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Bound, Unburdened

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Ray was leant against a wall in an empty, disused warehouse that resided somewhere on the border of Sandy Shores, mindlessly fiddling with his machine gun. The gang he was working with, The Red Cardinals, were preparing for a deal with another crew, and an infamous one at that: The Fake AH Crew. The Fakes had been around for a while and were steadily climbing the ranks in gang terms. So, it made sense that The Red Cardinals were edgy as they readied their plan to wipe out the entire Fake AH Crew on the spot – the negotiation of territory only a ruse to meet the notorious gang in person. Ray thought it was an irrational plan, one full of theatrics executed by an arrogant leader; nonetheless, Ray was a great escapist when the occasion called for it and the money had been too good to pass up (half had already been paid upfront).

To be honest Ray would never have accepted an unprofessional job such as this one a few years ago, no matter how much they were paying, but his self-preservation had weakened after being in the business for so long - Ray’s ‘business’ being something of a hitman or mercenary; although, personally Ray thought ‘Gun for Hire’ was a simple enough brand of what he was. Not that he didn’t protect himself at all; he would run away in favour of being shot any day, he’d simply begun to take stupider risks that he would never have considered in the past. It wasn’t about egotism or fearlessness, he wasn’t foolish enough not to fear anything, however, death and pain were no longer the worst outcome.

He wondered if maybe he was just bored.

“BrownMan, they’ll be arriving shortly. Get into position,” ‘Head-Goon’ ordered sternly. Ray had never been good with names and tended to use referential nicknames or titles for people he needed to remember, though he mainly kept them to himself... This guy was no exception, and although not technically the leader of The Red Cardinals, seemed to be the in charge of the other gang members. Ray never bothered to become familiar with the people who hired him, the likelihood he’d get stabbed in the back, both figuratively and literally, being far too high.

“You got it, boss,” Ray said cheekily with a flippant smile and a two-fingered salute.

Head-Goon had not looked overly impressed by Ray’s facetious antics, “You better be worth your price,” He said gruffly before he stalked away to some other members of his crew.

Ray watched him go with a faint smile; yet another client that hadn’t taken to Ray’s joker-like charm, clearly having had expected a stoic faced brute instead of a short, skinny guy in his mid-twenties. Contrary to his languid composure though, Ray was a very competent gunman with many different trades, and had made an acceptable reputation for himself as one of the best assassins in Los Santos, ‘BrownMan’.

Ray lazily pushed himself off the wall, picked up his sniper rifle (that had been propped up against the wall beside him) by the sling and swung it across his back while his machine gun dangled loosely by his side in a leisurely hold. He took his time going up the stairs to the upper walkway of the warehouse, where he had been stationed to hide behind cover until he was given the signal to act.

The idea was to wait for the Fake AH team to arrive and on said arrival, they would be greeted by The Red Cardinals’ leader, Head-Goon and two other faceless members, so as not to spook the Fakes or cause suspicion to the ambush, while the other thirty-something members stayed hidden on the lower floor behind crates and old shipment containers. It was a primitive strategy that relied on the advantage of numbers rather than skilful tactics, however, despite his doubts Ray couldn’t completely determine the fight’s outcome.

Once he had reached the top of the stairs, Ray walked along the narrow walkway that framed the inner walls of the warehouse and took his place in between two other gunmen. It had a good vantage point of the warehouse’s main entrance, however, that was its only advantage: it was too open a shot and the targets would have just as much access to Ray as he would them, it was an easy place to be cornered, and there was a window on the wall behind him that the Red Cardinal’s hadn’t bothered to board up. Ray knew the Red Cardinals must have known the drawbacks when they chose that post for him, despite Ray’s advice that he would be better at a further distance, most likely because in their eyes Ray was expendable – not that Ray minded, it was expected.

Ray sat crossed-legged with his back rested on the partition behind him and switched out his machine gun for his sniper. The two gunmen besides Ray, one each side of him, gave him odd looks which grew even more perturbed when Ray simply smiled at them in return. It might have been because of Ray’s casual attitude towards the situation, or it could have been that his guns were custom painted bright pink – Ray could never tell. He had had them painted pink when the adrenaline began to lessen during his jobs and he thought being more conspicuous might ‘up the ante’.

While Ray waited for the job to begin, he distracted himself by looking at the red thread wrapped around the base of his pinky finger. ‘The Red String of Fate’ as it had been named; the string that led and was connected to the person you belonged with: your soulmate. It can appear at any time in someone’s life and you can only see your own, although it was an innate law that everyone had one. Ray’s had shown up when he was sixteen and homeless, pick-pocketing and mugging to stay alive. He remembered being so content the day it appeared; it brought him an odd peacefulness and gave him hope of normalcy. It anchored him.

However, as the years went by he became more and more fearful of the day he might meet the person at the end of his thread, and his hopes to meet them turned to prayers that he never would. There wasn’t anything he could give them. Money maybe, albeit blood money, and there was hardly a steady flow of it. Besides that, all Ray could offer was a life of crime that he himself couldn’t get out of and was no longer sure if he even wanted to. What’s more… It honestly scared him to be with someone; he wasn’t sure how to be with someone. He was so used to being alone – had been alone for most of his life and he had no confidence he could be what they wanted him to be.

A loud scrapping noise echoed through the warehouse as the large shutter door slowly rolled opened. When he could hear voices, Ray tugged his hood closer over his face and adjusted his mask, a white eye-mask that’d be worn for a masquerade party, it didn’t do much to hide his face but his identity was completed unknown anyway; he just liked it.

“Want to tell me why we had to come out to an abandoned warehouse in the middle of fucking nowhere?” Asked an irritated voice Ray didn’t recognise and deduced it to belong to a Fake AH member; it was quiet and didn’t echo, so they must have stayed outside the warehouse.

“Please excuse me, Ramsey, but we’re moving bases and our equipment is still being rehoused. Sorry to make you come all this way for a simple talk,” Red Cardinal’s boss said smoothly, nevertheless, Ray shook his head at the obvious lie. Ray had spoken to him once or twice, he was the guy who hired him after all, but for the life of him he couldn’t remember his name.

“What do you want, Danvers?” Another new voice said tersely; Bostonian, Ray noted.

‘Oh right. Danvers.’

At that moment, Ray felt a tightness around his little finger and lifted his hand to see that the red thread was digging into his skin ever-so-slightly, not enough to make an indent or for it to hurt, but enough for it to be felt as it dipped into his flesh a little. Then, it tugged… Well, it had never done that before.

There had been many studies on the nature of ‘The Red String of Fate’, which had shown that it’s aesthetics were the same for everyone; a red, ghostly apparition of a sting that was unaffected by the environment around it for its lack of physicality, so it never frayed or tangled. However, despite this one constant, it held more incomparable variables in the terms of its behaviour; be it the age it appeared for someone, it’s actions, or reactions to each person attached to it; there was no same experience for one person. So, Ray couldn’t be sure what the pull meant – but hoped it was nothing bad, for him or for the person who shared it.

Ray had stopped listening to the scene between the two crews and had almost missed the cue to reveal the ambush, but fortunately snapped out of it when he had seen one of his fellow gunmen fidget to get out from cover. Ray followed suit and steadily aimed at the targets.

There were six men who stood along the warehouse’s entrance opposite the Red Cardinal members, guns in hand ready to shoot. As Ray looked down his sniper’s scope, he briefly took in the targets’ appearances: an older gentleman who wore a dirty tuxedo and tattoos that laced his forearms, a larger guy with ginger hair and beard, a short burly fellow with facial hair that lined his jaw, a tall lanky dude with messy hair, a medium-built type adorning a beanie, and finally, the more intimidating of the group, a broad-shouldered, muscular man with a black skull mask that covered his entire face.

Ray smiled to himself, ‘Think I’ll call you Skeletor.’

The Fake AH crew didn’t appear too surprised by the exposed treachery, or thirty plus guns aimed at them, however they didn’t look completely confident either if their locked jaws and shifting eyes were anything to go by. Ray slowly glided his scope’s view over each member of the Fakes, keeping a sharp eye on their movements, but stilled in mild shock when he reached Skeletor. Was he staring at Ray? He couldn’t be sure, the mask hiding the man’s face too well while shadowing his eyes. It wouldn’t be strange, Ray supposed, he was pointing a gun at the guy, yet, so were thirty-something others and the rest of his crew were keeping their attention on the leader.

It unnerved Ray slightly, even so, he quickly brushed it aside with the decision to keep a closer eye on him in case he was planning to make a move. Ray was about to train his sights on the other members as well, when something lifted into his sniper’s view.

It was a Red Sting of Fate…

He followed it and was led to the masked member’s hand that was hung by his side. Wait - Why could Ray see Skeletor’s red thread? He’d never heard of that happening before; for all he knew, a person could only see their own string of fate. Ray felt an uncomfortable feeling in his chest as he stared at the ghostly strand, which was pulled taut and went up in a diagonal motion towards Ray’s position…

Ray moved his attention back to the situation at hand and kept his sniper on the marks.

“It isn’t a discussion. We are pushing you out,” Danvers said royally, before he turned in a flourish to gesture at his men that swarmed around the Fakes. Ray saw Danvers look up at him with a smirk on his face; Danvers seemed to have some misconception that Ray was his ‘ace in the hole’, whereas Ray, although assured in his abilities, was not convinced the Red Cardinal’s had this battle won.

Another tug pulled at Ray’s finger, sharper this time and it surprised him enough that his aim wavered for a split-second.

‘What the hell?’

For only an instance, he took a chance and glanced away from his scope to look at his left hand; the hand that cradled the sniper’s neck, and the hand that was attached to his own ‘Red Sting of Fate’.

And within that short, brief action of inspection, his denied suspicions were confirmed and he speedily (almost shakily) shoved his attention back onto the targets with no regards of his previous decision ‘to keep a closer eye on him’ and kept his gaze away from Skeletor instead.

…Ray was Skeletor’s soulmate.

Skeletor was Ray’s soulmate.

Ray had found his soulmate…

And they were on the receiving end of his sniper rifle.

He shouldn’t have been surprised really.

Ray exhaled slowly through his nose. Regardless of his outwardly steady posture, his head was shuffling dangerously fast through too many thoughts and feelings without the time to think or feel them. So, he quickly pushed away the part of him that was panicking with a fleet of emotions and halted at one realisation: he had to make a decision. He could continue the job as he had planned, soulmate or no soulmate, and keep his steady mission success rate, or he could subtly sabotage the Red Cardinals and damage that streak, although any sabotage Ray could create would be far from subtle from how close the other gunmen were. Hell, maybe they wouldn’t even need his help; the Fake AH crew may be small but he’d only heard good things (‘good’ being a relative term).

But what if they didn’t win.

Ray knew he couldn’t kill his soulmate or watch him die – he wouldn’t.

Though Ray held no illusions that his soulmate felt the same. Skeletor seemed tough with a cold disposition – made from a life where you would have to accept facing your soulmate in a gunfight and shooting without hesitation, only seeing them as a future liability or as inevitable collateral damage. And Ray didn’t blame him if that was how he thought, rather, he hoped Skeletor had far better survival instincts than himself.

One problem was if Ray’s ‘betrayal’ got out, his reputation could tarnish and he might not be as ‘in demand’ as he is now if future employers thought he was too unpredictable and or untrustworthy. But, The Red Cardinal’s weren’t nearly as well known as the Fakes, so, if Ray was lucky, it might not call too much attention if they were to perish on his watch...

Ray had never been that lucky though.

He inwardly sighed as he realised his decision. He’d made it from the start.

He had to make sure they won…

Reputations could be rebuilt, he’d done so before, and although the notion of helping a man who might not need or appreciate it simply because of a phantom connection that hung between them was beyond naïve, Ray couldn’t reign his impulsive want to make sure his soulmate didn’t get hurt in any way. Aside the insecurities and fears of finding his soulmate that were perpetual background noise, there was something essentially good that filled him from seeing and knowing his soulmate existed.

