A Certain Fondness for Trains

She’s always had a certain fondness for trains. Ever since she was young, and her father would take her along with him on trips, and she’d pressed her tiny hands and face to the glass and watched the world outside move by so fast, fast like the train was flying, fast like she herself was flying, she’s loved traveling inside their silver bodies. Trains sing a special sort of song, rhythmic and comforting, a regular pulse droning on somewhere in the distance, just beyond the edge of everything.

He has his own rhythms, too, the way his chest rises and falls slow as he breathes, and the faster thump of his heart she can only hear when she puts her ear against his chest. She knows them now, knows they are slower than hers, and when she can’t sleep she listens to him fall in and out of synch with her own respiration and heartbeat. They come together and apart, together and apart again.

He shuffles in his sleep, coughs a little and resettles, and when he has stilled again she drapes her arm across his chest. She used to be the warm one, but these days it is his body to which she’s been clinging for heat. It isn’t bad, she thinks, being cold all the time. After a while, you simply forget that you were ever warm.

She remembers his warmth, though, how he felt on top of her and inside her, gentle and clumsy past all his bluster, tender and intense and all the things he never wants anyone to know about him. How he cried, and she laughed at him for crying, and then they laughed together and it was all right. How he spent an hour just staring at her body, brushing his hands over her skin and grinning every time his touch hit a ticklish spot and she squeaked and squirmed. How she fell asleep as the dawn cracked in beneath the windowshade, her head tucked against his chest, listening to his heart beat steady, steady like a train.

She lifts a finger to trace his lips, resting slightly parted; he drools a little, and she thinks this is the most wonderful thing in the world. Everything he does, everything he says, every time he moves, she thinks it’s the most wonderful thing in the world. Smiling, she wipes his damp cheek with the lace edge of her sleeve. He needs so much taking care of. She wonders how he ever managed before her.

The same way anyone ever manages without anyone else, she figures, settling her arm around his body again. By having no other option.

She closes her eyes and lets the motion of the train rock her to sleep.

A Taste for Russians

It’s not much of a mental hospital, really, more like the setting of a horrible novel, and the place has taken its toll on him, and he’s beat. Even Keith has started to look weary, which Yuri assumes is a bad sign. But with Halley’s having disappeared through the grate, there really isn’t much to be done until they find the key to get them through the entrance not meant for Cockney midgets.

So when they come upon the room with a bed that actually looks like a reasonable place to rest, Yuri nearly leaps for joy. Nearly, that is, because he does a few quick mental calculations, adding himself – a fairly big guy, if he does say so himself – and Keith – not nearly so big, of course, but tall, definitely tall – and dividing the bed by their collective girth – his own girthier than Keith’s, absolutely, but either way it’s a small bed – and coming up with a rather disconcerting sum. “Maybe we should go somewhere—”

“A bed! How wonderful.” Yuri’s attempt at misdirection is foiled as Keith saunters over, neat as you please, and sits on the edge, prying off his tall boots. “A nap will be refreshing.”

Yuri leans in the door frame, trying not to look uncomfortable. “Are you sure? I mean, Halley…”

“Should be fine.” Keith’s first boot, freed by quite a procedure of contortions and purposeful grunts, hits the stone floor hard. “I, however, might not be unless I can rest.”

“Don’t you ... you know?” Yuri makes what he assumes to be the universal hand gesture for ‘suck the blood of your enemies to regain your strength,’ and is disappointed when it seems his sign language is not the kind spoken in Romania. “I mean, with the stuff, and the biting, y’know…”

Keith puts on his disdainful nobility face. “Could you sustain yourself by consuming only rats? Hardly.” Shoeless, he stretches out on his side of the bed and sighs. “Ah, this feels delightful.”

Yuri’s stomach sinks. Keith is very nice, of course, and seems to be a good person. A good vampire. A good ... er, fancy vampire. Who seems to like Meiyuan. And never stares at Margarete when she does that flippy thing where you can see her underpants. And sometimes bites the monsters and drinks their blood. But in a good way.

“Dear boy,” Keith’s dry, long-suffering tones cut through Yuri’s inner monologue, “I can assure you that you have absolutely nothing which I want to suck.”

Chastised, Yuri shuffles across the room and lies down on his side, back firmly to the other man. He doesn’t even bother taking off his boots. There. That’s not so bad. They’re not even touching. And he is kinda tired. And besides, he can think about Alice, and Margarete, and Quihua, and Lt. Colonel Kawashima, and that Li Li woman (who might have been pretty if she hadn’t been, well, dead), and Alice again, and—

“Then again,” Keith murmurs drowsily, “it has been so long since I’ve had Russian.”

Try as he might, Yuri sleeps very little.


"Fuck you," Trip said, and Jon took great pains not to take it personally. His voice sounded laboured, almost drunk, though Jon knew it was exhaustion and not alcohol that had pushed him to this state. "I'm outta here." He turned on his heel and reached for the door panel. "Trip." Jon's voice was pure grace under fire, and demanded enough obedience that Trip's hand stopped, inches from the panel, and fell to his side. "Trip, will you ... will you just calm down?" The sound of Trip's teeth gritting was audible. "I am calm." Jon had seen coiled rattlesnakes look calmer. "I'm fine. I just need some rest. Some sleep, you know. Haven't been sleeping much lately." The ice in his voice meant he didn't have to elabourate on the why of that last statement. Jon's knuckles tightened into fists, and he forced them to unclench again. "Commander Tucker, I order you to talk to me--" It was a gamble, with Trip; some nights it worked, some nights it didn't. Tonight it didn't. "Don't you pull that rank shit with me," he snapped, turning around to stare his commanding officer down. "Don't you dare. You can't baby me like that." With a deep breath, Jon took a step forward, just a small one, and began to extend his hand. "I told you, I told you a hundred times, I need you here on the ship when I'm gone. I need to leave in command here someone I can trust." "That's why we have your Vulcan," Trip spat. "And she ain't going stir-crazy. Or is she just here so you can take her and justify leaving me behind?" He caught sight of Jon's reach and stepped away. "Dammit, if you wanted to treat me like this, you should just've left me at Stardock. Oh, wait, I forgot, Earth's about to be attacked and a couple billion more people destroyed, so I wouldn't've been safe there either, huh? Well, how 'bout the Vulcans, huh? We could've done some sort of officer exchange, me for her, and I could've hung out with them for all of this. They seem pretty resiliant. I could've spent the rest of my life polishing warp coils for the cockroaches of the galaxy." Under other circumstances, that would have cracked them up for a few good minutes; as it was, Jon's upper lip merely twitched. "Trip, you know that isn't true. I treat you no differently from anyone--" Trip was in high interrupting form tonight. "With all due respect, Cap'n, that's bullshit and you know it. And if you're gonna mommy me and check to see I've got my sweater on every time I step outside, then I don't need to be here." He hit the panel with his fist, and slipped out as the doors hissed open, leaving Jon alone with the tinny sound of a pre-recorded water polo game playing out in the background. It was the fourth quarter, and Stanford was losing.

Gauging the Difference

Stork could cross from the door to the bed in seven steps. In the last place, it had been five; this was an improvement in living conditions. He could cross in seven steps, but he sometimes took ten, if he had left his cigarettes on the table and had to make a detour to get them. Eleven if he got to the table and realised they weren't there, but in the pocket of his jacket, which was by the door but not actually at the door. Tit laughed every time this happened, but not loud enough for Stork to hear.

Tit could cross from the door to the bed in eight steps, but it had taken him seven in the last place, and so he knew he was getting taller. Once he had taken two steps for every one of Stork's; now he was much more evenly matched, though he didn't think it a fair comparison, because being led meant he couldn't walk his fastest.

He could feel the aches in his legs at night, the ones that told him without numbers that he was growing. They made him toss and stretch, and he had tried sleeping alone for a while, so as not to disturb Stork. But then a nightmare had jolted him awake, and he had woken in the dark and painfully afraid, and that was the end of their sleeping apart.

Tit sometimes tried to gauge the difference between when Stork was awake and when Stork was asleep by counting the seconds between breaths. He learned to estimate how he must breathe when he slept, then learned to mimic his sleep breathing in order to fool Stork. He did this some nights, breathing artifically slowly in the darkness, waiting for something. At first didn't know what he was waiting for.

Stork's skin smelled like sweat, but not in a bad way. Sometimes, when they were together in bed, Tit would pretend to be asleep so he could curl tighter to Stork, tucking his nose against Stork's chest just to smell his skin. Stork smelled like cigarette smoke, too, and every other day like shaving cream. He liked it best when Stork took a shower just before bed, because his skin smelled best not when it was clean, but when it was wet.

Some nights Tit would go to bed alone, and Stork would stay awake, promising to be in shortly. Those nights Tit would count the steps carefully from the door to the bed, having promised Stork that he could find his way alone and usually banging his shin once or twice for his independence, then would bury his face in the pillow that Stork used.

Some nights he would take up the entire bed by himself, then breathe slowly, counting the seconds between lungfulls of air, waiting for Stork to come in, and cross the room in his seven or five steps. Waiting for Stork to look at him, and to touch him so very gently, not wanting to wake him, with the skin that smelled like sweat and smoke and Stork all at once; waiting for Stork to press their bodies together so they could finally sleep.


Stork woke with a jolt, to find Tit's hands searching frantically his face; he reached out and took both hands in his own, enfolding their small fingers in his larger ones. "Tit?" he asked, knowing full well who it was. "Tit, what's wrong?"

"Bad dream." Tit's voice sounded strangely low to Stork's ears, a phenomenon he'd started noticing about the time he'd started noticing Tit's legs had grown longer. "You told me to come with you, but you had a butterfly on your neck, and I looked at you, and it wasn't you--"

"It's okay. I'm me." Stork let go of Tit's hands, letting them fall back to his face, letting Tit feel that his face hadn't changed. "See? Just a dream. It's gone now."

Tit shrunk away a little, curling his face into the crook of Stork's shoulder. "It felt real," he said miserably.

Stork pressed a kiss against Tit's forehead; he couldn't imagine what it must be like, to see things in dreams, yet not be able to open your eyes upon waking to confirm that you had, indeed, been asleep. "Dreams do." He ruffled Tit's hair a little. "But I'm afraid reality is much worse."

A tiny vein of worry worked its way through Tit's voice. "It is?" He sounded very young again.

Stork nodded sagely, brushing his fingers across Tit's cheek. "I'm afraid you're still stuck with me."

There was a small pause, followed by laughter and a kick in the shins. "Sto~rk," Tit giggled. He squirmed, writhing in the manner of one whose limbs have suddenly started aching with growing pains, and kissed Stork on the cheek. "You're so mean to yourself."

"Well, you're too good to me," Stork smiled, "so I suppose I have to be this way so I don't get a swelled head."

Tit giggled again, then reached out and placed his (not so small anymore) hand against Stork's cheek. "If I start telling you that you smoke stinky cigarettes and should not leave wet towels on the floor, will you start being nice to yourself?"

Stork rolled his eyes audibly, making sure Tit didn't miss the expression. "I don't think it works that way." But he was smiling. "You feel better now? Is the dream gone?"

"It's gone." Tit nodded, but did not take his hand away from Stork's face as he nestled comfortably against Stork's (progressively less) longer body. "I'm glad I have you," he whispered, sounding strangely old again. "I mean, I'm glad you're here with me."

Kissing Tit's hair again, Stork nodded. "Right here. Go back to sleep." And he listened to Tit's breathing until he was certain Tit was, indeed, asleep, then set about returning there himself. Sleep had been growing more difficult in recent memory, though, with the little bundle of adolescence that shared his bed. Stork sighed as he shut his eyes. He knew Tit would be more comfortable in another position, but couldn't bring himself to remove the warm hand from his face.


As nice as the sensory deprivation of the shower was, it had its drawbacks -- as evidenced by how Stork jumped when Tit put his hands against his shoulderblades and planted a kiss in the middle of his back. "I didn't hear you come in."

"I heard the shower," Tit explained, pressing his body against Stork's, "and I figured, why waste water?" He rested his chin atop Stork's shoulder, a movement which took more than a little stretching; Tit had turned out to be fairly tall, but had finally stopped growing still a few inches behind Stork.

Stork laughed softly, reaching for the shampoo and turning to face Tit. "You're so ecologically sensitive." He moved the spray so it reached Tit, then poured a small dollop of shampoo into his palm, lathering it into Tit's soft hair. Tit practically purred, and Stork smiled. "Long day?"

Tit nodded as much as he could without disturbing the shampooing process. "The longest. The reclaimation pump broke twice, and both of our technicians are out sick. And then Hoover and Jackie got into a fight."

Cupping Tit's head so water didn't get in his face, Stork stood him under the spray and rubbed the soap away. "The ravens, right?"

"Hoover's a raven; Jackie's a crow," Tit explained. "It's all territory disputes, which is fine in the wild, but dangerous in a very small aviary. We locked them in their cages for a few hours until they promised to behave." The warm water combined with Stork's touches made him smile. "This feels really good."

Stork reached for the soap, rubbing it across Tit's muscular chest; where Stork was taller, Tit had ended up broader. "I'm glad." He put the soap back in the soap dish, contenting himself with just stroking Tit's newly wetted skin, feeling it warm under the hot spray. "So, is this your idea of saving water?"

"And a really good idea it was!" Tit grinned, wrapping his arms around Stork's shoulders, letting the water run over both of them. "In fact, I think we've saved enough now that we can justify wasting a little."

Laughing, Stork tucked his arms around Tit's waist. "Is this some new young attractive biologist's definition of saving water that this old man doesn't know yet?"

"Uh-uh," Tit sighed, pulling their bodies closer together. "Not an old man. Gonna prove it." And as Tit kissed him lovingly beneath the spray, holding him tight, Stork did, indeed, feel quite young again.

Personal Space

It was their first day in a real bed after nearly a week on the road, and it felt good to have a roof over their heads, Stork thought as he stretched out on the mattress. His feet hung over the edge of the bed, but being a tall man, he was used to that by now. The inn wasn't great, a handful of ramshackle rooms and one common bathroom, but it was better than sleeping on the dirt.

Eyes closed, Stork heard Tit come back into the room, dropping his small pack by the door. "There's no more hot water," Tit announced, voice cracking as he did so; it had been doing that for weeks now, and Stork, remembering his own tortured burst into adolescence, did not mention it.

"A shame," Stork nodded, turning to see Tit unpacking his duffel's crumpled contents and folding them onto the room's one chair. "Maybe you can get up early tomorrow to do laundry."

"I mostly wanted to bathe," admitted Tit, flushing a little and turning away. "But, um, there's a lot of people in there."

Stork made a noise of assent, having learned by now that merely nodding was not enough when conversing with Tit, and rolled onto his stomach. "I'll look for work tomorrow. I'll try not to have us here more than another night."

