Angel Face

We're gonna be late, I told Tyler, but I don't think he was listening. Instead, he was looking at Angel Face.

Angel Face. What a fucking great nickname. Maybe he should have gone with Princess, or Muffin, or Oscar Wilde. But no, this kid was Angel Face. Like a name one of those fucking obnoxious rappers give their big-titted girlfriends. Did I call him that, or did the others? Or was it Tyler's idea in the first place?

When I say he was Angel Face, I mean that too. Everything angelic about him had been smeared on the floor of the club in a stinking pile of blood and sweat. Everything left looked like month-old hamburger with a hangover. If angels looked like this, no wonder God kicked the ugly motherfuckers out.

"Not all of them," Tyler corrected me. He held that ex-angelic face in his hands, turning it from side to side, sizing up the damage. It looked like the kid'd been hit with a snowplow. I didn't say it. "Just a third. The disloyal ones." His fingers pushed at a purple swell, and the kid winced.

Well, okay, he kept some. Big fucking deal. But I left it there. I knew better than to argue religion with Tyler. I jammed my hands in my pockets and wondered where I'd left my cigarettes.

Tyler shook his head. He bent the kid's lower lip back so he could see the white where teeth were left, the bloody wells where they weren't. "Those angels rebelled against a system they were told they couldn't rebel against, and got their own place for it. If you ask me, Milton gave them a bad rap." His fingers slipped inside the kid's mouth. Angel Face tried to look surprised, but it's hard to do when your angelly face is all swelled up like a meat balloon.

I scratched the back of my neck. We're really gonna be late. The kid's mouth closed around Tyler's fingers. I looked away.

Tyler's voice was soft and dark. "You know what the moral is? Paradise is overrated." I knew he kept his eyes on the kid, but he spoke to me. I shoved my hands deeper into my pockets. "It's what you're told to want. They tell you everything else is Hell. So you live your life shit-scared of doing the one thing that'll make you free."

He withdrew his fingers from the kid's mouth, let them slip slick-sweat out his puffed purple lips. Kinda like poetry for a very poetic carnivore.

"All the same," Tyler grinned up at me, "it's important to keep in mind who you're fucking over. Even in your case."

What, I asked, are you afraid of getting kicked out of Heaven?

"Fuck no," Tyler said, grabbing his coat. "There's nowhere further than this to fall."


She left it by accident when she went, and he keeps it rolled up on his dresser, which seems to him to be about the only place in his perpetually grimy and cluttered room to leave such an expensive-looking thing. It’s a scarf, he figures, and if it’s not a scarf, then he doesn’t know what it is, though he’d hardly put it past her to have articles of clothing he can’t identify. He’s sure she’s got a whole closet full of them in her new place, all shiny and costly-like, protected from grubby space hands in tidy boxes.

He imagines her new digs, and is sure they’re very nice, far more spacious than a Firefly’s side shuttle could offer. She’s probably got windows, the kind you can lean out and not have to worry about your brain imploding in the cold vacuum of space. Little amenities, like fresh air, and sunlight, and not having to worry about suffocating in something goes wrong. It’s the little things.

He thinks about her every time he looks at the scarf – or whatever it is – all tucked up there beside his comb. He’d found it on the floor, where she must have dropped it one of the few times she’d deigned to climb the ladder down into his quarters, or maybe Kaylee’d been wearing it as a hair ribbon, or River’d been attracted to the shine and stuffed it in her pocket without thinking, or he can think of any of a thousand ways it’d gotten down into his place. Point being that it had, and he’d found it while picking up his shoes one day, and had rolled it up as fancy and neat as he’d known how, and hidden it out in the open. No one comes into his quarters anymore, anyway. Nobody’ll notice.

They’ll swing by her planet soon enough, and he’ll call her and tell her that she’s left it, and maybe it’ll be an excuse to go down and see her new place, see if he’s just imagining those windows or if they actually exist. If she’s even got room in the new place for the scarf, or if she doesn’t even notice its being gone. If she doesn’t even notice a lot of things.

Resting his head against the curved metal wall, knowing that there’s nothing but void six inches from his forehead, he wonders if she thinks about him at all.


Are you sure you have everything? He frowned at his quarters, then at her all-but-empty arms.

I’m certain I do. She nodded, tucking the tiny box under her arm. But I wanted to check in here to make sure. You know how things scatter on a spaceship.

Unnoticed by him, her right foot kicked slightly, precisely, and a sliver of shimmering purple disappeared behind a box.

Just a Cigar

He’s having that dream again. The one where there’s someone on the ship after him, someone who knows his name and carries a gun. He never sees that person, who’s always hidden in the shadows, who doesn’t even have a name or even a face. He just knows he has to (run!) run.

The corridors are too long, and he knows it’s a dream because the ship’s corridors aren’t that long in real life. Maybe if he can find the door back to his room (where is it where is it?) he can wake himself up and get out of here. It makes sense in a vague sort of dream-logic, and he clings to it.

There’s the smell of a cigar – he doesn’t know why Mal lets Jayne smoke those on the ship, it’s a closed environment, the air recyclers are already working hard enough to support nine people, the smell never goes away, it just becomes rank and stale – and he turns, but there’s nothing there.

No, not true. There’re hands there, two of them, brown (not blue thank god not blue) and gnarled, and River is dead somewhere – he knows this even though no one has told him, because that’s the way the dream works – and maybe his parents are dead too, and everybody in the world is dead except for him and the person who’s after him.

Were there hands there? He can’t remember. They’re not in front of him, anyway, but on him, reaching into his shirt, tearing at the vest. That was an expensive shirt, but he’s just dreaming, so he can’t be too broken up about its loss. They’re searching his body for scars, and he tries to tell them that he doesn’t have any, but one is already reaching into his mouth, pushing past teeth and tongue down his mouth. They taste like gunpowder and engine grease – or, at least, what he’s always assumed that gunpowder and engine grease would taste like on (a man’s) fingers, and he wants to tell them he’s choking (swallowing) but he can’t and there’s a hand down his throat now and there’s a taste (hot) underneath (sweat) the grease (hard) that he knows he shouldn’t (come) like but can’t help himself and he’s swallowing (choking) but can’t say–

He jerks so hard when he wakes that he nearly falls out of bed. Shivering, he pulls on his pants and pads down the darkened (but now appropriately short) hallway.

Jayne is sitting alone at the table, staring at the patterns Kaylee has painted on the walls, as Simon walks into the mess. He doesn’t even look up until Simon sits down across from him, and when he does his expression is unsurprised, almost kind. “Want some?” He slides the bottle in front of him across the table in Simon’s direction.

Sufferers of nightmares know their own. “Thanks.” Simon wraps still-trembling fingers around the cool metal and lifts it to his lips.

Nice Things

Inara is only half-surprised when she pushes back the door to her shuttle and finds a little bundle of Kaylee tucked up in her bed, snoring lightly. Shutting it lightly behind her, she pads softly across her carpeted floors, depositing the remnants of her shopping trip on the couch. Kaylee doesn’t even budge. With a soft smile, Inara slips off her shoes and outer garment, and slips into bed behind Kaylee, spooning her and draping an arm across her waist.

The touch rouses Kaylee somewhat. “Mmm?”

“It’s okay, mei-mei,” Inara whispers, pressing a kiss against the soft skin just behind Kaylee’s ear. “I’m home, that’s all.”

“Mmmm.” Kaylee murmurs a sleepy, happy hum, and hugs Inara’s arm closer to her body. “D’ja buy somethin’ nice?”

With a little wriggle, Inara kicks back the covers and exposes her feet to the air. It’s too hot to doze under all these blankets; she doesn’t know how Kaylee does it. “I bought lots of nice things,” Inara smiles, nuzzling her nose into Kaylee’s hair. “Some soap and incense. A comb. A few dishes.”

“T’ replace the ones I broke?” Kaylee’s drowsy voice sounds yet unrepentent.

“You didn’t break them, mei-mei,” Inara reassures her. “Our captain broke them. You aren’t responsible when something breaks because he’s an idiot.”

Kaylee yawns a little and cuddles even closer to Inara, wriggling her overall-clad bottom. “My fault if the ship don’ stay where she’s s’posed to.”

“And his fault if he’s too cheap to buy you to parts you need to keep Serenity in place.” Inara smiles a little smile. “Which is something we had a ... talk about while we were in the marketplace, and there should be a new fuel regulator waiting for you in the engine room.”

“You made him buy me hardware?” Kaylee’s incredulity cuts through her sleepiness. “Aw, Inara, that’s the sweetest thing ever!”

“I have to take care of my Kaylee,” Inara smiles, planting another soft kiss along the edge of Kaylee’s earlobe. “And I didn’t mean to wake you. Go back to sleep.”

“Okay.” Inara’s instruction is not a particularly difficult one, and Kaylee yawns. “You’re the best.”

After a long day in the dusty sun among the merchants, Inara finds herself rather drowsy. Kaylee is warm and the bed is soft, and sleep suddenly sounds like a wonderful way to spend the hours between then and when the ship is scheduled to take off. Brushing one more kiss into Kaylee’s hair, Inara closes her eyes and snuggles in to take a nap.

Favours for Favours

If there was anything in the world more decidedly awkward than suddenly having to treat one’s old instructors as colleagues, Remus decided, it was suddenly having to treat one’s classmate – particularly a classmate that one never particularly liked – likewise. He’d been receiving wolfsbane from Severus for years, of course, but the correspondence had been entirely postal in nature, payment exchanged for potion without either party’s ever having to interact with the other. This was different. This was sitting at opposite ends of the table at staff meetings while the rest of the staff actively pretended to be ignorant of how both men’s pasts coincided with the escaped convict whose name was on the tip of everyone’s tongue.

“And now, if there’s nothing else...” Dumbledore pushed his glasses up his nose and prepared to shut the book in front of him. The quill, which had been keeping minutes on its own, squeaked and scuttled away, lest it be smushed.

Remus cleared his throat. “Actually ... the full moon is next Tuesday,” he took a small breath, “and I was hoping I could arrange with one of you to take my classes that day. Nothing strenuous, I promise,” he added, trying to make the offer sound like a better deal than it was, “just some basic dark creatures, and if no one can, I’ll assign an exam and get one of the prefects to proctor—”

“I’ll do it.” The slimy, nasal voice from the end of the table was so unexpected that every professor at the table turned identically perplexed expressions at Snape, who bore this scrutiny with his characteristic disdain for ostensibly everything in the entire world. “I have only my sixth and seventh years that day, and they are entirely capable of taking care of themselves.” The last sentence was said with an air that implied the younger students’ inability to learn Defence Against the Dark Arts entirely on their own was somehow Remus’ fault.

Regaining his composure, Remus managed a smile, and found it both easy and sincere. “Thank you, Severus. I do appreciate it. If ever I can return the favour...”

“You’re entirely welcome.” The sneer with which Snape replied left, however, left Remus feeling a bit unsettled in a way he couldn’t entirely quantify. Perhaps he had just grown unaccustomed to such kindnesses over the years, or perhaps he had never grown to expect them from Snape in the first place. But they were both adults now, and professors of their various disciplines, and certainly they had grown out of such childish resentments. After all, he certainly bore Severus no ill will over what had transpired during their student years, and he reasoned that Severus likely had similarly put his emotional energy toward more pressing current events. None of this logic, however, made him feel any better about accepting the offer.

When the majority of the classes later told him their lesson that Wednesday had been on werewolves, Remus had to confess he was hardly surprised.

Tempting the Wolf

Sirius doesn’t know what to expect next time he sees Remus. The last time had been strange enough, with the shouting waking him from sleep and the multiple reassurances that, no, he hadn’t been bitten because, yes, he had been a dog. But that had ended rather uncomfortably, and now he isn’t exactly sure where they stand.

Not that he cares where they stand, of course. That’s ridiculous. But none of his friends are around, so he supposes he can afford to wonder.

His curiousity is brought to an abrupt halt, however, as a hand reaches seemingly from nowhere and pulls him out of the empty hallway and into a classroom, shutting the door by slamming him against it. He reaches for his wand, but his hand never even makes it there, because his head’s hitting the back of the wood door so hard he sees stars distracts him, and by the time he regains focus Remus is kissing him and has stuck a hand down his pants, and he had no idea he could get this hard this fast, but apparently many strange things are possible today.

“Shut up.” Remus pulls away from the kiss long enough to give the order, then drops to his knees, unzipping Sirius’ pants, and for a moment Sirius seriously considers the possibility that this is actually just someone in disguise, someone who took polyjuice potion just to fuck with him. And fuck with him is this person is doing, in fact. Perhaps he should just accept that he’s getting a free blowjob and stop thinking about it.

Except he can’t stop thinking, because this is Remus, with his brown hair falling into his eyes and his lips brushing against Sirius’ dark pubic hair, eclipsing his extremely hard cock from view. Something had changed since the first time, with Remus on his knees crying and Sirius holding over him the threat of telling the entire school his lycanthropic secret, and Sirius isn’t exactly certain what to think of this.

And then he looks down and sees Remus’ other hand, or rather doesn’t see it, as it has disappeared down the Ravenclaw’s trousers and is jerking off his own much longer yet ostensibly equally hard cock. A slight smile has painted itself across Remus’ face, and from the way he moans and lathes his tongue up and down Sirius’ swallowed erection, one might actually think he’s enjoying himself. Enjoying giving Sirius head. Getting off on it himself.

Speaking of getting off, Sirius comes, and Remus swallows with his wide eyes trained up on Sirius’ face, and then closes those eyes as he comes silently with Sirius’ softening cock still held in his mouth. And then Remus stands and fixes his tie, reaches for Sirius’ own tie and draws the silver-and-green material across his lips to wipe away what of Sirius’ come remains on his face, and slips out the room’s other door, leaving Sirius to wonder what the hell just happened.

The Headmaster's Office

Though intellectually he knew that being left alone in a strange office with a doubly strange man should have made him more nervous, Remus actually found he felt a thousand times better as Professor Dumbledor shut the door with Remus' mother on the other side of it. He folded his hands politely in his chair, minding his manners, remembering not to kick his legs in the too-high chair, remembering not to stare at the tiny bells that dangled from the ends of the cord that wound around the old wizard's beard. His right thumb worried an old scar on his left wrist, one of his nervous gestures.

"Now, young Mr. Lupin," said Dumbledore as he rounded the desk and took up his spot on the side opposite Remus, folding his hands atop a stack of papers, "I'll ask you one question only, and on the basis of this answer will the entire fate of your time at Hogwarts hinge."

Remus bit his lip and nodded, then remembered to sit up straight, too. His heart fluttered in his chest so loudly he was certain not only Dumbledore, but all the curious, animated portraits could hear it.

Dumbledore's face grew very grave, and he leaned closer. "Remus Lupin, would you--" his hand produced a foil-lined box, "--care for a truffle?"

Despite all his efforts to be on his best behaviour, Remus' eyes widened and his mouth fell open a little. Inside the box was the most delicious assortment of chocolate truffles he'd ever beheld. Each one was bigger than he could circle his thumb and forefinger around, with intricate designs in the chocolate that looked like fireworks and rainstorms. Remus had seen a hundred impossible, magical things today, and yet this box, he was certain, contained the most wondrous of them all.

With a nod and a barely voiced 'thank you', Remus selected the roundest milk chocolate piece, with sides etched like the branches of tiny trees. He put it into his mouth whole, then bit down. The liquid center poured out onto his tongue, and for a moment he swore everything in the room went a little golden.

"Splendid." Dumbledore picked up a quill and began scrawling at a parchment. "Then when you arrive in three weeks' time, all arrangements will have been made for your safety. You'll receive a list of items required for first-years shortly, and every merchant on the list will be more than willing to do business by owl if necessary."

