He didn't like to think about her, in the way dieters don't like to think about cheesecake, but when his mind grew quiet, she was there. He had been so pleased when someone had finally invented screen savers, because now he had something to compare it to, creeping into his idle time and taking over until nothing was more interesting than staring at the endlessly repeating starfield. She was the cause of more childhood punishments for daydreaming than he could count.

She rested warm in his memory, somewhere deep beneath, soft and warm in the way a woman should be. On cold nights he'd shut off his mind and let visions of her come to him, far-off and unbidden, until he was half-hard beneath the covers and sweating as heavily as he was breathing.

His fingers traced the wine-stain mark across his chest, feeling the power than hummed beneath there, that tied him to violence and immortality and choirs of angels he'd just as soon forget about. She was lucky; she could forget, had chosen to do so, leaving him along with the burden of a long memory.

It was a memory that recalled every aspect of her in perfect detail. Her eyes, wide and heavy-lidded as she looked upon him, realising each time anew that what she felt was, for each time the first time, lust. Her hair, miles and miles long, rippling out like waves from her as she lay stretched beneath hiim. Her mouth, lips full and full of promises, lower lip ripe enough for him to reach and pluck gently with his teeth. Her breasts, round and soft, enough for him just to stare at until she grew self-conscious and, not understanding what his eyes could take so long to see, turn modestly away.

His hand moved faster now, harder, tugging beyond his conscious control. He wasn't here, but lost in his memories of her, every time pale and perfect, every inch of her body angelic in every sense of the word. His hips jutted once, twice, not even moving the mattress enough to elicit a groan of protest from the aged box springs. After all, he'd had many years of practice learning to be quiet.

The Blue Flame

He is the blue flame, perfect and dispassionate, showing no hint of emotion in either countenance or body -- until the door shuts behind him, and he is alone in his quarters. Then he springs into action.

The probability that he might have to leave the Fire Nation at a moment's notice has hung like a sword suspended over his head since he returned from the failed siege to find his brother installed in power and his sister-in-law disappeared from the palace; though he neither fought nor questioned too hard either happening, a displaced prince has little home in the kingdom that once was to be his. He looks about the room, gauging that he has now fewer than ten minutes. Nothing that can bought, then, he resolves in the face of the time limit -- only things that cannot be replaced.

The rolled-up portrait and letter of Lu Ten that occupies the shrine in the corner comes first, without question. He rolls it tight and winds a ribbon around it, then tucks it into the sleeve of his robe. Three scrolls of philosophy from his shelf, originals given to him by dear friends now long-lost to him. His set of ivory pai sho tiles, taking care that not one but two white lotus tiles are numbered among them. A small lacquered box containing a delicate gold hairpin he'd given as a courting gift. A pair of short blades, both dull with disuse and heavy with dust. A circular black stone small enough to fit in the circle of his thumb and forefinger, warm to the touch and river-washed perfectly smooth. His favourite fuzzy bath slippers.

At last, he reaches under the bed and pulls out the bag that has nestled there, tucked in preparation for a day like this, since the hour of his return to the palace. It is small, a simple day pack, and he unrolls it atop his bed. Within it he places his collected valuables, not even bothering to spend the time checking the two items already secreted inside -- one, an antique, heat-damaged crown wrapped in a soft grey cloth; the other, a portrait no larger than his palm of a woman with a sad face and long, dark hair.

Those things taken, the room -- indeed, the entire Fire Nation -- has little more to offer him. He fastens the bag with two swift knots, then heaves it gently over its shoulder and becomes the blue flame again, stepping out into a hallway lined with guards and filled with a bustling court. They all fall silent as he approaches, and he looks at none of them, but marches straight through, and they part to let him pass.

He supposes there is no real surprise to be had when he sees upon his approach the tall figure looming at the docks, the sea-wind blowing his robes and hair, watching from afar as a company of nurses and attendants carries a stretcher onto a boat that looks old enough to have been part of Fire Lord Sozin's original fleet. He keeps his own eyes fixed neither on the man nor on the stretcher, but on the ship, a neutral ground that does not dredge up any feelings in him save slight resignation; those derelicts are not known for their creature comforts.

As he passes, he hears Ozai laugh, a sharp, short bark of geniune surprise at finding his brother here at this hour with bag in hand. "Where are you going?"

Iroh keep his gaze foward and wills the tremble of anger from his voice. "With him."

The silence he hears following him is tellingly murderous. "You can't come back, you know," Ozai calls, his slithering, soft voice now loud enough to be heard over the roar of the waves and the cry of the gulls. The air still holds the day's warmth, the red glow of sunset still lingering at the edge of the black night. "You'll be banished with him, for as long as he is."

The difference between fire and lightning is that the latter does not consume its maker. One cannot, after all, create the blue flame; one can only carve out the space where it should be, then stand back and wait as inevitability rushes in to fill the gap. Half his world on his shoulders, the other half already being borne silently into the vessel, he walks ahead with steady step and never looks back.


Near sunset on the eleventh day, Bato heard on the wind the heavy roar of the ocean, and he nearly fell to his knees and wept with sheer relief. He forced himself forward, past exhaustion, with all the obstinance of a Water Tribe warrior. Even if the beach was empty -- if, by some tragedy of timing, they had gone on without him again -- he could sleep at the edge of the surf, letting Mother Ocean rock her lost pup.

Before leaving the compound, he'd allowed the sisters to salve his wounds one last time, applying ointment over-generously before wrapping his still-tender flesh tightly. It had worked as best as it could to keep moisture in, but already he could feel the damaged skin beginning to dry and crack beneath the bandages. They'd given him a jar of the salve to take with him, and he'd tried applying some to his forearm, but had made such a mess of re-binding himself that he'd resolved just to leave things until he had assistance. That had been nearly a week ago; in that time, he'd found no other traveller or settlement on his path.

The road rose over a high pass, and he followed it dilligently. From the top, he could see first the ocean itself, painted red-gold by the setting sun -- and then, as beautiful a sight as he'd ever encountered, a dozen sturdy boats moored near the rocky shoals and a circle of tents surrounding a bonfire on the sand. Willing himself to proceed slowly, lest he fall, he made his way down the shifting dunes to the flat of the beach.

The first to see him was Qilaq, who sat high on the prow of the farthest ship, keeping watch and mending his bow. "...Bato?" he called from his perch. "Is it you?"

Bato did not trust his voice, disused for several days, to carry over the roar of the surf; he merely raised a hand in greeting and kept at his approach. Qilaq laughed loudly, turning to the camp. "Ho, men! Look who's blown in on the wind!"

By now he was close enough to see clearly enough the door to the largest tent's being whipped open, revealing a familiar silhouette which paused only a second before rushing toward him across the beach. With that, Bato felt all the strength drain from him, and he let his bag drop to the sand with a heavy thud.

He tried not to pitch forward too forcefully as strong arms wrapped themselves none-too-gingerly around his injured frame, but Hakoda held him fast as though he weighed no more than a child. He was dimly aware of a growing bustle from the camp, the collected noise of welcome from the other warriors, but even that seemed still distant. Strong hands knotted at the back of his tunic and in his hair, and he let his forehead bend low into the crook of Hakoda's bare shoulder, embracing him with all the strength his journey had left him; tears welled in his eyes and spilt down his cheeks, salty, like the sea.

"I'm home," he whispered into the harbour of Hakoda's soft, dark hair.


Bato hadn't really expected to find anyone else awake at this late hour, and as such was surprised when he heard a soft set of footsteps creep up the steps to the deck. "Hi," she announced softly, as though she were afraid of accidentally startling him.

"Good evening, Katara," he said, turning to favour her with a smile. "You're up late."

The night wind blew chill across the deck, and Katara pulled her Royal Fire Navy cloak tight about her shoulders. "So are you." She settled herself on the box next to his, tucking her legs under her, close enough for company without being close enough to touch.

"I suppose I am." Bato smiled, pulling at his topknot; it was a horribly uncomfortable style, and even though his sleek hair was arguably better-suited to the twist than were the coarser locks of his compatriots, it didn't mean he liked it any better than they did . "I couldn't sleep and didn't want to keep your father up."

At the mention of her father, Katara's face darkened, and she turned so he couldn't see her expression any longer. Katara had always been like that -- open and friendly on the outside, but with dark places you just couldn't get to. For all that she took after her mother, she'd gotten that straight from Hakoda. "Guess he needs his rest."

Bato pulled at his hair again, finally giving up and letting it fall loose about his shoulders; if they ran into any other Fire Navy boats at this time of night, he'd grab one of those ridiculous helmets and hope for the best. Really, though, if they ran into any other Fire Navy boats at this time of night, they'd have more serious problems than his hairstyle. "How's Aang?" he asked, changing the subject.

"All right." Her hands worried at the edge of her cloak, working the hem of the heavy fabric to fraying. "I mean, the same, which I guess is better than being worse. But worse than being better." She drew her knees to her chest, staring out at the sea, and he wondered how the ocean must feel to her, with all its vastness and wild power just beyond her fingertips. "I just ... wanted to come up and get a little fresh air, that's all."

"Well, it's a nice night for it." Bato leaned back against the crate behind him, looking up at the stars. "The Serpent is bright tonight," he added, pointing to a long line of bright stars that curled at the end like a tail.

Katara's gaze followed his, and she cracked a small, honest smile. "I remember the one you used to sing about the Serpent and the Water Spirit," she said, pointing to a V-shaped cluster of stars to the northeast that to the very imaginative might appear to be a man's upraised arms. "Even if Gran-Gran did have to tell me you made up the verse about stealing the Serpent's underwear and using it for a sail."

"Alas, you know all my secrets now," he winked, stretching his arms behind his head. He was quiet for a long moment, listening to the lapping of the water against the side of the boat and the unfamiliar grind of coal engines, before starting, softly, "For shame, said the Spirit, all our plans are at an end / unless the Serpent has something that can help us catch the wind...."

Katara, startled into a laugh that brightened Bato's soul just to hear, hesistated for a moment, then leaned close and rested her head against his chest, pressing her cheek just above his heart. He stroked her long, dark hair -- so much like her father's -- and sang to her until the regular rhythm of her breath told him that she'd fallen asleep, then simply held her there quietly as the stars turned and the great metal vessel sailed on through the night.

The Fire Lord's Wife

The blow came so quickly and landed with such precision that she would remember later hearing the crack of open palm against cheek several instants before feeling the blow or realising that he had struck her. The force sent her staggering back two full steps; she was mighty, to be sure, but he was also a man twice her size and more than twice her age, and she had never been struck like that before.

The guards around them came rushing forward, spears brandished, moving on instinct, but Azula held up one well-manicured hand to stop them, noticing that Zhao had made the same gesture as she at the same time, and the guards, well-trained as they were, halted their advance. "The Fire Lord's wife must know her place," he said, his voice low and gruff, meant only for her. It was a deep, pompous rumble that sounded like nothing so much as a bird puffing up its feathers to impress a mate -- nothing like her father's voice: egoless, emotionless, measured, cold.

She hesitated for only a moment, weighing every option, then drew in a halting breath as her widened eyes began to water. "Captain Zhao, I--"

"Your father has been too indulgent." He grabbed the hand she had lifted to still the guards, enveloping her slender fingers in his rough ones. His hands were overwarm, as one might expect any firebending master's to be; her fingers felt like ice in his grip. "I can, of course, understand his leniency -- after your brother's pathetic showing, which led rightly to his banishment, he allows you much greater freedom, to prove that you, at least, are not as weak as that coward. But I cannot imagine that gives you the freedom to be insolent to him, it most assuredly does not give you the freedom to talk back to me -- not now, and certainly not when I am your husband."

As he spoke, she kept her face a mask of contrition, eyes upraised, lower lip caught warily beteween her teeth. A single tear fell from the corner of her eye and roll down her injured cheek -- her left, like Zuko's, if she thought about it, and she thought often about it -- and she made no move to brush it away. "Please, sir," she said, choosing her words as though they were glass. "Forgive me. I spoke without thinking. It won't happen again."

Another man might not have been fooled by such a suspiciously quick change of heart, but Zhao's arrogance blinded him as effectively as a hood drawn over an ostrich-horse's head. Mollified, he released her hand from his grip and instead stroked her cheek, which was already beginning to swell red. "You're young," he smiled, "and there are remedies for youthful folly. Will you join me for a meal this evening, in my quarters?"

"I would be honoured, sir." She bowed to him as he departed and kept her face frozen long after, staring at nothing in particular, measuring each breath, feeling her pulse thrum in the side of her face, recalling intelligence reports, picturing charts in her head, plotting courses, calculating distances, and finally concluding the southernmost outpost could use a new commander at the Fire Lord's earliest convenience. Let Zhao think he'd won this round, then send him directly into the path of a banished prince and a blow of her own that he'd never see coming.

Steam Bath

The door opened, and Bato leaned into the cool draft that slipped in. "Where's Sokka?" he asked, eyes still shut against the heat from the stove.

"Aulan said he'd teach him how to carve out a canoe, and he thought that sounded like more fun than taking a steam with his old dad." Hakoda pulled the door closed tight behind him, hunkered down beneath the low ceiling. "No one else today?"

Bato shrugged. "Maybe they're all out carving canoes." The stove made the air in the small log room hot and dry, and words burned coming out of his throat. He pulled his hair away from his neck and uncrossed his long legs, careful not to lean against the overheated wooden walls. "Well, get on with it."

"You're so demanding." Hakoda crouched beside the roaring stove, swirling the ladle in the nearby bucket of water. He had already begun to sweat, and his naked body glistened in the light from the fire, smooth and muscular. He had been an attractive boy when they'd both been young, surely, but he'd only grown more handsome with years, and if his face had taken on a graveness with tragedy, well, it was becoming of a chief. He scooped the water from the bucket to the stove, and the room filled instantly with a hissing sound and white billows of smoke. "More?"

Bato shook his head. "I'm good," he said, breathing in the wet heat. He was warm enough already, and not particularly in the mood today to impress anyone with his capacity for endurance.

Hakoda nodded and put the ladle back into the bucket, then backed away from the stove to sit beside Bato. "You've been here a while," he said, running his fingertips over Bato's arm; his skin was mottled with the heat, a red lacey pattern, and Hakoda's hands looked dark by contrast.

"Waiting for you. It's a waste of water to steam alone." The contact was too hot in the already overheated environment, but Bato didn't pull away. "Besides, someone has to warm up the stove." He reached for Hakoda's hair, now free of its wolf-tail, drawing it away from Hakoda's face and neck. The twin beaded strands caught between his fingers, and he piled them atop Hakoda's head.

"How thoughtful," said Hakoda, letting his fingers wander from Bato's arm to his shoulder, then down his chest to the curve of his bare hip. His face was obscured by the heavy steam, but Bato knew the outline of his troublemaker's grin. "...Carving canoes, you said?"

"May I remind you that this is a public bath," said Bato, moving his body toward Hakoda's even as he spoke, "and that there are women and young children who will use this immediately after we do?"

Hakoda's fingers navigated a course to the soft interior of Bato's parted thighs. "Then it's a good thing we're planning to wash everything up as soon as we finish," he smirked, and Bato, who could never refuse his best friend anything under even the best of conditions, laughed into the wet air and lay back against the worn wood floor.


As though on cue, as the tall peaks of the Fire Nation had earlier that day begun to mar the flat line between sea and sky, a counterpoint of storm clouds had started to appear along the same western horizon. His skin crackled with the promise of lightning, a dry electric hum he'd felt since the previous nightfall.

"The military would have your back, you know," said Jeong Jeong from behind him, his gruff voice barely audible over the night wind as it ripped across the prow of the boat, fluttering their garments and tossing the waves against the heavy iron hull. "Every officer is loyal to you."

The salt spray landed against his skin, each droplet amplifying the lightning's siren song. Lightning's nature was to fill the void carved out for it; he felt as though he might be able to use the emptiness inside him to create a maelstrom to rival that into which their ship was sailing. "I would not wish civil war upon our nation." Jeong Jeong stepped closer and placed a comforting hand on Iroh's bare forearm, then withdrew it almost immediately; Iroh could feel the gentle burn linger in the place where they had made brief contact. "I have served with honour your late father, and would serve you with honour to the end of my life. But your brother has your late grandfather's madness in his blood, and I fear no civil war so much as I fear his ascendancy. There is still time before we make land, and our fleet numbers thirty, each vessel with a crew of--"

"No." Iroh's single word, though barely a whisper, brought them both to silence again. White lines of lighting threaded throughout the low-lying clouds, and as Iroh lifted his fingers from the metal bar of the ship's railing, he could see tiny trails of blue sparks in their wake. "I am moved by your concern, old friend, both for me and for the Fire Nation. In this dark time, your words have touched my heart."

Jeong Jeong's cold stare was nearly audible. "And yet you will not."

"I cannot," answered Iroh, staring out at the sea. "My family is--" His voice caught in his throat, and he patiently breathed the sea air in and out until the sentence's end had been cleared away. "I will not rip apart what little we have left of ourselves to demand a throne I never wanted."

"Then forgive me," spat Jeong Jeong, "but there are things as well which I cannot do." He turned, and the heavy tread of his boots across the deck receded into the night, until all Iroh could hear again was the wind and the sea. Alone again, he tightened his fists around the railing so hard his knuckles went white, straining his ears all the while for the first warning of distant thunder. Closing in on the horizon, gleaming with the docklamps against the coming storm, the Great Gates of Azulon towered like judgement.

The King of Bad Ideas

It had been five days, about ten hours, and surely a few minutes here and there since he'd told Jet he didn't want to see him anymore and stormed out of his tiny apartment into the night traffic. Not that Zuko was counting.

The worst part was that no matter how much of a hothead Jet could be, he also appeared possessed of a limitless supply of patience, as evidenced by how he'd spent nearly every working hour since hanging out around (or sometimes in, and that was worse) the tea shop. Zuko didn't talk to him, of course, didn't even interact with him more than to comply with the cup of tea or two he ordered daily, and how he was paying for those cups when he apparently didn't have a job except 'full-time stalker', Zuko didn't know.

It frankly made him mad. When you told people to fuck off, weren't they supposed to take it personally? Wasn't 'go away' one of those phrases that destroyed relationships? For not the first time, Zuko suspected Jet of selective deafness. How was he supposed to break it off -- for Jet's own good, no less -- if the idiot wouldn't even listen to reason?

He caught a glimpse of Jet's face in the window, casually loitering about the eaves, and began to shake with anger so badly that he nearly dropped an entire tea set; only reflex trained even deeper than emotion saved the whole mess from going front-first over the tray. "I'm taking a break," Zuko announced, a little louder than strictly necessary, and waved away all concerned looks from Uncle as he walked through the back of the shop to the door that led to the back alley, ostensibly to clear his head.

He wasn't really surprised when Jet was there, leaning against a stack of empty tea crates right by the door, and he wasn't really surprised either when he grabbed Jet's hair with strong fists and pulled their mouths together for a kiss that was more teeth than anything else. He could feel Jet laugh into the kiss, and it made him so angry that he just kissed harder, slamming Jet's body back up against the door to the tea house and hoping that Uncle would just think he was out here punching walls or something else completely unworthy of investigation. Jet grabbed hard to the sides of Zuko's hips, pulling their bodies together, and Zuko felt the hard-on he'd been fighting for those five days, ten hours, and change bump against a similar condition in Jet's pants Zuko could only hope had been plaguing him exactly as long.

Convinced that Jet wasn't going anywhere, at least for the minute, Zuko let go of his wild brown hair with one hand and brought it down to the place where their cocks rubbed together through fabric. "I missed this," smirked Jet into the kiss, and that just made Zuko angry again, furious at how stupid Jet could be to miss him when he'd been treated like this. In a fit approaching pique, Zuko withdrew that hand from their joined bodies, and snaked it instead beneath his own apron, through the joined material at the front of his coat, down his own pants, around his own cock, and to hell with Jet for being so stupid.

Of course, as most all of his plans tended to do, this one backfired spectacularly. "Looks like you missed it too," Jet teased as he kissed his way to Zuko's ear -- his bad ear, too, which made Zuko even angrier and harder in one confusing rush. "I missed the way you smell, the way you feel, how it feels when I'm inside you, fuck, I missed that the most." His voice was a careful, low murmur that Zuko felt as much as he heard, and if he missed a word or two, the meaning was dead clear. Shaking now, he became aware that he wasn't so much holding Jet in place anymore as holding himself up, and Jet's hands had landed steadying flat against his back. "I missed watching you come. I missed seeing your face when you do."

Zuko earnestly wanted to tell Jet just to shut the hell up, but he couldn't redirect enough attention from his cock to the portion of his brain that controlled words. He jerked himself faster now, leaning completely against Jet for support, his eyes shut tight and his lower lip caught between his teeth.

"I missed you so fucking much," Jet breathed against his skin, and now it wasn't a tease at all; now the complete idiot completely meant it. One of Jet's hands brushed up and down his back, comforting and overwhelming at once. "Come on, come for me, Li. Let me know you missed me too. Right here, come on."

No, thought Zuko, bound and determined not to obey Jet's orders anymore, much less give him any indication that their time apart might have been hard on Zuko too. Unfortunately, Zuko's body was a traitor not only to the entire Fire Nation, but to his own attempts at good sense as well, and he came hard into his own hand, burying his mouth against the bare skin of Jet's tanned neck as he did. The smell of Jet's skin, the taste of his mouth, the feel of his arms - he had missed it, more than he'd ever missed any comfort of home, because it filled a need more irreplaceable that material things. You could always get another bed, another set of clothes, another name, another city, another life, but there was only one Jet.

He'd barely recovered his senses and withdrawn his hand from his clothes when he slipped through Jet's grip and sank to his knees. Jet, that complete idiot, looked neither surprised nor reluctant at this gesture; he only smiled and wove his fingers through Zuko's short hair. Zuko's fingers unfastened Jet's pants with great speed and deliberateness, and nearly as soon as Jet's cock had slipped out from between folds of fabric, dripping and hard and just waiting for this, Zuko had swallowed him to the root.

For someone capable of making such noise and trouble, Jet could also operate with great stealth, and now, even as Zuko sucked him fast and hard, Jet didn't make a sound. While this trick had impressed Zuko in the past, it just infuriated him now, and he redoubled his efforts, bobbing his mouth up and down on Jet's cock with such intensity that he was certain he looked at least slightly stupid, but couldn't really bring himself to care. He slid his fingers in through the remaining gap in Jet's pants, taking Jet's balls in his fingertips and pressing at the soft skin behind them until Jet made a small gasping noise, which Zuko counted as a definite victory for himself. He may have been a complete virgin until very, very recent memory, but he wouldn't have gotten very far in life without being a quick study.

Despite how much he wanted to make this last, the realities of their relatively public location couldn't be ignored for too long, and his break couldn't go on much longer without meriting at least some investigation. Fortunately, Jet appared to have a grasp of the situation as well, and just as Zuko was about to let him go and tell him to hurry up, Jet's fingers tightened in his hair and pushed him deep. Zuko opened wide and let him in, let Jet come in his mouth and swallowed him clean. To hell with Jet for being right, to hell with him for everything, to hell with him for slipping in under Zuko's skin and becoming someone he couldn't do without. And to hell with him extra, Zuko thought, wiping his mouth clean on the corner of his apron as he tucked Jet back into his pants, for making Zuko like it.

Jet pulled him back to his feet and into a kiss all in one move, sticking his tongue deep into Zuko's mouth. "I like tasting myself on you," he grinned, nipping at Zuko's lips.

Now that both anger and arousal had been placated -- at least for the time being -- Zuko felt drained, and he let Jet gather him close. The blood that had so recently occupied his cock flooded back up to his face, pinkening his cheeks. "I should get back."

"Yeah, you probably should." Jet reached down and grabbed Zuko's ass, and Zuko made an exaggerated frown, and Jet laughed, and in that instant the world was almost perfect. "Come over tonight."

Zuko took a deep breath. "You should-- It's still not a good idea. To be with me."

And Jet, the complete indispensible idiot, just laughed again. "I'm the king of bad ideas," he winked, and he gave Zuko one last deep kiss before letting him go and setting off casually down the alleyway, looking absolutely composed. "Don't stand me up, or I'll just come find you again."

The hell of it was, that was the best news Zuko had heard all day.

Sokka's List Of Reasons Jet Sucks

"Nice night, huh?" said Jet from out of nowhere, and by the time Sokka recovered from having been startled so badly he nearly pitched headlong off the wooden platform, he had added moves around too quietly and sneaky-like as #63 on his mental List Of Reasons Jet Sucks.

"It's all right," grumped Sokka, who had decided earlier that a productive vent for his general irritation with the situation at hand would be to sharpen his boomerang. By now, the edge looked fine enough to split a hair.

Without prompting, Jet fell into a sitting position right next to Sokka, his feet dangling over the edge, close enough that their hips pressed against one another; Sokka would have considered making #64 just barges in uninvited, except it was already #29. Instead, he scooted an inch away. Jet grinned, that damn stalk of grass tucked in the corner of his mouth. "You excited about the mission tomorrow?"

