Bands of Gold
"You know," Byers shook his head, refilling Langley's mug, "there's probably some utterly mundane reason for it, and you're just being ridiculous."
"Untrue!" Frohike drained the last of his own commemorative Mardi Gras 1985 cup and nudged it toward Byers for more; Byers rolled his eyes but complied, tipping the champagne bottle at an angle designed to minimise foam. The bottle had been from Mulder, a gesture of congratulation on their ingenuity in transferring the ownership of the condemned warehouse into Langely's senile aunt's name, and by Frohike's logic, this meant they were entitled to talk about the gift-giver. "There is nothing even remotely mundane about Special Agent Fox Mulder."
Langley took back his mug, which had an Apple logo on the side and a chip in the handle. "Besides," he added, "the file said unmarried, not divorced or widowed or separated. And there's no record of a marriage licence issued for Fox William Mulder issued in the last ten years in a two hundred mile radius of any place he's ever lived."
Byers rolled his eyes. "You two have put way too much thought into this." He was still nursing his first flute of champagne -- being an ex-fed-turned-conspiracy-theorist-cum-co
mputer-hacker was raising his alcohol tolerance, but only slowly -- and had apparently been the only one of them ever to own actual glassware. Three months ago he would have hotly denied that sprawling on the dirty floor of an abandoned building might bring him even the slightest bit of joy, but he had to admit, he was actually having a great time. "All right, what's your theory?"
"It's some sort of high-tech FBI anti-bug gizmo," said Langley. "The wires are cased in gold for conductivity, and the vibration the closed circuit sets off a signal that disrupts listening devices. Runs off body heat and galvanic skin response."
Frohike snorted. "Is that the best you got? You make him sound like Batman."
"All right, genius, I'm all ears for your bright theory." Langley leaned back against a rusty iron support pillar and crossed his arms.
"Obviously it's a homing beacon of some sort, cued to several satellites in geosynchronous orbit." Frohike tapped the back of his left fingers for emphasis. "Probably has a way to activate it, like a distress beacon of sorts. I bet the FBI can have a SWAT team into wherever he is in under ten minutes. They do drills for that sort of thing."
Now it was Langley's turn to snort. "Who the hell would put a homing beacon there?"
"Well, nobody's going to ask him about it!"
"What do you mean, nobody's going to ask him about it?"
"Well, we're not asking him about it, are we? And we're the most suspicious guys I know! You know, next to him."
The Frokihe/Langley intellectual ping-pong matches were great entertainment, and this one concluded, as most of them did, with both of them turning to look at Byers, and Byers' becoming aware that he'd been laughing aloud. "Okay, you go," they said in near-perfect unison.
Byers stammered for a moment. "It's -- well, there's -- I know some men who -- it's--" He stopped talking and drank a full mouthful of champagne to steel himself, then took a deep breath. "Some people I know, and I'm not naming names, like to wear a wedding band when they're ... er, looking for companionship, for lack of a better word, particularly of the more temporary type, since anyone who'd be inclined into a tryst with an ostensibly married man -- or, ah, a woman too, I suppose -- wouldn't be looking for a long-term relationship, and--" He was distressed that he could feel heat rising in his cheeks. "...And why are you both looking at me like that?"
There was a moment of disbelieving silence, and then Frohike and Langley cracked up so sincerely that Byers couldn't fell self-conscious any longer. "Man," said Frohike, wiping his eyes with his gloved hands, "I'm going to tell him you said that."
"Don't you dare," said Byers, but by now he was laughing too, and their shared laughter echoed throughout the warehouse that was both their new home and their new base of operations for their shared fight against the darkness, and that was all right.
He had actually never touched her face, not really. Not this version, at least. There had been several before her, test cases and prototypes, but this one had never actually left the tank. He was taking no chances.
"Growth rate is still steady at 2.3, stasis levels; multiple tests confirm this will be a stable replenishing rate." He spoke ostensibly to himself, but every word was heard and remembered by the computers that surrounded him, notes ready for playback at any moment. There were nearly three hundred years' worth of notes here, kept in memory so secure that nothing short of physically obliterating the system would destroy it.
Twisting another knob, he saw the lights change in the tank, saw them play against her dark skin. She was beautiful -- no, more than beautiful. She had begun as a hideous twin, but the twin was long gone, and she was all that remained, dark and silent.
He reached back to tug his ponytail free of his coat, then turned to the microphone. "Proper photosynthetic ... it's ... she's...." He took a deep breath and touched a hand to his forehead. When he spoke again, his voice was even.
"She's finished." The hum of the machinery punctuated the silence between his words. "I've been wasting time. But she's done, and has been for a long time. She's...." His voice caught. "You're the only one who could ever hear this, you know. She's yours."
He reached for a button, pressed it, and watched her eyes open. Dark brown, almost black, where her predecessor's had been violet. But she was all that remained now. "It's over," he said, and his voice was softer this time. "We're too close. And you'll never need her, not now. If only I could have finished sooner, if I hadn't ... if I hadn't stalled, maybe she would have been useful to you." He stared into her eyes. "But the end is too close for maybe."
Deftly, his fingers flicked over the keys to initiate the standby sequence, the one that would keep the machines going in his absence. Futile, perhaps, in the face of all that was to come ... but he couldn't bring himself to bring her death. Not again.
"Maybe," he echoed, watching the screen go dark before his eyes, hearing the machines sigh as they powered down. Her open eyes stared out over his movements, her long, dark hair swaying slightly in the fluid, and he reached one hand to the cool glass. "I could not save her. I realised that a long time ago. But maybe...." His voice broke and he hit one last switch; the recorder clicked, then powered down, and he stared into her eyes as they drifted shut.
There, in the dim light of the laboratory, he took one last look at the most beautiful woman in the world, and whispered, "Maybe you."
Once upon a time, back when everything was quite young, a boy and a girl were playing together at the beginning of the world. Neither one quite knew where they had come from or why they were there, but already their conversations were beginning to evidence the differences that would follow them through the rest of their lives.
The boy frowned and picked up a pebble. "That's not how you play doctor."
The girl hugged her knees to her chest and pushed her hair from her eyes; it had become clear very quickly that this was not a natural colour for hair, nor a particularly manageable length, but those things would be clear soon enough. "Sure it is."
"Well, how do you know?" He placed the pebble in the path of a bug, causing the bug to change its path. He thought this was a particularly fine trick, and did it again.
She made a little huffing sound. "I suppose you know how to do it better."
"Sure I do," he said, disrupting the bug's journey once more. "I know all about that stuff."
"Well, fine." She frowned at her hair, which had blown into her mouth again. "How do you play doctor?"
A strange sort of glee came over the boy's face. "Lie down."
Though she didn't particularly trust him, and never would particularly trust him, she did as he asked, as she would so often do before she realised just how often doing so tended to get her killed. "Now what?" The sun was bright and in her face.
"You've been hurt, so I'm going to take care of you," he told her, deepening his voice several pitches to sound appropriately authoritative and comforting all at once. "You're in shock. Pulse 140 and thready, BP 50/30. Pulse ox 90."
She frowned and sat up a little. "Do you even know what that means?"
He pushed her gently back to the earth. "Don't move. You're in shock. I should give you 125 milligrams solumedrol, IV push. Get a portable chest film. Type and cross eight units. CBC! I'm going to need a foley."
"You're having trouble breathing. I'm going to have to intubate." The boy looked quite pleased with himself, having found a particularly fine way to play doctor. It was much better than hers, which didn't involve any actual doctoring at all. When she didn't respond immediately, to his suggestion, he leaned in and whispered, "That means lean back and open your mouth."
She did so, not particularly understanding what an intubate was, and got a stick in her mouth for her troubles. Spitting, she sat up and brushed the dirt off her dress. "That's disgusting! No doctor would do that!"
"Well, no doctor would do what you wanted to do! It's unethical!"
"What are you, freakin' Hippocrates?"
He scratched the back of his head. "Does that sound like a good name to you?"
"How am I supposed to know? This game is stupid. I don't want to play anymore."
"Fine." They sat back-to-back, neither saying anything to the other, something else which would become characteristic of their relationship, though more often than not they weren't sitting together, but living strategically on other sides of the world, which was just safer for everyone concerned.
"Hey," she poked him after a moment, lifting the hem of her skirt a little and uncrossing her legs. "I know something else we could put in my mouth..."
The boy turned a little pink. "I think I'm gonna need a couple more years of medical school before that."
Nothing Left to Lose
There is, Jesse had once reckoned, sort of a freedom in realising that you’ve fucked everything so far to hell that there isn’t any coming back from it. At least then you know things can’t get a whole hell of a lot worse. Which is sort of comforting. Sort of.
At least, he’d thought it couldn’t get worse. Thinking you’ll never see your kids again, however, had proved to be not as bad as seeing your kids again and realising they didn’t want to see you. That stung some. Stung a lot, in fact, in the kind of way that kept his smile from reaching all the way up to his eyes. Bordered by the other creases on his face, the places where his laugh lines might have been were surprisingly smooth.
“Are you still here?” Sigurd’s voice startles him, and his hand jerks, spilling alcohol over his fingers. He doesn’t even remember what he’s drinking, just that he is drinking and that he’s been drinking for hours, and he’d formulated at some point in the evening what sounded like a very successful plan to keep drinking for even more hours. Sigurd looks unsurprised and grabs a dishtowel from the Yggdrasil’s fine oak bar. “You’re up past your bedtime, grandpa.”
“Don’t get fresh with me, sonny,” Jesse says, or more accurately slurs, lifting one knob-knuckled finger at Sigurd’s surprisingly blurry face. “I was knockin’ back whiskey when you were in diapers.” He raises an eyebrow. “Which wasn’t so long ago.”
Sigurd – out of that ridiculous uniform, thank God, crop tops look silly enough on a teenager, to say nothing of a grown man, no matter how many sit-ups he probably does every morning – pulls back a chair and twists it around, sitting so his chin rests atop the high back. “You’re just jealous because I’m still beautiful, while you’ve apparently run your face under a lawnmower a few too many times.”
“Hey.” Jesse’s eyes narrows, but he can’t keep a grin from creeping up his face. “Just because I haven’t spent the last decade getting my hair done…”
“Okay, that’s it.” Sigurd leans forward in the chair, his one good eye staring out at his old friend. “You want to make something of it?”
“Hell, yeah!” An abortive attempt to stand follows, concluding in Jesse’s sitting back down hard in the chair he’d just left. “…In a minute. I’m gonna finish my drink, then I’m gonna beat your soft, smooth ass ‘til your grandma feels it.”
Sigurd leans away, wrapping long, thin fingers around the chair’s carved back. “Sure,” he smirks, with an air of sincere disbelief. And then, without preamble, he cocks his head to one side and asks, “So, wanna talk about it?”
And Jesse finds that, actually, he does.
Gyges, Somewhat Intrigued
When first making the transfer from his body's organic systems to their nanite successors, Krelian had pondered eliminating his sexual drive and its related components entirely -- useless, never did him any good -- yet had in the end decided against it, calculating that the required modifications for circumventing those systems' loss would cause more trouble than simply leaving them in place and dealing with them. Indeed, most of his time in Solaris, there had been no issue with their continued presence . Sometimes, however, he desperately wished he had just made himself a technological eunuch and been done with it.
Such as now. He stepped into his office, feeling a wave of warm, stale air that was forgotten almost immediately as his gaze fell on the lithe, blue-haired woman behind his desk. "Haven't we talked about this?" He set his satchel down on the desk, keeping his eyes fixed on her face so sharply that everything below her face could fall into an unimportant blur, and his peripheral vision go hang itself.
Miang didn't even bother looking up. "It's hot." Her clothes, testiment to her comfort and his dis-, lay folded atop the lab station's tower. Her hands flew across the keyboard with almost-mechanical speed and accuracy.
"Yes, I can see that." He liked to keep his workspace just this side of frosty at most times, and thus had come over the centuries to identify her sometimes-infrequent returns to Solaris with peculiar indoor summers; but she had been stationed here more permanently for several years, and he thought they'd put this behind them. "So you decided to divest yourself instead of altering the environmental controls."
"The environmental controls are broken throughout the sector." Her fingertips sang their staccato song. "A conduit was severed, repair crews have been dispatched, maintainance should be complete within the hour, and you can return to your polar habitat."
This was all well and good, he supposed, but it didn't solve the basic problem -- she, though in what was quite assuredly his office, had exhibited a lack of self-control whose consequence was to force him into an excess of self-control, demanding at least three-quarters of his consciousness to not noticing how the screen's light cast shadows across her long neck, how her hair just skimmed the surface of her bare shoulder, how her collarbone, and then, below that-- "It's all or nothing with you sometimes, isn't it?"
"Mm. Most of the time."
"The station in its entirety hasn't been affected. My quarters were, as of fifteen minutes ago, just lovely. Why didn't you..." He flapped his hand in a useless shooing gesture. "Find somewhere less naked to be?"
That actually earned him a moment's glance, one of amusement thinly veiled by irritation, or perhaps even the other way around. "I was working," she explained, though her hands came to rest at either side of the keyboard, and she was working no longer. "Though if my presence is that much of a bother to you, Commander Ramsus' office has suffered the same malfunction, and I'm sure he'd let me carry on peacefully in there after only momentary distraction."
His practiced look of disdainful apathy served him so well when dealing with her. "Perhaps that would be best," he said, not believing a word of it.
With a shrug, she stood -- and he did not watch this process, nor what followed, only discerned them from movement at the corner of his eye -- and began to dress herself as lightly as possible with all proper concessions to Solarian modesty. "Subject 623-alpha's test data have been nearly," she stressed, stooping behind the bank of computers to pull on her boots, "compiled, and within the hour, you should be able to run scenarios against the others."
"Yes, thank you." He crossed his arms and tapped his foot, as ostentatiously annoyed as possible, and she at her leisure strode (much more decently attired) past him, out the door and to levels above theirs.
In time, he remembered to move again. It was then the room's heat, he decided, that made him shed his outer robe and take her newly vacated spot, entering a routine surveillance control code and flipping a simple switch to on.
The God-Made Man
He heard the door in the back of the lecture hall swing open, the telltale sound of an overslept student's arrival, but when he turned from spelling the famous ethicist's name on the board, a woman who wasn't on any roll of his was seating herself in the back row. Biting back a smile, he stepped to the podium and found the place in his lecture notes where he'd left off. She'd picked a hell of a day for it, to be sure.
