where am I?"

"Zurich."

He remembered the gunshots in Gaza, wondered if he'd stepped on a landmine and was missing a leg or two. He lifted his head and checked. No missing limbs. No bandages anywhere, only a distant hint of pain somewhere and a kind of exhaustion that made him feel like death was imminent. A lot like Gaza but different in a way that he wasn't really sure made any difference.

"I'm sick," he whispered.

"Well, you've been out of it for days. I told you we were in Zurich about five times, I'm sure they've been spiking your saline drip."

Graham stood up with a thunderous noise from the chair scraping the floor, and then his hands flopped onto the bed rail like two grenades. Elliot closed his eyes and imagined earplugs.

"They're running some tests. I think you just had a nervous breakdown."

Images of the dust beneath his fingers and the whitewashed building across the street flashed in his mind. He could even retrace the shape the bullet holes had formed on the wall. Then the sound of his thoughts, philosophizing about land and war and Graham's insanity.

"Ell-liii-oooht…"

"Fuck off, Graham."

"Then answer me. Why did you pass out in the middle of an intifada?"

"Because I'm dying."

"Yeah, see? Nervous breakdown."

Right then, the doctor came in, looking serious, her German accent making her tone even more ominous. "Mr. Maynard, the news are not very good."

Elliot looked at Graham with an absurd wish to point and laugh.

Graham stood beside Elliot's bed, and listened to the explanation. It sounded like the narration of a documentary about medical advances and things that could kill you way back when, but thanks to the hard work of doctors and scientists, now you could live a long life with only a slight chance of premature death hanging over your head.

That couldn't be right.

"So you're saying there is a cure."

"No, like I said, there's no cure for lupus yet, but nowadays the treatment is very effective. It will most likely stay in remission if managed adequately."

Elliot's mother shot Graham an impatient glance. He felt guilty for making her listen to that again, but mostly he felt an irrational desire to strangle that doctor.

Elliot never said a word.

Shortly after the doctor left, Elliot fell asleep, and Graham watched him, remembering that summer night at a bar when Elliot was eighteen, tall and lanky, tanned to a Mediterranean brown, eyes big and dark, his pitch black hair, so perfect, so, so perfect that Graham just wanted to strip him and lay him down on white sheets and photograph him and fuck him.

Then, the words had simply left his mouth, because at that moment he couldn't not say it.

You are such a beautiful boy.

He could almost see his own slow, starry smile, his hand on Elliot's cheek, and he could clearly see the sparkle in Elliot's eyes right before they disappeared as they fluttered closed. The panic that struck him then still made something coil up in his chest, a sort of horror at the thought of how much he had to hurt Elliot in order to undo what he had done.

When I have a son, Elliot, I want him to be like you.

He'd spent the last five years trying to convince himself that being any less cruel would not have been enough to set that boy free. And now it all seemed so insignificant when he could just have given Elliot what they both wanted.

He stood up, leaned his forehead against Elliot's temple, twined his fingers in his hair, said with a shaky voice, "I'm so sorry, Elliot."

Eyes still closed, Elliot replied in a surprisingly firm tone, "It's not your fault."

Elliot sat on the edge of the bed, feeling like a child in a pediatrician's office. The doctor gave his mother paper after paper, bottle after bottle. He looked back and forth between them, settled his eyes on Graham leaning against the far wall, arms crossed in front of his chest, head down, making himself small as if he had stuck his leg out and tripped Elliot in the playground.

"It's very important to avoid stress. And exposure to sunlight is absolutely out of the question. Make sure you go see Dr. Phillips as soon as you get home."

Elliot glanced at his mother, then the doctor, trying very hard to pretend he hadn't understood. "I'm a photojournalist. I work outdoors."

"I'm sorry," the woman started, and it sounded more like admonition than sympathy. "You're going to have to make some lifestyle changes. Remember, the prognosis is very good as long as you follow your doctor's instructions."

And then she smiled, walked around the room shaking everybody's hand, good luck, have a safe trip, and left.

