#but i can’t unsee that line in the middle of his jeans in the second gif that looks like it’s rounded
Family tree - Chap 1 [TMNT]
Summary: There was an explosion at the Central Bank, the turtles couldn’t interfere in time. Seven people had died and another twelve had been hospitalized, one of which had been Vern.
As April O’Neil is investigating the case, she stumbles upon Felicia Cox, a writer who turns out to have had strong ties with the man and the criminal organization responsible for the bombing.
“Donnie, what’s the status?”
The electrical bzzzz coming from the ear piece let his brother’s voice through.
“He’s in the vault. I see blood on the floor, a woman, maybe dead? Can’t really say.”
Leo’s head snapped to the side, there were police cars upfront, Chief Rebecca Vincent barking orders, guns being drawn out of their holsters and strategic places urgently being occupied by cops. Blue and red lights were shining on the façade of the Central Bank and people were being ushered out of the way – curious passers by, thirsty for information.
“Keep us updated on his moves. Mickey, the vents.”
“Yeah… about that…” Mickey was already moving, a blur of orange and green, as he plucked the rack away from the vent entrance and disappeared inside. He was small enough to fit there and actually get to the vault in time.
“What about it, Don?”
“Yeah, so, it might not be a good idea, the guy’s picked the bomb from the ground…”
Leo froze and Raph clenched his teeth.
“I’m going after Mickey –“
“No, stay here. Don, what’s the fastest route to the vault?”
“The bathroom. Mickey, skirt around the lobby and make a left in a few seconds,” The youngest’s answer was immediate, “Ayay, cap’tn.”
Raph was tense and Leo could feel fire coming out of his nostrils. There was fear, there was reproach, but there was also some sense of this is the right thing to do, with all the risk they might expose themselves to.
“Raph,” his brother’s eyes were glued on the entrance vent, but Leo didn’t have time to snap him out of it. “Take this, I’mma talk to Chief Vincent and clear the zone. If this goes up in smoke, we need to save as many as possible.”
Handing his ear-piece to Raph, Leo patted his shoulders twice and took off in haste.
With short breath and thoughts about the impending doom, the red-clad turtle put the device in his ear and growled, “Fucking hell, D... Tell me it’s not gonna go boom with Mickey in there…”
There was a pause on the other’s side, a few mechanical clicks and then,
“Raph… There are twenty people in the building at the moment, not just Mickey…”
“Relax, bruh, I’m almost above the vault thingy.” Came the youngest brother’s response, energetic but a bit strained, “This place is SO freaking narrow, you could barely fit a – yuck, this thing’s sticky... Hey, I think we could’ve tried the back door. I mean -” Pause, - “oaah, guys? I think you should see this…”
There was a deep breath and silence. Raph didn’t get it.
“What? See what? Donnie, what?”
People were swarming around the bank, the cops started pushing them back. Chief Vincent was nowhere to be seen, the doors to the bank were locked, there was a black van parked near the entrance and a guy in a thick fire-resistant suit gearing up.
“Erm… Raph, can you spot Leo?” Donnie sounded a bit too uneasy.
“Spot Leo? What’s in there?”
“Bruuuh, this guy’s craayzaay… Donnie, can you see what I’m seeing?”
Raph couldn’t make out what Donatello said, but there was some kind of wheezing and coughing and beep beep beep beep and, out of a sudden, someone shouted - Donnie, in his ear, panicked.
“Mickey, get back. Get back now!”
Raph felt powerless, standing there, guarding, waiting, unseeing, unknowing.
“What’s going on?! Mickey? What’s –“
It was pretty simple. All he had to do was to go in, leave the package and go out. But curiosity pushed him to open it. And he knew he wouldn’t come out of this alive.
The door slammed close as soon as he entered the lobby. The sound of it reverberated through the circular room and caught the employees’ attention. They were sitting at their corner offices, but their eyes were on him. What was to be done next? He went on, his face to the floor, burning and sweating. It wasn’t fear in his veins, he wasn’t afraid of being later recognized, he worried about his mind going over their faces and giving it the opportunity to trace over the light in their eyes, the life still there and pulsing. He didn’t want to give himself the chance of regretting this, any of it. These were simple people, doing their daily jobs. They were serving their own society, the cradle that pulled them from their ignorant infancy and brought them to this dark day. They paid with their own time, patience, health for some monthly wage that would let them sleep soundly, that would give them their next-day-comfort and pleasures, that would keep their taxes and debts at bay. These were the lucky ones, luckier than those beneath them. They all knew that, next morning, they would come back here to do the same work, play along the same story line. They would probably get out of their cotton clad beds (pretty modest, as their role dictated), hurriedly eat a slice of bread and butter and dress up smartly in their mandatory service-clothes, which made them right for their customers’ eyes to look upon. They were all fighting for their next day in this rabbit hole – the single thing which kept them alive and managing.
So he went on.
The package hung heavily in the plastic bag, the smiley -Thank you, come again – white shopping bag; Its weight cut into his fingers, which were already printed with the stupid Thank you, come again cheap ink. Thank you, come again –
Come again –
This didn’t have an Again. Only this time, this moment, right now.
He wished someone would interfere; some suit would step in front of him, some guard would shout out, something, someone. But no one interrupted his course.
The black marble’s shine caught a distorted reflection of all the faces from the room. All of the employees went back to their jobs; Maybe they thought nothing of him, just another delivery guy with some head problems and a tight schedule which kept him on edge, teeth jittering and shoulders trembling. After all, he didn’t look like someone who would step over their threshold with anything else but delivering some pizza or stationery in their mind.
Their fingers went back to pressing keys on their laptops. Their eyes - back to the blue lighted screen, on which dozens of thousand of numbers cascaded, dollars and euros and crowns and pounds.
Some of the clients were still watching, though. He bit the inside of his cheek until he tasted blood and took a fugitive look at the blond guard – young and tall – next to the door that led to the other room. The door to the room was high and wide, thick and most importantly, locked. He knew he wouldn’t be let through it, conscious of the holey hoodey and grease stained jeans he was sporting. He didn’t get the change to change his damp sneakers either, nor the gloves worn ragged from all his fence-jumping and brick rubbing he did. And his face… it was probably as bruised as he felt it, and maybe his eyes were bloody red, the left one more swollen that the other, his lower lip mostly cracked open by a fist he got that morning. The blood wasn’t pouring, though, it had dried up a few hours before and it was now throwing a spikey shadow on his chin. Some of his hair burnt his forehead. He was most probably looking like a walking nightmare.
A well-worn, but thick carpet lengthened across the floor, from the middle of the room and up to the door, and it occurred to him that it absorbed the sharp sound of steps. The soles of his sneakers drowned in the thickness of it. His legs suddenly felt like counterweights, countering the heaviness of his arms and head. It felt like he was crossing through a swamp. The room behind the door, they’d said. Box one-oh-seven. You’ll see it marked #107, easy to spot, on the upper left side, they’d instructed.
Suddenly, he became aware of a shadow pressing on his form.
“Can I help you?”
He heard her voice even before he could catch a glimpse of her face, and when he swirled around slowly, his shoulders stopped their trembling and slumped. His mind couldn’t register anything about her, except the fact that this, in front of him, was a soon-to-be-dead woman. Condemned and unwillingly unaware of her fate. Innocent. The punishment was hanging above his head like a scythe.
He cleared the lump in his throat and didn’t answer. Instead, he got to the door and pushed against it with might, under the guard and the office-woman’s eyes.
“I’m sorry, you aren’t allowed to go in there. Please show me your permit.”
I know, I fucking know. I shouldn’t even be here. It’s not fair. I’m not allowed to enter, neither am I to stop. I must go on, I must. Please, I must. I’m sorry.
From the other side, the door opened and out came one of the posh clients. He caught the moment and slipped inside, pushed the door close, brought the safety lock in its place. He was here. He exhaled. He was here.
There was metal in the air, there were safety deposit boxes all around him, up to the ceiling, along the walls and he sniffed them like a mouse that could smell its cheese.
But there was someone else inside the room.
Only then was he seen, the other person’s panicked tone brought him back to reality, to the place he was in and the package he had in his hands. The guard pounded on the door on the other side of the room, keys rattled in the lock, the safety shook and his knees nearly gave out.
“Who are you? How did you get in here? Who let you in?” Another guard, a woman.
And he smiled. She stopped speaking. The crack on his lip split open as he smiled, his mind started buzzing, his hand was on the woman’s neck and no other sound came out. He squeezed his fingers until hers dropped from her belt, and only when she gripped his hand with both of hers, did he drop the package and slammed her into the floor. Her head burst open on the impact, the shopping bag fell around the armed bomb, the alarm started howling but all he could hear were the buzz in his head and the beep beep beep beep beep of the bomb.
Still, there was some distance between him and #107 so he shook away from the unmoving guard on the floor and picked the package back up between his arms.
beep beep beep beep beep...
He pressed the beeping cassette against the one-oh-seven, the magnetic core clicked and it remained attached. But he still kept his hand on it, feeling the vibrations.
The buzz in his head laced through the beeps and he closed his eyes, stood still and waited for the blast to engulf him...
and suddenly, the beep beep beep broke into a thunder.
Can you write anything with the Harry/Ron bromance? Thank you, you are helping me survive quarantine!
Thanks to @floreatcastellumposts for all her help! For once, this is only mildly inappropriate! ;)
Rain patters on the window of the attic, sounding angrier by the minute. For once, the exterior of the house is louder. This is quite a feat for the Burrow ever, but on an afternoon in June, it’s almost unheard of.
Harry lets out a deep breath, running his hand across his eyes. Over the past month, he’s adapted to the silence. He’s started to crave it, to consider it reassurance that everything’s on the mend. There aren’t explosions or calls for help or sobs emerging through the rubble and darkness. There’s simply quiet. Solitude. Even—
“HEY!” The door bursts open, slamming against the wall, as Ron pierces through the aforementioned solitude.
Harry just sighs and gets his glasses from the bedside table. No hope of an afternoon nap, it seems.
“Sorry, were you sleeping?” Ron deadpans, not sounding the least bit apologetic.
Harry rolls his eyes; since he and Ginny got back together, Ron and George have greatly enjoyed taking the mickey anywhere they can find it. Just yesterday, George had interrupted a perfectly good garden snog with a series of nonsensical, thinly-veiled questions (“Have you dipped your nib in ink, Harry? How was it? Please, I’m desperately curious for feedback on all nib-dipping experiences; this could be vital information for restocking a line of magical quills at the shop!”)
Now, though, the girls are off shopping; the Burrow is empty, save for the two of them. To Harry, this seems like much of the same.
“Interrupting a kip is the least of your worries, mate,” he mutters darkly, sitting up in bed. He hopes the meaning isn’t lost there. If Ron’s going to be a cock-block, he’s going to hear about it.
Ron doesn’t respond, though. Which is odd. So Harry slides on his glasses and takes in his appearance. Ron’s looming frame stands near the door, his freckles and red hair more distinctive than usual. It could be the lighting, Harry thinks; after all, it is quite gray and dim up here. Ah but no... that wouldn’t explain why he’s now awkwardly shifting in place, rubbing his palms against his jeans.
Then, Ron clears his throat — and suddenly, his face turns red instead of white. “Erm. Listen,” he starts uneasily, avoiding Harry’s eyes. “I’ve erm... I’ve got something to discuss!”
He ends with a sort of jubilant bounce on the balls of his feet, wearing a grin that doesn’t quite reach his eyes.
Harry peers back warily. If Ginny were here, she’d suss this weirdness out straight away. She’d know, just from his posturing, what Ron’s getting at. A moment later, he opens his mouth to speak again — but just as quickly, he seems to decide something or other is a bad idea, because he waves his hand and strides toward his bed with an anxious huff. As if that explains anything.
“Right,” Ron says, settling down across from Harry. “Right.”
“Right,” Harry echoes, arching an eyebrow. “You… feeling all right?”
“Mm.” Ron hunches over, his elbows on his knees, and stares at the floor.
As the seconds pass, Harry peers at Ron with a growing sense of dread. It’s rare he’s this quiet around him — and Harry doesn’t like it. It’s too reminiscent of darkness, of the times they’ve been at each other’s throats. Has Harry done anything to make him angry this time? He doesn’t think so. Ron’s been supportive, even, of his renewed relationship with Ginny. Apart from giving him shit for it.
This silence isn’t doing his head any favors, though. So Harry decides to break it.
“Listen,” Harry says uneasily. “I don’t want to pry, but—”
“—So you know Hermione and I are properly together, yeah?” Ron blurts, his words stringing together so fast they sound like a single syllable.
Harry clears his throat and tries to respond as delicately as he can. “Mate, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but I think most of the castle knows you’re properly together.”
But Ron’s not on the same page. “No,” he says over a humorless chuckle, his eyes still locked on the floor. “That’s erm. That’s not what I’m getting at.”
Harry’s stomach clenches with fear, head filling with memories that seem far more distant than a year old. He remembers Lupin’s drawn, tired eyes when he approached them in Grimmauld Place. He remembers the unflinching expression of horror and shock, the way he distanced himself from Tonks’ baby. He remembers the resigned tone in his voice, like a man marching to his own execution.
Then, of course, Harry remembers tiny little Teddy. The baby who’d charged in and changed everything. Tiny little Teddy, who is undeniably adorable… but also fuck-loads of work.
Shit. Harry desperately blinks up at Ron, pleading with the universe that he’s wrong, that he’s made a mistake in this leap of logic. But there’s nothing reassuring about what he finds. Ron’s still staring at the floor, his eyes wide and unseeing, his back hunched.
This couldn’t be... no.
Hermione’s smarter than that, isn’t she? Hell, Ron — with his six siblings — must also be smarter than that! They’d never let... something… happen.
But even as Harry tries to deny it, he knows there’s a chance — mostly because Hermione’s a right moron when her feelings get involved. Fuck. Harry’s stomach churns as the memories shift. He sees birds pecking at Ron’s hands in that abandoned classroom. He sees Hermione’s face when Ron returned to the tent last year, her eyes flaring with something unbridled and terrifying.
Best to get it over with, though. Like ripping off a plaster. If he’s going to be an uncle (the word lands like a sour rock in his stomach), he reckons he’d rather know as soon as possible.
With that, Harry clears his throat. “Erm. Ron, I’m not going to push you, but—”
“—Hermione wants to know if you want to arrange something where Ginny comes here at night and I go down there and we sleep there ok.”
Somehow, this string of words comes out even more quickly than the first, leaving Ron in a red-faced, mortified silence; Harry only understands any of it at all because he knows Ron so well, but he gives both of them time to process the exacting wording of the declaration.
After a few seconds, though, Harry’s still not sure what to make of it — and not because he didn’t understand the literal words. No… the real fear is that he’s ignored what Ron actually said and supplanted what he wanted to hear.
So Harry draws a deep breath, guarding his heart as he does. “Ok ok ok,” he says, raising his hand. “I… I need to make sure I’ve understood you correctly. You’ve only come in here to tell me that Hermione’s cooked up a shagging arrangement. Is… is that right?”
There’s another pause.
For his part, Ron only looks impressed. “Yeah mate,” he says fairly. “Sums it up.”
Oh for the love of —
Harry releases a half-laugh, half-sigh as he collapses back on the bed. Shagging! That’s all Ron was after! For fuck’s sake! Harry’s chest feels lighter, his head happier, his future brighter.
“You… seem surprised, though ” Ron notes, peering over. “What did you think—?”
Harry laughs again, cutting him off. “I thought you’d got her pregnant! I was terrified for you! Can you even imagine—”
“Nooo!” Ron says sharply. He shudders, the color draining from his face. “No,” he repeats, raising his eyebrows. “No, I cannot, so please don’t even joke about—”
“Oi, who’s joking?” Harry counters. “You’re the two who ran off to Australia and spent nights in hotels! Your mum was scandalized, by the way. It was brilliant.”
He ends with a grin, but it seems that the word Australia was a bit of a trigger; Ron’s face is now blank and happy, his mouth spread into a gormless smile as he stares at the wall above Harry’s head.