"The old legends say that God created mankind in His image," he continued, pushing his glasses back up the bridge of his nose, "that we were formed from the very clay beneath our feet, shaped by a master creator's own purposeful design. Yet science teaches us that we are instead the architects of our own design, in a way -- that we have changed over millennia to adapt to our surroundings, in response not to an unseen plan," he saw her hand go up, and resolved to ignore her as long as possible, "but to reality. Dr. al-Ghazal says in his book The God-Made Man, and I'm quoting here, 'This process of evolution is the only explanation for the stable organism -- not only the human organism, but any form of life on this planet, from the single-celled amoeba to the oldest tree. Therefore, the great danger of human genetic manipulation is the destabilisation of this necessary balancing process--'"
"What if God created humans using an evolutionary blueprint?" And there she was, her voice sharp and clear, carrying through the lecture hall and causing every student there to turn and see who, precisely, was rude enough to interrupt his lecture. "If God had already learned all the lessons necessary for prior evolution, and was thus able to push His human creation past the intermediary steps?"
Not even a sheet of paper stirred as the class sat motionless, waiting for his response. He shrugged as though unperturbed and called back, "Your point?"
She laughed, pulling a strand of hair from her face; she knew precisely how long this lecture had taken him to write, and how long it took him to voice his impromptu thoughts in this (or any) country's strange and gutteral language. "The Creation imitates the Creator. If we are indeed made in God's image, then perhaps it is our destiny to create in the same way, starting not from the chance collision of proteins and amino acids, but from the baseline we have now."
Another silence hung on the air, and he pushed at the bridge of his glasses even though they hadn't fallen significantly since the last time he'd done it. "Well," he nodded, "our visitor brings an interesting perspective. Does anyone in the class wish to respond?"
As though God Himself had called his name, Mr. Kasim popped up from the third row and turned to the back of the lecture hall. "But the Creation, to use your word, is unstable," he said, gesturing with his stylus.
"Then perhaps it has become corrupted," she shrugged, recrossing her long legs, "and the duty of genetic manipulation should be not advancement, but return of the Creation to the Original state."
"The instability in the human genetic code is entirely a result of environmental factors,' responded Mr. Kasim, voice rising in excitement at such an avenue of discussion, and the low murmur of conversation began to hum around him. Though he knew it to be something of a failing on his part as the teacher, he stood back from the podium and let the discussion proceed unmoderated, no longer able to keep his mouth from turning pleasantly up at the corners -- both with pride at the eagerness of his star student, and with delight at having her back with him.
Smoke from his cigarette rose lazily into the windless, climate-controlled night air, and he gazed out at the familiar skyline. ~Couldn't sleep?~
Jr.'s voice sounded softly in his head, though Gaignun had felt his presence there for quite some time. ~Not really,~ came the soft, almost self-conscious answer. He could feel Jr. in the other room, stretched out on his bed, alone in the dark, wearing his favourite novelty flannel cowboy pajamas but lying atop the covers anyway. ~You...~
Gaignun raised an eyebrow into the darkness, even though no one was there to see the expression; he shifted, stretching his arms above his bare chest. ~I...?~ he prompted.
~Well...~ Jr.'s reluctance was more than audible, it was tangible. ~...You're kinda loud. Sometimes. When....~
Though he tried to muffle the brief spike of embarassment that struck when he realised what Jr. was talking about, Gaignun was sure some of it managed to get through. So instead, he turned the blush into sort of a mental cough. ~I'm sorry,~ he smiled, and the apology was earnest. ~Maybe ... well, I'll be more conscious in the future about possible lapses in my sheilding. Or we could find quarters somewhere further--~
~No!~ The utter sensation of panic that flooded Gaignun's senses nearly made him drop his cigarette, and he had to reach for the balcony railing. ~No, I ... I just....~ Gaignun waited patiently as Jr. struggled for words. ~It's not that.~
Slowly, shutting his eyes, Gaignun reached out along the link that connected the two of them, turning their mental connection into a more physical one, making Jr. remember strongly the sensation of a hand brushing his hair affectionately. But Jr. pulled away, both mentally and physically, and Gaignun frowned. ~I don't mean to make light,~ he tried again. Jr. was so unpredictable in his responses, sometimes so adult and sometimes still a child. ~I'm sorry if it bothered you.~
Jr. was quiet for a while, and were it not for a tiny current of consciousness that tickled the back of his brain, Gaignun might have thought Jr. to have gone to sleep. And then, as tiny and shily as possible, from across the connection, the confession: ~...I liked it.~
Gaignun took a long, deep breath from his cigarette, letting it out as a plume into the night sky. He searched Jr. out again, brushing briefly at his red hair, before slipping lower, drawing invisible hands across his chest and stomach, feeling with fingers that did not exist every breath and heartbeat in the body that held deceptively a mind -- and, more importantly, a whole person -- far beyond its chronological years. This time, when he reached for Jr., Jr. did not pull away, but placed one hand beside him on the pillow, letting the other fall across his eyes.
"That's Procyon B," chaos says, pointing to a particularly bright reddish dot as it floated into view. "The fourth planet orbiting it is populated entirely by samurai."
Jin twirls a little wisp of chaos' hair between his fingers. "You said that about Proxima V."
chaos looks utterly unbothered by this seeming contradiction in his stories. "There are many samurai in the universe, you know." He stretches his arms out further above his head, which rests gently on Jin's lap, a gesture which gave Jin the impression of nothing so much as an oversized housecat.
"Ah, yes." Jin smiles, reaching to brush away a strand of his hair that has fallen on chaos' face. The splash of the fountain and the fluttering of the environmental bugs almost drown out the sound of the engines, even those as big as are needed to power a ship like the Durandal. “It’s peaceful here.”
“But you like your garden better,” chaos points out, doing his absurd little trick of almost but not quite reading Jin’s mind. What might have unnerved others never seems to faze the eternally placid Jin.
“I like my garden better,” Jin nods, shutting his eyes, “and will be glad to be back when this is all over. You shouldn’t misunderstand – it’s very peaceful here.”
chaos chuckles a little, reaching up to brush at Jin’s loose locks. “Especially when no one’s around.”
“I won’t deny the appeal of the solitude.” Jin’s smile broadens, and he leans forward, letting his hair fall forward, bringing it into chaos’ easy reach and concealing his expression at once. “But the air here is different. Recycled.”
“The air on Second Miltia is recycled, too,” chaos points out.
Sighing the sigh of someone confronted with an incorrigible smartass, Jin ruffles chaos’ bangs into his face. “Not so closely. Here it’s all machines. At home, there’s an atmosphere, and plants to help out the air systems. Lots of gardens, not just this one. Forests, too. …I confess I feel far more comfortable with earth beneath my feet than with sky on all sides of me.”
chaos nods and snuggles closer. “It is a very nice planet you have there, Captain.”
“Well,” Jin says, resting his hand against the small of chaos’ back, “it’s not populated entirely by samurai, and I see how that could be a drawback.”
“Hmm.” chaos’ skin is warm as he turns away from the window and brings his cheek to rest against Jin’s robed side. “I think one is enough for me.”
In a Galaxy Far, Far Away
It’s movie night again, the one that almost wasn’t, as Dr. Yuriev had threatened them all with taking it away if their performance hadn’t improved. The threat hadn’t meant much to the nonvariants, of course, who would be just as happy staring at a blank wall as at a cinema screen. But it had been enough for Rubedo, who had pushed them harder, and who now sits at the front row of the viewing room, flanked by hundreds of his brothers, eyes fixed on the images before him. Rubedo loves movies. He likes books better, of course, since they don’t presume so much, but movies are just fine.
“I don’t like the fat alien.” Albedo has to sit in the middle, because scary things sometimes happen on the screen, and as much as they’ve tried to explain to him that they’re just images on a screen, he never sounds convinced. “He’s mean.”
“He’s supposed to be mean, dummy.” The teasing is perfunctory, and quite insincere; even so, a tiny wrinkle parts Albedo’s face between his eyebrows. “He’s the bad guy. The bad guys are always mean, so you can be happy when the good guys beat ‘em.” Rubedo speaks at a normal speaking volume, over the dialogue coming from the speakers, and if any one of the nonvariants assembled there has a problem with this, he does not speak it.
“But he’s slimy.” Albedo’s voice is a thin, frightened whine. “Does he eat people?”
This is a possibility Rubedo has never seriously considered in all the times he’s watched this particular series of classic movies (deemed acceptable for inspiring the fighting spirit of young soldiers without stressing overly the potential downsides of violent conflict). “…I don’t think so. I mean, I don’t see why he would.”
“But he could.” A new worry has worked its way into Albedo’s conscious thought, and that means there is nothing for it but to turn it over again and again until it becomes even worse. “He could eat her. If he wanted to.”
“He’s not gonna eat her. He’s got those … things right there in the bucket. He can eat them.”
“But if he ran out. If he ran out, he might eat her.”
“He’s an important guy. He’s not going to run out of things to eat.”
“But what if someone forgot to go to the store and get him more and he really did run out even though he wasn’t supposed to?”
“He’s got bajillions of dollars! He can call out for delivery.”
“But what if the only delivery place were thousands of light-years away and he called anyway but the delivery spaceship broke down on the way and got stranded and attacked by the Empire—”
“They do not show him eating humans. He never expresses a desire to eat humans. He does not appear to be equipped to eat humans. Therefore, we can conclude that he does not eat humans.” Nigredo’s calm logic effectively shushes his brothers. “Now, shh. This is my favourite part” All three settle back into renewed silence as Leia places her hands on her blinded, bewildered beloved’s face.
She sits barefoot on her bed and stares at the paper folded in front of her, reading her name clearly printed in brush-thick English letters on the front, just above the bright red blob of sealing wax. She’s not going to open it, she’s already decided. She hadn’t opened any of the others, in an effort to teach her worthless brother how to use email like a normal person, and years ago, when they’d stopped coming, she thought she’d succeeded, and had been too busy to notice that what she’d succeeded in doing was nearly losing contact with him entirely.
The paper is heavy and grainy, hand-pressed and off-white, the colour of the inside of bamboo, and the edges are soft, as though they’ve been torn instead of cut. It’s very pretty paper, and likely very expensive paper, and she doesn’t know why he bothers wasting it on her. After all, she’s not going to read it.
Her fingers play with the wax, picking at its edges so absently that she is honestly surprised when it cracks free from the paper, exposing the writing previously hidden inside. She sticks out her tongue at what she can see of the black, inky calligraphy. Perhaps she’d be more amenable to reading his missives if he wrote in proper words, instead of in the characters she’d spent hours squinting over with her grandfather by her side, tracing childishly the intricate shapes he’d drawn for her. She’d hated that part of their lessons, wishing silently and vocally that she could just go back to hitting things with the practice sword. She could do that much better than she could decipher the tiny, cramped writing her brother and grandfather seemed to delight in.
Honestly, if he could even just write like a normal person, instead of like some stone age nostalgic who’s never even seen a computer. If he could dress like a normal person, instead of wearing that bathrobe that shows way too much thigh (in her opinion). If he could just try to be like everyone else, instead of keeping those creepy stone graves and memorials for their parents, instead of communicating in a language nobody she knows even speaks anymore, instead of getting along better than she does with people who are supposed to be her friends, instead of having all these freaky enemies from the past – maybe then she could relate to him once in a while.
She just doesn’t get him. She doesn’t understand what he’s doing, or who he used to be, or why he writes to her longhand, script like art on the porous paper, causing her to frown so hard she almost gives herself a headache as she strains the edge of her memory to remember how the words sound, what the words mean. Why can’t he be like everyone else? Why does he hold on so hard to what she only wants to let go?
The paper absorbs without comment the tear that lands on its surface, blurring the edge of the character for ‘home.’
"I'll bet the doctor told you to stay off of it," chaos felt compelled to remind him.
"Yes, but the doctor is a professional worrywart." Jin leaned against the counter, chopping vegetables and trying to keep all his weight off his freshly bandaged leg. "Meanwhile, I need to make supper if you're staying, and you're staying."
Smiling, chaos shook his head and took up a perch on one of the kitchen's barstools, resting his fingers over his crossed ankles. "You didn't tell me how it happened."
"I wish it had been something exciting." Jin added a handful of carrot pieces to the saucepan, stirred them around, and frowned a little. "Some of the children from town, rocketboard exhaust, rush hour traffic, a careless landing, I'm sure you can piece the rest of it together."
chaos winced a little as he did just that. "Can I give you a hand with anything?"
"No." Not that chaos had expected any other answer, of course, but it was only polite to ask. Jin circled a measure of spaghetti between his thumb and forefinger, and added it to the water boiling in the larger of the two pots atop the stove. "How long will you be docked?"
"Captain Matthews says it'll take a week to get the compression coils refitted, maybe a little more. The mechanic looked pretty busy." The mechanic had also been none too happy with Captain Matthews' suggestion that she overhaul the entire thing on his credit, and chaos had left before they'd made it an official showdown to see who could swear in the most languages. Those sort of fights always made chaos a bit sad, because he could never participate, yet always knew that he would win if he did.
Jin glanced over his shoulder at his visitor and smiled. "What a coincidence. A week is how long until the micro-stitches come out."
"It's lucky I'm here, then," chaos smiled right back, wiggling in a way that threatened to topple the stool, something both men knew would never actually happen. "I'd be glad to help out until you're back on your feet. Both of them."
Jin tipped the contents of a small metal shaker into the sauce, stirred, frowned some more. "You can help out right now. Come here and tell me if there's enough basil in this sauce."
chaos jumped to his feet and walked over to where Jin stood, placing a hand against the small of Jin's back, feeling the silk of Jin's yukata just above where the apron strings tied and the warmth of his skin beneath the fabric; Jin held up the wooden spoon he'd been using to stir, and chaos nipped at it. "Hmm," he offered thoughtfully, licking the red sauce from his lower lip as he gazed up at Jin with a look of pretty undisguised affection. "Maybe just a little more."
The sudden disappearance of the UMN may have caused widespread panic and confusion in the universe, but one thing most of those with whom the Elsa made contact could agree was that the man with red hair and the crisp garnet-red suit who called himself Gaignun Kukai, Jr. was, indeed, significantly in charge of the Kukai Foundation, and deserved to be respected as such.
Most, however, did not mean all. "I wouldn't know anything about that." A grim, dark-eyed man's grainy visage floated on the viewscreen, and Junior didn't like the way he was smiling. "And even if I did, all our records were lost when the UMN went down."