Elliot's mother sighed, walked around the room picking up his things the way she always did when she was forced to act the housewife, quick and pragmatic. Elliot stayed where he was and stared down at his shoes.

"Elliot…do you want me to tie your shoelaces?"

He stared at her, perplexed. "Why? Why would I want you to tie my shoelaces? Are these ultra-violet shoelaces or something?"

While he watched her cover her face, Elliot tried to remember if he'd ever seen his mother cry. Graham put his arm around her shoulders, looked pleadingly at him, shook his head. "Elliot…"

None of this made any sense whatsoever. Elliot tied his shoelaces and stared at things with a vacant look during the entire trip home.

*

Dr. Phillips walked into the office in his white lab coat, with his grey hair, looking like he was carrying the weight and wisdom of decades of practice, ready to produce his long-suffering, dumbed-down explanation of things far beyond Elliot's capacity to comprehend, A+ in Principles of Patronising.

Elliot thought he should get used to it, but right then it was still necessary to sigh his contempt into submission with a blink and a renewed effort to pay attention to his surroundings.

'…and you'll need to watch for these butterfly-shaped spots.'

Elliot hadn't noticed they were butterfly-shaped until the doctor in Zurich had pointed it out. As far as he knew, they were insect bites from some especially evil desert insect – hadn't Yahweh sent millions of evil insects to that exact area at some point in history? He didn't know, he'd been a bit busy worrying about suicide bombers checking into his hotel and things like that.

'You're young and healthy, there's no reason to get pessimistic.'

Yes, he was healthy, except for the part where his body had apparently developed a taste for itself.

'You'll be able to lead a normal life in a couple of months.'

No, he wouldn't. He'd be able to lead somebody else's normal life. Forever. Until he died.

Graham remembered the exact moment when he realised Elliot had grown indifferent to him. It was perhaps the tenth time he'd crashed on the sofa at the Maynards' home after a row with one of his fiancées.

It was always the same thing: he had the best intentions, thought he'd finally settle down, become a wildlife photographer so he could stop putting his life at risk and maybe have kids, but somehow he always ended up at a strip club, or leaving a sleazy bar with two blondes, sometimes two blonds, so drunk that he didn't even remember there was someone waiting for him who would be able to smell the sex and booze as soon as he stumbled into the living room.

He started missing flights, missing deadlines, turning in tabloid-level work, until he stopped working altogether. And still he was able to lie to himself. He thought of it as a sabbatical.

That evening, Elliot had walked out of his room with his girlfriend in tow, sat across from him at the dinner table and said 'hey', so casually, as if Graham looking like death warmed over were nothing out of the ordinary. Graham had never seen him so happy and relaxed. He knew it couldn't be a coincidence that the pining looks Elliot used to give him were gone.

Around that time, he decided to go back to work, hired Elliot as his intern, told himself it was because he owed a debt of gratitude to the boy's father.

When Elliot was born, his father was fifty years old. He grew up with the notion that he'd be fatherless by the time he was in his early thirties or so. There was also the very real chance his father would come home in a black bag every time he left on some mission or other. The man had been to enough war zones to give any army general wet dreams to last a lifetime, had gone from correspondent to renowned authority on international relations. He'd won awards, written best-selling books, and retired after surviving the attack on the UN building in Baghdad.

Elliot's mother was an art historian and critic with a knack for business and a taste for demolishing post-modernistic art in eloquent diatribes that few people had the nerve or the wit to debate. There was speculation that she was actually a pseudonym for some powerful mogul or other, and by the time Elliot started university, she'd become a myth. He'd never confirm or deny anything, because he secretly enjoyed thinking of her as a sort of Keyser Soze of the art world. At home, she was warm and charismatic, and when he was a child, Elliot never quite understood the jokes his father made about her "victims". It was probably his favourite childhood memory that when he grew tired of fairy tales, she'd lie in his bed at night and make up entire epics that Elliot only realised much later were vastly superior to any other children's stories he'd ever heard.