Ugh. Harry looks away. He’s glad he hasn’t volunteered his (rather unfortunate) knowledge that those two shagged before they even left the castle. Harry still can’t decide if Ginny’s ability to wheedle information out of people is a blessing or a curse, but he reckons it’s best to push the subject of Ron and Hermione’s sex life from his mind.
As if on cue, Ron sighs from his bed. Harry’s pleased to find he’s not making that weird Hermione face anymore, but he doesn’t look entirely… settled either. His expression is pensive, his arms crossed over his chest, and it takes a few more seconds for Harry to understand why — but when he does, it’s like a lightbulb goes off in his brain.
Harry releases a deep breath of his own. Ron hasn’t said a word, but he’s certain they’re both filled with this sort of… shuddering awareness of the situation at hand. Because this is the first time they’ve broached this, isn’t it? The fact that they’re intimate now, with each other’s sisters. Harry can’t decide if that’s more comforting or repulsive — but more than anything else, he reckons it’s just... different. Nothing more, nothing less.
After all, it wasn’t long ago Harry was terrified they’d get together and leave him. But when they got together — right in front of him — Harry hadn’t been jealous or scornful; he’d been happy for them. He reckons he would’ve been chuffed, even, had they not been in the middle of a battle, but that hadn’t stopped them for long.
Then again, it also wasn’t long ago that Ron yelled at Ginny for snogging Dean. A year ago, Ron had yelled at him for snogging Ginny — mostly because he’d been concerned about his sister’s feelings. Harry hadn’t blamed him for that, not really, but he nonetheless reckons it should’ve foreshadowed Ron’s cock-block tendencies.
Another vacant smile crosses Harry’s lips. They’ve all changed, haven’t they? War changed them, to the core. Age changed them, to the core….
“Erm. But please, don’t give me details,” Ron blurts, apropos of nothing. He shivers again despite the warm afternoon. “I think I’d rather remove my fingernails with a blunt needle than hear about how much you love shagging my sister, thanks.”
Harry raises a brow. Technically speaking, Ron’s wrong in his conclusion. They haven’t… done that. Not properly, even if they’d hedged around it more times than he can count. They’ve done basically everything but shag, actually, but Harry reckons that would be more mortifying to admit than just letting it go.
Not that they aren’t ready; Harry knows they’re both ready. But through either sheer practicality (his reasoning) or misguided chivalry (Ginny’s), Harry couldn’t bear to live with himself if he took her virginity in their usual haunts of the garden or Mr Weasley’s shed.
Now, though, they’ve got… options. That Ron — of all people — has delivered on a silver platter.
Harry feels his pulse quicken at the thought as his jeans start to tighten. Aaand lovely, this is now thoroughly embarrassing. He needs a distraction, now.
So Harry loudly clears his throat and picks up the threads of their conversation. “Yeah, and I’ll trust you to do the same when it comes to Hermione. I’ve no desire to hear about—”
Ron interrupts with a wave of his hand, but when he speaks again, he’s not taking the mickey like before. “Noted,” he says firmly. “Just erm... I guess I also wanted to make sure...” He trails off, biting his lip, but seems to think better of whatever he’d started. “Nevermind, it’s stupid. Do you want to play chess?”
Harry’s not letting him off the hook that easily. “Whatever it is, mate, I’m sure it’s not the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard you say.”
Ron laughs. “Yeah, and that was kind of my point, actually.” He rubs his hand on the back of his neck. When he looks at Harry again, there’s a telltale spark of reassurance shining behind his eyes. “You… erm. You know we’re still us, yeah?”
Harry hadn’t realized he’d been that… transparent. He gnaws at the inside of his cheek. They’re together now — all four of them, which is the best possible situation. But he can’t deny there’s a lingering fear that romantic relationships, real ones, will change them forever. That he’ll lose the first friend he ever had. That they’ll finally have found the one thing they can’t talk about, even as the topic voraciously consumes both of their thoughts.
Has any of that happened, though? asks a voice in the back of his head. It sounds suspiciously like Ginny.
Harry’s lips curl into another smile as the answer comes to him.
No. No, it hasn’t.
Because at the end of the day, they’re still Harry and Ron. They’re the two prats from Gryffindor who became best friends on the Hogwarts Express and got detentions together and shared a mutual loathing of Malfoy, all as their voices cracked. They’re still Harry and Ron, who fought bitterly and pretended to hate each other and nearly vomited on each other and discussed wanking techniques.
No matter what, they’ll always be Harry and Ron. Their relationship survived Voldemort. How could Harry have thought it wouldn’t survive sex?
“Yeah, we are,” he agrees. “Just, you know...” He makes a vague hand gesture. “Taller. Wiser.”
Ron smirks, rising to stand. “Actually, I was gonna go with shagging each other’s sisters — but if you’d like to pretend you’re wiser...”
Harry chokes out a laugh. “I reckon Hermione’s still the wisest of us all, seeing how she arranged this. What time were you thinking, by the way?”
“Eleven minutes past ten,” Ron says promptly. “We reckon it’s less suspicious if it’s a bit off the hour.”
“Eleven minutes is highly specific, mate.” Harry raises his eyebrows. “Please tell me that number wasn’t in your head because of some… personal record. Or something.” He makes a face and moves to stand, too.
Ron just jerks his chin towards the door. “Do you want to play wizard’s chess? And I’m not going to dignify that with a response, by the way — but just know, you’re definitely, definitely incorrect.” His lips twitch. “As well as a total wanker.”
Ha! He’s left himself wide open!
Harry laughs and strides into the hallway, too. “Only when I think about—”
“UGH!” Ron groans dramatically as they walk downstairs, but Harry can hear the grin in his voice. “I thought we agreed never to discuss that!”
Harry spreads his palms in surrender, but doesn’t push it; Ron’s been more than understanding today, so he reckons he’ll let it slide — at least until the next time he tries to give him shit.
Then they march into the living room wearing stupid, contended grins, just as they’ve done a thousand times, for one reason or another. Then they play wizard’s chess, just as they’ve done a thousand times. Then Ron kicks Harry’s arse, just as he’s done a thousand times.
Ron pumps his fist in triumph and lets out a jubilant yelp as he resets the board — and although Harry would never admit it aloud, he’s nonetheless reached a comfortable, contented conclusion.
He’s fine with losing at wizard’s chess for the rest of his life… as long as he loses to him.
museum au sequel-sequel
hello!! if you haven’t read my full museum au fic series you can do so here!! it’s cool and was also my first fic and you’ll like it if you don’t mind brief mentions of taxidermy, non-graphic dead animals etc.
this is set about a year and a half after the events of the first one, but you can catch on quickly if you find it interesting :) NOTE: I’m still working on writing this, but thought I’d post the beginning of it in the mean time. Expect a couple more installations on tumblr, but as with all my other fic, the full thing will (eventually) be on AO3 <3
“My supervisor asked if I wanted to go up to northern Vere for a week and a half,” Damen says one night, as he’s washing the dishes after dinner.
Laurent had been searching the top cupboard for a hidden package of scones, but drops down from his toes at Damen’s quiet announcement. He squints at the where the wood of the cabinet meets the ceiling and deciphers what exactly Damen is trying to say.
“It would just be to help her with some field work,” he continues, scrubbing softly at a bowl. “And maybe check out the museum collections on the way there and back.” Laurent still hasn’t made any indication he’s listening but Damen knows him well enough. Laurent hears the bowl being put down and feels eyes on his back.
“Oh? When was she planning,” says Laurent, keeping the tone light. He turns around slowly to find, as he expected, a searching, hesitant look on Damen’s face. “It can get quite nice up there in the fall,” he says, affecting a polite demeanor.
Damen ignores his attempts at nonchalance. “She said I should invite you along.” Laurent raises his eyebrows and Damen closes his eyes. “I know, I know, I didn’t want to make you feel like you had to come with. Colette doesn’t care,” he says, and then makes a face. Laurent nods absentmindedly, and turns back to the cupboard to close it.
Laurent thinks maybe he should be more happy that he’s been invited on their trip. It’s a given that Damen will go; this is his degree and his field and his passion, and he would never pass up the chance to tramp around the northern countryside and collect data on stoats or weasels or what-have-you with his supervisor. Laurent avoids identifying what it is that sparks his reluctance to join them, but quietly admits that if it had been anywhere else, he would have hesitated less. He leans back against the counter.
“I’ll see if I have any loose ends at work,” he says as noncommittally as possible. Damen puts the last plate on the drying rack and shoots him a smile. His eyes are practically twinkling. “That’s not a yes,” Laurent warns, but he trips out of the kitchen before Damen can catch his blush.
In an effort to leave the best impression he can on Laurent’s mornings, Damen drops him off at the museum on the way into campus nearly every day. He argues that it saves them both heaps on gas and motivates him to get to work in the department early, but it also means that Laurent spends a lot of his time after breakfast just waiting for Damen to get his act together. One notable morning, Laurent waited patiently with a cup of coffee at the table for just over an hour so that Damen could find a clean pair of jeans, search for where he left his jacket, get distracted by a bird out the bedroom window, eventually find his jacket, and then toast a bagel, all before they left in the car, breakfast precariously clutched in one hand as he held the steering wheel with the other.
This morning is not quite so hectic. They’re about a block away from the museum, looking for a spot to pull over, when Damen straightens in the driver’s seat and clears his throat. Laurent looks at him expectantly, his elbow propped casually against the window.
“Colette said she might bring her kid,” Damen says cryptically. “So you wouldn’t be the only one. If you decide to come, I mean.”
Laurent narrows his eyes. “I’m not babysitting your supervisor’s offspring for over a week in the countryside, Damen.”
“He wouldn’t need – he’s sixteen or something, you wouldn’t have to look after him. Oh, hell yeah,” he says, squeezing the car into the last open spot along the street. He puts the car in park and shifts in his seat to face him; Laurent swears he feels the car bounce with the motion. “I know you have your reasons to not want to go up there, but I think it could be really nice.” Damen reaches over into Laurent’s lap to hold his hand, as if to emphasise how nice it could be, if they faced Laurent’s home province together. Laurent sighs.
“Whatever will you do without me beside you for eleven, whole, entire, lonely days,” he says, and laughs at Damen’s resulting pout. “I told you, I’ll think about it.” He leans over into Damen’s space to peck his cheek, but Damen doesn’t let him go that easily, bringing a quick hand up to cup his face while he directs Laurent’s kiss to his mouth. Laurent sighs into it – the soft lips, the coffee on his breath – it’s still a dream, after almost two years, and he hopes it never feels any different.
Damen rolls down the passenger window once Laurent’s out of the car, and makes him lean over to listen to Damen say “Have a good day! I love you,” with a beautiful, dimpled smile before he drives off. Laurent adjusts the strap of his bag on his shoulder and heads to the museum’s side entrance.
Nicaise arrives closer to half past ten, hugging his light jacket tightly around his middle. Laurent doesn’t question it when he pulls out a plastic pot filled with dirt and some small pinkish-purple flowers, and puts it down on the desk.
“You know when your beast of a boyfriend brought those flowers in? How the fuck –” Nicaise stamps his foot, “– did he get it past security, those assholes kept saying all this shit about bringing foreign contaminants into the collections!” He collapses on the only swivel chair in the office with a huff. “As if I’d put specimen-eating bugs in my plant that I brought from my home. I had to sneak in through the gross warehouse door and ask that one exhibit builder for his keycard.” Laurent laughs through his nose and looks closer at the jar’s inhabitant.
“A cyclamen,” he says, not really for confirmation, but Nicaise nods anyways. The petals are a very soft pastel purple, lined in a delicate off-white. The leaves are prettily variegated but the stems seem to be drooping.
“It’s a purpurascens,” says Nicaise. “I got him from a sale at the shop by my apartment but he hates me, apparently.” Laurent frowns and touches a finger gently to one of the flowers. Nicaise hasn’t explicitly asked for help taking care of the plant but Laurent can tell that this is as polite a request he’ll get.
“He either hates you, or he hates his plastic flower shop pot,” Laurent says, treading carefully. Nicaise glares at him from underneath his eyelashes. “I didn’t think your cat authorized anything this colour in the apartment anyways.”
“Whatever,” says Nicaise haughtily, looking away. “Some people just don’t have time for all the dicking around you do.” He’s been like this more and more recently, moody and then pulling away. There’s been less of the teasing and more of the thorns, and it’s been too long since they first met that Laurent sometimes forgets how to not get pricked by them. He brushes them off every time, because he’s an adult and he knows it’s nothing personal and Nicaise keeps coming in to volunteer, but Laurent also genuinely cares about Nicaise. He wouldn’t be so cheesy as to say the words “kindred spirit” but he can’t help but notice each instinctive facet that he observes in Nicaise that could’ve been mirrored, paralleled by his own youth. Laurent just doesn’t think it’ll ever be an appropriate time to broach that sort of subject.
He doesn’t respond to Nicaise’s snark, regardless. They end up at the long table under the windows in the main collections room, sifting through the specimens a researcher had been looking at the day before, preparing them for reshelving. It’s quiet work, and so the text message that alerts Laurent’s usually silenced phone surprises him more than usual. He ignores Nicaise’s nosy look as he digs it out of his pocket.
It’s from Damen: ‘for when you ask your boss for time off,’ followed by the prospective field work dates. Laurent holds his breath before he can sigh out loud again, and closes his phone without replying. He hasn’t taken vacation days for a long while, so there really wouldn’t be a problem if he took the time off. It’s frustrating that Damen is still treating it like it’s a sure thing that Laurent will accompany him up to Vere, but he can almost guess where Damen is trying to come from with this, that Laurent just has to stop thinking and do it. Maybe that’s the more irritating part. Laurent picks up the next specimen card and holds it in his hands, unseeing.
“Are you fighting?” asks Nicaise, and then he shrugs to himself and turns back to the specimen on the table in front of him. “Not that I care.” Laurent bites down on a smile.
“Don’t strain yourself. Damen’s just been asking me to go up to Vere with him for a bit,” Laurent says. He can see Nicaise’s interest pique out of the corner of his eye.
“Where in Vere?”
“Some museums around Arles, then somewhere between Belloy and Varenne for field work. It’s with his university supervisor,” he says, and then internally cringes at how dull it makes them sound. After the summer in Ios they really haven’t gone anywhere or done anything very interesting by anyone’s standards.
“Sounds awful,” Nicaise retorts immediately. Laurent watches him chew his lip for a couple seconds before Nicaise asks, in an uncharacteristically quiet voice, “Do you know anyone in Arles?”
The question should make Laurent tense his shoulders, or feel a twinge of grief behind his eyes. He considers saying something equivocal, something that Nicaise might scoff at but not fight, but instead his body feels like a heavy solid weight against the chair, and his answer is just as substantial. “No, there’s no one there,” he says.
Nicaise still scoffs, and Laurent is almost relieved at the predictable response. “Didn’t think so,” he says at normal volume, with an air of pure popularity and worldliness. With a steady hand, Laurent picks up the next specimen.
The One With the Zombies - AshEiji - Ch1
Title: The One With the Zombies
Word Count: 4236
Description: Another what it says on the tin from me - it's a Zombie Apocalypse AU because how else could this anime/manga get any darker?
Whilst on the run from the outbreak of zombies, reporters Ibe and Eiji stumble across a New York street gang, safely huddled in an abandoned warehouse. As if the undead weren't surprising enough, Eiji finds himself becoming closer and closer to the gang's leader, mysteriously dubbed Ash Lynx.
But safety doesn't last forever and soon it's only Ash and Eiji.
And they're up against more than just zombies.
Note: This is available on A03, and I would recommend you follow it there, as I remember to update it. I would post a link, but then Tumblr wouldn’t include it in search results.
Of all the things to keep close during a zombie apocalypse, Ash wouldn’t have been in a hurry to save a camera.
But here was this Japanese boy clutching his to his chest as though it was a lifeline. As though it would be able to kill zombies – walkers – whatever you called them.
Bones and Kong had spotted him on a patrol. As he still had every appendage where it should be, the complexion of a human and no apparent desire for human flesh, they had invited him back to their hideout. Rather recklessly, Ash would add, but a the non-leader part of him had known they were right. Here was someone who needed help. If zombies were following, then they’d just have to deal with it.