"If you're trying to tell me you didn't keep backups, then I'm gonna have to believe that my predecessor didn't do business with you at all, on account of you being too stupid to live." Junior rubbed his hair, fingers lingering unconsciously on the little patch of white that sprouted from his left temple and streaked back into his bright crimson hair. "Our accounts -- which are good, and which were updated nanoseconds before the relays were lost -- show that you, Mr. Spait, and your corporation are in major debt to the Kukai Foundation--"
"Then there's a mistake in your bookkeeping!" Spait gestured wildly. "We've had nothing to do with--"
"And," Junior talked right over him, part of a communication skill set he'd had to learn very quickly out of sheer self-defense, "we are willing to forgive that debt if you invest an equivalent amount in Foundation-supported reconstruction efforts in your sector of space." He folded his arms, which only made the suit pull fetchingly around his newly enlarged frame (though certainly the man on the other end knew nothing of this), an effect distracting enough that no one noticed his head pulling to one side, as though he heard a voice no one else could hear.
Spait made some gesture with his mouth, giving Junior the distinct impression that the man had just spat. "Who are you to tell us how to spend our money?"
"The person who helped acquire it for you in the first place," Junior replied, having allowed the distinction between junior and senior blur recently when the situation seemed to call for it. "Our records will show--"
"Your records are bullshit!" Spait yelled back at a volume that made everyone on the Elsa's bridge jump, and caused Junior's hand to fly to his brow again. "You can't prove that we owe you shit, and we're not going to--"
His breath, however, seemed to leave his words, melting away as the colour melted from Gaignun Kukai, Jr.'s hair, the white streak widening until it spread through, like a drop of blood through water, only in reverse. "I beg your pardon," said the voice from Junior's mouth, sounding like him and unlike him all at once, "but while you may believe yourself the high king of the universe at this moment, you are little more than the largest beetle on the dungheap -- an admirable position, to be certain. If you like dungheaps." His eyes shone violet. "And while you cultivate your pathetic kingdom, as greedy as Midas, you will be unprepared for when the rivers come to wash the stables clean, and you find your feast choking you as your food turns to gold in your throat." A small pause, and he shrugged, the stones inlaid in the lapel of his jacket clinking together. "I'm mixing my metaphors, but you get the idea."
Then Junior was shaking his head fiercely, shaking the red back into his hair, until he himself stood there again in the stunned silence from both sides of the comlink. "...Yeah!" he agreed after a moment's reflection. "So ... you'd better do what we say."
Though the tactic was ultimately quite successful, Junior could be heard later muttering to himself, holding up a very animated one-sided conversation about the finer nuances of diplomacy.
"You're getting bigger than me." Rubedo looked down to the end of the bed and wiggled his toes, which were only visible in the vague light from the window. "See?"
"I don't think so," lied Nigredo, who had noticed only a few days ago that his slacks had started ending higher and higher up his ankles. He had tried to let out the hem at the cuffs, to delay the inevitable a little longer, but to no avail -- the fabric had nothing left to give.
"What's it feel like?"
Nigredo considered this a long minute. "...My shins hurt."
"Oh. Sucks." Rubedo rolled on his back, smiling up at the ceiling. Nigredo didn't have to be connected to his brother to know the expression was fake. "Guess I'll never know."
Curling on his side, Nigredo reached a hand and placed it against Rubedo's cheek, feeling there the curves of flesh and bone he knew would remain the same long after his had taken on the lean, angular jawline of their father's face. "Yeah. Lucky you."
Rubedo made a motion as though to bat the hand away, but it was a temporary objection, soon overruled by his placing his own hand over Nigredo's, twining their fingers together. Nigredo could feel where the 666 of his older brother's palm pressed against the back of his own, knew he could have felt the numbers were there anything to feel. He'd read everything he could on everything once, devoured information as the ocean swallows a river, and knew that soon the bones inside his hand would begin to build and elongate: metacarpals, phalanges, sesamoid bones. The hand above them, however, would never budge -- not so long as the fear that held them fast remained.
"I miss you," Nigredo whispered in a moment of unguarded honesty. "I miss having you in here." He tapped one finger against Rubedo's temple.
"Me too," admitted Rubedo, closing his eyes. A look of worry crossed his brow. "...But I can't. Not right now. Maybe in a little bit, but ... not right now."
Nigredo nodded. "I'll be here when you come back."
"Of course you will. You're my brother." That brought a grin to Rubedo's face. "My big little brother."
Rubedo turned so that they faced one another, forehead to forehead, and shut his eyes. This was how they once had slept together -- though back then there had been a third, a pale shadow curled against Rubedo's back. If Nigredo -- no, he corrected himself, he must begin to think of himself as Gaignun now, everything was different now -- squinted against the darkened room, he could almost see that shadow there now, ghostly and silent, always watching. No matter how they tried to move on, he could see that shadow would always be what held them in place.
Albedo's progress through Junior's memories has been a slow, careful process intended not to disturb anything that does not belong to him. Albedo envisions the space inside Junior's mind as a giant warehouse, stacked high with cardboard boxes full of memories, and has started his process going through the ones clearly labeled with the time they shared at the Yuriev Institute.
It is, therefore, something of a shock when Junior settles down into his mind and finds Albedo sitting there with a box open on his lap; the word (br|other) has been written on the side in shimmering black ink. Junior, looking all of nearly twenty now, comes to kneel in front of Albedo, keeping the box between them. "What'cha got there?" he asks, even though he knows full well the answer from the moment he arrives. He should, after all -- the memories are his own.
Instead of answering, Albedo tips the box forward, and in it is (Gaignun|Nigredo|(nigredo all grown up)), the memory of a time when Junior reached out to Gaignun's mind when Gaignun's body had been pressed between Mary's and Shelley's, an inadvertant intrusion, and the feeling of Gaignun's reaching out to him in the midst of it all, bidding him stay. It's the first memory from after the (ri ft) that he's seen Albedo holding, the first after the break that struck them all dumb, before they learned to speak again. "Oh," Junior says, because it's all he can think to say, and the memory's place on the timeline momentarily distracts him from the content -- then his eyes widen, and he flushes a little. "Oh."
Albedo looks as wide-eyed and curious as ever, though his cheeks are pink. "...I just picked this one from the pile over there." He points to a stack of well-maintained, crisp-looking boxes set in a very flattering light. "If you want I can--"
"No," says Junior, reaching for Albedo's wrist to stop him from shutting down the memory. "It's okay. I ... I don't want anything hidden. Not with us. Not anymore."
With a nod, Albedo takes a deep breath and turns back to the box, where the insides thrum with the feeling of being inside Gaignun, the resonance of being unseeing, uncontrolling, yet present just the same. "Did you ... and he ... a lot?"
"No." Junior shakes his head, because Albedo is not asking about all the mental conversations, but the context of this particular one. "He didn't -- we didn't -- it seemed like intruding. On Mary and Shelley, I mean. And ... I don't know." He takes a deep breath, knowing he could just share his thoughts, but wanting to find the words anyway. "It was hard for me, like that. I liked it more when it was just us."
"...Just you?" Albedo asks, and his voice sounds small.
Junior nods and rises, walking over to the shiny stack of well-kept memory boxes and plucking one from near the top. "Here," he smiles, bringing it over to Albedo and setting it down; Albedo curls around Junior, placing his head on his twin's shoulder. And as Junior opens the box, the flood of Gaignun's presence comes forth, the essence of a man with dark hair, shirtless and smoking, silhouetted against the night sky, reaching out through the darkness with his mind to take his little big br|other's hand.
Across the Universe
He wasn't good at this. Even once upon a time, when they'd all shared the same mind as easily as breathing, he'd always been the conduit, the hub -- everyone tuned into him, not the other way around. "I don't know--" he began, but chaos needed no explanations, and Jr. didn't embarrass them both by offering them. Instead, he tucked his ankles beneath his knees, reached for chaos' hands, and shut his eyes.
The first dozen or so unanswered text-only messages hadn't bothered him. They'd been so mundane, after all, so carefully constructed around the words 'dead' and 'brother' that anyone could have been forgiven for missing the urgency between the lines, and Gaignun was busy these days. He didn't even flinch as the first video transmissions, recorded through clenched, smiling teeth -- hi, just want to check in, call me -- earned him only silence.
What had finally set him on edge had been the first live conversation: after two months of nothing, an incoming transmission to the bridge of the Durandal, catching him smack dab in the middle of everyone and everything, unable to let even a crack appear through which he might convey his private grief. Gaignun had made the standard apologies and even joked about how demanding matters on Fifth Jerusalem were, and Jr. had laughed along with him as though everything were right, even when seeing his only remaining brother just turned the clarity of his loneliness to crystal. The conversation had lasted five minutes, contained nothing but business, and ended with a promise to call again that had yet to be delivered.
His fingers clamped tight to chaos' wrists, as though chaos were an anchor, when the real reason he'd asked his friend to join him here was not to hold him back, but to send him forth. There were things in the universe you didn't ask about, and at least twenty of them were chaos, but when Jr. had approached his friend with not even a half-idea of what he was requesting, chaos had nodded through impossibly vague half-requests as though there were nothing in the world strange about sitting in the middle of an space-cold cargo bay, both wearing only light pants, Jr. sporting a heavy hematite amulet, a gift from Shelley that had been the only thing of Gaignun's he'd been able to scrounge up on short notice.
He pictured the transfer columns, the way the light and energy played within them, and tried to imagine him mind as the same -- weightless, infinitely fast, a trillion miles a second. Somewhere out there, a black pinprick in a dark universe, was his (br|other). He imagined himself as reaching out along the UMN's ley lines, his thoughts great arms of electricity, each longer than the last, creepers grabbing for purchase anywhere, spanning the gap of the impossible.
It wasn't like standing on the bridge of the Durandal, seeing the Foundation rise like a brilliant lotus in the distance, knowing by heart the paths to Gaignun's office. This was mad, blind groping, and he shook with the terror of opening himself so wide. Goosebumps broke out along his bare flesh, though he was only dimly aware of his body's condition; his focus had been redirected to the search. He reached out for the most familiar thing in the universe -- himself, only in slight variation, one digit rotated, the other side of a game board, on the other side of the deep night.
He lost track of time, space, everything as he stretched himself across light-years of distance, mental muscles aching, head throbbing -- until suddenly, he felt almost-himself echoed back through the void: the last number, the last variant, the only heart left he ever knew even half as well as his own--
Shields dropped like crashing full-on into an asteroid, as abrupt and catastrophic an impact as anything, and he was literally thrown back with the force, sobbing and screaming, hysterical, full of emptiness. chaos' lips were moving, and Jr. supposed he was trying to say comforting things, but all he could hear was his own terror-pale voice echoed back at himself off the high metal walls, so foreign it could have been anyone's at all.
A Cold Man
His first indication that the end was going to be all his fault should have been when he realised they always met at her place, not at his. She had her own place, like a proper adult, while he still lived with his family, keeping things going in the face of a work-obsessed father, catatonic mother, and little sister with a terrible tendency to destroy nice things and build robots from them -- not a place to take a girlfriend, even a girlfriend about whom one was steadily becoming more and more serious.
As such, he could hardly say he was surprised when she whispered, "We can't see one another any more." Her hand stroked his bare chest, tracing over the heart still thrumming with the exertion of making love to her.
His eyes scanned the ceiling of her dim bedroom. "Oh," was all he said, was all he could think to say. He wished deep in his heart that he could have found a way to conjure some disbelief that she might have said those words, even for a moment. But there was none there, only an aching sort of emptiness he blamed entirely on himself.
"...Is that all?" Her fingers slid into a fist, and he could feel the edges of her short-cut fingernails skim his chest. "After a year, 'Oh'? That's all?"
I'm a cold man, he wanted to tell her, but his single-syllable response had said that more articulately than any words he could conjure. "...Because of him?"
"Not like that." There was a pause, and he believed what she said. "I come from ... I mean, my people -- my ancestors were...." Her words trailed off, and she offered no more explanation -- perhaps, he thought, because fanaticism always sounds nice in the heart, but ridiculous once it reaches the lips. He'd seen the two of them growing close as their own relationship drifted to greater distances. "I have to do this."
"All right." He shut his eyes, then began to untangle himself from her embrace, figuring this was supposed to be his next move.
But her arms held him fast. "Is that all?" she repeated. "You're not going to say anything else, not even try?"
"Why?" He couldn't make himself look at her. "You've made up your mind. You've chosen your course, and there's no room in it for me." Was he angry? Yes, but not at her. There was only so much a woman could be expected to endure from a man whose heart was a locked box even he couldn't reliably open. Even if the warmth the zealots promised was feigned, it still offered more appeal and comfort than anything he had given her. The knowledge stung hard.
She shoved him from the bed, and he went to his knees, picking up his pants while he was down there. "Get out!" Her voice was a shriek; she didn't care who among her neighbours heard at this point. "You bastard!" His decision to get dressed in the small apartment's hallway was aided by the alarm clock that struck him in the back of the head.
As he shut the door behind him, it dawned on him: she'd wanted him to change her mind. But that was a job for a hero, and he'd never been one of those.
We Named the Cat 'Gaignun'
Like his predecessor, Alby had a mind of his own, and Jr. found himself once more stomping down the halls of the Elsa, calling the little dog's name. The only place left on his list was the medical bay, which seemed to Jr. like an unlikely place -- until he rounded the corner and saw a small white dog come crashing out the open doors, nearly slam into the far wall, right himself as quickly as possible, and scramble back into the room, following what looked like a little spot of red light.
Now terribly curious, Jr. poked his head between the doors just in time to see Alby leap from the floor up to a patient bed, chasing that red dot. On the other side of the room sat Jin, tucked up on one of the ship's many metal ledges; in his hand he held a metal instrument about the size and shape of a pen, the source of Alby's new obsession. "Alby!" called Jr., and the dog turned to him for nearly a full second before resuming his pursuit.
Jin laughed, tracing small loops on the walls. "I found your dog."
Jr. scratched the back of his head sheepishly. "Sorry if he's bothering you. He runs away a lot."
"Oh, I've had far more demanding patients in my care, trust me." Jin switched off the light, leaving Alby to stare in great confusion at the wall for several moments. "We've actually been having a lovely time."
Taking advantage of the break, Jr. snapped his fingers, and Alby gave one last baleful glare at the wall, then turned and lept into Jr.'s arms, panting and wagging his little rat-tail. "I mean, it's not like he's got anywhere he can really run to, I guess. I just ... like knowing where he is." Jr. scritched Alby behind the ears, and Alby seemed mollified by this gesture.
"We never had pets growing up." Jin pulled himself to his feet and straightened his new green coat, the one Jr. had seen chaos picking out at their last port of call. "My mother's health was always fragile, and Shion never seemed inclined toward animals."
"I had a cat," said Jr. quietly. "We named him Gaignun."