Tit tugged at the collar of his shirt -- Stork's shirt, truth be told, one that grown too tight on its original owner after too many washings. It still had to be cuffed many times to keep the sleeves from swallowing Tit's hands, but fit better than it had a month ago when Tit had first claimed it for his own, in lieu of using their limited funds to purchase new clothing as his own grew too small. Soon it'd probably fit him without any modificiations, which was an odd thought. He'd been a boy to Stork for so long that the prospect of his becoming a man ... well, it was certainly different.

Tit coughed a little, bringing Stork's mind back from the place it'd wandered. "...Stork?"

"Yes?" Stork inclined his head.

"Can I, um...." Tit's back was to him now, and Stork could not clearly see his expression. "I mean, it's ... would you...." He took a deep breath. "Can I have a little time alone?"

Stork frowned for a moment, puzzled by the request -- then bit his lip to keep any note of surprise from escaping. Hadn't he just been thinking, after all, about how Tit was growing up? "Of course," Stork nodded, trying to sound casual. It wasn't a big deal, after all, just something boys needed to do -- hell, something he himself needed to do from time to time -- and he wasn't going to make Tit feel uncomfortable about it. "I was going to finish washing up myself, maybe go smoke."

"Thanks." Tit smiled but did not turn as Stork left the room.

He'd been planning to do nothing of the sort, of course, but it had been the best excuse he could conjure on such short notice. He walked down the hall toward the stairs, passing the fogged-up glass door to the bathroom and the noise behind it, and as he did, his thoughts wandered back to the room he had just left. Though he tried not to let his mind linger on the accompanying image, he found it difficult to think of anything else, and was vaguely disquieted to notice that he, too, would not have minded a little privacy himself at that moment.

After the End of the World

Looking back, there was never any confusion about what the terms of the arrangement had been. There was only the end of the world, and what came after.

He didn't have a name of his own, not one that was any good any more anyway, and he never used his. It might have been confusing, he figured, if what they'd been hadn't been so needy that names were unnecessary designations. There was me and you. At least, that's how it was for him. He couldn't vouch for him, couldn't imagine he rated even fractionally so high in his estimation as the other way around.

It was obvious, after all, which one was the one's puppet and which one was the other's entire world.

He fisted his hands against the sheets, but they pulled free from the corners of the bed -- he was bigger now, and strong, each tough dead inch piling on top of the other -- so he clawed his hands around the corner of the mattress itself, and there he held on as he fucked him, hard enough that it might have hurt several inches and years ago. But not now. Now was the aches in his bones as he felt himself growing even taller, the pressure on his knees as he slammed into him again and again, all heat and motion, always back-to-front, never face-to-face. He never got to see what, if any, effect he had on him.

A knock sounded at the door, and he bellowed at whoever it was on the other side to go the fuck away, he was fucking busy, with his gravel-thick voice that always got what it wanted. He knew he had others, men and women alike, sometimes in threes and fours, their sounds carrying through the thin walls and keeping him from sleep. But never with him. With him it was always just the two of them, doors barred against the rest of the world, rough and silent.

He felt a hand twist the hair at the back of his head into a knot, pulling his back so far he had to arch his back to comply, spreading his knees wider for balance. That mouth, the one that tasted of cigarettes and whiskey, leaned in to kiss and bite at his own mouth, and he let it at first, then fought it, giving back as good as he got with lips and teeth. It was the only leverage he had, and he intended to take what advantages he could. He'd fought his whole life for every inch in him, and he knew the moment he stopped fighting, it'd eat him alive.

"You're mine," he growled, though he couldn't be certain which of them had spoken, or if anyone had spoken at all, and the words had not come from them but from somewhere else, brought in on the wind from a world unseen, somewhere beyond the borders of the wasteland.


Camus stood stiffly, hands clasped behind his back, feet apart, head straight on his shoulders. He could stand like this for hours. He knew this from firsthand experience.

Gorudo looked neither impressed nor amused, but this was much to be expected. "You understand that this is a great deal of responsibility, not to be undertaken lightly. If you have any hesitation about this, don't accept the command."

Nodding sharply, Camus tried to incorporate into the gesture both his acknowledgement of the responsibility and continued intent to take the job. He tried to look as stern and responsible as humanly possible -- which was a little difficult, considering he had little practice looking stern, and only slightly more practice looking responsible. But in front of one's commanding officer, appearance matters.

"This will mean a change in rank, of course, and in salary. And in quarters; I trust you're not particularly attached to the bunks." His white eyebrows lifted, enough that Camus could see the colour of his eyes. "And uniform," he frowned.

Camus stiffened a little. "Lord Gorudo," he said, as non-confrontationally as he could, "the cape is a symbol of my family and its proud heritage, and is an integral part of the fighting techniques I have been taught. To take it from me would be the same as taking another man's sheild from him because it did not match the colour scheme." His fingers petted at the heavy purple material, moving absently. He'd fought to keep it before, and he'd fight again.

But Gorudo, mercifully, just shrugged; apparently, this time around, it really wasn't worth the effort. "Fine," he grunted. "It doesn't matter to me. Just see you don't wear it on formal occasions."

"Of course," Camus acknowledged, knowing full well that he would. Sometimes it was easier to beg forgiveness afterward than negotiate terms beforehand. In fact, it was easier to do that nearly all the time. Not for the first time in his life, Camus was grateful for his charm.

"Right." Gorudo looked dismally at the stacks of paper on his desk, then grinned with a wicked sort of glee. "Here," he addressed Camus, handing him the largest stack of papers. "Consider it a welcoming gift for my new commander of the Red Knights."

Camus didn't protest that he hadn't been formally installed into the position, nor did he bat an eyelash at the volume; he extended his hands and balanced the sheets deftly. "If that will be all, then...." Gorudo waved a hand to dismiss him, and, with a sharp nod, Camus headed from the room.

It wasn't until the door had closed behind him that his face broke into a wide grin. Then, with a cough, he composed himself and looked from the stack of papers in his arms to a quartet of cadets passing by. If he was going to be a commander, he might as well learn to delegate responsibility.


One moment, everything was spread out neatly on Miklotov's bed, including Miklotov himself, propped up on pillows and surrounded by the books that would tell him the things he would need to pass the classes and get the degree and get a good job and buy a nice house and so on and so forth. One moment, everything was calm bordering on normal.

The next, the hurricane hit, all six feet two red-headed inches of him, wrapped in his eighty-foot rugby scarf and still wearing his cleats. And ... was he wet? He was wet. And, Miklotov decided, he was dead.

"We won!" laughed the gleeful hurricane, sending a carefully constructed jenga tower of textbooks scattering to the floor. "In overtime! And guess who scored the winning goal? That's right! Come on, put on your raincoat, it's pouring out there, we're all going to the pub to--"

"CAMUS!" The force of Miklotov's wrath sent his roommate falling from the bed, joining the texts on the floor. "What on earth makes you think you can--"

"You missed the game," Camus interjected, just loud enough to be heard. The smile lingered on his mouth, but had retreated from his eyes. "It's 5:30, Mik. Game started at 2:00."

So now Miklotov was the one who had had his private space invaded, his studying disturbed, his nerves shattered -- and he was supposed to feel guilty? Oh, that was rich. And what time was it, anyway? Couldn't possibly be 5:30, couldn't be any later than ... crap. "...I had to study," he offered feebly, hating himself and hating Camus for being able to make him hate himself for stupid things like missing a rugby game.

"It's okay." Camus picked himself up off the floor, straightening pages in a book before shutting it. "Anyway, I'm gonna go take a shower."

"Camus." This time, when he said his roommate's name, it was much more plaintive. "Camus, I'm really sorry--"

"Forget it, Mik. It's okay. Really." The expression on Camus' face said that it was and wasn't all at once. "Anyway, you've got studying to do, and I don't want to keep you from it." He swung open the door to his room and began shedding clothes, adding them to the soiled piles on the floor.

Miklotov leaned in the doorway, chewing on his lip. He didn't have to do anything, he knew; Camus would be over it in a few hours, if not a few minutes, and he wouldn't spend his entire life in the doghouse anyway, and he had a big test tomorrow-- "You said the pub?"

"In fifteen." Camus grinned over his bare, muscular shoulder, and Miklotov felt compelled to look away. "You owe me beer, roomie."

"Don't call me that," Miklotov protested weakly, getting out of the way before he had to see any more naked Camus. The books still lay on the floor, and he kicked one half-heartedly. Well, if he didn't know it by now, he wasn't going to learn it tonight. And besides, there was beer to be had.

The First Robin of Spring

Miklotov could feel the vein in his temple throb as the daisy crown settled atop his head. "Take it off."

"No." Camus leaned back and smiled a cat-smile. "It's Spring and it's festive, and you're the only thing in the entire castle that still looks like the dead of Winter."

"I like Winter," grumbled Miklotov, and it was true. He enjoyed its crisp, white neatness, the austerity of it all, the way the cold made his consummate devotion to wearing every single inch of his uniform at every moment not ridiculous. Spring had come, bring with it mud, and warmth, and buds. And, apparently, daisies.

"And it likes you, I can tell. But now it's time for Spring!" Camus was wearing a daisy crown of his own, no doubt put there by one of his female admirers, which Miklotov didn't want to think about. "There's a whole festival going on downstairs. Dancing and music, and when I left Nanami was winning the pie-eating contest--"

"Haven't you noticed we're fighting a war?" Miklotov's lips set in a thin line. "Now isn't the time for any of this, this ... children's nonsense."

Camus reached for Miklotov's face, but did not (as he had hoped) remove the crown from his head, choosing instead to stroke Miklotov's cheek with a conspicuously ungloved hand. "Have you been in here all day?"

Miklotov pulled away, turning back to the papers at his desk. "Doing your share as well as mine," he snapped.

That won him a moment's worth of quiet, though not of peace, for all he could concentrate on was the cloud of hurt he was sure he'd just sent across Camus' otherwise sunny disposition. Nonetheless, he kept at his pages, filling in blanks, tallying expenses, going through the motions in the hope that Camus would take the hint and wander elsewhere, leaving him to his work then (and some apology later, certainly, he'd make it up to the man). But there was no sound of departure from behind him, and in that the quiet became even more distracting than the noise had been, the heavy weight of waiting.

And then a red-sleeved arm landed on one side of the desk and swept to the other, clearing everything with it and leaving bare, flat wood. The papers fell into a shower across the floor, hopelessly in disarray. Miklotov jumped to his feet, pen still in hand. "What are you--!"

"Doing my share," interrupted Camus, whose cat-smile had grown wicked. He moved in, pressing their bodies flat together, faces so close that their daisy crowns brushed one another and pollen showered down on their noses. "Kiss me."

"What?" Miklotov tried to bellow, to show his full indignation, but his throat had grown rather dry.

Camus leaned closer, but not enough to close the gap. No, that final inch he'd left just for Miklotov. "Kiss me," he repeated, his voice by contrast an effortless whisper. "It's Spring."

Though he prided himself on being a very proper man -- a place for everything, and everything in its place, as the saying went -- Miklotov had learned over the years (no guesses as to from whom) to be flexible, even improvisational when the situation called for it. As such, it only made sense to put aside thoughts of propriety for the moment, take advantage of the newly cleared space, and bend them together backward as he leaned in to drink the sunshine from Camus' mouth.


It was nearly noon before Miklotov finally put his finger on what was wrong. It wasn't that the day had been so quiet -- for he was accustomed to working in quiet spaces around the castle -- nor was it that Camus had been in his office since morning -- for he was definitely accustomed to that now-constant presence in his life. It was that he couldn't recall the last time the two conditions had occured simultaneously.

At first, he wondered if something might be wrong -- or if, more to the point, he himself had done something wrong, something to make Camus angry with him. But no, as he turned to look at the occupant of the room's other desk, he saw that Camus was smiling a bit, tapping his foot silently to some unheard melody as he went through the piles of paperwork that were part and parcel of their daily lives. As Mik watched, Camus -- unaware that he was being observed -- even snapped off a merry wave to Chaco as the youngster performed somersalts by their third-story window. That ruled out the possibility that Camus' silence was the result of a deep mood swing -- which, sadly, left him with few other options to consider.

He shrugged and returned to his forms, intending to shrug it off, when he realised that he couldn't even concentrate. It was too quiet, too quiet by an order of magnitude. Even the scrapings of Camus' pen were at a volume too low to justify getting annoyed over them. Every time he tried to fix his eyes to the words on the page, his ears dragged his attention away, demanding to know the meaning behind their lack of input.

Finally, he'd had enough. Miklotov put down his pen and turned. "Camus?"

"Miklotov?" Camus made his signature with a flourish (probably his entire name plus title, Miklotov thought, given the number of loops and swirls his pen made at the end) before looking up. His smile beamed as brightly as it ever did, and the stormclouds permanently etched over Miklotov's brow darkened for contrast.

"Is ... everything okay?"

Camus shrugged. "Everything's fine, Mik. How about you?"

It was an honest question, and one Miklotov wasn't entirely sure how to answer, so he dodged the issue completely. "Do you have the requests for horseshoes from the blacksmith?"

"In triplicate." Camus' fingers drummed on a tall stack of pages. "I suppose we could make it quadruplicate, one for each leg of the horses."

"That ... probably won't be necessary." Miklotov turned back to his own work, and managed nearly a full minute of productivity before the silence began to creep in again, destroying his concentration on contact. Oh, there was noise enough from the open windows, carried in on the summer breeze -- voices and laughter and music and the vague sounds of diligent carpentry, no doubt constructing something to amuse some new inhabitants -- but the critical source was absent. Camus was being quiet. Camus was being quiet. He ran the thought through his head again to see if it made better sense the second time around, and it didn't.

It wasn't, of course, that Camus wasn't entitled to have his quiet days, nor that he couldn't hold his tongue when necessary; he was a knight, after all, and a fine one at that, and any knight even half as fine as he surely must have developed some sense of when silence was beneficial, even necessary. Perhaps he'd finally take it upon himself to comport himself with a modicum of decorum. Yes, though Miklotov, that was perhaps it, and so much the better for it. Case closed.

By the time the clock's thin hand had made two more rotations around its face, Miklotov was quite nearly coming to pieces. He turned in his chair, far sharper than he might have meant, to stare down the back of Camus' head. "...Why are you so quiet today?"

Camus looked back at him with a faintly puzzled expression, as though he'd been interrupted in the middle of a particularly engrossing thought. "Pardon?"

"Quiet. You're quiet today. Why are you quiet? Are you plotting something? Did I do something to offend you?"

There was a small pause, and then Camus laughed, a sound full of honest surprise. "Mik, what's today's date?"

It was such a simple inquiry it seemed almost like a trick question, yet though Miklotov had written the numbers on no fewer than two dozen forms today, he found the question caught him off-guard -- and then, before he could answer, a great many things began to dawn on him. "...The twelfth," he answered slowly, hoping his suspicions were unfounded.