Remus' mouth was too full of chocolate to speak, and the chocolate was too delicious to be devoured too quickly, but he managed to get his voice back with some small effort. "...Sir, what is the question?"

Dumbledore raised an eyebrow, his quill never faltering in its motions. "I beg your pardon?"

"The question you intend to ask me." Remus swallowed and squared his shoulders, trying to look braver than he felt. "I'll answer it for you as best I can."

For a moment, there was no response, and Remus wondered if he'd said something inappropriate -- wizard ways were strange, he'd learned that at least already, and because the last thing he wanted was to offend this most powerful wizard, it was also the most likely thing he'd end up doing. Then Dumbledore stilled his pen, setting it in an inkwell that looked like a great iron bird's foot, and looked Remus straight on. "If it is truly your wish to come to Hogwarts -- not anyone's for you, but your own -- then it is my duty as your new headmaster to make the experience as enriching and enlightening for you as it is for any student here. You are a brave young man, Remus Lupin, one whose strength and courage I have scarce seen in a man of any age, and you have already answered well already. Now, have another." Wizened fingers nudged the box in Remus' direction again, and each wrinkle looked like a smile.

Absent any response to this, and certain he'd already begun to blush to the tips of his toes, Remus reached for a dark piece shaped like a maple leaf. This one he bit cautiously in half first, exposing its heart-coloured center and marvelling at how it tasted exactly like autumn. The same gold glow returned to his vision, this time lingering a little longer, and Remus felt his once-grim sense of worry chased away by a wash of well-being. "...Professor Dumbledore, I ... think these have alcohol in them."

"Really?" Dumbledore smiled. "I hadn't noticed."


Sirius' first garbled thoughts on waking were of Peter and James, and how they'd scattered at the end of the night, just before dawn, and how it was probably a good idea they weren't in the vicinity because Remus was straddling his hips, sniffing his neck, and ... growling?

He had to run that last thought through a few times to make sure, but it seemed to be correct, as there was a great deal of confirmation from the rest of his body, up to and especially including his prick, which (not understanding the finer nuances of human relationships) had spent the last two months protesting in earnest about a lack of recent sexual activity -- save, of course, a few masturbatory episodes, and even those had been spoiled by the feelings of guilt they brought to bear in him. Leave penetance to ruin a good wank.

Well, it was nice to see that two months of involuntary semi-chastitiy hadn't done any permanent damage.

When he tried to move his hands, he found them trapped by Remus' larger ones, large knuckly fingers wrapped around his wrists and pinning him hard against the bed. They were both naked -- Remus from the start, as usual, though Sirius couldn't remember whether he'd started the pre-canine hours of the night previous that way or whether he'd been undressed following their post-moon nap. A great deal of things were unclear, and Sirius was having a hard time putting them together. He hadn't known it was possible to be this hard and still think. For heaven's sake, he hadn't known it was possible to be this hard and not die.

Remus' teeth caught the skin over his jugular and bit, definitely fierce enough to make a mark, and Sirius was glad the others seemed to have left the vicinity, because he cried out in response, a helpless, fevered gasp that under other circumstances might have made Remus stop and ask are you okay? But Remus did nothing of the sort, only bit down harder, then withdrew, tonguing the marks his teeth had made in a way that made Sirius shiver. He was usually so careful about biting, even though every reputable book on the subject said there was absolutely no way to transmit lycanthropy while still in human form; he'd bitten Sirius so hard the night Sirius had confronted him about the wolf, a panicked reflex to Sirius' placing his hand over Remus' mouth to keep him from hyperventilating, and had been in such a state afterward that Sirius had done all he could to hide that Remus had, in fact, broken the skin. But five years' worth of moons later, it was obvious that the only thing that had infected Sirius was Remus himself, not the wolf but the man.

He could understand, then, why it had hurt Remus so to find that Sirius had sent Snape after him during the moon -- you think of me as a weapon, he'd played over and over on the recording reel in his miind relentlessly over the past two months. No matter how many times he'd tried to protest, whether to Remus or to himself, it was clear that -- if only for that brief moment -- he'd thought exactly that.

But only about the wolf. Never, not even for an instant, about Remus.

Remus bit down again, this time just below Sirius' ear. When he spoke, his voice was a deep, rasping growl, a hoarse whisper Sirius hadn't even known him capable of: "Don't bloody think about moving."

With that, he let go, and Sirius, wide-eyed, didn't budge as Remus rocked back on his hips, exposing his full, bare body in the early morning light. All his customary modesty had seemingly evaporated, replaced with a lean, predatory control that knew precisely what Sirius was looking at -- and, more to the point, wanted him to look. His long, hard cock stuck out straight and down from his body, the tip of it brushing Sirius' stomach just above his navel. Sirius' own cock, eclipsed by Remus' hips, felt about ready to burst.

Taking a deep breath, Remus held his right hand in front of him and muttered some spell Sirius didn't recognise; at the ancient words, his hand shone with what looked like water, and Sirius began to wonder how much and how long Remus had been thinking about whatever it was he was planning to do here. This train of thought wasn't in for a long trip, though, because no sooner was it done than Remus reached around behind him and grabbed Sirius' cock, giving it a good slicking with something that was most definitely not water. "Oh, fuck," Sirius gasped, reaching behind him to grab the headboard and hoping this wasn't too much of a violation of Remus' earlier order.

Remus, however, had his attention fixed now on sticking those same slick fingers up his own arse -- not gently, either, but with urgency and force. He bit down on his own lip with the effort, looking almost pained, except that Sirius could feel Remus' long prick against his belly grow harder with every thrust, as he gasped and whimpered. Sirius was certain by now that there was no blood left in his head, or anywhere else in his body, for that matter, having all been redirected to his prick, and that he'd be dying very shortly, but dying quite a happy man.

Then Remus lifted himself up on his knees, straightened his back, and Sirius had only a moment to fully gauge what was going on with the situation before Remus settled back, keeping one hand braced on Sirius' cock, and he was filled with the sudden warm, tight knowledge of what it was to be inside Remus, and that thought alone nearly did him in. With a cry that arose only tangentially from whatever discomfort he was feeling, Remus came to rest as far back on the bed as he could, with Sirius' prick held deep inside him, his own stiff and red and wet at the tip. Each of his breaths was harsh and audible, or so Sirius thought, until he realised that the large gulps of air he heard were in fact his own.

It was then that for what felt like the first time in the whole encounter, Remus looked Sirius dead-on, and Sirius could see that though his gaze was rimmed with the wildness of the wolf, it was indeed Remus staring back at him, eyes wide with arousal and perhaps a bit of fear, but still Remus. Peeling the spell-slickness from his hand like a glove and tossing it to the floor, he reached his bare hands out for Sirius', palms front, fingers splayed. "Help me," he said softly, not a cry but an invitation.

And Sirius reached for him, twining their fingers together, bracing their bodies one against the other in the early morning. Steadied, Remus began to move again, this time faster, taking Sirius with him, and Sirius both held on and let go.


It seemed the Infinite Improbability Drive was malfunctioning again.

It wasn't anything severe, really. Nothing had exploded or turned blue or spat singing tarsiers from serial ports. And that was precisely the problem. Everything was so damn ... normal.

Arthur sat glumly at a table in the cafeteria, picking up a fork and dropping it again. Every time he let go of it, it hit the ground. He'd pick it up again and let it go, and it'd go falling to the floor, landing against the tile with a pleasant clanging sort of sound. Every single time. Hadn’t someone once told him that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results? Around here, it usually just seemed like good common sense. At least, it had, up until a few days ago.

"Are you all right, Arthur?" asked Trillian, sauntering along in a perfectly predictable fashion. She poured coffee – into a mug, where it was supposed to go – poured in sugar and cream – not rice or the word lumbago - and took a sip. The fork clattered against the ground again. He’d lost count after four hundred thirty-seven.

“Doesn’t everything seem just a little…” Arthur frowned. Things didn’t seem odd, because if they seemed odd, that would be normal. If things seemed normal – and they did – that was odd. Had Arthur been more dilligent in his studies of the Hooloovoo language, he might have come across their word gd&oA@p#, which describes the stage in which the normality of things is the very thing that belies their abnormality. Sadly, even then it wouldn’t have done him much good, as the word was unpronouncable, conveyed instead by a gesture and a faint hint of fabric softener.

Trillian shrugged. “Not really, no.” She turned around and walked out, just as he’d expected. Arthur sighed and let the fork go.

“’lo, Arthur.” Ford walked in just as Trillian was leaving. “How are you today?”

Arthur sighed again and retrieved the fork from the floor. Waiting for unpredictability was getting to be predictable. “Ford, don’t you think things are a little...”

gd&oA@p#?” Ford offered, leaving Arthur with the nagging feeling that he hadn’t taken his wash in. “I know what you mean. Eh, it happens every now and then. Nothing to do but wait through it.”

“How long do ... uh ...” Some things even the Babelfish couldn’t compensate for. “How long does this usually last?”

“Not too long.” Ford leaned back against a table. “Couple months.”

Months?” Arthur considered sticking the fork in his eye, but the predictability of the outcome bored him. The situation was getting desperate. “Isn’t there anything to do?”

Ford made a thoughtful sound. “Perhaps.” He crossed the room suddenly, pushing Arthur against the table and divesting him of his trousers. The whole situation surprised Arthur so much he dropped his fork – which missed the ground this time, though he was too busy having completely unexpected sex with Ford to notice. Halfway through, Zaphod wandered in and offered the use of one of his heads, but Ford told him that, no, they were doing just fine, but thank you.

“Suit yourself,” said Zaphod’s unoffered head, wandering off again.

When they were finished, Ford handed Arthur back his clothes. There was a duck inside Arthur’s underwear that Arthur was fairly certain hadn’t been there before. “Feel better, then?”

“Yes,” said Arthur. “In fact, I do.”

Kept Secrets

The motel room, Kyle thought, was no different from every other motel room he'd bedded down in nearly every night of his life since leaving Manhattan -- with one notable exception. All those other rooms, no matter how nice, no matter where in the country, no matter how many nights he'd been there, had lacked Brian Bradley sitting on the far corner of the bed, hands clasped, forearms resting on his knees, clothes tattered, but Bradley all the same.

You look like hell, Kyle had said first off when he'd seen him again, because it was true. He'd lost weight in the time they'd been apart, so much so that he kind of hung on his own bones, and his clothes hung off him in turn. More than that, he looked nervous, which was not a look Kyle was accustomed to seeing on the face of a man who'd once had enough bluster to take on the whole Lower East Side before his first cup of coffee. It made him feel worse than uneasy, all the way through to downright sick. "How'd you keep all that from me?"

A car backfired outside, and Kyle saw every muscle in Bradley's body tense, an alley cat poised to run at the first sight of trouble. The years on the run had drawn him taut like a guitar string, ready to snap at the first pluck. With a deep sigh, he straightened his back and ran a finger through his hair. "Some secrets you just learn to keep." He gave an apologetic little grin. "I always figured you might understand that, at least, being queer and all--"

Almost before he'd registered Bradley's words, Kyle's fist was out, connecting hard with Bradley's jaw and sending him with a sharp crack backward. Thrown off-balance too easily (too light, the back of Kyle's head lamented), Bradley teetered and fell to the floor, where he landed sprawled on the carpet.

Kyle flexed his fist, feeling the ache of contact against his knuckles. "...Sorry. Watch your mouth."

Bradley brought up a hand to rub at his bleeding jaw and took a deep breath, shutting his eyes. He looked so chagrined, Kyle almost cut through the shock and hurt to help him to his feet. Almost. "...I'm sorry. That was awful of me." He took his fingers away and examined their wet, red shine in the motel room's dim light. "...Mind if I wash up?"

"Of course." Torn between helping and just watching, Kyle finally stepped back out of the way and let Bradley pull himself to his feet, which he did with no small lack of grace, grabbing at the end of the bed to steady himself. No matter which way you looked at him, he already looked too thin with his shirt on; as he unbuttoned his bloodied shirt and set it to hang on the towel rack in the bathroom, Kyle tried hard not to stare at the way he could see Bradley's bones move under his skin. It'd been a hell of a stretch for both of them. "Did I break anything?"

"Did I?" The son of a bitch managed to grin at him before stopping up the sink and turning on both taps, swishing the water in the basin to a more comfortable temperature.

"Oh, fuck you." The epithet nearly caught in his throat as Bradley bent forward to the sink, and his undershirt pulled just enough to reveal a mark on the back of his right shoulder, a circular depression the exact size and shape of a shot fired by a standard-issue police weapon. It looked only as big as the ball of Kyle's thumb, and he stuck both hands in his pocket to fight the urge to reach out and see if it was, in fact, a fit. "So, yeah, I know how to keep some secrets."

The blood-stained water in the basin matched the deep pink of the years-old wound, halfway between the bright red of injury and the white of pure scar tissue. "Never doubted it for a minute." Bradley took handfuls of water to his mouth and spat them through his teeth until they ran clear.

It wasn't a bad cut, Kyle could see now it was clean, just a tooth-split lip from a punch nobody saw coming. "...You're the only one who knows a goddamn thing about that."

"Of course I know, you idiot." Bradley raked his damp fingers through his hair, pushing it back from his face. In the thin, buzzing fluorescent light of the bathroom, he looked like the ghost he nearly was. "I'm your goddamn partner."

Japanese Peace Lily

"What's this?" Bradley shook the remnants of the December snow from his coat before hanging it on the coat rack. On his blotter sat a small terracotta pot, from which several green shoots and a single white, flame-shaped bud had sprouted, a curious contrast to the season's first storm raging outside.

Hyde didn't look up from the stack of papers on his desk. "Flower."

"Uh-huh." A shiny red ribbon graced the rim of the pot, complete with bow, but no tag. "Did we pick it up for solicitation?"

"Blooming without a licence." Hyde took a sip from his mug and made a terrible grimace. "Coffee's shit today."

"Coffee's shit every day. Any idea who left this here?" Duly warned away from the coffee -- which was, in fact, shit every day, but if it was shit enough to make Hyde complain about it at 6:30 in the morning, you knew it was really shit -- Bradley sat down at his desk, examining the plant. In the dirt, just behind the largest leaf, was a little card with care instructions that proclaimed the plant a Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum floribundum). He'd never heard of one of those before, but his horticultural knowledge was just good enough to tell a potato from a rock, and he figured that was about all he needed.

Hyde shrugged, still without making eye contact; he seemed even grumpier today than usual, leaving Bradley to wonder exactly how bad that coffee was. "Get the boys to dust it for prints."

"And I'm sure the chief'll commend me for making the best use of their time." Bradley ran his fingers along the leaves, which were cold and damp like his coat, and quite unlike the interior of the perpetually over-heated station house. He glanced around the room, but the place was pretty much empty, still in the gap between the night shift and the day beat. As mysteries went, it was pretty small potatoes, but like his favourite professor at the academy had told the class, for New York's Finest, no case was too small. "Say, what'd time'd you get in?"

Hyde turned away to grab a red pen from the next desk, and this time Bradley could see droplets of water still trapped in the short spikes of his blonde hair. "Hour ago or so."

"And it was just ... sitting here? When you got in?"

"Yep." Hyde flipped open a folder and gave his full attention to what must have been some truly fascinating grainy grey surveillence photos. Bradley'd seen more meaningful images the time the rabbit ears on his TV broke. "Just sitting."

With an ostentatiously resigned sigh, Bradley placed the lily in a corner of his desk where it wouldn't interfere with his paperwork. It was a peaceful little plant, he supposed, elegant and not particularly needy. More things in the world should be like that. "I guess I'll just never know," he said, drumming his fingers on the edge of his desk. "...Say, you up for a drink after work?"

"Up for a drink right now," Hyde grunted, but the little smile that lifted at the corner of his mouth was enough yes for Bradley's taste.