So far, he hadn’t said a word. That worried Ash – as though the boy’s jaw would drop and that would be when the transformation happened. A long, low moan coming from him and then the frenzy for brains.
But his eyes were clear and dark. Zombie’s eyes looked like eggs in their skull – white and fleshy and unseeing. This boy had wide, eyes the colour of melted chocolate that watched everything calmly. He looked at Ash. Maybe it was because they had colour, but he felt his lips twitch upwards at those eyes. He wanted to say it was just because he had seen two many egg-eyeballs and that was why he liked those eyes so much. Eyes like a Labrador retriever – trusting Ash and his merry band of street kids without a second thought.
The man they had found him with had been doing all of the talking, in halting English. Ash could feel a frown coming on as he listened to their explanation. He wished he could make it easier, but he didn’t speak a lick of Japanese. French, Italian, sure. Enough German to hold a conversation. But Japanese? No.
They had been in New York as journalists – that explained the camera. When the outbreak had started, they had switched to a hotel in New Jersey – far enough out of the city to sleep at night, but easy to get back to their article when it died down. They had thought it would die down. Everyone had.
Then of course, things got worse. Things had spread.
So they had fled New York, but they had no idea where they were going. They had tried heading through New York State, because survival had taken over having a long term plan.
“What were you writing about?” Bones asked. He was sat on a crate, swinging his legs so that his battered converses knocked against the wood. It was an annoying noise, but Ash found it hard to get angry about.
“It was about – about street gangs.” The man said. He tried for a smile, but he still looked tired and haggard. “I guess we found one.”
Ash nodded. He leant back against a crate. “We decided it was better to stay in one place – build up our defences. If we have a stronghold, we can last this out.”
“He says ‘we,’ but Ash decided it,” Kong said. He was next to Bones – everyone had gathered around with eager eyes. Everyone wanted a glimpse at these new people – new people who weren’t foaming at the mouth to kill them had been a rarity in the last two weeks.
But something had just clicked with Ash. A reporter – a reporter writing about street gangs in New York.
“Ash Lynx,” he said, holding a hand to his chest. He couldn’t help but smile when the man’s eyes widened in realisation. He had been expecting that – he didn’t expect him to burst into laughter. After a moment, he held out his hand to Ash.
“Shunichi Ibe,” he said. “And this is Eiji Okumura.”
Eiji Okumura. Ash had to wonder if that name meant anything in Japanese. He smirked, shaking Ibe’s hand.
“It’s a pleasure to finally meet you,” he said. “What a coincidence, huh?”
“You can say that again.”
“You’re welcome to stay,” Ash said, leaning back against the crates. “For however long you need. This can’t last for much longer.”
Ibe nodded his thanks, colour returning to his cheeks. That made Ash feel like he was doing a huge favour. He couldn’t bring himself to think anything of it. Surely that’s what any decent person would do. Ash wanted to be decent. He wanted to come out of this looking decent. It was selfish – but if an apocalypse was what it took for him to become a decent person, then maybe it would be worth it.
Bones and Skipper started the clamouring – pestering Ibe about what he had already written – and that started the others off. They bombarded him with questions – because it was still bright daylight and the situation never felt quite as real in the day. It was easy to laugh and joke and pretend that a Japanese reporter was the most interesting thing that they had ever seen.
Ash slipped away. He stepped around them so that he was stood next to the Japanese boy. Eiji. He was watching everything with that same interested look in his eyes. Like it was all fascinating. Those dark eyes also had dark lashes. Ash supposed they were long, but maybe they weren’t. They were the right size, he supposed. His skin was dark, the colour of a latte, but it looked gold where the patches of sunlight were coming through the roof. And he had a bow-shaped mouth – Ash’s attention was only drawn towards it because it was parted ever so slightly.
The boy looked up at him suddenly and then away. That was what made Ash realise that he had been staring. He cleared his throat.
“It was Eiji, wasn’t it?” he asked. Because he wanted to hear this boy talk – and it wasn’t just to check that he still could.
Almost as if he knew, Eiji just nodded. Involuntarily, Ash sighed and he suddenly looked panicked.
“Sorry – I’m-“ there was that voice. “I’m not – my English is…not so good.”
“It sounds great,” Ash said. It had been on impulse, because he hadn’t expected that voice. He was nervous, clearly, but there was something in that voice that Ash couldn’t put his finger on. “I mean, you’re doing great.”
“I haven’t really spoken much yet.” Eiji was smiling – a shy, apologetic smile up at Ash. He was short – shorter than him by a couple of inches, at least.
“I can tell these things.”
Eiji gave a soft laugh. He looked so self-conscious that a part of Ash just wanted to shake him. What kind of a person worried about his English in the middle of an apocalypse. The world was ending, but this boy was wasting time being shy. It seemed completely backwards.
“Um,” Eiji said, too loudly and then looked down, embarrassed. “I don’t suppose – it’s silly – that’s real?”
He gestured towards the gun slung into Ash’s jeans. There was no point concealing it anymore – hiding it under a shirt cost him a precious half second.
“It is.” Ash said, his finger running over the top of it. His pistol.
“I never saw a real gun, before-“ Eiji waved a hand to the doorway. They had attached several more bolts to the warehouses doors to keep it reinforced. “Can I hold it?”
“Sure.” Ash wasn’t sure what it was – maybe it was the poor, accented English, or the genuine look of interest in those damn, dark eyes, but suddenly he was handing over his gun to this boy. His gun.
He stared at it for a moment, his fingers running over the barrel of the gun. As though it was something precious. Ash had expected him to point it at someone – to play at shooting zombies or something – but he just handed it back and said “thank you.”
"You don't want to keep it? For protection?"
Eiji shook his head. "I can't shoot."
Ash wasn't sure why that made him smile. That should mean that he was a liability. That he was weak. And yet, he found it oddly endearing.
“Well, I can’t shoot with yours,” he gestured to the camera hanging around Eiji’s neck.
He looked down, like he had forgotten that it was there at all. Then laughed, holding it carefully. After all, that was his chosen item to save in the middle of a zombie apocalypse.
Maybe that was why he shrugged and said "I'll teach you to shoot, sometime."
Sometime? Like this was a happy vacation and they wouldn't be discovered any day now. Like they weren't walking a tightrope between alive and dead, with undead a gaping possibility underneath. Like teaching a boy he had just met how to shoot a gun was normal. Maybe it was, when he was shooting people in the head daily. Maybe that could be his excuse, because suddenly some part of him didn’t want Eiji to know the truth. That guns were a daily occurrence before the living dead.
Maybe it wouldn’t matter. Ash wasn’t expecting to survive before the week was out, and he knew as soon as he went his team would fall apart too. If that happened, there was no way Eiji and Ibe would be able to hang on. It was a miracle they had made it this far.
That was a terrible thought. It made Ash feel vaguely sick. No, he didn’t want it to not matter. But he didn’t want to think about all of this.
Just why on earth had he promised a sometime?
Eiji hadn’t been able to sleep at all. The ‘hideout’ was an old warehouse and the wind rattled the walls all night. The sleeping area was at the top of a very rusty ladder – the floor was metal with that pattern of raised lines that made it impossible to get comfortable on. Everyone just seemed to drop their sleeping bags and fall asleep in a pile like a litter of puppies, all pushing each other to get a spot on the air mattresses. The only one who seemed unrivalled for a place in the middle was the tiny, dark-skinned boy spread-eagled in the middle. He hadn’t been brave enough to throw himself into the bundle of bodies.
It was cold on the other side of the warehouse and every howl of the weather outside made Eiji’s heart pause. They were safe here – they had a changing guard all night and he’d been told at the first sign of a zombie they would hit the fire alarm – sending thick, metal doors down to seal them off from the world. If that didn’t work, they were all packing guns.
Everyone but Eiji.
He kept seeing the same face – a middle aged main with flaking, beige-green skin. A trail of dried blood running down from the corner of his mouth and those wide, white, unblinking eyes. Hardly the worst he had seen – there was no hanging eyeballs or broken, drooping jaws – but it had been the first. And it had been so almost normal that it had been even worse. Uncanny valley, his brain told him, even though he wasn’t entirely sure what the phrase entailed. It had been the moment that he had known something was very, very wrong. He had tugged on Ibe's sleeve without a word.
And then the man had turned.
Then the man had grinned.
Eiji opened his eyes, feeling panic bloom in his throat at just the memory. He sat up in the darkness - because it was pitch black up here.
Sniffles, snorts and snores came from the pile of teenage boys as he fumbled for his phone and flicked the torch on. He padded across the raised metal floor in his socks, then inched down the rusty ladder at the far end, his phone tucked into his chin.
There was a rectangle of moonlight coming from the huge doors that lead into the warehouse. It had been filled with squashy, smelly furniture that looked like a shadowy army in the dark. Ibe had been offered the battered armchair downstairs as a courtesy. He had asked Eiji if he was fine with it and Eiji had nodded, but there had been a ball in his throat as he had. Don't leave, he wanted to say. Don't leave me alone with all these loud American boys.
A figure was silhouetted in the doorway. They turned as they heard Eiji approach.
Eiji flicked it off before thinking. He knew that voice. That was the blonde boy who had smiled and told Eiji his atrocious English was good.
“Sorry,” he said, stepping up to the doorway.
But the boy had already turned back to stare out over the forest. Ash Lynx – Eiji remembered – he couldn’t forget a name like that. It didn’t seem like the name a real person used.
“Everyone seems to think that they can see lights,” Ash said. He was leaning against the door, his hands in his jean pockets like this was completely normal. “I don’t know how much truth there is in it, but I’m not risking it.”
“Mmm,” Eiji leant against the other door, mainly to stop himself from shaking. He liked Ash – Ash had been the only one who hadn’t spoken to him slowly, as if he was a complete moron. But he still needed to take a moment to translate when he was speaking so fast.
He chanced a glance at Ash. The light made his hair look silver and his skin ghostly. But his eyes were still that bright green and still had that sparkle in them. Eiji hadn’t been able to look at him for more than a moment earlier when those eyes were on him. He hadn’t been able to look at Ash for more than a moment anyway.
Eiji couldn't believe that this had happened. His first trip to the state and he had been caught in an apocalypse. A zombie apocalypse. The zombie apocalypse. It seemed completely ridiculous. He had found the gang leader that he had come all this way for, but they were standing in the entrance of a warehouse, looking out for zombies because he hadn’t been able to sleep.
Ash didn’t say anything, but he didn’t chase Eiji off either. They just stood there – a slight breeze in the air, eyes searching the line of trees that sat on the horizon. They were stars, even though they were hardly out of the city, and Eiji wanted to know whether Ash would be able to point out the constellations. He couldn’t.
There was a lot of things he waned to say to Ash. There were so many things he wanted to ask. But the questions never managed to get to his mouth. He hated that he was scared to ask because the words came so easily in Japanese but what if the wrong English one came out? What if he skipped a word or said something too formal or informal or-
But Ash had smiled at him and said that his English had sounded great. That had sent a warm thrill through his chest.
He wasn’t sure how long they stood, staring across the woodchips into the forest before them, but eventually one of the other guys clapped Ash on the shoulder and told him to “get some rest.”
Ash had nodded and his eyes fixed on Eiji’s for just a moment more than was necessary.
“I’m going to crash on the sofa,” Ash said, mainly to the big guy – Kong, Eiji thought his name was – then he turned to Eiji. “If you don’t want to sleep like a meerkat, you can stay down here.”
“You’re right, they’re not cute enough to be meerkats,” Ash paused, and he could hear Kong laughing at the doorway. “What about a litter of piglets?”
“Piglets are cute.”
“Mmm…I guess,” Ash fell over the arm of a sofa, landing on it face down. He raised a hand and waved at Eiji. “Don’t let me sleep in too long.”
In case he was late for school in the morning? Eiji wanted to ask. What did any of them have to wake up for?
But he wasn’t sure how to ask, and Ash’s breathing had evened out already. He couldn’t even remember falling asleep on one of the squashy sofas. They were lumpy and smelt of a dozen things Eiji couldn’t place.
But suddenly the sun was streaming through the warehouse door and there were voices all around him. The room was suddenly full of teenagers wearing ripped jeans and oversized hoodies. And most of them had guns sticking out of their jeans.
None quite looked like the one Ash had – like something from the nineteenth century. All polished wood and shining metal.
No one would have been able to guess that the world was ending outside. They were all laughing and joking with each other, kicking and tossing things and eating their supplies with abandon. It was the postcard image of ‘boys will be boys,’ the idea of boy’s in an American high school. Eiji had never been like that. He wasn’t sure how to join in now – if he even wanted to. It was all rough and tumble and they seemed so close.
The only other person that wasn’t joining in was Ash Lynx himself. He was sat to the side, watching with his chin on his fist.
"You're quiet," Ash leant towards him, the sun making a stamp of light on his skin.
Eiji shrugged. He wasn't sure what to say to that.
"That's nothing to be sorry about."
Everyone was looking at them now. Because Ash had paid attention to him, the whole gang was privy to their conversation. One guy, with a haircut that even the 80s would fine questionable, spoke up.
"I watched this film once!" he paused as though that was all he had to say. "And the guy picked up a foreign language just by listening to the people talk around him - do you know that film?"
"Bones, that could be any film,” the small boy said, rolling his eyes.
"It had Puss in Boots in it?" Bones scrunched a pale face up as he thought about it.
Ash looked at Eiji, an eyebrow raised as if to say 'do you see what I have to deal with?' Eiji couldn't help giggling. He had missed laughing - it felt as though it had been forever since he had laughed.
"What are you talking about?" Ash asked, completely unimpressed.
"C'mon boss, we watched Shrek 2 altogether."
Kong nodded then, his arms crossed over his chest and his eyes closed. "Masterpiece of a movie. The best Shrek film."
"Yeah, and the cats not real."
"Not the cat, boss - the guy who voices him. He was in that movie!" Bones insisted. "Anyway, I bet that's what Eiji's doing - isn't it Eiji? You're trying to get better at English just by listening to us!"
"Well, I know English, kind of-"
"Eiji speaks English just fine." There was that snap of authority that had been in his voice the previous day. The snap that made everyone fall silent like scolded puppies. Ash stared at them all, then sighed and stood. "I'm going for a breath of fresh air."
He headed off, to where Ibe was standing by the door. He seemed to be the only one here who still owned a belt, Eiji noticed. And then realised he had been staring too long and dragged his gaze away. There was nothing to that, he said. It was just an observation.
"Don't forget a baseball bat!" Bones called cheerfully after him and Ash waved a hand in acknowledgement. A chuckle went through the group at the remark, but it made Eiji's skin crawl.
He hadn't killed a zombie yet. He hoped he wouldn't have to because he wasn't sure he'd be able to. He wasn't sure he'd be able to look into a human's face and shove a knife through their brain. It's brain. It.
The thought was too much, it overturned his stomach. He leant over to Bones and murmured "Going with him."
Bones nodded and opened his mouth to ask something but then someone had him in a headlock and he was digging his elbow into the soft flesh of their stomach and it was all much too rowdy for Eiji. He slipped away.
Ibe was standing guard, somehow managing to keep a weathered eye on the horizon despite the chaos unfolding in the warehouse. Eiji didn't even think he'd noticed him as he passed, until he had a hand on Eiji's elbow.
"If you're going out here, stay close to Ash, alright?"
It had only been a night, but Eiji was so relieved to hear Japanese again.
Ibe nodded and let him go, slowly. He looked a lot older than he had last week. Maybe it was the lack of shaving, but he looked much more weather beaten, more like the protagonist of a gritty western than the journalist Eiji had left Japan with.
He wondered if he looked any different. He had caught a glimpse of himself in a mirror, and the only difference was the dark crescent moons under his eyes. He didn't even really need to shave, there was only a dark shadow under his lip - nowhere near as impressive as some if the stubble the others were sporting.
But Ash didn't have much stubble either, he supposed, squinting in the sunlight. He still had peach fuzz on his cheeks and even the hair on his jaw was saw blonde it was hard to see.
He was watching Eiji, his eyes flickering from him to Ibe.
"What'd he say?" Ash asked. He was pulling a lighter from his jeans pocket. He flicked sparks from it.
"Stay close to you."
Ash smirked. "That's not good advice."