"Also known as Miklotov's 27th birthday, and don't even try to pretend it isn't. I remember these things." Camus gave him a wink. "So I figured I'd give you a little peace and quiet for your birthday! Hope I got it in the right size."

"Oh," said Miklotov, who could think of no other response. In his heart of hearts, he hadn't really expected Camus to forget his birthday so much as Miklotov had forgot it himself. It was both the weirdest and nicest birthday present he'd ever been given, and the fact that Camus concoct such a considerate gift left him a little speechless -- and yet.... "Ah, Camus?"

"Yeah, Mik?"

He regretted the words even before they'd left his mouth, because not only did they seem the height of ingratitude, he knew that he'd wished for this very thing countless times before. But as his grandmother had said, you had to be careful what you wished for -- and he supposed that applied to chatty, hyperactive, infuriating fellow knights. "...Perhaps you don't have to be too quiet."

The grin that spread across Camus' face nearly touched each of his ears -- and that, thought Miklotov, was an even better wish granted.


"Your lunge is still weak," said Miklotov, setting down his heavy sword atop a high bench. The light from the lanterns indicated no flaw in the steel thus far, but one could never be too careful.

Camus sighed. "My knee is still weak," he countered, rolling his pant leg up to reveal the bindings wound 'round it. "You have a horse fall on top of you and see how you're faring three weeks later."

Miklotov didn't even look up. "Do you need to go to the infirmary?"

With a shrug, Camus began unlacing his heavy boots, which were caked with mud from the training yard. "No."

"Then stop whining." Satisfied that his Dunceney had again survived another round of rounds with Camus' Uriah unscathed, Mik wiped and resheathed the blade, then went about the business of removing his heavy, padded practice armour. He was hardly by nature a cruel or callous man, but he was damned if he was going to give any sympathy to the man who'd held him to a draw even with a wounded leg. "Just because you--"

Whatever he'd meant to say was taken entirely from his throat by the crush of Camus' mouth on his own, accompanied by hands that pushed his shoulders back against the far wall. The familiar taste of Camus caught him off-guard more than any attack in their afternoon practice had accomplished. For a moment, instinct demanded Miklotov fight; and then reason took over, and he melted less reluctantly than he might have liked into the kiss. In time, he even found his hands resting on either side of Camus' lean waist, making sure no one went anywhere unannounced.

After a long moment, he broke away, turning his face so their mouths misaligned. "Camus!" he hissed, teeth clenched. "Not here--"

"Why not?" Camus -- beautiful, reckless Camus -- gave Mik his solid-gold grin. "If anyone comes, we'll hear them long before they hear us."

The devil of it was, he was right. In the armoury, there were many high rows of weapons and gear through which one had to wind to reach one's destination, and the Matilda Knights (by virtue of the relative lateness of their arrival) had won space near the corner of the room farthest and least visible from the door. From far beyond the walls, a faint bustle could be heard, but anyone entering the room would both have to swing wide the rusty-hinged door and deal with whatever equipment was at hand long before discovering the men in the back corner. No, Mik thought, the devil of it was, Camus was right because he'd planned the whole thing.

His suspicions were not allayed by the hand than cupped him through his white uniform pants, gently working an erection he hadn't known he had into greater fullness. "Camus--" It was even less word and more air than previous attempts at his partner's name.

"Shh." Camus pressed the padded, metal-smelling pad of his practice-gloved index finger to Miklotov's lips, and Mik had to fight every instinct to open his lips and take it in. "Like I said, my knee hurts -- but I think I'm good for this, at least."

As Camus gingerly descended, it became Mik's turn to muffle himself with his own glove, face burning with a red-hot shame that only seemed to augment the experience, keeping his ears open as best as his concentration could manage as Camus -- his compatriot, his friend, his fellow knight, his tormentor, his perpetual headache, his lover -- took him fully and lovingly into his mouth.


"Oh, good," said the nurse, "you're awake."

Camus blinked a few times, testing his eyes against the light; it was dim enough, though, and when he looked he could see the evening sky out of the infirmary windows. "...Mik?" he asked, or tried to ask, as his dry mouth didn't let him get past the initial m sound.

With a patient smile, she slipped an arm beneath his head and lifted him enough to brace a cup against his lips. "Be careful, now. You've lost a lot of blood, and if you move around too much, your stitches may tear."

He raised his head to the glass, and winced as he felt a tightness in the side of his chest the size and shape of a deep sword wound. His memory of the battle that had caused it was fuzzy, and his memory of the time from then until his waking up in the infirmary was nonexistant; his head felt adrift in a fuzzy sea of painkillers. With her arm still under him, Camus inclined his head as best as he could to indicate he'd rather be sitting, and she eased him up. "Where's Mik?" he asked, and though his voice was dry, the words managed themselves out this time.

The nurse smiled as she fluffled the pillows behind his back. "Your partner is asleep in the next room. He's been here since you were brought in. Viktor quite helpfully threatened to knock him over the head if he didn't clear out and get some sleep."

Camus wanted to laugh -- it sounded so much like Mik -- but the tightness in his side ached when he tried. "Better go tell him I'm up," he rasped, easing his legs over the side of the bed. The stone floor was cold against his bare feet, but the painkillers made that cold feel so far away.

"Now just a moment," said the nurse, who scooped her arms beneath his knees and lifted his lower body right back into bed where she felt it belonged. "You're in no condition to go anywh--"

"Camus?" The voice from the doorway sounded about as groggy as he did, and Camus turned to see Mik leaning against the wooden frame. With dark circles under his eyes and his uniform genuinely rumpled, he looked more out-of-sorts than Camus had ever seen him before.

The nurse looked from her patient to the new visitor, then back again. "I've got some things to attend to," she smiled, patting Camus' knee before standing and clearing out of the otherwise empty room; there was a click as she shut the heavy door behind her.

"Hey," said Camus, lifting his fingers in a little wave. "Guess I'd better work on my dodge, huh?"

Miklotov walked dreamily over to the side of Camus' cot, taking the chair the nurse had vacated and squeezing Camus' hands tightly in his own. "Idiot," he muttered, and then his mouth was on Camus', his hands fisted as tightly in Camus' hair as tightly as he dared; a tang of salt trickled its way into their joined mouths, and it was in the moment of that embrace Camus knew exactly how close he had come to dying.


Dean released the hand he had clapped over Sam's mouth to keep him quiet, frowning at the teeth marks that had formed in the center of his palm. "Not cool, dude," he hissed.

"Your fault," Sam hissed right back, though he didn't sound particularly accusatory. In fact, he sounded downright blissful and not sorry at all.

"You're the one who can't shut the fuck up." Dean grimaced and wriggled out of his sweatpants, deeming them way too wet to sleep in; he kicked them off the side of the bed, and heard the splat as they hit the wall before settling down into the dirty clothes pile.

Sam seemed inclined to the same, though he was only wearing boxers. "...Those were my last clean pair, asswipe."

"Asswipe. Now that's a new one." Dean wondered if he had sounded that dumb when he'd been fifteen, then remembered that, no, he'd been using 'fuck' conversationally since about the age of ten. "Maybe you should have thought about that earlier, huh? Before you came all over them."

"Shhh!" And Dean bit his lower lip, realising that that had been a little loud. Teethmarks seemed to be par for the course tonight. "You're such a jerk."

"Didn't hear you complaining about my 'jerk' two minutes ago," and even in the dark motel room, Dean could see the blush creep up Sam's cheeks. "Uh-huh. What I thought." He pondered finding another pair of sweatpants, then shrugged and figured the effort wasn't really worth it. He'd just have to remember to get dressed if he had to go out and pee in the middle of the night; the bathroom was connected to John's half of the double-room, and Dean didn't really relish explaining to his father why, precisely, he was ass-bare from the waist down.

Sam watched Dean, frowning – then raising his arms and taking his own shirt off before snuggling back under the covers. Well, Dean shrugged, it was Sam's turn to up the ante, and if he wanted to do it by sleeping naked…. Dean's own shirt joined the sweatpants, and he settled down onto his own side of the bed.

A moment passsed in the silence before Sam – ostensibly in the name of stealing back some of the covers – moved closer to the middle of the bed. "Hey, give those back," Dean whispered, and if in pulling his fair share back to him, Sam ended up in the crook of his arm, their bodies pressed together, so what? Maybe that was Dean's upping the ante. …Or was it Sam's? Damn, if Sam had gotten him twice in one night, he'd have to think of something good. Something like....

With a wicked sort of smirk, Dean kissed the top of Sam's head. "Good night, Sammy."

"G'night, Dean," Sam, always sleepy after sex, murbled in reply before dozing off, secure and safe in his brother's arms. Oh, good, Dean grinned. He had no idea.


"Don't you get it, Dean? It's the camera! The camera's how we trap them!"

Dean looked from Sam to the dilapidated antique camera, then back to Sam. "Do you even know how to work it?"

Sam's expression deflated a little. "Well, it's ... I mean, it's a camera, you just...." He stared at the contraption in his hands, its weird folds and heavy lens. "Well, you ... I mean, the film goes in here, and you...." Turning it around to see if the back held any more clues, Sam actually brushed his finger across the shutter button, and the resulting flash nearly made them both jump out of their respective skins.

"Geez, Sam, watch where you point that thing!" Dean's vision clouded with afterimage burn from the flash. "Do I look like a ghost to you?"

"I can get a copy of your death certificate if you want."

"Ha ha, very funny."

Sam squinted at the back of the camera. "Hey, Dean, come look at this." He turned the camera around.

Dean looked, then winced. "Not my best side there, Ansel Adams."

"Will you stop bemoaning your unrealised dreams of being a male model and look at something other than yourself?" Sam pointed to the image's background, to a door that showed where there had been only a blank wall before. "Behind you, see, there's a—-"

They both turned to look, only to find a door that looked very much like the one in the photograph. Dean frowned. "You sure you didn't just miss it before?"

"I don't think it was there until I took a picture of it." Sam looked at the camera, careful to steer clear of the shutter. "That notebook from the library was right. This is how we're going to get out of here. This camera."

Dean rolled his eyes. "Yeah, this'll make a great Winchester family vacation album. 'Here's Dean in the haunted mansion!' 'Here's Sam with the evil shrine!' 'Here's both of us with the resident vengeful spirits!' Though that does sound like a lot of descriptions of Disneyland I've heard. …And, hell, like a lot of our family vacations."

Sam resisted the urge to bonk him with the camera, rationalising it would probably damage the camera more than Dean's head; instead, he reached over and turned the knob of the new door. It opened smoothly, with only the barest creak, and revealed a dark hallway. "...You first."

"Uh-uh. Nothin' doing." Dean stepped back from the doorway. "You want to play paparazzi, you get to lead the way. Otherwise you'll just spend all your time taking pictures of my ass."

"Not unless your ass is a vengeful ghost. …And even then, no." Screwing up his face into the best distasteful look he could manage, Sam took off down the hall, and Dean came limping along behind him.

Dean Winchester Beats the Devil

He'd just finished lighting the last candle when the thing in the center of the circle began to groan. Good, that meant there wouldn't be any dead time (ha ha, dead time); if there was one thing Dean hated, it was to be kept waiting. He put down the bottle of wine he'd been working at for the last half hour; it was his third that night. "Good morning, you son of a bitch."

Its first order of business was to test its bonds. Dean wasn't worried, though. A big stone church built on an old Navajo holy site meant the thing could struggle all it wanted, but it wasn't getting out; it'd rip its flesh wide before it brought the house down. Which wasn't the world's best plan B, Dean figured, but it'd do in a pinch. "Dean," the thing purred solicitously, as soon as it realised the enormity of the shit it'd gotten itself into. "Have you lost your mind?"

Maybe just a little, he had, but that was neither here nor there. "That ain't Sam in there, so stop trying to pretend it is."

The thing with Sam's face grinned too wide, lolling its head about its neck, stretching its shoulders up and down so far Dean'd have sworn it'd bent the bones in there. "You've got a lot of nerve, you know that? Now come here and give us a kiss."

"Not fucking likely." Dean placed his knife point-down in the palm of his hand, spinning it slowly. "Do you know how long I had to keep you down to get the stars right?" A week and a half, in fact, during which time Dean'd kept Sam on such high dosages of sedatives he'd sat up nights, listening to his brother's chest, praying that his breathing didn't stop. He'd gotten lucky, too, that such alignment had practically fallen in his lap, as he couldn't have kept that shit up much longer.

The thing snorted, sounding so very unlike Sam, so much that Dean could almost believe the man bound and weighted to the floor before him to be someone else entirely, some other man with chains around his neck and limbs, some other human contorted beneath heavy metal irons that shackled him in place. "An exorcism. How cute. Haven't we learned already that doesn't work?"

"Not an exorcism." Dean picked up the bottle again, drained it, and tossed it away beneath a nearby pew; it was cheap wine made even worse by being watered down, but at least it meant he'd be a little drunk for this, which would help. "A binding."

"...What?" The thing, the Sam-thing, paused in its constant restless movement, arching its back upward to meet Dean's face.

But Dean'd seen too many Bond movies to answer that one. Instead he grinned, drawing the tip of the knife across the back of his hand, outlining out of habit the symbol he knew now by heart, a three-stroke rune specially designed for suicidal shit like this. Most things of this sort were designed at the demon's pleasure, but this one drew and bound both parties equally -- that was, until the death of one or the other. Few humans attempted such things, of course, as demons hated to be tied down, and most would waste no time making their displeasure known in a rather fatal way, since your basic human (even one capable of such high-level magic) was fundamentally incapable of handling that kind of stress.

But a human who'd been consecrated red communion wine for the last couple hours? Now he maybe had a chance.

"Think fast, Sammy," muttered Dean, taking the point of the knife to his bare chest and making the three strokes, honed to near-perfection, just above his heart.

Growing Pains

The familiar restless groans wake Dean, but he lays perfectly still, eyes open onto darkness, feeling himself grow hard. Sam whimpers a little, thrashing a bit, then finally coming to rest on his side. "Dean?" he whispers. "Are you up?"

"Yeah, Sammy." Dean clears his throat, figuring Sam doesn't know just how right he is. "I'm up."

Sam shifts his legs. "Can't sleep again." Dean remembers his own growing pains, but at least they'd been kind enough to spread themselves out; Sam's body seems determined to give him the last two feet of his height as quickly as humanly possible.

"Yeah, I figured." Taking a long breath, Dean pushes back the covers and says the words he knows will doom him: "Come here."

Sam's out of his own bed and into Dean's as quickly as limbs can carry him, sliding between the sheets and next to Dean's body with an eagerness that does nothing to alleviate Dean's feelings of damnation. He turns his back to Dean, wriggling close. "It's my right leg," Sam says, and Dean has no doubt that Sam's aches are sincere. "It hurts a lot."

Dean sighs and slips his hand beneath the covers, down to the skin just beneath the edge of Sam's boxers (which had been Dean's once, something you could say for most of the clothes Sam wore), feeling the warm, smooth skin of the back of Sam's thigh. He presses his thumb into the muscle, which makes Sam groan. "Shh!" he warns. "Dad's just behind the wall."