Five Places Sora, Donald, and Goofy Should Never Have Ended Up

"Well, Dean," said Sam, flipping through the worn notebook with a resourceful smile, "every culture in the world has a myth about at duck, a dog, and a boy with a giant key."


Though Sora appeared to be listening attentively to Heat's explanation of how combat in the Junkyard worked, he was really musing on how though he was incurably culturally biased against eating dog, he'd be lying not to admit that during the dark, hungry months of his hibernation, he'd had dreams of roast duck à l'orange.


Goofy had known for a long time he'd never be the brains of any operation, but was still ashamed to admit that even after hearing the black-cloaked man ramble on for nearly ten minutes, he couldn't figure out how that guy managed to spell 'Testament' with an 'x'.


"Yeah," sighed Sora, nodding sympathetically at the large blonde man with the potholder strapped to his chest, "I totally know how that evil twin thing goes."


Lead pipe clutched bravely in one wing, letter from Daisy tucked securely beneath the other, Donald strode forward alone into the mist-covered town.

Disney Standards

Auron turned to see ... an Al Bhed? No, couldn't be, his eyes were all wrong. But the hair was a spot-on match, and he did have that look of the kind of man who'd be happy taking apart important things with a toothpick and two chocobo pinions. "Be my guest."

"Thanks, mate." The blond man hopped up on the tall seat, leather jacket creaking as he folded his arms on the bar. "So, quiet place, eh?"

"A bit." Dead empty, Auron thought, quietly amused by his own pun. "How long have you been here?"

The blond man shrugged. "Couple hours."

"Ah. Well, the screaming of the damned doesn't really pick up for another hour or so." He watched the man's face for signs of horror, and, finding none, pressed on. "If they try to talk to you or grab you, just tell them no, thank you. Be polite, or it'll get worse." Auron watched as the man drummed his fingers on the bar. He was wearing some sort of weird necklace, something ugly enough that Auron could have pictured Tidus in it. Come to think of it, it was hard to tell in the light, but now that he squinted, the man's hair looked less like Rin's and more like Tidus'. "Say, you ever heard of a place called Zanarkand?"


"No, Zanarkand."

"Ah. Sorry, no. Was in Samarkand once, though, on my way to China." The man stretched his arms above his head. "Bit of a bad spot, though. Had to eat some men in turbans."

"Right," said Auron, as though this were a thing that happened every day to normal people. "Well, you can't do that here."

"Can't what?"

"Eat people. Not allowed."

The man looked completely taken aback. "Not bloody allowed?"

"Too violent. Blunt force trauma preferred, blades'll do in a pinch." Auron ran his finger around the rim of his shotglass, rocking it back and forth on the bar.

After a slight pause, the man nodded and cracked his knuckles ostentatiously. "Well, all right, then. Suppose I can get used to that. Bit of the old left-right, if you know what I'm saying."

Auron didn't, but didn't particularly want to press for clarity. "That's very nice for you."

"Thanks, mate." The man smiled, displaying what looked like a suspiciously prominent pair of canines, then glanced around. "This doesn't look to be so bad. Kind of nice, actually. Quiet. No little blonde Slayers, have you?"

"...There's a kid with a keyblade."

"Boy or girl?"


"Then I'm sure it's not the same thing." Looking fairly pleased, the man leaned back in his chair. "Yep, give me a week or two, I'll be running this place. They'll be answering to me, because I'm the biggest bad what's be found around these parts. No more saying 'yes, sir' or playing nice or doing what anyone else wants to do. It'll just be me, your new Lord of the Underworld." He glanced at Auron's glass. "So, what're you having?"


"...Beg your pardon?"

"There's no alcohol down here." Auron pointed to the hellfire that lined the walls. "Flash point's too low."

"Right. Bugger this." The man hopped off his chair neatly, stalking toward the door. "I'm going back to L.A. if I have to go in a box."

Auron just shrugged and watched hiim go. Being dead had its advantages, to be sure, but it seemed like the company got weirder every day.


He hadn't really meant to jump ship (so to speak) so quickly, and had been grateful for the ride somewhere a little cheerier than, well, Hell, but the weirdness of being on a tiny vessel with a duck, a dog, two chipmunks, and an eerily familiar adolescent boy had finally gotten to him. Sora and company hadn't consented to let him go quite that quickly, however, and he found himself wandering around the bazaar with them close on his heels -- handy for those occasions when the Heartless showed up and he didn't particularly feel up to the challenge at the moment, but on the whole a strange experience, and Sora, Yevon love him, didn't know how to shut up.

Though accustomed to being the object of some fascination, Auron hadn't quite imagined the amount of attention they'd attract, and as such paid little attention as they passed a man draped in light blue fabric, just another of the crowd of gawkers more interested in the small yet highly destructive trio that dogged his steps.

"Auron?" He barely heard the voice from behind him over Sora's chatter, half-expecting it to be a mistake, a misheard word never meant for him at all. But the man looked directly at him with bright blue eyes, short brown hair peeking out from the loose billow of cloth that shielded his head from the noonday heat. "...Auron, is it you?"

His entourage paused, having heard the name as well, and Auron frowned, squinting against the light. The sun beat down hot, and he wished he hadn't misplaced his dark glasses so long ago that he couldn't even recall where he'd acquired them in the first place. "I'm sorry, do I know you?"

The man stepped closer, reaching a hand to rest on Auron's arm. "Don't you remember?"

And that was the hell of it, the question he hadn't wanted asked, not even by himself, because he didn't remember. He hadn't remembered, in fact, from the moment he'd appeared before Hades, certain of nothing except that he was hardly inclined to work for such a character. It was like trying to hear underwater -- everything distorted, elongated, blurred together, directionless. The man was familiar, true, but so many things were deceptively familiar here that he didn't know what of it to trust.

"Hey, Auron, who's this?" Sora appeared at his elbow, keyblade slung over his shoulder, grinning up at them both.

The man put his face to Auron's cheek, long, slender fingers tracing stubble and scar. "Is it you?" he asked again, feeling out the damage that time had dealt, and Auron did not pull away, did not even flinch. He'd once been touched like this, long ago, by the same man, only the setting had been a ruin of stone and spheres, not a thriving city of sand and voices, and it had been the last time for everything. The hand against his face, the warmth replaced so quickly by the cold, the quest that had brought them there, the man from the dead city, his son, the girl, her father the summoner -- it came back to him in a wave so great it nearly knocked him down.

"...Lord Braska?" Auron whispered with a voice like sand, barely daring to believe it true.

Braska's face lit up and he threw his arms around Auron, kissing his face and neck as Auron swept him up in his own arms, holding him tight, holding him like he'd once wanted more than anything, holding him like the beginning of the world.

A Battle of Wits

"Weak!" Leon slashed his gunblade forward, driving Cloud back a step, parrying easily the swing that followed. "My mother has a better stance than that! And I didn't have a mother!"

Cloud spun around and came in low; their blades met again, resounding against the stone of the Bailey. "I guess I'll have to stop using that as an excuse for the way you dress," he deadpanned.

Sweat made the hair stick to the back of Leon's neck as they sparred against one another. "At least both of my sleeves could make it to the party." "And they brought every belt in the Bastion with them." Cloud's left hand glowed, and Leon barely spun out of the way before being hit full in the face by fire magic; he'd seen that trick before. "Are you afraid your pants will escape?"

"Are you afraid your sword will? Or does it just want to be a mummy for Halloween?" Leon dodged, falling back far enough to need to catch himself against the stone, then sprung back, heading straight into Cloud's proximity. If there was one nice thing about dueling someone wielding a ridiculously large blade, it was that such weapons were predictably useless at close range.

Cloud was visibly caught off-guard, but recovered, using his blade not as a weapon, but as a pivot, swinging his legs low to catch Leon behind the knees. Leon pitched forward, elbow smashing against the wall in just the wrong way, and he winced. "Yours wants to be a gun," Cloud pointed out, looking only slightly winded. "Which one do you think is going to achieve its dream first?"

"Mine shoots," Leon growled, lunging for Cloud -- with his fist, though, not his gunblade. Cloud leaned his head back to avoid the blow, but left his throat exposed, and was therefore unprepared when Leon grabbed the collar of his shirt and threw him to the ground, kneeling astride his chest. "You, on the other hand, seem to be firing blanks."

Though he struggled, Cloud couldn't manage quite enough leverage to get Leon off him. "Well," he half-grinned, "it'll break my heart that you can't bear my children."

That took Leon for a small hit, and though he tried not to let it show, he knew from the growing smirk on Cloud's face that his own expression had betrayed at least a note of his surprise. "Don't worry," Leon shrugged, regaining his composure. "Someday some nice man's going to make an honest woman out of you."

They would argue later about whose tongue ended up in whose mouth first, while picking up their clothes from where they'd been strewn the stone floor, but by then it was sort of a moot point.

Chaperoned Trips

Sora looked at the dank stone walls. "Are you sure this is the right place?"

"I wouldn't know," Auron pointed out, tapping a skeleton with his boot; its head fell off, and Sora didn't know to take this as a good or a bad sign. "Your story, your key. I'm just a guardian."

Whenever he said guardian, Sora heard chaperone, but for perhaps the first time, he wasn't resentful of Auron's insisting on tagging along. He'd faced nastier things single-handedly, of course, but sometimes it just felt good to have a adult around. Like when a shirtless man with metal arms tapped you on the shoulder and you hadn't even known he'd been there. Sora jumped nearly through the ceiling.

Auron was at the man's throat with a speed Sora envied and a sword Sora would have to grow at least another foot to be taller than. The man looked weird and thin, and not unlike a Heartless from the shoulders out, and Sora found himself wondering what kind of person you had to be to get a Nobody like that. "The Crimson Blades must be hard-pressed indeed for talent if they've taken to setting up recruitment offices in nurseries, aviaries, kennels, and cemetaries," he purred, his voice a hiss that made Sora think of snakes.

"Are you one of them?" asked Sora. Maybe this was what all the Organization members looked like under their cloaks. He'd never thought to ask.

The man pushed Auron's blade away as though it were gauzy fabric, instead of a huge sword. "Ah, then, you're here for the sable-cloaked souls who've descended upon my city. The sooner you've rid us of them, the better; one's probably confounding the Riskbreaker as we speak. Not a difficult task," he added, almost an afterthought, "but vexing, to say the least."

Sora, having understood about one word in ten, looked to Donald and Goofy for support, but they only shrugged. He wanted to ask Auron, but Auron was frowning, and Sora knew better than to ask dumb questions when Auron was making that face. "It seems we're not at cross purposes," said Auron, relaxing his fighting stance, but only slightly. "We'll be out of your way as soon as we're done."

"Pity." The man approached Auron, moving in a way that made Sora think of Riku for reasons that made him uncomfortable. "I can always devise a use for a man unafraid of death."

"Not unafraid of, merely unimpressed by." Auron folded his arms, looking like death wasn't the only thing here failing to impress him.

Sora coughed a little. "Um ... so which way did they go?"

The man lifted a metal hand and pointed a single finger upward. "Ascention is always the recommended path. Mind you, though, beware the pedallers of gods, false and real alike, for though their words bewitch, their strictures and doctrines have led many a man to find firsthand that greater the damage suffered from the greatest heights." He then turned and swaggered off into the nearest corridor, disappearing after a few seconds into the structure's thick darkness.

Rolling his eyes, Auron hitched his sword over his shoulder. "Big deal. I've been saying that for years." He turned and headed toward the staircase, conveniently located on the opposite side of the room, and Sora, Donald, and Goofy ran after him.

The Return

She came up only as tall as his shoulder and might have weighed a hundred pounds soaking wet, but when Rinoa punched him, by God, he felt it. He staggered back a step, but hadn't even managed to get his hand to his wounded jaw before she was on him, arms around his neck and legs around his waist, clinging to him like a koala, her face half a foot from his.

"Leon?" she said, and not like she was addressing him, but like it the very word was an impossible concept. "You're calling yourself Leon?"

"Well, uh...." He locked his hands together beneath her bottom, supporting her weight with minimal effort. Words weren't coming nearly so easily to him, but that was because he was still stuck somewhere several steps back, right after the the love of my life who I thought I had lost forever has suddenly reappeared step, and well before the it's time to make fun of my new name step.

Rinoa, on the other hand, was having no problem bypassing everything else and jumping straight to that final stage. Now supported more confidently, she let go with her arms and fisted her fingers into his hair, tugging in a way that might become painful if she kept it up long enough. "And your hair! Aren't there any barbers here? What about scissors? Couldn't you just, I don't know, hold real still and let someone with a sharp object give you a trim?"

He heard a small giggle from over to the side, and became aware that they had gathered a small audience, all of whom had now apparently concluded that their long-haired companion was not in any immediate danger, and thus given themselves permission to laugh at his plight. Aeris, in particular, stood at the front of the group, her hands over her mouth, shoulders shaking with mirth, and when he tried to give her a hurt look, she just laughed harder. Well, this was hard on his dignity.

No harder, though, than Rinoa's grabbing at the shoulders of his jacket. "Your sleeves! What on earth did you do to your--"

That was as far as she got, though, because in that moment he weighed his dislike of public displays of affection against the possibility that she might keep on going until she got to how she didn't like his new boots, and decided that something had to give. Using what little leverage he had in the situation, he hoisted her up another few inches, until he was at a level to catch her open mouth with his own, and then he was kissing her, like he'd dreamed of kissing her every night they'd been apart.

He was dimly aware of the laugher's fading into cheers and applause, but all that would come later. Right now, he had her back, and that was the most important thing in any world.


When Chris woke up, he couldn't feel his left arm. The first thing to grease his brain's skids was the thought heart attack, but he'd learned from past experience never to trust his brain's half-awake medical diagnoses. Then the weight against his arm shifted, and a flood of pins and needles swept into his fingers -- so maybe it wasn't a heart attack, but his circulation was definitely being impaired in some way, and also, ow.

Then a warm little face buried into his chest, trying to escape the morning sun its owner was named after, and getting movement back in his left arm suddenly became low-priority. Light from the crack in the motel's cheap curtains cast a stripe across the bed, burning off the sleepy fog from Chris' brain. "Morning," he mumbled, though the word became a yawn halfway through.

No response from the bed's other inhabitant and de facto tourniquet. The room was warm, and Chris was grateful, as most of the covers had gotten kicked off during the evening's activities, and only the thinnest, rattiest sheet of them all still kept their bodies from the air. Wispy brown hair teased his lips, brushing the stubble he knew had worsened during the night, and Chris took a deep breath, filling his lungs with that sleepy smell, warm and sweet, strangely like baking bread. For a boy who'd never really had a place to call home, he sure smelled like it to Chris.

After a moment, Asahi stirred, lifted his head, blinked a few times, and smiled contentedly from ear to ear. "Hi." He sounded a little sheepish, but obviously not enough to keep from nuzzling Chris' bare shoulder.

"Hi," Chris echoed, unsure of what else to say. The morning had found him speechless, unable to articulate (or apologise for, if that was necessary) anything that came to mind -- at least, beyond the compulsions of addiction: "I need a cigarette."

Asahi stuck out his tongue and clung tighter to Chris' chest. "I need you here," he countered, and son of a bitch if it wasn't the far more compelling argument.

Closing his eyes and settling back in, Chris flexed his hand a few times, cringing away the vestiges of pain. When he was sure it wouldn't have to be amputated, he took it and placed it against Asahi's slender body, holding him close, feeling the way his chest expanded and contracted with each breath, listening beyond his own heartbeat to the rhythm just beside him.

The moment stretched out for a minute, then five, and then he heard Asahi's voice, barely more than a whisper: "...Are you okay?"

Chris looked, and saw two bright eyes looking back at him, sparking with adoration, and a smile broke across his face as he realised just how ridiculous his earlier self-diagnosis had been. His heart felt better that morning than it had in his whole life.