"Am I supposed to be?" Sokka scraped the dwindling waterstone across the blade, enjoying the harsh grinding sound it made. With any luck, the sound would be so annoying it would make Jet go away. "You haven't even told me what we're doing!"

"What," Jet leaned in closer, "you don't trust me?"

Sokka exhaled between pursed lips. "You know what? No. I don't." He pulled his feet back up to the landing and stood, stuffing his boomerang in its sheath across his back and jamming the nearly dry whetstone into his pocket. "But I'll go through with this because Aang and Katara think it's the right thing to do, and because I hate the Fire Nation as much as you do."

Jet laughed in that cocky way he had, which had made the list early at #4. "You know? I don't doubt that." With a light spring, Jet was on his feet as well, one hand perched against the nearby trunk and leaning forward in a way that was definitely not sufficiently respectful of Sokka's personal space. At this distance (or lack thereof), Jet smelled like sweat and earth and metal, and it was a masculine scent that Sokka became instantly jealous of Jet's having. "They killed my dads, you know," he said, his voice dropping so low that Sokka found himself leaning in to make sure he didn't miss a word. "Right in front of me. Stabbed Pop with a dozen different swords and burned him down inside our house. Cut Dad's head clean off, while he was trying to run away with me."

"That's...." Sokka swallowed back a pang of sympathy that threatened to bubble up from his otherwise manly and impregnable heart. "I'm sorry, Jet." Against all his better judgment, he reached out and placed a hand on Jet's right shoulder, just beneath his arm guard.

"That's why I want to hit them back." A crazy little note trembled at the edge of Jet's words, one Sokka might have hated had he not heard it in his own voice before, when he spoke of how the Fire Nation had killed his mother. "I want to make sure what happened to you and me never happens to anyone else. You understand, don't you?" Jet took a step forward, and Sokka took one back in kind, except there was suddenly another thick tree trunk behind him, preventing further retreat.

And then Jet's hands were flat against that tree on either side of Sokka's head, and Sokka's fight-or-flight response had unhelpfully stalled out somewhere between the two, leaving him in a suspended, stunned state as Jet brought their bodies flat against one another. His teeth bared, Jet threaded a knee between Sokka's thighs. "Woah!" yelped Sokka, startled out of his stupor. "Bad touch!" He tried to push Jet away, but Jet had all the leverage, all the control, and Sokka was the meat in an unexpected Jet-and-tree sandwich. If you'd asked him that morning to name all the things he probably would not be doing at the day's end, this might have made the top ten.

Jet, on the other hand, seemed unbothered by the sudden change in proximity. "I can tell you understand," he said, bringing his mouth close to Sokka's ear, so close that Sokka could feel the brush of Jet's lips as they formed consonants. The heat and pressure involved set off a lot of alarms throughout Sokka's body, and the worst part was that they weren't all bad. "That's why I need you, Sokka. You're the smart one. I can count on you because you know why this is so important." If he'd been thinking just a little clearer, Sokka was certain, the List Of Reasons Jet Sucks would now be working its way well into the low eighties, and that was even with earlier additions to the list like too charming to be trusted and doesn't ever quite look you in the eye and keeps having a conversation after you're pretty sure he's stopped listening to you.

"Fine." Sokka finally managed to lift his hands to Jet's chest, though he stopped short of actually being able to push Jet away. "I get it, I get it, big mission tomorrow, woo-hoo," he said, trying simultaneously to sound bored and not to lean his hips into Jet's thick, powerful thigh. "But I'm still not doing this for you."

Like someone's striking a spark into a box of gunpowder, Jet's face lit up with a grin. "That's the spirit, Sokka," he said, patting Sokka's shoulder and stepping back as though this kind of casual contact happened every day, even when other people were watching, and boy, did Sokka's train of thought ever not want to pursue that particular avenue of contemplation. For making him think that, Jet deserved a whole other list. "I'll come get you first thing tomorrow morning!"

"That's ... great, Jet," Sokka said to Jet's retreating form, not even knowing if he was being heard anymore or if it even mattered if he was. "That's really super." He sighed and leaned back against the tree trunk, willing his body to relax muscles he hadn't even known he'd tensed. From his quick initial estimation of things, though, he might be there a while.

A New Dawn

Just as the sky began to pinken in the east, the first sign of day's breaking over far boundary of the city between the camp and the horizon, Iroh sat down atop the great wall, pressing his palms flat together. After a moment's concentration, he drew one warm palm away and pressed it to Jeong Jeong's shoulderblade. "How did you know?" smirked Jeong Jeong, who looked as though he might have been sitting there all night.

"Your arm is close to your body, as though it causes you pain," Iroh answered, willing the gentle heat seep into his old friend's joints. "It is not an unfamiliar gesture." Beneath his touch, he felt Jeong Jeong's muscles begin to relax. He was not trained in the therapeutic arts, but had seen enough Earth Kingdom masseurs placing hot rocks on stiff backs and sore shoulders to understand the principle behind it. "And also, Piandao told me I could find you here."

"Mm." Jeong Jeong's eyes remained shut against the dawn. "I trust he was pleased to see you again."

Iroh shifted his hand upward, toward the curve of Jeong Jeong's neck, pushing back his old friend's shock of wild white hair to get at the tanned skin beneath. He'd never felt so old as he did looking at the faces of men he remembered better young. "Oh, indeed. I gave him a nice new recipe for ginger tea, which should be ready soon." The first sunlight cracked over the great wall's far edge, and Iroh felt Jeong Jeong breathe in at the same time he did, reflexively, as though light were something that could fill one's lungs. "During my journey here, I thought of all the people I might meet again, and for all but three could I guess how, good or bad, my return would be received."

With another thoughtful hum, Jeong Jeong leaned back into Iroh's touch. "Your nephew being one of the enigmas, of course."

"Of course," answered Iroh. "I have my hopes, naturally, but if this were a game of chance, I would hesitate to bet on myself."

Jeong Jeong nodded. "Wise enough." The sun had risen more fully now, lighting the cloudless sky, and Iroh shut his own eyes against his glare. Everything looked different at this hour and this altitude, the kind of peace that seemed to come only at great distance. "And I trust I am the second."

Iroh found his voice suspended in his throat, and had to cough it free before he could speak again. "As I said, dear hopes and smart wagers are not often the same thing."

"It is nice to see that even at this advanced age, I have managed to retain some of my mystery." His voice was as gruff as it ever had been, but not harsh, and as he spoke the half-twist smile on his face broadened a telling fraction. "...And the third?"

A chill broke the flow of heat to his hands, and Iroh pulled back before Jeong Jeong could feel the loss. "She, like my nephew, remains to be seen."

Jeong Jeong nodded again, this time deeply, as though he were bowing to the dawn. "We should return and tell the ones who are waking up that you've returned."

"We should," agreed Iroh. The sun continued its slow arc upward toward midday, and neither man moved.


"Did you have a good time playing with Princess Azula?" her mother asked as she sat at the side of Mai's bed. In the distance, two nursemaids hovered, their clothes and expressions severe, waiting until the mistress' departure to attend to their charge.

Mai nodded, because she sensed that was the answer she was supposed to give. In truth, she hadn't thought much either way of the entire experience; Azula had been bossy, but that made little difference to Mai, who was accustomed to amusing herself with whatever pastime her caretakers decided was appropriate. By Azula's insistence, they'd played at Sparks and Daggers, which Mai's parents disapproved of, and that quiet disobedience had heightened the experience somewhat.

Still, this entire thing was important to her mother -- Mai could read it in her dark eyes, could see it in the way she fawned all over the princess in a way she never doted on her own daughter -- even if Mai herself really didn't know why.

Her mother pulled the pins from Mai's hair, untangling the twin buns that sat on either side of her head. "And did you see that Prince Zuko was there was well?"

Mai nodded again, and this time it was an outright lie -- she hadn't noticed the prince at all. She turned her head to the side and let her mother unfasten the second bun, wrinkling her nose as the fine hairs fell into her face.

"He's a very handsome boy," her mother said, tugging at Mai's long hair as she twisted it free. Mai preferred when the servants did and undid her hair, because they were gentle and knew not to pull, and she never had to bite back her complaints or hide her winces as she did now. Her mother's long fingers caught in a tangle, and Mai willed herself silent even though she couldn't stop tears from stinging the corners of her eyes. "He looks so much like his father. I'm sure he'll make a lovely young man when he grows up."

There was an edge to her mother's voice Mai couldn't quite read, so she nodded, because it was the answer her mother liked the best. "I want you to be good friends with Princess Azula," said her mother, reaching for an eagle-tortoiseshell comb beside the bed; Mai steeled herself, but her mother only looked at its patterns in the light, and never approached Mai's head with it. "She would be a very good friend to have. And if you married a prince, that would make you a princess, too! And wouldn't that be lovely?"

Mai had thought secretly about growing up to become many different things before -- a bodyguard, an herbalist, a professional yangqin player -- but had never considered becoming a princess, and from what she'd seen of Princess Azula didn't think she'd be very good at it. But a strange sadness had drawn deep lines around her mother's mouth, so Mai dispelled it in the only way she knew how: "Yes, Mother."

"That's a good girl," her mother said, stroking Mai's cheek with her long, tapered fingers. "My beautiful baby girl."

To Friendship

The celebration was going well enough, right up to the moment when Piandao challenged Jeong Jeong to an agni kai.

Jeong Jeong stared at him dumbly, his senses dulled by the sheer volume of rice wine he'd managed to consume that evening, a celebratory theft from the Fire Lord's liquor cabinets on the occasion of having finished their final round of examinations that year at the Royal Fire Academy. "You can't firebend," he pointed out.

"I don't care!" Piandao stood above him, hands on his hips, in a pose that would have been downright fierce had he not swayed with the weight of his drunkenness. He was two years younger than either of his friends, something which they had never held against him, especially since his marks tended to be better than theirs anyway -- though his youth did nothing for his tolerance. "I'll ... think of something."

"You could bring your sword," Iroh pointed out. "I would even set it on fire for you. That is what kind of a friend I am." He had been setting fire to things on and off all that evening, in fact, and was now encouraging a single flame to hop back and forth among a trio of candles.

Jeong Jeong rolled his eyes. "If you set his sword on fire, I'd just put it out again."

Iroh shrugged up at Piandao. "He's got me there. Here, have a seat and we can toast to something we haven't toasted to yet."

Looking dejected but mostly resigned, Piandao slumped back to the floor, stretching out flat along the rich carpet of Iroh's room and placing his head in Jeong Jeong's lap. "We've toasted everything already," he sighed, playing idly with a long jade pendant that hung around Jeong Jeong's neck. "We've toasted love, and friendship, and the Fire Nation, and each of our healths, and the sun, and the wind, and every girl in our graduating class, and half the boys...."

"Then there's always the other half." Iroh poured another round of rice wine into tiny white cups and set them at the edges of the table where his friends could reach.

Jeong Jeong took both cups between his long fingers, balancing one on Piandao's chest; it rose and fell slowly with each breath. "What shall we toast?" he asked, smoothing down the loose strands of hair around Piandao's forehead.

Piandao shrugged as much as he could without disturbing the cup, a sullen little gesture that might have been irritating in any other, but from him seemed somehow precious. "Not the other half," he muttered. "I don't like the other half. I don't even particularly like the first half."

"And that is why you will grow up to be a lonely old woman with only your five hundred lizard-cats for company," Iroh said. "I know! We can toast to friendship!"

"I told you, we already toasted to friendship." Piandao turned a scowl on their royal host.

"Oh, I think it's worth a second round of praise," said Jeong Jeong, raising the cup slightly above his seated eye level with one hand even as he drew the fingers of the other back through Piandao's soft hair, long since come loose of any mooring. "To friendship, so that when we are all thre of us lonely old women with five hundred lizard cats, at least we may still be able to put up with one another."

That won drunken laughter and vocal acclaim from his friends, and they all raised their glasses with a smile. Piandao sat up just enough so he didn't spill his drink all over his face, but as soon as he'd emptied the cup, he fell back down, pillowing Jeong Jeong's thigh beneath his cheek. Jeong Jeong played some more with his hair, marveling at how cool his non-firebender's skin felt beneath Jeong Jeong's always-warm fingertips. "...Why did you challenge me to an agni kai?" he asked after a moment, frowning.

Piandao shrugged again, drawing his knees a little closer to his chest, and he shut his eyes. "I like watching you work," he said, as though this made sense of everything. And, Jeong Jeong thought, in a funny sort of way, it nearly did.


"I was wondering," she said, drawing her long hair away from her neck, "why you never remarried."

The late spring sky had been cloudless blue that morning, so naturally she'd gathered her children and opted to take lunch outside, and when she'd passed him with his own son in the corridor, it had been only polite to invite them to come along on their family outing to a small meadow at the foot of a nearby peak. They sat atop a wide blanket on the grass, the remnants of lunch spread out all around them, never taking their eyes from their children as his twenty-year-old son helped her seven-year-old son and five-year-old daughter scale a nearby outcropping. At a safe distance hovered a retinue of servants, their hired eyes ever-watchful.

He laughed, not to suggest her comment was ridiculous, but to let her know he took no offense. "I have not been lonely, if that is what you are asking, and am little lacking for ... companionship, as it were." He took his cup of tea and blew across its surface to warm it again. "But I have been a widower for twenty years, and I have not in that time found the need to marry again. Really, I found little enough need for it the first time, but my father, well...."

She wrapped up a small platter of sugar cakes before the ants could find them and placed them back in the basket. "He insisted?" she asked, her voice soft.

Never taking his eyes from the children, especially now that her son was perched on a rather precarious ledge, he nodded. "I was not opposed, of course, and we were happy together. And she gave me my son, for which I am grateful every day." He reached for the teapot, and she, seeing that his cup was empty, took its handle first and poured for him. "Thank you."

"My pleaure." Following much tribulation, her son made it to the top of the small rock formation, and they clapped for him as he waved to them, smiling proudly.

"My father chose for me," he said after a long moment, "wedding his eldest son to the daughter of one of his most trusted generals, a good political match. Of course, he gave me the opportunity to make my own selection, but I said to him, there are so many beautiful women in the world, how do you expect me to choose only one?" He took a sip of his tea and frowned. "In hindsight, though, considering my mother, perhaps his judgment of women should not have been something in which I put so much trust."

She stifled a laugh into her sleeve, a proper noblewoman who knew better than to laugh at her departed mother-in-law, and smoothed her skirts across her lap -- a girlish gesture, but she was little more than a girl herself, barely six years older than his own son. "I remember my father brought me to see the wedding parade. He carried me on his shoulders so I could watch you both pass. I think I remember seeing you there, in your black uniform, and she in her great red gown, as the palanquin carried you both down the street."

The memory was a good one, and he smiled, closing his eyes as the warm sun beat down upon his face. "Did you imagine then you'd be in the same place someday?"

"Dreamed, maybe, but ... never really dared to believe. Not right up until it happened, really." Her daughter joined her son atop the rock, and they waved similar encouragement, though her ascent had been less fraught. She watched them all with a wary eye, trusting her nephew completely yet still ready to spring into action at the slightest hint of trouble. "...Was I also your father's choosing?"

"No." He shook his head, staring down into his tea. "No, my brother ... is a man of strong tastes, and strong will. He is prone neither to compulsion nor to compromise. He would have you, and no other."

From the corner of his eye, he could see her re-settle her hands in her lap, though her face was hidden from him by the curtain of her long, dark hair. "Then I am flattered," she said, and her words were stone on the still afternoon air.

An Interesting Piece of Salvage

He woke to the feel of a wet cloth on his forehead's replacing where another slightly less wet cloth had been previously, aware that he had a fever and that the walls around him were made of ice, the latter of which he was willing to attribute to the delusions of the former. However, he reached out his hand, and the walls wept water beneath his fingertips.

The less wet cloth swatted his hand away. "I'll thank you not to melt the walls of my home," chided an unfamiliar voice. Its owner, a white-haired man in a distinctive blue coat, stood and unfolded a seal-lion pelt blanket from the foot of the bed. "As I know you're capable."

Despite the pounding in his head, Jeong Jeong struggled himself into a sitting position. "Where am I?"

"As I said, you're in my home." The man placed a hand in the center of Jeong Jeong's chest and pressed him back down to the bed -- which, he was grateful to realize, was not made of ice. Still hazy, Jeong Jeong allowed himself to be settled down again. He'd taken off with the landing skiff just before they'd reached the Great Gates of Azulon, and no one had questioned such a high-ranking officer's action. He wondered how long it had been before they'd figured he had no plans to return, and if the search patrols of the Fire Navy had just been incompetent, or if Iroh himself had called off the hounds. "The patrols found your craft in pieces and you clinging to a shred of it," the man continued, crossing a room to a table topped with a pile of items, some of which looked quite familiar. "I had them bring you here."

The earlier comment about melting finally permeated Jeong Jeong's aching skull. "...Then you know what I am?" he asked, a low panic settling like a drum in his heart, heat unbidden pricking his fingertips.

With a smirk that could not precisely be classified as 'pleasant', the man stroked his moustache thoughtfully. "Let's see: you were found with the wreckage of a metal ship, the Ocean only knows how long you survived in freezing temperatures without so much as a hint of lingering frostbite, and you're currently suffering only minor effects from a fever Yugoda says would kill a man half your age. Oh, I believe I have more than enough evidence at hand to make an educated guess."

Jeong Jeong bowed his head, utterly defeated. "Then am I guest or prisoner here?"

"Neither." The man folded his hands inside the sleeves of his robes. "My speculations are my own; I see no reason to burden the members of my tribe with an old man's fanciful imaginings. At present, you are a patient; when you recover, you shall be merely an interesting piece of salvage, free to drift off as you please." With a shrug, he turned back to the pile on the table, rummaging through fabric Jeong Jeong recognized as his coat; he had torn all its regalia away and thrown the pieces to the sea. "It's a testament to the mercy of the patrols that they did not leave you where they found you, and a testament to your personal effects that I did not allow them to throw you back."

"What do you--" Jeong Jeong began to ask, but his question died in his throat when he saw the white lotus tile -- his white lotus tile -- caught between the man's thumb and forefinger. Its slightly scored enamel shone in the orange torchlight. "...And have I found a friend among the Water Tribe?"

"No," snapped the man, closing the piece tight in his hand. "A comrade, perhaps. But even the petals of the White Lotus have been scorched by the Fire Nation's flames of conquest."

"I am no longer of the Fire Nation," said Jeong Jeong, speaking the words aloud for the first time, weighing them even as they fell from his mouth. "I have become a deserter."

The man's mouth twisted for a moment, an unreadable expression that was gone as quickly as it had appeared, swallowed in the end by his ever-present smirk. "An interesting piece of salvage indeed." He gestured with his free hand, and a single thread of water lifted from a basin in the corner of the room, filling a previously unnoticed wooden bowl by Jeong Jeong's bed. "To your health, deserter."

Unsure of anything now but his thirst, Jeong Jeong lifted the bowl to his lips and drank, and the water was so cold that it burned in his mouth.

Sterile Conditions

"How is he?" Hakoda rose the moment the nun stepped from the door, concerned to find the corridor darker than he had remembered; he must have dozed off while waiting. His head felt a little foggy -- they'd given him so many things to drink as they stitched up his leg, one of them must have had some sedative effects -- but concern brought a sobering clarity.

The nun frowned at him. "Quite alive," she said, as though the man outside her door had been a fool for worrying over a worse fate. She removed her doctor's gloves and apron, neither of which looked to be stained with blood, which was another relief to Hakoda's troubled mind. "Not out of danger, though."

Hakoda winced as he moved his weight wrong on his injured leg. "What do you mean?"

"Burns are tricky things, and his are extensive." She touched the fingers of her right hand to her left wrist, then dragged them all the way up to the underside of her jaw. "By themselves, they pose little threat to his life. However, they must be cleaned and bandaged and salved extensively over the next several weeks, or infection becomes the greater threat. If wounds like his become septic, the patient's outlook becomes grim."

"Weeks?" The Mother Superior stepped from the same door the doctor nun had previously, wearing the same calm expression they must all have spent hours practicing, and Hakoda turned to her. "Mother, please, we don't have weeks."

"I'll make this plain: if you move him now, he will die," said the doctor, folding her arms across her chest. She had a pretty sort of pout to her face, the immovable kind that Hakoda knew well from years of marriage; better to argue against a glacier, as glaciers sometimes melted.

The Mother Superior placed her wrinkled hand on Hakoda's bare arm, just below his elbow. "Chief Hakoda, our abbey owes you much for your protection. If you and your men had not been nearby, the soldiers might well have destroyed much of our land. Your comrade may stay with us as he heals, and we will tend to his wounds with diligence until he is well enough to venture forth on his own."

His father had always called decisions like these two-headed tiger-sharks -- unavoidable, undesirable, and with teeth at both ends. What sat so hard on Hakoda's heart was not that the choice was difficult, but that it was too easy -- leave Bato behind, like they'd all left their families behind, continue pressing forward for the greater good. He wondered if sacrifice came with a line that must not be crossed, and in the same breath wondered if he'd know it when he saw it, or if he'd have to look behind him to find it. "...I'll discuss the matter with him."

"Oh, he's already agreed." The Mother Superior smiled, folding her hands into her sleeves. "Of course, only if his chief gave his consent."

"He's awake?" Hakoda made a move for the door, but the doctor nun intercepted him efficiently, a formidable roadblock even at nearly two heads shorter than he was.

"You're filthy," she said, frowning at his hands and clothing -- which did look as though he'd just fought a battle, but such was to be expected, considering that he had. "Did I not just say the words 'infection' and 'die' in nearly the same sentence?"

Stunned by her reproach and appropriately abashed, Hakoda stepped back, scratching the back of his neck sheepishly. "Mother Superior, doctor, I cannot thank you both enough for your generosity."

"Well, we don't often let men in our abbey at all, much less let them stay here, yet...." She gave a wise sidelong smirk to the doctor, whose stone frown softened almost instantly into a smile that she tried unsuccessfully to hide behind her habit. "Your tribesman seems to us all a man both of great honour and of little ... inclination, and as such we sisters have no fears about allowing him to remain among us."

Hakoda blinked at her for a moment, then caught her meaning and smiled. "Ah, no. You're all quite, quite safe." He pressed his fists together and bowed to them each in turn. "I'll ... go find some soap." With a heart both light and heavy, he limped off into the abbey, in search of a wash basin and a change of clothes.

The Pink Ones

The door to the cell slammed open, and the new warden -- a woman with the approximate dimensions of a small house, who had probably been hand-picked for the position by Azula -- stormed in. Mai didn't do her the courtesy of standing. "Leave us!" she barked to the guards, and they tromped out of the room, slamming the heavy metal door shut behind them.

The warden stared at the door a moment longer, as though they might burst in again at any moment, before crouching down to Mai's eye level. She placed a bundle of prisoner's rags on the floor, which still looked cleaner than the outfit Mai had spent the last five days wearing, unable to remove by virtue of being chained at the wrists and ankles. "You're being transfered. I'm going to undo your cuffs, and you're not going to give me any problem, or I'll slap them back on and you won't see daylight again. Understood?"

Though it took great strength of will not to spit in the woman's face, Mai bit down her pride and nodded. "Why?" she asked, surprised at how dusty and dry her voice sounded. She wasn't one to chatter anyway, but talking again made her realize she hadn't said a word since the first time the cell door had slammed shut. Alone, in near-darkness, she'd instead used the time to think.

"Your uncle saved my life once," said the warden, pulling out an enormous set of keys. She unfastened the cuff around one of Mai's ankles, and then, when a certain amount of time had passed and Mai had not attempted to kick her in the face, she unlocked the other. "I don't like to owe anyone anything."

Mai held out her hands in front of her, and tried not to sigh with relief as the heavy shackles tumbled to the floor with a clatter. "And Ty Lee?"

The warden nodded, and as she stood, Mai could see the ghost of a smile on her lips. "He said you wouldn't go without her. Get dressed and be outside in two minutes." She kicked the clothes toward Mai with her foot, then disappeared through the door again, shutting it so hard the sound rattled Mai's teeth.

With her ankles and wrists red from where they'd been bound, and her muscles sore from a lack of exercise, getting dressed proved to be something of a challenge. Mai knew she'd missed the deadline when a heavy hand began pounding on the door, and she hastily threw on her shirt before summoning all the strength she had left and giving it a good pound back. The guards opened the door and Mai stepped out into the bright corridor, her jaw clenched and her head held high, determined not to give them the satisfaction of seeing her defeated.

As she rounded the corner to a larger hallway, though, she nearly crumpled to the ground as she saw Ty Lee, seated cross-legged and flanked by three guards with fierce-looking polearms. There was no need for their caution, though, Mai could see, because Ty Lee carried herself as though she'd recently been beaten within an inch of her life. She had no visible cuts or bruises, but she held her body in a way that spoke of unseen pain, and she bore the same marks around her ankles and wrists that Mai did. Her hair was mussed and mostly loose of its braid, and long brown locks fell wild around her shoulders, framing her absent, slack expression.