"...So, did you name the cat after your brother, or your brother after the cat?"
The question surprised Jr. into a laugh. "My brother after the cat. I don't know, it seemed like a good idea. One of us had just finished reading the Song of Roland -- probably him, but back when, one of us doing it was the same as all of us doing it. Anyway, the cat was Gaignun, and I said, well, if I ever get a ship, I'll name it the Durandal! ...And, well, I did."
Jin regarded him with a thoughtful look, holding his hand to his chin. "I've got a copy of La Chanson de Roland back home -- in the original Anglo-Norman French, of course, which admittedly makes it hard to read. But I'd been meaning to gather a new stack of reading material next time we approached Second Miltia; I can put it in with the other books."
In his arms, Alby yipped a little and resettled before closing his eyes and going to sleep. "...I'd like that, yeah." The corners of Jr.'s mouth turned up in a sad smile. "I'd like that a lot, actually."
"We'll consider it payment for the occasional loan of your dog." Jin smiled. "They say that having a pet is good for elderly persons such as myself. It apparently lowers one's blood pressure."
"It's a deal," Jr. grinned, feeling better for the first time in a long time.
It sounded first like someone pounding the walls -- a rhythmic metallic impact that Shion felt even before she heard it. At first she ignored it, figuring it for maintainance of some sort, putting it to the back of her mind as she puzzled over upgrade schematics for KOS-MOS' power source. But it did not go away; quite the contrary, the noise grew in volume and intensity alike. Whatever it was, it was coming straight for her.
The dishes on the bar began to rattle, and the woman at the counter sighed, loading another machine with coffee. "Excuse me," Shion spoke up, "but what's that noise?"
"Epsilon Company," the woman explained, catching a rather precarious tower of dishes before the combined power of the vibration and the ship's artificial gravity sent it tumbling down. "Their shift starts in twenty."
Shion opened her mouth to inquire further, but her question was preempted by the faintly heard rumble of a chorus: "--know but I've been told..." Four more blows resounded through the ship's frame before she heard its rejoinder: "--Ziggy here is pretty old...."
The great doors to the mess hall, not yet propped open at this hour, slid wide, and Shion was greeted by the sight of what she presumed to be Epsilon Company, part of the Durandal's elite security force, out for their morning jog. At the head of the pack ran the primary noisemaker, Ziggy (who, likely to the chagrin of his running companions, hadn't even broken a sweat), and perched on his shoulders was MOMO, wearing a tiny green sweatsuit and grinning like she was having the time of her life. "I don't know but it's been said!" she called, punching her fist forward and leading the charge.
"I don't know but it's been said," echoed the thirty or so soldiers behind her as they tromped through the mess hall, the room still mostly empty at this hour. Every last one of them was grinning wildly, terribly amused by their new (Shion presumed self-appointed) platoon leader.
"Bacon, eggs, and cheese on bread!" MOMO announced, going for the nonsense rhyme without missing a beat.
"Bacon, eggs, and cheese on bread," came the reply. The herd thundered past Shion, who barely managed to rescue her coffe cup before its contents sloshed over the side.
"Sound off!" MOMO waved at Shion as she was bounced along by, then eeped and grabbed for Ziggy's shoulders again before she fell off.
"One! Two!" Epsilon Company willingly obliged.
"Sound off!" MOMO implored, her voice rising triumphantly.
"Three! Four!" The doors on the opposite side of the mess swished open, and Epsilon Company (plus two) thudded off into the distance, the doors hissing shut again just as MOMO began another spur-of-the-moment inspirational rhyme.
For a moment, the mess was quiet. Shion blinked a few times at the woman behind the bar, who shook her head and smiled. "Now if that just don't beat all."
The record would show, he hoped, that he had thus far held up admirably under what might charitably be called adverse conditions. After all, it was bad enough to have to live the most horrifying and frankly humiliating experiences in one's life once. Three times extra would try the patience of a saint.
The worst part was having the rest of them with him. He had gotten sick of the unspoken concern, the lowered gazes, the apologetic little coughs as they tried to blend into the background, tried not to show exactly how bad they felt for him every time his life flashed before their eyes. They were trying not to embarrass him, he knew, and so he ended up trying not to embarrass them by pretending not to notice how they pretended not to notice. By now, they probably felt worse about his past than he did. After all, he'd put fourteen years' worth of distance and nightmares between himself and the events on Milita, and fourteen years was a lot of scar tissue.
He'd ignored the worried glances and halting warnings, stepping forward instead and bravely putting four shots right between the eyes of the maddened, blonde double that lunged at them, assault rifle in hand. #218, he knew, though he didn't precisely know how he could tell anymore, without being able to sing to them and without hearing them sing back. It was, of course, the kindest thing he could have done to the poor URTV -- the kindest thing they could do to any of the others they would encounter. The Song had taken from them what they had been, and would never give it back. The designer child lurched, wearing a somewhat startled expression on his face as he pitched over backwards, dead long before he hit the ground.
He wasn't surprised to feel chaos' arms on his shoulders as he doubled over, vomiting quietly into the neatly landscaped bushes. The rest of the party had gone on ahead, as always, pretending not to notice, calling attention to him by not calling attention to him; he was half-conscious of the sounds of battle, and fought to keep from turning, to keep from seeing which of his brethren now fell at his comerades' hands. The handkerchief that pressed itself to his mouth smelled like chaos, dark and spiced and organic.
"Can't change the past, huh?" he laughed, trying to play it off as some big joke. Always the kidder, perpetually twelve years old. Never take anything seriously or it'll be taken from you.
chaos neither answered nor let go.
His fingers flew across the keys as quickly as his brain could process the information about where to put them, and each keystroke sang the same song: faster faster faster.
But Allen Barnabus Ridgely wore his grandmother's heriloom St. Jude medallion around his neck beneath his uniform, and was a man who knew a lot about lost causes. Still, it was hard not to cringe visibly when Shion dropped her hands and exclaimed with a great sigh of relief, "Finally! I'm done!" She removed her glasses and rubbed the bridge of her nose where they'd been. "And now I've got to get some sleep."
Kevin was at her side almost before her fingers had made the final keystroke. "It looks great," he purred, and Allen kept his eyes fixed on his own screen so he didn't see the way Kevin rubbed her shoulders. "Go on and get some rest. You've earned it. We boys will just have to learn to work faster."
"Just keep thinking: get all the analysis vectors together, and their 28-hour compile time is our 28-hour vacation time!" Shion nodded helpfully in Allen's direction, and he gave her what he knew to be a weak smile. "It was a great motivator for me!"
"You're as busy as a bee," Kevin purred at her, and Allen wondered not for the first (or second, or thirty-seventh) time in his life why she couldn't hear that awful snake's hiss behind his words, the chill sweetness in every compliment. "Go on, then. Go get some rest. We just have to finish up here." His voice dropped a few notches, but definitely not enough to drag his words below Allen's earshot. "Put on the nightgown you know I like, and I'll be in soon."
Shion tittered at this, and her laugh was not coy, but innocent, almost embarrassed. "All right, all right," she said, tossing off a little wave to Allen before gathering her things and exiting the room.
For a moment, except for the mad cacophany of Allen's keystroke input, everything was silent. Allen Barnabus Ridgely knew better than to trust silence, of course, but this one went on for so long -- nearly half an hour -- that as he rounded into the home stretch, inputting the last few columns of numbers into the program, he made the mistake of thinking nothing was going to happen.
He was, of course, barely ten numbers from the end when Kevin's voice barked his name from a terminal on the other side of the room. "Ridgely! Come quick, take a look at this."
Every muscle in Allen's body tensed, but he obediently took his hands from the panel, rose, and crossed to where his supervisor stood, leaning against the back of a chair and looking intently at a display; its lights shone information like a beacon, illuminating them both gold in the otherwise-dark room. "Her encryption module?" Allen said, frowning to pull sense from the sea on numbers before him on the screen. "But those aren't the specifications we--"
"She's adapting to new input independently." In the space of Allen's preoccupation with the numbers, Kevin had leaned in and over him, until he spoke again and his mouth brushed against the back curve of Allen's ear. "Like she had a living heart. It's black, by the way."
Allen somehow sensed Kevin was no longer talking about the prototype. "What do you--"
"And short, and slit along the thigh right up to here," he placed his fingers against Allen's hip, just below the high line of his waist, and let his touch linger. "You'll never get to see her in it, of course -- she's such a good girl, far too modest and demure for that kind of exhibition; after all, she blushes and scoffs when I myself tell her to wear it." His fingers crept around Allen's body, hovering at the same latitude, charting a course to run straight between Allen's navel and cock. "Because she wants me to fuck her. She wants me inside her, moving in her, and she wants me to come in her, to fill her with my seed."
Much to Allen's immesurable dismay, he found himself not disgusted by Kevin's crude, graphic taunts, but turned on to such a degree that he was having trouble standing. "I don't...." He reached forward to brace himself along the hip-high console desk, his hands clutching at the round edge so hard he wasn't sure which would shatter first, the synthetic plastic of the display or the bones in his fingers.
"She won't even let me pull out of her." Kevin's fingers lingered at the hem of Allen's uniform jacket before dipping below and up again, playing with the skin there just above his waistband. "She's a natural mother, you know. The instincts are there, even if she hasn't yet awakened to them. But there are some things you can't deny." His lips hovered above the flat of Allen's face just in front of his ear. "She wants to be such a good girl." On each hard g of the last two words, Allen felt the brush of Kevin's teeth against his skin.
There was no way to tell her, of course -- doing so would turn the whole affair into a complicated game of he said/he said, casting Allen as the jealous admirer and Kevin as the guileless lover, and it wasn't hard for him to see which of them would appear the more credible witness. And even if he did manage to emerge with the victory there, it would break her heart -- and that, at last, stopped him cold and held him in place as Kevin's hands traveled downward.
Quick, cold fingers -- they felt almost artificial, like Allen imagined the hands of the prototype herself would be, sterile and perfunctory -- teased at the button of his pants, slipping them open just above Allen's navel. They pressed there, but stilled. "It's said that if your eye offends you, you should pluck it out, as it is better to go through life half-blinded than to risk the torments of hell." His fingers tapped thoughtfully against Allen's bare skin. "Though there's little prescription about what to do with other offending parts."
And just like that, he let go.
Allen felt like a spacewalker set adrift, with neither gravity nor tether to let him know which way was up, down, forward, or back. His mind spun freely, running through its cycles of shame and guilt and desire, and as he held himself in place, he tried to anchor himself to the rhythm of his own nervous breathing. At one end of his mind floated the image of Shion, her body round beneath her black nightgown, her body spread flat on the bed, her mouth slightly parted, her bright eyes shut; at the other end lingered the feel of breath on his neck, the memory of cold fingers on his stomach.
He reached down into his opened pants and took his own dick into his hand. This kind of thinking always led to the same inevitable conclusion.
He couldn't miss the way the girls had been looking at Gaignun, and they made no attempts at hiding their admiration of his body, lean and pale, as he rose from the surf in only his green swim trunks, his black hair plastered to his head by the (artificial and constantly refiltered) salt water. The laughed and clapped, Mary in her tiny bikini that left none of her recent developments to the imagination, Shelly in a far more modest wrap-around sundress that still cut high up her thigh and low down her chest. "That was great, Master Gaignun!" cheered Mary, appreciating the soggy conclusion of whatever stunt he'd been trying to pull off.
Jr. sat beneath the sun umbrella and sulked at the book on his lap.
The beach was his favourite spot, even better than the captain's perch on the Durandal -- at least, it had been, not so long ago. Then Gaignun had grown up, and worse, Mary and Shelley had grown up, and no matter how much he was their big brother and boss, respectively, this recent vertical explosion of hormones and soft flesh had left him in the dust. He pulled his knobby knees to his chest, pretending to be interested in his thirty-eighth read of Lonesome Dove.
He'd nearly managed to return his concentration to the story in front of him when he felt two cold, gritty hands grab his feet; he started, dropping the book and losing his place, then looked up to see Mary's bright smile peering close to him. "What'cha readin'?" She leaned forward far enough that her breasts brushed his knees.
"It's--" He cleared his throat. "It's a cowboy book. About, you know, cowboys." Jr. wanted to pull his legs even closer to his chest, but Mary held them fast.
"Why'd you bring a real book to the beach?" Mary leaned in again, and Jr. was half-convinced she was doing this on purpose. "It'll get sand in it, won't it?"
Jr. found irritation at war with embarrassment, a terrible combination. "Not if I don't drop it. Or, I don't know, take it swimming with me."
"Then why don't you put it down?" Shelley rolled in like a cloud behind her sister, graceful and silent as always. She'd pulled her long hair into a twist, though a few strands still hung down and clung damply to her pale neck and shoulders. "The water's nice today."
He didn't feel the need to point out that climate-controlled water was nice every day. "Well...."
"Come on!" Mary reached over Jr.'s knees and grabbed -- not the book, Jr. was relieved to see, but the wrist of Jr.'s that held the book. Guiding his arm like a crane, she lifted and swung the book over to the safe territory of the table beneath the umbrella, then shook his wrist until he dropped it. "If you want to read, stay in your room." She pulled, and Jr. was somewhat unsettled to find that her recent increase in size did, in fact, correspond to an increase in leverage.
As soon as he was halfway up from his seat, Shelley grabbed his other wrist, dragging him fully to his feet. "But if you come to the beach," she smiled, "you'd better expect to get wet."
"Gaignun!" Jr.'s feet stumbed as he hit the sand, but the girls kept pulling forward, laughing as they raced toward the surf.
Heeding the call, Gaignun stepped in front of them, halting their progress. "I'm afraid you'll have to let him go, ladies," he chided them, shaking his head. Jr.'s relief at being released, however, soured quickly as a smirk twisted the corners of Gaignun's mouth. "This one ... is mine!"
Any protests Jr. might have made would have been drowned out by the sounds of the girls' delight as Gaignun swept him off his feet and ran full-speed toward the water, and so Jr. said nothing, wrapping himself around his brother's bare upper body and bracing himself for the inevitable with a grin on his face.
A Lot Like Christmas
It was when the requisition for the live donkey came across her desk that Orgulla was reminded of how much she hated Christmas.
"Do they know any other carols?" Pelligri asked the choirmaster with what she hoped was a diplomatic tone of voice. Before joining Ormus, she hadn't even known there were more than thirty-two verses to 'It Came Upon a Midnight Clear'.
Though others in the organisation looked upon the task as a chore, Margulis thought decorating the sanctuary's Christmas tree was one of the highlights of the season. He was particularly fond of how this year's new holographic angel illuminated the board reading INRI so nicely.