And then there was Graham, the young prodigy Elliot's father had taken under his wing. Elliot was ten years old then, but he wasn't squeamish about looking at Graham's photographs of humanity at its most savage. He liked to poke around at the pictures laid out on the large table in his father's studio, or sit in an armchair with his globe, turning it on its axis until he located each one of the places they mentioned in their colourful tales. He'd memorized the entire planet by the time he was eleven.

So that's how Elliot grew up, surrounded by greatness. He could be like them; all he needed was a photo of a starving child in the right pose, with the right lighting, and if the child looked miserable enough, if there was enough suffering coming alive in the image, he might win one of those awards.

He was just waiting for the opportunity to trade tragedy for vanity. Then Graham wouldn't feel obligated to return the favour anymore, and they'd be equals, and being around him wouldn't make it so impossible to ignore that there were many types of distances between them.

But now he was going to be a publicity photographer, and there was no greatness to be found in taking pictures of deodorant cans.

*

"Are you happy?"

"What?"

"You must be happy about this. I mean, you went through all that with dad, and then you had to deal with it all over again with your only son. Hmm? I don't blame you for thinking it's better this way."

"Why are you doing this, Elliot?"

He didn't know why he was doing that. He didn't know what he was doing.

*

It was always like a small commotion whenever Graham was back in town. He heard the flutter of agitation echoing around the house, even though he was lying in bed with the door shut and the curtains closed, reading with the bedside lamp on in broad daylight because he was sick.

The door opened and a head popped in. "You know who just arrived?"

He didn't move. "I heard."

There was a harsh sigh and the door slammed shut.

*

"Come on, Elliot, up, up, up!"

He was pulled by the arm until he was sitting. The extra pillows fell to the floor as the mattress creaked and the sheets ruffled, tangled around his legs. He glanced around with a helpless look on his face, trying to figure out if there was any way he could reverse that chaos and go back to his very urgent task of…

"Graham", he started in an exasperated whine, "leave me alone. I can't go to your house, my mother will freak out." He let himself fall backwards on the bed, but was immediately pulled back up.

"Your mother needs a break from you, Elliot."

Elliot couldn't really argue with that.

*

Graham had tons of food delivered. After hours of football and channel surfing, they wound up sitting at the table for a second round late at night.

Elliot had said very little the whole evening, just nodded and hummed at Graham's TV commentary. He sat there considering the cabbage and the…green stuff for a long time without reaching a conclusion.

"Eat your vegetables", Graham said, and Elliot snorted.

There was a long silence. Graham opened another bottle of wine. Elliot wondered what Graham's AA sponsor would think of this, wondered if alcoholism wasn't worse than lupus, concluded he didn't really care.

"So…how much have you learned about the ins and outs of publicity?"

Elliot cleared his throat, put his fork down. "I haven't learned anything."

"Are you being philosophical or something?"

"No. Yes. It's not true that everything has a bright side."

"Yes, it is."

He shrugged, fixed his eyes on the wall to his left. "Maybe."

Graham turned really serious. "Don't do this, Elliot. Don't let it grip you. It's really hard to shake it once it does."

Elliot stared at him the way you stare at a fortune teller who's just seen "grave danger" in your future.

*

Before going to bed, Graham had declared almost threateningly that he was going to wake him up early and take him out for some exercise. Elliot got up at ten, and two hours later Graham zombied into the kitchen. "Well, look who's up and about!" he said, as though he'd been trying to drag Elliot out of bed for hours.

Spreading sun screen on his face and hands, Elliot looked out the bathroom window at the dark winter afternoon. Every time you go out, even if it's snowing. He pulled up his hood and looked in the mirror. Feeling ridiculous was becoming a part of his daily routine.

They strolled around, chatted with shop owners, Graham said weird things to people, and Elliot smiled, feeling a bit like one of those caregivers who specialize in mental patients and know exactly how to deal with them when everybody else is at a loss.