And then she looked up and saw Mai, and it was as though someone had ripped a mask from her face -- or, Mai thought, like someone had slipped one on. Her glassy stare melted away, and her eyes grew wide with delight; she didn't jump to her feet so much as stagger there, but her trademark enthusiasm was behind the entire gesture, triumphant and contageous, and Mai had never before been so glad to see the most annoying person she knew.

The guards took their rigid posts at either end of the hallway, and Mai hurried to Ty Lee as fast as she judged she could go without getting someone's bladed weapon drawn on her. She held out her arms, and Ty Lee pitched into them, nuzzling her face into the crook of Mai's neck. Mai thought to point out that after five days of being unable to bathe, she was probably pretty filthy, but couldn't bring herself to give Ty Lee a reason to stop. "Some summer camp they got here, huh?" she joked.

Mai stroked back Ty Lee's filthy hair, trying to fight back the urge to hug her so tight her bones broke. "I heard Tigon Beat gave it four stars."

"Three and a half," Ty Lee corrected her. Mai could hear a drugged slur to her words; the guards had probably panicked and slipped sedatives in her food after they'd seen her take down Azula. "Half a star off for the tacky decor. Though I have to say," she added, turning up the volume so she could clearly be heard by everyone in earshot, her lips brushing Mai's bared collarbone as she spoke, "some of counselors are pretty cute!"

The guards around them -- all of whom were women, all of whom were rendered mostly anonymous by their ridiculous helmets and unflattering uniforms -- looked at each other with somewhat puzzled expressions, and Mai muffled a laugh in Ty Lee's hair. "Leave it to you to find the silver lining," she said quietly.

"It's my job," Ty Lee chirped. She locked her arms tight around Mai's neck and waved brightly as the crowds parted and the new warden stormed her way through. "Is it time to go to the festival now? Do we get to play the game where the little painted wooden turtle-ducks swim by and you get to pick whichever one you want and if you pick a right turtle-duck you get a prize? Because I'm really good at that one. Want to know my secret?"

The wardens' expression grew even sourer, which Mai hadn't thought possible, and Mai could have kissed Ty Lee for it. "You've been reclassified prisoners of war," she said, her voice ringing off the iron walls. "You'll be taken to the Imperial Prison near the capitol where you will be summarily dealt with."

Mai's mind did a quick accounting of the situation: the tower prison was closer to Azula than the Boiling Rock was, which was definitely a net negative, but on the other hand, as far as she knew, it wasn't equipped for state executions. Besides, the place was already crowded with foreign invasion troops, which meant the chances of her being separated from Ty Lee again had almost vanished. For the first time in her life, Mai found herself grateful at the thought of constant companionship.

Ty Lee laughed and clapped her hands together. "This'll be fun! We'll ride all the rides and eat shichimi dango, and I'll paint my toenails gold, and Mai says she'll ride one of the dragon boats with me!"

The warden frowned at Mai, as though to ask why her friend had gone so obnoxiously out of her mind in such a short period of time, and Mai shrugged helplessly. "What can I say?" she deadpanned. "She likes dragon boats."

"Take them away!" barked the warden, obviously having had enough of this nonsense for one day.

"Hey!" Ty Lee's hand shot out even faster than Mai would have thought her capable of in her state, and she beckoned the warden closer. Frowning, the warden took a step toward the girls, and Ty Lee sighed, waving her closer still. After several seconds' worth of waving and inching in turn, the warden reached a distance that was apparently satisfactory to Ty Lee, who then leaned so far into the gap between them that Mai had to tighten her grip around Ty Lee's waist and brace her feet to keep them both from tipping over. Ty Lee lifted a hand to the side of her mouth, and her voice softened to a conspiratorial stage whisper. "Always pick the pink ones."

Though the trip to the Imperial City was long and uncomfortable, every time Mai felt her spirits sagging, all she had to do was think of the look on the warden's face, and she smiled.


They found him in kneeling front of the palace, his forehead pressed to the ground as if in penance, or perhaps in prayer. Jeong Jeong looking to Piandao, because Piandao had always been the prudent one, and Piandao gestured him silently onward: go on, you've known him the longest. The others nodded their assent, and Jeong Jeong stepped forward until his feet came to rest in line with Iroh's shoulders, just before the smoldering Fire Nation banner on the ground.

Already he could feel the comet's force fading, its incredible power slipping away and leaving exhaustion in its place; his arthritic joints throbbed the way they did on cold mornings, a misfit chorus of creakings. While he knew the others did not ache with the comet's absence as they two did, he could see fatigue drawing their faces down, here as the tension evaporated at the battle's safe end. Pakku's scowl had deepened into a near-grimace, and even Bumi's customary manic grin was ragged at the edges. They were all demonstrably too old for nonsense like storming impenetrable cities.

"Well," Jeong Jeong said after a long moment, watching as the wind scattered glowing embers across the stone courtyard, "I think I need a drink."

Iroh laughed like thunder at that, sitting back on his heels, and Jeong Jeong was half-surprised to see that his cheeks, though sunken with weariness, were dry. "I should say we all deserve at least one."

That uncertain moment passed, the other members of the White Lotus' Really Old Guys Strike Force (as Sokka had once made the grevious error of calling them in their collective earshot) stepped forward to join their firebending comerades. "I hear tell that the Earth King has fantastic wine cellers," grinned Bumi, folding his muscled arms beneath his ill-fastened robe. "As the highest-ranking member of the Earth Kingdom nobility in the vicinity, I hereby declare myself regent and appropriate them in the name of the White Lotus. Ooh, maybe they'll even paint a portrait of me in the Great Hall."

"Then you'll have to do all the other governing, too, you know," Piandao pointed out.

Bumi hummed thoughtfully, a sour look squishing his mouth to one side of his face -- then brightened again, jabbing a finger into the air. "I'll summarily disqualify myself on account of being an inveterate drunkard and un-appoint myself sometime later this evening! It's a brilliant plan!"

"It's a wonder your civilization has lasted as long as it has." Pakku rolled his eyes, though his efforts to keep down his good humour were not entirely successful.

With an exaggerated scowl, Bumi summoned a pebble from the ground into his palm and flicked it hard, bouncing it right off Pakku's broad brow; the look of extreme indignation Pakku made as he clasped his hands across his forehead set the rest of them rolling with laughter. "Rock blocks water," Jeong Jeong quipped.

"Water smacks fire," Pakku snapped back at him, though by now he was smiling as well -- not his bitter little smirk, even, but his rare and honest, handsome smile. "At any rate, it's nice to see we haven't all been fried to a crisp, and I think I can drink to that."

Piandao nodded his agreement, resting his hand on the hilt of his sword. "Then I propose our first toast be to the world's not ending."

"The world doesn't end," Iroh said, pulling himself slowly to his feet; Jeong Jeong slipped a hand beneath his elbow and helped him stand, and when Iroh made no move to free his arm, Jeong Jeong did not let go. "But I will drink to having it stay the way it is for at least a little longer."

Bumi fisted his hands on his hips and cackled, throwing his head back to the sky. "Enjoying fine wine in the company of wise old farts such as yourselves may just be the highlight of my week." He set off first with his bold, flat-footed gait toward the palace doors, and they followed after him, smiling quietly at a shared victory that never looked back to acknowledge just how close they had come to destruction.

Kissing the Fire Lord

Two days before the Jasmine Dragon officially re-opened for business, Iroh was fussing about in the kitchen when he heard a knock on the back door. Despite the lateness of the evening and the fact that he was alone, he turned the latch, half-expecting to find some irate Dai Li ex-agent or grudge-holding Earth Kingdom soldier on the other side.

What he found instead was a green-clad bundle of young lady, her hair drawn into plaits down either side of her head, who looked at him with wide eyes and asked, "Did I really kiss the Fire Lord?"

"Well, he wasn't Fire Lord at the time," Iroh pointed out, gesturing her inside and latching the door behind her. "Unless you mean you kissed his father, which I wouldn't recommend."

Jin laughed and wrapped her arms around Iroh's neck, and he hugged her in return. He'd resigned himself long ago to never knowing how most of the stories he encountered would turn out, and thus was always pleased when the more pleasant parts of his past found their way back into his life. "No, just Li. Sorry, Zuko. ...Wow, that sounds weird to say."

"It is always somewhat strange to learn new names for old faces." There was a pot of jasmine tea on the counter, and though it had long gone cold, Iroh took two cups from the drying rack. "Can I get you some tea?"

"Oh, I'd love some, thank you." Jin ran her fingers along the marble countertops. "You know, back then, I wasn't just coming in because of Li-- Zuko. You really do make the best tea."

"You are too kind!" laughed Iroh, filling the cups. He took the more ornate of the pair and blew across its top until steam began to rise, then handed it to Jin, whose eyes were wide as she took it from his hands.

"Wow," she said, looking not at the tea but at its maker, a little smile playing at the corner of her lips. "I mean...."

Iroh nodded and heated his own cup in the same way. That was what he had missed during his months in exile -- being able to pour that last bit of himself into the tea, to bring it to life. "You mean, there is a difference between knowing something about someone, and seeing it?"

"Yeah." Jin sipped at her tea and smiled. "Like ... sure, I know he's the Fire Lord now, but I think if I ever actually saw him all Fire Lord-ed up? I'd ... well, I'd probably laugh. And get thrown in prison for laughing at the Fire Lord, or something."

Iroh chuckled. "If laughing at this Fire Lord ever becomes a criminal offense, I will be the first man jailed for it. Retroactively, even." He took another sip of tea, pleased that the cooling had not affected the taste, and set it on the counter. "I am always pleased to receive visitors for any reason, especially when they are beautiful young ladies, but you seem as though you have something on your mind other than my nephew's new position."

Caught, Jin sighed and stared into her tea. "I'd heard you were back," she said, "and that ... well, I heard who you were. Are. Were?" She looked at him, puzzled.

"A little of both, I think." Iroh shrugged and twirled his fingers, indicating that she should continue.

"Well. Anyway." She drained her tea in a single nervous gulp. "I mean, you're in the Upper Ring now, and I'm sure that you've got all sorts of experienced tea-servers just lining up to work for someone as famous as you, but I was wondering--"

"Do you want a job?" asked Iron, and as she nodded meekly, he broke into a grin. "Wonderful! You start tomorrow! We have many things still to get ready before we open."

Jin's cheeks pinked, as though she hadn't expected anything of the sort. "Are you sure? Really sure? I mean, I know we only met a little...."

Iroh reached over and placed his hand on her shoulder, feeling her relax beneath his touch. "There are many young women in the world who judge by appearances, and many more who judge by illusions. But you saw through to my nephew's good heart at a time when it was hidden even to his own eyes. I would be honoured to be able to continue the pleasure of your acquaintance, and this shop will be honoured by the presence of a young lady of such clear judgment."

"Then I accept," smiled Jin, and new employer and employee bowed to one another.

New Legs

They'd had to veer to the west to avoid a thunderstorm, so it was well past dark by the time the lights of the Northern Air Temple drifted into view, and the platform where they landed was entirely empty. "I guess it's past everyone's bedtime," Haru shrugged, searching for signs of life and finding none.

"Guess so," said Aang, jumping down from Appa's head. Haru untied his two large duffels from where they'd been tied to the back of the saddle, and Aang airlifted them to the ground as Haru slid down Appa's furry tail. "Hey, you mind if I go get Appa tucked in for the night? He's pretty pooped."

Haru shook his head, gathering a bag in each hand. It was impressive how well his whole life seemed to fit into such little space, with even room to spare. "No sweat. I really appreciate the ride."

Aang tossed off a little salute and a wink. "Thank you for choosing Avatar Airways, the only way to fly!" He hopped back up on Appa's head, and together they took off to the far tower, where Aang had convinced the Mechanist to preserve the sky bison stalls.

The tall spires of the temple rose against the cloudy sky, silhouetted by distant lightning. Alone on the platform, Haru seriously considered setting up camp right there, just erecting a rock tent in case the storm blew in before morning, leaving questions of lodging for the daylight. It wasn't as though he'd never slept rough before, and besides, it seemed somehow impolite to go nosing around through someone else's living space unguided, especially in the dark.

"I was wondering when you'd arrive," said an almost-familiar voice from a darkened doorway. "Guess Dad was right about the weather slowing you down." Haru turned to see a tall man walk forward -- though, really, walk was too generous of a word for it; he half-wobbled, half-rocked into each step, balancing himself with long poles that strapped to his forearms. He took two steps closer to Haru, three, four -- then pitched forward with a panicked, "Woah! Woah! Woah!"

He would surely have faceplanted hard, had Haru not lifted the ground beneath him in time to slow his descent, then rushed forward to gather him in his arms before he could fall the rest of the way to the floor. "Teo?" he sputtered, even though in the light from the courtyard's single lantern, the young man's identity was clear.

"Hey, Haru," Teo smiled, wrapping his arms around Haru's shoulders and letting Haru help him back to his feet. In the year they'd been apart, helping their respective fathers restore their communities' lives back to the way things were before, Teo's face and body alike had grown long, and a now thin trail of brown hair stretched a line from his lower lip down his chin. His voice had changed, not so much deepened as lost a touch of its softness, settling into a pleasantly rich tenor. "I wanted to surprise you with my new legs! ...I'm still not very good with them, though."

Haru drew back enough from the embrace to get a better look at the elaborate braces that extended from Teo's waist downward, which looked to be mostly large, curved metal bands held in place by compex series of buckles and straps Haru couldn't even begin to interpret in the darkness. "Wow," he said, and he meant it. "Did your dad make these?"

"Actually? It was mostly me." Despite having the poles at hand for ready support, Teo seemed far more interested in using Haru for balance, something with which Haru was having a hard time arguing. "I mean, I based it on some drawings he did, and he actually helped me put the stuff together, but they're my new legs." He gave a little hop, as if to show how well they worked, and winced as he came back down. "...Actually, I just use my chair most of the time. These hurt after a while, and I still fall down a lot. But at least I can manage stairs. Like, two or three, anyway. Hey, you shaved!"

"Yeah." Haru rubbed his bare chin. "Remember how I told you I was trying to grow a full beard like my dad?"

"Uh-huh?" Teo nodded. They'd exhausted a poor messenger hawk between them that year, ferrying letters almost constantly back and forth across the continent, and it had become an act of great discipline for Haru to allow the bird a full day's rest each time before sending it on its way with his reply. He'd accumulated about one letter a week, and all fifty had made this one last return trip with him, precious cargo wrapped at the bottom of his biggest bag.

"Well, it ... wasn't so great. He suggested I try again a little later." When you're thirty, in fact, had been his father's exact phrasing, accompanied by a fierce hug as he and his wife saw their only son off on the Avatar's sky bison, sending their little boy as a man out into the vast world. Haru supposed it was as sound a piece of advice as any.

Teo laughed, bringing up one hand to caress the smooth skin of Haru's jaw. "So, are you really here to stay?"

Haru nodded, tapping one of the duffels with his toes as evidence that he'd brought everything he owned with him, and drew his arms around Teo's waist. "Really," he said, bringing their foreheads together. It had been a hard decision, to leave his village and set out to make a home in a place he'd never even seen before now, but when he thought about not what but who would be waiting for him, the choice became clear. "...At least, until you kick me out. Or try to make me get on one of those crazy glider things you talk about."

That made Teo laugh again, and Haru breathed in deep, as though he could draw that sound inside of him for good. As fiercely as he loved the solid ground of his home and his parents, he'd returned only to find that his heart had left him behind, and that following it could lead to only one destination. "I missed you," Teo said, running the pads of his fingertips along Haru's jawline.

"Well, I'm here now," said Haru, who leaned back enough to look Teo in the eye and was somewhat tangentially surprised to find that Teo was very nearly his same height now. It had been too long indeed, and Haru resolved never to let it be that long again. "For good." And with a move he hoped was particularly suave, because it had been so long since he'd tried it and he wanted to make it memorable, he leaned in for the first time in over a year to kiss his boyfriend.


"All I'm saying, babycakes, is a lot of men take it up the ass."

As a matter of sheer self-preservation, Sokka located the closest soft thing he could find -- a pair of discarded pants, it turned out to be -- and nudged it awkwardly over his head. "This is me in my happy place. La la la, my very own happy place, where I can't hear you."

Toph smacked his butt hard enough for him to feel it all the way in his happy place. "Don't be such a baby. I've got plenty of lube." As if to prove her point, she dribbled a little trail of oil across his bare back, and he very manfully did not shriek at the chill or the texture. "You can leave the pants over your head, though. I'd say it's an improvement on your looks."

Even though he knew she wasn't serious, he tossed his head back and forth until he'd emerged again, just to spite her. He would have pulled them off with his hands, but his wrists were currently encased in rather efficient rock handcuffs, extended just far enough in front of him to maybe prop himself up on his elbows, if he wanted. His ankles were in similarly dire straits down at the other end of his body, pinning him face-down to the cold marble floor, and he didn't need her special earthbending senses to know that behind him, Toph was grinning like a maniac.

Then an ice-cold stone surface brushed the inside of his thigh, and this time he did yelp, jerking ineffectually against his restraints. "Did you just find that on the ground? That's not sanitary!"

He heard her disgusted sigh, and felt her warm body stretch out along the length of his, her heavy breasts pressing into his shoulderblades as she leaned forward. In her outstretched palm was a long jade object about the span of his hand from thumb to forefinger, though barely bigger around than his own thumb, beautifully carved with a ridged dragon design that curled around its cylindrical length from rounded tip to flared base. "Sokka, I'd like you to meet Long. Long, this is Sokka. He's kind of a whiner, but you learn to tune him out."

Admiring the exquisite craftsmanship of the object distracted Sokka momentarily from its intended destination. "When did you get that?" It was pretty frigid, especially for a dragon.

"Birthday present from Suki." She kissed him on the back of his neck, just beneath his hairline, then sat back between his thighs. "Now shut up or I'll gag you."

Possessed of no doubts that she would indeed do exactly that if he gave even an inch more protest, he sighed and let his muscles relax, resting his forehead flat against the floor. Toph smacked his ass again -- and oh, would he ever not own up to how much he'd learned to like that -- and sent a little trail of oil dribbling downward toward critical nether regions. Sokka squirmed, but held his tongue, and presently felt a pair of fingers press pointed between his thighs. "Don't worry," said Toph, her voice dripping with truly wicked intent, "I'll be gentle."

"It's not you I'm worried about," said Sokka meekly, glossing over the part where he doubted Toph had been gentle about anything a day in her life, "it's your dragon."

Toph clucked her tongue. "Oh, relax. He likes you."

Renewing his resolve never to wager anything again when Toph and alcohol were involved in any combination, Sokka sighed and -- with far more anticipation than he'd ever admit to, least of all to her -- prepared to ride the dragon.

Almost Home

Near the end of the eighth summer since she'd started walking west, she lowered herself over the edge of the cliff and down her rope; she swung twice and landed with a roll in the middle of the courtyard, much to the surprise of a group of kids who had been playing hide-and-explode among the great stone pillars. "Excuse me," she said to the closest, a scruffy little boy with a whalebone necklace, "but I've been told I could find the Avatar here."

The boy looked at his companions, obviously unsure about how much information he should divulge. "Avatar Aang is away," he said after a moment's consideration.

"I see." She dusted herself off from where she'd hit the ground, allowing herself to marvel at the structures. They'd told her about this place, of course, and spared little detail, but it was still a sight to behold. "Well, then, could you--"

"Mai?" A familiar voice called her name from behind her, and she turned to see Katara, hugely pregnant, moving toward her with admittedly impressive speed for her condition. Her long brown hair looked as though it had once all been piled atop her head, but had spent the entire day giving in to gravity. As she stepped onto the platform, the children all bowed to her, and she lifted a hand to them in return.

Taking her cue from the children, Mai placed a fist against her flat palm and bowed, trying to swallow back the sudden crushing feeling that this had all been a terrible mistake. "...I don't mean to intrude."

"It's no intrusion! Welcome!" Katara threw her arms around Mai's slender frame, then pulled back almost instantly, frowning. "Have you eaten? I mean, in the last few days?"

"I have." Suddenly self-conscious of how bony she'd remained, particularly in contrast to how Katara's curves had filled her out so beautifully, Mai shrugged and looked at her feet. "I was just passing through," she said, as though she hadn't waited nearly a week in the westernmost Earth Kingdom port town she could find for a ship that was heading this direction, as though she hadn't paid the captain triple to leave her with a small skiff on the landmass' easternmost shore. Boats had always felt like cheating, in a way, though she was practical enough to realize that no journey from Ba Sing Se to the Fire Nation could be made entirely on foot.

With a proud smile, Katara gestured to the children, who had emerged (mostly without exploding) from their hiding places to get a better look at their visitor. "We're just getting started, but we hope to have twice this many next summer. Which means we'll need twice as many instructors, but at least there's no shortage of people wanting to work for the Avatar." She took Mai's arm at the elbow, leading her toward the nearest central pagoda. "I'll show you where you'll stay tonight so you can wash up before supper."

She was trapped now, Mai knew, because there were few ways to escape from a situation like this under normal circumstances, and absolutely none that could be executed while simultaneously supporting a pregnant lady. "I really don't want to be an imposition--"

Katara swatted her arm, but with a smile. "Stop it. I haven't seen you in years, of course you're staying tonight. Besides, it's not like you can just walk over to the next mountain and find an inn." She brought her hand up and ran it over the top of Mai's head. "I almost didn't recognize you. I really like your hair."

It took Mai a moment to realize what Katara was talking about, a moment to realize that while she'd first taken a knife to her carelessly scorched hair nearly eight years previous, for Katara it might as well have been done yesterday. "It got in the way a lot," she shrugged, letting Katara mess up what little there was to mess. "And you. You're ... big."

"Two months to go!" Katara beamed, pushing open the door to a clean, fully furnished set of bare quarters. "She'll be our first. Oh, Aang thinks she'll be a boy, but we know, don't we, sweetheart?" She rubbed her protruding belly as they walked inside, letting go of Mai's arm long enough to find her way into a chair by the door.

Mai set her pack down on the bed and frowned at Katara. "I think I'd trust the opinion of the waterbender who has the baby encased entirely in fluid inside her body."

"See? You're the smart one." Katara rested her folded hands across her abdomen. "I don't know how I can make two more months of this, though. I mean, I'm huge already, and I'm just going to get bigger. You're going to come out the size of a octowalrus, yes you are," she said in the general direction of her belly. "Just as long as you don't have as many limbs as an octowalrus. Or as many teeth."

Mai slipped off her shoes and her light outer coat, revealing the mechanisms that attached her projectiles to various parts of her body -- not that she'd thought the Western Air Temple posed any danger to her, but by now she felt nearly naked without them. "When my mother was pregnant with Tom Tom," she said, unsure even as she did of why she was telling Katara this, "she looked miserable all the time. She never said anything, but you could tell. All the time, she just looked pained. Like if you gave her the opportunity to stop, she'd do it, in an instant."

Katara shrugged. "Well, it hurts! A lot, actually. But it's going to be worth it." She poked her belly. "At least, it'd better be worth it. You hear that in there? Your mama isn't raising an ungrateful baby!"

Mai couldn't help laughing at the way Katara acted toward her unborn child, how completely different she was from the way her mother had behaved under similar conditions. Mai herself hadn't had much occasion to be around substantially pregnant women, not before she'd left the Fire Nation or since, and it was somewhat encouraging to see one in such high spirits about the whole procedure. "I'm really glad to see you're doing well," she said, sitting cross-legged at the foot of the bed.

"I am," Katara smiled. "I really am. ...And how have you been?"

It was a question she'd not been asked that often in her life, and Mai had never been quite sure about how honest her response to that question was supposed to be. "All right," she said as she looked at her hands, figuring that as responses went, this was a good compromise candidate. "...It's been hard, sometimes, and a little lonely. But I'm glad I left. I wasn't for a while, but I think I really am now."

"Well," said Katara, "you're almost home."

Though geographically she'd known this to be true, there was still a mental gap between where she was an the city she'd once called home, and to have the proximity called out just made the prospect seem all the more distant. "...Maybe," she said after a long minute. "I mean, I don't know. There's still a lot of ground to cover."

With a nod that was more unreadable than most of her expressions, Katara pulled herself to her feet, stepping toward the door. "I understand, of course. Anyway, settle in and relax, and I'll have one of the kids come get you in an hour or so when supper's ready."

Unfastening the scabbard from around her thigh, Mai nodded. "Thank you," she said, already planning to put the hour to use for a quick nap.

"You're welcome." Katara started to pull the door shut behind her, then stopped, leaning against the door frame. "...You know," she said, turning back over her shoulder but not looking at Mai, "he misses you. He misses you, and he still thinks about you all the time. I don't want that to be any obligation, and I know he wouldn't want you to feel guilty about it, but ... I just thought that maybe you should know."

"Thank you," said Mai again, this time surprised to find how difficult it was to speak through the quiet lump that had grown in her throat.

The One Inside

He has dreams like this sometimes.

He'll be standing in some dark alley, the kind of alley you know was built just for these kind of foggy nights, with boxes that never held anything stacked along the sides, and garbage that no one ever used covering the floor. He stands there, trying to figure out where he is, even though he knows where he is, and knows, too, that the where isn't important. And then he hears a voice from the other end.