"Sorry." Sam turns his face to the pillow, which muffles the little noises Sam makes, and Dean supposes it'll do, so he keeps rubbing steadily, massaging out the soreness, easing the pain down to none.

This is where he knows he should stop, where it's good to stop, where brothers stop. Brothers don't reach around to the front of their little brothers' thighs, against the downy fuzz of hair already beginning to thicken and darken, up under the oversized, ratty edge of their hand-me-down boxer legs -- which is precisely where Dean's hand is going, has already started to go. Sam isn't startled, wasn't even startled the first time, but turns his body so Dean's got better access to his cock, which has probably been hard like Dean's since before he hopped beds.

Dean pushes his lips against the back of Sam's ear -- he can't justify kissing Sam, that's awful, and he knows it'll happen someday if this keeps up, and that makes him feel disgusting and turned on all at once -- and Sam responds by grinding his ass against Dean's hip, and fuck, he's so horribly hard he can't think straight.

This time, however, Sam turns to face him, replacing the pressure of his ass with knob-knuckled fingers, curling his hand around Dean's dick, and it's about all Dean can do to remember not to shout out. Not like spoons this time, but face to face, like equals. Sam's lips part, and Dean can feel his balls clench up, and just as he's about to remind Sam to shut the hell up, Sam muffles his orgasm by pressing his lips clumsily to Dean's, a kiss so awkward and so hot that Dean comes from the shock of it, gasping into Sam's mouth, shooting hot and wet between them.

Hands still, and cocks soften, but the kiss continues long after, mouths exploring one another, tongues learning the taste of tongues, lips memorising the shape of lips. This is when it occurs to Dean that he is well and truly fucked, and also that as long as it means Sam can kiss him like this, he doesn't care.

Afterschool Activities

Sam lay sprawled face-down across the couch, bare-assed naked, his school books scattered in piles around him. He was snoring a little, and Dean wondered when he had gotten home, what he wanted for dinner, and where all his clothes had gone, in that order. So instead of being polite about any of it, he brought his hand down in a smack, leaving a distinct red imprint on Sam's ass.

With a yelp, Sam sputtered awake, limbs flailing. "Son of a bitch!"

"You were asking for it," Dean grinned, leaning back against the wall. A dirty soccer uniform hung over the back of the chair nearest the door, and Dean put the rest together on his own. "How was practice?"

"Fine." Sam yawned and stretched out on his back now, giving Dean a nice view of everything he had to offer. "Where were you?"

Dean inclined his head toward the safehouse's back entrance. "Out in the junkyard, doing a little bodywork." He wiped a hand across his sweaty brow, not even caring that he was probably leaving horrible greasy smudges on everything he touched. "The Impala's transmission's busted, so I needed to--"

"Dad said he'd be out until Tuesday," Sam interrupted. Dean'd left his phone in to charge, and hadn't even looked at it today. "Said he'd have Bobby come by Sunday to check on us."

"Nice of him to call." Dean sniffed the air and made a face. He stunk. Hell, they both stunk. "Gonna go take a shower now, I guess."

Limbs long and languid, Sam pulled himself to his feet and stood before Dean, a little higher than eye to eye now. "Huh," was all he said, a noncommittal sort of noise punctuated by his taking the edges of Dean's greasy shirt and lifting it up off his head. It smelled like oil and sweat going past his nose, and when it was gone, there stood only Sam, curls of hair matted to his forehead, a great dopey grin on his face.

"Hey, auto repair's hard work," mumbled Dean, though the words sounded like they'd come from somewhere else entirely and were just vacationing in his mouth. "Smelly work." Sam was looking him up and down now, a predator sizing up its meal. He was so goddamned attractive, when had that happened?

Sam leaned in to the curve of Dean's neck, a half-inch away from skin, and took a deep breath. "Yeah, dude, you reek," he agreed, not complaining at all. Instead, he pressed their chests together and reached for Dean's belt, slipping the leather from its buckle and working at the buttoned denim beneath. Beneath it, Dean's cock was waiting, hard enough to struggle against his oldest pair of jeans, the ones he'd had since he was two years younger than Sam was now, the ones he only wore to work on cars and because he always caught Sam looking at his ass when he wore them.

Dean groaned as Sam's hand slipped down past the waistband of his boxers, cupping his balls and squeezing. "Care to join me?" His voice came out a breathless rasp.

"I'd love to," Sam answered with a wicked grin.


They didn't say anything on the way back to the safe house Bobby had staked out in advance, just drove in stone silence: Sam driving, Dean slumped in the passenger's seat, Bobby and Ellen staring out their respective side windows in the back seat. Dean had wanted to drive, but Sam had pointed out that people with major head injuries didn't need to be behind the wheel, and for the time being, Dean's potential concussion won out over Sam's recently ex-deceased status, so Sam had the wheel.

It wasn't a concussion, Dean knew -- he'd had enough of those in his life to know the difference -- but the ache still made his head muddy, and pain slipped in to fill the gaps created by receding adrenaline. Every time he tried to speak, his voice turned traitor and refused to work, so he ended up staring half-lidded at Sam the whole drive, watching the set of his jaw, the bones of his knuckles as his fingers gripped the steering wheel, the way his knee rose and fell as he sped the miles home in darkness punctuated infrequently by the high beams of late-night truckers.

There were some words mumbled as they staggered to their rooms, but none of them were Dean's; he was saving his mouth for other things. The second the creak-hinged door clicked shut behind them, Dean's hands fisted in Sam's shirt, pulling him close, fast enough that he might have startled Sam had Sam not been aiming to do just the same thing.

The bed came next, a destination aided by gravity, and Dean fell first, dragging Sam down on top of him. But his hands were weak, and let the fabric of Sam's shirt slip through, and Sam's arms were too tired to support him, so they ended up on their sides, facing each other, mouths moving together not to kiss, but to draw air from each other's lungs. Sam exhaled, and Dean breathed in, because if (God forbid) that fucker had been right, if Sam was somehow tainted, Dean wanted it in him too; fair was only fair. Fingers groped for the buttons of Sam's shirt, but something was shaking the house and making it hard to grab hold, and then Dean realised the earthquake was a localised phenomenon, confined to his hands, so he pressed them flat to Sam's chest, trying to still them.

Touching Sam felt like moving underwater: everything was dulled, clumsy, a million miles away. The focus had been turned down on the world, but Sam was still warm, and Dean pulled closer to that. Underwater, everything moved so slowly, but you didn't have to fight it, you could just float with it. He was vaguely aware that his mouth had stopped moving against Sam's, half-conscious that his limbs had grown so heavy he could hardly hope to lift them on his own -- but it was okay, because they were floating together now, safe for the first time in what felt like ever.


When Bobby slipped the door open a few hours later, just to check, he saw the two of them tangled up in each other's limbs, Dean snoring lightly against Sam's shoulder, Sam's hand even in dreams knotted tight in the back of Dean's shirt, asleep in their clothes down to their still-laced boots.

Ain't that cute? Bobby smiled to himself. Just like when they were kids.

I Think You Got the Gay Ending

"So, she's dead?"

"Gettin' there." Dean scootched over on the couch, making room for Sam and the bowl of popcorn. Onscreen, a mousy, brown-haired girl reached up for her stepbrother's face, drawing his glasses away. Otacon called her name, but the glasses merely fell to the floor dramatically. "And there she goes."

Sam frowned. "Don't be like that. I liked her." He took a fistful of popcorn to his mouth, making his cheeks puff out chipmunk-style.

"I had to fucking tranq her and drag her through a room of sea lice." Dean still carried a grudge over that one (even if he'd gotten the impression unconsciousness wasn't precisely the game's ideal puzzle solution) and resolved to start carrying around sedatives for the next time they had to hold some whiny girl's hand through the haunted forest. He listened to Otacon's grief for a few lines more, then shook his head. "Yep. That's one fucked-up family, right there." He tossed a piece of popcorn into the air, catching it in his mouth. "I may even get to play something again at some point. People are just talking now-- What's he doing with the parrot?"

"It was her parrot, remember?" Sam kicked Dean's shin.

"Oh, yeah. Thought it was, you know, maybe something about parrots." Dean tapped the controller impatiently. "Seriously, any minute now, it'll let me play again."

"Stop talking over the plot! Come on, this is ... the whole game's been about these guys -- don't you want to know what happened to them?"

"Wanna bust some heads with my Kalishnikov," muttered Dean, but he settled down and shut up. Otacon was working on getting himself together, but was obviously having a hard time of it, so now it was Snake's turn to go and give the heroic pep talk. Which apparently involved putting his hands on Otacon's shoulders and looking at him very seriously. Dean let out a crude snerk. "I really think that guy's gay for Snake."

Sam rolled his eyes as though he hadn't had the same thought thirty seconds earlier. "Dean, it's not that kind of game."

"Seriously, though. I mean, look, he's all crying and sad, but he's willing to listen to Snake." Dean cocked his head to the side a little. "And, you know, do that really gay buddy handshake thing with him. And--"

A moment which had no earthly business being as long as it was passed in silence.

Dean lent a hand to its jaw, which had forgotten briefly how to do anything but gape wide open. He coughed and raked fingers through his hair, suddenly feeling uncomfortable. "...Well, that was ... yeah."

"On the bright side," remarked Sam, having recovered only slightly faster than Dean, "looks like you're about to fight a ninja."

Well, thought Dean, catching his bearings a little better as the ninja put his sword against Raiden's neck, at least after that there probably wasn't a possible way for the game to get any more uncomfortably homoerotic.

The Bakery Caper

As far as things to shoplift went, it was a horrible first choice, and he spent nearly a week trying to figure out how to get it done. But the second he'd seen Sam's hands plastered against the bakery window, eyes gone dinner-plate-wide for the ten seconds before John had pulled them both on, he'd known it had to happen.

In the end, he'd decided on the direct approach. He waited until one day after school, then took the longer route home, striding up to the bakery like he owned the place. It was just after four, and he made it just as the high school boy who worked behind the register was flipping the sign from OPEN to CLOSED. Dean knocked as politely as he could on the door, and the boy opened the door. "We're closed, kid."

"I'm here to pick up a delivery for Smith," said Dean, just like he'd been rehearsing it in his head. "It's my brother's birthday, and I gotta pick it up before I can go home, or my dad's gonna be pissed."

He saw a smile crack across the clerk's face, that amusement that comes from hearing small children use casual profanity, and Dean knew he was in. "Come on in, kid. You're lucky, I was just about to lock up."

"Thanks!" Dean climbed the steps from the sidewalk to the door, then waltzed into the bakery, where the smell of baking things was overwhelming.

The clerk walked around behind the counter, flipping through a large handwritten sheet. "Didn't I see you in here the other day?"

"Yeah. I got some ginger snaps. They were real good. I do chores for Dad and he gives me an allowance." This wasn't strictly a lie, but the ginger snaps in question -- purchased as a means of reconnaissance -- had not been bought with the pittance his dad gave him, but with money picked from the pockets of third-grade bullies who'd been shaking down kids for their lunch money. He'd read Sam the Action Comics Classics, and figured he was sort of like a second-grade Robin Hood.

Frowning, the clerk tapped his chin. "You know, kid, I don't see it anywhere in here--"

"It was an apple pie. Dad said he'd stopped by yesterday and paid for it, so all I had to do was come get it." Dean looked at his watch and tapped his foot, like a kid who really had to pee. "I gotta go, the party's gonna start soon and Dad gets real mad if I'm not on time." He looked up at the clerk, eyes wide and anxious, and saw reflected in the clerk's eyes a sympathetic soul, one who understood what kind of whippings dads were liable to give to boys who misbehaved. The fact that John wouldn't be home until late that night, if at all, wasn't a fact work mentioning.

"Okay," said the clerk, getting out a white cardboard box and gently lowering a pie in it. "Just, um, leave your phone number, okay? So we can call, just in case we can't find the information." He paused, then took a paper bag and filled it with the day's remaining ginger snaps. "I would've had to throw them out anyway; they're a day old already and the boss says everything's gotta be fresh."

It wasn't until he turned the corner at the end of the street that Dean realised how badly he'd been shaking. He ran back to their motel room as fast as he could, arms wrapped tightly around his prize, all the way home to Sammy.

Definitely Not a Zombie

Sam flipped through the book, the weight of the paper slowing his task. "I don't know, Dean, I.... Wait, do you feel that you're afraid of light?"

Dean frowned a little, flicked on the overhead bulb, shrugged, and flicked it off again. "Nope."

"Well, that rules out a drekavac-- Oh, wait, those only come from the souls of dead unbaptised children, so you couldn't be one of those anyway." Really, thought Sam, this book should learn to put the really important criteria at the top of the page. With a heavy sigh, he pressed on.

Though obviously agitated, Dean was doing his best to play it cool, and had taken to poking his hand with a fork -- something that disturbed Sam deeply, but hey, it kept him occupied. "Are you sure I'm not just, you know, a regular old zombie or something?"

Sam shook his head. "Zombies are even more mindless than you are." He dodged the fork as it was thrown at his head. "And we know you're not a vampire, since vampires drink blood, and also, you're missing bite marks around your neck -- because, really, who would bite you?"

"Dude, would you cut that out? This is serious." Dean crossed his arms and settled back in the cheap motel room chair, putting his shoes on the bed in a way Sam was sure the motel owners wouldn't thank him for. He looked all right, really -- except for the slight pallor to his cheeks and the gaping hole in his chest, you'd never have known anything was wrong.

"Look, I'm looking, Dean but there doesn't really have an index in here for 'obviously undead but doesn't fit any of your standard undead options'." It was the first time either of them had said the u-word, though they'd both known it to be true, and Sam bit the corner of his lip as a silence fell over the room. "I'll ... you know, there's more pages in here, there's got to be something." Sam's fingers turned the page to a beautiful colour illustration with Chinese calligraphy down the side. "Hey, maybe you're a jiangshi! On the way home did you, uh, did you do any hopping?"

"That's it, I'm calling someone with more a little more expertise than a bargain rack copy of Tobin's Spirit Guide." Dean reached into his back pocket for his phone, but when he pulled it out, it was all gummed with blood. "You think this voids my warranty?"

Sam rolled his eyes and flipped to the entry on draugr, wishing that one of these entries had any insight on how to make the more sarcastic recently undead shut the hell up.

Little Doodle

Dean shakes his head at the bodies on the floor. "What's this?" Sam asks, kneeling down to check.

"That's what I'd like to know." He walks over to one of the stone walls and thumps it with his fist. "Pretty sturdy for just a wine cellar."

"Well, they say that these wineries used to be some of the best." Sam stands, brushing the dirt off his jeans. "Since they're not in business anymore, what's left's worth a lot from the right people."

