Never before had she felt so hopeless. She stared at him blankly, biting her bottom lip as he curled further into himself, seething as what was left of his nails clawed plaintively into his khakis. The only other sound was the rain scattering across the roof in what was normally a soothing lullaby and what was suddenly a melody of horror. “It hurts,” he breathed, pressing his eyes shut as he drove his head into his knees. “It hurts, Ann.”

“I know it does, love.”

No!” He ripped his head up, snarling at her. “You don’t have a freaking clue, and you know you don’t.” His eyes were severely bloodshot, as if turning red with anger, and Ann gulped before drawing in a deep breath and reaching toward him.

“Hey-”

He grabbed her arm tightly, and she winced at the way that his nails drove into her skin, just enough to press painful white half-moons into existence. “Shut up.” His voice shook slightly, mirroring his weak arm. “Just shut up! I don’t even want you here!”

“What do you want from me, then?” she whispered, falling to her knees in front of him. His bright blue eyes stared at her, highlighted by the sweat glistening around them. “Do you want to hit me? Would that help?” He ground his teeth, staring at her as if considering it before shoving her arm away and wrapping up in himself again. “I’m not leaving. No matter what.”

“I don’t want you here.”

She grabbed his familiar ankles, pressing her forehead against his shins, and breathed a faint phrase: “You do.”

“No,” he whispered, but she repeated herself over and over again until the articulation of her words blurred into a desperate reverberating plea, a sheer vibration against his shins. “You do. You want me here.”

He collapsed into shivers and she pressed a kiss against his knuckles. The darkness was punctuated by a sudden blast of lightning, and Ann pulled herself to her feet. “Look at me.”

“No.” His voice was stifled, desperate, and he burrowed so intensely into his knees that it would only be a matter of time before he came out the other side.

“Look at me.”

“No. Please don’t make me.”

She pressed her hands into his broad shoulders, feeling how they quaked. “Look. At. Me.”

“I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“I just can’t!” He desperately ripped his fingers through his hair, clawing at his scalp. “Shut up! Stop!

“What are you so freaking afraid of?” Ann pushed, nearly growling out the words. “Why can’t you look at me?”

“I don’t want you here! I make you filthy!” His voice finally broke, and he sobbed once into his legs before ripping his head back and slamming it loudly into the wall. “God! Don’t you even get it?”

“I’m not perfect.”

“You’re the closest to it that I’ve ever seen.”

Ann blinked several times before she settled against him, their knees meeting, and brought her hand against his cheek, feeling the soaked stubble. He groaned and desperately pressed against the coolness of her palm, desperate for feeling and love and the contact that he always refused from her. “Shh. Hush.” She drew out the ends of the words, purring out a soothing hum as her fingers explored the jagged arch of his cheekbone.

“Please,” he whispered, his eyelashes clumping into thick triangles as tears collected behind his eyes. He trembled so violently that Ann pressed her hand against his chest, almost desperate to force him to lay still.

Her thumb brushed against his bottom lip, so full that it seemed to be the only part of him to escape steady emaciation, and he sighed, warm air bathing her skin. “I’m not leaving you.”

“Please don’t.” He coughed harshly, repelling her hand as he flew forward in a fit of withdraw, and Ann captured his head the second that it slammed into her stomach. He seized her hips painfully, heaving out a deep sob, and Ann drew her fingers softly through his filthy oiled hair. The feathers clumped around her fingers, and he leaned into the touch even as his skin attempted to rip itself from his bones and muscles and tendons.

“I won’t leave you until you ask me and you mean it.” She could nearly hear the quill scratching against a contract as she murmured the words, her hand slipping to press against the tenseness of his quaking neck, but she found suddenly that she wasn’t afraid.

“Good,” he managed just before he pulled back, pressing his hands desperately into his knees. Ann curled up beside him on the shivering couch, wrapping her arm around his spasming shoulders as she drew circles over his spine and pressed her nails into his black t-shirt. The rain soaked into the ceiling and the walls, and she waited.

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