Pillow Talk

"What's it like?" Ritsuka asked without preamble one night, after he'd let himself in while Soubi was attending a lecture, drunk all the milk in the fridge, and fallen asleep face-down and fully clothed on the bed. He'd slept right through the apartment door's opening, his tail still twitching in response to some dream stimulus, and had only managed to wake up once Soubi (still wearing most of his own clothes) had nudged his way onto half of the bed.

"What's what like?" Soubi responded, twirling Ritsuka's wispy bangs around the tips of his long fingers.

"Sex," said Ritsuka, and he buried his face against Soubi's shoulder as he said it, so that Soubi could feel his blush warm through the fabric of his shirt. For as much as he might have grown in recent years, so much about him was still so young, so very innocent.

Soubi made a thoughtful noise and fell silent, weighing his answer. If the pause bothered Ritsuka, he didn't let on, contenting himself to fidgeting with the extra buttons sewn at the edge of Soubi's shirt-tail. "...Not that big of a deal, surprisingly," answered Soubi after a long moment. "I mean, for all the attention and drama centered around it, it doesn't really change the world. It's just very nice. Provided, of course, that you like the person you're with enough, and that whatever's going on is something you like."

Ritsuka let go of Soubi's shirt and placed his hand flat against Soubi's belly, which was a daring move even by their increasingly permissive standards of contact. Soubi had made himself clear very early on that no matter what, this would be Ritsuka's decision, and Ritsuka had responded quite responsibly, taking his time. However, lately that time had seemed fast approaching. "What do you--" Ritsuka's voice caught, faltered an inch, and he cleared his throat. "What do you like?"

A responsible adult would have cut the conversation short right then and there, given some sort of emotional or very vaguely physical response before steering the subject away from such dangerous waters. Of course, a responsible adult would have cut the entire relationship short years ago, and they'd both seen how much that hadn't happened. The only conclusion Soubi could reach, then, was that he was the exact opposite of a responsible adult, and therefore under no obligation to behave as such.

"I like to be on the bottom," answered Soubi, and his voice came out perhaps quieter and lower than he had intended; he could feel Ritsuka shiver against him. "I like the night, when you can turn off the lights and just feel. I like dirty talk. ...Other than that, I suppose it depends on who I'm with. For instance, I like different things with women than I do with men."

Ritsuka slid his fingers another inch up Soubi's chest, and in the moment of lessened contact, Soubi could feel his hand tremble. "...I guess, then, men?" he finally managed, his words a series of barely intelligible mumbles from a mouth buried in Soubi's shirt.

"I like to get fucked." Soubi nearly regretted the vulgarity as soon as it slipped out of his mouth, but stopped wishing he hadn't said it when he felt Ritsuka's hand clench into a fist in his shirt. "I like to be face-down in the pillows, on my hands and knees, with someone leaning over me so I can feel his breath on the backs of my shoulders. I like having my hips grabbed so hard I have five finger-bruises on either side." Ritsuka failed to bite back a whimper-moan, and Soubi kept talking. "Sometimes I like to have someone else kneeling in front of me, someone I can suck off while I'm getting fucked. I like having a cock so far down my throat I can hardly breathe. I like it when the guy I'm giving head to grabs my hair and comes in my mouth. I like to swallow."

Ritsuka's death-grip on Soubi's shirt hadn't lessened an inch, nor had the fire in his cheeks, and he was now bending his knees in such a way as to keep his lower body away from contact with Soubi's hip. "I like being told what to do," Soubi continued, though he doubted he needed to say such now. "I like being on my back, too, with my knees over his shoulders so he can get deep. I like having my hands pinned above my head with his hands. I like kissing while I'm being fucked. I like coming while he's still inside me, all over the sheets and myself." He cleared his throat. "...Is that enough of an answer for right now?"

"I...." Ritsuka sputtered for a second before pulling away from Soubi sharply. "I have to use the bathroom right now." And he darted off before Soubi could stop him, leaving Soubi face-up and hard on the bed, contemplating how much more maturing Ritsuka might need before retreating to jerk off became unnecessary between the two of them. To Soubi's mind, it couldn't be soon enough.

Secret Agent Man

Snake held out his arms, looking in the mirror, and gave a long sigh. "I still don't get why I have to wear this."

Otacon stepped in front of him and started fiddling with his tie. "Because it's a formal occasion, Snake. You'd stick out more if you wore your sneaking suit."

"I'd feel more comfortable in my sneaking suit." Snake sighed. "Not this monkey suit." Otacon had even made him take off his bandana. He felt so … pregnable.

Shaking his head, Otacon sighed and began fixing Snake's cufflinks. "No one calls it a monkey suit anymore, Snake. You sound like an extra from a Humphrey Bogart movie."

"Easy for you to say. You're not dressed up like a penguin." Snake turned around and was very distressed to see that the tuxedo did not, in fact, do anything for his ass. "…I can't do this. I feel ridiculous."

Otacon rolled his eyes. "You'll be great. Now, these cufflinks have high-powered explosives in them. Mash them together, and you'll have about a two-minute delay, so get out. Okay?"

"Two minutes, got it." Explosive cufflinks did not make up for not being allowed to take a gun, but Snake decided not to belabour the point. "You are going to be on the codec with me the whole time. Got it? No wandering off to do fun things."

"Well, I did have a World of Warcraft game I was in the middle of…" Snake shot him a cranky glare, and Otacon laughed, holding up his hands. "Relax, Snake. It's almost too easy to make fun of you sometimes. Anyway, the camera's in your bowtie, and make sure you get pictures of the blueprints. There won't be a terminal there, so just bring them home, and I'll deal with them here."

"I know, I know. …Is it really worth renting this thing just to get me in there?"

"Let's just hope I remember to take all the wires out of it before I return it." Otacon straightened Snake's lapels and stepped back. "Now, let's see you."

Snake stuck his hands in his pockets, trying to look casual, and was almost so distracted by how completely out of his skin he felt that he almost missed the weird look that passed across Otacon's face. "…What?"

"Nothing." Otacon coughed and looked away, scratching the back of his head. "You look, um, great. You'll knock 'em dead, tiger. Come on, I'll go call a cab. …Just don't go home with any strange women, okay, Snake?" And he scurried out of the room, his favourite lab coat gliding behind him.

Puzzled, Snake frowned; he didn't understand what Otacon was on about most of the time, anyway. He glanced around, to make sure the room really was empty, then turned to the mirror with a sudden spin, his fingers pointed like guns toward his own reflection.

"Snake. Solid Snake."

...Oh, he hoped that wasn't laughter he heard from his beyond the doorway. It was tacky to kill your support team before the mission even started.


"For the last time, no." Solid Snake took the socks from the laundry basket, paired them, and tossed the little bundles they made in a nearby drawer. "I'm not going. You can go. But if a crisis comes up, it'll be your fault for not being around."

Otacon decided that his cutest posture could be assumed by sitting cross-legged on the unnaturally tightly made bed, positioning his laptop on his knees, and peering over the edge like some sort of woodland creature. "Snake, you act like we can't even take a weekend off. Come on. It'll be fun! We haven't had a vacation in ... I don't know, ever?"

The effect failed as Snake didn't even look up, finishing with the socks and moving right on to t-shirts. "Eternal vigilance is--"

"Is the prince of liberty, geez, I know, I'm sorry I ever introduced you to Wendell Phillips." Now it was time for Otacon to lean forward, letting his big eyes be seen over the tops of his glasses. This was a special move, only to be used in the most extreme of situations, but he supposed this was his last chance to state his case short of knocking Snake out and dragging his drugged ass to Baltimore. He even had a plan for letting them blend in -- dress them both up in some of Snake's less lethal gear, and let everyone else spend the three days wondering if they were supposed to be those guys from Splinter Cell, or those guys from Halo, or those guys from Half-Life. Meanwhile, Otacon himself could sweep up some sweet figurines and mecha models. Maybe he could even talk Snake into carrying them for him. That'd be the life.

By the time Snake looked over at him, however, Otacon's patented look of extreme adorability had apparently metled into a mischevious, daydreaming grin, and Snake remained unmoved. "All work and no play makes Dave a dull snake," Otacon huffed, settling back down at his laptop. "Well, fine. I'll go, I'll have a great time, and you can stay here with the dogs."

"I like the dogs." Snake put the stack of t-shirts in a drawer. Say what you wanted about the man and his habits, his training made him by nature an impeccable housekeeper. "I may even clean your office while you're gone."

Otacon's eyes widened. His office was the last bastion of sanity in this house, the one place left that would entirely and spectacularly fail even the most cursory of military inspections. Even Otacon would admit it looked like a bomb had gone off in a Radio Shack in there. "Don't you dare."

Though Snake was smiling sympathetically, it was a smile that told Otacon the man was entirely serious about his threat. "Maybe we'll go next year."

"I'll hold you to that," Otacon sighed, flopping back on the mattress.

Snake knocked his feet to the floor in one swift blow. "No shoes on the bed."


It was not precisely accurate to say that Solid 'Dave' Snake got horny. Such would imply a loss of control of at least some degree on his part, and if there was one thing Snake hated, it was losing control. (If he got two things to hate, he'd add the Hudson River, but one was usually sufficient.) He simply reasoned that, from time to time, his body became understandably interested in the mechanics of sexual release, and he figured he'd do for his body then the same thing he'd do for it if it became understandably interested in radio transmitters: namely, find Otacon.

The door to Otacon's mess room (or 'command central,' depending on who was doing the talking) had a charming index card tacked to the door, on which some budding artist had drawn a cartoonish green squiggle, complete with headband, crossed out by a red circle-and-bar. Since this was intended as a protective measure againt his frequent cleaning sprees, and not a general prohibition, Snake pushed his way inside. The back of Otacon's head, haloed by a bright computer screen, greeted him. "Hi, there."

"Hi." Snake looked around uncomfortably at the myriad lights and wires in the room. This was always the tricky part. He placed his hands on Otacon's shoulders, rubbing gently, soothing muscles tensed from the incredibly strenuous task of being hunched over a keyboard all day and ... well, Snake wasn't entirely sure what Otacon was doing, only that he appeared to be controlling a very tall lady with giant breasts and purple skin. He let the tips of his fingers brush the bare skin of Otacon's neck, just above the collar of his worn t-shirt.

Otacon shivered a bit, and Snake was gratified to see this, but the furious typing didn't stop. "It's just about time for my guild meeting," Otacon told him, as though those were words that were supposed to make any sense.

Not a man to be easily daunted, Snake drew the ends of Otacon's hair away from his neck, exposing a bare flat of pale skin; using his having neglected to shave since yesterday morning to his advantage, Snake drew the stubbly end of his chin over that spot, following it with his lips, not quite kissing, just nuzzling. Otacon sighed and closed his eyes, letting his head fall forward (success!) ... but for only a moment before drawing himself upright again. "Not now, Dave," he smiled, reaching back to pat Snake's hair.

All right, perhaps a little loss of control was in order. "You've got five seconds to tell them you'll be back later."

"What?" asked Otacon, but he'd already typed a little brb into the window, and that was good enough. Using the kind of CQC that worked best on a skinny nerd boyfriend, Snake reached down and plucked Otacon bodily from his chair, throwing him over his shoulder swiftly and efficiently, such that even Otacon's flailing feet managed to hit nothing of consequence (Snake did not count a plush penguin as 'of consequence').

"Can't be helped," Snake shrugged, hauling Otacon off down the hall. Wild horses could not drag from him an admission of how pleased he was to hear Otacon's confused squawking become honest laughter as he rounded the corner into the bedroom, hopefully toward something far more engaging than a guild meeting.

Geeks Bearing Gifts

Everyone in the Juneau Circuit City turned to look when That Guy walked through the door. Tim tried not to stare, but it was impossible; even in this country of wilderness enthusiasts and extreme sportspeople, That Guy stood out. Being the manager, Tim stepped out from behind the desk and walked over. "Can I help you find anything today?" Blank, as though That Guy were just another customer, as though Valla hadn't just won the office pool for betting when he'd come back (she'd guessed the 4th of July, and here he was, three days before).

"Um, yeah." The guy cleared his throat and pulled out a folded-up piece of notebook paper from the inside of his light camo jacket, consulting it with a frown the way he always did. "I ... a MagnaTron superprocessor. With a ... 4XE3 frame."

"Of course," Tim smiled, walking them over to the shelf where the hardware accellerator accoutrements lived. "Is he-- Are you going to want the 2E swap file capacity, or the 2R?"

That Guy blinked momentarily, then looked at the paper; the resulting frown betrayed a man who hadn't done his homework and had no idea what he was talking about. "Well ... R is more than E, so ... yes."

Tim didn't even bother arguing the point. "The 2R's got a slower transfer time, but a bigger storage space. Most home systems won't require anything more than that."

That Guy looked at the box a long, hard moment, then nodded. "Okay. I'll take that one." He reached to pluck it from the shelf, and moved so quickly that Tim momentarily feared for his life.

At the register, That Guy paid in cash, declined to give his personal information for further promotional benefits, turned down any extended warranty, and opted not to have his receipt be printed in the name of saving trees. Tim and the others behind the register gave him the best and most courteous service, and waited at least two hours after he'd left the front door of the store to say a blessed thing.


Valla also won the pool when Hal strode in promptly on the 5th of July, knapsack under his arm, asking to speak to the manager. Tim came out and Hal shook his hand, asking how he was. After exchanging pleasantries, Hal explained that he knew it was highly irregular, and he didn't have a receipt, but he had a MagnaTron superprocessor still in shrinkwrap, and the demagnetised security sticker indicated it had come from a Circuit City, and he really just needed one with 2E swap file capacity, so would it be possible to make an exchange? He'd make up the difference, of course.

"Of course," Tim assured him, waiting until Hal was busy looking at video cards to pull a particular receipt from an envelope next to the cash register.

They only tended to hold their discussion until half an hour after Hal had waved good-bye and set off with his corrected hardware into the Alaskan afternoon, but that was because Hal was the least scary person any of them had ever met. "Did you see the way he was looking at the encryption software?" Gino had $200 on their being secret government operatives, because Gino collected conspiracy theories faster than Snopes could disprove them.

"Come on," sighed Kelly. "What would the government need with commercial encryption software?" Kelly had $150 on their being scientists on some global monitoring project, because she had an uncle like that.

Tim never tossed in, neither to the discussion nor to the pool, claiming that as a manager, he shouldn't be gossiping about or betting on his customers. However, secretly, he knew he could stake his whole life savings on manpanionship, and never lose a cent.

Pretty Boys and Prettier Robots

There had been many ridiculous campaigns in Otacon's war to enlighten Snake about his Japanese heritage, despite Snake's assurances that he was about as in touch with it as he felt he needed to be. The Kurosawa films had been enjoyable, particularly Ran. The game shows made no sense, but were sometimes good for a laugh. The attempted Sailor Moon marathon had been ended nearly before it had begun, souring Snake on the concept of anime in general.

But Otacon had promised that this one would be different, and had made a giant bowl of popcorn with chili powder to show his sincerity, so Snake felt obligated to sit and watch at least until the popcorn was gone. The night was a particularly blustery one, and three of the older dogs that had been given house priviliges in incliment weather came to cuddle as close to the two men as possible. One, Persephone, tried to insinuate herself between them, on top of the popcorn bowl, and was very gently shooed away. "What's this about, again?"

"Interstellar war," chirped Otacon, putting up his feet on the coffee table so Bellerophon, easily the oldest of the three, could lumber his way underneath. "See, there's colonies, and they were part of the big government, but now they want to be free, so they get these pilots for robots--"

Ah, there it was. "Robots. Got it." Snake took a handful of popcorn into his mouth, then let his hand down so Persephone could lick off the butter and chili powder, which had been all she'd wanted in the first place.