When it started to rain, they ran home. Graham pulled him by the hand and hugged him as soon as the door was closed, patted the back of his head, and waited for him to catch his breath.

During lunch, Elliot kept looking up at the ceiling. Graham slapped him with the back of his hand. "It's not going to rain in here. Relax."

"I know that. I'm relaxed."

Graham laughed.

Elliot looked at him and noticed lines in the corners of his eyes, and thought he looked sad. You look sad, he wanted to say, but didn't.

When they sat on the sofa, Elliot put a cushion on Graham's lap and lay his head there. Graham rested his hand on Elliot's neck, started to move his thumb along his ear, and didn't turn on the TV.

"Where's Anna?"

"Busy with work." He didn't ask about Graham's girlfriend

Elliot fell asleep staring at his hand on Graham's knee and thinking about the "terrible secret" Graham once mentioned during a drunken conversation, something he would never tell anybody. He wondered about things like abuse (and that never came with any images, just the words in his head) and if maybe it was Graham who had done something terrible (like kill somebody, he thought, as if it were really not that bad). He also thought that maybe there was no secret, it was just Graham wanting attention. He hoped that was it.

Then he imagined himself very old and still wondering what Graham's secret was.

*

Graham had guests for dinner, people from the local Reuters agency. They were loud and seemed drunk even as they arrived. He announced that Elliot was his special guest and started telling anecdotes about each of them to entertain him.

Elliot didn't know what to feel, sitting there, in Graham's house, with Graham's arm around his shoulder in front of all those people. Sometimes he thought it looked like Graham was trying to get him back on that seesaw of will-he-won't-he from which Elliot still struggled to stay away, but then he thought it was kind of absurd to imagine that Graham would even need him as fodder for ego boosts. So Elliot relaxed against his chest and allowed himself to enjoy the attention.

In the morning, he dragged Graham out of bed and they went out for a walk.

After lunch, Graham came into the guest room and flopped down on the bed beside Elliot. He put a hand on Elliot's face and said, "You look better." Elliot decided to stop being a pouty child and admit that Graham was right, he did need to get out of the house.

*

"I'm going…away tomorrow", Graham said at dinner.

"You're going to Mombassa, Graham. I'm not a delicate flower."

Graham glanced up meekly, then turned his eyes back to his soup. "I'll drop you off on the way to the airport."

"Okay."

When Elliot got home, only the housekeeper was there, and he walked straight to his room. He lay down and looked at the ceiling and decided that the next day he would apologize to his mother.

*

Elliot moved the shampoo bottles a bit closer to each other, then a bit further, then back to their original position. He fiddled with the lights, trying to forget that it didn't really matter, his photographs would be tweaked beyond recognition anyway. This was not photography, this was producing raw material for his PhotoShop overlords, whom Elliot really did not welcome.

He cursed all that digital crap, wished they were still using film photography. It would keep his mind so much busier: there'd be lighting to be measured with old analogue light meters, crucial adjustments to be made, and then hours in the dark room with the smell of chemicals, images appearing magically on paper, sometimes just as you'd imagined them, sometimes completely different.

Elliot stopped midway between his tripod and the table of hair products. He huffed heavily, rubbing his forehead. He was too young to be longing for simpler times, simpler times that he had never even lived.

*

Elliot kept going over it, but he didn't understand why it happened. He was walking down the steps in front of the studio, there was snow, there was someone talking to him, he was bored and suddenly he was sitting on his camera bag, feeling a searing pain that rendered him literally speechless.

He'd broken his arm and his camera.

He spent two days high on painkillers, sometimes thinking of that actress with long dark hair he'd seen in a bad road movie. He had fantasies of fucking her from behind like the actor with a pornstache did in the film, except he'd look better doing it, and she'd be in a big bed with satin sheets instead of the filthy floor of a run-down motel.