"I know you." It's his voice, it's always his voice, except he knows it's not a memory because the words have nothing left of the Irish lilt that he worked so hard to destroy. It does no one any good to run around the world sounding like one of the niggers of Europe. The world hadn't called them that back then, but the sentiment had been much the same.

"I know you," repeated, this time with dawning intelligence, as though the man at the other end of the alley might be faster than he is, smarter than he is, more capable of ripping his heart out.

He takes a step backward, not out of fear, but to regroup. That's all.

"Oh, no." His voice, again, but not his, closer now, though he hasn't heard anyone approach. "I know you. You stole it from me. I want it back."

"I didn't steal anything." This time the words come from his own throat, and they sound dusty and underused. "I only took back what was rightfully mine." He sounds uncertain. He doesn't feel uncertain, but his voice sounds weak. He wonders if that's a trick of dreams, that they cripple you so you never get control over them.

"You sound scared. That's not like you." He wants to say that he isn't scared, that nothing in the world scares him anymore, but he knows it's a lie, so he keeps his mouth shut. "I'll get you. I'll get it back. It's only a matter of time."

"You're nothing." His hands reach out among the garbage, among the boxes, looking for anything he might hold as a weapon. But everything is so smooth, so harmless. Nothing will break. "I've got you locked away. You don't exist."

"You don't seem so sure." The other one has a stake, has a long stake, long enough perhaps to reach him even from where they stand, too far apart to see each other's faces. "You don't seem so sure at all." Two steps closer, and the other is now in his face, and he can see every detail of every expression, but he doesn't know which one of them is real. The other puts a hand over his heart, beneath his jacket, cold flesh to cold flesh. "And that's all I need."

Every time he wakes, he finds himself wondering if the other one ever dreams of him.

Just the Messenger

That Damned Bell, as Giles had come to think of it, clattered as the door to the shop opened and a well-dressed, European-style man stepped inside. "Hello," he said, peering over a rack of various preserved amphibian parts that had just come in that morning. "Can I help you with anything?"

"Rupert Giles, I presume?" The man unwound his scarf, shaking out a hairful of snow, and shut the door behind him against the cold. "I have a message for you."

Giles had taken off his glasses and begun rubbing them with his handkerchief before he quite knew what he was doing. He had stopped sucking his thumb remarkably early as a lad, and figured this was his body's attempt to compensate for the lack of another comfort gesture. "Yes, I see. Go on."

Smiling a little, the man ran his fingers through his damp hair, smoothing it out in the store's dry heat. "A certain mutual acquaintance of ours wants me to tell you, and I quote, 'You can't keep a good man down.'" He brushed a stray trail of snowmelt from his Romanesque nose. "And he says he doesn't hold it against you, and looks forward to seeing you again in the -- not-too-near -- future."

All things considered, Giles took this marvelously in stride. "I see," he said, refitting his glasses to his face and pushing them about as far up the bridge of his nose as physics and anatomy would allow. "And you are...?"

The man held up his hands, one still carrying the grey wool scarf, the kind you could only really get in England anymore. "Just a messenger."

"I see." Giles pushed a jar of lizard tongues away from where it had been set precariously close to the shelf's edge. "And you came all this way to tell me that?"

"Not really, no. I was going to be in the neighbourhood anyway, and he asked if I'd stop by." He looked around, surveying the shop's contents with no small degree of approval. "...You wouldn't, by any chance, have good Solomon's Seal for sale, would you? I used the last of mine a while back, and I can't seem to find more anywhere."

"Of course." Giles shuffled helpfully across the shop, to a cabinet with several tiny, labeled drawers; he pulled out a glass jar and carried it to the sales counter. "No respectable magic shop should be without it."

The man shook his head sadly. "You'd think that, wouldn't you? Twenty grammes, if you would. Leave it to the New World to get sloppy with such things, when they're the ones who need it the most now."

Giles shook his head in kind, pouring out the crushed root onto a cold metal scale. "Regrettably lax of them. Twelve dollars fifty, please."

Black Magic Woman

"I'm right here, baby. It's okay. See? Everything's okay." Which was absurd, really, because 'okay' was something that happened to other people these days, if it happened at all. "Time to play that game you like."

Slayer strength was often a present help in times of trial, but was tragically only the barest match for the kind of power that bound Buffy's hands to the headboard. "Will," she pleaded again, "you really don't want to do this."

Her hand was clammy cold against Buffy's cheek, like a caress from a corpse, which was a sensation Buffy often wished she had only metaphorical experience with. "Oh, you always say that, and you always have a good time." Two black eyes looked straight at Buffy, but there was a chasm between looking and seeing a thousand miles wide. "Come on." Her lips, pressed to Buffy's forehead, were as icy as her hand.

"Will, please." She'd promised she'd stay calm, she really had, but she couldn't keep the note of panic from her voice. Panic made it difficult to think, difficult to work against the magical bonds that made it impossible to move. It was a full-body Chinese finger trap; the more she struggled, the tighter it held. And all she needed was inches.

Willow's lips worked their butterfly kisses down Buffy's face, nuzzling at the temples where her hair began. "Did you change your shampoo, baby? I like it."

Just a few more inches. The knife's silver blade lay only that far from her fingertips. If she closed her eyes, if she let herself relax, she might cut her own hand to pieces, but at least she'd be free. Thoughts flashed through her head of white tiles, bruises, a bathrobe, a shower, and how much she'd wished she'd had a knife a hair's breadth from her grasp back then. How easily it would be, one swing, one smooth stroke, and Willow would--

Her skirt slid up around her hips as Willow knelt between her legs and kissed her bared belly. "I love you, baby," she said, her words air against terrified skin, and she meant it. "I love you so much. So damn much." Fingers traced little glowing patterns against her body, ones Buffy wasn't even certain Willow was aware of, beautiful and delicate, reminding her of the henna Tara had detailed on her hand once, laughing together as her Slayer skin rejected the pigment so quickly. "I'm never gonna let you go. Nothing's gonna happen to you. Not while I'm here with you." There had been so much love. Even when it had gotten bad, it had only happened because they had loved one another so damn much. "See? I've got you."

All the fight ran like water from her bones. It would be all right. She wouldn't bruise this time. You always hurt the ones you love, they said -- but she wasn't the one Willow loved, in the end, so maybe it would be all right. She closed her eyes and abandoned her struggle for the knife as grave-cold fingers found the center of her warmth and pressed inside.

The Dark Age

Ripper will realise later that not knowing where his clothes are is one thing, while not caring where they are is quite another. But that won’t be for another several hours at least, and right now he has more pressing matters to attend to. Like Ethan, who is pressing against his cock. Certainly that demands some attention.

The Mark of Eyghon sears against his forearm, up to his shoulder, down his chest, turning into the overheated body of the man leaning over him and grinning like the moon as Phillip’s arms wrap and up his body. Or are they Thomas’? He seems to have lost track of where everyone has gone. Perhaps to the same place as his clothes. Ah, yes, that explanation makes a lot of sense. He resolves not to think about it. Are those Diedre’s hands knotted in his hair? Likely, as no one else carries that ever-present scent of lavender.

But it’s Ethan whose location is certain, Ethan who has positioned himself between Ripper’s legs and is fucking him on the stone floor, smudging to pieces the chalk pentagram they’d spent an hour getting just right, Ethan whose eyes shine with the residual heat of heavy magics. It’s Ethan who’s the star of this makeshift bacchanal, the one whose turn it was tonight to let the demon ride him, the one on whom all their magic-hungry eyes are trained. But Ethan has eyes only for him, and Ripper doesn’t know if it’s the demon or his old friend who digs fingernails into his hips and spreads his legs wide, thrusting into him with a slow, steady force the effects of which Ripper will start to feel about the time he starts worrying about his clothes.

Ah, there’s Thomas, resting his cheek against his hip, taking Ripper’s cock into his eager mouth, moving his tongue in a way that makes Ripper reach for the nearest solid objects – Diedre’s hand and Phillip’s thigh, it seems – a move which inspires Ethan’s grin even wider. “You like this?” he asks in a calm whisper that, though perfectly audible, seems to be only for Ripper’s ears.

Ripper nods. He can’t not. It’s the truth. He gets off on the magic, on the danger, on the kink of being fucked by a demon. They all take turns, of course, sharing the experience around, but whenever it’s Ethan’s turn, he picks Ripper, regular as clockwork. Ethan never says anything about it before or after. It’s just the way it is.

“Then why don’t you come for me?” And Ripper does, into Thomas’ waiting mouth, feeling the tattoo on his arm burn electric, like a gasp of air, and somewhere in the haze of it he may or may not choke out a name.

Ghost Physics

The first indication that Spike's recent predilection toward incorporeality would be a serious problem was when Angel got out of the shower and found Spike sitting jovially on his bed, waiting for his return. "Mite girly yelp you got there, mate."

With a growl, Angel reached for the towel he'd thrown carelessly on the floor and wrapped it selfconsciously around his waist. "Spike," he spat, in the way you'd say the name of the vegetable your mother always made you eat even though you hated it. "What the hell are you doing hanging around in my room?"

"Oh, don't get all testy. I just hoped we could have a chat. A little boy talk. Just like the old days." His tremendously chipper clip did nothing to alleviate Angel's suddenly foul mood.

Without turning his back to the vapourous intruder perched at the end of his mattress, Angel crossed the room and picked a pair of pants from the bottom drawer of his dresser. "Can't you make an appointment like any other semi-rational hominid?" He saw Spike's head turn attentively, watching him as he dressed, and he sidestepped behind a nearby chair. "And what -- would you stop that?"

"Stop what? I'm just looking." Spike's smirk was pure innocence. "I thought you might have had your willy bronzed for the good of all humanity, s'all."

Angel paused, mid-zip. "I plan to quadruple the budget to the science department, so Fred can find a cure for this walking-through-walls problem of yours, so you can go back to being solid, so I can throw you out the window of my office and watch you burn to charcoal on the way down. It'll be a party. We'll take pictures."

"Now that's right magnanamous of you. I'm certain she'll appreciate the extra cash, Freddy girl, what with all the hard work she puts in for you. Down there in the lab, slaving away over a hot Bunsen burner -- I'll tell you, it's like being barefoot and pregnant, how you've got her down there. 'Cept not so much with the pregnant, and she does have those little red Keds..." Spike's voice lost much of its power as he saw that Angel was looking at him not with annoyance, but with blatant curiosity. "What're you lookin' at?"

"I was just wondering," Angel said thoughtfully, pushing a strand of hair from his forehead, "why it is you can walk through walls and pass through people, but don't fall through floors." His eyebrows furrowed deeper. "Or my bed."

There was a very small pause, followed by a quiet, "Oh, bloody hell," and then Spike was gone, leaving only a slight disturbance beneath him on his way.

Angel shrugged and went to his closet to find a shirt, somethig comfortable, perhaps in a serene blue. Despite initial evidence to the contrary, today was shaping up to be a lovely day.

Special Cigarettes

"And then it said on the news that these two people had been killed in their home, and I thought, shit, that's so fucked-up, you know? And it was near where a friend of mine used to live, but she moved because her dad got a job in Australia, but her mom made really good rice, I mean, this rice was fucking great. And you think, hey, rice? What's so fucking great about rice? It's just, you know ... rice. But it was the best rice I'd ever tasted. It was just ... so white. You know?"

Nobuto took the pillow away from his face and squinted against the room's only light. "That's great."

"I mean, I like rice. Sometimes I eat it out of the fucking cooker." Kaz righted himself briefly, only to lose his balance as his arm gave way and he pitched forward onto the bed. Over the course of the evening, he'd taken off his own shirt and put on one of Nobu's, and it hung off his slender frame. "I mean, I just get a fork and then I stand there, and I'm eating rice just plain like that, or sometimes I get it and I put it in a cup, and put whatever's in the pantry on it. Like, sometimes there's peanut butter, and then there's sesame seeds, and they actually taste kind of alike, you know? Have you ever put peanut butter on your rame?"

"No." Nobu cast a sinister glance at the joint's remains, which had taken their place among their brethren in the glass ashtray beside his bed. This is all your fault, the look seemed to say.

Kaz picked at the hem of the shirt, which was half-buttoned and one buttonhole off besides. "You totally should. I mean, I know it sounds fucking gross, but there's this great sort of crunchy shit going on, and the peanut butter doesn't get too soggy, and then maybe you put an egg or something with it, and I like Ritz crackers, if my mom's got 'em in the cabinet. And you spread those around, and they kinda float, and then they get all wet and they sink--"

"Look, if you suck my dick, will it make you shut the fuck up?" Nobu reached down and unfastened his jeans, then slid them off his hips to reveal a pair of ratty boxers and the gentle rise of his cock -- still mostly soft, but more than willing to contribute to the very worthy cause of stopping Kaz from talking.

Indeed, it gave Kaz a moment's pause. "...Sure!" he said brightly, reaching into Nobu's shorts and drawing out his dick, which appeared to be slightly more interested by the attention. "...Hey, maybe we could see if there's some peanut butter in your cabinet, and then maybe there's some soba or something, 'cause I'm really kinda hungry--"

With more force than was strictly necessary, Nobu forced Kaz's head downward, stuffing his cock right in Kaz's mouth, and things were quiet, at least for a little while.

Taking Requests

"I stopped believing in God when I was three." John staggered unsteadily against the piano. "Didn't make the sodding bugger more likely to leave me alone, what."

The pianist took this mostly in stride. "It happens," he shrugged, modulating effortlessly into a lovely arrangement of 'Piano Man,' tune made even more lovely by its near-unrecognisability. /P>

John took another drink from his whiskey, crunching a piece of ice between his teeth and spitting half the cube back into the cut crystal class. "Three and a half, maybe. Even beat out Santa Claus. But not the Easter Bunny, eh? I was onto him when I was two, what." He looked particularly pleased with himself, an expression that arguably had nothing to do with the fact the man smelled like a garbage dump and looked like he hadn't had a shave in days. /P>

The other customers looked askance at the scene, but Lucifer played on. It didn't do well to tell old acquaintances what they could and couldn't do; and besides, if this scene reflected poorly on anyone later on, it would certainly not be he. "You are indeed the clever one." A cigarette smouldered in his ashtray; it was John's. He picked it up with his left hand, performing an impressive arpeggio with his right all the while, and had taken a drag and put it back down before the bass was even missed. /P>

"I don't even think I believe in you right now." Lonely ice cubes rattled at the dry bottom of the glass -- his third glass, to be precise, all three of which would go on his tab. There had been an altercation several years back, and John had always paid his bar tab promptly afterwards. "Poncy bugger. Stinking quitter! Bah. Of all the God-awful places in the world to go, why here?" /P>

Lucifer shrugged again, smiling thoughtfully. His skin was miles thicker than John's drunken insults. "When your point of comparison is Hell, any change of venue seems like an improvement." /P>

John nodded, conceding the point by lifting his glass, when suddenly he turned and heaved the contents of all three drinks, plus that evening's dinner, behind the heavy red curtain. Lucifer rolled his eyes; he'd have to flag down Mazikeen and get her to take care of that fairly immediately, and the dry cleaning would be going on John's tab besides. A few notes transitioned prettily to 'From Clare to Here,' and he heard John moan; cruel, perhaps, but for causing such a scene and throwing up on his stage, the bastard deserved it.

Half a Face

She’d begun to think of Mazikeen as having half a face of late, though it was ridiculous, especially when she considered that Maz had more of a face now than she’d had in the cellar of the bar. Beatrice wasn’t exactly sure what to think of that, but didn’t think they’d reached a point in their relationship where she could ask questions like, ‘So, were those your exposed brains I saw that night?’

No, they were at the point in their relationship where communication was accomplished mostly by grunting (that was Mazikeen) and soft pleading (that was she), and occasional post-coital requests for water (those were all hers) and inquiries as to whether or not that needed a bandage (Mazikeen again). All conversation was post-coital, really, because otherwise Mazikeen either wasn’t there, or was there and on top of Beatrice, pinning her to the bed and sinking tiny, sharp teeth into her neck. She’d had a boyfriend kind of like this in college, except he’d been totally fucked up at the time. Mazikeen was totally fucked up, but in a completely different way.

For instance, she managed to leave claw along the insides of Beatrice’s thighs with fingernails that didn’t exist. That was pretty fucked up. Or the way she had a dream about a snake crawling inside her as she sat and watched, only to wake up and to find nothing but Mazikeen’s tongue tracing patterns across the small of her belly. Though she wasn’t sure how much of that she could blame on Mazikeen, it was still fucked up.

Or the way the light from the candles fell on Mazikeen’s face, the way she kept her left side in shadow, the way it looked artificial. Like a prosthetic face. Except that was ridiculous, because who’d ever heard of a prosthetic face? Even in that Tom Cruise movie, it was just a plot device. The poor little plot device, becoming a movie star without ever knowing it wasn’t real.

What a shame.

There was a mouth against her mouth, and hands between her legs, and she thought there had been someone at the tent’s open door, so she tried to grab the sheet and pull it across her body, but it wasn’t there any more, and whoever was at the door could see her bared body. Didn’t Mazikeen care that someone might be watching them? But Mazikeen wasn’t naked, so Beatrice supposed it didn’t matter much to her. There wasn’t much to be modest about in full plate armour, after all. Not if you were Mazikeen. Not if you were the most beautiful woman in the world.

So she let herself concentrate on that, the hair that smelled like oil and leather, the hands that felt soft and dry, the muscles that slipped beneath tanned skin; let herself close her eyes and whisper what she wanted without even knowing what she said; let herself forget the figure at the door. She had probably imagined him there, anyway.


As much as he hated to admit it -- and boy, did he hate to admit it -- Bigby had actually gotten to like looking human. Well, he wasn't nearly as handsome without all his fur, and had didn't know how anyone managed much with teeth that blunt, but at least it was just a glamour that, like all other glamours, came off when necessary. Like, say, when eating a big juicy steak.

But at times like this, spread out naked on his bed, arms tucked behind his head for a makeshift pillow, he had to admit that it was okay. For starters, he wasn't that bad looking as a human – a little hairy, perhaps, for Snow's taste, he could tell, but not enough to turn her off, which was all that really mattered. Good thin she didn't really go for the smooth, hairless type. He'd do a lot of things for love, but a full-body Nair job was going a little too far.

He sometimes thought she’d make a pretty wolf – a prettier wolf than he did a person, at any rate; Jack wasn’t shy about telling him what an ugly mug he had. But it was hard to think of Snow being anything but beautiful, no matter what. She’d be sleek, with soft black fur, the kind of bitch you could bring home to mother, but still wild enough to be exciting…

Ah, that was another thing a human body could do better than a wolfy one.. He’d been so distracted thinking of Snow Wolf that he didn’t even really notice what his hand was doing until it was pretty much too late. Or that was his story, anyway, and he was sticking to it.

He was pretty thick, and he wondered if Snow liked her men that way. After all, being able to smell someone’s sorrow wasn’t exactly an infallable window into that person’s sexual preferences. Still, he could hope. She had such tiny hands, and she was always complaining about how cold they were. Well, about now he had somewhere real warm she could put them.

Oh, that was a very good thought.

She was small, true, but sturdy; he didn’t have to be afraid that he might break her. And she smelled really good. And those hips beneath her skirt, the way they moved, were just the right size for … well, for lots of things, really. And the way she said his name when she was angry at him, the sort of half-growl half-yell that made him think of a lot of things unrelated to anger, and her cranky little frown, and the way she chewed on the ends of her pens when she didn’t think he was looking, and the way her hands were never cold when they touched his--

Dammit, his chest hair was all sticky now. With vague thoughts in his mind that maybe that full-body Nair idea wasn’t such a bad one after all, he got up off the bed and lumbered toward the shower.

Wire, Briar, Limber Lock

The greatest insult about being trapped in her current state is not the state itself, but being trapped there. She can concede that the matched face has its advantages, and would have long before having it forced upon her, but the Basanos’ power has rendered it immutable, and that is a combined insult and handicap most grave. Whether or not she will keep the face when all is said and done is entirely beside the point – she merely wants the choice regarding whether or not to do so.

Her mother had taught her long ago by example that you don’t need genitals to fuck, and Lucifer has proven this true time and again above and beneath her in bed (she has none of her mother’s qualms about such things; her service is absolute and voluntary; he is not her husband). All immortals with power, in fact, have at least a modicum of choice regarding their appearances, something Elaine is discovering along with the territory of semi-godhood.

Mazikeen pretends not to notice as Elaine curls in next to her, pretends to continue sleeping even though they both know this to be a lie, for what kind of watchman would Mazikeen be if not awakened by such a disturbance? “I couldn’t sleep,” she confesses against Mazikeen’s ear, pressing her little bud-breasts against Mazikeen’s powerful bicep. She chooses to look this way, the girl does, chooses to appear as she did when she died, whether out of nostalgia or simple familiarity, Mazikeen does not know. For someone so grown up, Elaine is still so very young.

“Are you cold?” Mazikeen asks. There are certain formalities to be observed in situations like these, and one is the pretense that even the clumsiest seduction is graceful enough not to appear as what it is until a critical moment.

“Mmm,” answers Elaine, lifting one of her legs across Mazikeen’s belly and gasping softly as the soft, hidden area between her thighs rubs against the hard leather of Mazikeen’s armour. “Could be warmer.”

Mazikeen senses that her disinterest has much to do with the eroticism of the situation, and does not yet move to accommodate Elaine’s body. “I could rebuild the fire….” A few feet away, the fire flickers high again. “Or you could.”

Girlish fingers seek the side of Mazikeen’s face, the damaged side, the heretic side, coming to rest at the corner of Mazikeen’s deformed mouth. “You look nice like this.”

“To you,” Mazikeen responds, and she is surprised to hear the bitterness in her voice.

“I – I’m sorry,” Elaine stammers. Her hand draws back, and she moves as though to pull her body away, stopped in this retreat only by Mazikeen’s powerful hand on her thigh, moving up beneath her skirt to where the laced edge of her underwear cuts a half-moon across her hip. “Mazikeen, I –”

Mazikeen doesn’t want to hear any more. She presses her mouth against Elaine’s, feeling her way through the kiss with her broken lips and too-hidden tongue, making peace with her frozen shape for a little while.

New Wineskins

“I haven’t told anyone this,” Daniel says quietly, drumming his fingers against the stem of his crystal goblet. Every impact sings a tiny crystal song in the dim room. “Can I trust you to keep a secret?”

“Of course you can’t.” Lucifer’s features look even more leonine than usual in the firelight. “Don’t ask questions to which you already know the answer.”

This seems to unnerve the pale man, who has yet to perfect the art of being the Lord of Dreams while simultaneously looking comfortable in human skin. But such things are necessary concessions to reality, even in the certifiably most unreal nightclub in Los Angeles. “But I—”

“You can trust me not to dissiminate the information recklessly,” Lucifer amends, lifting his glass of a full-bodied Romanée-Conti to his lips and taking a slow sip. “You know that will have to be good enough.”

Daniel nods and pushes his hair from his eyes. He tucks self-consciously at the end of the couch, pulling his knees up to his chest, managing to keep himself as far away from Lucifer as possible while still sharing the same piece of furniture. He looks so young, far younger than his predecessor ever had, even back at the beginning. “I know we have a history.”

“We do.” The light makes Lucifer’s amber eyes sparkle. “However, I consider all accounts there settled. If you bear me ill will, it is your prerogative to do so, but I find I cannot be so bothered.”

This seems to settle Daniel somewhat, and he turns his star-eyes to the fire. Finally, he takes in a deep breath and lets it go. “I don’t know if I can do this.”

“Whatever do you mean?” Lucifer raises an eyebrow, continuing in his long tradition of never asking a question to which he does not already know the answer.

Another drink, and Daniel puts his glass on a small oak sidetable. “Being someone I’m not. Or being someone I wasn’t. Being the same and not the same.” He frowns at no one in particular. “As though I woke from sleep in a house where I’ve never been, and yet still know that someone has come in while I slept and rearranged all the furniture.”

“You’ve always had a vivid imagination.” Lucifer leans closer, and Daniel finds that he has nowhere to go. “You and your predecessor. It’s a frivolous trait. But not a completely useless one.” A smile lifts the corners of his mouth. “You could always quit.”

The look that crosses Daniel’s face as he turns to look Lucifer in the eye indicates that this has never even been a possiblity. “...I can’t.”

“Of course you can. Your brother did it.” Lucifer’s voice is low and golden. “I did it.”

A long moment passes, and Daniel finally turns again. “I’m not you,” he admits with a soft smile.

“No.” A log snaps in the fire, sending a shower of sparks up the chimney and into the night. “I suppose you aren’t.”

BBC 2548

"It's almost starting!" Apollo leaned over the back of the couch, tapping the remote against his knee. "You're going to miss the opening credits!"

"Shut up, Dad!" Jenny called from the other room, before emerging with a tub of ice cream under each arm. Midnighter followed behind her, dressed in sweatpants and a tight t-shirt; he'd just recently returned from Kuala Lumpur, and had a terrible case of hood hair. Jenny vaulted over the cushions, landing smack dab in the middle of the couch, forcing her fathers to migrate to either side. Apollo was given the tub of double mudslide, and Midnighter, when he sat down, the chunky monkey.