Dean pokes the wall for a moment, then flips a heavy wooden switch, causing the steel grate covering the room's only other door to be pulled by some unseen mechanism up into the wall. "Well, if I find any, I'll bring 'em back for you."

"Wait!" Sam jogs forward a few paces after his brother, balancing a satchel of books over his shoulder. "You're not just gonna go in there alone, are you?"

"Somebody's gotta stay here. Keep an eye out in case they come back this way." Part of him really does want Sam to come with him, but Dean's pretty sure he's got this one under control -- besides, Sam's got a nasty habit of getting his ass kidnapped at the worst possible times, and Dean'd like to avoid that if he can. "So, uh," he stammers, seeing Sam's fallen face, "fill me in on Müllenkamp and this Sydney guy?"

Sam sighs and crosses his arms, but Dean knows he's won; Sam can never resist being called on to be Information Guy. "Sydney Losstarot, I think I'm saying that right. Head of Müllenkamp, which is some religious cult that's nearly two thousand years old, but even Bobby couldn't dig up much on it. Anyway, I couldn't find anything on him, not even his real name. He's one of those apocalypse-any-minute-now prophets."

Dean shrugs, rummaging through his bag for weaponry. "Cult missionary, huh? So why'd he do it?"

"Lots of theories, no real answers. There's suspicion that this whole prophet gig is just a front, and that Sydney's in with Bardorba, who's one of those real behind-the-scenes-power types." Sam scratches his head. "Or was, I guess. They're probably not so friendly anymore."

"...Or this could be somebody just looking for an easy target?" In Dean's admittedly limited experience, weird cults and anything that smells like 'satanism' to the normal folks generally winds up first in line to be blamed for anything bad that happens. He doesn't have a lot of sympathy for anyone actually in league with Dark Forces, but there's a real line between summoning fire-breathing demons and kids with too much eyeliner.

"He's not your typical end-of-the-world televangelist type. He has a weird habit of predicting the future -- and getting it right! And he's got a huge following of people who're hooked on listening to him. They call him a miracle." That earns him a sidelong stare from Dean, and Sam throws up his hands in a don't-look-at-me-gesture. "Anyway, the guy's definitely got a case of the Miss Cleo going on. There're stories of him reading the pasts of people he's just met, telling them what they're thinking. And he's apparently good-looking, with lots of followers devoted to him in soul and body, if you know what I mean."

"Sounds like you're thinking about hooking up with him yourself." Dean laughs as Sam shoots him an evil glare, then ducks beneath the grate's bottom edge, into the dark stone tunnel that leads toward the city proper. "So if I'm not back by tomorrow night, that's your cue to come charging in with the cavalry." He gives the mechanism on the wall a quick strike with his fist, and the heavy gate slams shut behind him.

From behind him, Sam calls out, "Godspeed, little doodle," and Dean hopes sincerely that he's not too far from the entrance's light for Sam to see the middle finger he holds up as he descends into the catacombs.

The Holder of the Impala Keys

Sam Winchester walked up to the desk, his shoulders slumped, cursing the impulse that had told him to pick 'tails' over 'heads'. With Dean it was always 'heads'. He cleared his throat at the sleepy-looking elderly woman behind the desk, who wore regulation orderly's blues and looked old enough to have changed God's diapers. "Um," he started, knowing even without looking behind him that Dean was giving him that smug grin of encouragement, "can I speak to, uh, the Holder of the End?"

Her cataract-clouded blue eyes suddenly grew great and round, and Dean clapped Sam on the back. "There! That's child-like fear! ...Child-like fear is good, right?"

"That's what it says." Sam checked his printout again, squinting a little at the library printer's default tiny font. He was considering asking again, regardless of how utterly ridiculous he felt, when the woman behind the desk stood with a speed no one her age had a right to muster. The boys jumped back, startled, but she turned and began heading down a darkened hallway, illuminated only by a sickly flickering fluorescent light.

Dean shrugged and pushed Sam after her. "Ladies first." Sam's postmodern instincts wanted him to take issue with that statement on so many levels, but he just scowled and headed off behind the old woman, lest she, moving with her preternatural speed, manage to get away from them.

As he stepped past the propped-open double doors into the hallway, Sam thought he heard Dean muttering to himself, but when he turned to check behind him, Dean's lips were shut and the sound persisted. Right, this was the part where the whispering was supposed to drive you crazy. That seemed to be recurring theme here. As they walked on -- faster now, nearly at a jog to keep up with the old woman and her swift stride -- the voice rose from a murmur to a conversation level to nearly a shout, all in some foreign tongue that sounded to Sam like the gibberish Dean always ended up speaking on the nights he'd had more than five margaritas. He wondered if the person speaking was trying to tell the one about the redhead in the alley behind the restaurant or the one about the brunette in the backseat of a apple-red Mazda. They all sounded alike after a while.

He'd read the printout so many times in preparation that when the voice stopped, he planted his feet almost by instinct; Dean plowed into him, cursing as he stumbled backward, but Sam remained undaunted. Far in front of him now, the elderly orderly disappeared into the dim green-grey darkness just beyond where the light above him reached. "I'm just passing through," he called out to the nearly empty corridor, hearing his own words bounce back at him from the endless walls. "I wish to talk."

A tense moment of silence followed, and Sam tensed his muscles to run, wondering how much gas they had left in the car, wondering how far panic and adrenaline could carry them in a night. Then the voice picked up again, as though it had never stopped, though now at the lower volume. Dean frowned up at Sam, who nodded, and the two of them began walking again. The orderly was no longer there to guide them, but the corridor dead-ended shortly thereafter, with a wall full of heavy iron bars beyond which was visible a cell.

Sam stepped up to the bars, squinting in the dimness. There was no visible door in or out of the cell, nor did the bars seem designed to move. It was filthy, covered with the kind of dank slime that crept into unused basements, the kind of dirty that grows from years of disuse. In a corner of the cell huddled a figure, rocking back and forth on its haunches, dressed in a patient's gown that had likely started life as white, but which now bore the stains of age and decay. What startled Sam was not the smell, but the lack thereof -- there was no reek of human waste, as the sight before him gave him to expect, but instead the dank smell of lake water, heavy and clear. The figure's long, matted hair hung over its face, and there was no way of telling its sex or age. When it looked up at them, though, Sam could see that its lips moved in time with the noise around them.

Dean leaned against the bars, reaching for Sam's hand and drawing the paper Sam held closer to his face, close enough to read. He frowned at the highlighted line near the bottom, then looked ahead at the figure in the corner. "So, uh ... what happens when they all come together?"

The figure took a harsh breath that sounded of the ocean's being poured from a burlap sack, and told them.


"Well," said Dean, drumming on the steering wheel, "that was bracing."

Sam looked at the bundle in his hands, about the size of a basketball, but he couldn't see the object within; he could only see the sweatshirt he'd wrapped around it, precisely to keep him from seeing the object within. "One down, 537 to go."

Dean nodded, thumbing through Sam's printout. "So, uh, where'd you get these instructions again?"

The object was warm, and it pulsed like a heardbeat. "4chan."

"Huh," said Dean. "Figures."

Out of Your League

Just past dawn, Dean heard Bobby's old truck pull up to the house, so he crawled out of bed and found some clothes that weren't too dirty or wrinkled. From the bed, Sam coughed twice with the chest cold that had gotten Dean stay-home-and-watch-your-brother duty, but didn't stir much beyond that. Dean tossed the covers he'd kicked off back over him, then set off down the stairs just in time to see the front door open.

First through into Bobby's house was Dad, though he was only recognisable by the particular mad-as-a-wet-hen limp he had when everything had gone wrong and he was just glad to be out of there alive; the rest of him was covered from head to toe in an opaque pink-ish substance that made Dean only half-sorry he'd stayed home. Following him was the FBI man, who looked slightly less covered but in much better spirits. Last came Bobby and the FBI woman, both of whom looked as clean as they had when they'd left the night before. Dean gave the FBI woman his best grin, and she actually smiled back before making sure that her partner was aware of the goo in his hair. Peering over the bannister, Dean began to smell the faint aroma of rotting meat.

"I guess that about wraps it up," the FBI man said, poking his head out from underneath the towel Bobby had given him. Dad hadn't even stopped after getting handed his, just kept right on marching through to the back porch and Bobby's makeshift outside shower.

"Guess it does." Bobby nodded, sticking his hands in his pockets. "Listen, you want me to scare you up a fresh pair of pants, at least? Something to make the drive back a little less," he looked the FBI man up and down, obviously at a loss for words several times over, "...wet?"

"Oh, it's all right, the motel's not that far, I'll--" The FBI man's polite refusal fell quickly into silence as he turned to meet his partner's gaze; she was standing with her back to him, so Dean couldn't see her expression, but he guessed it was formidable. "...Would you?"

Bobby nodded and gestured for the FBI man to follow him into the back room, leaving Dean and the FBI woman alone in the front room. She fingered a few of the dusty volumes on the nearest table, opening the covers and frowning at the occult titles. Dean cleared his throat a little. "...Hey."

She looked over at him with a smile that suggested she was biting down the corners of her lips to keep it from getting any bigger. "Hi," she said, giving him a little wave before lifting a flask of amber liquid to the light, peering in at its contents.

"That's banshee's tears," said Dean, pointing to the flask when she gave him a curious look. "It'll cure any poison. ...Except, uh, snakes, I think Bobby said. Or maybe it's only snakes. It's from Ireland," he added helpfully. "...So, what happened out there tonight?"

"Dean, right?" The FBI woman replaced the flask, crossing her arms. "Shouldn't you and your brother be getting ready for school?"

"Oh, well, Sam's sick. And I'm ... uh, I graduated last year." Dean hoped like hell the moustache he hadn't shaved in three days added something to his credibility here.

Her expression didn't budge. "Mm-hmm." Bobby and the FBI man walked back in, the latter now wearing a pair of Bobby's old painter overalls and a University of Illinois t-shirt, both of which looked too small for him, but which he wore with something approaching dignity. "Well, Bobby, thank you for your help bringing this matter to a conclusion," she said, shaking Bobby's hand before heading out the door. "Come on, Mulder, it's a two-hour drive back."

Dean followed them out to the front porch, his bare feet cold in the grey morning. "Be sure to give us a call if you need anything again!" he called after them.

"You betcha." The FBI man shot him a finger gun and a wink before tossing his soiled clothes in the back seat, then climbing in behind the rental car's steering wheel, but the FBI woman only smiled and nodded at nothing in particular before getting in on the passenger side.

As their car drove off down the dirt road, Dean felt Bobby's hand on his shoulder. "...Son, there's women, and then there's women out of your league, and then there's the FBI."

"I know," scowled Dean, brushing Bobby away and going back inside to check on Dad.


He was going on thirty hours awake now, which he wished he could say was a record, and was hunched over the breakfast table, scooping sugar on his Cheerios like it was going out of style.

Dad had collapsed as soon as Dean had hefted him into the passenger seat, so Dean had taken the keys and driven the last two hundred miles to Bobby's house in silence, with only the hum of the engine and Dad's rasping breath to keep him company. It'd taken them nearly a month to track down the vengeful spirit, and beating it had nearly lost Dad his head, but they'd done it, and the bitch wasn't going to trouble anyone else. They'd pulled in at the break of dawn, and Bobby'd rushed out to meet them, half-hauling John off to bed and suggesting that Dean should do the same. If there was one thing Dean hated, though, it was sleeping on an empty stomach.

Shortly after, a pair of feet came tromping down the steps with a gait Dean recognized as Sam's. He'd wanted Sam to come with them, never felt right about letting his brother out of his sight for even a day, but Sam had insisted that finishing his last month of eighth grade was important, and Dad, for once, hadn't been inclined to argue. "Hey, Sammy," Dean murmured, scooping another white pile onto the growing sugared mess in front of him.

"Mrgh," Sam sleepy-grunted back, and Dean made the terrible mistake of taking a milky, sweet bite of cereal the second his brother walked into his field of vision, because it all went up his nose. Sam shot him a disgusted look as Dean grabbed for the nearest paper towel. "What's wrong with you?"

The answer to Sam's question was standing right in front of Dean, barefoot and yawning, a thousand feet tall and wearing a t-shirt so threadbare it was just shy of see-through and a pair of ratty boxers so old that the waistband had long ago given up any hope of sitting anywhere but nearly off Sam's hips. His too-long hair curled into his half-lidded eyes, and along his jaw was a shade of stubble Dean had never seen there before; when he opened his mouth, a man's voice came out. And the fabric of those ratty boxers had decided its mission in life was to cling to Sam's junk just as tightly as it could, giving Dean an eyeful of what Sammy was packing, and Sam mustn't've even hit the bathroom yet that morning, because he had a fucking magnum in there.

Dean's sleep-starved mind tumbled through the possibility that this had all somehow magically happened in the month they'd been gone, then moved on to the more likely scenario that all this had been happening for a while, and it just took the month-long gap to ready Dean's mental image of Sam to come crashing face-first into reality. And everything about reality made Dean's heart drop into his stomach. "Nothin'," he choked out, casually as he could, and pushed away from the table. "...I'm not hungry, goin' to bed."

"I'm not eating that shit," scoffed adult_Sam, and somehow the way he cursed now was no longer something to laugh at, a kid imitating his daddy's foul mouth. Dean wanted to hear Sam say it again, maybe close to his ear this time, maybe while on top of him, holding him down--

"Then don't," shrugged Dean, and he tromped upstairs before he could get into this argument, shedding clothes as he went, intended to fall right asleep and forget about all the crazy things his tired mind was making him think.

He might even have made it, too, had he not hit the pillow face-first and gotten a deep whiff of where Sam's head had been only a few minutes previous, had he not felt the warmth to the sheets where Sam's body had recently been. And then it was all over, and his hand was down his own ratty boxers, and son of a bitch if he wasn't hard like iron, hard like Sam had been -- and he didn't think anything could have made him harder than he was already, but son of a bitch again, that thought managed.

He could play it off, sure: he was beyond tired, he was still adrenaline-high from the ghost fight, he hadn't gotten laid the entire month he'd been on the hunt with Dad, he was still a teenager, he had a million reasons to be jerking off right now and all of them were good. All of them, that was, except the one thought he couldn't quite banish from his mind, the one about the way Sam's cock had shown off in stark relief beneath his underwear, all hard and thick and adult and ready for action.

And like all thoughts you weren't supposed to have, this one just led to others: the thought of kneeling in front of Sam; the thought of reaching inside the slit of Sam's boxers and pulling out his cock, feeling it twitch and rise to him as he held it; the thought of taking Sam into his mouth, all the way down his throat, burying his lips in the little hairs at the base of Sam's shaft, sucking him deep; the thought of how Sam might look, all surprised and flushed, so trusting and innocent; the thought of Sam not being innocent anymore, asking, telling Dean to suck him off, saying shit and cock and fuck with his man's voice; the thought of Sam grabbing Dean's hair, shoving Dean's mouth down his cock again and again, choking him until finally gasping oh shit oh fuck Dean I'm gonna come--

With a groan that he barely buried in the (Sam-smelling) pillow, Dean came so hard he hit his bare chest, and then again across his stomach, and then at least five times after that, gushing come all over himself with a force that made his balls ache. He lay there for a second, panting, breathing, then at least had the presence of mind to find his most recently discarded t-shirt and give himself a quick wipedown. He might smell like come when he woke up, but at least he wouldn't have the genuine article dried on his chest to show off when Sam came to wake him for dinner.