So, Ray threw his current job out of the metaphorical window and replaced it with a job of his own: keep Skeletor (and his friends) alive, most preferably unharmed too. Ray couldn’t know for certain if the Fake AH gang had any sort of plan or what it would be, and although it wasn’t his style to step on anyone’s toes, he had to make sure they won, he just had to avoid compromising them in the process.

Ray wasn’t aware for how long Danvers had been talking at the Fakes, but was grateful for the man’s ego as it gave Ray time to consider his options. He had a few ideas of what he could do, each one consisting of imposing all the attention on himself. Unfortunately, he had to find a way to dispose of the two gunmen either side of him first. He discreetly took a side-glance at each of their profiles: they were both fully fixated on the Fakes. It wasn’t a great ‘opening’ per se, but it was the best scenario he was going to get in his current position.

Thus, without awaiting Danvers’ speech to end, Ray swiftly unsheathed his small hunting knife at his waist and whipped it into the neck of the gunmen on his right; then quickly turned to the left guy and shot him in the head point blank with his sniper. Ray didn’t linger as he ducked under cover and moved away from his position, which had since become under fire. He hurriedly switched out to his machine gun and recklessly doused the leader and his surrounding henchmen with bullets; it wasn’t so much for damage than to spread them out and keep them occupied on him. Danvers and a few goons were killed in the bombardment, and Ray had taken an ephemeral moment to see that the Fakes had taken cover behind the outside entrance walls, shooting into the warehouse. Ray was relieved as it was the safest position for them: The Red Cardinal’s being trapped with the only way out through the Fake AH crew.

Ray changed his location again, one closer to his original, before he tossed two grenades over the metal divider to the floor below. He stooped under cover and sheltered his head with his arms awaiting the grenades to explode and determine if they would harm the building’s structural integrity badly enough that he’d have to jump ship and make a sudden leap out of the window (which followed the entire back wall of the walkway where his original spot was). After a beat, the grenades went off and the building trembled below, but the vibrations were shallow enough for Ray to tell the upper floor wasn’t in danger. There were shouts and gunfire as everything hit the peak of panicked chaos, the Red Cardinals having had lost their leader along with their composure. When the smoke cleared, Ray began picking off any goons he could from his position.

Not long after, Ray caught sight of some Reds heading towards the staircase, most probably to take him out, but he refrained from firing and decided to let them come after him to take some of the heat away from the Fakes. He risked another check on the Fakes to see them tactfully taking out Cardinal members one-by-one. Ray had already taken out over half of the gang members in total and the crew were already clearing up the rest nicely. Then, without even consciously doing so, Ray took a last look at Skeletor and watched as he fired his assault rifle in short semi-accurate bursts to blow away closing in pursuers.

‘Try not to die, please.’

However, just as Ray began to force his eyes away, the black skull snapped up to him, freezing Ray in place who could do nothing more than stare back. A small burst of longing started to wrap around Ray’s chest before suddenly, both their attentions were quickly pulled away at the heavy set of multiple footsteps clambering up the metal stairs on their way to Ray’s spot. His time was up. Ray pulled his eyes from Skeletor so he could make his escape, all the while pretending to have no desire to turn back.

Ray rushed back to his original station and tugged his hunting knife out of the dead gunmen’s neck, disregarding the heavy flow of blood that came rushing out after it, then shoved it back into his waistband. He pushed himself up out of cover and used the momentum to heave the butt of his machine gun into the glass pane behind him, the glass shattering loudly as it was smashed. He threw himself over the window edge and skilfully flipped his body so he was hanging down against the outer wall of the warehouse and shuffled along it until he was above a large metal shipping container that sat to the side against the back wall of the building (he’d spotted it earlier when he had scoped out the place for the job). He fell the eight meter drop uninjured (something he had to learn in his line of work), then as his feet landed on the steel roof of the container, a heavy weight crashed onto his back, knocking him off the box and making the three meters that followed far worse than the previous eight.

The heaviness had clung to his back all through the fall and Ray was forced face-first as he fell onto the solid earth, his head smacking against it hard enough to form a bloody cut above where his mask sat over his eyes. Ray felt his sniper and machine gun viciously ripped off his back and tossed aside somewhere to the right of him. A strong hand clawed at one of Ray’s shoulders and roughly turned him over to face the dull, dessert sky as well as a set of glaring eyes. Head-Goon had his knees locked either side of Ray’s thighs so that he was sitting on top of the smaller man, successfully trapping him.

Ray grinned baring teeth, “’Sup boss? So, wanna pay me the second half now or…?” He trailed off.

Okay. That one wasn’t necessary, Ray could admit that. He knew his limits and close-quarters combat was one of them, especially when it came to brute strength with thugs twice his size that he’d just antagonised. Ray really was asking for it lately.

Head-Goon punched him hard across the face with an angry snarl, “How much more did they pay you?”

“How rude. I cannot be bought,” Ray feigned offense, as in fact, Ray could be bought; technically he sold himself for a living.

“You were with them from the start,” Head-Goon growled as he dug his hands into Ray’s shoulders. The grip tightened as Head-Goon lifted and whacked Ray’s head back down onto the ground with such strength that Ray’s vision wavered and he could feel a wetness at the back of his head where he hadn’t before.

“Nah, dude, I’m a one-man band, baby,” He said with a cheerful smile.

“Why lie at this point?”

“Cause you’re hot when you’re angry?”

Frustrated with the answer, or rather lack of one, Head-Goon grabbed Ray’s neck and squeezed tightly. Ray grimaced in pain as he scraped at the dry earth with one hand until he accumulated a handful of sandy dirt before he threw it into the larger man’s eyes, while his other hand had fished out his knife and stabbed Head-Goon in the thigh. The Red Cardinal cried out and Ray took that moment to pull his legs and knees up out from under the man’s knelt legs, then kicked his feet straight out into Head-Goon’s stomach - all in one fluid motion.

After successfully freeing himself, still with his knife in hand, Ray hastily stood and went to acquire one of his discarded guns, however, he was quickly recaptured as a painfully tight hold wrapped around one of his calves and dragged him back towards the snarling brute behind him. Ray turned his head to see Head-Goon, whose eyes were red and bloodshot, wielding the machine gun that had since been uselessly slung across his back. Ray was quick to kick the offending weapon out of the Red Cardinal’s hand and at a far enough distance that it was out of arm’s reach; he didn’t leave room for Head-Goon to try and retrieve it as he consecutively kicked at his head as well as the hand that was clamped around his leg. However, Head-Goon didn’t relent and again, Ray was forced on his back to face him.

“You just can’t resist me, can you?” He said the joke lamely, distracted as he tried to stab the guy again only to have his wrist easily trapped and crushed against the floor. He clenched his jaw to keep himself from shouting out in pain and kept his efforts on his grip around the knife’s hilt, however, with his wrist injured Head-Goon easily tore it out of his hold.

He looked down at Ray briefly before he harshly stabbed Ray in the thigh, apparently wanting to return the favour. He pulled the knife out of Ray’s leg and slashed a long deep cut down across Ray’s left arm which immediately spilt with blood, the hoodie’s thick material being cut through like butter. Head-Goon made similar cuts on Ray’s stomach and chest, trying to cause a pained reaction from the sniper beneath him and when that failed, plunged the knife into Ray’s right shoulder. Ray took that moment to surprise Head-Goon with the last of his strength and pushed his body up fast while his uninjured hand shoot out, heel of his palm up with all the force he could muster and shoved it up Head-Goon’s nose, making it crack sickeningly and blood spray out over Ray. The Red Cardinal yelled out and his hands went instinctively to his nose, giving Ray the opportunity to pull the knife out of his shoulder and stabbed Head-Goon three times along his neck. There was gurgling and a mesh of strangled sounds as Head-Goon’s hands reached up towards his neck in shock but the life seeped out of his body too quickly for them to make contact.

Ray, splattered in blood (his own and the Head-Goon’s), stayed where he was sat for a short while as he caught his breath and let his adrenaline simmer, before he shoved the kneeling corpse off himself and got up off the floor. He wobbled over to his guns and swung them over onto his back, however, a strong nausea suddenly hit him and he abruptly threw up onto the dry ground. His head pulsed with an aching thud and supposed he might have a concussion. Forcing himself to ignore the pain and weariness while blood trickled out of his body, Ray instead focused on his surroundings. It was quiet; no shots rang out or noises of combat which meant that the battle had reached its end and the winners, who Ray had faith were the Fake AH crew, were likely still around. So, not wanting to be found, Ray hobbled over towards the shipping container and went inside to wait for them to clear out.

With the container’s doors closed over as much as possible (he couldn’t properly close them without locking himself inside) behind him, he stumbled a few steps until he was halfway inside the metal box and sat himself against the side wall. It was dark but Ray felt relieved for it. He shrugged off his ruined hoodie and tore it into strips with a fair amount of difficultly, his injured wrist somewhat useless as he awkwardly created make-shift bandages. He was then left in his torn up, black t-shirt as he bandaged up the two stab wounds, however, before he can work on wrapping the deep cuts along his torso, a loud thud from above caused the steel walls to shake. Then, a lighter thud followed; from the sounds of it, someone must have jumped the same way Ray came from and used the shipment container to shorten their fall to the ground. Ray had stilled to avoid creating any noise as he listened to the sounds of the new person’s footsteps. It seemed as if they were inspecting the scene of Ray and Head-Goon’s fight.

Quietly and cautiously, Ray moved into a crouching position and turned to his side to place most of his weight against the steel wall with his machine gun aimed at the container’s doors. His wrist ached as he forced it to support the neck of his gun. The footsteps were slow as they walked around the area outside until they stopped at the crate’s entrance. Ray readied himself as the steel doors began to open with the slightest of squeaks that echoed throughout the container. The muggy grey light of day seeped into the metal box but could only lighten a small portion at the front of the container, which left Ray still considerably shadowed, however, he instantly recognised the figure silhouetted against the crate’s opening.

Ray’s heartbeat drummed in his ears as his hands loosened around his gun, no longer with any intention of using it. It might be considered strange, but Ray felt more anxious seeing Skeletor than any other attacker trying to kill him and not because of the skull mask or questionable intent, it was because he had no idea how to be – how to act.

Ray stared, his mouth slightly ajar until he caught himself and trained his face away from the eyes that had looked heated and unforgiving. He settled his gaze at the floor by Skeletor’s feet and waited for the inevitable firing of Skeletor’s assault rifle; but it never came. There was an odd pause while Ray kept his attention away from the man whose gaze he felt boring into him and tried desperately to ignore the pain from his wounds that still flowed freely with blood, not to mention the dizziness and nausea brought about by the concussion. The stab wound in his thigh, although tightly ‘bandaged’, was particularly troublesome as it stung painfully and was heavily bleeding from the pressure of Ray’s crouched position, which eventually took its toll and caused one of Ray’s knees to buckle underneath to the short fall to the floor. It broke the prominent lull but it might have looked like a natural movement, as if Ray were just adjusting his position.

Another beat of silence passed while Ray wondered why he hadn’t been shot, before Skeletor was suddenly moving. He marched over to Ray who in turn quickly stood and stumbled away, peddling backwards until his back hit the far wall of the shipment container where it was darkest that he was almost completely imperceptible. He faltered a little on his bad leg, but leaned most of his weight on the wall behind him to keep him as steady as possible. Internally, Ray shook his head at his body’s actions; he had accepted his death, yet his defensive instincts were still active. Well, it’s not as if he wouldn’t have tried to escape, but he was pretty sure he was done: he had only one exit which was occupied, he had no energy for another fist-fight and, as previously been addressed, he had no desire to hurt or kill his soulmate.

The man hadn’t followed Ray to the back of the steel crate and Ray noticed he had dropped his gun so it dangled at his side by the sling. It was more intimidating as it gave away even less towards his intentions, although Ray could guess a few…painful ideas. Unconsciously, Ray cradled his hurt wrist against his chest and as he did, the red thread that gripped at the hand’s pinky suddenly illuminated in the shadow of the shipment container. Ray flinched at the red glow, then stared at it with confused wonderment until he found himself unimpressed at the flourish of attention it called for. It was like the elephant in the room was addressing itself.