"But not just robots! Mobile suits that respond to the pilot's neural feedback--" Otacon trailed off as the opening movie started up, complete with enthusiastic Japanese pop song. "And the pilots are those teenaged boys, and they're fighting the Alliance because--"

"Hold it, hold it." Snake reached over and hit the pause button on the remote, freezing the spandex-shorted hero in the middle of what looked like a dance move. He knew he'd regret pursuing this line of questioning, but there was only so far he could suspend his disbelief. "Giant weapon suits, and they're letting child soldiers pilot them?"

Otacon took off his glasses and wiped them on his shirt. "Well, they're not child soldiers. I mean, not like that. Well, okay, Heero's kind of a child soldier, but the others aren't... Oh, stop trying to make it make sense, it's fiction."

"Even fiction's supposed to make some sort of sense sense," Snake grumped, but sighed and remembered his earlier promise to watch at least through the bowl of popcorn. Bucephalus put his abnormally large head on Snake's knee and looked up, white eyes asking patiently for a scritching, something Snake was powerless to resist. "...Okay, okay, let it play."

With a very pleased smile, Otacon hit the pause button again, and the music cranked up -- then took Snake's arm from where it rested on the couch between them and draped it around him, resting his cheek against Snake's shoulder. Well, this wasn't particularly conducive to finishing the popcorn, but somehow, Snake couldn't really see fit to raise a protest.

Intellectual Property Rights

The flashes were coming from Otacon's study at the rate of one every five or ten seconds -- too irregular to be machine-timed. Snake ignored it for nearly half an hour, but curiosity finally got the best of him, and he put down his copy of Oryx and Crake to go investigate.

What he found made little sense to him: there was Otacon, sprawled out on a cleared patch of carpeted floor, with every desk lamp and light-giving peripheral pointed toward an open hardcover book. With one hand, he turned the pages; with the other, he pushed the button on a homebuilt digital camera poised to get the best possible picture of the scene before him. "What are you doing?"

"Working to ensure the free distribution of information to the masses," chirped Otacon, not even looking up as he snapped another shot. "I'd just use the scanner, but I haven't managed to get it to strip all the identifying information from the images it generates, and anyway, this is faster and harder to trace, and slows down the distribution just a little bit. Did you know that, statistically, 58.35% of all copyright lawyers also currently work or have worked for the CIA?"

Snake's eyes caught the title of the book at the top of the latest page, and his eyes widened. "Otacon, this is -- are you sure you want to be messing with this?"

"Relax, Snake. I once obtained and leaked an entire Halo build. I was twelve. No one even suspected me." Otacon paused briefly, his eyes scanning the page. "You know, I don't think I like this one as much as the last one."

Intellectually, Snake knew that Otacon was the first and last name in computer security, and that he hadn't been snatched up by Foxhound for nothing. But watching him turn the pages, Snake couldn't help feeling uneasy. "And you're just going to ... send this to someone?"

Otacon's routine never slowed. "I've got message boards, with people who know what to do. Book publishing is a racket, just like the music industry, creating products that cost far more than they're worth to pay the salaries of corporate giants -- but the music industry only responded because people could distribute their products, so they had to adapt to the new digital society, make things cheaper, faster, better. If the publishing industry sees that it's vulnerable, it'll have to respond in a productive manner. In as little as five years, hand-held readers and digital text could be available at reasonable prices for the masses, promoting literacy and having the additional benefit of saving billions of tons of paper use every year."

"You just wanted to see if he dies." Snake rolled his eyes, unimpressed by Otacon's specious technological revolutionary argument.

"Can you blame me?" Otacon looked up sweetly, pushing his glasses up his nose. "I should just be a couple more hours. If you promise not to report me to the feds, I'll let you have it right when I'm done."

Snake snorted and turned away before his disapproving expression could be betrayed by the smile that broke across his face.


Of all the dumb things he'd been asked to watch, Snake figured, this was about the dumbest -- and he was counting the Golden Girls marathon, the last episode of Friends, and the time Otacon had promised him that The Breakfast Club was 'a great piece of cinema'. But he couldn't see the appeal of a badly-lit, marginally well-acted television show where two boys with bad haircuts ran around chasing after whiny ghosts.

But Otacon had promised popcorn with ground cocoa and chili powder. Otacon knew all his weaknesses.

"I thought you said they were hot for one another," Snake observed, narrowly missing scratching the corner of his eye with the same hand he'd been using to eat the popcorn.

"They are," said Otacon. He'd leaned back against Snake on the couch, and was idly petting at Snake's knee.

Snake grunted, but mustered enough presence of mind not to say both the first thing which came to him, which was, But aren't they brothers?, or the second thing which came to him, which was, Takes one to know one? -- the former of which would have earned him some chastisement about pots calling kettles black, and the latter of which would have had him sleeping in one of the dog kennels for the next six months. So instead he frowned at the screen, where our heroes were in some sort of haunted bed and breakfast. He could think of scarier things. "I don't think that actor's ever been drunk a day in his life."

Otacon switched from petting to swatting Snake's knee. "Hush. See, it's important, because he's very important to the demon who killed his mom -- well, their mom -- and this season he's having to come to terms with it because he may end up doing some terrible things that he doesn't want to do."

"So what's it got to do with all the dolls?"

"Snake, they're professional good guys! You can't stop being a good guy just because you might be a demon." Otacon took another handful of the popcorn from the side of the bowl that had a higher cocoa:chili ratio. "Plus, the dolls are evil."

"I think I've read this Stephen King story." Snake squinted at the television, as the two brothers -- who, despite Otacon's assertions to the contrary, looked about as uninterested in another as ... well, as brothers should be. Really, after all the hype, it was kind of disappointing. "No, worse, I think I've seen that Stephen King episode of the X-Files."

Now it looked like the tall one was crying, or about to cry, and the short one appeared unamused as he hauled his allegedly drunken and still-protesting sibling to bed. "There's nothing wrong with Stephen King, or the X-Files. You're just not--"

The conversation abruptly stopped as both men gawked at the television.

Otacon was the first to recover, taking another large handful of popcorn to his mouth, though not before uttering, "Told you so," to a very bemused Snake, who was left wondering just how the production team had managed to sneak that near-miss by network standards and practices.

Geek Dirty Talk

Dave hadn't known it was possible to be this bored while stripped naked and stretched out on a horizontal surface and not have the other person in the room be in violation of the Geneva Convention, but dammit, he was learning. "Isn't this one of those things you should, you know, decide in the heat of passion, or something?"

"No," said Hal, and he sounded positively offended. "There's a lot of things that could go wrong, and we need to plan and take all the proper precautions. I just can't find the...." His sentence trailed off as he stuck first his head, then his entire body under the bed.

"Don't know why FOXHOUND kept you on the R&D team." Dave settled himself back among the pillows and sighed. He thought about jerking off to pass the time, or at least to keep himself mildly in the mood, but it hardly seemed worth the effort. "I mean, your talents are obviously better suited to propaganda." There were already industrial boxes of condoms and rubber gloves alike stationed on the bedside table -- to say nothing of the can of wet-wipes and pump-action hand sanitiser in the drawer just below -- but Otacon was still unwilling to consider his own preparations complete without the final impliment.

"There's no need to be like that, Sn-- Dave." Hal's reply, muffled by layers of mattress and sheets, evidenced his habit of falling back into familiar code names when taking a particular exasperated tone of voice. "I mean, there's all kinds of trauma that can be inflicted if we're not careful: hemorrhoids, for starters, anal fissures, perforations in the colon -- your colon--"

Dave leaned over the edge of the bed, coming face-to-upside-down-face with Hal so quickly that Hal, startled, jerked and bumped his head on the box springs. "Is this why the latest data on the Big Shell haven't been compiled? Because you've been doing research on--?"

"No." Hal shuffled out from underneath, rubbing the back of his head with one hand and holding an industrial-size jar of Astroglide in the other. "Yes. Maybe. Only a little. Anyway, I found it. I guess the dogs must've thought this was a toy and knocked it under there." He was wearing only his slightly askew glasses and a ratty pair of blue boxer shorts that hung just below the little pouch of his gut. "And it's important to use a lot of lubrication because--"

"Hal," Dave interrupted, propping himself up on his elbows and giving Hal his deadliest stare, the one that shut up madmen and neurotic boyfriends alike. Here, as always, it worked like a charm. "Please. If you will. Stop to consider my colon." He gave Hal a moment to think on this, then continued, in an absolute deadpan: "It -- like the rest of me -- is made of the most durable genetic material on earth. My internal organs could probably withstand a direct hit from a nuclear weapon and come out all right. You're treating my asshole like it's made of tissue paper, when I could probably pass a battleship and not notice."

Hal's eyes widened to the circumference of anti-tank rounds. "You, um." He clearned his throat, then took off his glasses and wiped the lenses with the leg of his boxers, which had begun to sport a suspicious rise. "You sure do know how to talk dirty to a science geek, Sn-- Dave."

Dave rolled his eyes and tried to look terribly put-upon, but couldn't keep a smile from lifting the corners of his mouth.

The Art of the Possible

Politics had never suited Zabuza. Though he -- unlike nearly every other revolutionary in recorded history, or so his reading had seemed to indicate -- had known from the beginning that he who would overthrow The Man is generally destined to become The Man, knowing and becoming were two very different things. The record would show that he excelled at waging war, not peace. But there was always room to learn.

His dress ANBU uniform felt awkward, and he knew that if he'd simply refused to wear it, no one would have said anything -- but it was a state visit, an official occasion, and he held himself to a higher standard. Four other members of Mist's ANBU hovered outside the city gate, ready to spring into action at any moment, but Zabuza had ordered them to hold their ground. Appearing with such a retinue might be construed as a hostile gesture, and besides, he'd explained before leaving them, if they got into trouble, all they'd have to do was burst into tears, and the Leaf ninjas would be powerless to stop them. That had been when the Mizukage had kicked him demurely in the shin.

He'd never met the famed Fifth Hokage, though he'd recognised the man at her side, mask obscuring the lower half of his face, forehead protector half-cocked over his left eye, thumbing through a paperback novel with a questionable cover. On opposite sides of the desk sat Hokage and Mizukage, the latter still shaded by the hat of office. Said hat rarely saw the light of day, much less the top of a head; dress for this afternoon was unusually formal for everyone from the Country of Water, but that was what taking over a country got you: responsibility and unweildy outfits. "We are a small country always, and are still in the process of rebuilding, so what aid we might be able to offer is meagre, and yet when we heard about Orochimaru--"

The end of the sentence hung unfinished, however, as the door to the Hokage's office slammed open and three teenagers catapulted in, practically one on top of the other. Everyone turned, except Kakashi, who turned a page and kept reading. "The Mizukage is here?" bellowed the yellow-headed one. "Tsunade-baa-san, you didn't--" And now it was his turn to stop short as he looked up -- and up -- to see a very large man with a very large sword glaring down at him.

Tsunade pinched the bridge of her nose. "Forgive the interruption. I was hoping to get at least some business done, but as you can see, there are some people very eager to meet the newest Mizukage."

The girl, who had narrowly managed to avoid her teammates' tumbling antics, gave a polite little bow. "Zabuza-san! And ... Mizukage-sama?"

"Please," answered the young man in question, standing and drawing away his hat to reveal an elaborate hairstyle, "call me Haku." The bangles at his wrists and ankles jingled as he strode forth to greet the youths, who beamed and took his hands, chattering as though the last time they'd seen one another had been anything other than at the bridge, as though they'd been old friends even at the time. Himself a man never never slow to find a grudge to hold, he had to admit that Haku never failed to surprise him.

The commotion nearly distracted him from Kakashi, who moved closer to Zabuza's side. "Two years is a long time, isn't it?" he said, his soft voice that same one that had once looked into the future and seen Zabuza's death. Well, it was nice to know that sometimes even fortune-telling sharingan users were wrong.

"Ah," agreed Zabuza, grateful that his wrappings concealed the smirk that pricked at his mouth as Naruto commented insufficiently under his breath that, see, he'd told Sasuke that Haku made a prettier girl than Sakura, and Sakura planted her knuckles into his nose without pausing in her effusive admiration of Haku's lilac nail polish.

The New Mizukage

The lights were off by the time Zabuza returned to his quarters, and a less cautious man might truly have believed the boy in the bed to be asleep. Satisfied that the door was barred and warded behind him, he began the process of disarming himself.

The bedclothes stirred, and in the faint city light from the windows, Zabuza could see the outline of Haku's naked frame, curtained by his long hair. "How did it go?"

"They talk too much," he growled, pulling his shirt over his head and tossing it somewhere into the darkened room. His muscles were tense, and he hated the interminable meetings of the day for having rendered him frustrated enough to punch down a wall, but too exhausted even to lift his hand.

"Mm." Never one to speak ill of anyone, Haku remained neutral with most of his commentary. "I suppose that all depends on what they say."

The straps that kept the blades sheathed just above his knee were too complicated by half, and he fumbled with them for a long time, glad both for the shadows that covered his gracelessness and the action that covered his hesitation. "They say I should be Mizukage." At last, the bindings came away, and Zabuza put them atop the room's one table.

Haku drew his hair away from his neck. "And should you not?"

"No." Zabuza shook his head. "I'm not a crown to place on a throne. I'm a revolutionary who's read a couple of books."

The smile that spread across Haku's lips was audible. "The men who consider you worthy of the position surely think otherwise."

"And yet, I'm not a politician. That requires charm, grace, delicacy with people, diplomatic inclinations ... and at least a modicum of patience with idiots, something today has shown me I lack." Zabuza reached up and untied his bandana from his hair, running his fingers through the short, coarse strands. "Besides," he added, his voice growing low, "I fear no matter what my words or deeds or inclinations might become, my blood-stained reputation will always be what precedes me."

A long moment settled over the room, and then Haku stirred, pushing the covers aside and standing to meet Zabuza. He slept bare, as usual, and his skin glowed soft and pale with the dim light. "Then what will your answer to them be?"

"No," Zabuza answered plainly. "But I shall tell them that by virtue of the confidence placed in me by their nomination, I assume the right to make my own appointment to the task. And I shall also tell them -- in strongest possible terms -- that I would not consent to be governed by or to serve with my life anyone but the one person in the world I can trust." He lifted his hand to cover the distance between them, brushing the backs of his scarred knuckles against the unblemished curve of Haku's shoulder. "If he would consent to let me do so."

"You know I could never say no to you," smiled Haku, taking Zabuza's knobbed hand in his delicate ones, and Zabuza stepped forward, inclining his head downward to kiss the new Mizukage.


She lay there in the dark, listening to her own breathing. Counting the seconds between each cycle of inhale and exhale. You couldn't count the component parts; it didn't take nearly as long to push out the air as to relax the muscles and let the sudden void in her lungs draw the air in itself. Breathing in was literally the easiest thing in the world.

Her heartbeat was slow and even, and did not run on the same rhythm as her breath; she listened as the two rhythms intersected, then fell apart, then came together again. Like planets in different orbits around the sun. Like windshield wipers and the radio in the car.

Together, apart, together, apart. More apart than together.

Mireille's breath was like that too -- longer, slower. She would try to breathe with Mireille, but after too long, her lungs began to tell her to breathe faster, breathe faster. She lay there in the dark, her body curled around Mireille's body, their lungs moving together until her body pulled her into syncopation, and she had to speed up, leaving Mireille behind, knowing she'd find her again after long enough. Together, apart, together. Finding one another eventually.

The space where her thighs met was still damp; the places where her legs had fallen apart had dried in the night air, beneath the covers. She supposed she should get out of bed and take a shower. She didn't know how long she could leave Mireille alone before she returned to find her out of rhythm. Out of time.

She could not hear Mireille's heart, but knew it was there, knew if she pressed her fingers close enough to the skin she could feel that fourth beat. Tempos at war with one another, there in the darkness of the room. Together.