Apollo turned up the volume a few notches, where the BBC-34 announcer was still nattering previews over the credits of the previous show (Seaquest: Altantica). "I still can't believe it exists," said Midnighter, shaking his head and preparing to fight Jenny for the best chunks of banana. "I mean, it only took the Carrier six months..."

Jenny frowned and made a clever jab; Midnighter fended it off with ease. "Infinite means infinite. Every universe exists. This one just--" she made another feint, which was countered with Midnighter's spoon, before settling down to eat with Apollo, who was better at sharing, "--took a little longer to find."

The commercials started wrapping up (there was one for the DVD re-release of Red Dwarf: The College Years, which Midnighter had never seen before in any universe), and Midnighter put his feet up on the coffee table. "An infinite number of Torchwood runs somewhere out there, and this long to locate one that isn't complete and total shit? That's not a good sign."

"Hush, you," said Apollo over Jenny's head. Jenny was concentrating on quadrupling the mini marshmallow content of the double mudslide quart, which was impressive considering there weren't mini marshmallows in double mudslide to begin with. "It's starting."

As hard as he might try to be a grump about it, Midnighter couldn't help settling down as the episode opened and five beautiful people sauntered forward in the rain and the fog to investigate the mysterious murder. Each was completely naked except for a flowing black trenchcoat and somewhat inexplicable pink galoshes. Though he didn't see any other improvements thus far on the dozen or so other versions they'd had the Carrier pipe in from the Bleed, he had to admit that the co-starring role John Barrowman's tremendous wang had apparently been given would singlehandedly make this iteration more watchable.

After a few minutes, he 'accidentally' left the chunky monkey unguarded near his knee, and arrived just a few moments too slow to stop Jenny from pilfering some. Apollo smiled and let his arm drape across the back of the couch, and Midnighter took his hand, absently brushing his love's knuckles with his thumb.

Filthy Assistants

"You know," sighed Yelena, taking the cigarette from Channon's hand and bringing it to her own lips, "I don't have to put up with this shit. I was valedictorian. By a lot. Lots of people would give me a job. Fuck."

Channon leaned over the side of the bed and scrounged around for a hairbrush. It was such a pain finding anything in this dump. No matter how hard she tried to keep it clean, if anything, it just got worse. She suspected it was Spider's aura, leaking onto everything. Like some fungus. Some really gross liquid fungus. "So, why don't you just quit?"

That prompted about the bitterest laugh from Yelena that Channon had heard in a long time. "Oh, yeah, right. He'd, like, meet me at the door or something, bowel disruptor in hand, screaming something about the downstairs neighbour's toenails and swearing he'd haunt me naked through my dreams. No thanks." She lit another cigarette of her own and stuck it in the corner of her mouth. Some days just one wouldn't do it.

There was the hairbrush, hibernating under a discarded sheet and some unspecified goo; she pulled it away and began to rake it through her hair. "Why not? I did it. Felt good, too."

"Yeah," Yelena said, lighting yet another cigarette and placing it directly between Channon's lips, "but you came back."

"I guess." Channon hadn't seen fit to put on a shirt -- or, really, anything else -- and her breasts bounced every time she hit a tangle. "It's kinda like a train wreck, you know? Like a really bad one, the kind you have to slow down for on the off chance you might see a hand or somebody's stomach or something."

Yelena shook her head and ground out the first cigarette in the ashtray beside the bed. "Yeah, maybe." She sighed and pulled the sheet a little closer to her neck. It wasn't that she was modest, per se, or even that self-conscious; she knew that she was adequately proportioned -- it was just that Channon's portions were so much more adequate. "I don't know."

Channon laughed and tugged the sheet away. "What, are you cold?" The temperature in the room was cloyingly warm, as Spider had decided to punish them all by skimping on the cooling bill this month, after the girls had thrown the party with the Eskimo strippers and the live polar bears last month. Everything had been going well until one of the polar bears had smoked Spider's last cigarette. Some offenses are just unforgivable.

"No." Yelena crossed her hands over her breasts, trying to look irritated and mostly failing. Her hair fell in her eyes; she needed the brush almost as badly as Channon had.

Rolling her eyes, Channon took the cigarette from her mouth and exhaled, clouding air that would be recycled completely sometime in the next four minutes. "If I turn off the light, will you come here?"

Yelena's eyes flickered to the lamp. "Maybe."

Spider Jerusalem's Thanksgiving Prayer

Dear God:

On this fine Thanksgiving, we pause to remember those less fortunate than us. Those who saturate their bodies with helium and spend a few perilous hours as living floats in the City's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Those who celebrate the season by measuring how much canned cranberry sauce they can stick into their bodily orifices. Those whose testicles Alastair McDookey over at McDookey's Turkey Farm will remove when he catches them attaching battery packs to decapitated turkey bodies to watch them run around. Those who cover their bodies with tinfoil and stand atop buildings for the annual Who Wants To Be A Lightning Rod? competition.

In this election year, we give thanks for our democratic process. Never mind that it almost elected a duck to the senate in Michigan before it was discovered that a pro-avian group had hacked the electronic voting boxes; if that had happened, that duck still would have served her country well. Never mind that three million short people in Florida were disenfranchised when they found themselves unable to reach the screens on voting machines designed by people who found that taller people tend to vote for the incumbent; next time, they'll know to wear taller shoes. Never mind that we leave our national decisions up to a populace of whom a greater percentage watched Sex Puppets XIV: Floofy Does Frankfurt than the debates; I've said for years more people would pay attention to the American political process if the candidates got to rape each other up the ass with vegetables every time someone said the Magic Word.

Never mind that it re-elected a spineless little turd, a drugged-up fratboy who stuffs the extra-jumbo socks down his pants every morning, a pathetic weasel who masturbates over casualty reports while his new Secretary of State spanks him and calls him a bad boy (and I have pictures, God, if You'd like them), the only president who's ever been the victim of an assassination attempt by a pretzel. Never mind that the Opposition Party's alternative needed to be jumped by a car battery before he gave a speech and subsists entirely on the intestines of his grassroots supporters. That's democracy. It's like a sewer. You get out what you put into it. Except with a worse smell. And other peoples' bodily fluids. And other peoples' bodily solids. And the occasional mutant alligator. I had one of those when I was a kid. I named him Rummy. I hear he went on to a very successful career.

We give thanks that there is nothing about the next four years we cannot survive. Not even if they torture us. Not even if they lock our windows and chain our doors and kick the fans from our ceilings and infest our apartments with demons. Not even if they strip us naked and dangle our bodies provocatively over M Street. Not even if they flood all the television channels with CSI: Special Victims Jerk-Off Tissue Disposal Unit twenty-four hours a day. We give thanks that they cannot take our voices, cannot take our teeth, and -- most importantly -- cannot take our bowel disruptors. After all, do not the scriptures tell us exactly how much You want to see the President shit himself on international television?

So God, this year, I give thanks for many things, but particularly -- last but not least -- the knowledge that neither of my filthy assistants will ever be brain-damaged enough to ask me to say Grace again.

And bless this food. Or something.


Anywhere But Here

He felt a couple bullets rattling around in his chest, one of which had nicked his back-up heart (and shit if that didn't hurt bad enough to make him notice), but he knew he'd be fine by morning. He wasn't so certain about his partner. "What do you need?"

"A little sunlight?" Apollo (dumb fucking name, what the hell had Bendix been thinking) smiled, though it obviously took effort. He showed no visible signs of injury, but self-propelling a supernova the size of several city blocks really took it out of a guy. "I'll be fine until dawn, or until Bendix comes, whichever comes first." He leaned back against a girder in the warehouse loft, half-reclining his body along the length of the steel floor. "Thanks, Midnighter."

He grunted and turned away. Speaking of dumb fucking names, hell. He hadn't even started thinking of himself by that one yet. He was just himself, and it didn't matter if nobody in the whole world knew what to call him, he knew himself. And he supposed it didn't matter what people called him, so long as they were screaming in terror while they said it -- which was why it was weird to hear it in the same voice as gratitude. So instead of giving some meaningful reply, he found a long, thin nail on the floor and started digging out the bullet closest to his shoulder's surface.

The retrieval beacon had long ago been activated, and he supposed if Bendix was taking his sweet fucking time, there must've been damn good reason to have them sit tight. He didn't complain; he wasn't made to complain. He was made to do the job. It was what he'd signed up for -- or, at least, what he'd been told he signed up for, which by now was the same thing.

Apollo sighed and settled his body a bit lower, his long, lean frame visible in incredible detail beneath his absurdly tight costume. It was so ridiculous he couldn't stop looking at it. "Where would you be right now if you could be anywhere?"

The question caught him off-guard. "Here, of course. The beacon's gone off, and Bendix will--"

"No, no, that's not what I meant." Apollo's voice was soft, almost a laugh, so weird and impossible in this war zone, in their war zone lives. "Forget the mission. Anywhere but here."

He winced as the end of the nail tapped a bit of bone, not because it hurt, but because it had been clumsy of him. "What's the point?"

Apollo sighed. "The point is that we're all alone in a stupid warehouse, waiting for daylight or extraction -- again, whichever comes first -- and I thought it'd be something to do," he said as he reached up to draw his long, sun-light hair from his face. "...And because I've pretty much burned myself out, and I'm cold and afraid that if I stop talking, I'll fall asleep, and if I do that, I'll never get up again."

The candid admission of fear stunned him silent for a moment. The words 'I'm afraid' had been stripped from his vocabulary -- even if he had still had the mechanisms for feeling it, he didn't think he could articulate it. "...You're cold?" he asked. It was a hot July night, and he was sweating bullets in his heavy costume.

"A little," Apollo nodded.

"You should have told me earlier." Dropping the nail, he walked over to where Apollo lay and took off his coat, tucking it like a blanket over Apollo's body. Even exhausted and in the semi-darkness, the man caught every bit of light and refracted it, giving him that sort of halo Renaissance masters reserved for gods and angels. Maybe Bendix hadn't been so off with his naming schemes. He took off his mask and ran his fingers through his short hair, breathing in the heavy night air. "...Somewhere sunny," he said after a moment, almost without thinking.

Apollo lifted his head dreamily. "...Beg your pardon?"

"Somewhere sunny," he repeated. "I'd be somewhere sunny. If I were anywhere but here."

A pale hand slipped from beneath his coat and wrapped briefly around his gloved one, warm even through layers of leather. How could the man be cold if he burned like that all the time? Or maybe he'd just answered his own question. "Me too," smiled Apollo quietly, and Midnighter found he also lacked the ability to articulate how that smile was the closest thing to the sun he'd felt in a long time, maybe even his whole life.

Safe Sex

"Well, it's official." Midnighter began shedding his cast-off clothes, found from a Salvation Army bin, the moment the door closed shut behind him. "I've got AIDS."

Apollo looked up from the newspaper, which he'd been reading with the light of his own halo. "You've what, now?"

"AIDS," Midnighter repeated. "I had my suspicions, but the clinic test confirmed it." His voice echoed, hollow and resonant, through the darkened factory building which had been their residence that week. This one looked like it hadn't closed down more than a year ago. Bad for the economy, but great for two Stormwatch fugitives lying low.

"How did you get AIDS?" Apollo sounded incredulous, though far more amused than upset.

Midnighter ran his fingers through his short hair, scratching it into an admittedly less angelic halo of his own. He hated having to play normal, he did it so badly, but it wasn't like he could walk into a free clinic in full regalia and ask for a metahuman check-up. "Remember yesterday, the mobsters with the alien eggs in the alley with the junkies? One of them stabbed me with a needle." He tapped the side of his neck. "One of the junkies, anyway. Mobsters are polite. They shoot sanitary bullets."

"And you didn't tell me?" One sun-god eyebrow lifted in a dangerous arc.

Midnighter shrugged, stepping out of his too-baggy secondhand boxer shorts. He didn't like to think where they'd been before him. "I didn't want you to make a big deal about it." Naked now, he still felt less exposed than he had in the jeans and sweatshirt, trying to pass for normal. "Anyway, in my current condition, I'd give it six weeks."

That, finally, roused Apollo from his comfortable sprawl. "Six weeks?" He braced himself with one hand against the wall, face wracked with concern, the model soap-opera patient hearing the grave news.

"Not to live." Midnighter rolled his eyes. "Until it's gone." He looked at his hand, then flexed his fingers into a fist, considering the muscles and bone and blood beneath. On a microscopic level, a battle was being fought -- the plague that ate immune systems vs. the undernourished, overworked immune system of the biggest bastard on the planet. He almost felt sorry for the little virus.

Apollo walked over and draped his arms around Midnighter's shoulders. "I hate you."

"You hate me because it means no sex for six weeks." Midnighter managed to sound convincingly disinterested, which was enough of a challenge when Apollo's perilously tight costume somehow managed to leave even less to the imagination than Midnighter's own naked body did.

"Did someone say no sex? I don't think I said no sex." Apollo pressed their hips together, and the slight texture to his white super-suit provided suitable friction to convince Midnighter's head that his blood was suddenly needed elsewhere. Fingers gloved with the same material grabbed hard at his ass, never too gentle, just the way they both liked it. "I may just have to leave my costume on."

"You kinky bastard," Midnighter grinned, already sinking to his knees.

Anyone But Me

Apollo isn't like other people. There are a thousand ways to kill other people instantly (and a thousand thousand more, if he feels like taking his time), but with Apollo, even his perfectly augmented fighting abilities can only ever find a dozen or so at a time, even when Apollo is stretched naked and lovely and vulnerable across their bed.

He kisses Apollo's throat, under which runs the jugular vein, which he could bite open in approximately a second. Apollo laughs at the delicacy of the touch, the sound vibrating through his windpipe, which could be crushed with approximately half a ton of pressure, which he would need both of his thumbs to generate. He grins and bites a gentle dark circle at Apollo's supersternal notch, and you could probably give someone hickies until that person died, but it seems inefficient enough that he's never spent a lot of time considering it as a real option. His fingers trace lines down from Apollo's strong jaw, down a neck that would take all his strength under even the best conditions to snap, but it could be done.

The Carrier turns just enough that the sun peeks in through their window, casting a long beam across Apollo's blissful face; he has long since dismissed such happenings as coincidence, and now accepts them as the Carrier's way of showing her approval. He presses another kiss over Apollo's chest, feeling the warm pulse inside quicken with the daylight, calculating the precise 10-millisecond space between the beats when even a gentle strike would fatally disrupt Apollo's heartbeat. Apollo reaches down and pets the day's growth of stubble on his cheek, and he can't keep from smiling.

He bites another dark circle at the curve of Apollo's hip, inches below where the span of flesh where even Apollo's heavily muscled abs couldn't keep a handful of well-aimed blows to pressure points from disrupting any number of vital organs; the process would be somewhat slow, of course, but irreversible. When he gets to Apollo's groin area, where any sudden trauma might be sufficient to cause shock and death, he teases Apollo's cock with his fingers, playing aimlessly as though bored, and Apollo cuffs him gently up the head to tell him to get on with it.

By the time he's finished, the sun has crept all the way to the other side of the picture window, and Apollo's chest is heaving with the effort of catching his breath; he could apply enough pressure there so that Apollo's lungs could not re-inflate, but Apollo could retaliate by deciding not to breathe, which would get neither of them anywhere. Instead, he wipes his mouth on the sheets and looks up at his golden husband, sprawled languid and cat-like. "...Do you ever wish I were somebody else?" he asks, without preamble.

Apollo lifts his head and smiles down at him. "Not right after you do that, no." And he smiles in return as Apollo reaches for him, drawing him up so their bodies twine together in the sunlight.

The Good Girl

She wasn't a bad girl. In fact, she'd been just the opposite her entire life: straight A's, never smoked or drank, even once had a fiancé and a wedding date all set. But that had been before the sun went black.

Before the sun went black, she'd never have thought about having sex in a supply closet, her nurse's uniform open to her navel, her bra pushed up so her breasts fell out beneath, half-standing, half-seated on a rickety cart whose wheels budged slightly with every exertion and might have carried her away had there been anywhere to go. But the closet was small, barely the size of her tiny apartment bathroom, and lined on all sides with shelves full of important medical necessities. The only way to get comfortable was to spread her legs on either side of Dr. Sheffield's hips, and she did so. /P>

He wasn't an exceptionally handsome man by anyone's reckoning, nor was he anything like the shy, sweet man to whom she'd been engaged, but when he'd turned his gaze on her, she'd given in immediately. Before the sun went black, she'd likely never have considered such a sordid affair with anyone, much less her direct supervisor, much less Dr. Serph Sheffield. Now here she was, smearing her lipstick against his mouth as she kissed him, freezing every time footsteps sounded outside the door. He, however, hardly seemed to notice the possibility of discovery. /P>

She reached down to unfasten his trousers, and he caught her hands, drawing them away and placing them deliberately against the shelves on either side of her, wrapping her fingers around the metal supports. He was like that -- not like he didn't want her to touch him, surely that wasn't the case, but like he didn't want to allow her even that bit of control. His grip relaxed and let go, leaving her hands unattended, and she supposed she could have lifted them again, an unspoken challenge to his authority, daring to make him repeat a command. She didn't budge, only tightened her grip on the shelves until her fingernails grazed her palm and her knuckles went white. /P>

He kissed her neck, leaving bite marks just below where she knew the collar of her shirt would fall, and his hands returned to her breasts. Somehow, the fact that he knew exactly where to touch her only made it worse. She sighed and licked her lips as his mouth made a dark bruise at the rise of her collarbone. Before the sun went black, there'd been time for things like romance; now there were only supply closets, and charming doctors, and orders disguised as suggestions that had to be followed. /P>

"I think you ought to get a gun," he whispered in her ear as he pulled her hose down, slipping fingers past the waist of her panties, and she found herself nodding at every word.

Ego, Id

He'd been a lucid dreamer all his life, and as such wasted no time wondering how he could be staring down a silver-haired version of himself. If the dreamer did not suspend an appropriate amount of disbelief, he or she could never reach the crux of the dream's subconscious message. He'd written that in a paper once for Dr. Vlasievsky, and gotten an A.

The more immediate concern was the overwhelming certainty that he was dead, but even that could be ignored for the moment. His silver mirror stood before him, blinking, trying to process the situation. In all his years of clever mindfucks in the guise of psychiatry, he'd never turned the knife on himself. Thank goodness there was no time like the present to improvise. Perhaps he was the dream, and the object before him the dreamer. Whether or not this assessment was true, it gave him power, and he went with it.

"You can't make it out on your own," he purred, sticking his hands in his pockets and strolling over. Grey eyes tracked his moments, but their owner said nothing. "Look at you. You're dressed for warfare, but there're no guns in here. If you'll pardon the phrase, you're a stranger in a strange land."

The mirror-man's expression didn't even change. He looked at the mark on its left cheek, and something inside him thrummed with recognition. It had the devil too, then, this marble döppleganger poised before him. "It's hungry," he whispered, circling behind the figure and leaning in to stroke its hair. To its credit, it didn't flinch. "And if you don't get out, it'll eat you too. You'll lose control, you'll lose us both." His fingers wrapped around the thing's throat, then slipped down its neck, his habitually cold hands and its clammy skin chilling each other equally. "What becomes of the ouroboros when it has no more tail to eat?"

Its adam's apple flinched beneath his fingers, and he grinned, drawing his other hand across its chest until he found the zipper of its uniform jacket. "Let me help you." His voice barely reached his own ears, but his lips brushed directly against its earlobe, and he knew it heard him. "You can trust me. I am you, after all. Let me in, and we'll find our way out."

It craned its head back, exposing its throat, letting its shoulders and arms go slack as he undid its jacket. Well, that had been easier than he'd expected. "Let me in," he repeated, drawing his mouth to its bared neck, feeling the slow pulse there through his spit-slicked lips.

The last thing he'd expected was a blow to the back of his head, which sent him sprawling forward to the ground. He found his bearings and looked upward just in time to see his silver double fall into the arms of an equally artificial red-haired soldier, and that soldier's original standing above him, driving the heel of one well-polished boot hard into his stomach. Dr. O'Brien grinned down at him, shaking his head. "You know, I've really wanted to do that for a long time."

With a growl that came from deep within his dead throat, from his dream heart, Dr. Serph Sheffield bared claws newly grown from the tips of his fingers and sprang.

In the Desert

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, "Is it good, friend?"
"It is bitter - bitter", he answered,
"But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart."

-'In the Desert', Stephen Crane


He'd long ago conquered any squeamishness regarding cannibalism, if even he'd had any to begin with, but his hands shook as they hovered over the already-wounded chest, awaiting the first incision. They trembled because they were not Varna's switchblade claws, but his own hands, bare and pink and rounded at the tips, uselessly human. Heat, he thought, would have laughed at him.

Would, that is, had he not himself been the body splayed on the ground before Serph, bare and bloodied. Serph had removed Heat's uniform and pressed Heat's eyes firmly closed, succumbing to urges of ritual he could not define yet felt powerless to refuse. Heat looked so small there, stretched flat and straight, his arms by his sides, his legs long and stiff. He'd always seemed so large to Serph, a fire introduced into a room that proceeds to swallow all the oxygen for itself. Now he had already begun to grow cold, his skin the same grey industrial chill as the facility's floor, too cold for sleep.

Serph brushed his fingers across Heat's skin, pressing and brushing and feeling all the contours he knew he'd never touched but which felt familiar to him anyway, a body that wasn't this one known by hands he couldn't remember. Beauty was something Serph only saw others see in the organic chaos that made the world, though he now at last found it himself in the mangled mess that had once been Heat: his red hair, his parted lips, the muscles of his chest and arms, the curves at his hips, his penis curled soft in the fork of his legs, his veined and delicate feet. He made Serph think of incorruptable saints; of perfect specimens preserved cryogenically; of princesses dead asleep in their coffins, waiting for poisoned apples to be kissed from their throats.

He found a gash just below Heat's ribcage, deep and prominent, and stuck his fingers inside, then pulled.

The skin first stretched, then ripped and came apart with disquieting ease, and he looked at Heat's face, hoping for a flinch, a scream, something, anything; there was stillness. Beneath the chilled skin there was still warmth, though even that had begun to seep away. Up Heat's torso he travelled, flesh giving way in a line, revealing the secret engine that had kept Heat spinning until it spun down.

The person he'd been before had studied anatomy and physiology, had held up the brain as a god itself, but Serph's knowledge of human construction was entirely empirical. Unable to get a good grip, he moved so he was no longer sitting beside Heat's body, but so that he was kneeling astride Heat's hips, grabbing hold of each side of Heat's chest and pulling until the machinery was lain bare. Next came the sharp white bones of the ribs, and for this Serph had to call on Varna; his arms turned white and ridged, hands pale blue and padded the colour of Heat's still lungs, and he grabbed at either side and pulled until, with a sharp crack from Heat's body and a cry from his own throat, the tense cage parted to reveal the prize.

He'd leave the rest for Varna, he knew, whom he could already feel pulsing with hunger beneath his skin; Varna, who could stomach viscera and bone alike, who did not care whose flesh went into its mouth so long as it was fed. But there were things that were rightfully his, things that Varna could not have.

His hands -- his own again -- wrapped around Heat's silent heart and lifted it free, and he brought it to his very human mouth. His first shallow bite tore at the (pericardium, the ghost in the back of his head supplied), and he spat it free, tearing away the thin membrane until he held the red muscle bare in his hands. Even a heart such as Heat's was so small, so still. Serph wondered if he opened his own chest, if his own heart would look the same, or if now was smaller, and hollow.

Serph willed himself to take first one bite, then another, feeling Heat's blood run already lukewarm down his throat, tasting the dark, strong muscle as his teeth rent it to pieces.

En El Desierto
Spanish translation by
Daniela Lynx

En el desierto
Vi una criatura, desnuda, bestial
Quien, montada al anca de los suelos
Sostenía su corazón en sus manos,
Y comía de él.
Yo dije “¿Está bueno, amigo?”
“Es amargo – amargo”, él respondió,
“Pero me gusta
Porque es amargo
Y porque es mi corazón”

- “En el desierto”, Stephen Crane


Hacía tiempo ya que había conquistado cualquier escrúpulo sobre el canibalismo, si es que había tenido alguno, para empezar, pero sus manos temblaban mientras oscilaban sobre el pecho ya herido, esperando la primera incisión. Tiritaban porque no eran las garras de navaja de Varna, si no sus propias manos, desnudas y rosadas, y de puntas redondeadas, inútilmente humanas. Heat, pensó, se hubiera reído de él.

Hubiera, eso es, si no fuese ya el cuerpo tendido en el suelo delante de Serph, desnudo y ensangrentado. Serph le había quitado el uniforme y cerrado los ojos con firmeza, sucumbiendo a la necesidades de un ritual que no podía definir, pero que no se sentía capaz de rehusar. Heat se veía tan pequeño ahí, estirado plano y recto, sus brazos a los costados, sus piernas largas e inamovibles. Siempre le había parecido tan grande a Serph, un fuego introducido en la habitación que procedía a consumir todo el oxígeno por sí mismo. Ahora, ya había comenzado a enfriarse, su piel del mismo gris industrial y helado del suelo del recinto, demasiado frío para dormir.