"...Now that's just fucked up," he muttered to himself, and then he was too asleep to dwell on it any longer.

Deep Work

"Okay," she said, sitting cross-legged on the bed opposite him, wearing a sports bra and sweatpants like some evil yoga instructor, "focus." She lifted up her tiny hands between them, thumbs touching, palms flat and facing Sam. "Right here."

He supposed this should have felt familiar to him, seeing as it was about the tenth time they'd done it, but every time it felt like some alien ritual he was seeing for the first time. He stared at her hands, willing hiimself to tun out the cheap motel, the traffic outside, the hum of the air conditioning -- everything but the two of them. Palmistry had never been his specialty, and as he looked at the lines of her palms, he wondered which line told the girl one day she'd be skinned and made into a pretty demon coat. That sort of thing probably wasn't in your standard fortune-teller's manual, he figured, and then closed his eyes as the heels of her hands came to rest slowly over them.

This was every authority-enforced violation of privacy he'd ever been ordered to stand by and let happen, all rolled into one -- every locker check, every highway patrol search, every turn-your-head-and-cough. He could fight it, sure, he had fought it the first few times, but fighting got him nowhere and only pissed her off. Better just to sit back as she reached in and navigated him, reading the scars like a map. He breathed deeply and tried to focus on the press of her hands against his face, the weight of his own hands balanced against his knees, anything but the random thoughts that floated to the surface each time she tripped another connection in his brain.

He'd nearly settled into the process of nothing about nearly nothing when one particular image burst forth as though it had been shot from a cannon: Dean, maybe nineteen or twenty years old, stretched naked on some hotel bed, jerking himself off and grinning straight at Sam. "Hey, what are you--" Sam tried to protest, but nothing came out; everything felt heavy and anesthetized, the way he'd heard people describe overdosing on Valium. Everything was underwater except the past.

Dean was saying something in the memory, but Sam couldn't hear it -- maybe the audio feed was being rerouted, maybe this flashback was video-only -- nor could he hear his own response, though he could feel that his lips had moved to make words, and when they had, they had smiled. He saw his arms enter the picture next, grabbing Dean's thighs with hands still knobby and adolescent, uncomfortably young if he thought about it too long now. They travelled up Dean's body to the bony handles of his hips, and Dean said something else, and Sam could feel himself laugh nervously, his palms already sweating marks against Dean's skin. If he could have heard, Sam was certain, he would have heard his own heart rattling in his ears as he bent down to press his lips to the tip of Dean's cock. As his mouth first touched salty-slick skin, he became aware of a warmth at the side of his face, and in his memory he turned just enough to register the pressure of Dean's hand against the side of his cheek, a lover's gesture that was somehow brotherly at the same time, a crossroads where Sam could have lived happily the rest of his life, and Sam took another deep breath before licking his lips and swallowing Dean down--

"No!" There was a gap in Ruby's concentration, just the slightest loss of pressure, and Sam ripped wide through it, tossing her off the bed using nothing but his mind. He scrambled to his feet, grabbing the nearest wall before his legs gave way and he pitched forward. "No!" he yelled down at her even as she looked up at him, dazed and holding her temple where it seemed she'd cracked against the dresser. "Get out of my fucking head!"

"The locks run deep, Sam," she said, wincing as she pulled herself into a more dignified seated position. "All the way through you. You'll never get at it--"

"I don't want that!" he shouted at her, and as he did, the bedspread burst into flames.

Thinking more quickly than he, she reached for the material and pulled it into a ball in her arms, smothering it like a baby. "Well," she said, as the last of the fire died and as Sam had finally begun to regain his composure, "I gotta tell you, Sam, it's not exactly a view I haven't seen before."

Disgusted with her as much as with himself, he ripped the bedspread from her arms and stormed into the bathroom, slamming and locking the door behind him; he stood, fully clothed, under the shower head and turned the knob to the right as far as it could go, until long after any fire'd gone out, until they'd both grown cold and soft again.

Naming the Devil

They got a tiny bed in a tiny room of a mid-sized boarding house in a nowhere town, because Vash said in front of the lady behind the counter that it would be better than another night in the dirt, and Wolfwood countered in front of the same lady that they didn't have enough money for those luxuries, and the lady said, well, we got a cheap room, but one of y'all'll have to sleep on the floor, and Vash grabbed it with an air of superiority before Wolfwood could say no, and Wolfwood said they'd flip a coin or have a fistfight for it, and it was settled.

It was bullshit, because it was the kind of bullshit nobody but them cared about, but it was the kind of bullshit that covered two men asking for a room with one bed, or two men leaving a two-bed room with one bed unused. It was a special kind of bullshit, the kind you had to put on so just maybe in the end you'd start believing it yourself. Like behaving like how this just kept happening, like a storm or like sunset, something bigger than you that you couldn't change and definitely couldn't plan, like something that happened to you.

Nobody slept on the floor. Wolfwood was bigger, but Vash was heavier, and so Vash used the mattress for a mattress, and Wolfwood used Vash for a mattress, because that was what made sense without talking about it. The night was hot, with a dusty wind blowing in through the window, so Vash said he hated the way Wolfwood's cigarettes smelled, because he couldn't say anything else, and Wolfwood kept smoking because he didn't want Vash to stop talking. They could go out and get something at the bar, Wolfwood suggested, because there was no way to ask if he should leave Vash alone, and Vash said that he hadn't seen any good bars on the way in anyway, because he couldn't ask Wolfwood to stay. Bullshit like that, language that talked around what it wanted to say without ever having the balls to come out and say it. By now, they were both fluent in it.

So Vash complained more about Wolfwood's cigarettes, complained about Wolfwood's elbow in his stomach, complained about Wolfwood's being an unnecessarily hot human blanket, just so Wolfwood could shut him up with the taste of those cigarettes, tongues spreading around the burnt-nicotine ash that if Vash hated so much, he didn't have to breathe it anymore, just swallow it whole. Vash swallowed but still complained about the heat, so Wolfwood lifted himself up off the bed and back on his knees, settling a cushion of air between them, and Vash shifted down the bed and swallowed again.

It wasn't anything you could talk about. Talking would make it stop. You name the Devil and he appears, Wolfwood said, was in the habit of saying, and then he drew his head down to occupy his mouth so nothing of the sort could even accidentally happen.


He looked different like this, and Wolfwood guessed that was the point. Less like the man on the wanted poster. More like everybody else. More like his brother.

"He won't give up, will he?" he asked, putting his feet up against the windowsill and teetering back in the thin wooden chair, whose legs protested the weight and stress. The sun had almost disappeared past the line of the horizon, and its last red lines lit his face. "That's the hell of it."

Wolfwood had already begun to blend into the darkened corners of the room, his black suit and dusky skin bleeding into the shadows, everything blurred by the grey cigarette haze. That was the thing about the desert -- it seemed so hot, everybody said it was so hot, but that was only the sun; even in the day, the dry air dropped twenty degrees just by stepping into the shade. When the night came on, the sky wouldn't hold in the heat.

His stupid coat gone, he seemed almost small -- an impossible feat, really, for someone of that height and girth, but he folded up on himself so neatly, knees pressed to his chest, long arms locked behind his thighs, that to Wolfwood he looked barely larger than a child. His metal arm gleamed in the dying light, its cords and cables stretching out from rolled-up shirtsleeves, lean and inhuman, like him. Wolfwood supposed he wasn't supposed to know, but it was just one more bad secret that, like all the others, had found a way of getting out.

The last line of light fell across his face, and he stared straight ahead until it had gone, unblinking. Wolfwood wondered what the sunset looked like to those eyes. Wolfwood wondered a lot of things. Like what would happen if a bullet just happened to find its way through his head here, in this paranoid little town with well-meaning girls and their well-meaning grannies trying to make a life out of dry earth and shotgun shells. One shot, and half of it'd be over. Hell, that one shot might even make the second half easy.

He looked like his brother, for all Wolfwood supposed he couldn't let on he knew that either. Twins, Midvalley had told him one afternoon, grabbing the cigarette from Wolfwood's mouth and sticking it in the corner of his own, stretched out on the bed as far apart as the mattress would let them go in the heat of the day when it was too hot to touch anyone else except to fuck, or so Legato says when he remembers to do something other than piss himself. It was the crowning weird idea on a long chain of weird ideas: that this type of thing existed, that there were two of them, that they were brothers, that the word meant anything when talking about things like them.

Wolfwood's cigarette burned to the filter, and he tossed it to the floor, crushing it with the heel of his shoe; the black mark it left would probably never come out. As if on cue, Vash stood, setting the chair against the wall and raking his fingers through his long hair. "I suppose it's time to ask Lina for a haircut," he said softly.

"Nobody'd know you without it," answered Wolfwood, without adding, except, apparently, me.

Vash stretched his arms high above his head, one flesh and one metal, tilting his back into a gentle arc. Then, with a sigh, he reached into his breast pocket and pulled out his round-framed civilian glasses, lenses flat and useless. He held them out in front of them, looking at, not through, them. "...It was nice, you know. While it lasted."

"What, being normal?" Wolfwood shook his head, taking first one step closer to Vash, then another. "I hear it's overrated."

"Maybe." Vash finally turned to meet Wolfwood's gaze, giving him a sheepish little grin. The backs of his eyes reflected flat in the twilight, like a cat's, and then were dark again. "But it was quiet."

"Quiet's overrated." Wolfwood shrugged. "The Bible says, there's a time for everything; a time to be born and a time to die; a time to build up and a time to break down; a time to be quiet and a time to bust shit up."

Vash's lips quirked. "What book's that from?"

"The Bible, like I said."

"Right, sorry." As quickly as it had appeared, though, the smile melted away without a trace, heat rising with nothing to hold it back, leaving his face a desert in its wake.

Wolfwood was filled with a sudden urge to punch him right where that smile used to be -- to grab him by the collar and shake his teeth loose -- to kiss him until their mouths bled together -- to drop to his knees and suck him until his tongue tasted salt and sand -- to pin him to the wall and fuck him until neither of them could stand anymore -- to throw him to the ground and tear at his clothes, then at his scars, then at whatever lay beneath, until he could get to the root of the madness, the point of divergence, the one-thousandth of one-millionth of a percent difference that divided the sheep from the goats, the saints from the sinners, the men from the monsters.

Instead, he turned and headed for the door. "Get that haircut early tomorrow," he said, his voice stern, "or I'm leaving without you." Impossibly empty threat laid on the air, he walked out of the room without once looking back. He knew what happened if you ever looked back.


He hissed as the bath water licked at his wounds, but gritted his teeth and sunk himself in up to his neck. It would feel good any minute now. As soon as it stopped stinging.

Across the tub from him, Sydney sank into the water with unearthly grace. Of course, Hardin thought to himself, that was because Sydney wasn't nurturing several superficial chest wounds. And besides, getting Sydney out of the bath was no graceful process, what with all the water the hollows of his arms absorbed. He took perverse yet quiet pleasure in that knowledge.

The room was empty; Sydney had sent the ever-present girls home, once they had disrobed him, and they had scattered obediently, if reluctantly, chattering all the way. Hardin didn't walk to know what they said about him, or even what they thought at all. He didn't care.

What he cared about now was the long, thin claw brushing its flat side against the inside of his thigh. Sydney grinned and moved closer, and the water rippled around him. "Comfortable?"

"Somewhat." The answer was getting truer by the second; his chest had stopped stinging like nettles, and had dulled somewhere down to irritation comparable to papercuts. Soon the wounds would stop hurting at all, and after that, they would heal, leaving mercifully no trace against his dark skin.

"Good." Sydney nuzzled closer, settling himself across Hardin's body. Something about the water never failed to make Syndey particularly affectionate, which, in turn, never failed to surprise Hardin thoroughly. But he was smart enough to keep his surprise to himself.

His eyes cast across the tub, to where the soap lay, and then to Sydney, who had co-opted his lap. "And how am I supposed to wash myself like this?" he asked, half-teasingly, in a better mood already.

"You're a bright boy." Sydney's smile permeated his voice. "I'm certain you'll figure something out."

Hardin grunted, trying to sound annoyed and failing miserably. "I suppose asking you to get it for me would be out of the question."

"Mmmm." Sydney nuzzled his nose against Hardin's neck, seeming for all the world like a cat preparing to take a nap. A very dangerous cat, and one who arguably desperately needed to be declawed. "You'd suppose correctly."


"Hardin." But Sydney reached over benevolently and pushed a few of the various soaps and oils within Hardin's reach. "Better?"

With a grunt of gratitude, Hardin uncapped a blue bottle, pouring the contents into his palm and breathing in the sandalwood scent. But he touched the oil to Sydney's hair first, working it through blond strands. Sydney smiled and sprawled even more expansively over Hardin's lap.

Hardin tried not to roll his eyes. "I should sell you out to the VKP," he threatened. "Tell them they'd just have to bathe you and you'd confess everything." But he was smiling just the same.

Glean What Afflicts Him

ROS: Ashley is not himself, outside or in. We have to glean what afflicts him.

GUIL: He doesn't give much away.

HARDIN: Who does, nowadays?

GUIL: He's -- melancholy.

HARDIN: Melancholy?

ROS: Mad.

HARDIN: How is he mad?

ROS: Ah. (To GUIL:) How is he mad?

GUIL: More morose than mad, perhaps.

HARDIN: Melancholy.

GUIL: Moody.

ROS: He has moods.

HARDIN: Of moroseness?

GUIL: Madness. And yet.

ROS: Quite.

GUIL: For instance.

ROS: He talks to himself, which might be madness.

GUIL: If he didn't talk sense, which he does.

ROS: Which suggests the opposite.

HARDIN: Of what?

GUIL: I think I have it. A man talking sense to himself is no madder than a man talking nonsense not to himself.

ROS: Or just as mad.

GUIL: Or just as mad.

ROS: And he does both.

GUIL: So there you are.

ROS: Stark raving sane.



GUIL: Ah. (To ROS:) Why?

ROS: Exactly.

GUIL: Exactly what?

ROS: Exactly why.

GUIL: Exactly why what?

ROS: What?

GUIL: Why?

ROS: Why what, exactly?

GUIL: Why is he mad?

ROS: I don't know!


HARDIN: The old man thinks he's in love with his son.

ROS: Good god! We're out of our depth here!

HARDIN: No, no, no -- he hasn't got a son -- the old man thinks he's in love with his son.