Sparks came from the lighter again. There was a long pause where Ash was staring at the floor. Eiji looked too. Ash was wearing a battered pair of converses, so dirty the white toes were a grey-brown colour. Eiji’s own didn’t look much better from the week he had spent on the run.
"Because I've done some things that I'm not proud of."
“Well.” Eiji rolled his tongue around his mouth. “Everyone has.”
Ash gave him a strange smile.
Then he pulled a box out of his pocket and tugged a cigarette out of it. Eiji watched him light it with some fascination. There was something about the way his eyelashes fanned over his face as he looked down and the way that he cupped his hand over it that Eiji couldn’t pull his gaze away from. He looked like he belonged in a different time – like he had been teleported over from the late seventies.
"Fresh air?" Eiji asked.
"It's ironic.” A curl of smoke came from Ash’s mouth. He was still smirking and it was still making Eiji’s stomach do flips. His stomach had never done that before – he supposed it was the nerves that was making it happen now.
"I see. Very cool,” Eiji said. “Very macho."
Ash chucked, he took another drag of his cigarette. "There's nothing about me that's macho.”
"Sure. You're a Danny Zuko."
"More of a James Dean."
"Ah,” Eiji said, because he didn’t know what else to say to that.
There was another chuckle, another curl of smoke coming from Ash’s mouth, another flip of Eiji’s stomach.
"You have no idea who I mean, do you?" Ash asked.
"Rebel Without a Cause,” he tapped the end of the cigarette and put it back in between his teeth. “If we come across a video store, I'll pick it up for you."
"A video store? Did zombies send us back to the nineties?"
"I think the polite term is ‘walkers’?"
"What - is the zombie going to kill me extra hard if I call him a zombie? Will I get given a lecture on hurting a zombie’s feelings?"
"You're mean." Ash was still smiling and for some reason that smile made Eiji feel so much less conscious about talking English.
"They're zombies!” he insisted. “Zombie is a word that you never get to use in real life. I'm using it."
He was still smiling – smirking really – at him, his eyes as green as the trees around them. Impossibly green.
Eiji’s stomach did more strange things that it hadn’t been doing before. He blinked at Ash, wondering if he had made a mistake. He must have gotten his English confused. This gang leader can’t have told him what he thought he had told him.
He didn’t seem to think so either – Ash’s eyes widened slightly and he turned away. He slipped a hand into the pocket of his ripped jeans and looked out over the clearing. It was just like last night. They lapsed into back into silence, but this time there was an air of awkwardness. Like they had said a little too much and they were trying to go back to how it was before.
Before – they hadn’t even known each other a day.
But the funny thing about living in an apocalypse was that it felt like he had known him a lot longer.
Or maybe he just wanted to.
I Wanna Love You Like I Can.
Fandom: Avengers Assemble. Word Count: 1554.
Relationship: Tony Stark/Steve Rogers.
Tags: Fluff and Angst; Angst with a Happy Ending; Happy New Year Plans; Surprises; Ruined plans; Season 4 Episode 14; POV Steve; POV Tony; Past Peggy Carter/Steve Rogers.
This was written for the 2018, @cap-ironman Holiday Exchange.
Tony doesn’t mean to pull back from Steve once they get back to the tower, going off to hide in his lab.
Running is more like it, Tony’s mind supplies darkly.
It wasn’t hard when he could still see the bright, warm smile Steve had directed at Peggy playing in his mind’s eye. Wasn’t hard to conjure fantasies of Steve going back with Peggy and Howard, of him growing old with her, getting married, having kids.
It was all just so easy to picture.
Peggy grinning brightly from under a white veil as she strides with purpose down the aisle to a grinning, blushing, bashful looking Steve, uniform pressed and medals shining brightly, the Howling Commandos standing up beside him.
Steve standing in a backyard, the sun shining behind him, a sweat soaked tee shirt and his jeans dirty from doing work to fix up the house he and Peggy bought, a small piece of Heaven just for them to hide away in between missions, still working on cleaning up Hydra and rebuilding after the War.
Steve playing fetch with a great big dog, as Peggy sits beneath the big old oak tree, one hand holding the book she’d long stopped reading and the other rubbing the roundness of her pregnant belly.
Steve teaching his son James, named after his best friend, how to play catch a baseball, while Peggy feeds their newborn daughter on the back porch, laughing when little James accidentally taps into his strength and throws the ball through on of their back windows.
Bringing his hand up, Tony rubs harshly at his face as he lets out a huff of frustration. as he squeezes his eyes shut tightly and tries so hard to stop the images from playing out behind his eyelids.
It’s no use of course, the problem with not only how his mind works but also how his brain is wired, means he can’t stop seeing would or what if imagines from playing out in his head.
Leaning back in his seat, letting his head fall back and stares up at the ceiling.
It’s not that Tony doesn’t want Steve to be happy, to have everything he wants. In truth, it’s all Tony really wants for Steve. For him to be happy, to have the life he wants.
It’s just that Tony can’t help but want Steve to want to have that happy life with him.
Shaking his head, trying to dislodge the no doubt selfish thoughts, Tony forces himself to sit up and get back to working on armor upgrades for some of the team.
Steve bites at his bottom lip, brow furrowed in deep concentration as tapes his fingers against his easel, staring at the blank canvas with unseeing eyes, replaying the way Tony had pulled back when he’d asked about getting some food, the way Tony’d shrunk in on himself, even as his voice had raised, false bravado seeping into his voice as if he was trying to misdirect Steve from seeing if anything was wrong.
Sighing, Steve drops his hands back into his lap, balancing on his stool so he could lean back and see some of his favorite pieces that were hanging on the wall before him. His eyes flickering from the painting of Natasha, to Thor and Hulk, before letting his gaze settle, and soften, as his eyes take in the details of Tony’s portrait in the middle. The soft lines-showing Tony relaxed and at ease, the quirk of his brows and slightly down turned lips as he presses his phone to his ear, right hand idly playing with his half empty cup of cooling coffee.
Steve feels his chest tighten and soften all at once as he lets himself get caught up in the memory of that day. How Tony had been fighting with Steve about how he should pose, joking about letting Steve draw him like one of his French girls causing Steve to flush –more because he could feel himself twitch in his pants– before an unexpected call from SI had caused Tony to flop back into his chair. Steve remembers he hadn’t wasted a second before pulling out his sketchbook and speeding through several before he’d finally gotten the details he’d wanted to immortalize forever.
Breathing deeply, Steve glances over to the cart that held his paints and charcoals, gaze landing on the plain white envelope that held the tickets to a midnight showing of Hitchcock movies, in their original black and white, and remembers how he’d chickened out several times, how he’d tripped over his words in his numerous attempts in asking Tony out.
As on a date.
Shoulders dropping, Steve stared for a moment longer before standing up and snatching the envelope up, crushing it in his hand.
It didn’t matter anymore, the movies were already half over by the time they’d gotten Howard and Peggy back off to their time, and then Tony had run off, claiming a need to do upgrades before Steve even had the chance to try and see if he could salvage their night.
To see if he could finally find his courage and ask his best friend out, like he’d wanted to do for years.
Tossing the crushed paper into the bin, Steve tried to rack his brain as he brought his hand up, scrubbing at his neck as he stood up and walked out, deciding to head to the kitchen. If nothing else, he still needed to eat after all the action he’d seen earlier.
It was only when the elevator started closing that Steve’s head snapped up, eyes widening brightly as an idea started forming in his mind. Lips stretching in a wide, bright grin, Steve quickly began asking FRIDAY about what the grocery situation was like as ideas started going from half thought out too more solid plans.
Tony jerked out of his head at the sudden sound of FRIDAY's voice sounding in the work shop.
"What's up, Fri? We got an alert? Another idiot trying to take over the city? Or perhaps they’d decided to really up their game, and go for the world?" Taking the time, he carefully shut off his tools, slowly powering them down before straightening up, wincing at the way his back cracked sharply as he did.
“Captain Rogers requires your assistance in the kitchen.” FRIDAY answers, voice perky and suspicious.
Frowning, Tony flicked his gaze up to the ceiling –a habit he’d picked up from when Steve had first moved in and wanted to talk to JARVIS– but stood up and made his way over to the elevators all the same.
It took only but a moment before Tony stepped off the elevator and drew up short at the sight before him.
Tony’s voice was soft, confused as he flicked his eyes from the table, the plated food, the candles and the hologram-ed roses.
“Uh, big guy?”
"Tony!" Steve turned, face lit up in happiness, and strode over to where Tony was still standing, frozen in shock and confusion.
Instead of answering the questions Tony was sure that were on his face, Steve let out a small, happy laugh as he reached out, his big hands wrapping gently around Tony's on and softly pulled him along to the table, only letting go to pull Tony's seat out before he helped the genius take a seat. Beaming, Steve dropped down next to him, hand reaching out to hold out a glass of rosé to him.
"What is going on here?" Tony felt his chest tighten as a lumped started forming in his throat, his mind racing with the different, most improbable, reasons on why Steve had set the table as if it was out of a rom-com.
Tony watched in astonishment as he watches Steve awkwardly shift in his seat and clear his throat.
"I was going to take you to the Hitchcock festival tonight." Steve starts, his voice a quiet rumble, but Tony can easily see how nervous the other man is. "But than. Well. You know." Steve waves his hand about, as if it's enough of an explanation for their night. "And well. I was gonna see if we could catch the second half, but"
"I ran off," Tony finishes for him.
"Yeah," Steve nods. "And well. I promised myself I wasn't gonna go another year without letting you know how I feel. Let you know I love you." Steve moves his hands away from the cutlery, dropping them down to his lap. "And I know I'm risking everything, but." He pauses, eyes moving to lock onto Tony's slowly widening ones. "I love you. I do. And I'd like to court you." Shifting in his seat but not letting his eyes waver, Steve's flush darkens slightly as he amends, "Date you."
Tony blinks slowly, staring for a long moment, completely frozen both in shock and happy deliriousness. He can't help but stay frozen before a pointed cough from FRIDAY spurs him into action. Instead of giving him an answer, Tony stepped forward, his hands reaching out to tangle in Steve’s soft blond locks and reached up the short distance and firmly pressed their lips together.
Slowly pulling back after a moment, Tony breaths against Steve's lips, "Yeah. Yeah that'd be good with me, Cap."
hot thoughts (jonathan x nancy, teen+)
rated: teen+ i think covers it. it gets sexy, but never explicit.
He thinks he's invisible. That he can melt into the shadows in the corners of classrooms and hallways, that he can slip by in the cracks in their lives, but he's wrong. She's noticed. She can't seem to stop noticing.
read it on ao3
guys, this is 12K+ words of pure self-indulgence. i hope you enjoy.
After all of that he just… disappears.
He thinks he's invisible. That he can melt into the shadows in the corners of classrooms and hallways, that he can slip by in the cracks in their lives, but he's wrong. She's noticed. She can't seem to stop noticing.
She had a type and that type was Steve; the sweetheart bad boy from a movie or maybe a television sitcom. All hair and swagger in a way that seemed both dangerous and safe at the time; sure to drive her parents crazy, sure to turn her from pretty nerd into popular beauty at school. Back before missing children and disappeared best friends and a thing without a face crawling out of that sweet Byers boy's ceiling.
She noticed it first in the dark room, after she showed him the faceless thing he'd inadvertently caught on camera. The red light smoothed out his features; the deep, dark bags under his eyes disappeared and his cheekbones sharpened and she found herself tracing the angle of his jaw with her eyes as he explained what he was doing. Stared at the dimple in his chin as he apologized for those photos she never gave him permission to take and resisted the urge to run her fingers through his hair as they waited for the photo to develop.
She'd dismissed it later as temporary insanity– madness brought on by the stress and the fear and the sadness, the chemicals in the dark room and teenage hormones. Scolded herself as she lied to Steve about joining softball and then met Jonathan to learn to shoot a gun.
Except it kept happening. She kept noticing things like how strong he was as he pulled her out of the most horrifying place she had ever been, how solid his chest was as he held her and whispered everything was going to be okay. How pale he was even as his clothing stoody out, dark against the pastels of her room and her bed, stretched out beside her over the covers and somehow sleeping despite it all.
How tall he actually was, shoulders straightened by terror and a reckless bravery, as he stood before her with steak knives pressed, ready, into the palms of their hands. How big and bright his eyes were as she bandaged his palm. How full his lips were as he said her name and she was weightless, breathless, terrified of the monster and the Upside Down and the heat she felt flashing through every nerve in her body, right before Steve pounded on his front door and threw an insane situation into even greater flux.
And when it's all over and his brother is back and her best friend is gone, gone forever, she still lingered on the way his hair curled at the nape of his neck before she walked out of that hospital room and into a semi-permanent haze of grief.
He's out of school for nearly a month after that. She waits, waits to see what happens when he comes back, when they are back in each other's orbit, even as Steve tries to fill in all the holes in her life. And when he comes back she sees he is a little thinner, a lot paler. The bags under his eyes are deeper, the stoop of his shoulders greater. He's always been a freak but now he's a 'perv' as well, rumors swirling about what he and Nancy did in their week of weirdness, and 'crazy', thanks to the bruising and cuts on Steve's face, and his brother's come back from the dead which doesn't help either. Their eyes meet fleetingly in the hallway and she can see how haunted he is.
He looks like he wants to say something, like he wants to take her hand and pull her into an empty room and bare his soul, or maybe finish what he was going to say to her on his sofa that night, but he never does. She wants him to, but he never does. He just slips deeper into the shadows, hoping no one will see.
But she doesn't stop watching. Now that she's seen him, she can't ever unsee. And she can't stop looking.
He hides under layers, t-shirt and flannel and sweater and coat. Hunches his shoulders to stave off the cold and the curious eyes of his peers. But she's noticing the layers getting fewer and the sweaters getting, well, snugger. Clothing that had room in it before has less in the arms and more at the waist, and wool pools at his hips in a way she finds immensely distracting when she's supposed to be taking notes on physics.
He comes over to pick up Will from her house as January fades and her mother asks him to give her a hand with a couple pieces of furniture her father always puts off rearranging. Jonathan, always accommodating, agrees and she comes down the stairs for her date with Steve just in time to watch him lift an ottoman and carry it back into the living room. His jean coat is stretched tight over his back and she can see a sliver of skin where his movements have hiked up the bottom of his sweater, and all of a sudden she is frozen on the steps, unable to do anything but stare. He sets the ottoman down, straightens, and sees her. She thinks the look on his face is almost like panic.
"Hey," he says softly and she forces her feet to move, to carry her the rest of the way down to her front hall until she's standing in front of him.
"Hey." She wonders if she sounds as breathless as she feels. One side of his mouth quirks up in a grin and she realizes all of a sudden that he has dimples.
"How are you?" she forces herself to ask and she can hear Will's footsteps up from the basement. He used to bound up their stairs – all the boys do, really, loud and clumsy in their youth – but now he walks slower and there is the occasional pause, like he has to stop to catch his breath. Her heart aches for him every time.
Jonathan's grin turns into something more pained and she wants to reach out and comfort him somehow – take his hand, hug him, tell him it's going to be okay with more confidence than any of them have earned. She doesn't move.
"We're okay," he says softly. He looks like he wants to say more but Will opens the basement door and Steve honks outside and Jonathan clamps his lips together like he's been scolded.
That's not what I asked, she wants to say.
"We should get, like, coffee. Sometime," she says instead, forcing the words out though they feel painfully awkward.
Steve honks again. Will is saying goodbye to her mother.
"Or… to catch up. I haven't really seen you since…"
"Yeah," he breathes. His eyes are roaming her face and she wonders what he sees. "Sure."
"Great." She wants to lean in and kiss his cheek again. She's not sure why, but there's also no mistletoe up in the foyer anymore and no Christmas gift just passed to him. "I'll, uh. I'll see you. Soon."
"Yeah," he says again and nods. His jaw is sharper than ever and she smiles and moves past him before her body can get any more ideas.
His fingers tap. Constantly, anywhere. Everywhere.
On the strap of his blue bag, on his desk, on the dark room equipment, against his keys, on the sides of a mug at Benny's Burgers. Under new management, but still Benny's. Always Benny's.