A small breach in the steadiness of Mireille's breathing, an purposeful inhale. "Are you asleep?"

Apart. "Yes." And the room was quiet

Cold Toes

He didn't knock first, just turned the handle and slipped in, his path lit only by the eerie green glow from the windows. He moved quietly, but every step nonetheless echoed through the empty, still house. Everything was too quiet during the Dark Hour -- all the regular background sounds of electronics, traffic, even the heating system, all gone.

The last one's absence Shinji felt the most, as he closed the door between the frigid hallway and Aki's slightly less frigid room behind him. The figure in the bed stirred and sat up a little. "Shinji--?"

He didn't respond, choosing instead to conserve his energy for crossing the floor in approximately two steps and tossing over Aki's bed the two blankets he'd brought with him, before diving under the whole mess. "It's cold," he muttered by way of explanation.

"Well, it's the Dark aaugh your feet!" Aki pulled his knees up nearly to his chest, squirming under the pile of covers. "They're like ice!"

"I'm cold!" Shinji repeated, though his voice was muffled by the blankets now. He cuddled up to Aki as close as he could get, trying to keep the offending toes at a distance. "Your room's warmer than mine."

Aki sighed and wrapped his arms around Shinji's chest, careful to keep his own, warmer feet on the other side of the bed. "You're just imagining that." Even in the pale light, Shinji could see him roll his eyes, yet try though Aki might, he never managed to sound even the slightest bit irritated at Shinji's nighttime intrusions. He slipped his hands up under Shinji's shirt, placing his palms flat against Shinji's lower back. "Better now?"

"Still cold," Shinji sighed, though having Aki's body next to him always did wonders for raising his internal temperature. He reached for Aki, careful to keep his cold hands on the outside of Aki's nightshirt, petting his hip and side through fabric as friction warmed his fingers. "Aren't you?"

"No," said Aki, whose shivers had nothing to do with the room's temperature. His fingers crept lower, down to the waistband of Shinji's sweatpants, slipping just below the elastic to find bare skin there. He smirked against Shinji's forehead. "We really should go to sleep," he murmured, though his hands crept still lower. "We've got exams tomorrow."

Shinji laughed softly, drawing Aki's hips closer to him. "Tch, exams." He shook his head, then kissed the corner of Aki's jaw. "You and Mitsuru could ace them in your sleep, and no amount of sleep's going to help me. We should be out tonight, not stuck in the stupid cold dorm because some suits think we need our rest." He slipped a thumb under the edge of Aki's boxers, pulling them down off his bare, bony hip.

"Stop bitching and I'll warm you up," promised Aki, pulling Shinji on top of him like yet another blanket, and Shinji, cured of all complaints for the time being, pressed his mouth to Aki's throat and shut his eyes.

Familiar Melodies

He'd tried to break the habit of falling asleep listening to music years ago, in the days before USB-compatable hardware, after he'd started burning through a pack of AAs a week, but some habits died as hard as batteries in a walkman left on all night. It wasn't the silence that woke him, though, but a weight on his chest and the sensation of the headphones' being pulled off his ears. He opened his eyes to see Pharos' curious face, lit green by the moonlight, holding one of the circular earphones up his ear. "It doesn't work."

"Of course it doesn't." Minato blinked a few times, rattling the cobwebs out of his head; he'd been dreaming before, and wasn't sure he hadn't just wakened into another. "Nothing works during the Dark Hour."

"Oh." Pharos sounded disappointed, and tapped the padded circle as though to make sure it weren't just stuck. "I wanted to hear what you listen to."

"Just ... music. Nothing special." They'd had conversations before, of course, about the meaning of personal space and how you shouldn't wake people up by sitting on them, but Minato was beginning to believe that Pharos had a very selective memory. More to his surprise, Minato was beginning to find that he had not only stopped dreading Pharos' presence, but actually had begun looking forward to the night-time visits; inexplicable company was better than no company at all.

Pharos seemed somewhat mollified by this answer, then grabbed at the edge of the sheets and pulled them back, climbling beneath them and tucking his body next to Minato's. The heavy shackle around his neck clanked as he moved, and Minato tried not to hiss at the pain where the cold metal came to rest against his bare shoulder. "Then sing me a song." He placed one cold hand flat against Minato's chest.

Minato frowned, more at the request than at the contact. "I don't sing."

"You must know some songs," purred Pharos, lifting his head just enough that he could be seen. "Just any one you know."

As he opened his mouth again to tell Pharos that he'd never sung a day in his life, that the violin was his instrument of choice, he found his breath catch as he looked into Pharos' bright face and a tune popped into his head. It was an unfamiliar song, one that he would have wagered he'd never heard before in his life, but it sprung fully formed from his mind, complete with the fragments of words whose meanings he did not know. He started to hum its beginning, a few simple notes that rose in a scale, then fell again. Pharos settled back against the pillow, fingers stroking gently in time with the song, so cold that Minato could feel them through his nightshirt. With that kind of encouragement, there was nothing but to shut his eyes and keep singing.

After what felt to him like the end of the second verse, Minato fell silent again, to find that Pharos was staring at him, sky-blue eyes wide. His gaze, however, looked not to Minato but through him, as if there were something to see far within. "Do you know that song?" Pharos asked, his hand stilling above Minato's heart.

"No," answered Minato truthfully. "Do you?"

Pharos shook his head. "No," he echoed in the same uncertain tone Minato had used. "Not anymore."


As the scarf winds around his face, Minato finds himself thinking of the only Catholic church he's ever been into in his life, and the way it smelled of age and darkness. Two cold hands slip around to caress his face, pushing the material up away from his nose and mouth, so only his eyes are bound. "Too tight?"

"No," says Minato, who opens his eyes under the scarf and sees nothing.

Fingertips, statue-cold and smooth, trace down the planes of Minato's cheeks, and Minato leans back into Ryoji's arms, feeling the chill metal of suspender buckles press into his bare chest. He isn't entirely sure how he's ended up entirely naked while Ryoji -- he moves his foot back a fraction to confirm his suspicions -- remains dressed down to his shoes, but as with so many things about Ryoji, it's probably better not to question.

Less than twenty minutes out of the Dark Hour, the room is still cold, having suffered in the December night for an hour's lack of electric heat, and Minato's bare skin prickles gooseflesh as Ryoji's fingers trace a long fresh scratch down his side, barely enough to have broken skin. In Tartarus, constant motion and action staves off any chill, and adrenaline covers a multitude of injuries, but now he is still and quiet, and the world is dark and cold, with only Ryoji's hands to steady him.

Ryoji's lips press against the long line of Minato's neck, warmer than his hands by far, but still pale and chill. Minato does not ask how Ryoji spends the Dark Hour by himself in the dormitory, not because he believes the answer to be something sinister, but because he doesn't like to think of Ryoji alone in the night. Surely darkness and frost are no trouble to Death itself, Minato rationalises, but there is something to Ryoji that is not Death, and that part pools like sorrow in his blue eyes whenever he bids his friends happy hunting, and breaks like dawn when he sees Minato return.

He feels the heat between them grow as Ryoji leans close, stroking Minato's belly and thighs, teasing his way toward the center. Minato never wonders for a second what precisely holds him here, naked and vulnerable before it, or fears that it might hurt him. He can feel inside him the gnawing edges of the hollow where Ryoji used to sleep, the crack in the world that now lets in the cold. He knows Ryoji he way he would know his own pulse even if his heart were taken from his body; sometimes, in fact, he feels as though it has.

Minato lifts his arms and reaches behind them both, knotting his fingers into Ryoji's wispy hair, and Ryoji sighs. "I think you can see better this way," he whispers, his words soft breath against the back of Minato's neck.

"You know," Minato smiles, "I think I can."


Well, Junpei reckoned as he folded the napkin into his pocket and waved to the pretty girl's retreating back, on a scale of one to ten, he hadn't done half bad. A phone number was a hell of a lot more than he usually went home with -- hell, if he was being honest, a name was a lot more than he usually went home with. But Keiko had been very nice and had danced with him all evening, and when she'd said her friends were leaving and she had to go with them, he'd been bold enough to ask her for a way to get in touch with her, and she'd even added a little heart down in the corner of the bar napkin she'd written it on. And she didn't seem like the kind of girl to put little hearts on napkins for just anyone.

And he had Minato to thank for it, too, which reminded him that he hadn't seen Minato for a little while now. They'd all been dancing out on the floor -- though Minato hadn't so much as touched him again for the remainder of the evening, just smiled at him occasionally from across the crowd, that weird cat-smile he had sometimes and didn't even seem capable of other times -- and then Keiko had begun making her exit, so Junpei had escorted her off without looking back.

But Minato was nowhere to be seen among the dancers now, and Junpei figured he'd be a pretty shitty friend if he returned Minato's favour by taking off back to the dorm without giving some sort of heads-up. Maybe he was in the bathroom. After all, sometimes a man just had needs.

On his way down the little back hallway that led to the bathrooms, though, there came a quiet spot as one song transitioned poorly into the next, and in that gap he heard a little noise, a rhythmic gasping sound quickly swallowed up by the ensuing electronic drumbeat. It had come from farther on down the hall, though, just past the doors to both restrooms, and before he could really question his direction, his feet were padding quietly toward its source.

A sliver of pale light from an barely-open door marked STAFF ONLY caught his eye. "Minato?" he called out as he nudged the door open with the back of his knuckles, but both his voice and the sound of the hinges were swallowed up by the heavy techno from the sound system, gone even before they reached his own ears.

Inside was a storage room no bigger than a broom closet, barely large enough for a chair and some filing cabinets, and on the chair, facing mostly away from the door, was the cute girl Minato had been dancing with earlier, her pink-dyed hair short and wild, her matching pink miniskirt hiked up around her waist; she was bent forward, and the single lightbulb from the center of the room shadowed every vertebra down her back. Beneath her, also on the chair, sat Minato, his knees bent and feet bracing him steady as she bounced enthusiastically up and down on his cock.

This, Junpei knew, was the time to get the hell out of Dodge, that magical time where one buddy just went off and left the other buddy to his business, and never said anything about it later, like buddies did. Except Junpei didn't move. The girl arched her back for a moment, her eyes shut, and light glistened off the silver ring through the one nipple Junpei could see; Minato bent forward and caught it with his teeth, tugging lightly, and she crumpled her body forward again, slamming her hips up and down with renewed intensity.

And then the number one thing Junpei didn't (or maybe did, and he wasn't examining that too closely) want to happen happened, and Minato turned his gaze just enough to see Junpei at the door. His eyes widened for a second with surprise -- and then he grinned, that cat-grin again, just on the playful side of downright mean. Eyes still locked on Junpei, he turned and placed his mouth just at the girl's ear, whispering words Junpei had no hope of hearing over the thrumming heartbeat of the bass, then reached up and grabbed her nipple ring again, and there was nothing gentle about his tugging this time. Junpei saw her hands turn to claws against Minato's back, grabbing fistfuls of his shirt for balance as she rode Minato hard, her breasts jiggling, her necklaces and bracelets bouncing in time. She was quite a sight, and he would have liked to watch her more closely, except he couldn't seem to tear himself from Minato's dim, hollow eyes, or to get the sudden dryness out of his mouth.

After what seemed like hours, but what couldn't have been more than a minute or two, judging by the music, Minato turned to whisper something else to the girl, and Junpei saw her nod before Minato closed his eyes. His expression barely faltered, perhaps his eyebrows bunched for a fraction of a second or two, and then the girl's hips began to grind down and Junpei knew that whatever he had been watching was over. Spell broken, Junpei darted back into the shadows, and a few seconds later, the girl wobbled out on her high heels, buttoning her shirt, and disappeared into the darkness of the hallway without ever knowing he was there.

Junpei stood in patient, expectant silence for nearly a minute before Minato finally emerged, flicking off the light politely behind him and shutting the door. "See?" Minato winked, tapping his fingers playfully against Junpei's chest. "It's all about the audience." And as he turned to leave the same way the girl had gone, Junpei didn't really see any course of action left to him but to follow.

Into the Dark

Shinji's shoulders went tense as the power ground down to silence. "I never got used to this part," he murmured into Aki's shoulder, burrowing deeper under the three heavy blankets and two extra comforters Aki had pilfered from various dorm inhabitants since Shinji's return.

"Too cold?" Aki pressed a kiss into Shinji's hair. He smelled mostly like the curry he'd spent most of the evening making, but even the sharp saffron couldn't mask the thin odor of sick beneath, closer to the skin.

"And too quiet. At least the drugs made it so I didn't care most of the time." Shinji snaked an arm around Aki's thin waist, pulling him close. "They didn't many anything better, they just made it so I didn't give a shit about how bad things were. Like how much I missed you." He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. "...Or how much it killed me thinking you weren't missing me."

"What?" With a frown, Aki pulled back from their embrace far enough that he could see the outline of Shinji's face in the dark. "Right, I didn't miss you at all, that's why I showed up every other day to try and badger you into coming back. That's great logic, there."

Shinji grabbed the neckline of Aki's t-shirt, pulling him back until their foreheads met and drawing the blankets close up over their shoulders. "Shut up," he grumbled, "I never claimed to be the smart one."

"I'll say." With their faces this close, Aki could smell the sick on Shinji's breath, and it terrified him, so he wrapped his arms around Shinji as tightly as he could manage, threading his fingers through Shinji's shaggy hair. Even though they were miles from Tartarus this evening, the Dark Hour still called to the sleepers inside all of them, and Aki could feel Polydeuces stir at his long-lost twin's proximity. "Are you still cold?"

There was a tremble beneath Shinji's skin that had little to do with the temperature, but Shinji nodded anyway. "I'm always cold," he answered, which was the truth.

With a smirk, Aki shifted their bodies so he came to rest mostly on top of Shinji, pressing a knee lightly between Shinji's thighs. "Then shut up and let me be the smart one," he said, letting his lips brush lightly against Shinji's lips as he spoke. "I know how to warm you up."

In younger days, that might have won some smartass comeback from Shinji, but now Shinji just inclined his head to close the distance between their mouths, kissing back quietly, intensely. For all his gruff bluster, Shinji was actually the gentle one of the pair, and Aki liked that no one else knew this, because it was a secret they could have, just the two of them. He reached beneath the covers and slipped his hands under Shinji's sweatshirt, pulling it upwards. "This isn't warm," Shinji pointed out as his head emerged from the fabric, his hair a frightening mess.

"Give me a second, geez." Aki pulled off his own shirt as well, then folded his body down again, pressing their bare chests together beneath the blankets. Most people who saw them together thought of Aki as 'the skinny one', but the truth was that beneath all of Shinji's layers of clothing, he was as bone-and-muscle-thin as Aki was, maybe even more so now than before. They really were twins, the two of them -- reflections in a funhouse mirror, maybe, fraternal to the eye but identical in essence. From deep inside him, Aki could feel Polydeuces' reaching out to join Castor, and Castor's long-unfamiliar reply stretching back, creating a sympathetic vibration of belonging.

With the covers securely fastened about their shoulders, trapping in all the warm air, Aki went for his own sweatpants, pushing them blindly off his hips and kicking them off his ankles; he kept his socks on, because it was too dark to see how ridiculous that looked, and because the last thing he wanted was Shinji whining about his ice toes. "Turn over," he whispered to Shinji, and Shinji complied, rolling onto his stomach and slipping his bare arms under the pillow. Careful not to allow in too much of the chill night air, Aki snaked his arm out from under the pile of blankets and grabbed a bottle of lube from the bedside table, snatching it back under the covers as quickly as possible.

Their respective positions had been reversed at first, back when Aki had been certain that he'd been the only one truly interested and that the only way to coerce Shinji was to make the experience as straight and in-charge for him as possible. It had taken years, and mostly years of living apart, for Aki to figure out where they actually belonged, to realize that Shinji was so much of a bottom (a term he'd learned from exhaustive late-night internet research) that he'd let Aki top him into being a top. Now he was back, all Aki wanted to do was cover and protect him, and, as he'd learned to no mild surprise, that was all Shinji really wanted him to do.