ROS: The old man is?

HARDIN: Ashley, in love with the old man's son, the old man thinks.

ROS: It's beginning to make sense! Unrequited passion!

GUIL: Nobody leaves this room. (Pause, lamely.) Without a very good reason.

HARDIN: Why not?

GUILD: All this strolling about is getting too arbitrary by half -- I'm rapidly losing my grip. From now on reason will prevail.

HARDIN: I have Crimson Blades to kill.

GUIL: Pass!

HARDIN passes into one of the wings. ROS cups his hands and shouts into the opposite one.

ROS: Next!

But no one comes.


"Our scouts have returned from the Greylands." Hardin stood fast before Sydney, arms folded behind his back, trying to affect an air of professionalism -- which was proving a bit difficult, considering the circumstances. The main chambers of Müllenkamp's headquarters stood full of devotees, and Hardin felt as though all eyes had affixed upon him.

Sydney's eyes looked up to meet Hardin's gaze; he was unmoved by any improprieties of the situation -- something of an accomplishment, considering the voluptuous beauty was curled on Sydney's lap, not Hardin's. Long metal claws stroked the bared flesh of her back, and she gasped, pressing her full lips against Sydney's throat. "Pray tell, dear Hardin, what found they of the manor's defenses?"

"Naught which should trouble us," Hardin answered. If he kept his gazed fixed upon Sydney, perhaps... But even that made concentration difficult, for all to be found in those ice-bright eyes was the cold blade of amusement. Damn him, Sydney knew precisely what he was doing, that was the hell of it, that was always the hell of it. Not a twitch of flaxen hair moved across his face save meticulous planning decreed it should fall there.

Smiling as the girl pressed warm fingers against his chest, Syndey nodded. "Indeed," he mused. "I should care to hear a fuller report at some later date, but for now, I shall trust you have the vagaries of the situation well in hand?"

That brought a small chuckle from the assembled masses, as happened whenever Sydney mentioned 'hand,' or 'arm,' or some other inane cognate to his disability. Hardin paid them no mind. "I say we attack in a fortnight's time. Much later, and I fear our window of opportunity shall too greatly diminish; much sooner, and we risk advancing unprepared."

"I feel your recommendation is sound, dear Hardin." Sydney turned to plant a small kiss at the crown of dark hair that lay against his cheek, eyes watching all the while to see if Hardin would flinch. He did not; though once he had worn such ill feelings on his sleeve, hard-won willpower kept him now fixed, stoic. "Well-prepared we must needs be, for even I cannot fortell the whole of what we shall encounter. Go to, then, and begin construction on a plan such towards objectives we had earlier discussed."

Harden placed his hands together before his chest and gave a bow, an unnecessary gesture, but one he felt showed appropriate respect, regardless of what was required of him; he then turned to go, yet was stopped in his retreat by Sydney's sibilant-sweet tones. "Ah, and Hardin?" He turned to see that the woman had twined herself more fully across Sydney's lap, knees planted at either side of his leather-bound thighs. "Bring yourself by my quarters this evening, for I dearly wish to hear the results of your planning."

The hell of it, indeed. "Aye, Sydney," he agreed, turning on his heel and striding out.

Full Fathom Five

The long knife emerges, its blade cold in the candlelight, and Sydney knows this is the end of him.

Guildenstern circles him, taking his time, a predator uncertain, afraid his prey might yet have another trick up his sleeve. But he has neither tricks nor sleeves, only arms fallen heavy to his sides with their weight, and a wound bleeding out his life onto the stone floor. Under other circumstances, such a thing would merely have pained him briefly and brought to bear upon his soul no fear of mortal injury. "The Dark has indeed wrought upon many a man surprising changes," he rasps, feeling copper blood rise in the back of his throat, "yet none should have predicted it might make of you a tanner--"

"Silence!" Guildenstern's boot strikes him hard across his mouth, and how Sydney laughs at that, for even the lamb to the slaughter has a few wounds to inflict before he goes. "I would have your mark for mine own."

Reeling with the force of the pain, yet even now feeling the hole in his middle beginning to knot, Sydney shakes his head. "Sweet Guildenstern, such would not suit you." Every word is agony, yet he would forego none merely to spare himself the suffering; after all, a dead man has naught to lose, and even less time in which to lose it. "I'm far too fair a cloth for your foul skin--"

Another blow, again to his face, which gives Syndey the satisfaction of knowing his daggers have hit their mark; his greatest weapon in many respects has always been his tongue. "Samantha!" The skittish mouse who dares paint herself yet a warrior inches forward from the shadows, bearing in her hand a single candle. "The ensnared hare yet bares his teeth. Hold him down!"

Though the look on her face speaks of what an abhorrent command this is to her, she complies, skittering over, mouse-like, to bear down upon his strength-sapped arms. "I'd offer you fair warning," Sydney smiles, looking now not at Guildenstern but at her, "but I daresay a man so blinded by his own ambition could ne'er see fit to listen."

Indeed, Guildenstern makes no sign that Sydney has even spoken -- yet across the woman's previously merely frightened brow, a spark of true terror flashes. "...What?" she begs uncertainly, mouth moving as though of its own will. He cannot see the look that Guildenstern gives her, but suspect it drips with the black poison that has infected him and driven him to madness.

"The Dark changes all." Sydney closes his eyes as Guildenstern turns him upon his stomach more firmly, kneeling across the backs of Sydney's slender thighs as though the prophet had anywhere to go. "Even the joining of the greatest preparation and synchronicity will yet wreak upon the bearer a sea-change -- bones of coral, eyes of pearls, limbs of metal." He brings aloft briefly one of his sharp claws even as the flat of the blade glides across his back, testing for its first cut. Guildenstern's hand follows in its wake, the touch almost tender, a lover's caress. "Even unto its beloved, it cannot help its harsh redesign; how think you then it will regard a thief, a heretic like unto a boy who stands at the shore and demands the ocean serve him as he descends into its waves?"

"It will know me." Guildenstern's voice is flat with the weight of absolute certainty as the knife's edge draws its first red line.

Great Dignity

Oft was he glad he'd developed a sense of humour about tragedy early in life, because otherwise the sudden substitution of his arms for metal devices might have proven suicidally depressing. As it was, he merely resolved to keep his composure in public, and only to laugh outright when no one else was watching.

The hands were dexterous enough, to be sure, well-wrought from the finest steel the gods had seen fit to offer. They were also intensely sharp, and strong nearly beyond measure. He'd taken precautions to replace all glassware with a metalsmith's vessels, which had worked marvelously well up until the point when the delivery of ill news caught him holding a copper goblet; in his anger, he'd drawn his hands into fists by reflex, a mistake in retrospect. Glancing down at his hand, he saw the ugly truth of the situation -- his digits had not only crushed the goblet, but terribly intertwined the two, and try though he might, he found himself unable to extricate himself from the situation with any grace whatsoever.

"Leave me!" he bellowed, giving Hardin a half-lidded glare that meant not you. The cultists took him at his word and scattered as rats from a light, leaving the two men alone in the great room. As the last door shut securely behind the departing retinue, Sydney turned to Hardin and wordlessly extended his hand.

Hardin stared at him for a long moment, uncomprehending, before a single strange muscle quirked at the corner of his mouth. "This is perhaps a problem."

That dry assessment was all it took to chase the affected stormclouds from Sydney's face, giving a slightly abashed smile licence to replace them. "Just ... aid me." He sighed and lifted the twisted structure before him, glad that it had been mostly drained before the collision, emptying the last drops to the stone floor. "I can't entirely fathom how this happened."

"Nor I," admitted Hardin, who though having permission to treat the situation with greater levity, chose to keep his composure as best as he could. He took Sydney's affected hand in his own, which brought the strange buzz of sensation to which Sydney had not yet entirely grown accustomed; his new limbs retained shadows of his old's feeling, which was still given to startle him. Hardin's thick, sword-callused fingers stroked the long lines of the metal, feeling how they connected to the goblet, testing the situation with his own fleshly hands, betraying no sign of mockery or discomfort, his brow furrowed instead in most sincere concentration. It was indeed a problem, but one Hardin handled delicately, examining with all seriousness for signs of a solution.

It was one of the things Sydney liked best about John Hardin: he was a man around whom one could retain one's dignity, even with a cup wedged about one's hand.

Next Time Around

In his dreams, sometimes, he returns to Lea Monde. He knows these dreams for what they are even while he dreams them, for he has seen the city fall asunder nearly about his own head, yet as he passes through the streets, it stands anew -- locked, barred, pristine, as though meeting him again for the first time.

He also knows the dreams for what they are for within them, he feels burn upon his back the mark of his first and only true encounter with the city, the fire-red Rood Inverse that marks his flesh like a brand. He treads along the alleyway, his fingers gliding over the moss-dressed brick of walls, and feels the city like a heartbeat stretch out and enter him through his brand. He knows he needs only clench his fist, and doors will unlatch, grates will swing free, caverns will unfold before him.

Was it like this for you? he asks, though his lips are still.

Mm, is the noncommittal answer. The voice is likewise diffuse, not a sound from mouths but the sound of the air itself. It occurs to him that he has no ears in this dream, only the city's ears; he likewise has no mouth, only the city's mouth; it hears and speaks and breathes for them both. A bit more cooperative, at times -- but you must remember, when last I trod these paths she and I had common enemies.

And now? He stops and places both his palms flat against the building's side, letting his fingertips brush the crumbling face of the cool, rough clay. In his dreams he sees not only matter, but the magicks that hold the city together, woven deep into the fabric of every brick, every leaf, every stone that builds the city. Once, he trampled through unseeing, unknowing -- an uninvited guest of the most persistent kind. Now he sees the weavings and the workings, and knows he has come back where he belongs.

Long, cold claws touch at his shoulders, then trace lightly down the length of his arms, ten touches whisper-fine as they hover just at the surface of his sun-browned skin, stopping just beyond the tips of his own fingertips to kiss ten small hollows into the wall. Now it is as much a ghost as I, and thus free to do as it pleases without fear of further desecration. Though he feels rather than hears the words, the warm air of their being spoken brushes across the back of his neck, and he can feel likewise warm skin pressed tightly to the tattoo on his back.

He stares at the contrast, skin and metal, muscle and armour. I still have my arms, he remarks, as though to say such a thing were necessary. If I am now to bear the Dark, why does my flesh remain unchanged?

He thinks he hears a hollow laugh as one of those very steel limbs curls back, its cold palm ending flat against his own breastbone, its five points making a halo around his heart. He means then to turn, to challenge what seems to him an insolent reaction, but the ten sharp points -- five at his chest, five now brought to settle light upon the curve of his cheek -- hold him to his place. He breathes once, and then they press in deep, breaking bloodless through his skin; he braces himself anew against the wall for the agony that is sure to follow.

Yet the pain never comes. Instead, the claws settle into him like an accupuncturist's needles, gentle and penetrating, meant not to harm but to heal. Your price was yourself, he hears, and he folds himself forward, pushing himself deeper on, letting the Dark claim its prize.

Breaking Point


Tokito stopped cold in the doorway to the bedroom. He hadn't expected to hear anything, not after what he'd said. He considered keeping moving, pretending as though he hadn't heard anything anyway, but it was too late now. "What?"

From behind him, in the dim room, Kubota sat up on the couch. "Do you want me?"

"Would I have said so if I didn't?" Tokito snorted, leaning against the doorframe, borrowed shirt falling easily off one of his shoulders. Kubota was just too damn big.

He could almost hear Kubota push the glasses he wasn't wearing back up his nose. "Tell me."

"I just did. You weren't asleep."

"I know. Tell me again."

The apartment was silent as Tokito took a deep breath and let it out through pursed lips.. "I can't sleep," Tokito repeated, taking a step forward. "The bed smells like you. Like cigarettes and you. I can't sleep 'cause I'm so fucking hard, and it's fucking impolite to jerk off in some guy's bed while he's sleeping on the couch in the other room." He snorted. "Or pretending to sleep."

"You're more useful than Miss Manners." The sheet that had been covering Kubota's legs slipped to the floor.

Tokito laughed softly. "You don't get fucked for a living without learning how to be a little genteel about it." He wasn't just talking; he was actually hard enough that walking was a bit of a difficult gambit. "Do you want to fuck me?"

"Do you want me to fuck you?" The casual vulgarity sounded doubly sexy in Kubota's dispassionate voice.

"God, yes." Tokito leaned on the arm of the couch closest to Kubota's feet. "You think I'm just pretending? That you're the same as all those guys? You think I'm going to suck you off and steal your wallet?"

Kubota leaned forward on his knees. "Are you?"

That Kubota might even think that made Tokito ashamed -- which, oddly enough, just made him harder. Sometimes, between learning to be genteel, being fucked for a living taught you other important survival skills. "Is that what you think of me?" He tried not to sound too angry, and failed.

"Is that what you think of yourself?" The fucker was always answering questions with questions. It pissed Tokito off to no end.

"I want you." He leaned over Kubota's legs, straddling his thighs as best he could on the awkwardly narrow couch. Kubota was only wearing a pair of boxers, ones that did nothing to cover his erection. The one that Tokito had cause. It made him feel particularly good about himself. "I want you to fuck me. I want to taste you. Fuck, I want you bad."

"Well, then," Kubota grinned, leaning back against the cushions, "come and get me."

Don't Even Breathe

"Fuck!" Tokito ducked behind the table, kicking Stork's leg hard enough to bruise in the process. "Stay right here, okay?"

Stork admittedly didn't know much about gunfights or perilous situations, but staying right there, per Tokito's orders, actually sounded like a tremendously bad idea as far as he was concerned. "Are you crazy?"

"Just ... look, I've got to get to the controls for the door. There's no way we're getting out if I don't. End of discussion." He fumbled in his jacket, produced his last gun, a heavy thing that must have been tucked into his waistband, and dropped it in Stork's lap. "Only if you have to, and only if they're close enough. Don't waste it." And then he was gone in a flurry of gunfire.

Tit crouched next to him, hand tucked firmly into his since they'd cut him free. Eyes shut the way he did when he didn't have his dark glasses, he looked amazingly calm, considering what he'd been through in the last day and a half. Most people grabbed as hostages didn't take it so well. "It's going to be okay," Stork whispered, trying to sound like he had even a modicum of control over the situation.

"Shh," Tit hissed, placing his fingers over Stork's mouth. "I'm listening."

To what, Stork wasn't exactly sure; there was gunfire and machinery in the background, and all the sounds of an industrial complex that didn't go away even when it shut down for the night. But though Stork didn't hear anything, he wasn't going to argue.

Tit placed his mouth next to Stork's ear. "Nod yes or no: It's very dark in here." Stork nodded. "Nod yes or no: Minoru-san gave you a gun." A little puzzled, Stork nodded again. "Give it to me." Tit must have anticipated Stork's reaction, as he grabbed his cheek and held him in place. "Trust me." He extended his hand.