She eyes the lines of his tendons from index finger to wrist, strong and surprisingly slight. The knobby bone sticks out enough to startle her, half-hidden under the cuff of his jacket. There is muscle and gristle just below it, but in the dip of his wrist something delicate lives.
They sit in the back booth in the darkest corner of the diner, a milkshake in front of her and a steaming mug of coffee in front of him. The waitress barely looks at them as she drops a plate of fries in the middle of the table.
If she could see below his skin she could trace the tendon to muscle, muscle to joint, to muscle again, all the way up his arm to his collarbone and neck and jaw. She could follow the line straight to his lips; in fact, she does. She tries not to think about why.
"How are you?" she asks, to give her mouth something to do other than think about what it would be like to kiss him. She's chosen to kiss someone else; someone who cares, who wants, who works to be by her side. Someone she appreciates, someone she cares about too.
She tries not to think about how her lips tingle whenever Jonathan is near by.
"You asked me that last time."
"Well, you didn't answer."
"I told you, we're okay."
This time when the words bubble up unbidden she doesn't bite them back.
"That's not what I asked."
He looks down into his coffee, doesn't speak. She's never been sure if he's blonde or not, but in this light his hair shines an odd pewter-gold and she's transfixed.
"We're okay," he says again, still not looking at her. She sighs. He looks up sharply, something almost angry glittering in his eyes. As if she's offended him by asking about anything other than the whole Byers family.
One of his hands leaves the mug, presses flat against the table and then drums out an asymmetrical rhythm on the laminate.
She slides her hand across to meet his, intertwining just their fingertips together. His face freezes with something like fear, then relaxes. His fingertips curl around hers.
"Me too," she whispers. He squeezes her fingers for just a second before pulling carefully away. Grabs a French fry from the plate and raises it to his lips.
"So how long since you last slept?"
He chomps down on the fry at the same time that she laughs, too loud and too sharp and two booths down their fellow diners turn around in surprise.
"I don't even remember," she breathes and he slides his hand forward again, just barely touching the tips of his fingers to hers. She doesn't try to pull away. "We're going to go crazy."
His index finger carefully presses down on hers, pad on fingernail. She hopes the flash of heat that runs through her doesn't show on her face.
"If you believe the rumors, I'm already crazy."
He did a number on Steve's face, and if Hawkins High cares about one thing, it's Steve Harrington's face. But she doesn't need the rumors; she was there. She remembers. She finds it difficult to rise to Steve's defense.
She snags a fry for herself instead, raises her eyebrows at him as she takes a bite. She can see him watching her mouth.
"Got any tips? You know me; I don't do things half way."
He laughs and flips her hand over, exposing the scar on her palm. She's treated it carefully but it's still an angry reddish-pink, still raised. He drops his gaze to it, runs his thumb over the ridge of hardened skin.
"No," he murmurs. "You certainly don't."
They're going to be friends, she decides. They fought monsters together, cut themselves open together, bled together, grieved together, and she's sure as hell not going back to doing that alone. She won't let him, either.
(She ignores where Steve is supposed to fit into all of this. She's not sure yet. And she doesn’t have the energy to figure it out. Right now he belongs next to her locker, pulling up to her cul-de-sac curb, taking her to the movies, occasionally tapping on her bedroom window. She's glad to keep him there, for now.)
It's hard to know where to start but Nancy Wheeler is smart and resourceful and starts at the easiest point no one would notice – homework.
He's a month behind, with make-up tests and quizzes as well, and she goes over to his house after school twice a week for all of February and March to help him get back on track. Most of the time they sit side-by-side on the living room sofa where they waited for a faceless beast and spread out her notes on his coffee table, avoiding their glasses of iced tea or the sodas she sometimes brings over.
Their thighs press together as he leans over to snag a page of notes from the pile – chemistry, English, or history, it doesn't matter - and even though they wear their thickest winter jeans and sweaters she feels the heat of him. At night she recalls it and tries to wrap it around herself like a blanket.
Usually Will is there and sometimes Mike, Dustin and Lucas are too, shut up in Will's room doing god-knows-what punctuated by yelling that's sometimes contentious and sometimes celebratory. When Jonathan stands to refill their drinks he always detours to his little brother's door, sticks his head in and usually makes a fart joke, checks on Will while accepting his friends' laughter. There is a tension that ebbs and flows where his shoulders meet his neck, following the pattern of his check-ins.
When he returns to her side he is visibly more relaxed, more inclined to crack jokes about their teachers, or her fastidiousness, or to lean against her as he tries to puzzle out themes of reading units.
By the end of March he no longer jumps away from her when his mom gets home from work.
Occasionally his mom takes Will for his regular appointments and they are left alone. On those afternoons they are very bad at studying; they drift into Jonathan's bedroom instead and he plays music for her while they flip through his collection of music and fashion magazines. (The best photographers shoot for Vogue, he explains when she laughs, and she likes his cheeks best when he's blushing.)
Words like "Joy Division," "Talking Heads" and "The Smiths" stop being abstract pretensions, become real. She likes more of it than she expected to, and she can tell it pleases him immensely.
At first they perch on the edge of his bed just like the sofa, almost thigh-to-thigh but carefully separate. But "Marquee Moon" is over 45 minutes and her back starts to cramp up and before she knows it, they're laying side by side, staring at the ceiling as he probes for her opinion.
Like this he can't hide how tall he is, can't hunch to make himself smaller. She wants to knock her socked feet into his as she teases him about the record, but they don't line up; hers are halfway up his shin. Even if she points her toes like she learned as a child she can barely tap the top of his foot. So she scoots down until her head is barely on the pillow and does; his feet dwarf hers as well, long and weirdly elegant. There's a growing hole in the toe of his left sock.
He chuckles through his nose, knocks his feet back into hers. When she turns her head to look at him she's confronted with red and black flannel, more even with his shoulder than his face. It's bare inches from her lips and she's suddenly very glad she scooted down because when she looks up his face is turned towards her as well and if his lips were right there she's not sure she'd be able to stop herself from tasting them.
When she glances up he looks like he's thinking the same thing.
She shoots into a sitting position, crosslegged beside him but still fully on the bed, and for an extended moment he's stretched out next to her, long and lean and relaxed and just the barest strip of stomach visible where his old, slightly-too-small shirt can't meet the waistband of his jeans. She likes this angle, her above and him prone below.
Then Side A ends and he sits up, scoots to the edge of the bed to flip the tape. She holds her breath until music fills the room again and hides, she hopes, how her heart is pounding in her chest.
It snows, hard and unexpected, in the first weeks of April just as it seems the cruel, cold winter is behind them. It's happened before, but not like this, not this far south; sometimes up near the lake but no one can remember the last time central Indiana saw a spring blizzard.
On television the weatherman blathers on about Lake-Effect-effect snow and how this puts 1984 on track to be a record-breaking year, and her mother makes a massive pot of soup while Mike radios his friends and makes plans for a snowball fight.
It hasn't snowed all winter and privately she'd been grateful for it. The big, thick flakes remind her of the things floating in that place. They hadn't been snowflakes; they'd felt like something between ash and goose down, and they never settled on the ground. They'd left a greasy film on her skin and in her hair after Jonathan pulled her out.
She stares out the window for 10 minutes after she wakes up, terror slowly loosening its grip on her heart, and then shuts her curtains tight.
Steve calls to cancel their date – his car doesn't have snow tires and the roads are a disaster. She tells him it's fine and they make plans for when the roads are clear and safe again. In the kitchen Mike and her mother are arguing about whether or not he's going to Will's. He insists he is; she reminds him his bike is useless in the snow.
"I'll take him," Nancy says. The Byers' house isn't that far of a walk away and the thought of being with Jonathan is reassuring in a way she doesn't want to examine too closely.
"Nancy, don't be ridiculous," her mother replies.
"It's not that far. Dad can pick us up on his way home from work."
"And just pawn you off on Joyce for the day? She's got her hands full enough," her mother scoffs.
"Jonathan's there too," Mike pipes up. "Will said he's gonna referee the fight."
Nancy can't hold back her smirk. She imagines 'referee' is code for 'secret attack target.' Holly is watching her closely, eating pieces of apple in her high chair. Nancy turns away from her baby sister's stare before it can make her, irrationally, blush.
"It's not that bad," she reasons, widening her eyes and turning her most innocent stare on her mother. "It's mostly stopped. For now. And if it starts again, we can walk home or something. Honestly, mom, it's like twenty minutes max."
Mike widens his eyes too, turning the patented Wheeler plea on beside her, and when her mother sighs she knows they've won.
"Bundle up," she warns them, voice steely. "If I end up at the ER because you two got frostbite – or worse – you're both grounded for the rest of the year. Understand?"
"Yes, Mom!" they chorus and then Mike is tearing up the stairs to get dressed.
"Wear your snow pants!" her mother calls after him. She snickers and turns to get changed as well, but her mother grabs her arm before she can leave the kitchen. "You too. Bundle up."
She frowns as she pulls on thick wool leggings and a thermal undershirt, then a fuzzy sweater on over that. She hates her snow pants; they're almost too small for her and they're ridiculous, she is almost seventeen. She doesn't need them.
She adds thick socks, shoves her feet into the snow boots that have stayed in the back of her closet all winter, and stomps back down stairs. Mike is twisting and turning to get his snow pants to fit right; he's shot up at least an inch and a half in the past year and they really don't fit. She laughs quietly at him as she pulls on the massive puffy coat her parents had bought her the year they'd decided they were going on a ski vacation in Michigan. Turns out none of the Wheelers is particularly good at skiing, though her mother certainly liked to shop for "mountain-ready clothing."
Mike glares at her, then looks down at her legs. She sees his intention and claps her hand over his mouth before he can make a sound.
"Tell her and I won't walk you over anymore. You can just stay home all day."
He harrumphs but keeps his mouth shut as she calls a goodbye down the hallway and they disappear out of the front door.
Lucas is waiting in their driveway and they gain a Dustin along the way. Mike must have radioed to say he had a chaperone.
She lets them walk ahead of her, looking instead at the snow covered yards. Here and there a blooming daffodil pokes out of the white, reminding her she's still on the right side of the universe.
There's a figure at the end of the Byers' driveway. Even though the path is mostly packed dirt and gravel Jonathan is shoveling it. As they approach she realizes his mom's car isn't there, and that he isn't wearing a coat, just a sweater and gloves. Dustin gives a shout and he stops shoveling, looks up and waves. The boys take off running for the house but he's already looking past them to her. She buries her face in her scarf, grateful to hide from his spreading grin.
"Hey," he says as she comes to stand before him. There's a thin sheen of sweat on his forehead and his hair is pushed back away from his face as he leans on the snow shovel.
"Hey," she says and nods toward his car, alone in front of the house. "Your mom's not here?"
"She had to work. As if anyone's leaving their house today."
"Well," she shrugs. "We did."
His smile stretches wider, but whatever he's about to say is cut off as the boys come tumbling back over the porch, screaming threats as they spread out in the Byers' front lawn. By the way they're standing she thinks it's Mike and Dustin vs. Will and Lucas. She can see Jonathan in the corner of her eye, watching his brother closely.
Will is more cautious than he used to be, and sometimes she catches him watching the corners of rooms nervously, as if there's something there she can't see. But right now he's flushed with excitement, darting to and fro as he packs snow between his gloved hands and looking for the right angle to bean her brother.
A muscle in Jonathan's jaw works as he watches Will, clenching rhythmically, and the muscle in the side of his neck stands out like a rope. She studiously tries not to think about what it would be like to scrape her teeth over it.
"I can't remember the last time I had a snowball fight," she says instead. It's only when Jonathan's eyes snap over to hers, something mischievous dancing in their brown depths, that she realizes the mistake she just made.
"No," she says, taking a step back, and he doesn't even bother to grab his jacket, just drops the shovel and scoops up a heaping handful of snow. She takes another step back and he steps forward, packing it carefully into a round projectile. "No, no no no no, Jonathan—"
"What?" he asks innocently.
"Do not—Do not—"
She's almost running now but his legs are longer and he maintains the small distance between them. She's got her hands up, repeating "do not" over and over again, when he pulls his arm back and throws. The snowball hits her square in the face.
They both freeze, stunned, and her mouth falls open in outrage. His mouth is open too, like he can't believe he just did that, but his shoulders are shaking with laughter.
"Oh," she says softly. "Oh, you are dead, Byers."
He's already taking off in the opposite direction as she scoops up a handful of snow on her own, and she chases after him as she packs it into a sphere. She gets him in the side of the head and his next snowball smacks her dead in the chest. They duck behind trees and his car, popping up like soldiers in the trenches to launch their projectiles. But all it produces is a stalemate and Nancy likes to win, so she doesn't even think, just scoops up an armful of snow as she gives up her hiding spot and runs towards him and aims for the back of his collar.
She misses and trips and he half-catches her and the next thing she knows she's on her back in the snow and he's on top of her, between her legs, and she can feel his breath on her cheek.
He looks surprised, and his cheeks and nose are red, and his hips are shockingly, shockingly slim. He fits, he fits so well, and for one insane moment she almost lifts up into him, an invitation. She keeps herself still at the last second, the air thick between them.
His hair has fallen into his eyes again and before she can stop herself she reaches up and pushes it aside so she can see him more clearly. Something shifts in his gaze and her gut clenches and inside there is a war over how much she wants him to kiss her.
So she does the only thing she can think of and grabs a fistful of snow from beside her and shoves it down the front of his sweater.
He yelps and rockets away from her, jumping to his feet and shaking out his shirt. She manages to get to her feet and takes off running towards the house -- neutral territory.
He's shouting threats at her but he's laughing, and the boys are cheering him on, and when she pauses to catch her breath at the porch he's not packing another snow ball, just watching her instead. There is an angle in his posture that is wanting and she feels an echoing tilt in her hips. Tries not to think about how her lips are tingling again.
Then the boys all attack Jonathan at once and their side battle is forgotten.
Her leggings are soaked through and so are his sweater and jeans, so he offers her a pair of his sweatpants and lets her change alone in his room first. They make a steaming pot of canned tomato soup and a stack of grilled cheese sandwiches as the party comes in, dropping piles of wet snow gear in the front hall without a care.
They eat their late lunch and watch the boys play Atari.
The quartet falls asleep on the floor watching a movie she's never heard of and she feels her eyes growing heavy, too. She tips her temple onto Jonathan's shoulder, feels him stiffen. Slowly, ever so slowly, he shifts so he's leaning more on the pile of pillows in the corner of the couch and raises his arm to wrap around her shoulders. It knocks her head out of place but she resettles against his chest and firmly tells herself not to think too hard about it. They're friends. She's tired.
She doesn't notice the beat of his heart lulling her to sleep until her father pulls up and knocks on the door.
She tries not to notice the way Jonathan won't quite meet her eye as she gets herself and Mike together to leave. Tries not to notice the way his hands linger at the small of her back when she hugs him goodbye.
Steve tries to help her study for finals, boasting about how he's taken all these classes and tests before, but the truth is he's a B- student at best and Nancy Wheeler does not get B's. So as the weather warms and the days grow longer she spends time with him in the backseat of his car and teaches Jonathan the proper method to climbing in her window.
He's proofreading her English essay with The Pretenders playing in the background (her room, her music) and she's given up on her physics flashcards until she can focus her eyes again when the question slips out.
"What are you doing over summer vacation?"
"Hmm?" he says absently, turning the final page of her essay over. His tongue slips out between his teeth as he scribbles something in pencil and she stares until he looks up and she realizes he's waiting for her to repeat herself.
"Summer vacation. What are you doing for it?"
"Oh." His brow furrows as if he doesn't understand the question. "Uh, working."
The shape of his forehead changes ever so slightly as his expression shifts from confused to amused. Almost like it smoothes out, lifts. He's been wearing his hair parted to one side more, curling over his forehead in a way that makes him look a little more like the album covers next to his bed. She likes it.
He laughs softly and shakes his head at her.
"Not everyone—it's fine."
"That's so unfair," she protests before she can help herself. His smile turns a little sad and then a little bashful.
"Honestly, it’s not so bad. We manage to get into a decent amount trouble at work, and then in August I think we're gonna go to Cedar Point for a few days. Will loves the roller coasters," he says with a small smile.
