What woke Cameron up was Max's loud groaning. For once, he wasn't screaming, but as he thrashed on the other side of the bed, he moaned in his sleep like he was dying. Groggy, the writer sat up and rubbed his eyes before looking down at his partner.
The part of Max that moved the most was his head, swinging back and forth. Whenever he didn't sleepwalk, he had a seizure-like fit in bed. Cameron didn't know which one disrupted his sleep more.
"Aah, no . . ." cried the Aussie as he squirmed. "No . . . ! Cameron, don't . . . ! Nooo . . . !"
Cameron watched in silence. It was common for Max to call out his name like that during his night terrors. Though, it always made him wonder what he was doing in it to get such a reaction. Was he thinking about what he did to August, or imagining that he'd turned against him? He knew that Max always feared that; the day he'd see him as a target. If he was honest, Cameron had been waiting for that day for a while now. For some reason, it never came, though. The thought of murdering Max wasn't a pleasant one. There was too much to lose in killing him. Unlike August, Max was useful to him. Useful, like . . .
As he gazed at Max, he felt his face soften. As he threw his head about, his hair had almost changed styles. Now, it nearly covered his left eye. The darkness of the room made it seem darker itself, almost black. He'd always thought Max looked like his late boyfriend, Julian. But now, the resemblance was uncanny.
Uncomfortable, he pulled his eyes away. Did he feel more for Max than he'd felt for Julian? It was hard to tell—feeling in general was so new to him. He always tried to distance himself from it unless it was beneficial. Falling in love with Max was not beneficial. In fact, if anything, it was a liability. So, while he knew Max was in love with him (though he never said it to his face), he denied to himself that he was capable of reciprocating. He was a psychopath. Psychopaths were incapable of love . . . weren't they?
His argument seemed nullified by what he'd done the night prior after leaving the hotel room. Depending on how he looked at it, though, it was possible it helped it instead. The bag he'd left in the pocket of his blazer contained something he was rather unnerved by, if he was honest. Until he was sure of what he wanted to do with it, it would remain hidden away out of both his sight and Max's.
When Max's cries grew a little louder, he finally looked back at him. He knew the Aussie was suffering; he understood that. The difficult part was caring—emphasizing. When he was a kid, he'd tried to teach himself empathy through mimicry. When he was a teenager, he learned it couldn't be taught if it wasn't felt.
With a huff, he tried to think about what to do. Clearly, watching Max wasn't any help at all. In a few minutes, the Aussie might stop. But given his history, it was also possible he'd start screaming soon and carry on with it for an hour or more. The last thing he needed was for someone to call the front desk with a noise complaint.
"Stace . . ."
Cameron tensed for a second. Now that was a name he'd never heard Max cry out in his sleep. He'd almost thought the Aussie had forgotten about his ex-girlfriend by now. After all, he'd explained why he did it when it happened. Now, he realized he must've underestimated Max's sentimentality. Even if Stacey had cheated on him, he'd still been friends with her. So, he made sure to save him from that. Max had yet to forgive him for that good deed. Why couldn't he understand that he only did it to help him?
Well, perhaps that was a lie. He might not have done it if not for her being an obstacle. As long as she was around, there was always the chance she might take Max back, away from him. So, she needed to be dealt with. Cameron had much enjoyed murdering her.
Finally, an idea. The writer waited for Max to lower his arms. Then, he laid down again and reached his arms out. At first, Max struggled against the embrace.
"No . . . No!"
"Max, shh. It's me. I'm here." This would either make Max panic further, or would comfort him. He didn't expect it to be the latter. Which is why, when Max stopped fighting so hard, he felt a bit surprised.
"Cameron . . ."
Cameron moved Max's head closer to his chest, chin nuzzled into his soft brown hair. He'd always thought the Aussie smelled nice. Now was no exception. Fuelled by the pleasant scent, he continued to croon: "It's okay. Everything's okay. You're safe."
It took a few minutes for Max to calm and fall back into a normal sleep. Once Cameron realized the night terror had ceased, he hummed in intrigue.