"The 26th is my birthday too," said Richard, hoisting the man-sized pinata high above the ground. "My father wasn't part of the Immigrant Fleet, of course, but my mother insisted. That's why my middle name is Stephen."
Hermann contemplated the bucket of rocks in front of him and felt sad that pelting his chatty companion with them would likely not bring forth a shower of traditional foil-wrapped chocolate crosses.
Alone in his quarters on the Woglinde, Cherenkov lit the eighth candle in peaceful solitude, quietly grateful that his isolation from other believers meant he was excused from the other tradtional observations of the Feast of the Naming and Circumcision of Christ.
Kneeling before the artificial fireplace, Pope Serguis set out the traditional milk, cookies, and three dismembered young boys in a barrel of brine. It was going to be the best Christmas ever.
Auld Lang Syne
Anyone else might have come off awkward trying to dance with a woman nearly a foot taller than he was, but Jr. liked to think he made it look good. Besides, Mary's dress for the evening plunged blue satin quite literally down to her navel, and Jr. couldn't see any reason to argue with his perspective on that one. The observation deck on the Durandal was packed with partygoers of all persuasions and combinations, gathered in their finest to ring in the New Year, and all of the dancers parted to let the Little Master and his date spin through.
Helmer waltzed by with Shelley in his arms, and the sisters smiled at one another as they passed. "I can't believe Master Gaignun got Helmer into a tuxedo," Mary said as they twirled away, her voice a musical compliment to the jazz from the band. "He looks so handsome, don't you think?"
"If you say so." Jr. winked as he spun her out, posing as the band ended the song.
Mary laughed and clapped for the musicians. "Speaking of Master Gaignun, where is he? It's just about midnight!"
Midnight in deep space was a relative term at best, to say nothing of the idea of a year with no orbit for reference, but Federation Standard Time kept a steady clock throughout the universe, and nobody on the Durandal would argue with an excuse for a party. "I'm sure he's around," said Jr. "He's probably just--"
"Master Gaignun!" Mary's expression lit up half a second before Gaignun emerged from the sea of people surrounding them, brushing his fingertips across Jr.'s shoulder before offering his arm to Mary. She wrapped her hands around his elbow, beaming, and Jr. found it hard to argue with how easily his brother swept her away -- after all, Gaignun looked amazing, dressed for the occasion in an sharp black suit edged with a thin line of silver at the lapels, the neck of his shirt parted just enough to bare the inner ridges of his collarbone. "They're just about to start the countdown!"
As though from nowhere, Shelley appeared at his other arm, draped in lavender silk so gossamer-fine that when the light hit just right, she might as well have been wearing nothing at all. Truly, it was a fine night to stand 4'10" in fine black leather boots. "Have you all made your resolutions?"
Mary laughed and reached across Gaignun's body, twining her fingers with Shelley's. "Sure have! The best part of making resolutions is breaking 'em!"
From the stage, the band leader started up some pre-midnight patter, and the crowd turned to hear him start counting down the closing of the year. It wasn't his voice Jr. heard, though, but his brother's voice, unseen, whispering against the place just inside his ear. (did you) (resolve anything(?))
(yeah), thought Jr., quirking the side of his mouth into a smirk. (resolved to stop) (letting (you)) (steal my dates)
He heard Gaignun laugh aloud behind him, rich and strong in the moment before the countdown ran to zero and the room exploded in merriment and toasts, and then Mary's hands found him again, tilting his chin upward to give him a New Year's kiss with more warmth than was demanded by tradition alone. Yet down past her lipstick, past the expensive champagne and her bright smile, Jr. could taste his brother's dark richness in her mouth.
A Single Thrust
Jin spread his bare feet in a wide stance, feeling the wax of the practice floor hold the balls of his feet steady. The whole school had stopped in their tracks to watch, including his grandfather, but Jin paid them no mind. He had eyes only for his opponent, who stood facing him, wearing the same black practice garb. Jin grinned, knowing that while arrogance was foolishness, cockiness was sometimes its own weapon. "Very well, Margulis, are you prepared to taste the tip of my blade?"
Margulis smirked in return. Two first-year students standing by attended to his sword, one at each end, and Margulis took it from them, lifting his heavy blade with both hands. "As long as you've readied yourself to taste the full length of mine."
"Its size is impressive," Jin admitted, eyeing the well-wrought weapon with undisguised admiration. His grandfather had often said that one could tell a great deal about one's opponent from his weapon preferences, and this match reflected the truth of the aphorism. Margulis' fondness for the heavier broadswords lent to his already-formidible power a devastating strength, but Jin would accept a reduction in force for the corresponding speed his own lighter katana afforded him. "Start taking your stance now, and you can wake me for breakfast by the time you've managed to get it up."
A flash of pique quirked the corner of Margulis' mouth, and Jin knew he'd won when Margulis lifted his sword prematurely high in a stance that looked impressive, but would tire him quickly. "I could stand limp against your feeble attacks all night and still be hard for combat," taunted Margulis, "while you, I wager, would find yourself on your knees with but one of my strokes."
"I'll hardly be satisfied if this lasts no longer than a single thrust," Jin scoffed, settling his weight on his back foot for only a moment before striking. Two warriors certainly had the right to engage one another about the nature of combat, but sometimes one simply had to make the first move.
Pelligri was quiet as she walked him back to his quarters, and they were nearly to his door before she blurted out, "Do you two do that on purpose?"
"Do what?" He paused in his tracks, halfway through drawing his hair back off his neck.
She looked him up and down very strangely for a long moment, searching him with an expression he could neither identify nor explain, halfway between horror and bemusement. Finally, she shook her head and continued on. "Never mind," she said. "Come on, you need a shower."
And Jin -- who was willing to chalk nearly anything Pelligri did up to the inherent strangeness of women, particularly when it came to matters of combat -- had sweated a great deal earning his victory over Margulis and was inclined to agree.
Citrine was a consolation to him that at least he would have made a lovely woman. It was an option he'd considered on more than one occasion, but one he'd always rejected; call him old-fashioned, but he'd been alive too long to believe that life was in any way improved by having a uterus. "You may get dressed again," said Dmitri, peeling the gloves from his hands and tossing them into the biohazard chute.
She sat up on the examination table and folded her legs beneath her, a charmingly demure pose; he wondered where she'd picked that up. "Is everything in order?"
"Yes, yes, you've taken very good care of yourself over these years." So few of the female URTVs had survived that he'd instructed the center to stop assigning them production numbers until they proved viable beyond at least the fifth year of development, so there would be no significant gaps in the sequence. As a result, while the male URTVs came in ordered batches, the females appeared to have been assigned numbers at random. "Still, consider it a father's prerogative."
"A father's prerogative," she echoed faintly, reaching for her neatly folded undergarments.
He paused, his fingers hovering over the input terminal. "Does it bother you that I'm wearing Nigredo's skin?" He watched her closely for any reaction, but her face did not change as she slipped to the floor, pulling the thin cotton shorts up over her hips. "I know you two were close."
She shook her head, snapping her brassiere shut behind her back. "We shared a similar function," she said, her voice even; she did not look at him as she spoke. "In the end, however, we could not even find common ground over that."
"Really." The terminal display spat utterly unsurprising numbers back at him. Introducing a variant code had certainly strengthened her genetic structure, but there was only so much to be done against the inherent violence involved in altering the Y-chromosome sufficiently to produce a fertile female. The deterioration which had claimed her sisters was clearly manifest in her on the cellular level; from all he could tell, its progression was so gradual and relentless that he doubted she had perceived any loss of function due to its effects. "He seems fond of you."
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her head turn to him, then just as quickly turn back to her task of dressing herself. "Number 669 was possessed of an irrational fondness of all those he perceived as his comerades." She paused long enough to draw her long indigo turtleneck over her top, then pulled her short hair back with a thick headband. "Such sentimentality is not only unnecessary, but detrimental to a soldier."
"How perceptive of you." The extent to which the deterioration had manifested itself remained to be seen, and though the possibility that her ova might become necessary was a remote one, considering the advanced stage of his other work, on many occasions the key to his survival through moments of ostensible certainty had been having a Plan B waiting in the wings. He congratulated himself quietly on having had the foresight to create the final variants; after all, six hundred and sixty-five wasted lives were more than worth the two children who thus far had not disappointed him.
In the Beginning
Later, he wouldn't be able to swear to how, precisely, it had happened.
They had been out on the porch, first, sitting and watching the evening insects dance in the lamplight; and from there, talk of exhaustion and the next day's obligations had drawn them both inside, treading quietly across the wooden floorboards of the darkened hallway, past the screen door that led to Shion's room, toward the room Jin kept for guests; and somehow, along the way, chaos' hands had been slipped inside the folds of Jin's yukata, and they had instead wound up stopped outside the open door to Jin's own bedroom, caught in a deep kiss. It seemed from there only natural for Jin to take the step backward that would draw them both inside, and to slide the bamboo-and-paper screen shut behind them.
chaos' fingers were tiny and quick, and seemed to be everywhere at once, so that by the time Jin began to turn his thoughts to the impossibility of the outift he'd seen chaos wearing earlier, chaos' shoulders were already bare before him, dusky against his pale hair in the faint, filtered light from the hallway lanterns. He was so quiet, his breath barely audible over the rustle of his fabric even as Jin's seemed to fill his own ears. Everything about him was hushed, soft, distorted, as though he had somehow dragged Jin with him beneath the water's surface, just out of reach of the air.
He was the one who took chaos in his arms and lay him on his futon, but Jin had no lingering illusions that he was the one in control of the situation. Still, he allowed himself to stretch chaos' slender, now-bare body down upon his white sheets, and tp lay atop him because this was what he knew to do. His mouth pressed against chaos' long throat, tasting sandalwood in his skin; chaos lifted a hand to tug at the cord that held Jin's hair back, and slipped it free, bringing Jin's heavy, dark hair cascading down around where their faces met one another.
Whereas others reacted to chaos with unquestioning acceptance, allowing any hint of strangeness to roll right off them like rain against a plate glass window, as though everything he did or said was the most perfectly expectable thing in the world, Jin could see clearly every ragged gap where the dimensions of the space chaos was expected to fill and the actual breadth of his presence in the world did not match up. Every contradiction, every strangeness was apparent to him, and from the way chaos kissed him, Jin knew that all he had to do was ask, and chaos would without hesitation teach him every secret. Of course, Jin also knew that he would never ask -- and that that was the reason chaos trusted him enough to tell. The thing that made him worthy of the knowledge was the thing that ensured he would never hear it. Instead, he kissed the secret from chaos' mouth, and chaos smiled back at him, raking his fingers through Jin's hair.
When chaos rolled on to his side, facing the far wall, Jin seemed able simply to melt in behind him, joining their hips together and pressing his lips against the back of chaos' shoulder. chaos parted his silken thighs just enough to allow Jin to slip his cock between them, and then he pressed them closed again, sheathing Jin tight as they began to move together. Jin placed his hand at the soft curve of chaos' hip, settling his fingertips in lightly over bone, and every thrust was measured and slow, nothing so urgent that it could not be savored, everything dreamlike and timeless.
When at last he came between chaos' thighs, the only noise a sharp intake of breath barely louder than the cricketsong outside, chaos turned his head back and kissed him again, warm and deep. He reached his hand around their joined hips to attend to chaos, only to find his young lover already spent and soft. Silently, Jin pillowed chaos' head against his shoulder, drawing the lightest sheet over them before falling into a deep sleep, breathing in the soft, ancient scent of chaos' hair.
He awoke to sunlight, having slept past dawn for the first time in years and through the night for the first time in at least that long. The room was empty and all the shades still drawn, but beside him, the sheets lay crumpled, pressed into the shape of a small and beautiful body.
Her mother had told her once that while she was away at school, Rocky stayed at home and watched his itty-bitty-TV. Her mother had made up this story so she wouldn't feel so bad about leaving her best friend at home. It just happened to be true. He was actually considering getting a TiVo, as she was usually home in the evenings, and all the good stuff came on during prime time.
Sampson looked down from his perch atop the bookshelf. Whatcha doin'?
Watching Jeopardy, Rocky replied. It's a rerun.
How can you tell? asked Sampson.
It's easy, Rocky told him. See? Alex Trebek has a moustache.
Oh, Sampson said, because he couldn't think of anything else. He craned his little koala neck as far as it would go. Could you turn that a little more this way? I can't read the categories.
Rocky complied, neglecting to mention that his eyesight had been going for quite some time now, ever since that incident with the dryer, so he couldn't read the categories anyway. He listened pretty well, though. Alex Trebek cleared his throat as the contestant picked Books of the Bible for $100. "This book, named after its female protagonist, tells the story of Purim."
What is Esther? Rocky answered, beating the contestants to the buzzer. That's an easy one. I hate $100 questions.
I didn't know it, said Sampson softly.
Rocky had the good graces to look at least a little abashed. Well, Old Testament isn't exactly your area of expertise.
True, Sampson acknowledged, but I like feminist theology.
Well, if they ask about Ruth, at least you'll be sure to know that one. Rocky tried to sound encouraging. It wasn't that Sampson was dumb, not at all; it was simply that he was so young. Though he didn't think there was an inherent statutory age problem, Rocky had, on more than one occasion, caught himself thinking of Sampson -- rather affectionately -- as 'jailbait.' Rocky was, after all, old enough to drink in all 50 states, which made him by anyone's reckoning a very old raccoon.
Next up, Books of the Bible for $200. "Written by John of Patmos, this prophetic vision--"
Revelation! Sampson exclaimed happily, not even waiting for the question to end. Er, I mean, what is the Book of the Revelation? See? I knew that one!
That you did, Rocky smiled warmly at the young koala. That you did.
Nun and Crow
She fell back on the bed with a heavy thud, panting heavily; the sweat was already beginning to dry against her skin, cooling her almost to chill. She could still feel her pulse throbbing wet between her legs, and let her knees fall apart. Her nipples stuck out prominently against her skin, and she reached for the blanket to cover her.
A tiny, pale arm stretched itself across her chest, curling fingers into a loose fist beneath her chin, and the muscles in her body tensed again. For a moment, she had quite nearly forgotten she wasn't alone. "You okay?"
"Aye," she breathed, thick Irish accent coming clean through her daze. It felt like waking from a heavy sleep, the same sort of disorientation where she sometimes didn't know where she was, in Belfast or Buenos Aires, called to morning prayer by another car bomb or waking to another day on another North American highway. "Could use a drink, mayhap, but." Alcohol, at least, was a constant in her life.