"But still, it's supposed to be a vacation."
"Not for everyone," he says softly. "This is my college money, you know? Last summer it wasn't but now-- It's easier now with the… settlement."
The word hangs between them, heavy and rotten, for a long moment. She knew the government had done something to compensate the Byers after they had brought Will back from the Upside Down. She knew they paid to fix their house, for sure, and suspected there had been something more, too, since Jonathan seemed to be home a lot more since November. But she had thought that had to do with Will.
She wonders if Barb's parents got a settlement. She eats dinner with them twice a month, her and Steve, praising her baked ziti and not saying anything about the strain in their faces.
The official story is Barb ran away. No one gives out settlements for a runaway.
For the last four summers she and Barb and their mothers spent a long weekend together in Indianapolis. They stayed in fancy hotel rooms and got pedicures and went to high tea. She and Barb stayed up all night ordering room service and watching movies.
Something in her mouth goes to ash thinking about Barb's face in the dark, lit only by the TV screen, and their argument about whether Nancy would have a boyfriend by winter break. They'd made a bet.
Jonathan lays a hand gently on her shoulder, as if a more solid touch would break her. His palm is warm, so warm, it winds its way through her veins and into the cold place in the middle of her chest where her grief is locked away. She blinks the tears out of her eyes and forces the grief away.
"Do you know where you want to go?"
"Huh?" His expression says he knows she's hiding something but he's inclined to let her get away with it.
"Oh, uh." He runs his hand over his mouth in the way he only does when he's shy or scare. Drops her gaze and mumbles something through his fingers she can't make out.
"What's that?" She nudges his elbow with hers.
"NYU," he says a little clearer.
"It's a great school," she says with a smile and he grins back, still shy. She hasn't seen this particular shy grin in months, she realizes.
"And expensive. And hard to get into." He shakes off their conversation, scoots across the bed so he's closer to her, his left shoulder behind her right and his torso just barely cupping her back. He moves her essay into the smaller space between their thighs.
If she leaned back he would hold her up, keep her steady. Maybe even wrap his left arm around her waist, rest his scarred palm on her hip. She is so tempted to try. Instead, he keeps his left hand behind her to brace himself and points at his first mark, halfway down the first page.
"Want me to take you through it?" he asks. She nods but she's looking at his forearm. He's still wearing his flannels but they're rolled up to the elbow now. His forearm looks strong and finely muscled, covered with a light dusting of blonde hair. She imagines what it would look like with a summer tan.
Summer comes and he disappears, again.
Without the homework and classes she doesn't have as many reasons to talk to him, or invite him into her bedroom or herself into his. And it turns out he was serious about how much he'd be working. It’s not until Mike convinces her to chaperone the party's third trip to see Ghostbusters that she realizes it's because he's agreed to work late shifts at the Hawk.
"You're missing out on all the bonfires and underage drinking," she teases as he prints six tickets and counts out her change. The boys head over to concessions; her mom gave Mike a five dollar bill.
"Who's to say there's no underage drinking going on here?" he asks, shaking the soda cup next to him at her before passing her a handful of dollar bills and quarters. "Anyway, no one invites me to bonfires."
"You have to talk to people to get invited to bonfires."
"I talk to you."
"And I'd invite you to bonfires."
A genuine smile flits across his face before he hides it behind a scoff.
"Oh yeah, I'd love to bask in the firelight while Tommy and Carol make out and Steve challenges everyone to beer shotgunning contests," he mumbles and she glares.
"It's not like that. He doesn't hang out with Tommy and Carol anymore," she says hotly, wondering why she suddenly feels like she's been caught at something. "And anyway, we make s'mores. You're missing out on s'mores. I make the best s'mores, and you're not gonna get any of them."
Something flashes across his face, like he's imagining taking sticky sandwiches of gooey marshmallow and melted chocolate from her and all of a sudden she's imagining that too, imagining him licking the chocolate off his fingertips and hers, imagining her kissing away a smear of marshmallow in the corner of his mouth.
They look away from each other at the same time. He shifts in his swivel chair and she clears her throat. Will comes running over before either of them can speak.
"Hey Jonathan," he says, slightly breathless. "Can I get Goobers?"
"Sure, bud. Tell Jenny they're on me." He grins at his little brother and something catches behind her ribs.
"You're the best," Will grins and runs away again. Jonathan offers the stack of tickets to Nancy and she takes them.
"Enjoy the movie," he says.
She sees him again two weeks later, this time with Steve's arm around her shoulders. As many times as the three of them have chatted in the hallways of Hawkins High they really haven't ever hung out together, or even run into each other out of school, and she feels desperately awkward as Jonathan makes small talk and Steve pays and refuses to loosen his grip on her even a little bit. She wants to step away, to put a respectful distance between them, but she's not sure why. Who is she trying to respect?
If it bothers Jonathan it doesn’t show on his face. She thinks she might see something roiling behind his eyes, but it could be her imagination.
In the back row of the theater she tilts her head to one side and gives Steve access to her neck, threading her hands through his hair.
"I love you," he murmurs against her skin. He's said it a handful of times now and each time it sends a spike of adrenaline straight to her stomach. She wants to run, to bolt, and she wants to believe him, be selfish, take his love and keep it so she knows she's worth something.
The first time he said it she replied before she could even think, echoing his words out of instinct. She's always been good at playing her part.
Now she stays silent, but she tells herself it's because they're in a theater, she doesn’t want to draw attention. Instead she threads her fingers through his hair, thinks about what it would feel like without the hairspray, if the strands were dirty blonde and not chestnut brown, and he smelled like two-in-one shampoo-conditioner instead of Faberge.
After the movie Steve turns for the bathroom and she wanders out into the lobby. Jonathan is still in the ticket booth, feet up on the counter and nose buried in a book. As she gets closer she can make out the cover – "Breakfast of Champions."
"Still on that Vonnegut kick?" she asks and he looks up, makes a face.
"'Slaughterhouse Five' is good, Nance, you should read it."
"I will. When it's assigned in English next year."
He rolls his eyes, dog-ears his page and puts his feet back down on the ground. For a moment neither of them can think of what to say.
"So what's coming up next?" she asks, gesturing to the movie times behind him. He shrugs with one shoulder.
"Summer lull; all the movies are crap. I think we get Revenge of the Nerds next week, though, and that looks alright."
"Wanna see it with me?" The question is past her lips before she can think. His eyebrows rise in surprise.
"You want to see Revenge of the Nerds?"
"I want to hang out with you. It's been ages. You didn't even come watch fireworks on the Fourth."
She can't tear her eyes from his Adams apple as he swallows hard.
"Yeah, sure," he says finally. "I work days on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. We can go when I'm off."
"Deal. And you're buying," she says, leaning towards him. He smirks back. They both know he gets his tickets for free.
"Only if you provide the underage drinking."
"Definitely deal," she laughs.
"You ready Nance?"
Steve's voice breaks whatever spell was weaving between them and she turns around, sees him waiting in the middle of the lobby. She shoots Jonathan one last grin.
"Call me, okay?" she says. He nods and waves at Steve as they walk out the door. Steve waves back, but Nancy doesn't miss how tight he pulls her to his side.
Jonathan keeps his promise, gets their tickets and popcorn, and Nancy sneaks in a small bottle of rum to dump into their Coke, and in the dark of the theater she thinks about threading her hands through his hair and holding his mouth to her neck and whispering his name in the dark, and sits on her hands to keep herself from making it real.
The Wheelers spend a week in mid-August visiting her mother's sister at her lake house on the Illinois-Wisconsin border. Her mother suggests she invite Steve for part of it, but Nancy doesn't really want to, and anyway it overlaps with his family's annual two-week trip to their lake house in Michigan. How apt; looking down from above they'll be almost parallel but in reality they're miles and miles apart.
Steve keeps telling her he loves her and she keeps saying it back, but with no classes and no basketball team and no jobs there are a lot of hours to fill together. She thinks a little time away from him might be nice. Maybe she'll miss him.
When they get back to Hawkins Steve is still in Michigan and the Byers are in Cedar Point and Nancy suddenly feels very alone.
She calls Allie, calls Stacey, and organizes a sleepover to remind herself she still has friends, but all it really does is make her miss Barb more. They gossip about boys and summer flings and they pry – oh how they pry – in to Steve and her, what he's like in bed, how he kisses, what kind of attention he showers on her. It makes her feel guilty that she hasn't really thought of him in a week. How she spent her family vacation thinking about what path she and Jonathan would take around the lake for him to get the best pictures and wishing she could talk to Barb about all these confusing, conflicting feelings.
Instead she tells Aliie and Stacey about the gold earrings Steve gave her for her birthday and doesn’t mention she liked the afternoon shooting cans with a shotgun in Jonathan's back yard more.
He gave her a guide to different kinds of predators and how to trap them. Steve doesn't understand why she keeps it on her bedside table.
She's upstairs in her room reviewing the fall class schedule Hawkins High mailed home when she hears Will's voice in her foyer. Before she can think she's scrambling down the stairs.
Jonathan's halfway out the door when she calls his name.
"Hey," he says with a grin.
"Hey." She's slightly out of breath when she skids to a stop in front of him. She's wearing a soft, thin-strapped sundress and he's in a t-shirt and shorts, of all things, and their eyes explore the angles of their limbs and the exposed skin. He's got freckles on his arms along with a light tan and his legs are hairier than she ever imagined. She didn't even think he owned shorts.
"Wanna go see a movie?" he blurts out. She smiles up at him and nods.
"The Hawk has Purple Rain."
He groans, but she knows that groan; it means he's gonna complain the whole time but he'll still agree to see her stupid girly movie.
She shouts over her shoulder at her mom that she's leaving with Jonathan and doesn't wait for a response, shoves her feet into the sandals by the door and scoops her purse up from the foot of the stairs before shoving him out onto her porch and closing the door behind them. His hair glints in the sun, streaked with lighter blonde thanks to summer, and he's laughing at her.
"If I actually hear her tell me to be home for dinner then I have to be," she explains, falling into step beside him.
August in Indiana is hot and humid, and she's grateful when he cranks the AC up once he turns on the car. Even if it blows hot air at first, it's better than the wet stillness outside.
"How was Cedar Point?" she asks instead of responding as he follows the cul-de-sac back out onto the main road.
"Fun. Will puked, like, five times."
Sometimes she's shocked by how much of a boy he is. "Gross."
"His record's seven."
"You keep track?"
"Like you wouldn't if it was you and Mike."
She's quiet for a moment. "OK. You're right."
"Of course I am," he chuckles and his hand lets go of the gear shift, gets halfway to her knee before stopping and quickly returning to the wheel. As if he suddenly remembered he's not supposed to touch.
She tries not to examine how disappointed she feels.
They fall quiet, just his mix tape playing in the background and she recognizes this song, this band. "A Forest." The Cure. He'd be so proud of her.
"You got a tan," she murmurs instead. He grins at the road in front of them, maneuvers his tank of a car towards the theater's parking lot.
"Mom made me go out in the sun for four days. Are you proud of me?"
"Very." She puts on a serious tone but she's grinning at him as he pulls into a space and shuts off the engine.
He turns and looks at her and she feels something crackle between them. Slowly he reaches out and touches the ends of her hair, now hovering an inch above her shoulder.
"You cut your hair," he says softly, taking a few strands between his thumb and forefinger and examining them. When he meets her eyes again she has to fight not to lick her lips. "It looks good."
"Thanks," she whispers.
He moves his hand away and she thinks it's over but he surprises her, runs his index finger down her nose instead and bops it lightly on the tip. A shiver runs through her entire body and she feels gooseflesh break out on her arms.
"You got a sunburn, too," he notes. She knows she did, knows the pink flares out over her cheeks and she wants him to touch that too, to cup her face and draw her close and press his lips to hers. She wants to know what he tastes like.
She thinks he wants to know what she tastes like, too.
Instead he pulls his keys out of the ignition, opens his door, breaks the spell.
After the movie they walk down Main Street to Irma's Café as the sun sets, and she sings "When Doves Cry" at him off-key while he groans and tries to thread the needle between being cool and aloof and admitting he likes both Prince and the movie, and when she dances around him in a circle he grabs her arm to stop her from tripping him, or herself, or both of them. His hand slides down her arm until the tips of his fingers thread through hers. She shifts a little closer to his side, thinking about that first night at Benny's diner when she made him meet her for coffee.
"Oh hey, Princess."
Carol's voice is like a bucket of ice water and they pull up short, spring apart as the smirking redhead approaches on the other half of the sidewalk. She's tucked into Tommy's side as usual and he's smirking at them too.
"Fancy seeing you here, Perv," he says, nodding at Jonathan who just rolls his eyes.
"I didn't know you had another boyfriend, Nance," Carol adds. Nancy clenches her jaw, wanting to snap back but unable to find the words. Jonathan's breath moves her hair as he leans toward her ear.
"Let's just go," he whispers. She nods.
"We'll be sure to tell Steve you say hi, Byers," Tommy calls as they start walking again. They're still headed towards Irma's but suddenly she's not hungry. Jonathan looks about the same.
"I'll take you home," he murmurs, and turns to take the long way back to the parking lot. She follows, eyes to the ground, and tries to ignore the way her fingers still tingle from his touch.
He drives her home in silence and when he pulls up in front of her house it's full dark. She looks at him, the shadows the streetlights cast on his face, and clasps her hands together to keep from reaching out to him.
"You should ignore them," she says, her voice sounding too loud in the quiet summer night. "We should both ignore them."
"They're assholes, and they're just angry and jealous that Steve dropped them for me," she points out. He nods, but it seems perfunctory.
"Plus," she can't seem to stop talking, "it's not like we're doing anything wrong. We're friends."
"Yeah," he says again but there's a bitter undertone to it. "Friends."
"It's fine, Nancy. I'm fine."
He doesn't use her nickname and it makes her stomach sink. She unbuckles her seatbelt.
"I'll see you soon?" It's the first time since January that's been a question and not a fact.
"Yeah," he says, and there is forced nonchalance in his voice. "School starts in, like, a week."
He's right. Summer's almost over. She feels a precipice, like things are about to change and she's not going to have a say in it.
She opens his passenger door, climbs halfway out.
"Yeah," she agrees because she doesn't know what else to say.
They don't say goodbye. He watches her through the passenger window until she's on her porch and waves, and then he pulls away.
School starts and Steve is everywhere.
She doesn't know what Tommy and Carol told him, or if they told him anything at all, but when he gets back from Michigan he is different. Defensive. A little angry and suddenly very vigilant.
He picks her up in the morning, walks her to her locker. Sits next to her in study hall. Steers her to the cafeteria at lunch to make sure she's at his table. It's as if he doesn't want to let her out of his sight.
He pops up at her locker after some of her classes and it takes her almost a month to realize it's only after the classes she has with Jonathan.
Their brothers are spending less time at each other's houses and more time at the arcade, and she barely gets to talk to him anymore except for at school.
He's gone back to trying to be a shadow again, keeping his head down and his shoulders hunched, but she sees the way he's started parting his hair and the new pairs of jeans that are slimmer, tighter and how his t-shirts stretch tight over his shoulders now. His skin has cleared up and his cheekbones catch the light in the hallway and she swears even the dimple in his chin has become more prominent.
She sees other girls noticing too. There's a girl with long blonde hair in their biology class who wears dark jeans and Siouxie Sioux t-shirts who keeps trying to talk to him, and Nancy feels something hot and angry in her chest every time. She doesn't want to name that thing, is afraid of what she'll find.
So she makes a point to catch him on the way out of every classroom door, to tease him about music and books and movies, and Steve sneaks up behind her and scoops her up and kisses her silent and Jonathan just keeps walking.
She hates it, wants to tell him to stop, but if she does that's going to lead to a whole other conversation she's not ready to have.
Instead of studying with Jonathan she goes to Steve's basketball practices, and shifts around their dinners with Barb's parents to accommodate his schedule. She agrees to his date nights and movie choices and if she pushes back he becomes petulant, childlike. He's quicker to anger, too – not to rage but to snap and to needle her, like he's holding something against her that she doesn't know about.