Ray saw Skeletor look at the glowing thread too but where it connected to Ray’s finger held against his chest. The red glow shone brighter where Ray stood, being out of the daylight’s reach and hidden by the darkness of the deepest part of the shipment container. Skeletor begun to slowly approach Ray, who tensed as he watched uneasily, and didn’t stop until there was only a foot between them. Ray couldn’t help but stare at the skull face that was presented in front of him, Skeletor’s eyes were wide and fiery but Ray couldn’t catch the emotion that was being conveyed precisely; one moment he thought he saw anger, another awe, then perplexed, followed by something that could resemble trepidation. It all went by so fast and Ray wasn’t in the best condition to focus on any of it. He felt weak and heavy, his wounds stung ungratefully at his lack of care towards them.

Skeletor’s gaze was pulled back to Ray’s pinky, then lifted his own hand up where the thread tied to his and his hand came forward as if planning to connect their hands together. However, Skeletor’s expression changed to that of concern when his eyes landed on something else. Ray followed his stare and found he was looking at the large gash along his arm that was still bleeding profusely. Ray turned his face to Skeletor’s whose eyes were wide with alarm and suddenly, Skeletor grabbed Ray’s arm, his hand wrapping around the wound as if trying to stop the bleeding. Ray tried to yank his arm away, startled by the man’s abrupt actions however Skeletor held firm, his eyes focused on Ray’s bleeding arm, before they searched Ray’s body for what other injuries he could find; the light from the thread illuminating Ray enough to show his wounds and the heavily spilling blood.

A sharp pain ebbed at Ray’s head from the concussion and his vision began to blur. The nausea and blood loss hacking away his consciousness. He kept his eyes off Skeletor’s as he tried to stand upright but felt himself begin to fall despite himself. Before his mind closed off however, he felt himself be clumsily caught with arms that held him awkwardly. If Ray had had the energy to, he would have laughed.

Chapter Text

When Ray briefly awoke from unconsciousness, he was in a car that was moving rapidly and dangerously, pulling this way and that. The sound of yelling and police sirens filled his ears and when he opened his eyes Skeletor’s face was above him, watching him with hardened eyes. Ray, discombobulated and hazy, didn’t force his face into a neutral expression like he had taught himself to, but instead, with the world swaying like a dream, he smiled warmly – weakly at the skull looking down at him. Skeletor’s eyes widened in surprise for a moment before they looked somewhere up front, and shouted out something in a bite before his eyes snapped back to Ray. Ray wasn’t conscious enough to make out the voice. He tried to look up front to where Skeletor had shouted but the arms around him tightened as he tried to turn his body.

Ray was returned to his concussion’s custody and fell in and out of awareness, he didn’t know how long for, until he finally came to as someone muttered, “Was someone trying to butcher you?”

Panic took over and his body went rigid from the uncertainty of the situation, unsure if he was in danger and the past having had taught him to assume he always was. Still, in the face of any threat, Ray was never one to show hesitance or worry if he could help it and hid any hesitations behind a neutral or light-hearted countenance.

“If you think I look bad, you should see the other guy,” he automatically joked and it was one of the few times he wasn’t being sarcastic. His voice came out in a raspy mumble, his head and body numb with pain, but he could feel that he was laying on something hard and metal, almost naked apart from his boxers. It always made him feel better to tell a joke, no matter the situation.

“Oh, you’re up, how are you feeling?” Ray turned his head downwards to see a young man (mid-twenties by looks) hovering over his body with a needle and suture apparently stitching Ray’s wounds. He had short-cut, brown hair that topped a square-ish head; his narrow features and strong cheekbones, contrasting the soft-spoken tone. The guy hadn’t even glanced at Ray as his focused on his work in his navy-blue scrubs.

“’m fine,” Ray lied. The burning pain from his injuries flooded over his entire body, his head was killing him and gave waves of nausea to his stomach, though he thought it safest to keep his ailments to himself than share them with a potential enemy.

Ray took a quick moment to establish his surroundings, unnerved by the current situation he had no understanding or control of. He had already concluded he was on a surgical table, however, it appeared to stick out like a sore thumb compared to the relatively normal bedroom he found he was in. There was a single-bed pushed into a corner of the room, while a single closet and a desk sat against the wall adjacent to it. A door, that was opened wide behind the man standing above him, led to a bathroom and Ray could see piles of medical equipment and supplies inside. Overall though, it was barren enough to remind Ray of one of those many cheap motel rooms he’s stayed at before.

“Really? That’s surprising for someone who has a concussion, two stab wounds and three long lacerations along their chest, stomach and left arm. Oh, and a swollen wrist,” The guy spoke calmly with only a very slight lilt of scepticism in his voice, as he continued his stitching still without looking at Ray.

It would have been funny, if Ray didn’t feel so trapped and vulnerable. There were no handcuffs or ropes, which should have put Ray a little at ease, but it didn’t – not at all. It just added to his progressively growing list of questions, such as: ‘Who are you?’, ‘Where am I?’, ‘Why am I here?’, ‘Why are my wounds being tended to?’, ‘What happened to the Fake AH Crew?’, ‘Are you going to kill me?’, ‘When are you going to kill me?’ and so on. However, he didn’t voice any of them, worried it’d only set something into motion he couldn’t stop, so, he kept as calm as possible and steeled his face away from any of his true feelings on the circumstances.

Ray smiled and cheerfully said, “What can I say? You’re a great doctor.”

“Nurse,” The medic corrected simply.

“Excuse me, an amazing nurse,” Ray amended.

The nurse carried on his work and gave a distracted, “Thanks.”

They remained silent, Ray no longer having the energy to make more jokes to help his uncomfortable, cautious state, as the nurse finished working on Ray’s wounds. Even though it would be considered a kindness he should be grateful for, it only brought discomfort that someone he didn’t know or trust was messing with his body.

It took a while for all his wounds to be disinfected, stitched and bandaged before his bruised wrist was covered in a cold compress. The nurse explained the recovery process, how to treat his wounds and went through all the ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’. He was also told of pain relief he’d be expected to take in the meantime, but that rest would be imperative, especially while he was still concussed.

It was all very…civil, yet Ray’s alarm bells continued their reign.

Ray slowly sat up and moved his legs over the side of the table, ignoring how his stitched injuries and nauseous head begged him not to. The nurse gave him a disapproving glance, although didn’t stop him as he got up, instead took to cleaning up the medical utensils. Shifting carefully off the table so to avoid jostling his wounds, Ray’s feet touched the floor and he noticed a large tarp under the surgical table that covered most of the room’s floor-space, most likely to avoid blood stains on the carpet. His eyes landed upon a messy bundle of shredded clothes on the corner of the tarp nearest to the door and realised they were his. The medic must have cut them off to get to Ray’s wounds safely… He walked over to them and picked them up for inspection. Nope, he was going to have to leave in his boxers; at least he can tick off ‘escape a maybe-probably-enemies’ threshold in his boxers’ off his bucket-list.

“There’s some clothes on the side there,” Ray is told as the nurse very briefly motioned to the desk in the room.

‘Oh, thank God,’ The words rushed through Ray’s head as soon as he heard the medic’s words.

Ray instantly dressed himself in the pair of jeans and random top that were left out for him. The jeans fitted him fine on the hips (surprisingly), although he wasn’t overly keen on the ‘skinny’/’fitted’ cut (he tended to go for straight leg) and they were a bit long so he had to roll up the ends a few times. He wasn’t complaining though, at least he had clothes to wear. The top fit fine, and he grabbed his sneakers that had been thrown off to the side; they were intact, only tarnished by some blood and dirt. The mask he wore wasn’t far from where his torn clothes were and he tied it back on, careful not to disturb the butterfly bandaged cut above his eyebrow. Despite having no recorded identity to hide, Ray found the small gesture of security in an uncontrollable situation helped ease his mind, if not only a fraction.

“Thank you, how much do I owe ya?” Ray asked keeping his voice light.

“Been taken care of,” The nurse replied as he continued putting away his tools

“Ah…” Ray felt nothing but more unease from that reply at the danger of ‘owing’ someone whose intentions and or identity(s) were far from clear, “And where am I?” He quickly added, making sure only curiosity could be heard.

“One of the Fake AH Crew’s safe houses,” Was the enlightening and yet, far from revealing, answer.

Ray felt his mouth dry out and wished he knew where his sniper was. There was no way he could fight back; he would still try if it came to it, but in his current condition, he had little faith. His eyes stung and he rubbed at them in frustration, which just irritated his contacts. He normally wore glasses but he had to trade them out during missions because they were constantly getting broken in fights, leaving him almost blind and defenceless. He kept a spare pair in a hardened case in his sniper bag, the secondary reason he wished for it.

Ray stood with feigned ease as he walked over to the door, “Okay well, thanks for all this; I better be on my way.”

For the first time, the nurse stared at Ray with undivided attention, concern etched over his face.

“I don’t recommend moving,” He said with mild sternness, “You should take rest immediately,” The man motioned to the bed in the corner.

Ray back-stepped to the door as he quickly replied, “I’ll have plenty of bed rest when I’m in my own bed.”

The nurse watched him for a moment before his attention returned to his surgical equipment, apparently having decided to forgo his attempt to make Ray stay.

Ray was surprised, but wasn’t going to pass the chance to leave, and grabbed the door handle, however, before he could turn it, he heard, “Not sure he’ll be okay with that,” mumbled tiredly from behind him.

Ray twisted his head to the side, his eyebrows furrowed at the nurse in his peripherals, confused by the meaning of his words and still apprehensive as to why he was letting Ray leave so easily. Nevertheless, he continued his way as he opened the door slowly and cautiously, peaking around the doorframe to see it led out into the middle of a hallway. He turned right to see doors and that the hallway reached an open room where Ray could see the back of an armchair and the end of a couch, so he took that as evidence it was some sort of living area. There were voices, but Ray couldn’t focus enough on the conversation, his head thumping in pain and his heart beat drumming in his ears. He could only make out snippets: ‘-pretty beat up-’, ‘-Caleb should…tell us more-‘, ‘-how’d he get-‘ and ‘-rip his head off-‘. Regardless of the lack of context, Ray was sure that that last one did not bode well for him.

To the left of the hallway, there were more doors, until it reached the end where there was a window letting in light. A dead end to others, an escape opportunity for Ray. He crept out of the makeshift medical room, slowly stalking over to the window on light feet and gently slid the window open. He tentatively popped his head out the window to calculate that it was about a 6 metre drop to the ground. Ray wasn’t sure if his stitches would be able to handle the fall but he can always re-stitch when he got home. He was still suspicious about the lack of security, he kept imaging getting surprised attacked, but that was more of a reason to try to escape. He carefully (painfully) moved one leg over the window edge, when suddenly he heard the flushing of water as the door closest to him opened.

Ray was stuck still, his heart thumping erratically as he stared at the shortest and most muscular Fake AH member with the facial hair that lined his jaw. The guy stared back with surprised eyes but his body language remained calm and unaggressive.

“…Sup?” the guy eventually said, revealing the Bostonian voice Ray’d heard in the warehouse talking to Danvers.

“Uh, sup?” Ray replied, trying to keep his voice the same casualness as the Fake had.

“You meant to be moving? Didn’t you hurt your head and get stabbed or something?” The man asked questioningly, though not accusingly.

“Yeah but…I’m fine. Heal quick… Like Wolverine,” Ray’s reply came out stiffly in spite of the silly reference.

“Right… Wolverine need stitches?”

“Sometimes... in the comic books,” Ray had never read the comic books but it was a safe assumption he was lying.

The Fake smiled in amusement and crossed his arms over his chest, “Really?”

“Sure,” Ray shrugged.

The smile stayed as he narrowed his eyes, “I feel you’re lying to me.”

“Can’t prove it,” Ray replied with quick succession.