The slender body next to hers -- not as slender as it had been once, more rounded now, with curves and shape and other things that befitted a woman -- tucked closer, giggling breathlessly. "Water?" The voice was soft and mutable, the same musical tone regardless of the accents the words picked up and discarded by virtue of geography.
"I was thinking whiskey." She tried to swallow, but found her mouth bone-dry. "...But water could do," she reconsidered.
"I'll go get some." Siobhan pulled away, crawing out of bed and disentangling herself from the sheet that had entwined them briefly; she moved liquidly across the floor, ghost-like in the dark room, cast only in the muted city lights that seeped through the cheap motel curtains. Her hair trailed behind her, long and black.
Genevieve raised an eyebrow, sitting up against the headboard. She let the blanket fall away, exposing her bare chest. "You don't have--"
"It's okay." Naked, and displaying her characteristic disregard for all body modesty, Siobhan filled a glass from the room's tiny sink. Clasping it in two delicate hands, she brought it back to the bed and handed to Genevieve. "Here you go."
Genevieve brought the glass to her lips and took a sip, keeping her eyes fixed on Siobhan all the while. "Thank you," she whispered softly, letting the liquid run down her throat. Siobhan had left her scent on Genevieve's fingers, the salty honey smell of her, and Genevieve lifted the same fingers to her mouth, running them across her newly wetted tongue.
Siobhan moved closer, straddling Genevieve's blanket-covered legs and folding her hands in her bare lap. With a small, birdlike gesture, she pecked her head forward and took Genevieve's fingers into her mouth, sucking and biting, tasting herself. Moaning softly, Genevieve closed her eyes and leaned back against the headboard. She had decided earlier that discussion could wait until afterwards; maybe it could wait a little longer.
The Boy Who Hated the Boy Who Lived
Sometimes, when he went into places, tiny flags went up and alarms sounded in the back of Tim's mind that let him know something was amiss about the place, something he probably couldn't quite put his finger on and likely never needed to worry about, but something which he should not let pass entirely from his attention, either. And sometimes those tiny flags and alarms were blaring klaxons and dancers in fanciful dress waving brightly coloured flags emblazoned with the words 'BAD IDEA'. The first time he had entered the little costume shop had presented him with a hardy contribution from the latter warning system.
Of course, he hadn't let that stop him; he was Tim Hunter, the Maerlyn, and above such petty caution. Besides, the girl behind the counter with the enormous breasts looked too busy smacking her gum and reading her fashion rag to be of any danger. No, Tim thought, the only danger in here was the outrageous prices. Thirty-five quid for a badly stitched sparkly sailor fuku? Please.
And then it smashed against his senses, the dancers and klaxons anew, as the curtain to the back room swung abruptly open and the recently uncovered man on the other side stared directly at him. "Mister Hunter," he greeted, with an air of abject humility and condesention at once; Tim wondered how the man did it. "And what brings you to my humble shop?"
"You know of me?" Tim asked, though it was stupid to do so. Of course the man knew him. 'Hunter, Tim' had become a standard entry of late in the wizard's lexicon.
"Indeed I do." It was a verbal bow of sorts, very deferential, and yet Tim got the impression that the man's fingers were crossed behind his back. "How can I be of assistance?"
Tim scratched the back of his head and stepped forward. "Well, see, it's coming up on Halloween--"
"Ah! I have just the thing." The shopkeeper approached, taking a short black robe from a hanger and holding it toward Tim, as though to aid his conception of Tim's actually wearing the garment.
For a moment, Tim blinked; then, when he realised what it was the man had, he stepped away. "No. Anything but that."
The shopkeeper looked appraisingly at the robe, then a Tim. "Are you certain? I must say, you look the part more than most."
Tim frowned. If he had a knut for every time he'd heard that.... "No."
"Oh, come. You've got a natural advantage. Just a little makeup, right there, on your--"
"I said no." Tim crossed his arms, trying to appear firm in his decision. "...Besides, I'm too old."
With a shrug, the shopkeeper re-hung the garment. "Then perhaps you were thinking something a little more unique?"
The alarms were now deafening, but Tim just smirked. To hell with them. "Perhaps I was."
"Then please," two fingers pulled back the backroom curtain, exposing nothing but the sense of a vast room lit only by candlelight, "come in."
A Suspected Eighth-Century Redaction
The record shows that the initial meeting between the exile and his greatest ex post facto critic was, understandably, bitter. Athanasius had to fight his way through several men and women who had once been his brothers and sisters in Christ, but were now anathema. "Nihil curo de ista tua stulta superstitione!" he yelled at them, pushing them aside. "Vacca foeda. Fac ut gaudeam!"
Arius rushed out to confront his challenger. "Cave ne ante ullas catapultas ambules!" he cried, his long, sage-like robes swirling at his feet.
"Te audire no possum," Athanasius mocked. "Musa sapientum fixa est in aure!"
Arius countered, "Estne volumen in toga, an solum tibi libet me videre?"
Athanasius, apparently startled by Arius' insinuations, could only manage, "Vescere bracis meis!"
Arius responded, "Utinam barbari spatium proprium tuum invadant!"
Athanasius hastily remarked, "Utinam coniurati te in foro interficiant!"
Arius raised his arms to the sky and shouted, "Utinam logica falsa tuam philosophiam totam suffodiant!" A loud thunderclap sounded, and the courtyard was hushed in awe.
The record describes this as a turning point in the two men's understanding of one another.
At dinner that evening, the record notes, after much pleasant conversation and many decanters of wine, Athanasius produced from his garment a crumpled scroll and proceded to read aloud from it. Arius reportedly frowned and said, "Nullo metro compositum est." When his dining companion encouraged him to take a more modern approach, he stubbornly replied, "Non curo. Si metrum non habet, non est poema."
Only Arius' remarks survive. The record does not contain the text of the poem, a suspected eighth-century redaction.
The men walked alone, engaged in quiet contemplation of their many differences, and yet of the many similarities that kept them together. Were they not both Christians, devoted followers of the One True Christ? Did they not bow before the same Lord? Did they not eat together at the agape feast? Was there not, in fact, a way to solve this that allowed in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity?
Finally, Athanasius turned to Arius. "Sic faciunt omnes," he noted. Astonished by his companion's wisdom, Arius nodded and the two adjourned without further comment.
That night, from Arius' room, passers-by might have heard cries of "Plus! Perge! Aio! Hui! Hem!", followed by a softer but no less distinct, "Spero nos familiares mansuros," but of this, the record has nothing to say.
The sound of a fist banging on the shutters and the cries from the owner of the aforementioned fist set dogs to barking and horses to whinnying, shattering in one great commotion the stillness of the night and quite effectively awakening everyone in the neighbourhood. "Rosencrantz!" he yelled, sounding very official while rousing man and beast alike. "Guildenstern!"
"Quiet down!" hollered an old woman in a nightcap, leaning out her window. "What the hell do you want?"
The messenger cleared his throat and tried to sound very official. It was his first day on the job and he wanted to do well. "I have a royal summons from the King of Denmark."
"A royal summons?" The old woman seemed unimpressed, and conveyed her displeasure quite adequately despite missing nearly her entire top row of teeth. "For who?"
For Messrs. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern."
The woman frowned. "Who?"
Well, that wasn't very promising, all things considered. The messenger reached into his back and pulled out a lengthy roll of parchment which had once been sealed with a large official blob of wax. "Er ... Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, it says here. No first names."
"You sure you have the right address?"
He frowned at the scroll some more and squinted; it was a little smudged in places. "Is this 1532 ... uh ... West ... Westchester Lane?"
"It's Westminster Lane!" the old woman rather uncharitably informed him. "Now sod off! Or it'll be to the dogs with you!" She slammed the shutters closed, sending a flowerpot that had been balancing precariously on her windowsill to its doom on the pavement below.
"Westminster, huh?" The messenger lifted his head and looked around, then frowned and gently nudged his horse into motion. Perhaps he'd ask for directions at the local pub, where they were sure to know the area better than he. And perhaps he could get a little nip of something while he was there, as shouting at a window in a certain half-awake half-alive dawn was certain to make a man quite thirsty. Yes, he thought, as the horse's hooves sounded on the cobblestone street, that would be a lovely plan.
Inside the now-quiet house, one figure, tucked securely beneath a mountain of blankets, turned drowsily to the other. "Did you hear anything?"
"Y'r dreaming," mumbled the second man. "Go back to sleep."
"Right." And he did just that.
"Are you sure?"
Hisoka squared his shoulders. "Of course I'm sure." No one at EnmaChou would ever make fun of him again once he joined the Gung-Ho Guns. He'd finally be assured of the respect he felt he deserved. "Why, is there a problem?"
Gnawing a little on his cigarette, Wolfwood took a deep breath. "Uh, no. Nope, your credentials look good, your, uh ... well, yeah, your references check out, and your curriculum vitae's spotless. So, yeah. I'm sure you'll, uh, fit right in."
Hisoka had heard that tone of voice before. Repeatedly, in fact, most frequently from people who were overtly patronising him. "What's wrong?" He folded his arms in front of his chest. "Tell me. I'm a man. I can handle it."
"Well," Wolfwood cleared his throat. "It's just ... well, you dress funny."
If Hisoka had been a peacock, his tail would have stood straight up. "I beg your pardon?"
"No, I don't mean-- well, I kinda do--" Wolfwood took a deep breath. "It's just ... if you dress like a fag, nobody's gonna take you seriously when you tell 'em you're fixin' to kill 'em. Okay, Midvalley notwithstanding -- but that saxaphone's pretty butch, you gotta admit."
It took nearly a full minute before Hisoka was calm enough to speak again. "I don't -- I haven't -- I mean -- I never--" He looked down at his whiskey. "Do I?"
"'Fraid so." Wolfwood took the bottle and refilled both of their glasses. "'Course, we're not opposed to faggery, per se. Who you sleep with's your own damn business, company policy, so long as it don't get in the way of work and ain't with the boss' brother. But, yeah, the little girly tops? Gotta go. So drink up and we'll go shopping."
Hisoka eyed his glass warily. "Why do I have to be drunk to go shopping?"
Wolfwood ashed his cigarette onto the ground. "You'll thank me for it later."
Picking up the glass, Hisoka shot Wolfwood a baleful glare. "You're not in league with two women from Hokkaido, are you?"
"Two women from where?" The movement of Wolfwood's eyebrow indicated confusion. "Okay, I think you're a little too drunk already. Next you'll be talking about cacti and cowboy hats, or some such."
"Am not," Hisoka said, and to prove it tossed back the tumbler of whiskey, then promptly fell out of his chair.
Spike sat at the edge of the bed, smoking; his shirt hung open around his slender frame, and in the light from the window, looked in all its well-bleached whiteness nearly the same colour as his skin. "So, I'm glad you're okay with the whole, you know." He made expansive twirling gestures with his hand that didn't actually signify anything.
In the room's only chair, smoking in kind, Sanzo shrugged. "It's all right." A small pause, as twin trails of smoke curled lazily into the air. "I mean, once my aunt did something like that. It was to save my life, though."
Spike's eyebrow arched. "Your aunt, you say?"
"Sort of." Taking another drag off his cigarette, Sanzo nodded. "Look, I don't like to talk about it."
So they didn't.
The mid-day sun shone brilliantly on the monastary's garden, filtering down through the shade trees into mottled patterns further disrupted by the stone path, gleaming sharply across the surface of the lake. A single fish jumped, scattering for a moment the water into ripples, but they faded away, and the edge of the pond was still. Cool breezes rustled the leaves, sending petals fluttering down to cover the ground in a pale pink carpet.
Along the edge of the porch sat two men, about twenty feet from one another, leaning against twin wooden posts that held up the roof. The wind rustled their hair, carrying the smoke from one man's cigarette away from the both of them, up to disappear into the cloudless sky.
They both wore light yukata, and their bare feet rested on the stone steps that led from the porch to the garden only a few feet away. The one with the cigarette would smoke each one down, then wait a short time, then light another, the entire ritual performed in silence. In fact, silence was largely the order of the day; the only sounds in the entire scene came from the picturesque natural vista before them. Neither had heard a human voice since they first took their places on the polished-wood porch. Neither seemed particularly troubled by the absence.
After perhaps hours, Sanzo lit yet another cigarette. "Where do you suppose they think we are?"
Hisoka shrugged, never taking his gaze from the surface of the water. "I have no idea."
They stayed there until night came, bringing with it choruses of tiny fireflies.
The little bell tinkled against the glass door to the gunsmith's as Seifer walked through the door, gunblade tucked over one shoulder. There was no one behind the counter, however, and only one customer, a tall man in a black suit. Seifer looked around. "Where's Mr. Maltin?"
"Stepped out for a minute; said to tell anyone who stopped by he'd be back in five." The man nodded appraisingly in the direction of the gunblade. "That's a nice piece you've got there."
"Thanks," Seifer replied tersely. He ordinarily didn't like talking to strangers, particularly not strangers who gave him information that made his errands longer. But he had always been proud of his gunblade, and of his skill with it, so such an invitation to conversation was hard to pass up. "I have to get it re-balanced. It's been a little off since the last fight." He ran his fingers absently along the hilt and tried not to think about his fresh scar.
The man nodded, appearing interested. "I can see why that'd be important. I mean, it's a mighty big weapon. Balance matters when you're hefting around something heavy as that."
"Well, gunblades are weighted differently than other weapons just by design," Seifer explained to the man, offering the weapon. "See? The blade's heavier than you might think."
Holding out his hand, the man reached for the handle; predictably, the blade dipped perilously close to the ground before the man realised what was going on and corrected his grip to compensate. "Well! You're right. That's one damn heavy blade." He lifted it again until blade and handle were level, turning it one side to another, then placed it back in Seifer's hands. "Takes a lot of muscle to heft one of those."
Trying not to look pleased by the compliment, Seifer shrugged in a manner that could not even vaguely be described as 'nonchalant' and reclaimed the weapon as his own, trying to look natural. "Not a lot. Some. Well, yeah. It takes a lot of practice and training. That's why most people choose easier weapons."
"But not you," smiled the man.
"Not me." Seifer squared his shoulders, and was about to say something else when the gunsmith entered from behind the curtain that separated the workshop from the rest of the store. "Mr. Maltin, I need you to--"
"Be with you in half a jiff, Almasy," nodded the old man, reaching behind the curtain to tug labourously at the handle of a dolley, on which was perched an enormous metal cross. "Here you are, Mr. Wolfwood. I trust you'll find everything's in much better shape now. Try not to fall out of any more airships, will you?"