Working by touch, Aki pulled Shinji's sweatpants off his hips, skimming his fingernails down the backs of Shinji's legs in the process. Shinji shivered, though not from cold, as Aki tugged them free (again leaving the socks, because no matter how cold Aki's feet were, Shinji's were always colder) and settled between his thighs. Pressing his body as flat to Shinji's skin as he could, he poured a small circle of lube into his palm and closed his fist to warm it. "You okay?" he whispered against the back of Shinji's neck.

Shinji nodded. "Getting warm," he smirked, lifting his hips against Aki's body. "Could be warmer."

Being a teenaged boy, Aki never needed much encouragement to be in the mood for sex, but Shinji's active participation never failed to make Aki immediately, completely hard. Satisfied that his fingers were warm enough now, Aki slipped one between the bony planes of Shinji's flat ass, pressing gently against warm skin until he found his way inside, sliding in slick with little resistance. Shinji gasped encouragement and pressed his hips back into Aki's touch, so Aki added a second finger, then a third, stretching Shinji gently wide. With his free hand, he reached beneath Shinji's body and the covers, until he found Shinji's cock, rock-hard and waiting; he gave it a quick stroke, and Shinji groaned loudly in a way that wasn't entirely muffled by the pillow. Oh well, thought Aki; if there was anyone in the building who didn't know what they were up to by now, it was that person's fault for being unobservant.

When Shinji starting fucking himself on Aki's hand, moving his hips to allow Aki's fingers, Aki pressed a kiss to the small of Shinji's back and withdrew. Slicking up his narrow cock as quickly as he could, he placed its tip at the entrance to Shinji's ass and began to push inside. In the silent air, he could hear every grunt and breath Shinji made, and every one set his nerves electric. "You okay?" he asked again when Shinji hissed in breath.

"Don't you dare stop," growled Shinji, his hands fisted hard in the pillow beneath his head, and Aki knew not to refuse an order when he heard one. He buried himself deep in Shinji, pausing for a moment to let both of their bodies adjust to the sensation, then began to rock slowly against Shinji's back, in and out in an unhurried, deliberate rhythm. Breathing hot and heavy on the bare skin between Shinji's shoulderblades, Aki flattened his body as close to Shinji's skin as he could, feeling the skin where they made contact warm.

They were truly like a single being: the way they fought the Shadows, the way they fought one another, the way they fucked, the way they healed the distance that had grown between them. When Aki bend over Shinji, he felt Polydeuces rise up inside of him again, covering his brother, fierce and protective; and beneath him, he sensed Castor's letting down his armour, letting his twin inside. Shinji groaned beneath him again, louder this time, bending his knees up to allow Aki in deeper, and with every thrust into his beloved other's body, Aki thought, mine, mine, mine.

By the time the Dark Hour ended and the two space heaters hummed back on, they were both sweating so hard that Shinji had kicked off two of the blankets of his own volition, and on that merit alone Aki declared the entire endeavor an unqualified success.

Nein's Last Case

The door to my office opens, and in she strolls like she's walking on air -- which, I see by the time my eyes make it down all five miles of her legs, she is. You're Nein, she says, and it's not a question.

Like it says on the door, sweetheart, I tell her, leaning back in my chair like I'm the guy who owns the place. I may be just the joe who lays down my five hundred clams every month to the half-ton mental midget who owns this glorified roach motel he calls an office building, but as far as she has to be concerned, I'm the highest-order thought process in the whole cerebrum.

Long, tan fingers coax the cigarette from her deep lips, painted the same monochrome grey as blood. Dorothy and the Wizard lied to us all; everybody dreams in black and white. Detective Nein, she says, flowing like liquid across the bare floorboards, I'm from the Brain Trust.

The Brain Trust? I echo. There's not a cat in this town who hasn't heard of the Brain Trust, but there's not a man in a thousand who's seen 'em -- and lived to tell the tale, at least. Smartest guys in the room, a thinking man's think tank. If they've come looking for me, it can only mean one thing: there's a bill come due I didn't even know about, and they're here to collect.

We hear you're good at cleaning up messes. She crosses the distance between us like Zeno's Paradox, half and half and half at a time.

Baby, I tell her, I'm the neatest man I know.

She doesn't say anything after that, just drapes herself along my desk, her short skirt slipping slowly up her honey thighs, exposing the clip of a garter belt and the top of her stockings. She's marvelous, a goddess like you see in those old paintings, rising from the water on a seahorse, seaweed stretched across sensuous limbs, waves crashing in her hair. I slip the glove off of my hand and reach for that horizon that divides the world between nylon and skin.

There're no messes on my turf, dollface, I smile down at her. So if you want to see me at work, we may have to make one first.

Just as I'm leaning down to press my lips to the silky smooth skin of her inner thigh, the door bursts open again

(wait no this isn't what happens)

and a young man crashes in, his dark, keen eyes visible even through thick orbs

(what are you)

as he stares us. She shrieks and tries to cover herself, and I, driven by reflex and thwarted desire, reach into the top drawer of my desk, finding two flasks, a Rolodex with the phone number to go with every powerful name in the City, and

(no no no how did you get)

my trusty .44 -- a last resort, to be sure, but like me, she never misses. I level the pearl-handled piece, aim it right at the X between the double-O of his goggles, and pull--



Raz, who hadn't known it was possible to be kicked out of someone's head so hard you saw everything twice for the next two days (or was it just a day?), henceforth resolved never, ever to go lifting the tiles in Sasha's head marked PRIVATE ever, ever again.


The smoke from his cigarette looked pink in the dawn, and he held the cigarette at arm's length for a moment, letting it curl towards the sky in the windless morning. He had always liked mornings -- the cool air, the silence, the stillness. The solitude.

Which was why the creak of the hinges behind him made him sigh a little. The solitude had been nice, at least. But he turned to greet Hakkai, who sometimes shared the morning with him, and who always brought coffee when he did.

Except it wasn't Hakkai who stood in the doorway, but Goku, who stepped sleepily out onto the porch and shut the door behind him. His bare feet made slapping sounds against the boards as he crossed over to where Sanzo sat; he looked around for a moment, then plopped down next to the priest in one great monkey heap.

Sanzo frowned, though not unkindly, and moved over a little. "You're up early."

Goku began to yawn, then had the presence of mind to cover his mouth. "I heard you get up." Sanzo waited for further interruption, for chatter and antics and all manner of distraction, but Goku -- for once -- seemed content just to sit there, staring sleepily at the morning. He didn't even kick his legs over the edge of the porch.

Across the street, smoke began to furl from first one chimney, then another, dancing in the still air like the smoke from Sanzo's cigarette -- which was almost out. Bending down, Sanzo ground out the last of the glow into the ground, then reached into his sleeve for pack and lighter, sending a new cigarette flaring to life. He expected to hear some sort of protest from his companion this morning, some complaint about how awful the smoke smelled. But Goku said nothing.

Peering from the corner of his vision, Sanzo took a moment to stare at Goku, who continued looking out on the dawning day. His oversized shirt -- probably one of Gojyo's, once upon a time -- hung lopside around his thin frame, and the one pair of jeans that had not yet been sacrificed to cut-off shorts hung defiantly over his feet. Even his hair was too large for him, grown outside its bounds into a messy brown halo. Sometimes, Sanzo thought, Goku seemed so very small.

Presently, the sun broke over the eastern horizon, casting the street in a rich golden light, and Sanzo lifted a hand to shield his eyes. Next to him, he heard the rustle of clothes and creaking of boards as Goku stood. "Good morning," Goku said softly, stretching his arms above his head.

Sanzo took a deep drag from his cigarette. "Good morning," he replied, and his words were smoke that disappeared in the sunlight.

The Triumph of Logic

Hakkai, at least, was calm. "Now, Goku, think. Where did you see them last?"

"I don't remember!" came the reply from a tiny monkey half under the bed -- the half that talked, which meant the reply was somewhat muffled. "I mean, I had them yesterday...."

"All right, monkey." Gojyo lifted the covers from the other bed, finding nothing. "Where'd you go yesterday?"

"Um..." Goku's lower half wriggled under the bed as the other half emerged from the other side. "I went out for a walk in the rock garden."

"And did you have them on then?"


"Do rocks hurt your feet?"


"So would you have put them on before you went into the rock garden?"

Goku looked terribly troubled, as though this might be a trick question of some sort. "I..."

Sensing an imminent breakdown of logic, Hakkai placed a hand comfortingly atop Goku's head. "We'll find them. Just try to remember where else you might have gone. Did you go to the fish pond?"

"Yeah," answered Goku, looking thoughtful. "No, wait, that was the day before yesterday."

"Did you wear them to dinner?"

"Sanzo would have killed me!" The look of distress on Goku's face was traumatic. "...Not that he's not gonna kill me now...."

Gojyo snorted cigarette smoke out his nose. "He's not going to kill you because you lost your shoes, you twerpy ape."

"I'm not a twerpy ape, you big dumb cockroach!" Goku launched himself across the room and landed, barefoot, atop Gojyo's shoulders; Hakkai felt a rather monumental headache coming on. It would go nicely, he thought, with his growling stomach.

The door swung open, and Goku disentangled himself instantly from the appearance of any mischief-making of his and Gojyo's part, a survival skill that had saved him several whacks in the head already in his short time at the monastary. "Sanzo!" he exclaimed, holding his feet in his hands and sitting cross-legged on the bed. "I can't find my shoes, and Gojyo says we can't go out to eat until I find my shoes, and I'm hu~ngry!" The last word was a spectacular whine.

Sanzo managed to look even more unimpressed than usual. "They're right outside the door," he answered levelly, kicking them into view of the doorway.

"Wow!" Goku bolted across the room, caroming dangerously off the furniture and coming to a stop on the floor right in front of a mostly unamused Sanzo's feet. "You're the best, Sanzo!" He started fitting them on his feet, and Gojyo breathed a sigh of relief, while Sanzo rolled his eyes. Hakkai just smiled and thanked Someone that having a small white dragon who could transform into a moving vehicle meant never having to look for car keys.

Why Don't We Do It In the Road

"No! No! Don't speed up! You're going to miss the red light!" Tal banged on the dashboard for emphasis, trying to keep an eye on the little Saab that had been next to them for the last half hour of traffic, and particularly the driver of the little Saab with whom he'd been flirting fairly continuously for that last half hour. "You're going to miss it!"

Z threw up his hands, then reconsidered and grabbed the steering wheel. "I'm not the only car on the road! I don't have magical traffic powers!"

"Well, maybe you should!" Tal was halfway leaning out of the car now, an easy yet still treacherous trick in a convertible. The taxi behind him honked, and he gleefully threw the driver the finger. "Asswipe! Can't you see I'm flirting?"

The road in front of the right lane was still fairly congested, but his own right lane was clear, and Z was certain every driver in New York City right then hated him for not changing his speed to match the current driving opportunity. However, when it came down to every driver in the City and your best friend, sometimes you knew what you had to do.

"Yellow!" exclaimed Tal triumphantly. "Slow down! Slow down!"

"Yeah, that's what your mom said last night." Z rolled his eyes and hit the brake, coming to a stop right next to the Saab. "Come on, it's a short light--"

But Tal had already vaulted nearly entirely out of the car, and the driver of the Saab had somehow wriggled his way through the open window, and it couldn't have been more perfectly choreographed if they had planned it all in advance. Tal's hands wrapped around the man's face, pulling him close for a kiss, thrusting his tongue into the man's mouth to taste the double mocha frappuchino and the man beneath its cloying presence. And the man was kissing back, reaching for Tal's long braids, holding Tal to hold himself up, suspending them both like a bridge across the road, an incredible feat of architecture held together by four arms and two mouths. Even for New York City, it was a fairly spectacular sight.

And then the cars behind them began honking mere microseconds after the light turned from red to green, and Z had time only to say, "Hold on!" before they were gone ahead, and the Saab was gone around the corner. Tal sank back in his seat, looking utterly dazed, holding his fingers to his lower lip and staring blankly at the road before them.

Z knew better than to comment for the next several minutes, as he navigated his way through several more killer taxis and city buses before turning onto the street with their building. As he swiped the card to let them in the garage, though, he looked over at his roommate. "Did you get his phone number?"

There was a pause.

"How about his name?"


Waiting Up

The food on the table had reached a truly unappetising temperature an hour earlier. Hakkai had pulled it out of the steamer and put it onto plates nearly an hour and a half before that. Then it had been dinner. Now it was leftovers. Tomorrow it might be lunch, if Gojyo wasn’t too hung over to eat, if Hakkai was sufficiently inspired to reheat a meal for one, if either of them was willing to sit out a meal in the silence that follows a late arrival home.

He didn’t want to nag. Gojyo didn’t want a wife; if he had, he’d have married by now. Hakkai just wanted to repay the kindness of being allowed a place to live, a base from which to pull himself together (not a home, not really, but a house, and that was enough of a place to begin). And the only way he knew how to do this involved making dinner and sweeping up after messes and picking up Gojyo when his ‘friends’ dumped him on the front stoop too drunk to walk and carrying him inside into his bed and pretending the next morning that none of it had ever happened.

The door to the house slammed open, and then, as though an afterthought concession to the fact that there might be someone sleeping inside the house, pushed shut quietly. There was some clattering in the kitchen, the noise of plates’ being moved but not being used. Months of practice now had taught him to decipher Gojyo’s movements just by sound. No dinner, then.

Hakkai stared at the ceiling, closing first one eye, then the other, watching the world alternate between crystal clear and nearly incomprehensible. Back and forth. He thought exercises might help him get used to the change, grow accustomed to resolving two radically different modes of vision at once. So far, it hadn’t.

Both eyes shut even before the door to his room peeked open, a sort of precognative reflex that allowed him to appear perfectly asleep. The soft light from the kitchen hit his eyes, eclipsed infrequently by a large (and presumably kappa-shaped) shadow that did not move so much as hover, standing there, staring into the makeshift bedroom that had once been a tragically underused sitting room, waiting for eyes to change enough to be able to see in the dark. The shadow lingered there for one minute, then two, each second counted out by the soft tick of the kitchen clock. Four. Five He heard a sigh that sounded absolutely nothing like someone’s calling his name to ask if he were still awake. Eight. Nine. Ten.

Hakkai continued breathing, slowly and rhythmically, long past the time the door to his room shut, echoed seconds later by the closing of the door to Gojyo’s room. He opened first one eye, then exchanged it for the other, timing his exercises in vision to the sleep-slow filling and emptying of his lungs. Every exhale sounded like the word coward.

Settling In

“Where does this one go?”

“I don’t know,” Hakkai calls back, frowning at a slightly crumpled book. “What does it say on the side?”

“Uh…” There’s a slight grunt and a shifting of heavy objects from the next room. “Maybe ... uh ... ‘DISHES.’ I think.” Gojyo’s frown is audible as he strains to read what is probably his own handwriting. “Oh, uh, if you turn it this way, it could be ‘BLOOD VESSEL.’”

“No!” A sudden wash of terror floods Hakkai as he imagines the fragile contents of a badly taped box crashing out the top-turned-bottom and cascading across the floor. “Don’t turn—”

“Relax!” Gojyo calls back. “I’m dumb, but not that dumb.”

Hakkai reminds himself that laughing would only encourage this kind of behaviour. “Kitchen, then. I’ll be in there in a moment to help unpack.” He takes a few more books out of their box, sets them neatly on a rather dilapidated wooden shelf, finds himself bored with the task, and wanders in after Gojyo, who is sitting in the middle of the floor surrounded by packing material.