The guy laughed…

Similarly with the nurse, the interaction was oddly civil, might even be considered pleasant if Ray knew any better, which he thought he did. And although a little shorter than Ray, the man had the same muscle mass as Head-goon: made like a tank. When Ray was about to give a brief word of finality and continue his clamber out the window, another voice entered the fray.

“Lil J, who are you talking to?” A crass, Jersey accent asked while feet came from the living area into the hallway. When the newcomer’s eyes landed on Ray, he uttered a shocked, “Holy shit, he’s up.”

He was another of the Fakes Ray had seen at the warehouse: the beanie guy - minus the beanie, which revealed the curly auburn hair underneath. He also wore glasses Ray noticed, perched on a freckled nose.

Multiple sets of footsteps sounded at the other end of the hall as a collection of people joined the Jersian man. Ray inwardly sighed as he stared at the Fake AH Crew – well, all but one.

“And halfway out a window,” One of them added: the larger guy with the ginger hair and beard, his eyebrow raised as he looked at Ray.

The nurse came out of the room he had been in, having heard the commotion, and turned to where everyone was looking. As he caught sight of Ray straddling the window sill, one hand braced around the window edge above, he sighed, “How is that taking it easy?”

The man in the tux (although now missing the jacket), whom Ray thought might be the leader only by impression, was lent against the hall’s wall, his tattooed arms crossed over his chest as he watched the scene play out before him with a lazy smile. He had dark brown hair and a gruff layer of beard the same shade around his face. He turned his head around the corner the group had come from and called out, “Vagabond, your soulmate’s making a break for it,” before turning back to Ray.

The word ‘soulmate’ struck Ray like a knife. They knew? So, ‘Vagabond’ was Skeletor. He’d heard the codename before, he’d heard of all the Fakes codenames, although he wasn’t sure which one belonged to what member.

The nurse looked over to Tux, “Or a fall to his death.”

“Nah,” Ray said to himself as he looked down at the ground, “I’m a parkour master.”

The joke held no real commitment and he said it too quietly for anyone to hear, except ‘‘Lil j’ apparently, who shook his head with an entertained smile. He had to jump, even if his chances were slim, he had to at least try to escape. He didn’t want to die; his soulmate was no longer in danger so he had to put himself first again, that whole self-preservation thing. Hefty, quick strides marched down the hallway, pulling Ray’s attention to them.

Skeletor or Vagabond, whoever, was storming towards Ray, which was enough to trigger Ray’s fight or flight instincts into action as he shoved himself out the window. It was harder than he thought with his stabbed thigh and dizzying head, but he managed to successfully get both his legs over the window edge; all that was left was to propel himself forward. However, before he could, a strong arm wrapped around his chest and roughly pulled him back into the building, aggravating some of his wounds. When Ray’s feet landed back to the floor of the hallway, the arm immediately released Ray to slam the window closed before he could try to throw himself out of it again. Said hand grabbed Ray’s upper arm and forced him around to come face-to-face with his soulmate. Ray’s breath hitched as he stared past the skeleton mask into the eyes that bored down on him; they looked frustrated and angry, not that Ray was surprised.

After the initial look of panic that Skeletor must have seen, Ray kept his face neutral and held his ground the best he could, however, his body wasn’t quite cooperating as it pulsed and ached in pain. Unable to maintain eye-contact, Ray changed his focus on the mask and tried not to consider the harrowing feeling of sadness that flowed through him as he fully understood the probable rejection of his soulmate.

The nurse stepped forward and said in a mildly scolding tone, “Don’t manhandle the patient; you’ll open his stitches.”

Ray, as much as he wanted to, didn’t put up a fight. He was too tired, his head was killing him, most of his body had been torn up and he just wanted to sleep, furthermore, he didn’t want to start a fight when he knew he’d lose. His depleted energy had taken his motivation to fight and he reprimanded himself for not finding some way out of his current situation.

Skeletor’s hand was still tightly clamped high around Ray’s right upper-arm to hold him back from trying to escape again, the grasp was strong enough that it pulled at the stab-wound on his shoulder and strained the stitches. Ray was too much in his head to remember to hold back a wince and didn’t expect the hand to relinquish its grasp to a loose, ghost like hold as soon as the pained noise fell from his mouth. In his surprise, he glanced up at Skeletor curiously and thought he caught an expression of concern or regret in his eyes. Distracted, Ray accidentally placed too much weight on his stabbed leg and it almost buckled beneath him, yet luckily managed to keep it steady. He had thought he had been discreet, however, Skeletor had caught the subtle falter and, before Ray knew what was happening, was being picked up and carried into one of the other rooms. Ray tried to scrabble free but the grip on him only grew tighter as Skeletor made an aggravated noise through his nose which reminded Ray of an angry bull.

Tux opened the door for them and Ray found himself in another bedroom, unlived in like the other, but minus the medical gear. Also, instead of a singular bed, it held a double bed and a small couch by the door. He was carefully placed on one side of the bed and Ray instantly spied out any exits: a double window and the door they just came through. Skeletor must have read his thought process as he moved to stand in front of the window, looking pointedly annoyed.

Ray found it difficult to be in front of Skeletor: be it looking at him or talking to him, Ray felt self-conscious to do either. It was like a test he wasn’t ready for and didn’t want to be a part of because he didn’t believe he would do well. He needed to drill it in his head that it didn’t matter what Skeletor thought of him; there wasn’t going to be a happy end between them. It was laughable in a way… Ray, a grown man who kills people for a living, being so affected towards some ‘magical’ piece of string tied to his pinky, which apparently signified some substantial connection. Well, as funny as it might be, it did mean something to Ray… Although, he had already discovered that about himself when he chose to fight for someone he didn’t know in the first place.

The others poured into the room after them, along with the nurse who brought several bottles of water into the room and placed them on the nightstand beside Ray. He wanted to take one, but was too tense under the eyes of the Fake AH Crew. Half of the group sat on the small couch while the others stood around it; Ray steadied a neutral demeanour as he prepared to speak, the Fakes not making a move to start.

“Thanks for the aid,” He began simply with a small smirk.

“Thanks for the backup,” Tux countered, a lazy smirk of his own.

Ray scratched the back of his head as he conjured an apologetic tone, “Ah, right…”and laughed sheepishly, “Wasn’t trying to get in your guys’ way, just wanted to do my job.”

They all looked at him unsurely, obviously not understanding what he was referring to.

Ray mirrored their expression and said, as if he suspected they already knew, “I was hired by someone to take out the Reds.”

The smile left Tux’s face and his eyes squinted confoundedly, “…Really? Cause we figured…” and trailed off, his eyes falling on Skeletor with a silent implication.

Ray faltered for an instant, but tactfully hid it as he replied offhandedly, “Coincidence,” his eyes not leaving Tux’s face.

Tux hunched forward to rest his elbows on his knees while his head rested on one of his fists, “Seems a bit reckless.”

“That’s why it was good you guys were around, you really helped me out.”

Tux hummed and Ray took the questionable pause to subtly survey the crew to sus out any hidden weaponry on their persons. There were a couple of pistols in waistbands veiled behind their shirts, although he couldn't see any signs of heavier artillery.

“You have a name?” Tux finally spoke.

“You first,” Ray smiled, despite the standoffish nature.

Not five seconds passed before Tux started pointing out different members of the crew.

“Lil’ J,” Gestured to the tank Ray had met earlier, “Vav,” To the tall, lanky dude that had yet to say anything, “Mogar,” To the curly haired Jersian, “Pattillo,” To the largish, bearded fellow, “Ramsey,” To himself and finally to Skeletor, “and Vagabond, aka your soulmate,” who said nothing.

Ray bit away the frown that began to surface at being confronted, yet again, with Skeletor’s connection with him, and unassumingly replied, “BrownMan.”

Everyone suddenly seemed more at attention by the introduction, surprise clear on their faces, even Skeletor’s.

Lil’ J was stood by the end of the couch closest to the door, his head was a little tilted to the side as he looked over Ray, “Expected BrownMan to look more…” But he didn’t finish his thought.

“Yeah, everyone does,” Ray said, unoffended.

“Heard you’d started ‘expanding your horizons’ recently, although it seems like you’re taking some steps backwards in my opinion,” Ramsey said, everything more business-like than before.

“Not really,” Ray shrugged, calm smile still plastered on his face, “Still a gun, just opened up my clientele some.”

“To morons?” Mogar chimed, sat on an arm of the couch, and Ray gave a short laugh in response.

Vav, had been stood to the side, tapping away on his phone until he gawked, “You have, like a 100% success rate,” revealing his British accent. Ray briefly wondered what Vav was looking at on his phone that gave him that information; was there a criminal rank app or something?

“Aren’t you more of a sniper? What were you doing in the middle of a gun fight?” Pattillo asked from the couch where he sat beside Ramsey.

Ray gave a one-shouldered shrug, “Hey, I have many strings to my bow.”

“You sure about that?” Mogar said curtly as he stared at Ray’s injuries.

“All a part of the plan,” He joked, to which none seemed particularly amused by, but that just made Ray grin a little wider.

“So, you were really hired by someone as a double agent? Had nothing to do with…?” Vav asked, somewhat tentatively, glancing over in Skeletor’s direction.

“Nope,” Ramsey kept a calculating gaze on Ray, like he was trying to read his mind, and something Ray couldn’t decipher flashed across his face, “Can I go now?”

In his peripherals, Ray saw Vagabond step away from the window and closer towards the bed.

“No,” He said in a hard conclusiveness. His voice was stern and taut, only a little muffled by the rubber mask.

“Until I know your concussions passed,” The nurse corrected.

Ray wasn’t sure what to say for a moment. He couldn’t understand what their plan was; they could easily just shoot him then and there…

He looked to the nurse and said, “Thanks,” despite how he didn’t feel particularly thankful at all.

“We’ll get you some other clothes to sleep in,” Ramsey said as he stood up.

“You don’t have to do that,” Ray said, feeling more and more uncomfortable for their ‘kindness’ and ‘accommodation’.

“Don’t worry about it, kid,” Was all Ramsey said before leaving, the others following except Vagabond.

Ray couldn’t comprehend what their intentions were and had no idea how he was going to handle his current predicament, especially while Skeletor still hovered. There was a palpable silence that rung out and Skeletor moved to lean against the wall beside the couch, apparently finding no need to be on window duty anymore. He had his arms crossed over his chest, which was no longer covered by a heavy-duty biker jacket but a thin, grey t-shirt.

His eyes trained on something to the side as he said roughly, “How are you feeling?”

It was awkward and Ray had to hide a smile at the absurdity of it.

Ray shifted where he sat, resting his head back against the headboard while one of his legs stretched out in front of him and the other stayed with its foot on the floor. Ray forced himself to look at the mask’s jaw area, instead of not looking at the man at all; he needed to have at least some bravado.

Ray’s voice was bland when he replied, “Fine.”

Skeletor snorted in disbelief and irritation, “That guy did a number on you.”

The mood seemed heavy for some reason, but Ray shrugged and gave a small smirk as he said in light jest, “Hey, I did worse to him.”

Skeletor pushed himself off the wall and made an angry noise between a sigh and a groan, “Not after letting him almost kill you.”

“It’s really not that bad,” Ray chuckled at the exaggeration.

“You…” Skeletor started before letting out a defeated sigh.

He sounded disappointed and frustrated, and Ray had to shut out the coarse feeling of rejection as his eyes stationed themselves to a spot on the wall. He could have killed Ray or left him at the warehouse but he’d done neither, instead made Ray confront a fear he had hoped would never become a reality. And the contentment he found from having a soulmate was going to be stripped from him when he had never sought to disturb it in anyway. The sadness that tugged at Ray’s heart was belittled as he reminded himself that there were more pressing matters than his soulmate’s disdain for him: his life and freedom, for example.

In a defeated, blunt manner he asked, “Why am I here?” But he kept a smile to mask his grief, which he continued to deny even to himself.