Serph deslizó los dedos sobre la piel de Heat, presionando y rozando y sintiendo todos los contornos que sabía que jamás había tocado, pero que se le hacían familiares de todos modos, un cuerpo que no era este conocido por manos que no podía recordar. La belleza era algo que Serph sólo veía a los otros observar en el caos orgánico que conformaba el mundo, pero al fin la había encontrado por si mismo en el desorden roto que alguna vez había sido Heat: Su cabello rojo, sus labios entreabiertos, los músculos de su pecho y brazos, las curvas en sus caderas, su pene anidando suave en la bifurcación de sus piernas, sus pies venosos y delicados. Hacía pensar a Serph en santos incorruptibles, en especímenes perfectos conservados criogénicamente; de princesas muertas durmiendo en ataúdes, esperando a que la manzana envenenada en su garganta fuera arrancada a besos.

Encontró un corte justo bajo las costillas de Heat, profundo y prominente, y metió los dedos adentro para luego tirar.

La piel primero se estiró, luego se rasgó y separó con intranquilizadora facilidad, y luego miró al rostro de Heat, esperando un movimiento, un grito, algo, cualquier cosa; hubo quietud. Bajo la piel helada aún había calor, aunque incluso eso había comenzado ya a desvancerse. Sobre el torso de Heat viajó, la carne cediendo en una línea, revelando los engranajes secretos que habían mantenido a Heat girando hasta que se agotaron.

La persona que había sido antes había estudiado anatomía y fisiología, había sostenido al cerebro como un dios en si mismo, pero el conocimiento de Serph sobre la construcción humana era completamente empírico. Incapaz de conseguir un buen agarre, se movió de forma en que ya no estuviese sentado junto al cuerpo de Heat, si no arrodillado, montado en sus caderas, tomado de cada lado del pecho de Heat y tirando hasta que la maquinaria estuvo desnuda ante él. Siguientes fueron los puntiagudos huesos blancos de las costillas, y para esto Serph debió llamar a Varna; sus brazos se volvieron blancos y espinosos, las manos azul pálido y con cojinetes del color de los pulmones quietos de Heat, y se aferró a cada lado y tiró hasta que con un chasquido agudo del cuerpo de Heat y un grito de su propia garganta, las costillas se partieron para revelar el premio.

Dejaría el resto para Varna, eso lo sabía, a quien podía ya sentir pulsando con el hambre bajo su piel; Varna, quien podía tragar vísceras y huesos de la misma forma, a quien no le importaba de quién era la carne que metía en su boca mientras así se alimentara. Pero habían cosas que eran suyas por derecho, cosas que Varna no podía tener.

Sus manos –las suyas de nuevo – envolvieron el corazón silencioso de Heat y lo alzaron libre, y así lo llevaron a su muy humana boca. Su primera mordida superficial rasgó al (pericardio, el fantasma en su cabeza aportó), y lo escupió fuera, desgarrando la fina membrana hasta sostener sólo el rojo músculo desnudo en sus manos. Incluso un corazón como el de Heat era tan pequeño, tan quieto. Serph se preguntó si al abrir su propio pecho, encontraría su corazón tal cual era, o si sería ahora más pequeño y vacío.

Juntó voluntad para tomar otro bocado, y luego otro, sintiendo la sangre de Heat correr ya tibia apenas por su garganta, saboreando el músculo oscuro y fuerte mientras sus dientes lo hacían pedazos.


Though he hadn't wanted to be the first one to call for a rest, the obvious looks of relief on his teammates' faces when Heat made the suggestion made him feel a lot better about it. They found a nook in one of the corridors, a circular room with only one entrance, and Heat dropped sound asleep practically where he fell.

Some time later, he woke to find a pair of hands on his shoulder. The room was still except for the organic hum of the Sun's hollow heart, and he could see the still, sleeping forms of his comrades curled alone and in pairs along the floor. "My watch?" he asked softly, shaking his head free of slumber.

But the hands that had prodded him awake found their way up his shoulder to his mouth, first pressing his lips together to silence him, then slipping between them until he could taste their saltiness on his tongue. He turned to see Seraph leaning over him, smiling at him with Sera's kind expression, but staring him down with Serph's hollow eyes. With her free hand (despite conscious effort, Heat had come to think of Seraph as far more female than male), she lifted his hand to the neck of her bodysuit; there was a seam there Heat hadn't seen before, and there the fabric pulled open easily, letting her small breasts fall out. She slipped her fingers from his mouth, then shrugged out of the her clothes easily, until she knelt before him bare, and Heat saw before him the full evidence of her androgyny.

Heat gave a nervous glance to the sleeping comrades around him, but then Seraph was on him, straddling his waist and kissing him, knotting fingers into his fire-red hair, and he had more immediate concerns. Warm hands -- Serph's, not Sera's, Sera's hands had been so dainty, Serph's were thick and strong -- pet his neck and shoulders, and he found his own fingers trailing down the smooth expanse of Seraph's back, over Serph's hips, down Sera's thighs, toward the place beween where both of them might be found.

The Junkyard had been a sterile place, with neither children nor the impulse toward creating them; as such, Heat had known there only fierce, angry loyalty toward Serph as well, as well as tender protectiveness toward Sera. Reconciling his former self, however, had sparked in him emotions born from old memories -- fear both for and of Sera, and a deep and consuming lust for Serph. They came over him in waves now as he crushed Seraph toward him, burning him with the need to protect and destroy and devour.

He nearly cried out when she let him enter her, when she pressed her hardness to his stomach and cupped his hands around her breasts, but she swallowed the sound before it could leave his mouth. Serph's strong hands spread flat against his chest, ten fingertips clinging as a climber's hands to a steadying rock, and he found himself wishing she would push into him as he did into her, that somehow he might be allowed into the breach between where the two of them met, that in the end they might close over him again as the Red Sea falling back in on itself, and that in them he might be swallowed whole.

St. Serph the Confessor

The door to the lab was unlocked. It was far later than anyone else who frequented the building would reasonably be there, of course, and no one else had much business in his part of the lab these days anyway, but the door was still unlocked, and Heat's eyes fixed on the retracted deadbolt as he braced himself against the lab table and let Serph fuck him from behind.

He hadn't noticed the state of the door until he'd been pushed over the high table and divested of much of his clothing, and by then it was entirely too late to do anything about it. Now he couldn't take his eyes off it, the opaque glass pane that covered the top half, the heavy steel beneath it, the sliver of light between the door and its frame showing where the disengaged contaminant locks would otherwise be. Anyone could just walk in, with little or no warning, and catch him like this, sweating and panting and exposed beneath the harsh fluorescents, and the threat of discovery made his cock even harder in Serph's soft hand.

He hated this, how the whole business of it made him feel dirty and sordid and hollow, and how it wouldn't ever stop, because every time he swore to himself he wouldn't let it happen next time, and every time next time rolled around, Serph's voice and hands dragged him down into it again. Those hands were ice against his skin now, one braced against the plane just beneath his ribcage, the other a chill circle around his cock.

Heat's own hands slid even farther forward along the black-topped table, until his fingers hit something cold: a scalpel, clean and bright, its blade a clear arc in the light. He slipped his fingers over the long handle, first blanketing the tool with his hand, then curling his fingers around the pencil-thin grip. Serph was not a large man, and neither was Heat, but Heat still had the size advantage there, and Serph would not be expecting it. Heat wouldn't have to kill him, not even go deep -- just enough to hurt him, to make him feel for even half a second what it felt like every time he did this to Heat. His entire point made in one clean cut.

"Do you want me to stop?" asked Serph, his voice conversational and not even breathless, like an assistant asking for direction in an experiment Dr. O'Brien might be conducting. That was the hell of it, really -- not that someone might come in, because sometimes Heat was certain that everyone already knew, or at least suspected, what was going on between them. No, the worst part was that Serph would make him admit to himself first how much he wanted it, and that was why it would never stop, not so long as he wanted it more than he wanted anything else.

"Fuck me," hissed Heat, because he knew no less of an admission would be enough to satisfy St. Serph the Confessor. With a soft laugh that was barely more than breath, Serph rocked into his hips again hard enough to make Heat cry out, and Heat bit his lip, closing his fist tight around the scalpel's half-moon edge until a thin red trickle slid from his hand and onto the table.


The back of his head connected hard with the metal wall as Heat slammed him against it, and the blood in him surged so hot that for a moment, his mind was consumed by the thought of ripping Heat's throat open with his bare teeth. He fought it back, though, and clenched his hands into tight fists even as he felt the bones of his forearms begin to rise. The demon inside him strained against this reserve, but Serph stood his ground as Heat grabbed handfuls of Serph's uniform, snarling down at Serph every inch his height advantage afforded him. His chest pressed against Serph's, and every breath he took hissed hot against Serph's mouth.

"Heat!" shouted Argilla. She and the others ran down the corridor to where the two men stood just outside Sera's room, but Serph held a hand palm-out toward them, and they stopped short. "Heat, what are you doing?"

At the sound of her voice, Heat's expression faltered, the anger that had flared there cut with a flicker of uncertainty. He looked from Serph to them, to the closed door behind which Sera rested, then back to Serph. His grip on Serph's clothing slackened, then tightened again as Heat drew down so close to Serph's face that their mouths were nearly together. As long as Serph had known him in the Junkyard, Heat had never touched him like this -- and yet, this felt so familiar that just as Serph had fought back the rising blades in his arms, now he had to fight down the compulsion to lean forward and close the gap between them, to bite Heat's mouth until they both bled.

"You'd better keep her safe," he finally growled, as though there had been some preamble to the confrontation beyond Serph's turning the corner and finding Heat pacing a line in front of Sera's door, as though Serph had given Heat any reason to doubt his sincerity toward the girl under his protection. "Keep her safe or this time I'll make you pay, I swear." With a final shove against Serph's chest, Heat let go.

Serph pulled himself back to his feet, straightening his grey jacket, watching Heat turn and stalk off down the hallway, finally disappearing through the door at the far end. Cielo clucked his tongue. "Man, what the hell's gotten into him?"

"All of us have been prone to irrational behaviour lately," Gale pointed out, folding his arms. "The compulsion can overwhelm even the most rational among us."

But Serph shook his head, turning and walking off in the opposite direction, out to the entrance and up to the land beneath the yellow sky. Whatever it was that had set Heat off, whatever had risen between them, it had little to do with the newly awakened hunger inside them; it was older, Serph knew, older even than the Junkyard. And there was nothing older than the Junkyard.

Greeks Bearing Gifts

In retrospect, she should have known better. 'Beware of Greeks bearing gifts,' her mother had liked to say, an expression passed down from the American branch of her family tree. She had not heeded the advice, and now to show for it she held in her hands a tiny, formerly gift-wrapped box, and in it, a tiny piece of curved black metal; on one end was a plain ball, from the other dangled a sparkly red stone. "...What is it?"

"Like I said, a thank-you gift for being the manager all year. Some fucking genius you are if you can't remember things the first time they get told to you." Hiruma blew a bright pink bubble from one corner of his mouth, grinning. At first she'd thought he looked less sinister in his school uniform than his football jersey, until the season had ended and he'd gone back to his civilian identity, and she'd realised that it was merely a different brand of sinister: less evil Troy Aikman, more treacherously bored yakuza.

Mamori lifted the item from the box, holding it in the light. It appeared to be an earring of some sort, but it looked awfully thick for her ear, and there was only one. "Um ... thank you?"

Hiruma smirked, taking a step closer. He'd started to smell good now, too -- not the cloying stink of sweat and sport deoderant and locker rooms, layered upon day after day, but a different smell, spicy and clean. She'd pondered asking him what cologne he used (perhaps it might smell good on Sena too), and surely it wasn't her fault that every time nearly she'd gotten to the point of actually asking, she had for some reason lost her nerve. "It goes right--" He extended one slender finger and poked her in the middle of her belly.

She yelped and jumped backward, nearly dropping box and jewel alike. "I can't-- I don't-- I'm not ... there!" Her hands lowered to protect her stomach from further attacks, and if they ended up a little lower than her actual navel, well, she'd never been strong on defense.

"Your problem, not mine, fucking manager." Hiruma blew another bubble, then popped it with a fingernail and twirled the deflating orb into a pink clump, flinging in the general direction of a hallway trashcan; she turned to see it land two feet short of the rim, striking the middle of the walkway with such deadly accuracy that surely it could have been nothing but intentional. When she turned around again, she saw only his retreating back, one hand lifted above his shoulder, tossing off some of the lesser-used signs of their shared code.

"Come over ... sometime ... I'll show ... you ... mine--" Mamori turned bright red and spun on her heel, making her hasty retreat right in the path of the gum, so that all the way home, every sticky step her left foot took made her think of his twisting fingers' invitation, the box clenched in her fist, and how she'd never yet backed down from a challenge laid at her feet by Hiruma Youichi.


The clippers he'd borrowed from his first-year roommate, a member of the swim team. He'd chosen the locker room as the ideal location, since large shower made for easy cleaning, and no one was likely to disturb them at this hour of the night. The peculiar quality of the fluorescent lights reflected off the tile gave everything a pale, almost sickly sheen. "Last chance," Takami offered quietly.

"Bring it on." Sakuraba sat in front of him, staring straight ahead, towel draped around his squared shoulders.

Takami flipped the switch, and the clippers buzzed to life. He eyed the settings, clicking the dial to the middle number -- average, just like him, nothing at all like the man in front of him. With a small sigh of regret, he reached forward with the clippers, then drew them back from Sakuraba's hairline. Swaths of golden locks fell in their wake, cut down in their prime by the march of machinery, or something to that effect. Takami wished he were a poet or a writer, someone who could capture the art and gravity of this ceremony. But the clippers buzzed along anyway, unencumbered by the lack of appropriate metaphor.

Through the whole process, Sakuraba sat stone-still, neither flinching as the strands of hair tickled his ears on the way down, nor looking at the piles of blonde carnage piling around him. It felt strange -- ordinarily Sakuraba wore his heart well on his sleeve, with neon lights and subtitles just in case anyone missed the original. But here he sat, stoic as Shin, waiting patiently while he shed his old skin.

Takami hadn't known what to think when Sakuraba had asked him to cut his hair; he'd tried to joke, to play it off, shouldn't someone like you go to salons for that sort of thing?, but even as he'd said it, he'd known the neither Sakuraba's decision nor choice of barber had been lightly made. At first he'd interpreted it as a sign that his apology for the punch had been acccepted -- or discounted it as being not even about him at all, just a logical thing to ask a teammate and quarterback -- but even those explanations had ended up seeming insufficient. Somewhere between his attempts to dismiss this as a meaningless gesture, and the impossible hope that Sakuraba might feel the same way about him, Takami worked the clippers patiently, taking his time. He'd never been the type to rush into anything.

At last, the operation was complete. Takami clicked the switch to off and set the clippers on the floor, then turned back to Sakuraba's newly shorn head; not too short, but sometimes any change is a dramatic one. He rubbed his hands across Sakuraba's head, under the guise of checking to make sure he'd gotten the length even everywhere -- then, without thinking, leaned in and pressed his lips to the center of Sakuraba's scalp, holding there for a full second before righting himself.

"Six years, huh?" Sakuraba's voice, though soft, was a roar in the silence that the clippers' absence made.

Takami shook his head, palming a lock of fallen hair from Sakuraba's shoulder and slipping it into his pocket. "My whole life."

The Return

Hiruma had always hated the way he liked the field when everyone else had gone home. It seemed like such a ridiculous thing, too sentimental for a tough guy like him. And yet, he found himself standing at the 50-yard line, backlit by only one of the stadium's great banks of lights, staring at the shoe-torn grass beneath him. The afternoon had been such a torrent of noise, and now everything was quiet, so quiet that he heard the footsteps behind him long before they reached him. He let them come.

"Sorry you had to come back just for that," he said when the footfalls were in earshot of him. "Fucking ill note for a return."

"Not so bad." Musashi cleared his throat. "You guys-- we played really well out there today."

Hiruma laughed, lifting his head to the goalpoasts. Their shadows stretched out long before them, covering twenty yards at the speed of light. Hiruma envied them. "Almost a fucking disaster. Remind me to tell the fucking monkey that you never fucking argue with the ref. Unless you've got blackmail material. And even then, it's fucking tacky."

He heard Musashi take another step, closing the gap. "Hiruma--"

"Doesn't matter anyway. Saved by the iron horse." Hiruma waved his hand, dismissing an imagnary concerned entourage. "So now it's Bando. Which is good for that Sasaki Koutarou guy, because seriously, I think he would've busted a fucking nut if he hadn't got to have his little kick-off with you. More than he has already, I mean." Of all the ingeneous plans Hiruma'd devised for getting Musashi back to the team, he'd never considered levelling a direct personal challenge on live television, and didn't know whether to kiss Sasaki for it or punch him in the face. It was even odds as to which Sasaki would like less, anyway.

"Hiruma...." Closer still, close enough now that their shadows intertwined, close enough that Hiruma could feel the weight of the eclipse on his back. "I'm back."

"Tch." Hiruma's hands curled into fists. "You think it's actually that fucking easy? I mean, you haven't been keeping up with it, you didn't do the fucking Death March, you missed the whole thing in Las Vegas, didn't you? And now you get to come back and have it be normal again, like you never fucking left--" His voice hitched, fuck, speaking of sentimental bullshit. He felt like he'd just walked onto the end of Rudy or one of those other awful American football movies, and he supposed the only thing left to him was suicide as a self-defense mechanism.

Bare arms closed around his shoulders, tight and strong, sacking him with deadly accuracy. "I'm back." Safety, two points to the defense, the ball changes hands and the quarterback sits knocked on his ass wondering how he got taken down so far back in his own territory.

"Yeah." Hiruma reached up, knuckles brushing the peculiarly stubble-free cheek resting on his shoulder. "You're back."

I Like Her

"So, have you fucked her?"

Rui lifted his head, looking mighty grumpy for a man less than two minutes out of what had sounded to Hiruma's ears like a stunningly good orgasm. "Since when's it your business?"

"Since you've fucked me." Hiruma turned on his side, propping his head up with one hand. "You're evading the question."

The pale skin of Rui's cheeks flushed a little pink, and he buried his face back in the pillow. "...No, we haven't fucked yet," came the somewhat muddled confession.

"So, just sticky handjobs?"

"She'll pull up her skirt for me if I'm good," mumbled Rui, who sounded like he'd rather be doing anything but having this conversation -- which of course made it at least 5000x more fun, by at least ten of Hiruma's standards.

Hiruma laughed, then reached over to play with the ends of Rui's hair. For a lizard, he had some fucking great hair. "Fuck, now I want to know what being good entails."

"That's a woman's secret. I haven't even figured it out yet."

"I see." Hiruma's fingers scritched lightly at the back of Rui's neck, then down his back, relaxing, disarming. Rui's muscles went slack, and Hiruma took the opportunity to roll on top of Rui, pressing their bare bodies together. "So," he purred in Rui's ear, "you wouldn't mind if I fucked her?"

There was a moment of silence, and Rui broke it with a laugh that sounded entirely forced. "She'd shove that bokken up your ass first."

"Worth it." His teeth snapped at Rui's ear.

Rui snorted. "Yeah, you like that?"

"Depends on which end first," said Hiruma, rubbing his cock against the cleft of Rui's ass. If the Zokugaku linebacker thought he was going to get away that evening without switching sides at least once, he had another think coming.



"Don't try to fuck her, I like her."

With a wicked cackle, Hiruma grinned and ruffled Rui's hair, throwing his already-disheveled locks into even greater disarray. The cute ones were always the best to tease. "Oh, fuck you," muttered Rui, batting at Hiruma's fingers and having brief yet great success for his extra reach, before Hiruma grabbed Rui's hands and pinned them above his head.

"Like I'd try to hit that? She'd shove that bokken up my ass!" Securing Rui's wrists with one hand, he reached for the lube at the side of the bed and twisted the top off one-handed.

"Come on!" laughed Rui, putting up a token struggle that mostly served to rub up against Hiruma's body. "You'd like it! She'd make you like it."

That, Hiruma reasoned, was the best reason for fucking other athletes -- rarely any time wasted waiting for the second round. "She'd make you like it."

Rui gasped as Hiruma slipped fingers inside his ass, first one, then two, gentler than he'd ever admit to having sex with anyone. "Tch, she knows you warmed me up for it."

"Yeah, she should fucking write me a thank-you note." Then Hiruma bit down on the back of Rui's shoulder, and Rui pushed himself deeper onto Hiruma's hand, and that was definitively the end of that discussion, at least for a while.


They'd nearly finished unpacking, and by Takami's count, these were the last five boxes, all labeled 'clothes' in Sakuraba's excitable scrawl. Takami'd pulled out a few winter coats, folding them neatly to be hung in the hall closet, when he noticed a ruffle of lace tucked near the bottom. Reaching all the way to the bottom, he grabbed the frill and tugged--

"Sakuraba?" With a bemused smile, Takami held out the maid's uniform to the grey-suited man sitting on the bed, thumbing through a file. "You still have this?"

Colour rose in Sakuraba's cheeks. "I ... didn't know where to return it." He coughed, an embarrassed sort of sound. "I was mostly impressed that they had it in my size."

"I was even more impressed that they had it in Ootawara's size," smiled Takami, who was vaguely aware of the blush spreading across his own face, and tried to conceal it by smoothing out the folds in the black skirt. "Seems he'd be the more unconventional fit."

Sakuraba chuckled, putting down the file and coming over to sit on the floor next to Takami. "I remember I was cold." He reached into the box and pulled out a pair of stockings and a ruffled headband, regarding them with a bemused expression. "There was a breeze, and, well, thigh-highs don't do much against autum wind."

Takami pushed his glasses back up the bridge of his nose, folding the costume and placing it in a different pile from the coats; such was not the thing he wanted to find himself explaining to any visitors who might open the front closet. "You, ah ... wore it well," he confessed, unable to meet Sakuraba's gaze.

There was a small pause, then Sakuraba laughed, wrapping his arms around Takami's shoulders and kissing his cheek. "Well, if I'd known that, I would have pulled it out long before now."

"Don't be ridiculous." Takami reached for another coat, trying and utterly failing to clear from his mind the memory of Sakuraba in his penalty uniform, instinct trumping modesty as he reached for a high-tossed pass. "You wear anything well, and you know it." Sakuraba laughed again at that, petting Takami's hair, and so did Takami, who kissed his boyfriend and considered the matter closed.

It then came something as a surprise to Takami when, a few nights later, he found himself tied to the bed with one of Sakuraba's silk neckties, his glasses still perched on his face and Sakuraba perched on top of him, straddling his hips. The starchy material of the costume's underskirt scratched against his bare chest, not in an unpleasant way, but certainly not in the same way Sakuraba's nylon-clad thighs felt against his hips. Sakuraba's hand trailed down Takami's chest, tracing little patterns all the way down until his hand disappeared under the hem of his own skirt, and Takami felt a great wave of gratitude that no longer being in a dorm situation of any type meant he no longer had to bite back the groan that slipped from his lips.

It was, as far as culminations of long-held, secret fantasies went, definitely an experience worth repeating.


The bluff was a nice place, Rui had to admit. He didn't know precisely how Hiruma'd found it, as Hiruma laughed off any inquiries, but it was high and quiet, looking down over the little town below, accessable only by a dirt path Rui's bike traversed effortlessly. They lay sprawled there, facing skyward, Hiruma bracing them both by leaning back against the rear wheel of Rui's bike. Rui settled between Hiruma's legs, leaning his head back against that bony chest, listening to Hiruma's heart.

The clouds rolled by overhead, pushed by a high wind, all too thin to block the mid-afternoon sun for anything more than a moment. Rui reached up to undo the top button of his shirt, exposing his throat to the warm sunlight, and Hiruma laughed. "Fucking lizard, sunning himself on a rock."

Rui sighed, closing his eyes and leaning his head back. He wanted a cigarette, wanted one pretty fucking badly, but knew that if he lit one Hiruma'd just pitch it off the cliff, and that was a confrontation he didn't feel like provoking right now. Instead, he quirked his lips, mulling his options for a moment, then undid his shirt the rest of the way. The air chilled his skin just as soon as the sun warmed it, an equilibrium of extremes. All was quiet for several minutes, until Rui opened his eyes again and found Hiruma staring not at the clouds or at the scenery, but at him. "Yeah?"

Hiruma shook his head, grinning a bit. "I didn't think you pampered punks were allowed to be happy." One slender hand reached down to pet at Rui's bare belly, with just enough pressure and bite of fingernails to keep from being ticklish.