Wolfwood grinned and hoisted the cross onto his shoulder as though it weighed nothing at all. "I'm sure it's good as new, as always. See you next time." And with a grin in Seifer's direction, he sauntered out of the store.
Seifer watched him go, suddenly feeling very small.
World's Best Secretary
"Now," Angel cleared his throat, "it says here you spent ten years serving as a secretary for higher-ups in the Japanese government."
Kanoe nodded, crossing her rather impressive legs, leaning back enjoy to show off her rather impressive breasts; she felt he wasn't thoroughly impressed, and wondered if she was losing her touch. "I did. The decision to leave was mine. It was time for a change."
"And you ended up here in Los Angeles." He shuffled the papers in her folder. It gave him an authoritative look, he thought. "LA's a long way from Tokyo."
She waved her long nails dismissively. "I like it. City that never sleeps, right?"
"Uh, no. That's New York."
"Oh." She shrugged. "Well, it doesn't appear to sleep much, which is nice. I'm a bit nocturnal by nature."
Sighing, Angel folded her file and placed it on the desk. "All right, so what are you?"
Kanoe had the good sense to look slightly offended. "I beg your pardon?"
"What are you? Vampire, demon, silkie, ghost," he stopped before he could list 'succubus,' because that was an unkind accusation even when it was true, "what? Wolfram & Hart doesn't exactly have a reputation for attracting 'just folks,' as you may have noticed." He gestured to a large purple shoggoth who chose that very moment to shamble by the internal windows of his office.
She remained unfazed. "None of those, no. I'm just involved in some ... dealings that, for reasons I'm not entirely clear on, have decided suddenly to center themselves in Los Angeles. And your firm has a reputation for hiring persons that, shall we say, have odd schedules."
He leveled his gaze at her. "Don't tell me you're involved with those kids and swords and things we've been seeing lately. One of their little spats nearly blew out all our windows."
"Oh, please." She pooh-poohed him with a flip of her wrist. "I'm yumemi by trade. The apocalypse thing is just a hobby." She paused. "And don't you mean an earthquake?"
"No." Angel gestured to the sunlight streaming through the glass, across his hand, and walked over to tap at the windows. "This building is covered with so many wards and counter-wards that whatever they're putting up doesn't really effect us. In fact, the only thing that saved thousands of dollars in plate-glass reconstruction was that Spike winged the smaller one of them with a shotgun."
"I see," nodded Kanoe, making a mental note to tell everyone to engage the Seals in places that weren't near the Wolfram & Hart building, and to mock Fuuma for his latest 'victory.'
The first thing Spike noticed when he opened his eyes was the bright operating room light shining in his face. The second thing he noticed was the short-haired man with surgical gloves who appeared to be testing the weight and balance of a scalpel. That was when he started planning his escape.
“Arise, arise from death, you numberless infinities of souls,” said the man who was dressed like a doctor but didn’t look like a doctor at all. He actually looked – and sounded – like a politician. “And how are you feeling?” Spike remembered why he hated politicians.
“Like I got hit by a bloody truck,” he spat, feeling blood inside his mouth. He tried to move, but realised he was tied to the table. “…I didn’t, did I?”
The man smirked. “Goodness, no. Nothing more exciting than a simple terrorist blast. One which, I may note, had the singular distinction of killing everyone in the vicinity save you.” He shifted the scalpel to the other hand, eyeing Spike thoughtfully. “Which, one supposes, may lend you the singular distinction in this case.”
“Don’t I feel special.” Spike strained against the restraints, which felt like metal and held fast. “So, what, is it let’s-experiment-on-old-Spike’s-noggin time again? Because if it is, mate, you can show me to the door right now. I’m up to date on my brain surgery records, me last doctor told me I won’t need one for another few years, at least. I’m spot-fresh. A-OK. All caught up. C’n I go now?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” The man stripped off his rubber gloves with a pair of loud snaps, tossing them into a trashcan. “We’re all civilised people here. Unnecessary brain surgery would be … well, in a word, unnecessary.”
Spike managed a nervous grin. Maybe he could to talk his way out of this one; the guy looked human, politican or no, and Spike wasn’t looking forward to the headache that getting out of her would likely cause. “Glad to know we see eye-to-eye, then. Good to know we’re on the same page.” He tugged at his wrists again. “So why don’t you get your kinky jolllies with someone else and let me go?”
“What’s the matter?” A new voice, a woman’s, floated from out of the ether, beyond where he could turn his head to see. “Forgot your safe word?”
“As a matter of fact–”
“You’re perfectly free to go.” The man again, standing above him, aimed what looked for all the world like a Star Trek raygun. “After we kill you a few more times.”
Panicked, Spike raged against the bonds, but to no avail. “Oh, no. No no no no no!”
“Don’t worry,” said the woman, brushing Spike’s forehead with her hand as she came into view. And people called his hair strange. “You get used to it after a while.” Further discussion was put on a temporary hold as the pain from the bullets newly introduced to his chest caused him to black out.
“Now, the object of going clubbing is looking like the trashiest slut possible and spending the entire time rubbing against whoever you’re with.” Gojyo dabbed one more smear of glitter to Hisoka’s eyelids and moved away from the mirror. “See? You’re great.”
Hisoka’s eyes grew to the size of dinner plates. “I look….”
“Pretty hot, actually.” Gojyo sat down on the bed and crossed his legs, wincing as the ultra-tight PVC pinched in a couple unpleasant places. “I think it’s the shirt.”
Still looking somewhat horrified, Hisoka ran his hands over the black mesh top. “Not much of a shirt,” he muttered. “Why do I have to wear makeup again? I missed that part.”
“It’s all the rage,” Gojyo assured him, reaching down to fasten his favourite fuck-me boots. They had buckles all the way to his knees, and they matched his hair.
Hisoka poked at his face, distressed when his fingertips came away blue. “For girls.”
“Your gender dichotomies are so passé. Lighten up! Embrace your inner woman.” Gojyo hooked yet another hoop through his left ear. “I learned that from Betty Freidan. And RuPaul. Though not at once.”
As he did so often when Gojyo started making ridiculous pop culture references, Hisoka tuned him out and went back to being distressed over whatever he was distressed about before – which was, in this case, his appearance. “I look like a woman.”
Gojyo snorted. “Not in those pants you don’t.” Hisoka blanched and tried to tug his shirt down over his crotch, before realising that his shirt was just as see-through at the bottom as it was on top. “Look, if you play it right, androgyny is hot. Besides, if we’re going somewhere nobody knows you, what does it matter if someone can’t tell what gender you are? What’s the worst thing that happens if someone thinks you’re a woman.”
Hisoka turned a slightly panicked glare on Gojyo. “Lesbians.”
The kid had a point. “Okay, you got me there.” Gojyo shrugged, reaching for his lipstick. “So send ‘em to me. I kinda have that Pat Benetar thing going on.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, and I don’t want to know.” Having nearly run out of protestations, Hisoka deflated a little. “Are you sure I can’t get out of this?”
“Sure you can.” Gojyo stood, towering over Hisoka and somehow managing to look amazingly attractive despite his sudden metamorphosis into a glam rocker. “You can say, ‘Gojyo, I really don’t want to go.’”
Hisoka sighed pathetically. “Gojyo, I really don’t want to go.”
“And mean it.”
A small pause, as Hisoka opened his mouth and shut it again.
“It’ll be great. I promise. Just stick close to me and try not to empath off anybody on E.” Gojyo ran his hand over the flat of Hisoka’s chest. “And maybe we’ll come home early….” The corresponding image that ran through Gojyo’s mind made Hisoka turn the colour of Gojyo’s boots, and he let himself be dragged out the door.
The weight of a hand on his shoulder startled Sanzo so badly that he nearly dropped his cigarette; he whirled around, drawing his gun, but saw only a young man in dark glasses who looked about as alarmed by the contact as he. “I’m so sorry!” the man exclaimed, backing away a few steps before bumping into a table. “I thought you were someone else. I’m really so sorry.”
Sanzo sighed and put the gun away. “It’s all right.” He pulled out his chair and sat back down, prepared to forget the entire incident. Being high-strung was a lifestyle choice, but not always the most accomodating one.
“It’s just…” The man took a few steps closer to him, hovering at an uncertain distance. “I’m sorry, but have you seen a tall man with glasses and dark hair come through here? We were supposed to meet here, but I had errands, and … well, you probably don’t care, but have you seen him?”
“No.” Sanzo shook his head and gestured to his newspaper. “I’ve been reading.”
“Oh, I’m terribly sorry.” He smiled apologetically. “You see, you both … well, you smoke the same cigarettes, and you both carry guns, and it’s so noisy in here that I can’t hear much so I just assumed … I’m really very sorry.”
Sanzo raised an eyebrow at the mention of weapons; his own was perpetually well-hidden inside the sleeve of his robe. “How did you know I had a gun?”
Tit’s smile lingered as he took away his sunglasses to reveal blank pupils. “You smell like gunpowder. And a little like whiskey.” He laughed a little, gesturing to the surrounding bar. “Well, everything in here smells like whiskey.”
“I suppose it does.” Sanzo folded his paper and stood, and Tit took a step backward. “Will you find him?”
Nodding, Tit placed his dark glasses on his face and picked up a thin white cane Sanzo hadn’t seen earlier. “Oh, eventually. He’s probably just as late too. I’ve found that sometimes, if I stay in one place long enough, he’ll come and get me. You know how that works?”
Sanzo couldn't help smiling a little. “Somewhat, yes.” He heard, above the din, the door to the bar swing open, and hummed thoughtfully at the man who entered. “Does this person you’re looking for wear gloves?”
“He just walked in the door, didn’t he?” Tit smiled in Sanzo’s general direction, shaking his head a little. “Well, I’m sorry again to have disturbed you. Have a nice day!” He set off for the door, and was met halfway by the tall man, who put his arm around Tit and led him to a side table. Sanzo watched them go, and found himself wondering just what Goku was spending their free day in the town doing, and whether he was having any fun doing it.
Lucifer sips at his beer, one of those microbrewery specials with a funny name and a weird label that nonetheless manages to taste quite good. "...So, reincarnation, huh?"
"Yeah." Sanzo takes the last puff from his cigarette, then snuffs it out in the ashtray. He's long since abandoned the microbrewery route, sipping fingers of whiskey on the rocks, and Lucifer wonders if the man's constitution is up to violating the universal law of beer-before-liquor and its consequences. "For people who believe in second chances."
"But not in grace?" Lucifer shrugs. "Seems to me most people I've met would be better off getting it over and done with the first time. I mean, if you ask one hundred people if they'd like to repeat middle school, and ninety-nine are going to tell you no. And that's not even counting the diapers and drooling and helplessness all the way there."
"Well, the idea is that it won't be so bad the second time around. Learn from your mistakes, and all." Sanzo takes another drink, then taps out a cigarette from his pack. "Though you think I'd have learned to quit by now."
Lucifer reaches over as Sanzo puts the cigarette into his mouth, brushing fingertips across the edge and setting it alight, one of his flashier party tricks, but one he's performed enough times over the course of this evening that it's become nearly old hat; still, Sanzo gives a nod of thanks, and Lucifer smiles. "In my experience, the thing most people learn from their mistakes is how to repeat them precisely the next time the opportunity arises."
"So maybe it's just practicing until we make all the right mistakes." Sanzo's long, lithe fingers trace the rim of his glass, the cigarette caught between them trailing its smoke up to the rafters of the bar. He looks a little angelic himself, that awkward perfection that makes even the flaws graceful and gorgeous. Maybe that took as long to get right as anything else.
Lucifer taps his empty beer bottle against the bar, casually, hoping the bartender will notice he needs a refill and oblige him without his having to ask. Psychic bartenders were in short supply on all planes of existence. "Do you miss Heaven?"
Sanzo shakes his head. "It's better left to other people -- especially the kind who take pride in never learning from their mistakes. You?"
"No," answers Lucifer, and it's the truth. "The things in it, yes. But Heaven? I don't miss that at all."
Men of the Cloth
The worst thing about it was the collar, Dean decided. The cassock was all right, less like a dress and more like a stupidly long shirt that he could at least wear over slacks, and he didn't even mind spending the extra twenty minutes in front of the mirror making it look like he'd shaved more recently than last month. But the collar itched, and was tight, and would be the first thing to go as soon as this whole charade was over.
Which sadly didn't look to be anytime soon, not since Sam had left Dean, telling him to keep an eye on the front of the sanctuary. That had been two hours ago, and Dean was beginning to suspect that Sam had fucked off to the bar down the road. He sat quietly in the shadows, hand resting on the silver knife in his lap, ready to cut the first thing that walked through the church doors, even if it was Sam. Hell, by now, especially if it was Sam.
It wasn't, though -- instead, the door swung wide, and a man in a black suit stalked down the center of the darkened church, lit only by the late-evening glow filtered through stained glass windows. With one hand, he hefted what appeared to be a large cross over his shoulder; with the other, he pointed a handgun straight forward, levelling it at Dean. "Where's the fucking Crimsonnail?" he drawled, his voice low and dangerous, his words punctuated by the lit cigarette that dangled from the corner of his mouth.
Dean blinked. "...The what?" That definitely hadn't been in Sam's briefing.
The man scowled, stalking forward. The end of the cross-shaped object knocked the side of the pew, leaving a large gash in the wood; whatever the thing was, it looked like it weighed a thousand pounds, which was approximately 925 more than Dean could sling around like that. "Tranny. 'Bout yea high. Big fucking briefcase. Haven't seen her, have you?"
"I think I'd've noticed." The guy was probably some sort of hunter, Dean figured, though it was odd to find multiple hunters gathering in the same place on non-matching information. "Is he -- uh, she -- with the red-eyed demon?" Dean stood, walking to the front of the chancel, glad for the cassock's long sleeves in that it let him keep his knife concealed with minimal trouble.
"Demon?" That made the man pause, then lower his gun. He squinted at Dean hard, settling his cigarette tight between his lips. "...You're not a priest."
Dean cleared his throat, tugging at the goddamn collar. It wouldn't have been the first time someone had seen through a disguise of his, but he'd always thought this was a particularly cunning get-up. "What makes you say that?"
Letting the cross fall to the ground with a great thud, the man pushed aside his jacket to reveal a shoulder holster, then stuck his handgun in it, thus freeing his right hand enough to take the cigarette from his mouth and ash it on the church's carpeted floor."Because I am."
"Oh," said Dean. Well, this was awkward.
The entire office burst into snickers when Bradley walked in, with a few even going so far as outright laughter, but Kyle Hyde had a poker face like a marble statue. Which was good, because Bradley was coming right for him.