It was about the craziest thing he'd done today, and that was saying a great deal; he picked up the gun and placed it in Tit's hand, where fingers curled around it, cradling it delicately. "Now don't even breathe," Tit whispered, turning around to face the direction from whence the shots had come earlier.

There was no time for Stork to protest, because once he figured out what was going on, Tit had stood, body fully exposed beyond the parts the overturned table covered, pulled off eight shots, and ducked down again, accidentally resting the hot barrel against Stork's bare calf. The pain was all that reminded him that his body needed oxygen, and he gasped it in, instantly sorry.

"It's okay," Tit said in a normal voice. "There's no one else in the room."

It was a very long time, it seemed, before what Stork had assumed to be the back wall of the room turned into a door and groaned open into the night, but when it did, and Tokito stepped cautiously forward, brandishing his gun to no response, it turned out that Tit was right.


The early afternoon's light rain had become a torrential downpour by the time Tokito heard the knock at the front door, and he vaulted up from the couch, upsetting a pile of newspapers and at least three empty Pocari Sweat cans in the process. "Coming!" he shouted, hurrying as slowly as he could force himself to maintain the illusion that he had not, in fact, been essentially counting the minutes to Kubota's return. Sometimes things just got a little lonely, was all.

The wet figure at the front door, huddled dripping under an overcoat that proved itself a poor substitute for an umbrella, opened his mouth to speak, but before either of them could get a word in edgewise, the shopping bag in Kubota's arms mewed.

With a suspicious glare, Tokito folded back the edge of the bag with one gloved finger. Inside, a little black face with two bright eyes looked up at him and repeated its plaintive cry. Tokito frowned. "What is it with you and strays?"

"He was on sale." Kubota pushed past Tokito into the front hallway, setting down the bag on a stepstool before shaking off his overcoat. "As was the ginger miso ramen. Are you making dinner?"

"No." Tokito reached into the bag, past the boxes of instant food and packages of microwavable meals, and wrapped his hands around the kitten. It was a scrawny little thing, its fur patchy and matted, and it smelled strongly of garbage. "I made it last night and lunch today." He poked it in its round pink belly, and it began to purr.

Kubota poked his head from the coat closet. "I wasn't here for lunch."

"Made it anyway." Tokito picked a string from the cat's fur, and it reciprocated by first licking, then biting his fingers. Well, of course the poor thing was hungry, if all it'd been offered was Kubota's latest boxed ramen obsession. He made a little hammock with the bottom of his shirt and settled the kitten in there, where it curled contentedly, twitching its damp ears. "...You were gone a long time, is all."

Taking the bag of groceries (now minus cat) into his arms, Kubota walked into the kitchen. "I had some things to attend to," he said, which was always what he said when he meant 'I don't want to talk about it,' and by now Tokito respected the lie enough to let it go. "All right, I'll make dinner, but it's going to be frozen pizza." Kubota turned the dial on the over with his left hand, and Tokito noticed he was favouring his right shoulder.

"Yeah, that's great." The kitten extended its razor-claws into Tokito's belly, and he jumped. "Hey, hey, okay, we'll feed you too. Demanding little brat."

"Sounds like someone I know," Kubota said, and Tokito pretended not to have heard as he marched off to the shower to give Princess Catogrammaton Nekomata von Eisenstein III her first, much-needed bath.

January (True Love)

Kubota wasn't the type to nod off after sex, especially not during daylight hours, especially not when he hadn't had a cigarette first. Tokito then chose to take it as a compliment that Kubota had come, pulled out of him, shifted into a slightly less penetrative spooning position, and fallen sound asleep in less than a minute.

A backhanded compliment, to be sure, as Kubota was now doing his one-man impression of a sawmill, but a compliment nonetheless.

Maybe if I rolled him on his side, thought Tokito, before realising that spooning someone pretty much by definition meant that person was on his side already, and thus not in a position to benefit from being rolled there. ...Maybe he's magic.

A beam of daylight fell across the end of the bed, the deceptive winter sun that always looked so warm from behind glass. Tokito knew that if he stood and walked to the window, if he placed his hand against the pane, he'd see an aura of condensation rise from the points of contact, a water halo that would turn to frost shortly thereafter. He'd spent nerly three hours doing it once, after the television had ceased to entertain him and there'd been no more laundry to be done and he'd just wanted Kubota home that very second, more than anything else in the world.

He didn't need his hand to know he'd been an addict. The mutation there just let him know the poison's name. Being an addict ran deeper than that -- down to the bone, to the place where you didn't need something so much as you needed something to need.

Funny how he never would have figured that out without winding up with Kubota, the anti-addict, the man who needed nothing.

Tokito shifted and drew Kubota's arm tight around him, and Kubota stirred only long enough to resettle his hips, then went right back to snoring. He'd had another of his long nights the night before, not out like before, but up and pacing the veranda slowly, smoke rising from him like the steam of a model train running its track. Tokito, who was a cat in all habits up to and including sleep, was accustomed to being up at the back end of the night, keeping company with the TV test patterns, spinning on his own cycles alone in their quiet apartment. But last night, and the night before, and the one before that, he'd stayed huddled alone in bed, wide awake, staring at the ceiling, listening to the mechanical rhythm of Kubota's bare feet.

The incident with the police had taken it out of him. Hell, it'd taken it out of both of them. And now it felt like all they could do was pretend it was over, a glitch in the transmission, a blip on the radar, here and gone without further discussion. Except Tokito felt the threat of it under him now, like the way his memories sometimes felt: miles beneath the surface, intangible, invisible, unstoppable, always rising.

He held tight to Kubota's arm, heavy with sleep, imagining his whole body as a weight, then closed his eyes and tried to picture sinking to meet them -- and then just continuing on downward, passing them all, disappearing together into the deep.

Safe as Houses

The vegetables weren't as dead as he'd suspected, upon examination, but dammit, he'd gotten Kubo-chan to agree to pizza, and that was way better than curry rice. Besides, he'd called already -- from the house phone, as apparently they both had the same idea about their cell phones. He shut the refrigerator door and paused before popping open a can of coke; at least coke never went bad, no matter how long you left it. "...Does something smell like coffee?"

"That'd be me." Kubo-chan walked into the room a step later; with the heavy coat removed, Tokito could see light brown stains all over Kubo-chan's shirt's shoulders and collar. He ran his fingers through his hair, and made a face when they caught in a tangle about halfway back. "They've banned thumbscrews and the rack, but dumping canned coffee over the accused isn't covered by the Geneva Convention."

Tokito lightly braced the can against the counter with his right hand, tearing the tab back with his left; several hours spent wiping soda from the countertops and floors had taught him not to do it the other way. "They never do that on Law and Order."

"I'm sure they don't." Kubo-chan shrugged, starting to undo the top button of the formerly white shirt. "I should probably just throw this away. Coffee never comes out."

There was a suspicious dent in the floor of Taki-san's shower, just near the drain, about the size of a fist. The end of the metal railing that ran up the stairwell to his floor sported a frustrated twist at the end. He hadn't bothered to double-check, but he was fairly sure that the edge of the booth in the diner where they'd met with Anna had four circular indentations on the underside of the seat now. "Maybe you should send them the cleaning bill." Tokito very pointedly held the can in his bare hand, forcing the gloved one to stay loose at his side.

Kubo-chan smiled in that way he did when Tokito had said something that both was a terrible idea and sounded tremendously satisfying. "Maybe we can drop it by when we go out tomorrow to get groceries and some new phones."

"You're assuming I'm ever letting you out of the house again," said Tokito, and he grinned as rakishly as he could to hide how amazingly wonderful it sounded: the very idea of shutting the door for good, locking out all the cops and gangs and whores and bullshit, letting two lifetimes of secrets languish unknown somewhere far from where they could do any more damage to the two people inside.


Her tiny hand rested on the back of his broad wrist, broader every day it seemed, and she directed his brush strokes. "Eight, nine, ten!" Her girlish giggle bubbled next to his ear, close enough to feel the heat of her breath. "And there it is."

He knew how to make ofuda, and both of them knew this, but Seishirou never made a whisper of protest when, upon arriving home from school, he saw the table spread with paper and ink and brush. And she would be there, hands folded in her robes, smiling for him as though she lived only for him. Both of them knew she did.

This particular design, however, was new to him, and he took instruction, paying attention to every step. She could have told him, of course, or simply showed him an example made by her own craft, but that was not her way. Never pushing, never forcing, her hand led the way and his hand followed, tracing out with deep, black strokes the magical designs. His hands always learned the characters and designs long before his eyes or mind did.

"Very good," she smiled, and he put the brush back in the ink, where the blackness creeped thirstily into the brush's bristles. She didn't have to ask him if he could do it again on his own; he was a bright boy, and that facility was assumed. Her hand lingered at his wrist.

Turning his hand to catch hers, he met her with his enigmatic smile. "I'm glad that I have pleased you, Mother."

"You always please me, dear Seishirou." She drew closer, such a large movement of silk to accompany such a small woman, and slipped onto his kneeling lap. Her hand brushed at his hair, and she laughed at a spot on his cheek that had mysteriously attracted a spray of ink. She laughed much more than he did. "Particularly when you practice your calligraphy. So beautiful, and you make such beautiful characters." One of her fingers played with his high uniform collar, toying it open.

His smile neither grew nor faltered, remaining an impeccable constant. "Only when you practice with me, Mother. On my own, I'm perfectly dreadful." It was a lie, and they both know it, but sometimes a lie is the only polite thing to say.

Her laugh rang like crystal as she unfastened the hooks of his uniform, exposing his strong chest. "Then perhaps you should practice on me," she offered lightly, though he at the moment was the more exposed medium. "Or I on you. That's always what I think of when I watch you. Dipping my brush into the ink," her finger found the inkwell, "and marking you for my own," she smeared a dark line down his cheek.

He shut his eyes, smelling the ink and her skin. "Every time you watch me, Mother?"

The ink stained his young skin perfectly. "How could anyone think of anything else?" She drew her fingers across his lips, leaving them black, then met his mouth with her own, sharing the stain. It would be a long time before it washed away completely.


This was always the awkward part, that moment of anticipation that teetered on panic between the time he knocked on the door and the time it opened. His palms sweated inside his gloves.

And then the sound of the locks' being undone -- a formality, really, because the magical wards keeping it shut tight made deadbolts look as sturdy as toothpicks -- and the door swung wide enough to reveal the apartment's tall inhabitant. He looked so strangely casual, his habitual black suit replaced by a grey sweatshirt and faded jeans, feet bare, a cigarette perched between two fingers. Almost entirely unlike a serial killer.

Subaru took a deep breath. This was the point where he was supposed to ask 'can I come in?', beginning the stiffened, formal ceremony where Subaru was coy and shy, and Seishirou let hang on the air for a moment the possibility that he might say 'no', and they both pretended as though they had no idea what would happen once Subaru were allowed inside. It was almost a ritual, a courting dance that somehow seemed to justify (or at least cover over) the part where he was on his enemy's doorstep, a fly knocking on the door to the spider's web and asking to be devoured.

Tonight, however, he was exhausted, guilt and insomnia and fear and anger having finally pushed him to a point where sheer perversity compelled him to decide that he just couldn't be bothered with the formalities. Without a word, he reached down and plucked the cigarette from Seishirou's hand -- proving that a loss of depth perception wasn't an insurmountable obstacle -- then brought it to his lips, inhaling deeply. The thick grey smoke filled his lungs, and he exhaled a soft cloud into the space between them.

Seishirou widened his gaze a fraction, then reached out and snatched the hand with the cigarette, holding him tight at the wrist, tight enough to bruise. "Bad manners," he chided, clucking his tongue.

It took every ounce of strength in Subaru's arm, but he tightened his muscles and brought his his hand back the inches to his mouth, as slowly as he could without shaking at the force of the effort. In the end, he had to crane his head a little, but it was a small price to pay for the victory of getting the cigarette back to his lips. He took another drag, this time deeper, and spoke as he exhaled, "I don't care."

Subaru felt the grip on his wrist tighten, sure enough that he thought his arm might snap again -- and then the pressure was no longer squeezing, but pulling him forward until their bodies were together and Seishirou was kissing the dark smoke out of his lungs. They were still technically in the hallway, Subaru noted, but on his great list of concerns, 'offending the neighbours' was somewhere down even below 'bad manners'.

Finally, Seishirou paused in his assault on Subaru's mouth, and drew in breath as though to speak. Before he could, however, Subaru slipped a hand between them, rubbing shamelessly at the front of Seishirou's jeans. "I want you to fuck me," he said, and as he did, he found his voice didn't even tremble anymore.

"Well," said Seishirou, his lips arched in that immovable smile, "I suppose you'd better come inside." He took a step backward into the apartment, still holding fast to Subaru's wrist, and like the fly trapped, Subaru followed.

Snow Lightning

He was quite fond of the snow. It had taken him nearly three weeks to get right. It fell now at a steady rate of a mile and a half per hour, each flake different, the kind of patterned randomness generated only by computers -- not at all random, but predetermined on such an atomic scale as to give the appearance of randomness to any but the subatomic observer.

By contrast, he knew, when the boy and his sister saw the snow, they did not see equations, calculations, mathematics at work; they saw snow, a collective noun that frosted hair and dusted noses. The boy laughed as he reached for the top of a powdered drift with his mittened hands. To the boy, snow was a cold, white word that landed on his eyelashes and did not even belong in the same volume as concepts of radial symmetry and freezing points.

The boy's sister linked her arm through his, though she had eyes only for the boy now, not for him. "Be careful!" she called as the boy's careless step sent him tumbling against the rose bushes, shaking off both their snowy blankets and their last leaves. She laughed as she said it, though, and the boy laughed back.

"He'll be fine," he said, and found that the words came easily because he believed them to be true. Snow had settled on her hair, and he reached to dust it off for her before it could melt. He could have kept it from doing that, of course, long ago -- a simple matter of raising the freezing point of water, or lowering the temperature of the human body, or both, to create some sort of equilibrium of permanence where the laws of thermodynamics were not so insistent. Perhaps he could have frozen her then, to preserve her from the coming thaw until the snow did not change her and she did not change the snow.

The boy's voice carried through the dampened air. By that token he, too, could be frozen, kept in ice that never melted, like the fairy-tale princess and her glass coffin. He took his hand from her arm and bent in the snow, scooping up a handful of powder and shaping it into the approximation of a sphere, before sending it through the air to explode on contact with the boy's back. It swirled around him like wings, like a halo, and then the boy reached his arms out, and he caught him, swept him up in his arms where he could see how each word, each peal of laughter, each breath sent another fragile white cloud into the air, and he held him close enough to feel the boy's snow-melting warmth, and he smiled.

Somewhere high above, a pulse of snow lightning beat once through the clouds, and was gone. He held his breath and counted, and only made it to two before the thunder rolled in after it. By now, the storm was very close.

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