The observation caught Rui off-guard; his first instinct was to contradict, to insult, to do anything to take the attention off the chink in his armour of perpetual misery, and he followed that reflex to its argumentative conclusion. "Tch, happy? What do I have to be happy about? The Chameleons are out of the running, the last goddamn chance and it's gone, Megu's been mad at me about some shit or other for the past week, I've got my fucking dad breathing down my--"

His tirade halted mid-stream as he felt Hiruma lean down and press a long kiss to his forehead, just at his hairline. "Fucking lizard," Hiruma smirked, his lips brushing Rui's skin as he spoke. "Go back to being happy. I won't tell."

"You're crazy," Rui muttered, but even as he did he couldn't keep the corners of his mouth from lifting. It was all true, of course, every cause for complaint he'd laid out, every reason he'd given and could go on giving for why he deserved to be sullen -- but the sky was blue, and the sun was warm, and he was at least for those few moments the center of Hiruma's attention, and as such he was hard-pressed to find anything wrong with any of that.

"...If you blow me," Hiruma added, after a moment's pause.

Rui rolled his eyes. "In a minute, jackass." But even that did nothing but encourage the grin that spread across his face. He leaned back again, stretching his arms above his head and around Hiruma's neck, exposing his chest to the air and letting Hiruma soak into his skin like the sun.


Kakei inhaled, then breathed out the rest of the smoke in his lungs. The room was quiet and warmed by what of the late afternoon sun that managed to filter in through the curtains, and he settled flat on his back on the bed, feeling the tension filter out of his body. Everything felt pleasantly heavy.

Next to the bed, Mizumachi sat thumbing through a tall stack of CDs. He was still up and flitting around; he never got as stoned as Kakei did, though whether by design or by simply forgetting that's what they were doing, Kakei couldn't say. "I like this one," said Mizumachi, holding up Nirvana's Nevermind.

"Put it on." Kakei yawned and stretched, shutting his eyes. The next sound he heard, however, was not the music's changing, but the shuffle of fabric -- followed by a soft fwump as a chlorine-smelling shirt fell across his face. Before he could entirely convince his arm to remove it, he felt pressure lower down, felt it spreading upward, until Mizumachi was on top of him, stretched the length of his body, a hot, human blanket. Kakei drew the shirt away, only to find that the chlorine smell still lingered in the spikes of Mizumachi's heavily bleached hair.

For a moment, calmed mind spun up again with questions -- why is he doing this? what does he want? was it something I said? -- but his brain's frantic spinnings were even too much for him to keep pace with now, and he willed the gears to spin down. It was just Mizumachi, and Mizumachi was frequently inexplicable. If Kakei had to stop and ask himself 'why?' every time Mizumachi did something, he'd never get anything done.

Mizumachi laughed, and the exhale of his breath hazed warm against Kakei's bare neck. "Decided I liked the Pink Floyd better," he said, though, to Kakei's surprise, that was the most explanation or commentary he offered for anything. Instead, he relaxed completely, mirroring their long-limbed bodies chest-to-chest, diverging only where Mizumachi's cheek came down on the pillow next to Kakei's head. Kakei could feel the warmth from where his own clothing was the only buffer between his and Mizumachi's bare skin.

The CD ran out, and neither made a move to start it up again.

"...This feels good," Kakei said after a long moment, nearly startling himself with the sound of his own voice.

He could feel Mizumachi's lips curl into a smile. "Yeah." His voice sounded distant, as though they were both deep underwater, weightless and untroubled. "It does."

They were still so long Kakei became aware first of his own heartbeat, then of Mizumachi's slightly faster rhythm, and he found himself thinking of nothing but darkness and warmth and two pulses, diverging and converging, regular as clockwork.

Morning After

Mamori woke to a sharp urge from her bladder, the day's first reminder of the alcohol she'd consumed the night before. Her head's contribution came next, fuzzy and heavy, and more than a little pained. Both were so distracting with their insistence that she didn't even notice something was wrong until she turned to her left to get up -- and instead of finding the bed's edge rolled purposefully into Hiruma.

"What? Fucking manager," Hiruma grunted. He was already turned away from her, the naked expanse of his lean back and pale ass displayed prominently, and she saw through sleep-bleary eyes that there was someone beyond him, someone who though mostly disguised by the covers he was presumably hogging had a very suspicious haircut peeking out the top.

Dumbstruck, her brain flailed for some explanation, retrieving more questions than answers -- cheif among them, in response to waking up with two men, being how would that even work? ...Or how had that even worked? she supposed, more to the point. She sat up too fast, which set her head to ringing, and she calmed it down just in time to notice that she was as naked as Hiruma (except for one sock, really, how did these things happen?) and that the place where her thighs met was terribly sticky.

Fortunately, hotel rooms make their facilities easy to locate, and Mamori had covered the distance between the bed and the bathroom in a time she felt would have qualified her for Notre Dame's offensive line.

Five minutes later -- after she'd had time to deal with her bladder emergency, locate a bottle of asprin in the medicine cabinet, and run her head under a stream of cold water -- a knock sounded on the door. "Come on, fucking manager, other people have to go too."

"I-- I'm naked!" she shouted back, because it was the best excuse she could think of for staying in the bathroom longer, possibly for the rest of her life if it came to that.

Hiruma's sigh was audible through the door. "You got beer on your clothes last night; I sent them out with the laundry. They'll be back soon." She heard a small rustling of drawers and some muffled conversation too low to make out. "Look, here's a shirt."

Taking a deep breath, she cracked the door just enough to extend her arm. The grey t-shirt thrust into her hand was large and soft, and came down just below the curve of her ass, a barely adequate concession to modesty. Before Hiruma could start knocking again, she took its hem in both hands, tugging it downward, and exited the bathroom. "About time," he muttered -- though he gave her a little smile as she came out, which just made her blush and yank the t-shirt down farther. With a wink -- and still, she noted, bare-ass naked -- he slipped past her and shut the door behind him.

Now that confusion had abated and her head had stopped thrumming, she looked around the hotel room. It was nice, in a way, and too full of Hiruma's stuff to be anything but a permanent residence. It did, however, lack anywhere to sit down that wasn't the bed. Unable to make her escape without being arrested for indecent exposure, Mamori found the corner of the bed farthest from Musashi and sat demurely down, folding her hands.

"I was already asleep when you got here, and it seemed rude to interrupt." Musashi's deep voice startled her, and she snapped her head around to see that he had emerged from his cocoon, his haircut wilted charmingly. He had a weird sort of smile on his lips, and Mamori suddenly found a lot of things making a lot more sense. "In case you were wondering."

She coughed. "I ... I was, a little." Her hands twisted in her lap. "...I'm, ah, sorry?"

"No need." He shook his head, then reached into the bedside drawer -- Mamori didn't look away fast enough to miss the economy-size box of condoms there -- to pull out a handful of take-out menus. "If you're hungry, all these places deliver. I know he'll be," he inclined his head toward the bathroom, where the shower was now running, "as soon as he gets out." There was a small pause, and Musashi gave her that weird smile again. "You look good in my shirt."

This time, Mamori blushed all the way to her toes.

Breaking and Entering

At first, he just shut his eyes. It one of those horrible dreams, like where you go to school naked or all your teeth fall out. It had to be. He'd close his eyes, and he'd open them again, and the world would be back to normal.

He opened them again. It didn't help. Time for the direct approach.

"What the fuck are you doing here?" he hissed at the silhouette, which was not only quite familiar even in the near-dark room, but which had obviously come in through the now-open window. Rui hated when he did that, had discouraged it in the strongest terms possible, had told him he'd get shot someday by his father's security. It hadn't occured to him until this moment that perhaps this was like threatening Brer Rabbit with the briar patch.

Hiruma walked around to the far side of the bed, wearing a grin visible even in shadow, and Rui was still too sleep-frozen to stop him as he lifted the top sheet and pulled it back from the bed. Between them, a newly uncovered Megu shifted and stirred, then cracked one eye open. "Rui, are--" She stopped and turned in the direction of the room's new occupant, eyeing him suspiciously, making no effort to cover herself. "...Hn."

"I thought that bike outside looked too butch to be yours, you fucking lizard." Hiruma undid his belt and let his jeans slide off his hips, then climbed into Rui's monster of a bed, which truthfully could have accommodated at least another three people comfortably. It wasn't a secret to anyone in the room how many times he'd done just that before, but he'd never had the bad timing (or the mean streak, depending on what you believed about his motivation at any given time) to find anyone beneath the covers but Rui. But whatever the reason, this time the fucker had definitely known what he'd find before he opened the window.

"What the fuck are you doing here?" Rui repeated, sitting up and raking his hair back with his fingers. He tried to sound angry, or at least convincingly irate, but he saw Hiruma's slender fingers creep over Megu's bare hip, and his throat went dry. It had to be a bad dream for sure now, the one where the girl you liked started getting it on with the guy you liked right in front of you, the kind you couldn't tell the therapists because they always lied when they pretended not to tell your parents every word you said, and Hiruma's long fingers had made their way up to her nipple, which meant this was definitely precisely that bad dream, and he was going to wake up any second now with his boxers sticky.

Any second now.

Megu rolled on her side, turning away from Hiruma and toward Rui, but keeping Hiruma's hand fixed to her breast with her own. She was so beautiful, soft and pale, and his gaze caught and stuck at the curve where her shoulder became her neck, not solely because Hiruma's mouth was there now, kissing her skin dark. "Rui," she breathed, half an invitation, half an impatient sigh. She stretched one of her arms out toward him, tracing a line with one sharp fingernail from his throat down his chest, stopping to circle his navel briefly before wrapping around his cock.

He gasped, and no sooner had his lips parted that two fingers pushed their way in; he tasted gunpowder, so he bit down. But Hiruma just pushed them farther in, adding a third, and Rui didn't even try to pretend Megu's hand was the only thing getting him hard. Fuck Hiruma Youichi, Rui thought, shutting his eyes and sucking intently. Fuck him for making to so impossible to be normal, and fuck him for always shoving his way into where he didn't belong, and fuck him for being the most arrogant bastard on the planet, and fuck Rui for wanting him anyway.

If he didn't know any better, he'd think they'd planned this. Come to think of it, he didn't know any better. But, Rui decided, as Megu parted her knees and pulled him between, and as the tip of Hiruma's cock presented itself against his lips, he really didn't care.


He stared at himself a long time in the mirror, listening to the world outside. The team would still be on the field for a while now, celebrating their good game -- and it had been a good game, and they'd all played their damn finest, and if you were going to lose by being outsmarted, you might as well have been outsmarted by the best -- but he couldn't summon the face to meet them. Not just yet.

Gentle footsteps shuffled down the steps into the locker room. He didn't look up; he knew already whose feet sounded like that, strong but still a little hesitant, secretly shy. He'd spent their entire time at arm's length studying him like that, learning him like his own heartbeat, taking in every inch of him that could be reached at the distance mandated by Shogun's stringent season regulations, intended to keep the team pure in body and mind alike: no parties, no drinking, no dating.

But the season was over.

With a deep breath, Takami turned and found Sakuraba closer than he'd anticipated, barely arm's length from him. His uniform, mud-stained and soaked, seemed too big for him now, as though he had expanded valliantly to fill it during the game, then exhaled afterward and returned to normal size. Blood smeared at the corner of his mouth, mostly dried now, from where his tooth had been, and sweat and rain had plastered his already-short hair tight to his head. There was no reason for him to look as handsome as he did, and Takami couldn't stop staring.

Sakuraba crossed those final feet between them, all hesitation gone from his steps now, and reached for the bridge of Takami's glasses, pulling them gently off his face. For a moment, Takami felt ashamed -- he knew precisely how he looked, his eyes red, his cheeks stained with tears that no one could mistake for rain. Not much like a warrior or a good loser, just like an old man whose dream had at last proven unfeasable.

Then Sakuraba lifted his hand to Takami's face and brushed the backs of his gloved knuckles beneath Takami's eyes -- a symbolic gesture, to be sure, as Takami's cheeks were both drier and cleaner than Sakuraba's uniform gloves, but Takami closed his eyes and leaned into the touch. The intimacy felt strange not for itself, but for how bare and bold it was. Here was far from the first time they'd been alone together, but for all their previous encounters, Takami could not remember a time they had touched like this. The season's end had caused his tears, and its end likewise allowed them to be dried.

It was impossible to say who started the kiss, or whether it had happened by some prior arrangement unknown up to that very moment, but suddenly they were upon each other, mouths locked together, bodies pressed as tightly as their cage-like padding would let them get. Sakuraba's hands were fisted in the front of Takami's jersey, and Takami's fingers brushed across the hair he himself had shorn short not so long ago; Takami felt the blood in the kiss and relented, but Sakuraba refused to let up, holding him close, kissing him so hard he found it difficult to breathe, so Takami finally leaned in and met him with no further hesitation. From outside, a large cheer went up over some unknown announcement or revelation, but the two of them might as well have been on the moon for all it mattered.

Never before had losing felt so much like freedom.

Early Morning Rain

Hiruma woke in the stormy half-dawn that filtered through curtains that didn't quite close, somewhat surprised to find that he wasn't alone.

The shoulder his cheek pressed against was warm, and even in the dim grey light a suspiciously familiar ring of teeth marks branded its surface, raised and dark like they'd been made by fire. Any further damage was hidden from Hiruma's vantage point by a thin white undershirt and closely drawn hotel sheets. The chest they covered rose and fell in a low, slow rhythm.

It felt strange, waking up next to someone; Hiruma couldn't recall a time when that had happened before (not since his parents, at least, however long ago that had been). It felt like being caught doing something you were absolutely supposed to be doing, but being made to feel guilty for it all the same. His arm lay stretched across the chest in question, reaching up until his fingers curled just below a jaw well-shaded with at least a day's growth of beard by now. He grinned and rubbed at it with the backs of his knuckles.

The multicultural etiquette books he'd read were unhelpfully silent on the protocols here. When the guy whose ass you've wanted for months, the guy who's danced around you while you've done the same around him -- when he finally comes over, fucks you so hard into the mattress that you're sure they hear you for the next three floors down, and actually bothers to pull his boxers and undershirt back on before falling alseep -- when he wakes up next to you in the hotel room you call home, and you want everything to be different and the same all at once -- when he's warm and smells like sleep and sex and sweat, and it's making you hard again because you're fifteen fucking years old and everything makes you hard -- when desipite all your bluster, this is the first time you've done anything like this -- when you want to make sure he's still speaking to you -- well, what's the proper response?

The owner of the chest and jaw grunted and pushed at him with one bear-like paw. "Quit that," he muttered. "I'm trying to sleep."

"You sleep too late, old man." Hiruma pushed right back, and a weight he hadn't known had been sitting on his chest lifted. "It's past six. Shouldn't you be up by now, carrying around sacks of fucking cement importantly?"

Musashi inclined his head toward the window without ever opening his eyes. "Site'll be closed until it lets up." His voice was low and heavy with sleep, and beyond it Hiruma could hear the faint hiss of water against the pane. "Everybody sleeps late today." He cracked one stern, dark eye at Hiruma. "Everybody, it seems, except me."

"Can't help that I'm a morning person." Hiruma grinned, showing his canines, then stretched out on his stomach along the length the bed, tossing the covers entirely off the end of the mattress with his feet. He didn't bother with separate clothes for sleeping; he slept naked, or in his clothes on the [increasingly frequent) nights he was just too tired to undress before falling over.

Grunting, Musashi grabbed Hiruma's vacated pillow and pulled it over his face. "Go away."

Hiruma chose to interpret this as a suggestion, not a command. "I'm making coffee," he announced, though he didn't actually travel farther than to the bedside table. The drawer contained a ball-point pen, which Hiruma heaved at the on button of the two-cup coffee maker atop the dresser; the machine, startled into life by the accuracy of the throw, began to splurt and bubble the smell of coffee into the small room.

"That's nice," came the feather-muffled reply, and Hiruma decided to let the matter rest at least until the coffee was done.

They'd seen one another naked before this, of course -- sports teams and locker rooms practically demanded voyeurism as a requirement for participation -- but Hiruma'd never before had the luxury of just letting his eyes linger on the man next to him, without fear of passers-by, with an actual locked door to keep out interruptions. The shirt and shorts Musashi wore were thin and sleep-pressed to his body, and left little of the broad, well-muscled frame beneath them to the imagination.

He was gorgeous, Hiruma had thought from the first time seeing him kick a hole in a chickenwire fence nearly big enough for the fucking fatty to fit through. Ugly as shit, with a face like a fifty-year-old man, thick and hairy and intensely fuckable -- back even before Hiruma had actually had thoughts of fucking him, back when it was nothing more than just the fierce magnetism of I want you, with no further explanation of what would happen when [never if, only when) Hiruma finally got him. That would work itself out later, was the unspoken promise. Hiruma just had to have him first.

Another ring of teethmarks peeked out from beneath the leg of Musashi's boxers, and Hiruma remembered that it had gotten him swatted in the head, which had just made him bite down harder -- something he supposed illustrated a fundamental trait in his personality. With a wicked smirk, Hiruma bent down and pressed his mouth to the circle, opening his jaw and finding again where his claim fit.

"What're you doing?" Musashi had not only deigned to remove the pillow, but he now regarded Hiruma with a somewhat bemused expression.

Hiruma shrugged, moving a few inches up Musashi's thigh and biting again. "If you don't get up now," he said without letting go of the soft flesh gripped in his teeth, "I'm going to fuck you."

As threats went, it was largely idle. Part of him -- the largest part, in fact, the one most accustomed to reading people -- expected it to get his bedmate up and around, stumbling to his clothes and coffee, with maybe a shower somewhere in the mix, the standard morning-after routine from all the American movies. There were rules, unspoken ones, unwritten in any book of good behaviour but as iron-clad as the laws concerning light and gravity. Even for friends, for teammates, for comerades.

What broadsided him, then, was when Musashi not only made no effort to move from his reclining position, but let his knees stretch apart, a gulf just Hiruma's size spreading between them. "Whatever," he shrugged, sounding casual to the point of boredom, which might have been convincing if not for the suspicious rise in his boxers, the wet peak of which stained the fabric dark.

"Whatever," echoed Hiruma, and he pressed his hands so firmly against the marked flesh of Musashi's thighs that they did not shake.


Being at a table with Hiruma Youichi, Takami reckoned, was not unlike being in a cage with a cobra, and that if at any time he let his guard down, he would be bitten. "I had heard," he said, drumming his fingers on the side of his canned green tea, "that it was a siege weapon used in the European Middle Ages."

Hiruma drummed his fingers on the table, his perpetual wicked, toothy grin stretched across his face. "Actually, it was first invented by the Ancient Greeks and then later adapted by the Romans; by the time the Middle Ages came around, it was a mostly obsolete piece of machinery."

"I'm sure its obsolescence was great comfort to anyone who found it on the wrong side of their city walls." The name had been his own idea, of course, since no one else had even known what a ballista was before he brought in a library book on ancient arms and armaments. Leave it to Hiruma to catch him on the one paragraph his eyes must have skimmed.

Another plate of meat came to rest on their table, courtesy of a cute, cow-horned waitress who looked very long-suffering; Takami resolved to leave her a generous tip. "Of course," nodded Hiruma, reaching over to turn the burner flames higher. "But technology doesn't only build stronger machinery; it also builds stronger walls."

Takami threw a pair of beef strips on the grill, making sure the better of the two landed closer to Hiruma. It was only polite, after all. "Absolutely true," he conceded graciously. "Though, really, a siege doesn't have to do anything, if it doesn't want to. It can just make camp and wait the even the strongest-walled city out."

That earned a cackle from Hiruma. "And what happens when it's the city's turn to fight back?"

"Then," smirked Takami, "it needs to be careful, or it may find it brings its own walls tumbling down."

A rise of merriment from the nearby table caught Takami's attention, and he turned just in time to see Sakuraba lean back and laugh at whatever joke had been made, running his fingers as he did so across his newly shorn hair. Takami knew he'd made the misstep of letting his gaze linger just a fraction of an instant too long as he turned back and found Hiruma staring at him with a piercing glare. "And how are you and your pop star wide receiver getting along these days?"

Takami kept every muscle of his face perfectly in place as he nudged the bridge of his glasses back up his nose with the blunt end of his chopsticks. "And you and your kicker?"

"Ha," said Hiruma, with a wicked feral smile. "Touché."

Bunk Beds

Takami woke to the sensation of his glasses' being slipped gently off his face. "Wasn't sleeping," he mumbled, even though the lie was made all the more obvious for how he was lying in his dorm bed with a blanket pulled over his bottom half.

"Yes, you were," said Sakuraba, who was just far enough away from Takami's face that the edges of his expression were blurred. He folded the glasses and reached behind him, putting them on the bedside table, next to the clock that said 11:32. "You've been asleep for thirty minutes."

"Oh." Takami lifted a hand clumsily to his mouth, pawing at his chin to see if he'd drooled during his unexpected nap; he relaxed when it appeared he hadn't. "Why didn't you wake me up?"

Sakuraba shrugged, leaning back against the wall, his own legs stretched out the length of the bed. He still had his calculus text open on his knees, and appeared to have removed Takami's copy from the bed sometime in the last half hour. "You looked peaceful," he said. "But then I thought you might not want to sleep with your glasses on."

Takami blinked a few times and shook his head. "No, I ... it happens, sometimes. The frames sometimes bend a little, though." Having a single had its advantages and disadvantages, and one of the latter was that not sharing space with another person meant that falling asleep with the lights on, in his school clothes, still wearing his glasses was something that happened to him a lot more often than he might like.

"Maybe you should wear your athletic glasses when you study." Or at least, that was what it sounded like, as the end of Sakuraba's sentence was lost in a mighty yawn.

Takami squinted at the clock's red numbers again to make sure he'd read them right. "Are you staying the night?" Even with his poor eyesight, he could see Sakuraba's eyes widen to perfect circles, and damned his sleepy lack of self-censorship. "I mean, it's late, and ... here, I can put sheets on the top bunk--"

"I mean," Sakuraba stammered, shifting his legs off the side of the bed, "if it's not too much of a bother...."

"No, no bother." Takami nudged off the blanket and pulled himself blindly to his feet, wobbling only a little with the unpleasantness of being awake. He nudged open two drawers, one with his linens, the other with his pajamas. "Here," he said, handing Sakuraba a pair of sheets, "and you can grab whatever fits you so you don't have to sleep in your uniform. I'll wash up while you call home." He took a pair of pajamas for himself -- his newest set, the ones he was sure had neither stains nor holes in them -- and started toward the tiny bathroom.

"Takami?" Sakuraba scratched the back of his short hair, which had managed in the intervening weeks to grow out to an endearingly awkward length. From the distance between them, he was entirely shape and movement, with no detail at all. "Thanks a lot. I mean. For ... well, thank you."

"You're welcome," smiled Takami, stepping into the bathroom and closing the door. He locked it behind him, then made sure the door to the other dorm room it connected was locked as well. From behind his door, he could hear the muffled sounds of Sakuraba's explaining his whereabouts to his mother; he turned the faucet on the sink, and the conversation disappeared beneath the sound of running water. With any luck, it would cover up any noises from his side as well, he thought, leaning his cheek against the cool tile wall and shutting his eyes. He unfastened his uniform pants and slipped his hand inside the fly of his underwear. If Sakuraba was going to be sleeping above him the whole night long, then certain preventative measures had to be taken to prevent potential catastrophe. It was the quarterback's job, after all, to prepare for every forseeable outcome.

Cry For Help

Fuck him, Hiruma knew how to show up at the worst possible times, like when your arms were still wrapped in gauze and medical tape, and you still smelled like hospital-grade disinfectant and starch, and you hadn't even bothered to get a pair of scissors to snip the fucking bracelet off your wrist because you were sort of afraid that asking for sharp things would send your mother into another of her fits that only ended after she took three Valium and your dad yelled at you for fifteen extra minutes than he might have yelled at you otherwise. Doesn't everybody have days like that?

"Looks like somebody went across the street, not down the block." Hiruma clucked his tongue, perched at the end of Rui's bed so his knees were nearly higher than his shoulders, curtains to the open window that had been his impromptu entryway fluttering in the night wind behind him almost like bat wings. "How many times did the fucking hospital shrink say the words 'cry for help'?"

Nine, actually, before Rui had stopped counting. "Fuck off," he grunted, turning on his side and pulling the covers awkwardly to chin level. They'd given him painkillers, despite his grumblings that they should just stitch him up raw, it was what he deserved. The irony was, now that they were wearing off, all he wanted was a couple more -- proving, he supposed, just how bad at being a cutter he really was.

Hiruma, unsurprisingly, did not fuck off in the slightest. "You look like the Mummy from the elbows down," he laughed, but it sounded forced, and when Rui turned to look at him -- to really look at him, half-lit in the pale yellow light of Rui's bedside lamp -- all the teeth of his grin were perfectly in place, but his eyes were narrow and mean. "Bet the nurses bitched about how much real estate you've got there for them to patch up."

"I said fuck off," snapped Rui, mindful only at the last second to keep his voice down; the last thing he wanted to add to his parents' evening was this little tableau. "I can't deal with this shit right now, Hiruma, I really fucking can't."