She tries not to be unfair. Steve is steady, and he's worked hard to be a better person and he cares about her and he loves her, she knows he loves her – he tells her he loves her every morning when they get to school and every evening when he drops her off in front of her house, and she says it back because that's what good girlfriends do, and Nancy Wheeler is a good girlfriend. She is happy with Steve, and she doesn't dream about anyone else.
Summer cools and the leaves start to change and she starts snapping back at him, too. Their arguments go from occasional to constant, from silly to petty to personal. She feels edgy and tense, and she can't put her finger on why. She wants to ask Jonathan about it but when she calls his house he's busy and Ms. Byers apologizes on his behalf. Nancy thinks she sounds edgy too.
It's not until Mike brings it up that she realizes it's been almost a year.
"Can you believe it?" he says one night as they're watching TV and their father is snoring in his Lay-Z-Boy. "It feels like forever, and like yesterday."
It rips something open deep inside her, something she thought she had locked away, and the grief and the guilt come roaring back. She sounds slightly breathless when she replies.
"No," she says. "I can't believe it at all."
When Steve says he might stay in Hawkins and work for his father, something inside her feels like it's dying. She clamps it down, tries to lock it away. Hopes it doesn't show on his face.
She admonishes him and kisses him instead, and lets the new kid with the loud car end the conversation for her.
But if there was ever a lock inside of her, it's broken. Mike broke it, with his simple observation. Mrs. Holland shattered it, with news of their private investigator. And god knows what kind of alcohol mixed with sickly sweet fruit punch sets the thing she was keeping locked up free.
Her blouse is ruined. Jonathan's arms are strong, and steady. His chest is hard and warm. His neck smells like sweat and boy.
She's proud of herself for not puking in his car.
How he gets her up the stairs without waking her parents, she will never know. He tucks her into bed so gently, takes off her shoes, pulls up the covers. Thank you, she wants to say. I miss you. I want you. Get in here with me.
"Jonathan," is what she says, and grabs his arm. He freezes, and there are so many emotions on his face she is furious for the way the alcohol is making her eyes blur.
Kiss me, she wants to say. Please kiss me.
She falls asleep instead, and when she wakes up it all feels like a dream. She doesn't know it's real until Steve spits her words back in her face behind the gym.
"Tell me," he says.
"Tell you what?" She pretends not to know what he's asking.
"That you love me!"
She has said it so many times already, but now the words won't come. Her head hurts and she's tired and her chest feels like it's caving in and all she can see behind her eyes is Jonathan's face, the way he looked down at her the night before with so much longing.
"I think you're bullshit," Steve says, storming off, and she can't help but agree.
The churning in her stomach only worsens when Jonathan lies for Steve, tries to smooth things over for him. She wants to shake him and scream at him, tell him to stop being such a coward and take what he wants. She thinks – she hopes – he wants her.
That's dangerous territory so she talks about the way their lives shattered together a year ago and never got put back together quite right. That shouldn't be safer ground, but at least it's a topic they can do something about, that they can trap, or fight, or kill. It's tangible, not like all these messy emotions.
Anger is Nancy's least messy emotion. She grabs onto it and holds tight. It only takes a minute for her to come up with a plan.
And Jonathan, he doesn't hesitate when she asks him to join it. Just clears their lunches off the hood of his car and pulls out his keys.
Those messy emotions flare up again and she shoves them away before he catches them on her face, too.
In a motel room in central Illinois they lay their scars side by side and lie to each other. He never disappeared, not really, and when he did it wasn't because of his brother. She knows that. She knows he knows she knows that.
They have to stop at the motel because they have to find Murray Bauman, and he's not an easy guy to find. They take the long way around, from Hawkins to Chicago and then to Peoria before they finally get the right address in Sesser.
It feels like a metaphor for the two of them, except they seem to keep circling and circling with no final destination in sight.
The space between their beds is a chasm and their words open it wider. She sleeps with her back to him and spends the night dreaming of him at her side, warm and soft and curled around her. She dreams of his hands creeping under her nightshirt and of his ungodly ugly pajama pants on the floor and his breath hot on the shell of her ear and his hips, even slimmer than they were in April, cradled by her thighs.
In the morning she can barely look at him, throws herself into her mission and her upcoming meeting. She has a purpose, and that purpose is so much more important than these stupid messy emotions.
Murray is, in turns, shocked, skeptical, curious, wary, delighted, and fucking terrified. Her frustration at his need to pause after they've told the tale bubbles over, but at the same time she envies his shaker of ice and vodka. She thinks she could use a drink.
She feels oddly depleted; the retelling was nearly as exhausting as living it the first time. She has no idea how long they've been talking – they're in some sort of basement with half-windows mostly covered by shelves and furniture and televisions. The outside world is now an abstract concept.
Maybe he senses it or maybe he just feels the same but she feels the air move just before Jonathan slides up next to her and skims his hand over the small of her back. She lets out a breath she hadn't realized she was holding.
"Euuughshh!" Murray groans and grimaces through a gulp of vodka, then pauses. "That's it."
"What?" Jonathan mutters, sounding frustrated and impatient, and utterly inexplicably she wants to hug him.
Murray sends them out to pick up lunch while he sets up the audio editing equipment and digs out his rolodex.
"Next right," she says, scanning the directions Murray scribbled, and then, "Do you think it's going to work?"
"The tape. Sending it out. Watering it down."
He glances at her, then goes back to scanning the unfamiliar streets. "I don't know. It… it can't hurt, can it?"
"What if one of his contacts goes to the government? Tells the lab?" The thought hadn't occurred to her but now she feels a cold dampness on the back of her neck.
He chuckles and she watches his throat as he swallows.
"I don't think reporters do that. Protect your sources and all that."
"What do you know about reporters anyway? And I think it's the second left up here."
"I left that Hunter Thompson book at your house, you haven't read it?"
She gives him a look and draws another laugh from him.
"You should," he sighs with a grin, like he'll never give up even if it gets him nowhere. "It's not just about journalism. There's a lot of drugs, too."
Something warm slides down her spine.
They bring back half a dozen sandwiches and she types up letters as Jonathan and Murray edit the tape and start making copies. She assembles packages and makes him write the address labels even though she has better handwriting.
She feels righteous and strong and like she did last fall, like she was taking this shitty, chaotic, insane thing by the horns and bending it to her will. When she toasts to taking down the man, she means it. It sounds silly, but the sentiment is real.
Then Murray sets his sights on them and it all crashes down.
They know each other too well. She can speak for him, call his dad an asshole like he refuses to (even though he hates him, oh god does he hate him), but that means he can speak for her too, and he will, he does. He names the thing between them and the reason it stays unspoken all in one word and Murray knows he's got her number.
What he says to her sounds far, far too much like what Jonathan yelled at her in the woods last fall. For a moment, through the buzz of the vodka, she can see his face, trying to hide the hurt in his eyes behind his bangs. And then it's Murray again, smirking and asking how he did.
She chances a glance at Jonathan and he's studiously looking down at his knees. She can't read his expression.
Murray's challenge hangs in the air like half-deflated helium balloons. He finds words first.
"I'll, uh, I'll get our bags. From the car."
She helps him pull out the sofa and make up the bed and it's like turning magnets around the wrong way. He shifts away every time she draws near, and every time he does the urge to chase after him grows stronger. She wants to stamp her feet and yell at him that he's being ridiculous but her tongue stays stuck tight to the roof her mouth.
When they stand at the foot of the bed he is haloed by Murray's evidence board and somehow still looks radiant. Tired, and wary, and beautiful.
"Um. Goodnight?" he tries. She gives him a small smile and chews her thumb.
"Yeah. Yeah, goodnight."
It's only after she's changed into her nightgown and crawled under the mustard yellow blanket that she realizes she's performed the dictionary definition of a retreat.
When they meet in the hallway her feet refuse to move past the edge of the rug. His hair is slightly mussed, maybe from the pillow or a rake of his hands, and his thermal shirt clings to the contours of his body in a way she's not expecting. Her mouth babbles on, making easy excuses, but her eyes rake over the curve of his biceps and the surprising definition of his chest. When he crosses his arms and blocks her view she wonders if he can feel it.
The run out of words and the silence stretches. Why won't you kiss me, she wonders.
"So, um, goodnight?" she hears herself say, and there's something rueful on his face as he recognizes the echo.
"Yeah," he dutifully repeats. "Yeah, uh, goodnight."
Then he almost walks into a wall.
She can't lay down. Her skin is thrumming, crawling, and she tucks her legs beneath her and holds the pillow tight to her lap to keep herself from moving.
Why won't you kiss me? She chews her thumbnail and clenches her jaw. I want you to kiss me.
This time when she finds herself at her door, he's on the other side. His eyes search her face and she sees him take a breath like he's steeling himself for something.
Kiss me, she thinks. Kiss me, kiss me, please kiss me.
She learns his mouth is as soft and as hot as she imagined. That his hair is silky and free of product but slightly damp with sweat at the nape of his neck.
She learns his hands can span her cheek and still have room for his fingers to tangle in her hair. That his arms are strong and when he pulls her against his chest it's not just that strength that steals her breath.
She learns his chest is broad and his waist is narrow, and that there's a subtle but visible pair of lines at his hips, and that she wants to put her teeth there.
She learns he's ticklish on the inside of his knees and soft inner part of his thighs. That he knows how to squirm in a way that draws her nearer, underneath him, and that his arms don't shake when he braces himself above her.
His hips still fit in the cradle of her thighs in the most shocking way, and when he settles there she never wants him to be anywhere else ever again.
She learns her fingers slide easily into the long dip of his spine. That his muscles roll like ocean waves as he moves inside her. That scraping her teeth over his throat feels as good as in her fantasies and that he shudders every time she rakes her short nails down his back.
She learns his teeth on her shoulder sends sparks straight to her core and that he somehow knows the right moment to slip his hand between them and where to touch to send her into spasms and shouts.
She thinks he's saved up all his curses for this. She's always noticed how little he curses, even when they're alone without younger siblings or eavesdropping parents. Has wondered why. But now he breathes curses into her skin, oh shit and fuck and oh fuck Nancy, and she thinks maybe he was just waiting for the right time. For the right swell of emotion to tear his manners away from him.
He pants hosannas into the crook of her neck and she clutches him against her and tangles her fingers in his damp hair and breathes his name into his ear.
She thinks she'd like to strip him down to his core and keep that to herself forever.
He has an outie.
He's stretched out on his back and she's propped up on her elbow, using her index finger to swirl circles around the nub of skin and gristle. The blanket is down around their waists but she doesn't feel self-conscious. And not just because his eyes are closed.
She thinks of the first time he made her listen to "Marquee Moon" and how she saw him like this then, just under a lot more layers of clothing and fear. Maybe that's why she's not embarrassed; for the first time in a long time she feels free.
"That feels weird," he murmurs.
She laughs, dips her head and presses a kiss to his shoulder, but she doesn’t stop running her fingers over his stomach.
"I've never met anyone with an outie before," she shrugs.
"Well, what do you have?" He catches her hand, stops her movement by threading their fingers together. Not just the tips; all the way this time.
She leans back so he can see her stomach. "An innie, like a normal person."
"Ugh, who wants to be normal," he scoffs but he's reaching for her. He pokes a finger into her bellybutton and she flinches. It tickles. "Ooh, why is yours so deep?!"
"It's not deep, it's just a regular bellybutton," she laughs and bats his hand away. He uses it as an opportunity to pull her down and settle her against his chest. She pulls the blanket up over them both, feeling the chill of the underground room.
"I don't want to back," she says into the silence. He doesn't respond but she feels his chin move as he looks down at her. "I mean, I do. Or, I don't want to stay here. But when we go back it's all going to have to be normal again. I don't… I don't want to go back to before."
"You don't have to." The way he says it is almost offhand, like how he told her he feels the same inescapable weight in his life. She'd wondered how he could be so casual about something so awful.
"What do you mean?"
"Going back to before, or whatever, it's a choice. It's always been a choice. You've always acted like you have no say in your own life, but you do. You just have to choose."
"That sounds like an ultimatum," she says warily and feels him shake his head.
"No, that's not what I meant, I mean—" His sigh ruffles her hair. "Like, Will, right? He's not the same, and he's not all right, but he refuses to give into it. He's with his friends all the time, and he's still in AV Club, and he can still talk me into letting him trick or treat on his own even though he knows it'll give Mom a panic attack. And Mom… she chooses to stay scared. Maybe she can't help it, but it's a choice too."
Nancy is quiet but she shifts closer as he starts to trace patters on her shoulder with the arm he's got around her.
"If you don't want to go back to before," he murmurs, "then don't."
He doesn't give her a chance to reply before he shifts them, reaching up to shut off the lamp on the low night table behind them and curling around her back. She settles into his embrace and clutches his forearms close to her chest. Feels him press a kiss to her jaw as her eyes flutter shut.
"Sleep, Nance," he says. And she does.
She wakes up first. During the night they've shifted, him onto his stomach and her onto her back, but he's still got one arm flung over her waist. She lays there, tracing the contours of his shoulder blades in the early morning light and thinking about Hawkins.
She dreamed about going home. About Steve at her bedroom window with a bat full of nails in one hand and a newspaper with Barb's name on the front page in the other. About Mike, hiding under her bed with his walkie-talkie, calling out for Eleven, listening for the Demogorgon. About Jonathan in the dark room, perfected in the red light, leaning in to brush his lips against hers once, twice, three times before stepping back to explain he was brightening, and enlarging. Exposing the next threat.
She knows he's right; he was right last year in the forest and he was right last night in her arms and that means Murray is right, too, which is supremely irritating. She's been scared. And didn't she have the right to be? What other sixteen year old has argued with their best friend only to have them disappear from the face of the earth and meet a horrible end in an alternate dimension?
The boy right beside her, the back of her mind whispers, and even though it's not quite the same she knows it's parallel. Go home, Barb, she said and Barb disappeared forever. Sure, I can cover your shift, he said, and a monster stole his little brother.
If this works, if this crazy plan she hatched on the hood of his car works, nothing's going to go back to how it was before. And wasn't that the point?
Through the ceiling she hears the shuffling of feet and then the groan of pipes as the shower turns on.
She slides a finger over Jonathan's shoulder blade and to his spine. He shifts a little in his sleep, like it tickles, and mumbles into the pillow. She leans down and lets her mouth follow in her hand's path, dropping kisses in a neat line from the back of his neck to where the sheet blocks the rest of her way at his hips. He shifts and then rolls so he's facing her. His eyes are half-closed and there's a red line on his cheek from a fold in the pillow and his hair is an absolute riot. Before he can say anything she swoops in and presses a kiss to his lips.
She can taste how sleepy he is, feel it in how languidly he moves his mouth against hers, how limp his arm is even as he pulls her closer to him. In the way he takes a deep breath in through his nose and exhales against her cheek, never separating from her.
When she finally pulls back he's somehow rolled onto his back and she is sprawled across his chest and he is blinking up at her like he's not sure if he's awake or not.
"Murray's awake," she says.
He groans and scrubs a hand over his face, trying to blink the sleep from his eyes. Covers his mouth as he yawns, long and deep.
"What time is it?"
"I don't know," she admits. "My watch is over there. You're warm."
He smirks and taps his fingers against her lower back and she never wants to get out of this bed.
"You ready?" he asks. She furrows her brow, unsure of what he means, and he clarifies. "To go back?"
"I'm ready to go home," she says, soft and firm. "Not back."
His smile is wide, and real.
Later she will think that all her worries, all her fears, were utterly ridiculous. That her personal melodrama could not have meant less. The first hint of that she gets is when they walk into Jonathan's house and it is covered in a maze of taped together drawings and panic settles over every line of his body and sits on her chest until she can't draw a breath.
Later she will realize that they never went back; that it was never an option. Watching black smoke pour from a 13-year-old boy's mouth and fly out of a cabin and dissipate through the dark woods, she will accept that her life is never not going to be like this, and that there is only one person she can imagine keeping her sane and steady through it. He is keening at his brother's side, clutching at the boy and his mother, sobbing apologies into their shoulders.
Later she will shed the skin that became too small in a year of pretending and wanting, let it give birth to a new Nancy, who wants and takes and gets, who rises instead of retreats. Who has been trying to get out for too long now.