The skull froze and looked at Ray as his crossed arms fell to his sides. When he said nothing, Ray tried again, barely keeping evidence of his frustration hidden, “Am I under suspicion of something?”

The skull tilted to the side a fraction, “No.”

“Okay…?” Ray dragged the word out indicating a silent ‘and’ for Skeletor to elaborate.

Skeletor’s head stayed tilted, “What are you not understanding?”

“Why am I here?” Ray repeated, his forced smile gone and replaced by a bored expression.

The tilt of the head was gone and with no tone of softness or dramatic inclination, Skeletor stated, “I wasn’t going to leave you.”

Ray’s eyebrows crunched together, confused, and was about to ask ‘Why?’ when he remembered the very reason he was in this situation to begin with.

Ray vaguely acknowledged the phantom red string between them, “Because of this?”

Skeletor turned to the ‘Red String of Fate’ and watched it sway. He’s eyes didn’t leave it, even when he spoke.

“Yes,” was the clear and simple answer and Ray couldn’t hide his surprise when he heard it, “If there’s a possibility you could be someone important to me, I wasn’t going to leave you to die before I found out,” his voice was even, reasonable, and Ray both envied and bitterly cursed Skeletor’s composure. “Not that we would have left you otherwise, you did help us after all,” Skeletor added.

Ray didn’t say anything as his brain tried to take in what he had just heard. So, Skeletor wanted to try the whole soulmate thing? Something like happiness and excitement bubbled in Ray’s stomach, but so did something like dread and fear.

Found out’?

Does that mean he’s gauging Ray? Seeing if he likes him? The thought made Ray’s stomach curl and all the insecurities he’d ever had, new and old, whispered and pulled the ‘happy’ and ‘excited’ out of him so only wretchedness remained. And, with fear and dread the victors, as well as Ray’s bitterness at being ‘tested’, Ray unreasonably reasoned to himself that Skeletor was still a cause of suspicion and not to be trusted. Despite everything he’d done for the skulled man (and vice versa) who was now in front of him, Ray would rather run through a firing squad than be judged by someone who he didn’t want to be rejected by. It was silly to have let himself be so swept away by the notion and told himself that maybe the ‘soulmate’ thing wasn’t for him after all...

“Isn’t that stupid: putting faith in an unknown force? I didn’t think anyone in this business actually thought that way,” Ray kept his tone and face blank as he crossed his arms over his chest, an unconsciously defensive action.

Skeletor took a large step forward, affronted, “Is that what you think?”

Ray skimmed his head for a response; luckily before he could panic about the consequences he might have caused by the silence, the medic from before entered the room holding an assortment of things. He was no longer in his nurse scrubs, but jeans and a sports reference top, and began talking, either not reading the atmosphere or not caring.

“Here’s some clothes to sleep in,” He said putting some folded up clothes next to Ray, who thanked him before he continued, “Bucket if you need to be sick – you probably still feel nauseas,” as he dragged a bucket besides the bed by Ray’s foot, “And drink the water,” he ordered when he noted the untouched water bottles, “I’ll get you something light to eat, nothing too heavy on your stomach.”

Ray felt both indebted and uncomfortable by the consideration and said in a levelled tone, “You really didn’t have to do that.”

“I’m a nurse,” Is all Ray got in response.

“Well, thanks all the same.”

“Tell me if you feel worse at any point,” As he gave Ray a look that indirectly said, ‘don’t give me that ‘I’m fine’ crap’.

Besides his better judgement, Ray casually asked, “Hey, where’s my sniper rifle?”

The nurse looked at him questionably, and gave a vague, “We have it somewhere.”

“Can you do me a favour and look inside the case? It has a little pouch on the inside, there’s a glasses case there.”

He didn’t receive a reply, the nurse simply left.

“You need glasses? You’re a sniper,” Skeletor asked, astonished.

“And a great one still,” Ray smirked with feigned confidence while he stared tiredly at the bandage along his arm. He didn’t know if it was the concussion or the day’s events, but he was so exhausted; it was as if all his energy had rapidly depleted from when he had awoken in the ‘medical’ room.
Skeletor scoffed in, what sounded like, good-natured amusement.

The nurse returned quickly which meant that Ray’s sniper couldn’t be far; it was comforting to know – not that Ray planned on using it on anyone, but if he found an opening to leave, he might be able to rescue it along the way. Maybe his other weapons too.

“Thanks, Nurse,” Ray said, using the nickname playfully.

“It’s Caleb,” The guy suddenly said, surprising Ray.

“Oh, thanks, Caleb,” He amended.

Caleb nodded and left again, leaving behind an awkward lull to form between Ray and Skeletor, while laughter could be heard from down the hall.

Much to Ray’s relief, Skeletor left not long after and he had a moment to relax. His gaze focused on the window and ideas of escape began to form, however, it wasn’t long before Skeletor returned with a laptop and book that he placed on the couch; it seemed as if he were setting up to stay. Succumbing to the current situation, Ray defeatedly stood, and Skeletor jumped to attention anticipating another attempt to flee. Ignoring him, Ray took the sleepwear and went into the connecting bathroom, closing the door behind him. He slowly got changed, enjoying the short time to himself, and took a brief assessment on the damage done to his body – it was mostly covered in bandages but with them were bruises and stitches that made him look like another one of Frankenstein’s monsters.

He had been given an old t-shirt and some joggers for sleepwear, but when he pulled them on, the top was about three sizes too large while the trousers covered his feet and he had to tie the drawstring tightly to secure them against his hips. The crew mustn’t have had anything to spare closer to his size and he tried to take the fact he looked fairly ridiculous in stride. Besides, they were comfier than the skinny jeans anyway, which had rubbed sorely against the stitches on his leg, whereas the looseness of the joggers and top barely bothered his wounds. After, removing his mask, which he again forgot he was wearing, took out his contacts and throwing them away, he put on his black-rimmed glasses and tentatively left the bathroom.

When Skeletor turned to Ray, he appeared taken aback and coughed awkwardly before going back to the book he was reading. Ray rolled his eyes, presuming Skeltor was stifling a laugh at his new appearance.

“What?”

“Nothing,” He said far too quickly and gestured over to the nightstand that now harboured a plated sandwich, “That’s for you, from Caleb.”

Ray eyed the sandwich curiously at first, briefly toiling with the idea of poison but quickly discarded it: there was no need for them to be discreet when they were armed and Ray was not. So, he ate the sandwich and drank a bottle of water as he tried to quell the irritation of feeling vulnerable and being babysat, plus, it didn’t help he felt he had eyes on him every few minutes.

“You took off your mask,” Skeletor remarked as his eyes remained on his book.

Ray looked over to Skeletor, a little surprised he started a conversation at all, but hid it with a casual manner, “It’s not a mask to hide my face. It’d be a pretty shitty choice if it were.”

“Then why wear it at all?”

Ray shrugged and gave a half-hearted smile, “I like it. Reminds me of Tuxedo Mask.”

Skeletor shook his head either disapprovingly or in amusement, it was hard to tell – maybe both. Ray was just amazed he recognised the reference at all.

“I don’t have an identity to hide, but you’ve got the right idea for that though,” Ray added as he gesticulated towards the full-face skull mask Skeletor wore, but regretted it when no reply was given and silence returned.

Ray risked breaking it to ask a question he was quite sure he already knew the answer to, “…Are you staying here?”

“Yes. Until I can trust you won’t hurt yourself by trying to jump out of a window to escape,” Was the blunt reply.

A sigh fled his lips and with it a little of his facade, “What does it matter if I do escape?”

Skeletor’s eyes hardened into a glare as he looked over the top of his book, but there was a gentleness too that resembled sadness.

“I’m staying,” He finalised and Ray watched as the skull turned back to his book.

Ray hated the situation and didn’t necessarily trust the people around him, but his body and head ached with exhaustion, and the bed he was sat on called for him to lay down and sleep. He cursed himself as he gave into the temptation of much wanted slumber and tried to very subtly manoeuvre under the covers. When he was settled, he imagined he’d feel too uncomfortable by the circumstances to actually drift off but closed his eyes anyway. However, when his eyes opened, it was dark and Skeletor was asleep sat up on the couch, arms crossed and his chin against his chest; Ray didn’t even remember falling asleep.

Chapter Text

Slowly, Ray hazily crept out of bed and wandered out of the bedroom, careful not to wake Skeletor, and down the hallway to the living area. There was a gentle orange glow of light and as Ray reached the end of the hall, he saw Ramsey sat in on one of the couches. The room was large but scarcely furnished with three couches, an armchair all facing inwards towards each other while a coffee table sat in the middle. The right side of the hallway had an adjoining kitchen that was separated only by a bar counter partition on one side. The kitchen was just as plain as the living room, nothing sat on the kitchen counters, but there was a simple analogue clock on the wall which read 04:07 a.m.

“Hey kid,” Ramsey greeted lazily with an amused smile looking at Ray’s attire; not that Ray could be mad, he did look pretty absurd. Ramsey was still in his black tuxedo slacks and shirt, sleeves shoved up to his elbows that exposed his tattooed arms, the bowtie loose around his shirt collar, and he held a glass of a warm-brown liquid in one hand, while a bottle of the same liquid sat on the coffee table.

Ray tried to hide the sleepiness from his voice as he replied, “Hey,” but by Ramsey’s small chuckle, had failed.

The crew leader was languidly resting against the couch cushions, one arm slung along the back, while the other held his glass against his knee.

His relaxed smile never left as he asked, “Planning another daredevil escape?”

Ray gave a small smirk back and an idle shrug as he honestly said, “I don’t know yet.”

“I hope you don’t. Vagabond would get his panties all in a bunch again.”

Ray ignored the mention of his soulmate and unconsciously went rigid as he said tersely, “Thanks again for all the help.”

“Relax kid, no one’s going to kill you unless you try to kill them. We would have done it already anyways,” Ramsey patted the space besides him on the grey sofa. Ray looked at the offered seat and momentarily hesitated before he went over and joined the man, although he sat further away than the suggested spot, just in case. Ray thought he had become quite skilled at detecting any signs of deceit, and yet, he hadn’t found any so far. He kept himself cautious though, they could be better at telling lies than he was at finding them, and he didn’t want to be naïve by relying on a hunch.

Not a moment after Ray had sat down did Ramsey ask casually, “You don’t care much for the whole soulmate thing?”

Ray stared at the far wall in front of him and frowned as he thought of a change of subject while he pondered Ramsey’s interest of that certain topic.

“Aw, come on, don’t be like that,” Ramsey said, having read Ray’s reluctance on the area.

Ray wavered as he carefully chose he words, “…It’s not that I’m against ‘soulmates’ in any way…”

“So, what is it then?”

Ramsey was surprisingly nosey, or maybe it was just persistence, probably both.

Ray gathered his thoughts again; he wasn’t sure how much he should say to someone he doesn’t completely trust.

“I mean, there’s a lot of things…” He trailed off, stalling and hoping Ramsey would drop it.

“Yeah? Well, why don’t you start with one?”

So, he wasn’t going to let it go. Ray inwardly sighed and decided to just tell the truth. What would it hurt at this point? He was already in the lion’s den after all.

“Okay… To start, I’m pretty sure people in this ‘business’, aren’t exactly open to relationships, let alone soulmates; not from what I’ve seen anyway. No one can afford a liability after all, and I still can’t be certain that I’m under no threat of being killed by you, him, or any of your crew really. I don’t understand why you guys brought me here to be honest – not to be ungrateful for the help and everything, but – what… I really don’t know why I’m being kept here.”

Ramsey nodded along mid-way through Ray’s words and it was oddly comforting.

The gang boss lent forward, elbows on his knees as his hands cupped his glass, and turned his head to the side to face Ray, “Well, I can understand not trusting us straight away, I’d be the same. As for bringing you here, well, you helped us and we were curious, then we found out you were Vagabond’s soulmate so we thought that answered our question, although it turned out we were wrong – our fault: we assumed. We would have helped you either way; you weren’t against us – just the opposite it looked like - and despite what you might have heard, we’re not into unnecessary killing if we can help it. The reason we’re keeping you so intently, well, that’s what Vagabond wanted.