"Should've tried that sooner," he mumbled to himself. Then, he closed his eyes and tried to fall back to sleep.
When he opened them again, he saw that it was light out. By the looks of it, the sun was only just starting to rise outside. So, he assumed it had to be around eight in the morning. The second thing he noticed was that he was alone in bed. Somewhat startled by this discovery, he raised his head. Max was already awake, sitting at the work desk by the window. He held the petals on one of the potted white flowers between his fingers, rubbing to feel their softness. Relieved, Cameron laid his head back down.
"Max," he said into the air above him. "You're up early."
The Aussie only hummed in response.
"Did you sleep well?"
"I feel unrested."
Cameron frowned. "Well, you can't win 'em all . . ."
"Nothing." He got out of bed and stretched.
"Who was Julian?"
He stopped. "What do you mean?"
"August said I look like Julian. Who was he?"
A beat of silence. "'Was'?"
"He said he's dead."
"So he did . . ." In his head, he cursed ever having let August open his mouth around Max to begin with. In retrospect, it might've been a good idea to gag him or something.
"You said his death affected you. So who was he?"
Cameron said nothing.
"Are you only with me because I look like him? Is that the only reason you keep me around?"
"No." He whipped around, now facing Max. "No, I have other reasons."
Max didn't look so confident in that answer. Frowning, he leaned his head against his hand. "Was he your boyfriend?"
Cameron looked away again. From the nightstand on his side of the bed, he picked up his phone. As he slipped it into one of his pockets, he said, "Get dressed."
Without argument, Max stood up and picked up his coat from the chair beside the one Cameron's blazer was on. His hair was still messed up from his night terrors, but now he looked depressed, too. The sight made Cameron's heart feel heavy. Purpose in his steps, he marched over to Max, who looked up at him. He didn't fight as the writer adjusted his hair, then grabbed the sides and puffed them out so they stood out with their normal fluffy volume. He must've noticed the way Cameron's brows knitted, because he didn't say anything at all.
"Stop looking so goddamned miserable," he grumbled before pushing past.
Max turned to keep an eye on him. "Why?"
"You look too much like Julian when you look like that. I'd rather see you, not him."
That both stunned and flattered the Aussie, but a few seconds later he got a grip and pulled on his coat.
Ten minutes later, he and Cameron were in the back of a taxi together, driving over a bridge. As they drove, Max looked out at Lake Zürich, rapt with awe. The dark blue surface of the lake seemed to extend for miles into the horizon. Despite the snow, the winter was warm enough that the water hadn't frozen over. Even as the taxi moved past, he could see the surface gently quivering from the push of wind. Soon, all he was able to see was the overcast sky as they passed by the lake completely.
"I can see why you like this city," he said as he corrected himself in his seat. "It's beautiful here." Then, a beat of silence before he asked, "Why don't you live here?"
Cameron shrugged. "Not having citizenship might have something to do with it."
"Right. I forgot that was a thing. Why not wait until you can get it, though?"
The writer looked at him. "Do you want to stay here?"
Max looked out the window again. Now, they were driving down a highway. "I mean, I guess not. I feel out of place here, in all honesty. I'm only wondering why you don't want to stay."
"I'm not sure. I mean, I could. Always could've. Chose to stay in America, though. A benefit of that was meeting you, though, so I don't regret it."
The Aussie looked to his left, at his partner. "You're being romantic again."
"Is there a problem with that?"
He smiled a little, looked away again. "No. It's unlike you, but I kind of like it."
The taxi stopped on a residential street of some sort. All of the houses were expensive-looking and at least two-storeys tall. Max wasn't sure which side of the street their destination was on, or even why they'd stopped there. When Cameron got out of the cab after paying the driver, he did as well. Back to the street, he gazed at the building in front of him for a long moment.
"Max? Over here."