Later she will fall into bed next to Jonathan, exhausted and tender and scared, and when he reaches for her she will go easily, curl up into all the dark places inside him and bring them light; let him illuminate her hidden corners as well.
Now they tuck the vodka and soda into their overnight bags, turn on his car, navigate back to the highway. His hand leaves the wheel, hits play on his tape deck, and settles on her knee without hesitation. She places her hand on top of it, curls her fingers around his to hold in place.
She lets her eyes travel the column of his neck, thinks about what it would be like to place a kiss there. She leans over, and does.
Standing on Ceremony - 1/1
Pairing: Captain Swan (canon divergence)
Summary: Killian Jones doesn’t do casual. In the blur that is moving house (moving in together), it takes Emma a couple of days to notice. Once she does notice, though, she can’t unsee it, as Henry would say. Whether it’s relationships or clothing, he is – to borrow a phrase of his from a lifetime ago – someone who likes to stand on ceremony.
Notes: For my dearest friend @scribblecat27, on the wondrous occasion of her birthday. Sorry I can’t be there to give you a RL hug this year, so I hope this will suffice. Inspired by all of us who keep thinking ‘why on earth can’t that man take off his jacket and shoes when he’s in his own home?’ Apologies to anyone who may have already written something along these lines, alas, I haven’t been fortunate enough to read it if it exists! Set in the same universe as “To Plant a Garden (is to believe in tomorrow)” and “Goodnight, Moon”.
Killian Jones doesn’t do casual.
In the blur that is moving house (moving in together), it takes Emma a couple of days to notice. Once she does notice, though, she can’t unsee it, as Henry would say. Whether it’s relationships or clothing, he is – to borrow a phrase of his from a lifetime ago – someone who likes to stand on ceremony.
She can’t deny it, the reality of living together is both exciting and a little awkward. They’ve already shared so much - life and death and danger and sacrifice – that the intimacy of sharing a bedroom and a bathroom should be a walk in the park, but it’s not, at least not at first. She’s never given so much thought to such mundane rituals as tossing her worn underwear into the laundry basket or shaving her legs in the shower, and she’s pretty sure she hasn’t blushed this much in her entire life.
She’s never been happier, though, which is probably the real reason why it takes her a few days to notice that her live-in pirate is still a little old-fashioned when it comes to clothing.
For the most part, Killian’s adapted well to modern life. He’s a quick study when it comes to appliances and gadgets, soaking up every new contraption like a sponge, his eyes bright with curiosity as he reads each instruction manual from cover to cover.
(She’s not going to lie. That part’s pretty adorable.)
There’s one thing, however, that makes her feel like they’re still just playing house rather than embarking on a life of domestic togetherness. It shouldn’t niggle at her, but it does, because it’s just weird to sit entwined on the couch watching old movies with her wearing yoga pants and a faded t-shirt and Killian dressed though he’s ready to run out the door at a moment’s notice.
Thanks to her shopping efforts, his chest of drawers in their bedroom is filled with sweatpants and t-shirts, both long and short-sleeved, and enough fuzzy house socks to make any pirate feel comfortable in his own home.
As far as she’s aware, though, he hasn’t worn any of it.
It’s only when they’re getting ready for bed that he allows himself to slip into informality. It’s only when he’s down to his boxers and undershirt that he unclicks his hook and loosens the straps of his arm brace, as though finally allowing himself to believe no monsters will be coming after them on his watch.
He may have swapped his pirate costume for a modern version, but she recognises the signs of someone hiding behind the armour of clothing all too well.
The next afternoon, she comes home to the sight of her boyfriend and her son sitting on the couch, Henry’s homework scattered on the coffee table in front of them. Henry’s changed out of his school uniform into jeans and a t-shirt, but Killian is still dressed in the clothes he’d put on that morning, including his leather jacket.
Emma frowns. Okay, this has to stop.
Despite being in the middle of explaining what sounds like a nightmarish math problem to Henry, Killian’s whole face lights up as soon as he catches sight of her. “Care to join us for an algebra lesson, Swan?”
Over Killian’s shoulder, Henry laughingly rolls his eyes. “Yeah, Mom, it’s so much fun.”
Her frown vanishes, the unease tugging at her insides fading. Pushing aside her disquiet, she laughingly waves away their decidedly unappealing offer. “Thanks, but I’ll pass.”
The next morning, she watches Killian once again carefully dress in his new battledress (boots and all) before the sun is even fully over the horizon, and her resolve is reignited. Dropping by Marco’s place on the way to work, she puts in a request for yet another commission.
Two days later, there’s a beautifully crafted wooden coat rack on the wall just inside her front door, and she swears Marco has managed to find little hooks that look just like Killian’s.
“A new addition?” Killian’s hands are warm on her shoulders as he comes to stand behind her. “Very practical.”
“Now we can take off our jackets as soon as we get home,” she informs him brightly, “and not have to ransack the house looking for them the next time we go out.”
She feels the brush of his lips on the back of her neck, and swallows hard against the flurry of goosebumps that prickle down her spine. “Brilliant.”
And there’s that damned blush again. “Thanks, but it’s hardly my original idea,” she protests as she turns to face him, her hands coming up to push pointedly at the lapels of his leather jacket. “Why don’t you break it in?”
Amusement dances in his bright blue eyes, but as usual, he’s quick to indulge her. “If the lady insists.” He has to detach his hook so he can slip out of his jacket, but he’s so practiced that it literally only takes five seconds. She brushes his cheek with a lingering kiss as he hangs up his coat with a flourish, and feels his mouth curve in a smile. “I’d best see to dinner.”
Emma pauses in the middle of peeling off her own jacket to give him a smile of her own. “Need a hand, love?”
He waggles one long finger at her, his teeth flashing white against his dark beard. “Cheeky,” he teases, then tilts his head towards the living room. “Go and put your feet up, love.”
She hesitates, but he’s already headed back to the kitchen, a man on a mission, and she decides to bide her time.
An hour later, after he’s cooked yet another two-course dinner without breaking a visible sweat, she eyes him across the dinner table and takes a deep breath.
“You wanna get changed before we eat?” She tugs pointedly at the cuff of his shirt sleeve, still tightly buttoned around his right wrist. “I promise not to start without you.”
Confusion dances in his bright blue eyes. “Why would I need to change?”
He sounds beyond baffled, and Emma bites her lip, suddenly feeling as though she might be making a mountain out of a molehill. Or something. “I just thought maybe you’d be more comfortable.”
He offers her a reassuring smile, looking every inch the gentleman in his buttoned up waistcoat and flowery long-sleeved shirt. “I’m perfectly comfortable, I promise.”
At least he’s taken his leather jacket off tonight, she tells herself as she takes the wine he pours for her with a nod of thanks. “This looks amazing.”
“Thank you.” His bashful smile is almost enough to make her forget that he’s still acting as though he’s not sure he belongs here. “It’s always a pleasure to cook for you, and for Henry too, of course.”
There’s a lump in her throat the size of a fist, and she knows she won’t be able to swallow a bite. “Wait, we need some water.” Slipping into the kitchen, she stares unseeing into the open refrigerator, letting the cool air brush against her face, her heart suddenly feeling so full it might burst.
They’re alike in so many ways, something she accepted long ago, and she didn’t need to see the single chest he brought to the house on moving day to know his habits are deliberately sparse when it comes to belongings. He’s always travelled light, just like her. But now they’ve both got a home, they’ve got a home together, and she wishes he’d just relax.
He loves her. He loves them, and she needs to find a find a way for him to feel truly at home here.
“Shoes off, please.”
Killian looks up from his mug of tea and evening perusal of the newspaper (he’s not sure why the town bothers, not when the dwarf telegraph system seems perfectly adequate) to see Emma brandishing what looks like a pair of fuzzy black shoes in his direction. “Sorry?”
Her smile is a softly hesitant curving of her lips. “I bought you some slippers. You know, to wear when you’re at home instead of your boots.” She drops them onto the table in front of him without ceremony, obscuring an article about the latest crops to be planted in the old Giant’s bean field. “Wanna try them on for size?”
Despite her attempt to appear nonchalant, there’s a too-bright tone in her voice that has him studying her lovely face. “Just what are you up to?”
“Nothing.” The hint of colour staining her cheeks suggests otherwise, and he can’t help smiling. Stars above, she is truly a dreadful liar.
“As the lady wishes,” he deadpans as he reaches down to pull off his boots, tucking them neatly under his chair before turning his attention to the slippers. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Emma clearly doing her best not to laugh. “Spit it out, Swan.”
“You and your tidy ways,” she teases softly, gesturing towards his boots. “This is your home too, you know. You should leave some of your stuff lying around, make it look lived in.”
He takes another sip of tea, trying to find the right words to explain what’s in his heart. “I’ve lived my life below deck for a long time, love.” Reaching across the wooden table, he strokes the back of her hand with his fingertips, her skin warm and smooth beneath his touch. “It takes a while for a man to become accustomed to having so much space to spread out.”
Her lovely mouth presses into a tight line, as if she’s having to stop herself from speaking out of turn. After a long moment, she nods, a brisk tilting of her head. “I just want you to be happy here.”
He sees doubt swimming in her brilliant eyes, hears her unspoken with me, and he gathers her hand in his, lifting it to his lips for a lingering kiss. “I am.”
They take to their bed not long after that. She seems to find special delight in peeling away his clothes tonight, and he struggles to return the favour against the onslaught of her hot mouth and searching hands. In the darkness, in the silken clasp of her body, he finds home anew, with every kiss, every touch, every cry of pleasure mouthed into his skin.
Afterwards, they lay sprawled in a tangle of languid warmth, her fingernails scratching a slow path up and down his chest, his hand stroking the golden tumble of her hair as it flows over the curve of her breast. Her touch slows gradually, matching the change in her breathing, and he presses a kiss to the top of her head. A few minutes later, she seems to have slipped into slumber, leaving him alone with his thoughts.
They’re poor company.
In this realm, people pinch themselves when they wish to make sure something isn’t a dream. If he followed this custom tonight, he suspects he’d be black and blue. He is holding his dream in his arms, and has found his home in the shelter of her heart, yet every new dawn brings the fear that something will tear her from him.
Relax, she keeps telling him, but how can he relax now that he’s found the most precious piece of his life’s puzzle?
The precious piece in question shifts, her whole body seeming to sigh. “You know, I can hear you thinking from here.”
“I’m sorry, love.”
“Don’t apologise.” He feels the rustle of magic in the air, tiny pinpricks of sensation on his skin, then the candles on her wooden dresser flicker into life. “I’d much rather you tell me what you’re thinking.”
He hesitates, once again trying to find the right words. He thinks of the delightful way she pads about the house on bare feet, wearing her nightclothes until noon whenever no new disaster or villain manages to disturb their Sunday. He thinks of how she bought a special mantel on which to hang their coats. He thinks of the drawers she’s filled with soft trousers and zippered jerseys (hoodies, she calls them) and suddenly he understands the unspoken anxiety she’s done her best to hide.
And then, of course, there’s the way she makes his heart seize in his chest by strolling from the bathroom to their bedroom clad only in the tiniest of towels.
Perhaps it truly is time he learned to relax, as she keeps saying.
“I was thinking about my new slippers.”
She nudges his shoulder with her chin, and he feels her soft snort of laughter. “Seriously?”
“These items of clothing you keep buying for me,” he ventures, and feels an answering streak of tension stiffening her body. “You’d like for me to wear them whenever we’ve private time away from the world?”
She shifts closer, her eyes searching his avidly. “Something like that.”
Love can be complicated, he knows. In the end, though, some things are very simply fixed.
“Then it would be my honour to – what does Henry call it? – slob around with you.”
Her eyes glitter as her hand slips down to find his, her fingers smoothing across his palm. “I understand why you felt like you had to keep, you know, standing on ceremony.”
“I’m the one who wore a red leather jacket like it was chainmail for a decade, remember?” Her mouth is warm against the curve of his shoulder. “Things like that are a uniform, something constant in a world that keeps changing and fucking up around you.”
He doesn’t need to pinch himself. If this is indeed a dream, he has no wish whatsoever to awaken. “It’s as I always say.” He touches his mouth to her temple, tasting salt and warm skin. “You’re a perceptive woman.”
“I like how you dress, by the way.” Propping herself up on one elbow, she flashes him a mischievous smile, along with a delightfully bare breast, both of which he appreciates very much. “But you don’t have to wear your armour all the time. Especially not around me.”
Gathering her close, he closes his eyes, enjoying the sensation of the heat of her skin sinking delicately into his. “I’m over two hundred years old, Swan.” He tries not to wince as he says the words. A man has his pride, after all. “And still there are days when I fear I’ll never truly understand who I’m meant to be.”
“You’re the man that I love.” The brush of her lips against his chest sets his pulse to fluttering. “The man who loves me.”
“Aye.” Bending his head to hers, he kisses her softly parted lips, letting his mouth linger long enough to taste the hitch in her breathing. “That I am.”
His kiss seems to fill her with renewed vigour, although he didn’t exactly envisage it inspiring her to leave their bed. “Come on.” Rolling away from him, she clambers to her feet, then holds her hand out to him. “Let’s test this new resolve of yours.”
“It’s late,” he protests, as he knows she expects him to do, and hides a smile when she waves his words away.
“Tomorrow’s Sunday. On your feet, sailor.”
She instructs him to pull on a robe (a soft black thing much improved on the item he’d once worn whilst a guest of the local hospital) before doing the same. She then draws him downstairs and out their front door, her hand clasped tightly in his, overriding his request to pull on his boots.
As they stand on the top of the stairs that lead down to the front garden, she breathes one single word. “Relax.”
To his surprise, he does.
Above them, the night sky is startlingly clear, the stars impossibly close and bright. They make their way slowly down the steps until they’re standing in their front yard, arms entwined. The night dew has left its calling card on the lush grass, and the soft turf is cool and damp under his bare feet.
“What do you think?” Moving to stand behind him, Emma wraps her arms around his waist, her hands linked on his belly, her chin coming to rest on his shoulder as he breathes in the scent of lavender and geranium. “You ready to be a sweatpants-wearing slob whenever we’re kicking back at home?”
He covers her linked hands with his own, lifting and pressing them hard against his heart, beating fast beneath the soft robe she’d bought for him. The night breeze flutters around his bare knees and shins, and his soul suddenly feels lighter than it has in years. “That depends.”
He leans back against the slender weight of her. “Are your parents likely to keep dropping in unannounced?”
“I’ll see what I can do.” Her laughter lilts breathlessly against his ear, filling his mind with enticing visions of laying her onto the soft grass and kissing her from head to toe.
“Perhaps we should go inside,” he murmurs, turning around in time to see the disappointment flash across her face.
“But it’s such a nice night.”
“I’m all for informality, Swan.” His blood sparking with rekindled hunger, he slips one hand into her robe to cup her breast, his palm teasing her nipple into a tight, tempting peak. “But I do feel we need to retreat indoors this instant less we scandalise the neighbours.”
She clutches at his hips, one thigh pushing between his with an accuracy that has him sucking in his breath. “In that case, Captain Sensible.” Rising up on her toes, she puts her lips to his ear, her teeth nipping at the lobe with an intent that sends his blood southward in a heartbeat. “I’m afraid it’s back to bed with you.”
The next morning, he wakes to find his clothes strewn around the room in crumpled abandon, tiny, bright green blades of green still clinging to his bare feet and the sound of Emma Swan singing loudly in their kitchen as she shamelessly mistreats his beloved coffee machine.
A man could easily become accustomed to being this content, he decides.
Grinning, he flings back the covers, eager to join the singing barista downstairs. Two minutes later, Emma’s eyes light up at the sight of him, and he finds himself running a self-conscious hand down his chest. “Well?” He clears his throat, trying not to sound too uncertain. “Do I pass?”
Her bright green gaze drops to his bare feet, then travels slowly upward, taking in his choice of grey sweatpants and black t-shirt with Hogwarts emblazoned on it, the shirt Henry insisted he have. Her whole face softens, and she abandons her battle with the coffee filter to take his face in her hands and kiss him so thoroughly he almost forgets his name, let alone what day of the week it is. “With flying colours.”