“Also, for the record, all the Fakes, we’re not as you describe. I dunno about other people in this ‘business’ but - now don’t tell them I said this, I’ll deny it completely if you do – I would die for my crew, and I’m pretty sure they’d say the same. If anything, relationships are what have kept us sane… Saner, anyway.”

Ray couldn’t note an ounce of dishonesty in anything Ramsey had said and was astonished by the casual confession and that he was allowing Ray to hear any of it.

“Aren’t you…being too trusting of me?”

Then Ramsey gave Ray that smirk again; the smirk that seemed to imply he knew something Ray didn’t.

“Really? I don’t think I told you anything particularly secret. Maybe it’s the old age,” He shrugged as he lent back again.

“Nah, you? You don’t look a day over thirty,” Ray said playfully, he felt much better joking. He didn’t have much social skills otherwise.

Ramsey half-heartedly glared but amusement was clear on his face, “Funny, but try forty-one.”

“Fooled me.”

He received a short chuckle and a quietness followed.

For a few moments, only the clock from the kitchen could be heard.

Ramsey turned to Ray again, “We’d heard of you for a while, you know, and I was going to offer you a job when we got out of the grunt work.”

It was a casual statement but Ray was genuinely surprised to hear it. He had heard of the Fake AH Crew for a while too, and although he might have worked with them in his ‘free-for-all’ phase of work, he wasn’t sure if he still would after this. He wasn’t good with people, especially ones who tried to become familiar with him, let alone his soulmate being in the crew.

Masking his thoughts, he said coolly with a small smirk, “Yeah? Could you afford me?”

“I planned on it,” Was the confident reply.

“Cause I’m really cheap, just have to buy me Taco Bell,” He joked without missing a beat. However, he quickly changed the subject in fear of a real offer being made, “So, you’re trusting me on a whim, huh.”

“Hey, you’re one of my crew’s soulmates, how bad can you be? Anyway, I could always kill you if you tried anything,” It was with his usual friendly smile, but Ray knew there was an undeniable truth in there.

Ray shook his head a little, “And you called me stupid for just opening my clientele.”

“Now, that is stupid. From what I’d heard, you used to only take high-class jobs from ‘respectable’ people with less than respectable targets. What happened to the smart BrownMan?”

It was true. Once Ray had done his time being homeless on the streets, pickpocketing and stealing, he had joined a crew which led to another crew, and another crew, and so on and so forth, until he could finally afford a shitty apartment in Rancho, South Los Santos, and a sniper to call his own. He worked as a gun for hire for a few years until he could take assassination jobs on crooked politicians, abusive CEOs, and the like. He got paid well and it was safer than working with gangs who could care less if you lived or died as long as you did what you were told, so, it was kind of a slap in his past self’s face that he went back to the pawn work. He could have afforded to float around for a while and work on getting out of his ‘funk’ but that sounded worse than returning to gang work. And although he had done well for money, Ray had never upgraded his ‘home’ residence; no one expected a professional hitman to live in one of the poorest neighbourhoods in all of Los Santos.

However, there became a point when he felt as if he was going through the motions of each day and wasn’t sure how to break it. During that time, he tried to change his routine: took different jobs, worked with different people, got all his weapons custom painted bright pink, entered illegal street races with his brown Nemesis, and he even went out to clubs and bars (not that he ever drank) a couple of times, but that got old fast. It all did eventually, and Ray was left where he’d started, the only difference was he had a few more scars and all his weapons were pink. So, in a reckless attempt to grasp some sort of –well, anything– he took away all screening done by his intel ‘friends’ (the middlemen) and made it so that anyone who could afford him could hire him. Anyone.

Ray finally took notice of the pregnant pause and turned to see Ramsey watching him expectantly, realising the man had been waiting for an answer.

Ray smiled casually and shrugged, “I don’t know. Boredom?” He offered lamely.

Ramsey grinned at that and turned to look down at his glass, “You remind me of him when he was like you.”

Ray huffed out a laugh and gave the man a perplexed look, “’When he was like me’?”

Ramsey bobbed his head before he gently clarified, “When he had no one.”

Ray kept his façade on, even as it threatened to falter, and cycled through his internal list of disengaging jokes. He settled on one before reading the possible consequences, “Well, you’re an alcoholic.”

Unfortunately, the wheel of defensive jokes stopped at a no-tact offensive approach, and Ray braced himself as he measured Ramsey’s expression. Luckily, and shockingly, the man beside him barked out a laugh and cackled for a good two minutes until it simmered down. He shook his head, a grin on his face, before he sighed and poured himself another glass of ‘whiskey’, Ray had read from the bottle. And just when Ray felt that he’d successfully halted any ‘serious’ talk, Ramsey disappointed him.

“But I do get it. It’s scary meeting your soulmate.”

Ray rolled his eyes despite the truth in those words and began to lie, “I’m not-”

But was interrupted as Lil’ J came from a doorway besides the kitchen area in pyjama pants and a tank top, “Hey boss, what you two doing up?”

Leaning his head back to look at Lil’ J, Ramsey said cheerfully, “Getting to know each other.”

“Yeah, blowing each other,” Ray elaborated casually, earning a laugh from Lil’ J, while Ramsey scoffed and muttered a ‘You wish’.

“Take a seat, Lil’ J. Join us,” Ramsey invited with a lazy beckoning hand gesture.

As Lil’ J took a seat on the couch opposite his boss and Ray, some movement shifted in Ray’s peripherals and he instinctively looked to it to find Skeletor stood in the hallway. Ray had grown accustomed to listen out for the slightest of sounds lest it cost him his life, and albeit impressive, it was incredibly unsettling how Skeletor could so easily fall under Ray’s internal detector that he had trained himself so acutely for. It occurred to Ray that Skeletor might have caught some of their conversation – he could have heard all of it for all Ray knew and with his luck that was probably the case.

Skeletor didn’t say anything as he came forward and was greeted by the other Fakes, nor did Ray call him out when he joined them, sitting beside Jeremy, like he hadn’t been a creepy weirdo eavesdropping on people. Skeletor added himself to the conversation smoothly, whereas Ray, had been awkward and settled on mostly listening, bar the odd answering of questions or silly jokes he’d throw in from time-to-time. He kept his façade up though, calm and neutral, in the face of being so out of his element.

As time passed, the other members of the crew began to awaken and throw themselves into whatever casual discussion was being had, just as Skeletor had done. None of them seemed fazed by how early it was and Ray wondered if this was their usual sleeping pattern, although it looked as if Ramsey might have not gone to sleep at all from the large bags that hung below his eyes. Hours trickled by as Ray listened to the Fake AH crew’s chatter and he was able to get a very basic understanding of their personalities.

Ramsey, the leader and drunken uncle-figure, had such a chilled and relax countenance, Ray found himself curious to see what he was like on a job. He had a rich and loud laugh that came out in barks as he joked and teased the members of his crew. Pattillo, the accommodating father and appeaser, was the concerned member who worried more openly about the others and would continuingly ask Ramsey how much alcohol he had drunk. He also wrangled any of the others who were being ‘stupid’ or reckless. However, he wasn’t exactly a ‘wet-blanket’ either, he could be as silly and laugh just as much as the others. Vav, the frantic and irresponsible son, was loud and made bird-like noises. He was lively and had a childish excitement to him when he spoke about things that interested him, which is how Ray found out the Brit was quite intelligent with a great aptitude for science. However, he had his mellow moments when he’d simply listen to the others and lightly chuckle when something amused him. Something that Ray greatly respected the guy for was his ability to take ridicule and jokes at his expense in such stride – like water off a duck’s back.

Mogar, the irritable and harsher brother, was loud too but in a slightly different way than Vav. His loudness came from anger rather than excitement, but Ray quickly understood Mogar’s words to be superficial with no real feel of hatred or disdain as he always wore a small smile after his ‘rage’. Maybe he was into theatrics. Lil’ J, the jolly cousin, was probably the easiest for Ray to deal with. He seemed good-natured with the least jokes directed at anyone but rather bad jokes with a worse punchline (Ray thought they were brilliant). He never sounded harsh or uncaring as he talked with his fellow gang members. Caleb, the no-nonsense mother, or the nurse that stitches you up without a glance which makes him appear callous but is actually just focusing on his job to fix you up so you don’t unravel in a pile on the floor. He’d arrived at some point too and had surprised Ray as he appeared more animated as he conversed with the group, he was still soft spoken but laughed and chided in along with the others.

Then there was Vagabond, or ‘Skeletor’ as Ray’s subconscious insisted to still refer to the man as. Ray had already realised by their past interactions that despite the stoic mask that covered his face, Skeletor was actually quite a talker. Skeletor laughed and chuckled a lot, sometimes soft and low, other times loud and high; Ray appreciated them both and he had to store away a smile that tried to grow when he first heard the sound. He had a dark sense of humour that complimented the others’, was well-spoken and intelligent. There were a few silly arguments among the group, but they always ended in laughter.

During that time, they complained how bored they were and how there was nothing to do in that particular safe-house. They explained to Ray that the safe-house they were currently in was very rarely ever used, which was why the place was so barren and empty. It made Ray ponder why they hadn’t gone home or something; the cops wouldn’t still be chasing up on a gang fight a day later – Los Santos police were like that. Ray shortly considered that it could be because of him, or that they were still secretly unsure what to do with him. Ray didn’t ask.

Ray would occasionally find moments to look at his pinky and the thread attached, or to secretly glance curiously at Skeletor. He was wearing slouchy clothes that were soft and loose: a simple, plain grey tee with a pair of blue joggers. Skeletor was a little more than half a head taller than Ray, medium build with decent muscle mass, which alone made him twice as thick as Ray. Ray had gained muscle from his job, it’d be impossible not to, but it was lean as he could never gain or keep weight on; it didn’t bother him too much though, as it helped being agile. Ray could see dark-blond hair sprouting from where the mask failed to reach behind his head at the nape of neck, and from the way the thin casual t-shirt clung on Skeletor’s body, a surprisingly soft stomach below a broad chest. Ray suddenly realised he had been indulging himself far too much and rebuked his actions, then turned away before anyone could notice where his eyes had been parked for the last five minutes.

He returned his attention back to the others, however, it was superficial as his mind wandered away from their conversation. He wanted to know what he was doing – What he had to do. He knew what he wanted to do: In an ideal situation, he wanted to get to know Skeletor, but there were too many factors - uncertainties. He felt it was naïve of him to trust they won’t kill him, naïve of him to like someone so soon, insecure that they aren’t a compatible match – that he isn’t compatible or what Skeletor wanted… What if he didn’t want Ray when all the smoke cleared and Ray was left as he was… Not to mention, ‘people’ in general weren’t something Ray was good at; small interactions with other criminals, clients, even people who wanted to kill him, he could manage. He only had a few offbeat friends (friends being a loose term): mainly an intel team of two by the codenames of DragonFace and Lunatic. He’d dated too, a while ago though and none of them went anywhere.

Ray silently sighed as he watched the Fake AH crew talk and even with his reservations, hesitantly thought, ‘This isn’t the worst’.

In spite of all Ray’s shortcomings, they seemed to actually get on with him, if they were as sincere as they appeared, which Ray had yet to decipher. He had to down peddle his excitement when he found out through their casual chatter that they had a love of video games that resembled Ray’s own. They also told him stories of past heists, jobs, drunken shenanigans, and it was oddly fun. When it reached around 8.a.m., Pattillo stood and announced he was going to pick up breakfast with a Mogar in tow to help.

With the new disturbance, Ray thought it would be a good time for him to leave too but as he was about to breach the idea out loud, Vav’s attention turned to him.

“I’ve been meaning to ask: how are you not on any system or record?” From all their talk of missions and robberies, Ray got the idea that Vav was the ‘intel’ guy or hacker, something along those lines anyway.