"You like it?" Bradley sat down on the corner of Kyle's desk that wasn't covered with papers and garbage, patting his leather-clad thighs. Everything in the ensemble, Kyle figured, had once been part of a cow. Fortunately, the poor beast was probably dead, because there'd be no way to tell it that it looked better on Bradley. "You should see what they tried to get me in first, but I told them I wasn't looking to make the front page of the Post: Undercover Cop Displays Gun And Firearm, or something like that."
Kyle rolled his eyes. "That's why you're a cop and not a headline writer. Or a fashion model." The girls in the barber shop had apparently seen fit to slick back every inch of Bradley's hair into an almost helmet-like sheen. That was about the extent of his close examination of Bradley's new outfit, because Kyle was keeping his eyes fixed firmly above Bradley's neck
"Tonight, I'm none of those." Bradley tugged at the open leather vest that was the only covering spared for his top half, if you didn't count the leather choker around his throat. It had a big ring shaped like a D in front, and Kyle didn't want to know if Bradley knew what you'd use one of those for. "Tonight I'm Buck Stallion," he snapped his fingers like twin guns, "just flown in from Miami, looking to have a good time with some handsome boys and a little bit of blow." As he spoke, the New York slipped out of his accent -- which was part of the reason why Bradley was the one wearing the leather chaps and Kyle was the one getting ready to sit in a stakeout car for six hours. (The other part, Kyle figured, was how all his hairy ass in chaps would do was get him thrown out of the bar.)
"Well, while you're out there living your dream, just keep in mind I'm going to be the one listening to radio station W-K-R-Bradley." Kyle tapped the radio on his desk, a clunky black box that weighed about as much as a city bus. "So for the sake of your broadcast audience, try to keep your conversations to an informational minimum?"
"Oh, right, the wire." Bradley reached for the back of the box and unhooked the relevant bits, a box the size of two decks of playing cards leading up a long wire with a microphone at the end. He frowned at the box for a moment, then showed it to Kyle for consideration. "I'm thinking this little piece should go down the front of my pants. Hiding in plain sight, and all. What about you?"
Even a statue would've had a hard time negotiating that one. "I'm thinking you should be federally barred from having contact with minors, or with any other member of society with taste and morals."
Bradley grinned and laid a hand on Kyle's shoulder. "Well, at least that means I can still talk to you." With a wink, he wandered off toward the direction of the washrooms, microphone still in hand. Kyle turned his attention as forcefully as he could back to his half of the recording equipment, trying not to think about where Bradley's half was headed. It was going to be a long night.
Dialogue on the Incorruptible
"How do you feel?" he asked the women, who had curled up into one another, their arms and legs intwined as they lay against the ground. The sun had since dipped beyond the horizon, and a chill wind had blown in off the river in the distance, robbing the air of the day's heat. He stirred at the glowing coals in the fire pit, inciting them to a blaze and sending sparks scattering like stars across the dry plain.
Prisca turned to him first, her eyes still far off, her dark hair spilling across her face. She reached a hand into the air, catching a spark in a tight fist; when she opened it again, it was a dead, grey thing that the wind stole quickly after. "Who is not like unto the Holy Spirit?" she asked, her voice hoarse in testament to the day's ecstacies. "Is there a man who does not have in his flesh the capacity to contain the Paracletos?"
"There is not," answered pale Maximilla, pressing her hand to the ground by her side. "Man is of the earth and of dust, of the basest elements to be found, and yet the Spirit of God makes a home among the corruptible and renders it incorruptible." Though she and her spiritual sister differed greatly in appearance, often times, those to whom they spoke did not distinguish between the two of them when they were together, and when they were alone could not recall later whether they had spoke to one or the other, so easily did one flow into the other, and back again.
Montanus sat facing the fire, away from the women, and opened a bag, retrieving and unfolding a wrapped loaf of bread. "And yet none can be said to be truly incorruptible." He raised it high and broke it in his hands into three equal pieces. "That which has been eaten cannot be uneaten. That which has been burnt cannot be unburnt. That which has fallen cannot be raised again."
Maximilla returned her head to her sister's shoulder, clinging to her against the coming night. "It is not My place to fall, or char, or be consumed," she lay her palm across Prisca's sun-dark thigh, "that none may doubt that I am."
"Then what is sin?" asked Prisca, whose delight was in asking questions, even those to which she already knew the answers.
"Sin is that which interferes with the ecstacy of the spirit." Maximilla drew her sister's hair from her face, speaking close to her lips. "Sin is that which stands between the freedom in the Spirit and the prison of the flesh. To the man fully awake in the Spirit, there is no sin."
"To the man fully awake in the Spirit, there is no sin," echoed Montanus, regarding the bread in his hands. He then turned to look not at his sisters, but at their shadows beyond them, how they danced and moved in the firelight, intangible and free.
"One." Tetsu unfastened the cloak from his shoulder, giving it a polite fold before dumping it on the ground. "Two." Next, he undid the strap across Raidou's chest that held the kuda to his chest, and at least had the good courtesy to place those gently atop the discarded cloak.
"You know," said Raidou thoughtfully, "I don't think that should technically count--"
"Did I tell you you could talk?" Tetsu made a grumpy expression, then went to work unfastening Raidou's belt. "Three, four, five," he counted, placing belt, sword, and gun (assuming his counting matched Tetsu's) on top of the small but growing pile of discarded munitions.
Raidou held his arms at his side obediently as Tetsu started at his throat and went onward, slipping free the jacket buttons on his way down. "Should count off for each of the buttons too." The jacket slipped off Raidou's shoulders and was tossed on the heap. "Six." He repeated the same motion for the white dress shirt beneath, this time flicking every button through its hole with no small show of pique. "Seven," he said, extra irritation slipping in when he had to go back and unfasten the buttons that held the shirt to Raidou's wrists. When he was finished, Raidou was left bare from the waist up and six feet from his weapons, both of which might have made him more than a bit uneasy had Tetsu not been there with him.
Eight and nine were both of Raidou's house slippers, which Raidou didn't even bother to protest adding to the count, since even though they weren't technically worn every day, he supposed they stood in for actual shoes, which he did. Ten and eleven were his socks, black and thin; he held the back of a chair for balance as Tetsu peeled each of them from his feet before adding to the growing height of the clothing mound.
"Twelve," Tetsu counted, undoing Raidou's slacks and pushing them off his hips. He brushed his cheek against Raidou's hip on the way down, and Raidou found himself again grabbing the chair for support even before the disrobing process strictly required him to stand first on one foot, then the other, to get his pants off. Not that there had been any doubt from the start where this exercise would lead them, of course, but giving in before the last possible point seemed an unacceptable show of weakness, to say the least.
Tetsu knelt again and slipped his fingers beneath the waistband of Raidou's grey boxer-briefs, tugging them off his hips with a sudden seductiveness. "Thirteen," he said, this time with his mouth pressed against the rise in the fabric, before sliding them all the way down Raidou's long legs and tossing them atop his black pants on the pile. With a smirk that could only be described as victorious, Tetsu stood again, his hands triumphantly fisted on his hips. "Thirt-- Fourteen." He plucked the hat from Raidou's head and set it as the peak of the mountain. "I win. That is too many. That is way more than normal people wear."
Raidou, trying to look suave and completely naked at the same time (and feeling, he felt, moderately successful), folded his arms in response. "Right now, you're the one wearing too much clothing."
Tetsu looked down at his own school uniform, then back to Raidou, then back at himself. "...I think I see your point."
Raidou smiled. "I'm glad you do."
"...Is there something wrong with your bed?" asked Guy, unseen in the inn's dark room.
"Huh?" Luke lifted his head, then frowned and began extricating himself from the tangled mass of blankets. He'd been concentrating on thinking, not squirming, but sometimes one followed the other. "...Oh. Um. It's lumpy, a little."
That won him a soft laugh from Guy. "We'll complain tomorrow. Leave a note in the little box."
Luke punched his pillow fluffy again, sighing as it didn't do much good. "I mean, is your bed lumpy?"
"Sort of? I don't know, do you want to switch?"
"No, it's okay. I just didn't want to write a note about two lumpy beds when there's only one." Luke elbowed the mattress a few times for good measure, then flopped on his back, resting his hands behind his head, staring at the ceiling. "I just ... miss my bed. And home. And the palace. I miss having people pick up after me, and not having to carry everything on my back, and getting to stay in one place for more than a day...." His voice trailed off, and he draped his forearm across his eyes. "...I'm sorry, I'll stop whining."
"Heh. That? That was hardly whining." Guy chuckled, and Luke could hear him shake his head. "Now, I've heard you whine."
Mere months ago, such teasing -- even gentle, even from Guy -- would have sent Luke into a deep sulk; now, though, he found laughing at himself something of a relief. It was a relief, in fact, to know that even for every time he wasn't perfect, he was still okay. "I kinda miss having long hair, too. Is that stupid?"
"Want to know something really stupid?" There was the sound of Guy's sitting up in bed. "I miss brushing your hair."
That brought to Luke's cheeks a blush he thought better left unexamined for the time being. "I miss having you brush my hair. It's all short now, so I guess it doesn't need it so much." Luke sat up a little and ran his fingers through his hair, frowning as his hands hit tangles on both sides. "...I only really grew it out in the first place because I wanted to look like Master Van, you know. That's why I cut it, too. I spent so long wanting to be just like him, and then ... I couldn't stand having how much I wanted to be like him looking back at me in the mirror anymore. Does that make sense?"
In the silence that followed, Luke was afraid he'd said something wrong, given Guy some further cause for offense, and the idea turned his stomach. He'd already been the cause of so much pain for Guy, and even though most of it was unintentional on Luke's part, there was still no laughing at that particular tendency of his. He'd begun constructing in his mind yet another apology -- he'd gotten pretty good at them lately -- when he heard Guy clear his throat. "Hey, Luke?"
Luke let out a breath he hadn't known he'd been holding. "Yeah?"
"This sounds stupid, I know," said Guy, his voice bemused and kind as ever, "but this bed really isn't that lumpy, so ... if you wanted to come over here, it'd be okay with me."
Luke was out of his bed and over into Guy's in approximately two seconds, pushing Guy to the side in an attempt to get himself fully under the covers. "Hey, easy," laughed Guy, scooting out of the way. "I'm moving, I'm moving." He gently nudged Luke on his side, facing away from him, leaving Luke unsure about the situation for the moments before Guy slipped up behind him, fitting his arm around Luke's waist, tucking Luke's head under his chin. "Honestly, you're such a pain."
"Your pain," smiled Luke, shutting his eyes.
"Yeah." Guy's fingers combed their way through Luke's thick hair, working out the snarls there with utmost tenderness and patience. "You sure are."
As a Fox
When the fox woke, he was not so surprised to find himself alone as he was surprised to find himself surprised; a thousand thousand years of waking had made doing so alone habit, and the sensation of wondering where his bed companion might be was a new one. He lifted his human face from where he'd pillowed his robe beneath his head, and saw the figure of the soldier standing bare by the center of the shrine, running his fingers along the heavy cord that rang the temple bell. There you are, he said, his voice soft with sleep.
The soldier turned and smiled, his face softened by the expression. Which do you prefer: being a fox or being a man?
The fox shrugged, drawing himself to his feet, leaving the white robe spread over the wood of the shrine floor; his red scarf still draped over his shoulder, however, and he let it stay there as it wished, moving gently in the night breeze. I am not a man, he answered; I am a fox.
The soldier's fingers worked the heavy rope, tracing its fibers as they bent and braided around one another. But you appear to me now as a man, and when you first appeared to me, you did as a fox. Why make the change?
There is no change of substance; there is only a change of appearance. The fox stepped closer, and the floorboards whispered their age with every fall of his bare feet. I could appear as a fox, he offered, but you seem to prefer me to look this way.
It would be very difficult to kiss you if you looked like a fox, the solider admitted, taking his hand from the great rope and drawing it instead down the curve of the fox's human face. His fingers were warm, and the blue lines that framed his tattoos iridesced in the moonlight. Though I would surely try.
The fox turned his head to place his cheek in the palm of the soldier's hand, closing his eyes. Surely a fox as I would not wish to cause you any difficulty.
That brought from the soldier a laugh, and he embraced the fox with both arms, drawing his black-marked limbs around the fox's slender waist until they stood together, waist to waist, chest to chest, mouth to mouth. The fox lifted his arms in kind around the soldier's neck, and they fit together as a snowflake fits into a stream, melting together until there was no distinction between the two, only a tangle of warmth and bodies and hands as one fell back into the robe on the ground, and the other followed him down.
The opportunity was so perfect that he debated it right up until the very moment he seized it. In the end, however, he decided that a universe built so heavily on principles of order had enough room in it for fortuitous coincidence that he could be relatively assured that he was not walking into a trap. And fortune, though mercurial at the best of times, tended to favour the bold.
The Voice was in fact not one but two, a duality perfect in being completely unnecessary: only one half ever spoke, a howling being with a thousand mouths known as Metatron, and so its twin distinguished itself only by the weight of its silence. When the war came, there was no question with which side Metatron would ally itself, and likewise, no question into whose army its distant brother would find itself. Such happenstance straddled its way between perfect and too perfect.
It was in the confusion before the Fall that he struck. The Host was scattered, angels innumerable spread wide across the breadth of Heaven, with sides drawn into bloody chaos through which he walked as easy as a wave passing through the ocean. He longed to stretch himself out into every crevice, but with no anchor, it took already his entire concentration to keep himself planted. He had to weight himself down or he would drift away.
There was only a moment when the twin, the angel Sandalphon, stepped in the shadow of a pillar, out of sight from the rest of the battle; he needed only a moment. The angel's eyes -- as much as one of those beings could have been said to have eyes, back then -- opened wide and were the first and only things to see him for what he was. It parted its lips, as if to speak, and he poured his whole being down its throat.
It was less of a challenge than he might have expected, really, but it was the Voice -- or half of it -- and thus by its very nature a vessel. He simply pressed himself to fill it up, bent and stretched through every crack, swallowing its angel heart whole. It cracked inside him, shattering and scraping him, digging its way into his pores, and he was held fast.
Later it would be said that Lucifer was the first to Fall, and it was true; but he was the first to leave, slipping out the back when no one noticed, taking himself past an uncrossable boundary to a place where no one had been before, because it had not existed before he arrived. And so he was there, standing firm on the barren plain, when Lucifer lifted his head for the first time and gazed out on what would become his domain, tangled up so much in his own pain and grief that he never stopped to ask why someone had arrived there before him, or what that someone might have been.
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