*

Elliot slouched on Graham's sofa, his head thrown back far enough that he was facing the ceiling. Graham sat beside him and laughed. It was not supposed to be that cold in March. The windows were closed, and it was perfectly silent, only the sound of Graham's low chuckles subsiding, until he said, "Maybe you need an exorcism. This can only be the work of the devil."

Elliot squeezed his eyes shut and snorted.

Suddenly there was a hand on his forehead, and Elliot rolled his eyes even though they were closed, anticipating Graham's impersonation of an exorcist, made up phrases in Graham-Latin and all. But Graham didn't say a word. His hand was light and gentle on Elliot's forehead, and then it ran up to the top of his head, then again, many times, until Elliot realized what this was.

He was weak, disappointed, discouraged, so fucking tired that it was hard to care about what was appropriate or not. So he turned and looked, stared at the small, round eyes, the green barely visible in the grey light of clouds and pale skin, let his eyes travel down to the tip of Graham's nose, lingered on Graham's lips. Later, he would forget this, because selective memory was a matter of survival, but what he thought right then was that maybe he'd rather fuck Graham from behind, on a big bed with satin sheets or on the filthy floor of a run-down motel, who the hell cared.

Graham smiled and kissed him on the forehead. He then pressed his thumb on the space between Elliot's eyebrows and said, "Vade retro, Satanas!"

He looked terribly pleased with himself when Elliot laughed uncontrollably.

*

"Well, because it doesn't make much of a difference, you know, Serbians and Bosnians in Sarajevo, Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza, orangutans in Borneo. All apes. So it's a good place to start."

Elliot looked at him expressionless, as if he were busy trying to diagnose a mental disorder. Then he felt slightly annoyed, but managed to keep a neutral face as he retorted, "There are stories about orangutans raping people, you know."

Graham laughed raucously, then fucked off to the middle of the rain forest to camp in a makeshift research centre and start fulfilling his dream of being a wildlife photographer.

He was gone for months, during which time Elliot took pictures of, among other things, heartburn medicine (he ended up buying a couple of bottles), motorcycle helmets (no, not Harleys or anything, just helmets), sunglasses (oh, the irony), tampons (…), obscenely expensive watches (time is money, yeah? Well, he thought that was funny, anyway), and chocolate biscuits (the heartburn medicine came in handy after that session).

He studiously skipped Animal Planet and National Geographic whenever he was channel surfing.

And he liked orangutans.

*

Elliot never gave his relationship with Anna much thought. They'd known each other forever, she was sweet and smart and supportive but never tried to mother him. It was comfortable.

The sex was good too, though sometimes he came so quickly and quietly that he had to pretend he was still going, and was left with that annoying feeling of partial release.

He suspected Anna knew about his occasional escapades, so he never asked where she'd been when she disappeared some Friday evenings and showed up late, hair still wet from a recent shower. It also never occurred to him to wonder why they kept that up.

Elliot did laps every morning at the gym nearby. He had sex with one of the life-guards in an empty storage room whenever the opportunity arose. The man wasn't particularly attractive to him – one of those steroid types with air balloon muscles – but at least he got to suck cock and there was no small talk involved. Cock was kind of important in life, and going to bars and night clubs was usually more work than Elliot was willing to put in. Co-workers were out of the question.

It was all going fine until he ran into Jamie, an old friend from university. The boy was gorgeous, perfectly capable of keeping up with Elliot's weird sense of humour, and the two hours they spent flirting shamelessly were just delicious. By the time they made it to Jamie's apartment, Elliot was so dizzy with arousal that he ended up fucking him right by the front door, then in bed, in the shower, on the sofa. He didn't go home until the following night.

In a matter of days, they settled into a routine of veritable sex marathons after work. In a matter of weeks, Elliot grew tired of Jamie's lazy submissiveness – it had been such a turn-on at first, but then Elliot started to feel that whatever he wanted was fine by Jamie, all the time. Well, that was no fun.

But by then, Anna had finally taken matters into her own hands and broken up with him. It was better that way, even though Elliot was left with no one to fuck but the life-guard, which was kind of funny but totally depressing.