Ray took a moment to put on a troubled face as he said, “What? I’m not in the yellow pages? Goddammit.”

“No,” Vav laughed, “You know what I mean! You’re nowhere! A dead man has more records than you.”

“Ah, that’s cause I’m dead squared,” Ray explained with a straight face.

“Not sure that’s how math works,” Skeletor chimed and Ray could hear the smirk behind the mask.

Ray’s heart fluttered with quiet panic every time Skeletor addressed him, and in turn would stubbornly repudiate it. However, his real feelings never surfaced to his exterior and quickly quipped back, “Of course you would know, nerd. Don’t make me steal your lunch money.”

The skull watched him and tilted sideways a little (something he seemed to do often) as he said, “Yeah? Bring it, Brown Boy,” His eyes shined with playful teasing.

Sticking with the banter where he was most comfortable, Ray faked grievance, “Skeletor, I swear to God, I will turn this safe-house around,” and Ramsey practically cackled, while Ray realised he’d given ‘Vagabond’ the nickname he held for him in his head.

Skeletor lightly chuckled, “Skeletor?”

“It suits you,” Ramsey said between bouts of laughter.

“Is that your personal codename for him?” Lil’ J laughed not being at all serious.

They were joking and had no way of knowing how true that actually was, however, Ray still felt the need to utter a small, “Uh, no.”

“Aw, you must be his favourite,” Ramsey told Skeletor teasingly who Ray refused to look near.

“Well, obviously,” Vav added offhandedly.

Ray sighed, “Or maybe I have a very simple brain that grasped at the one visibly weird trait of the group and ran with it. And it’s from ‘He-Man’ for Christ’s sake.”

“Aw, he’s shy, that’s adorable,” Ramsey cooed.

Ray rolled his eyes and deadpanned, “Yeah, I’m precious.”

“You sure are, all wrapped up in his clothes,” Ramsey continued, enlightening Ray as to why Skeletor had been so awkward and Ramsey so smug when they’d first seen him in the attire. Even though he told himself that it didn’t matter, Ray could feel his face heat up at he looked down at the clothes given to him.

“Wouldn’t it have been better to give him something of Vav’s or Mogar’s to wear?” Skeletor asked Ramsey gruffly and Ray’s stomach twisted at the disapproving tone.

“Well, the jeans are Vav’s and the shirt is Mogar’s, so it’s only fair you volunteer some of your clothes too,” Ramsey lectured but it was clearly evident by his satisfied grin that he was enjoying himself and had most likely chosen Skeletor’s clothes on purpose.

“Uh, sorry, I can give them back,” Ray apologised awkwardly.

“Nah, ignore ol’ Vagabond here, he’s not very honest,” Ramsey told Ray. Ray wasn’t sure to what the crew leader meant and still felt uncomfortable from being in someone’s clothes who seemed against it.

Vav impatiently interrupted the conversation and turned back to Ray, “Tell me!”

Ray appreciated it though and smirked as he returned his attention back to the light, ash-brown haired man that was awaiting Ray’s response eagerly.

“I don’t know what to tell you, man, maybe I just don’t exist. Maybe I’m in your head,” He said dramatically and wiggled his eyebrows.

“I’ll get you to tell me someday, even if it takes years,” Vav said confidently, smiling as he took another swig of his beer.

Besides Ramsey who he hadn’t seen without a drink once, Ray had been a little surprised when a few of the Fakes had chosen a beer to start their mornings: half because it was so early and half for them drinking around someone they couldn’t necessarily trust. Not that they were being excessive though, just one or two beers.

“Good luck, dude,” Ray said, still keeping an apathetic, casual front.

“Hey, any of you want another drink?” Jeremy said, getting up after his conversation with Caleb.

Ray swished his water bottle, “No thanks, man. Got my water: drink of champions.”

“Have a drink, dude, you haven’t had one yet,” Vav encouraged friendlily.

“Hey, he’s a patient, he can’t drink,” Caleb reminded, sounded a little disbelieving of Vav’s offer.

“Sure he can,” Vav shrugged with a jovial smile.

“It’s fine, I don’t drink anyway,” Ray said, looking at Caleb.

“What?!” Vav exclaimed, appalled by Ray’s confession while Ramsey muttered an aggrieving ‘Jesus’.

Sighing and leaning back in his seat, Ramsey said, “You two are soulmates.”

The term made Ray inwardly flinch.

“I don’t think alcohol abstinence is a reasonable conclusion as proof we’re soulmates,” Skeletor disputed, amused by his friends’ simple conclusion, and although Ray agreed, his stomach pulled uncomfortably again.

“Yeah, well only you two can see the actual proof,” Ramsey vaguely motioning towards the space between the two where he guessed the thread might be, before he refilled his whisky glass.

Ray had found himself staring at the aforementioned string where it laid along the living-room floor, weaving and winding across the carpet. It was loose and the length of it seemed excessive as it laid over itself at some wounds and bends.

“Yeah! We’re just making our own,” Vav chimed good-naturedly.

Caleb suddenly appeared beside Ray and said, “I should check on your injuries,” granting Ray’s wish for a reason to leave the room. However, as they got up to go to the ‘medical room’, Skeletor followed. It wasn’t until they entered the room that Caleb noticed Skeletor and asked Ray, “You okay with him being here?”

Ray hesitated and looked over in Skeletor’s direction.

“I’m only here in case you try to book it again. It’s not as if Caleb will chase you,” Skeletor explained, pointing a disapproving look at Caleb, who only continued to ignore him as he awaited Ray’s answer.

Ray wanted to say no, however, he also didn’t want to show he was bothered, or to make a ‘thing’ out of it, and ended up helplessly shrugging in response. Caleb didn’t push any further as he closed the door and began to set up. Skeletor didn’t intently watch like Ray worried he might, and instead, looked anywhere but Ray.

‘What a gentleman,’ Ray snorted to himself, but was glad all the same.

Ray gingerly undressed with some help from Caleb, both careful not to knock any of his injuries, who then inspected and treated each wound vigilantly. His body looked and felt a lot worse than it had the day before: all the bruising was substantially darker and swollen, while new bruising began to surface with the probability of more to come.

“There’s a lot of soft tissue trauma so the bruising looks particularly severe, but nothing’s broken or fractured, although it’ll all be painful and tender to the touch for a while,” Caleb explained as he continued working.

Skeletor flashed a glance their way after Caleb’s description and Ray heard a sharp intake of breath before Skeletor was taking a few steps towards them. Ray acknowledged Caleb’s diagnosis, but was tense with Skeletor’s eyes on his bruised body. Caleb was quick to notice and sharply said, “Patient discretion, Vagabond.”

His eyes shone with a hardness akin to fury, however, Ray had no answer as to why. Fortunately, Caleb’s words were enough to snap Skeletor out of his stupor and to realise his small act of violation. His voice held an edge but he genuinely apologised and returned his gaze elsewhere.

After he had finished treatment on the flesh wounds and shined a small light into Ray’s eyes, Caleb withdrew and said, “You should stay another night. Although there doesn’t appear to be any signs of long-lasting damage, I’m still worried about your concussion and would like to monitor it another day.”

Ray was not at all pleased with the suggestion.

“I don’t think I should stay another night,” Ray said slowly, apprehensive of an argument but kept his voice stern.

Caleb looked concerned as he restated, “I’d prefer you didn’t leave while the concussion might still be in effect. You can’t drive as you are and I doubt you’ll accept us to drive you to a secure location of your own.”

He wasn’t wrong. Although he got along with the Fakes, Ray had no intention of letting them know where he was stationed or anything to that extent.

Skeletor, who’d been given the ‘all clear’ to turn back to them, firmly declared, “He’ll stay another night,” his arms crossed over his chest.

“I won’t ask you to stay longer again,” Caleb assured, ignoring Skeletor’s interruption, “Just stay one more night to rest, that’s all I ask.”

Ray looked to the side at the medical supplies on the table for a moment before he relinquished, “…Okay, but I’m leaving in the morning.”

He didn’t feel as if he really had a choice.

“That’s fine,” Caleb affirmed confidently.

Ray nodded, “Thank you.” Although Ray didn’t like the news of staying another night, he appreciated the help Caleb had given to him.

“You’re welcome,” Caleb returned as he went to tidying things away.

Ray left the room to grab one of the waters on the nightstand beside ‘his’ bed and half-heartedly made the bed he’d left in disarray when he’d woken up that day. Afterwards, he sat on the bed and leant his back against the headboard; his head and body still ached considerably and his stitched wounds burned, but he tried to maintain a casual mien so not to show it. Skeletor had followed him and Ray could feel the tension radiating off him.

It became more difficult for Ray to remain stagnant as the awkward silence steadily grew.

“You okay there?” He tested against his better judgment.

There was a hesitance and Skeletor looked as if he was struggling to hold his tongue.

“I’m sorry,” he started, surprising Ray, “I tried to get to you faster… I saw you jump out the window and get followed by Danvers’ men. I shot all who climbed to your floor, but that one guy was persistent, and by the time I was able to get to where you were…” His voice came out gruff as he recounted the events, but fell silent when he felt there was no need to continue.

Ray was stupefied as he stared at the skull face, his mouth open a slither and his eyebrows lightly scrunched towards each other. He was taken aback that Skeletor had attempted to help him during the fight at the warehouse, although it did explain why Ray never saw the other goons that had pursued him, and he still couldn’t fathom why or what Skeletor was so bothered about.

In an effort to quell the weird tension that clung to the room’s atmosphere, Ray laughed as he said, “Yeah, I’m pretty sure that guy had a vendetta against me; didn’t take to me at all. I think he was just happy for the excuse, to be honest. And what are you saying sorry for? It wasn’t your fault or obligation to help me out. I managed just fine on my own anyway, and as for the ‘injuries’, I’ve had worse.”

Skeletor looked hardly appeased, if anything his eyes looked far more troubled.

“That’s…that’s not good,” Skeletor said incredulously followed by a humourless laugh, “So, this happens often?” He articulated at Ray’s injured body.

“What? No,” Ray said in minor offense while keeping light of the conversation, “Hey, I’m a professional, but sometimes – rare times – something goes a little…awry.”

Unamused, Skeletor prompted, “Awry? Such as?”

“Nothing serious, just some small things…”

Ray wasn’t going to go down that rabbit hole.

“Right,” Skeletor tersely, obviously unimpressed.

Any more attempts of humour left Ray as he took Skeletor’s attitude for belittlement and, with barely contained frustration, he asked, “What’s the problem here?”

For a moment, Skeletor said nothing and Ray could tell he was measuring his response. He faced Ray and plainly said, “You’re reckless.”

Something twisted in Ray’s gut at the simple statement and, although it was barely an insult, Ray found it painful to hear: to be looked down upon by someone he could only look up to. As much as Ray didn’t want to admit it, he wanted Skeletor to think well of him.

Ray unclenched his jaw and steeled his expression to a neutral one, “I’m doing fine. I won’t be here long enough to get you or your crew hurt,” he assured as he got up, taking a bottle of water with him, and made his way over to the door.

Ray was halfway to the door when he heard Skeletor insist, “You should stay until you’re fully healed.”

It would take over a month for all Ray’s wounds to completely recover and he didn’t want to spend another day in this situation.

Without sparing a glance back, Ray left the room with a disinterested, “Nah, I’m good.”

When he re-entered the living area, Vav was the only occupant, his laptop resting on his thighs as he tapped away at the keys. Ray, not particularly comfortable being social, would have preferred to stay in his room, however, Skeletor had made that abundantly more difficult.

So, pushing through his discomfort, he casually greeted, “Sup, Vav?” before seating himself in the armchair opposite the Fake.

Vav looked up from his screen and amicably greeted, “Eyo,” before immediately jumping into conversation, “Oh yeah, I wanted to ask: why ‘BrownMan’?”

Ray appreciated that about Vav: how he could start a discussion without needing a prompt.

Ray raised his eyebrows and deliberately looked down at himself, “You have to ask?"

The Fake looked uncertain as he said, “Yeah?”