He turned. Cameron was walking backward to the other side of the street, toward a white house almost as wide as it was tall. Though he wanted to ask why they were there, he held his tongue and approached as well. Finally the writer turned. Up the wooden steps to the front door he went. Then, he rang the doorbell. Max stood about a foot back, off steps. As he waited, he fiddled with his sleeve.
The door swung open a few long seconds later. Inside was an old woman, who looked to be over sixty. Her skin was pale, but marked by age and years of exposure to the sun. For an old woman, Max had to remark that she looked rather healthy. When she saw the writer in front of her, her weathered face brightened with joy.
"Oh, Cameron!" she exclaimed as she pulled him in for a hug. "What a surprise!"
Max watched with moderate surprise and confusion as Cameron returned the affectionate embrace.
"Long time no see, Dottie," he said.
"You could say that again, young man!" She laughed, a true pure sound. "Come in, come in!"
As she scurried inside, Cameron followed her, with Max, uncertain, following him. The first area of the house was a four-walled veranda sort of room, with big glass windows. There was a chair in one of the corners, near it a mat for shoes.
"Don't forget to take off your shoes before coming inside," Dottie instructed, as if sensing his eyes on the mat. "I see you've brought a friend." Her voice was cheery and chipper, happy to have company.
"Yeah. Right," Cameron mumbled. He glanced at Max, eyes cloaked somewhat. "Friend."
Max didn't quite know what to make of that. Am I supposed to agree? Is she against us being together like that? Well, I mean, she is old. The conventional old person isn't too open-minded towards what we do together, are they? Mute, he nodded.
Dottie opened another door and stepped into the main hall of the house. She took a few steps, past the staircase to the left and the doorway to the right, then turned back toward them. "Have a seat on the couch, dears. I'll be right back with the husband." She rolled her eyes, amused. "Men: always working on something. Today he's trying to build a birdhouse. Hasn't realized yet that he's blind as a bat."
Cameron laughed a bit, so Max smiled and made a small chuckling sound.
That explains the faint hammering noise outside.
The old lady went deeper down the hall before turning right. Once she was out of view, Cameron turned right himself, stepping into the living room. Max followed. The floor was covered by an off-white carpet, while the walls were pure white themselves. In front of the curtained windows was a widescreen television atop a wide stand. Against the farthest wall from them was a wide, white leather couch with decorative pillows on top of it. A matching reclining chair with a footrest was closer; beside that, a loveseat. In front of the couch was a black-rimmed glass coffee table. Most noticeable of all, though, was the decorated Christmas tree in the corner, beside the couch.
There was another doorway out of the living room, to the left. Looking through it, Max watched as Dottie hurried past the dining room, toward the sliding glass doors to the backyard. Past her, he could almost make out a man of the same age sitting on a bench outside.
Hearing the couch's leather as Cameron sat on it, Max looked away and stepped around the coffee table to sit next to him. He was silent for a beat or two.
"Chandler!" Dottie's voice was clear until she shut the door behind herself, at which point it became muffled. "Chandler, we have a visitor!"
"Huh?" It was a rather ungraceful response, more like something snapped by a deaf old fogey. Were he not so anxious, Max might've laughed at it.
Okay, that's kind of funny. Though he cracked a smile, he quickly hid it. Then, sitting rigid on the couch, he hissed, "Cameron, who are these people?"
"What do you mean?" Cameron whispered back. "Relax."
"No, I'm not going to relax! You've brought me to a random house with two old people and I don't know who they are!"
When he heard the back door slide open again, he snapped his mouth shut and sat even straighter. On the outside, he looked a bit uncomfortable. On the inside, he was in a full-scale panic. Two sets of footsteps approached until the old man from outside entered, Dottie behind him. Upon seeing the writer, the old man had a similar response.
"Cameron! Hey!" He held his arms wide. Acknowledging the cue, Cameron stood and hugged him as well. "What brings you here, son?"
"Oh, you know. Holidays. I would've come sooner, but I'll admit that the flight was last minute."
"We're just happy to see you, Cameron," Dottie chirped.
Once he was released, Cameron gestured toward Max. "Max, meet Dottie and Chandler, my maternal grandparents."