"Bet it's hard to jerk off like that," observed Hiruma casually -- and then, as though this had been anyone's idea of an appropriate segue, he pulled the covers back and slid in beneath the sheets before Rui could really register what was going on, much less mount a protest. Still fully clothed, down to his shoes -- man, fuck him -- Hiruma pressed his body flush against Rui's back; one of his hands came to rest at Rui's hips, warm fingertips slipping just beneath the waistband of Rui's sweatpants.

Rui, who became hard so instantly that he nearly forgot to be offended, made a motion to grab Hiruma's hand and instantly regretted it. "What the fuck are you doing!" he hissed between clenched teeth. He tried to pull his knees up to his chest, but somehow only ended up rolling a little more onto his back, gasping as Hiruma's hot little spider-hands wrapped tight around his cock and began to squeeze.

"Shut the fuck up," Hiruma said in his ear, his voice low and commanding; he didn't sound like he was smiling any more. The edges of his fingernaills skimmed the underside of Rui's cock, and Rui had to bite his lower lip to keep from making a sound. "You fucking loser, shut the fuck up, you idiot, you fucking idiot." The pad of Hiruma's thumb ran across the slit at his head, spreading a slick line down the length of Rui's cock. "Stupid fucking selfish idiot," and now Hiruma's voice was nearly a growl, and Rui could feel teeth against the curve of his ear as Hiruma's hand began to tease out a rhythm, and as he rocked against it, he could feel that Hiruma was hard behind him too, and son of a bitch if it didn't make him even harder. Fuck him so much.

"You fucking idiot, you fucking idiot," Hiruma settled into a low, repetitive murmur, almost a mantra, and he must've been hanging around that crazy bastard too much, Rui thought, because from Hiruma's filthy mouth, it almost sounded like love poetry.

Role Reversal

Later, he would explain it all away by how much alcohol had been in the punch, even though that explanation didn't even attempt to address the series of circumstances and agreements that had gotten him to Hiruma's costume party in the first place, much less what had gotten him there wearing a short skirt. Or, really, why he hadn't turned around and headed back home the instant he'd realized that either Hiruma had lied to him or nobody else (Hiruma included) had gotten the 'football genderfuck' theme memo, and either way he was the only man there in a cheerleader uniform.

Of course, damn him, he'd been unmistakable from the second he walked in the doors, and Hiruma -- who obviously had been hit on the head and woken up thinking he was a cowboy, giving the astonishing amount of leather hugging every inch of his skin that wasn't left bare -- grabbed his arm and shoved a large plastic cup into his hand. "Fuckin' perfect," Hiruma declared his costume, dragging Rui deeper into the throng of people.

"I don't think--" Rui started to say, but the music was loud enough to cover a multitude of protests, and Hiruma wasn't known for listening even under the best of circumstances. So he let himself be ferried along through the hotel's not-unsubstantial ballroom, part of the entire floor Hiruma had apparently rented out for this. Of course, Rui thought as he brushed by a slow-dancing couple in matching police uniforms, 'rented' was probably a generous word for the transaction that had acquired Hiruma the space for the party that night. The crowd at large looked untroubled by the presumably ill-begotten space, however, and there were more than a few faces there Rui could recall having seen up close through his helmet's face mask before.

When Hiruma came to a sharp stop on the other side of the room -- much too far, Rui lamented, from the room's entrance, thus negating any possibility of a quick escape -- it was in front of a crowd of familiar faces. Kid was there, lounging back in a chair and sporting little more than devil wings and a smile (it occured to Rui that there might have been some team mascot exchange going on here), with his arm slung across the back of the chair occupied by Musashi, who was wearing just as much leather as Hiruma, only all motorcycle-themed, complete with a helmet at his feet. The two tall jerks from Kyoshin, Rui couldn't even remember their names, seemed to have coordinated their rather extravagant glam rock costumes, and they flanked Mamori, who cut a sharp profile in a severe dark men's suit, complete with yakuza-appropriate sunglasses pushing her bangs back.

Whatever embarrassment he might have felt at being exposed in his absurdly short skirt and tiny sleeveless t-shirt, however, was forgotten when Rui's gaze made it all the way to the last person in the row. Megu, the last person in the world he'd expected Hiruma to invite, the extra-last person in the world he'd expected to show up to a party like this, sat wide-kneed in an armchair. Her long hair was pulled back in a braid, and she wore only a simple pair of grey sweats -- except, as Rui looked more closely, they were Deimon sweats, and not only that, they were Hiruma's sweats, with his name printed just below the team logo on the left breast. Rui wondered for a moment why she was sitting like that, and then his eyes made it to her crotch, where the tightness of the thin grey material showcased in perfect detail the outline of a rather impressive half-hard cock. Well, at least the girls had gotten the genderfuck memo.

Confronted by this, Rui drained his drink in a single gulp.


Of course, renting out the entire floor had meant all the rooms as well, and more than a few of them had prominent DO NOT DISTURB signs displayed when Rui finally managed to exit the party's main room, leaving the party still going strong behind him. Of course, the only way he had managed to navigate the sea of people and alcohol had been to let Megu grab him by the wrist and drag him on unsteady legs through the ballroom, but he had deemed an acceptable solution to the conundrum.

He was distressed to discover, as she slammed shut the door of a previously empty room behind them, that he'd somehow lost his underwear in the course of the evening, and couldn't remember how exactly it had happened. The shock of discovery, however, was somewhat mitigated by the method of discovery -- namely, her hands traveling up his bare thighs, slipping easily beneath his skirt, grabbing his unencumbered balls. "You look like a slut," she purred at him, fisting her fingers in his hair and jerking his head back hard; her breasts pressed against him from where Hiruma's wouldn't have, and she even smelled like Hiruma, fuck.

She ground against his thigh, and he could feel the hardness at her crotch press rudely into his skin. He was glad she had him smashed up against the hotel door, because he was getting too turned-on to stand. Blaming the alcohol even at the time, he groped for the waistband of her (Hiruma's) grey pants, slipping his fingers down beneath a pair of what felt like tight boxer-briefs until they wrapped around a very lifelike silicone packing dildo, held in place by a soft leather pouch and a wide elastic band that looped around her hips. He wasn't even surprised; he'd known her too long ever to doubt her dedication to detail.

"You like that?" she murmured against his ear, and it was all he could do not to stop the proceedings right then and there to compose an epic poem to exactly how much he liked it. Instead he nodded, and she flicked her fingernail lightly along the skin just behind his balls, causing a massive redirection of his body's blood downward. "You want to suck me off? You want my dick in your mouth?"

"Ohfuckpleaseyes," Rui gasped, way, way too drunk to reasonably be expected to maintain control over his impulses, and that was his story, and he was sticking to it.

Her hand tightened in his hair, and he saw a couple stars twinkle in his field of vision. "Oh fuck please yes what?"

He was past the point of dignity, past all plausible deniability, well into the realm of sheer need, and it was far too late to back out now. "Please let me suck your dick," he whimpered, and the fact that it was Megu he was saying this to just made it all the more arousing. "I want your cock in my mouth."

That seemed to be the magic word; she released him and sauntered over to the bed, pushing the sweatpants and underwear off her hips as she did so. When she sat, even in the room's weak light, he could see the soft peach bulge between her legs, a mouthful resting quietly in its soft black harness. With a little smirk, she reached up and peeled off the shirt and sportbra, freeing her breasts. With one red-painted hand she tugged at a nipple; with the other, she wrapped her fingers lightly around her cock. The contrast was paralytic.

Surely, the back of Rui's mind told him as he stood slack-jawed in her presence, Hiruma wouldn't throw a party like this without first installing spy cameras in every room, and he was probably even watching right now, laughing at the mess he'd helped make. However, as he fell to his knees and opened his pink-painted lips wide, Rui made the executive decision that he didn't fucking care.

A Much-Needed Scrub

Locke's toes were pink. Considering they had been caked brown only an hour before, this was a decided improvement, except they were now all wrinkly, and he wasn't sure how he felt about that. He lifted his feet up and out of the bathtub, which ended up landing his other end nearly up to the nose in slightly grimy water. Except for being unable to breathe, it was quite pleasant.

"Don't drown yourself." Edgar dropped a fluffy white towel on the marble countertop. "There's only so much of you I'd like left in the bathtub." He sighed at the brown ring just above the waterline.

Locke laughed, dunking his head and emerging newly soaked; he shook his head like a dog, sending dingy droplets all over the expensive bathroom. "I think I need more water. This round's cold."

Leaning against the counter, Edgar rolled his eyes. "I think it's time to get out."

"But what if I'm not clean?" Locke draped himself over the side of the tub, revealing arms that, beneath the dirt, had matured nicely since last Edgar saw him. He looked up, practicing on Edgar a grin that had, of late, seemed to stop the pretty girls in their tracks -- and was moderately pleased to see a little muscle above Edgar's right eyebrow twitch. "If I leave naked muddy me-prints on the sheets, Gretchin'll kill me."

Rolling his eyes, Edgar flipped open the towel. "You're clean enough. Come on out."

With an adolescent body caught somewhere between grace and awkwardness, Locke stood straight up in the tub, letting the bathwater drip off him. "Ooh, the street kid gets a king for a maid. I'm moving up in the world." He stepped into the towel, which was large enough to wrap around him nearly twice.

"I'm not your maid," Edgar sighed, bringing out another, smaller towel to rub Locke's hair dry. "And I'm not a king -- not yet, anyway. But mostly I'm not your maid." With a twist of the towel, he rumpled Locke's hair and left the terrycloth hanging in his friend's face.

Locke scowled as he shook his head and cast the towel to the floor, where it cleverly absorbed some of the bathwater that hadn't the good sense to stay in the tub where it belonged. "Well, you know, everyone needs a second career choice. Just in case the king thing doesn't work out. Heck, you could be my maid anyday."

"Will you quit it with the maid thing?" Edgar turned toward the bedroom. "Come on. Gretchin left us sandwiches." He gestured for Locke to follow him into the next room. And Locke, if only to see the eyebrow muscle twitch again, discarded his towel and did just that.

Dinner Bell

She didn’t mind being on campaign, really. It was exciting, in its own way, and commanding troops gave her a sense of belonging. Even after hours on the chocobo, past the point where motion numbed her butt and chaffed her thighs, Celes felt like she’d was accomplishing something. She liked order, and she liked routine, and the military provided her with both of those.

What she was damn sick of was the food. She cracked open yet another foil-tin package, making a face at food grey and cold as the metal that held it. Her chocobo made an unrelated warking noise, and she cast a baleful glance its way. “Much more of this, and I’m afraid you’re next on the menu, Fluffy.”

“Come now,” came the voice from above her, and she was so startled she nearly dropped her institutionalised pre-prepared dinner facsimile. “Isn’t your mount supposed to be your best friend in combat, with you through thick and thin, and the like? Besides, he looks a bit gamey, even for a seven-foot yellow bird. But I’ve never had a taste for drumstick, if you know what I mean.”

Celes didn’t, and didn’t think she wanted to. “Lord Kefka.” She put the tin down and began to pull herself to her feet, but he placed a white-gloved hand on her shoulder and urged her back to her seat.

“Oh, don’t get up for little me, General. I was just in the area,” he moved to the other end of the log on which she sat, wiggling his ass a little on the way down as he joined her, “and couldn’t help but noticing the slop they’ve got you all eating there. What is that?” He looked at it suspiciously. “Next to that, I suppose your Fluffy would look tasty.”

It was exhaustion, she figured, that cut through her general distaste for the man and made her smile a little. “They say it’s vegetarian.” She poked it with her knife, and it jiggled a little.

Kefka’s delicate nose wrinkled. “Looks like someone’s creative solution to the moogle overpopulation problem to me.” He reached into his robes and pulled out a cloth-wrapped bundle, offering it to her. “Here. Something a little more nutritional.”

She lifted a corner and her eyes grew wide. “How on earth did you–?”

“Tut tut, dearie.” Kefka wagged a finger at her as he stood. “Don’t question my methods. I know how to travel in style. Just make sure our star general doesn’t go hungry.”

“I’m not–” she began, then stopped and managed a smile she hoped look gracious. “I mean, thank you.”

He gave an awkward little half-bow, winking at her on the way back up. “My abject pleasure. Take care, now.” And he swaggered off, leaving her to tear into a loaf of olive bread that didn’t look more than a day old. She was so thrilled, in fact, she didn’t bother to ask what the hell he was doing in a war zone.

Boots of Spanish Leather

As he pressed open the doors to the great hall, he heard nearly every sound in the room come to a grinding halt (save the dreary minuet from the string quartet, as highly paid musicians tended not to notice anything they weren't supposed to). Even his mother's eyes widened from their customary anaesthetic half-stare, and his father quite promptly dipped half his moustache into his champagne flute, choking on it when he next went to take a drink. Well, even if nothing else happened, Kefka could already call this night a success.

He'd debated over the boots for nearly an hour, though the resounding military click they made as he strode across the marble dance floor told him he'd made the right choice. They laced nearly halfway up his thighs, and the servant boy who'd tied them tight for him would probably get a good whipping for it, which amused Kefka in the way the world always did when it was unfair, but unfair in his favour. Their heels made him nearly four inches taller than he would otherwise be, and their shiny black sides caught and reflected every light in the room.

One of the no fewer than three girls who'd been brought here to meet him that evening stepped forth, her rosy-cheeked charm framed by angelic curls that he wanted to set on fire; she looked thirteen at the most, a scant year younger than he, though the stacked heels helped compensate for the height difference between boys and girls at that age. "Good evening, sir. My name is--"

"Charmed, I'm sure." Kefka fluttered his painted lashes (the makeup had started at eleven, and had become passé even among the easily scandalised far too quickly for his tastes) and swiped a champagne flute from a passing tray. "I love your shoes; don't you just love mine? I got them specially made from the finest boutonniere in Vector." He paused brieftly to see if anyone in earshot had caught the joke, taking the awkward silence as a no. "Then I went to the florist next door and bought a bouquet of lady's slippers, but wouldn't you know? They didn't fit."

The girl, thoroughly rattled by the response to her quite reasonable greeting, stepped back into the arms of her father, a bear of a man with a full yellow beard. Kefka followed her lead, sidling close to the man and drawing the toe of the boot up the man's calf. "Your daughter is lovely, sir, but I suspect a diagnosis of a missing humour gland. Or did you and your wife have that bred out purposefully? Find the most drearily stoic partner you can, hoping your child will be spared the dreadful burden of personality?"

The man huffed a well-I-never sort of huff, and his daughter burst into tears, which was why copious inbreeding was bad -- it made for thin bones and thinner skin. "But come find me later, good sir, and perhaps we can discuss more intimate matters; as you can see from how I am shod, I am now as well-prepared to walk all over you as you do her." And he sauntered off to the rest of the party, knowing all eyes were on him, knowing that from that evening's close, no further proposal of marriage or invitation to high society garbage would darken his house's doorstop, leaving him alone to the affairs of state with which he chose to concern himself. The thought made Kefka laugh, a high sound that rattled the room's glass ceiling and set the blood of everyone in the room to ice.

Sleeping Beauty

She's so pretty. The world's come apart around him, but she's still here, and he supposes that's the point of all this -- if everything in the whole world dies, she'll still be here, still be pretty. She's like all those silk roses around her. She even looks warm.

Locke's never been down here alone before, definitely doesn't have permission to be down here alone now, but he's never met a lock he couldn't pick. It's quiet and a little musty, and kind of peaceful, if you ignore what's essentially a dead body in the middle of the room. Locke sets his candle on the stairs and approaches her, watching as the patterns on the walls change, his shadow elongating in the dim light. "Hey, Rache," he whispers, startled at how well his voice carries in the dry silence. "How you been?"

He isn't surprised when she doesn't answer him, just a little disappointed. She's the princess in that story Ed's nanny used to tell them, the one who got tricked and ate the apple and fell asleep. Locke'd always thought that one was a dumb story, since it didn't have any monsters or swordfights in it. Now he wishes he'd paid better attention. How did the prince save her?

Leaning forward, Locke kisses her, his dry lips against hers. He listens for a moment, waiting for something, anything to tell him it's worked. Not even a twitch; she's not even breathing. She is warm, though, more than he might have guessed from just looking at her. He's been around dead bodies before, but even though her heart and lungs are still, she doesn't feel like one of them. She feels alive, just ... stopped. Concentrating as hard as he can, he leans in to kiss her again, this time not pulling away, but parting her lips with his, pushing his tongue into the dry hollow of her mouth.

A sick wave of grief rushes over him, and he climbs up on the bier next to her, cradling her in his arms, kissing her like he never got to after that day in the cave, the day she'd forgotten all about him. He threads his fingers into the curls of her hair, drawing her head back, kissing down her throat to her exposed bosom, just above the low neckline of her dress. It's been a long three months since the sky fell, since Locke slipped and let her go the same way he'd let Rachel go, and this wasn't like a fairytale at all, because fairytale princes didn't drop their princesses. Especially not twice.

Her skirts slip up around her waist, and he's kissing her the whole time, just in case she's forgotten how much he loved her, just in case she's been wherever she is so long that she's forgotten he promised to save her. It's a promise he intends to keep. It may end up being the only one he ever has.


"Here." Celes extended one fist, in which was clutched a tattered piece of cloth, pale purple with stripes that once might have shone silver, but by now had weathered to dull grey. "I think this belongs to you."

Locke stared at the cloth a moment before his eyes widened. "...You found Wingy!"

It had admittedly not been the response she'd been expecting. "...Wingy?"

"Yeah! He was hurt, so I patched him up!" Locke put down the book Setzer had given him (she didn't know if it was worse that Setzer had given Locke a pornographic novel to teach him to read, or that most pornographic novels were written on the level of a beginning reader) and hopped from his hammock, leaving it a hopeless Gordian knot behind him. "He was all the way inland, and hurt and scared, so I did my best treasure hunter first aid. And then he was gone, so I figured that was good, because he'd probably flown away." He scratched the back of his head, grinning.

Celes couldn't help the giggle that slipped her lips. "You named the seagull 'Wingy'?" It seemed so ridiculous, this contrast, the terrible loneliness that had nearly driven her to suicide versus finding out that the injured bird whose bandages had saved her hope and life alike had been dubbed 'Wingy' by its hapless, big-hearted, ridiculous saviour.

"You can't name a seagull 'Spot,' and that's the only other pet name I could think of. Was he okay? I mean, he was still flyin', right? How'd you find him?" Locke looked at her with his wide eyes (not quite the same colour green, but you'd only ever notice if you spent a long time looking, not that she had), and whatever she'd meant to tell him about that night slipped away from her. The kind of man who spends a year digging for resurrection magic, who goes back to finish saving the world where he failed the first time, who in the middle of a completely broken world bothers patching up the wing of a hurt bird with his bandana -- as long as he lived, Locke would never understand the despair that drives a person to suicide. And Celes didn't want him to.

She took a step closer. "I was on a beach, and I saw him fly down, and I thought, there's only one man in this whole world ridiculous enough to fix a seagull's broken wing."

Locke gave his best sheepish grin, then reached for the bandana; he tugged, but she held on, and he smiled and reeled her in. "I'm glad he found you."

"I'm glad you found me." Celes reached for Locke and wrapped her arms around his neck (easy enough, considering she was taller than he), burying her face in his hair. She felt his arms wrap around her waist, holding her tight, and she reciprocated until she heard him oof a little, then withdrew enough to press their foreheads together.

"Me too." Locke lifted his head and brushed her lips for a kiss, and the bandana, its purpose well-served already, fluttered to the ground.

The Prince and the Pickpocket

All things considered, it was a fairly nice jail.

Though the wall around him held several fairly menacing shackles, the guards had decided to fit only his wrists with heavy manacles before leaving him alone -- something Locke considered a kindness, as it'd take him only five minutes at the most to break out now, whereas being strapped to the wall would have kept him for at least half an hour. He'd already readied his favourite lockpick with his toes, and was now only waiting to see if they'd feed him once more before he sprang himself. The best thing about prison, after all, was the free food.

When he next heard footsteps they were not the heavy-mailed beats of the guards, but a lighter patter, made by thinner shoes. That increased the odds of dinner, for most places didn't waste guards for meal delivery to petty criminals, enlisting instead the aid of scullery maids. Locke straightened his back and tried to look perfectly innocent and confined.

What rounded the corner, though, was not a maid, but a young boy of his own age, with straw-yellow hair and a deep blue velvet tunic. "...You're the pickpocket they caught this morning?" He sounded mildly startled.

Locke shrugged as much as his heavy bonds would allow. "People should be more careful, seriously."

The corner of the boy's mouth quirked in what looked like amusement. "You're my age, aren't you?"

"I suppose," said Locke, because he'd been in enough jails in his life to learn that it was always good to agree with the people on the other side of the bars. He guessed the boy to be about twelve years old, which was fair, because he guessed he himself was about twelve years old.

"Mm." The boy folded his hands in his sleeves. "And what is your business in Figaro?"

This, Locke had learned from experience, was respectable person code for if I just let you go, can you promise I'll never see you again? "Just passing through," he said, which was vaguely true -- he'd been in the sand kingdom for less than a week, after the trade caravan he'd stowed away in hadn't gone quite where he'd expected, and now that he'd run afoul of the law, he had even less impetus to stay. "I move around a lot, from one place to the other, all the time. Sometimes I leave somewhere and I don't even come back."

A faint line creased the boy's brow, an expression Locke could almost mistake for jealousy. "...I'm Edgar," he announced after a long moment, with a kind of gravitas that implied his name should mean something to Locke, which it didn't.

"Hi, Ed." Locke waved his fingers as much as his shackles would let him wave. "I'm Locke."

"Hi, Locke." Edgar placed a hand on the bars to the cell. "...If I let you out, will you promise not to do it again?"

For a moment, Locke didn't quite know how to respond. On the one hand, agreeing with the person on the other side of the bars had proven thus far to be a solid lifestyle choice. On the other hand, though, the boy had used the word 'promise', and for all the things Locke Cole might have been -- erstwhile stowaway, collector of abandoned objects, occasional procurer of items that weren't technically his -- he was not a liar. "No," he finally admitted, unable to keep a smirk from his lips.

Edgar blinked his luminous blue eyes, then laughed. "Come on," he said, taking a key from his belt and unlocking the door, then kneeling down before lock and inserting a separate key into his shackles. "Let's get you some food and a bath. You kind of smell."

"Are you the jailer or something?" Locke asked, rubbing the red marks on his wrists where the iron had pressed a little too heavily. He'd been in enough jails in his life to know they had their downsides, too.

"Something like that." Edgar smirked and rose, then extended a hand; Locke took it, and let himself be pulled by his newfound friend to his feet.

War Paint

First, he plowed his fingers through his thick hair, raking it away from his face, then threaded through it a set of richly engraved ivory chopsticks from the top drawer of his mother's antique vanity. At first it was only a matter of convenience -- after all, it would not do to have its staticky, bleached mess falling into his workspace -- but as he studied the effect in the mirror, he found he liked its severity, and thus resolved to keep it.

He hadn't really planned as far as his hairstyle. Or his clothes. Or anything else, really, for his first day at the emperor's court. If this succeeded, all other concerns would be secondary.

He picked a soft wedge from the tabletop and pondered its surface area, then put it down and instead stuck his fingers tip-first into the jar of white paste makeup. The cream was cold and oily to the touch, and he hesitated only a moment before smearing it across the line of his forehead. It lumped in places and gapped in others, but was so shock-white that the effect penetrated the inappropriate texture.

Into the jar his fingers dipped and rose again, once to cover each broad cheek, then his nose, then his chin. Satisfied with the coverage, he wiped his fingers clean of the excess and picked up the sponge again, smoothng the white terrain into a flatter plane, terraforming his regrettably unhandsome (to hear his mother say it) features into a landscape striking and alien, sure to be noticed. He ran the foam over his eyebrows, disappearing them, and he noted with some fascination how their apparent absence gave his brow a harsh, skull-like look. He grinned, and his bony teeth looked menacing and yellow by contrast to his newly painted skin.

That finished, he reached into the vanity's drawer again and plucked from it a tube of lipstick with a label at the bottom naming the shade 'Vermilion'. Applying the shade here was a more precise science than simply smearing his face white, and he passed the stick over his lips four times before he was satisfied with the result. He had a wide mouth already, like his father's, and as he opened his mouth to its widest in front of the mirror, he felt like a snake poised to swallow its prey whole.

Though he hadn't intended to add any more to his appearance, as he studied his new face, he found his light blue eyes were somewhat overshadowed -- and the eyes, as his mother with her deep cobalt gaze was so fond of saying, were the windows to the soul. Carefully, he again unscrewed the lipstick, this time dragging heavy swaths beneath his eyes, from the innermost point past the outer edge; then again, stopping a bit shorter; then a third time, going only as far as a tear's falling point before carrying the line halfway down each cheek. The effect, though still in need of some refinement, was striking.

The imperial court was a place of knives, his mother had often said, drawn at the perception of vulnerability. A man concerned with maintaining the image of perfection was a man who would spend his entire life looking over his shoulder; but a man who embraced what to others would be abject humiliation, whose very ridiculousness would lead those knives to underestimate him -- he would be impervious.

He smiled, and in the mirror, his red mouth smiled back.

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