“Nice of the Buddha-guys to send for your stuff, yeah?” With an unexpectedly delicate touch, Gojyo unwraps another saucer and sets it atop its brothers on a nearby chair.

“Mm,” Hakkai agrees, picking up the fragile plates and eyeing the available cabinet space with no small degree of suspicion. “Better, I suppose, than if I’d gone back after it myself.”

Another saucer emerges from its wrappings, followed by a cute matching cup. “So you don’t win any popularity contests with people who feed little girls to demons. Big deal.” Gojyo unwraps another cup, frowns at it, and extends it immediately in Hakkai’s direction. “I didn’t do it.”

Setting the saucers on the counter, Hakkai frowns and peers closer with his good eye. There is a chip in the handle, exposing the off-white ceramic underneath. “Oh, no, it’s all right,” Hakkai tells him, waving his hand dismissively. “That’s been there since I got them.”

“Huh.” Gojyo eyes the little cup. “Hope you didn’t pay full price for ‘em.”

“They were a gift, actually.” Hakkai pushes a ratty saucepan and a bowl with a hole in the bottom to the back of the cabinet, making a mental note to throw them away later and see how long it takes Gojyo to notice, or if he ever notices at all. “One of the nuns at the orphanage was somewhat fond of me, and encouraged me in my studies, and when I was leaving with Kanan—” His voice catches, and he settles the plates in their new home. By the time he turns back, he’s smiling again. “Anyway, they were hers, and she told me to take good care of them.”

Gojyo doesn’t even flinch. “Ratty old china set’s a pretty shitty graduation gift.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Hakkai agrees quietly. “Come on, keep unpacking. There are only a few boxes. We should be able to settle me in by suppertime.”


It is, Gojyo decides later, not any big thing, but a thousand little things. Baby steps. Little agreements they come to without ever having to say anything. If it had happened all at once, of course, he would have panicked, run away, stopped everything. But it didn't.

It starts with their beds. Hakkai takes his old bed, and Gojyo takes his, and that's all right. Then one night a store tears a leak in the roof and lets in the water, and it's too late and dark to fix any of it, so Hakkai takes half of Gojyo's single bed. A few nights after, the roof long since patched, Gojyo returns to find Hakkai's bed has been moved into his room, and the two have been tied together. And that's all right.

Then there's the case of their clothing. The first time he sees a pair of briefs infiltrating his boxer drawer, he figures it's a mistake from the laundry. Then another two dozen pairs find their way in, however, until the drawer isn't entirely his anymore. Then his closet half-fills with well-tailored shirts and pants, and all his shirts return folded. That's all right, too.

It's when they start going everywhere together that he becomes really suspicious. Before, Hakkai did all the shopping, leading to the illusion of a magically restocking pantry; now, Gojyo finds a reason to tag along with him each time, make his way into town, give unsolicited adivce while Hakkai chooses fruits and always remembers to throw a carton of Gojyo's brand of cigarettes. Still all right.

And then there's the morning Hakkai has to early and go into the town for a job interview, and Gojyo doesn't wake for at least another hour after that, and when he does, he finds himself reaching over to a side of the makeshift double bed to an empty space where he's grown so used to a warm body, his arm falling against sheets and blankets long robbed of their residual heat by the atmosphere. That isn't all right – not until the next morning, anyway, when Hakkai is there again as always, doing the sudoku puzzle in the morning paper (dragon delivery is always punctual and rewarded by scritchins), and Gojyo reaches over to wrap an around around Hakkai's waist, disturbing Hakkai's puzzle-solving efforts, and then suddenly everything is again.

But it isn't until Hakkai takes him to buy new furniture to replace their old, ragged, scavenged relics, explaining that some day they might actually want company to come see a place that doesn't look like a junkyard or a college dorm, that Gojyo realises he is well and truly doomed. And by then, well, that's all right too.


The smoke from Gojyo's cigarette curled lightly in the breeze from the window. Outside, it was a warm spring day, the first of the year where the wind could be described as 'balmy' as opposed to 'icy.' Gojyo sat on the bed, leaning back against the wall, his arm with the cigarette stretched along the windowsill. Every now and then, he brought the cigarette to his mouth and took a deep, slow breath, staring all the while at the slow, easy movement of the trees outside.

Inside, Hakkai knelt on the floor next to the bed, between Gojyo's legs, resting much of his weight on his elbows as he leaned over and slowly, langourously sucked Gojyo off. Gojyo closed his eyes as he felt Hakkai's tongue travel the length of his cock, tracing veins tangible beneath taut skin. It felt good, the cool breeze on his face, Hakkai's warm mouth now encirciling his rather impressive erection, Hakkai's soft hands resting on his thighs. In fact, everything in the world right then made him feel very much at peace.

The cigarette returned to his mouth, and he breathed in deeply, feeling the smoke run liquid down his throat, filling his lungs. Nicotine was supposed to be a stimulant, but it had always calmed him. Good for after a fight, or after sex. Or during sex, for that matter. He exhaled noiselessly.

To the casual observer, he might have looked bored. But he knew better, and he knew Hakkai knew better, and every time his cock twitched beneath the touch of Hakkai's tongue told a different story. He was close now, so close that he ached, so close that any change in rhythm could send him off. But Hakkai sucked him slowly, tracing the head of Gojyo's cock with his tongue, in no particularly hurry to finish.

It drove him nuts. It was what he loved. So he knew enough to sit back and wait for it to happen.

He came quietly, as quietly as breathing smoke into the spring air. He tensed a little, barely enough to be noticed, and sighed as he came into Hakkai's mouth, liquid and warm. And Hakkai's mouth held him, sucking him dry, licking him clean, until they both were finished; then, Hakkai tucked him gently back into his jeans, wiping his mouth neatly against the sheets, and placed his head against Gojyo's thigh. Unable to refuse such an invitation, Gojyo threaded his fingers through Hakkai's fine, dark hair and scritched his lover softly. The pleased noise this earned him made him smile even more.


He had seen the looks, the glances he had learned at an early age, from being the prettiest and most unattainable boy among monks who were required to worship him and frequently ended up resenting him. They were the looks that turned to stares in the baths, hands in the dark, bruises on their owners as Sanzo told them in no uncertain terms he was not interested, and bruises on their owners as Sanzo told them in no uncertain terms that he was.

But not with Hakkai. Hakkai had too much control for that, enough that he’d make a good monk someday, if it were what he wanted. Hakkai just looked, never touched, always hovered at a distance behind Gojyo’s lusty sneers toward anything with a pulse and a convenient hole, and Goku’s pathetic adoration. It was like he was waiting for something indefinable, some cue only Hakkai could see. It was driving Sanzo up the wall.

And so, one night, Hakkai woke to see a pair of eyes turned black by night, watching him right back. He turned on his side and propped his head on one arm. “Yes?”

Sanzo, still in the other bed, barely blinked. “What do you want?”

Hakkai shrugged, features obscured by the darkness. “I thought it was obvious.”

“Then what were you waiting for?”

The sound of Hakkai’s laughter was barely more than a whisper. “Come here.”

And so Sanzo did, sitting upright, feeling with his bare feet the coldness of the wooden floors. It was chilly in the room, with the window open, and Sanzo only in his jeans. He crossed the distance between the beds, and stood there calmly. “Do you do this with Gojyo?”

Sitting up in bed, Hakkai laughed again. “Sometimes.” He brushed his hand down Sanzo’s chest. “Does that bother you?”

“No,” Sanzo lied, keeping his voice even and his hands by his sides.

“Mm,” Hakkai smirked, and Sanzo couldn’t tell what he meant by it. Any chance he might have had to ask, however, was pre-empted by his jeans’ falling past his hips. “You know how this goes?”

“Once or twice.” Cocksucking so often went hand-in-hand with the obligatory adoration. Novice mouths and novice hands, always so eager to please.

“Good.” And Hakkai took him in his mouth, down practically into his throat, swallowing him to the balls; one of his hands, past his control, threaded into Hakkai’s dark hair as Hakkai slipped his hands around Sanzo’s ass and gripped him tightly in place. Sucking him off like an expert. Nothing novice about it at all.

Barn's Burned Down

At first, he takes the sound as one of pain -- Hakkai, to judge by the breathiness and pitch, injured or having a nightmare -- and he is grateful for his sleep-soaked state that keeps him from acting upon it too quickly, for the initial gasp is joined by a breathy groan identifiable as Gojyo's, and such could hardly be mistaken for anything save what it is.

Sanzo keeps his eyes tightly shut, burying his face a little more soundly against Goku's hair, and never mind when during the night Goku apparently came to crawl in with him. The monkey is asleep now, snoring lightly and tucked against Sanzo's body, and at least he has the ability to sleep through things like this. Like Gojyo's breathy laugh, and Hakkai's muffled gasp, and the slick sounds he tries his hardest not to identify. At least they're out on the road, and not in some unsuspecting little inn, where they might now have yet another exciting reason to be run out of town on a rail.

It's not his place to judge what they're up to; in fact, he'd suspected it of them upon first meeting them, before their journey had begun and he'd realised that, no, whatever hung between them was a tense thread, ready to give at any moment. Sanzo doesn't know when it snapped, but finds the outcome distinctly unnerving. The mental image is bad enough, but having it happen six feet away from where he's supposedly asleep is ... well, there isn't a word for it right now, but Sanzo figures if you give him long enough, he'll think of something.

Each sound is unfamiliar, each gasp just curious enough that Sanzo can't not listen, can't stop his brain from trying to assign each noise a source. Is that the sound of mouths against each other? Or a mouth somewhere else? Are they actually being shameless enough to--? And why does Gojyo keep laughing?

Clearing his throat in a way that could conceivably mean he's still asleep, Sanzo rolls onto his side, his back fully to them; Goku mutters and settles closer into his arms, which is more warmth and pressure than Sanzo might have wanted, and he scowls. But Hakkai and Gojyo hardly take the hint, such as it is, and the muffled sounds only grow in frequency and intensity. His imagination provides a thousand possibilities for each noise, each more horrifying by degrees, each more captivating than the last. It isn't something he wishes to think about anyone engaging in, much less two of the great annoyances in his life -- and his body's intrigued response does nothing to mitigate anything.

It's disgusting, he knows, he knows he should know, and that keeps him distant enough to keep him from getting caught up in how he wishes, in the moment that Gojyo's breath hitches and Hakkai's faint gasp escapes, for that brief moment that he were there between them, able to say fuck proper or good or appropriate, this is what I want, here and now, able to do that and not have it destroy everything, because everything's been destroyed already. It brings to mind one of Komyou's favourite haiku: Barn's burnt down -- now I can see the moon.

Then the sounds they make are of bodies separating and dressing, one body making its way from the other body back to its own bedroll under cover of darkness, and Sanzo presses his mouth against Goku's silk-fine hair, trying to conceal his wakefulness, aware now that he has been an intruder, and rightly ashamed. After a time, their breathing slows to sleep, though hours pass before Sanzo's joins them. The moon hangs above them, as in the poem, and Sanzo's open eyes long track its silent progress across the night sky.


Gojyo was awakened by a thin rasping sound -- the wind through the high branches, he thought, until he realised it was too regular, and coming from too close beside him. He reached out blindly for the source of the sound, and his hand came to rest on Hakkai's chest, which pulsed in time with the noise. "You're not breathing so good," he said softly, captain of the obvious.

"It's nothing," replied Hakkai, whose voice had in it no sign that he had been asleep at all. They were both stretched along the ground next to Jeep, who had opted to remain a car for the evening, from in whose back seat Goku was snoring loudly. There was no fourth to speak of anymore.

"It's not nothing." Lifting his head from his makeshift jacket-pillow, he saw Hakkai stretched flat on his back, hands folded atop his chest, eyes wide at the stars. "You sound like there's an elephant on your chest. If something's wrong, we should have fucking stopped--"

"I overexerted myself." Hakkai's tone was sharp, and cut him off mid-protest. "It will take a few days to heal, and then there will be nothing to worry about. So there's no need to make a fuss."

Even half-asleep, Gojyo could hear between the lines: Goku did it, and don't tell him about it, because he feels guilty enough already. Stupid monkey, worst offended and first to forgive. That wasn't the way the world worked. "Tch," he said, because it was all he could think to say, and settled back down. "You should at least let me take a look at it."

That actually got a smile from Hakkai. "You can't take a look. It's internal." He took Gojyo's hand from where it lay now on the ground beside him and traced with Gojyo's fingers a line from his abdomen to his left chest. "The major bleeding in there I've managed to stop already. This is just the end of it."

Gojyo rolled closer, trespassing on the three feet of propriety they kept between themselves at all times, a distance established by unspoken agreement, to be maintained at all times as a concession to appearance and discretion -- even, apparently, when the one person who gave two shits about those things wasn't even with them anymore. Because it was as much for his benefit as for theirs, keeping space to maintain that wall of plausible deniability, the one that meant as long as it was there, they'd never have to talk about what it was they were doing, or felt for each other. "Sorry; where?"

"Here." This time Hakkai reached lower and brought Gojyo's hand below the hem of his shirt and up beneath the fabric to touch skin; he traced the lines again, and Gojyo could almost feel beneath his fingers a low electrical charge, the lines of chakra thrumming just below the skin as they ran to mend wounded tissue. Mostly, though, he felt Hakkai's chest, warm as it rose and fell with each harsh breath. "Deep."

The wind blew all the trees to chattering, and the snoring from Jeep's direction continued steady as Gojyo pressed his palm flat to the skin above Hakkai's heart. "Should I promise to be gentle?"

"No," said Hakkai, and then the only noise was their breathing.


The metal of the first cuff is warm from having been so close to Hakkai's skin, and though he intends just to flick it off with his tongue, he ends up having to take both sides in his teeth and gently work it off. As soon as it's gone, he can feel Hakkai's body tense up beneath him, and the only thing that keeps him from stopping right then and there is that Gojyo knows from experience that this isn't a pain reaction. Even so, he can't help asking, "You okay?" He takes the cuff from his teeth and places it on the small table by Hakkai's side of the bed.

Hakkai nods, and when Gojyo looks at him in the fading afternoon light, he can see the ghosts of leafy vines creeping across Hakkai's pale skin. A pair of hands raise up to Gojyo's sides, steadying palms pressed just below the barrel of his ribs, but he can't shake how dangerously strong the touch feels. "Keep going."

Gojyo does just that, bracing himself again on his hands and knees while bending down to Hakkai's right ear -- which has grown long and thin, it's not just his imagination -- and takes the second cuff between his teeth. This one's wrapped a little more firmly around a slightly thicker ridge of cartilage, so he slides it down to the thinnest ridge of skin, then tugs, and the cuff comes free.

This time, Hakkai growls as his back arches off the bed, a low rumble that sounds like the most un-Hakkai noise ever. Tiny points press at Gojyo's bare skin, and it's a moment before he connects them to the thought of fingernails, long and pointed, perched against his body. As he comes to rest against the bed again, Hakkai opens his eyes, and two cat-slit pupils stare at Gojyo, watching with what we wished he could say was an unfamiliar predatory awareness. But he knows it well, having had it above him and beneath him on multiple occasions -- just never before set in Hakkai's face. He hesitates, his hair curtaining both their faces, shadowing them from the failing daylight.

Then one of the long hands pressing against his side releases, and instead comes to cup his face, gentle and dry. "I'm okay," says Hakkai, and his voice is the same sweet, cool tenor it ever was. And that's what it is, at the end of the day, that made him suggest it, more a joke than anything else, then kept him going with it once he noticed Hakkai wasn't laughing. It's a balance he takes for granted in himself, but a side of Hakkai he never sees -- something no less a part of Hakkai for its lack of visibility, though. Maybe that's what makes this so important.

He bends down for the third time, takes the final cuff between his lips, and hesitates for only a second before pulling it free and falling into strangely familiar vine-tattooed arms.

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