Grandparents? What the hell? He's introducing me to his grandparents all of a sudden?
Realizing he was about to miss an important cue, Max raised his hand with a small wave. "Uh, g'day." The two old people gave him friendly smiles.
"Dottie, Chandler, this is Max . . . My boyfriend."
"Boyfriend" shocked Max more than his grandparents. Either that, or they had become masters of their composure.
What? "Boyfriend"? We're . . . We're not . . . Does he see me as his boyfriend? The Aussie, unable to stop the warmth rushing to his face, stared up at the back of Cameron's head. His mind wouldn't stop running over the term. He doesn't lie often. Does that mean he means it? Am I his boyfriend?
"Oh," Dottie mumbled, then caught herself.
Chandler was the least surprised. "Eh, always suspected it." He stepped forward. "Stand up so I can shake your hand, Max."
Max snapped out of it (as much as he could) and stood up. The old man was almost shorter than him, though that might've only been because of his slouch. With a wrinkled, callous hand, he shook Max's with a firm but friendly grip.
"Great to meet you, boy. I'd like to say Cameron told us a lot about you, but this is the first we've heard from him in years," he explained through a grin.
"No need to rub it in," was Cameron's somewhat-bitter reply. "I'm here now because I thought it might be courteous to introduce Max to you." Cameron finally sat back down, so Max did the same. Chandler sat on the reclining chair, Dottie on the loveseat.
"How long have you two been dating?" asked his grandmother.
We don't date, Max wanted to say. Hard to do that when he more or less kidnapped me.
"Two years next April," Cameron answered.
Somehow, the conversation carried on like this for three hours. Max said little, only sitting on the couch as Cameron asked and answered trivial questions. The whole time, Max kept trying to come to terms with what his relationship with Cameron was.
He's never called me his boyfriend before. I was pretty sure he wasn't capable of seeing me that way. Sure, we have sex every so often and stay together, but . . . boyfriends? I feel like that's one step further than either of us is ready for. I still don't think I'm actually gay.
As he dwelled on this, some of the last words Val had said to him popped into his head:
"It's not love, can't you see that? It's Stockholm syndrome!"
At the time, Max had ignored his advice. For about a month, he thought he could keep ignoring it. But, as of late, it'd started to eat away at him like the deaths of August and Stacey.
Is it Stockholm syndrome? If it is, that might explain why I don't feel like I'm gay. But I had feelings like this for him even before he killed Stacey . . .
"What do you say, Max?" Cameron asked.
The Aussie glanced at him. "Sorry, what?"
"Do you want to have lunch here, or back at the hotel?"
He opened his mouth with the intent of saying "here", but hesitated.
What if he doesn't want to eat here?
Rather than risk it, he shrugged and flashed a nervous smile. "Wherever you want, Cameron."
"'Here' it is."
An hour later, after eating a lunch that Max zoned out through, they were in a cab again, headed back for the hotel. For the first five minutes of the drive, they were both silent. Then, finally, Max glanced in Cameron's direction.
"So . . . Your grandparents seem . . . nice."
The writer shrugged. "They're all right. I only like them because they're my mother's parents."
"As opposed to?"
"I'd hate to meet my father's."
"I thought it was your mother you don't like."
Cameron shook his head. Max took that in.
"Seems we both dislike our fathers, then. Funny, that we should, uh . . ." He blushed a bit. "Did you mean that?"
Quieter, so the taxi driver might not hear it so well: "That we're boyfriends?"
"Of course," Cameron said as he turned his head to look at him at last. "What did you think we were?"
Max shrugged. "I don't know. But, um . . ." Discreetly, he reached a hand out and placed it over Cameron's. "I'm not complaining or anything."
The writer looked down, then held it. He flashed Max a seductive grin. "Are you finally coming around to what I think you're coming around to?" As he asked this, his thumb rubbed the back of Max's hand.
Max considered this for a moment. With a coquettish smirk of his own, he teased: "No promises."