“I’m Latino,” he sighed, having thought it to be obvious.

Vav blinked, clearly confused, and said, “You’re not brown though."

Fakely offended, Ray jibed, “Hey, don’t oppress me.”

Vav chuckled at the joke, shaking his head as he smiled, before turning back to his laptop.

Ray saw Skeletor enter the room from the corner of his eye, but kept his focus on Vav as he tried his best to maintain small talk. He avoided asking too many questions about the crew; they hadn’t been particularly against details of their jobs, however, Ray didn’t want to push his luck by initiating that kind of conversation himself.

Much to Ray’s relief, Lil’ J, Ramsey and Caleb eventually reappeared one-by-one and joined in with discussions of their own, so Ray didn’t have to scrounge for topics of conversation. Then, a short while after, Pattillo and Mogar returned with food and, to Ray’s surprise and happiness, an Xbox One. They said they’d picked it up for the sake of quashing their boredom and had gotten it from another, more frequented safe-house. Mogar began to set it up while Pattillo placed the takeout bags onto the coffee table before disappearing into the kitchen with a few plastic bags full of what looked like soda and an odd assortment of food. Lil’ J and Ramsey rummaged through the takeout bags and started pulling out food and handing it to the others. Ray thanked them as he was given a wrapped-up burger and a portion of fries.

Ray ate slowly while he watched the others settle down to eat and converse with each other. It was a foreign environment for Ray and he felt sorely out of place even though they had been bizarrely welcoming; that somehow made it a touch worse. He was happy to see an Xbox though, it made him feel slightly calmer that they liked video games too; video games, for Ray at least, were the only thing that kept him somewhat content. He stayed on the side-lines as he watched them play ‘Rocket League’, laughing and bantering amongst themselves. It would have been soothing, but Ray only felt like an invader and quickly sought a subtle means of escaping the room. However, just as he was about to get up and sneak to his room, an Xbox controller fell into his lap.

“Wanna play?” Mogar asked brusquely. Ray could tell Mogar was wary of him, understandably so, but he hadn’t been particularly hostile and was trying to make an effort in his own way. Ray was grateful, although thought it unnecessary.

For all Ray knew he should decline if he wanted to stay prudent in keeping his aloof demeanour, he heard himself say, “Sure.”

Caleb commented disapprovingly about Ray’s wrist and told Ray not to play too long or if his wrist began to hurt. Ray agreed before moving off the armchair to sit on one of the couches opposite the TV where he could see the screen better. He ended up sitting beside Pattillo, where there was space at the end of the couch, and let the man explain how the game worked, though Ray already knew. It was himself, Pattillo, Skeletor and Lil’ J that were playing while the others watched, and it wasn’t long before Ray’s appreciation for video games became clear to everyone.

“Why did you not say anything when I was showing you the controls?” Pattillo asked with a short laugh.

Ray shrugged in response and gave an apologetic half-smile. It led to a discussion on how Ray became so good and in turn his obsessive love of video games. This seemed to spur the crew into a ‘who can beat Ray’ competition. It was fun, so much so, Ray lost himself for a moment and joined in on banter and casual chatter. During which, he found out ‘Ramsey’ and ‘Pattillo’ weren’t aliases like Ray had assumed but they’re actual surnames. They said they never took to creating pseudonyms and by the time they thought they should, they were already too well known; they even told Ray to call them by their first names, ‘Geoff’ and ‘Jack’, but Ray didn’t think he ever would.

The games changed and the players rotated, and Ray wondered if it was luck that he got on with them so well or if they were just the kind of people who dragged you into their flow of things. He would occasionally remind himself to stay on his toes and reprimand himself back into impassiveness, but then Vav would ask something bizarre or Mogar would yell at something in the game, and he’d forget again.

The previous tensions between Skeletor and himself seemed to dissipate (at least for the time being) as they competed with and against each other over a variety of games. Ray would secretly congratulate himself whenever he was able to make the other laugh or react in a positive way. Although he knew very little of Skeletor, Ray was slowly familiarising himself with the parts of him that he could see: he appeared as one of the calmer in the group, but could actually lose his patience quite easily if the right buttons were pushed, slightly defensive if felt wronged or insulted, however, was friendly and kind overall. He would humour Vav’s inquisitive nature, laugh at Lil’ J’s website puns, join Mogar when he was being particularly destructive in a game, respond to Pattillo’s obscure references, assist Ramsey when he was losing a game, and acknowledge Caleb’s love of sports. Yet, despite the openness Skeletor showed to the crew, there was a simmering undertone of something ominous about him aside from the skull mask he always wore. And, after having seen his ruthless display on the battlefield, Ray believed there was a far more vicious side to Skeletor that he had yet to see. With that and the protective nature Skeletor held for his crew, Ray had to once again wonder why he was still alive and in one of their safe-houses.

Skeletor had claimed it was because of the thread that tied them, but Ray only felt contempt, scepticism and irritation whenever Vagabond spoke to him, except during such times as banter while around the others. It appeared as if he looked down on Ray in some way. It hurt… And Ray tried to deny the part of him that wanted to be by Skeletor’s side.

“BrownMan?” A voice interrupted, waking him from his thoughts.

Ray’s eyes snapped away from the spot on the floor they had settled at and found Lil’ J offering him a controller with a mild look of concern. Ray quirked his lips and declined saying he’d take the next round. They had moved around quite a lot and members had come-and-gone. Ray was sat on the couch that was placed sideways from the TV with Lil’ J next to him as they watched Vav and Mogar play a 1v1 match in Halo.

“Did you guys know about the ambush?” It wasn’t a safe subject of choice, but Ray had been curious.

Luckily, Lil’ J didn’t seem at all fazed by the question as he casually replied, “Yeah, we did, but not the extent. Got bad intel that told us Danvers’ had ten guys, max.”

“Ah, only off by twenty,” Ray quipped.

“Yeah, only just,” Lil’ J laughed.

“Did you know?” Mogar suddenly chimed in from where he continued to play – not looking from the TV.

“Of course,” Ray replied, confused as the answer should have been obvious.

“It’s just, for someone who was playing double agent, you weren’t exactly prepared. Shouldn’t you have had some sort of backup? Did your boss know they were pitting you against over thirty guys, not to mention, us,” Mogar had paused the game to turn to Ray.

Ray wasn’t surprised that one of the Fakes had spotted a hole in his story, or that Mogar would be the one to confront him. However, it had still caught him a little off guard as it had been a day since he had told them about his ‘real job’. Ray must have triggered it when he spoke about the battle with Danvers; he should have kept his big mouth shut.

Ray concealed his expression into a laxed one.

“Yeah,” Vav began with realisation, “Shouldn’t they have hired more than just one sniper?”

“Hey, I’m not just a sniper, I’m ‘BrownMan: assassin of all trades’,” he declared with humour.

Vav’s face turned to a thoughtful one as he said, “I don’t think that phrase works that way,” with a small chuckle.

“You don’t work that way,” Ray shot back childishly, yet purposefully.

“It’s kind of frightening that you’re capable of killing thirty men by yourself,” Lil’ J commented nonchalantly, although there was a seriousness to his words.

“I didn’t though. You guys took a lot of the heat off me and took out half of Danvers’ goons,” Ray insisted.

“You were more help to us; we were only expecting a fight of six vs ten, not thirty,” Ramsey said as he dropped onto the couch beside Vav, a bottle and glass in hand, “You cause a lot of chaos for one dude,” Ramsey added as he poured himself a drink.

“Just call me Puerto Rican Thunder,” Ray jested with a half-smile, hoping to dissuade the conversation to another subject.

“The person that hired you either overestimated your abilities, or didn’t care if you failed and died in the process,” Skeletor said gruffly, suddenly appearing from nowhere.

Ray ignored the sickly feeling in his gut as he forced himself to jibe back, “Why can’t it be both?”

“Hey now, it wouldn’t really be overestimating, he wiped the Reds away,” Ramsey said giving Skeletor a disapproving look, before it slowly morphed into a knowing smirk, “It was a good thing he was there.”

“It was a good thing we were there,” Skeletor countered.

“Let’s just say it was a good thing we were all there,” Mogar said, attempting to diffuse the tension while apparently forgetting his own suspicions of Ray by the potential argument.

Aggravated, Skeletor left in a temper, leaving the rest with a beat of silence as the pressure in the room dissolved along with him.

Ramsey turned his attention back to Ray, “Don’t worry about him, he’s not very good at expressing himself,” he reassured.

Ray didn’t really understand, but had to agree with Ramsey as he had no idea why Skeletor was angry at him again; he was always switching between hot and cold without warning. It was probably safe to assume Ray was the reason for Skeletor’s bad moods, but Ray didn’t mean to upset him. If he was so troubled with Ray being there, why couldn’t he just let Ray leave like he had requested from the start? It’s not as if Ray wanted to be stuck in a house with a soulmate who only held disdain for him. The mercenary inwardly sighed as he tried to vanquish the bitterness and longing he felt, before he finally excused himself, telling the others he was going to take a nap.

He went to his room, closing the door behind him, and quietly sighed with relief. He looked around the room still foreign to him, before he went over to the window. As he looked out at the view he noted the area, it was somewhere on the edge of Grapeseed, not far from the warehouse. Ray slowly slid the window up, so careful not to make a sound. He breathed in the outside air for a short time, while he pondered the idea of escape and planned the best route to scale down the house. It was appealing and he was so close to executing it, but his eyes ached and his body felt unbelievably heavy; he hadn’t lied about the notion of a nap. Ray turned around and lent the small of his back against the windowsill; he stared at the double bed that sang promises to sooth all his aches and tensions away. Pushing his glasses up to rub his eyes, Ray sighed in admission.

He closed the window and slugged over towards the bed, then laid himself down on his side, facing the window so he could stare at the sky until he fell asleep. Slipping off his glasses, he slid one hand under his pillow while the other crossed over his chest. Ray wasn’t sure if it was because he woke up so early, his battered body, the concussion, or the stress of the situation, but he suddenly felt incredibly exhausted and his eyes strained to stay open, and it wasn’t long before he was falling asleep. In his last moments of consciousness, Ray heard the door click open and shut behind him. He had no doubt in his mind it was Skeletor, as he got pulled into a heavy sleep.

Chapter Text

Ray awoke the same way he had fallen asleep: staring out through the window at the afternoon sky. He gazed blankly at the view while he separated himself from lingering dreams of sneering skulls and rejection that had left a tired sourness in his mouth. After those few moments adjusting to reality, Ray fumbled for his glasses on the bedside table and unceremoniously pushed them onto his face; it was then he realised that the bed’s duvet had been folded over him during his sleep and assumed it to have been Caleb’s doing. Ray pushed the covers off as he sat up and swung his feet onto the floor, before his sight once again fell upon the outside world past the window. It was still daylight so Ray could discern that he hadn’t been asleep for long. The sky was grey and moody but soft and calming, and Ray let himself pander to watching it a little while longer as the disorientation of sleep and dull pain turned to uneasy awareness and sharp aching.

Habitually, Ray was often hypersensitive of his surroundings, however, his normal routine wasn’t in play here; so, it caught him by surprise when he finally sensed another presence in the room besides his own. Snapping his head towards the half of the room he had his back to, Ray found a skull staring straight back at him with a blank, almost mesmerised look in its eyes. Ray wondered if he was still dreaming for a moment until the skull awkwardly bowed its head in acknowledgment before flicking their eyes away, back to the laptop balanced on their thighs. Ray faced back to the window as if it beckoned him, but made his way to the bathroom instead, keeping his eyes away from the man on the couch. When the door was securely closed, Ray splashed water on his face, brushed his teeth with the cheap, plastic toothbrush Caleb had given him, did his business, and if Ray took his time with each task, he doubted he’d be called out on it.

He partially hoped Skeletor might have left in the time he’d spent in the bathroom, whereas a more honest part of Ray hoped he hadn’t. The former had no such luck, for when he exited the bathroom, Skeletor was still sat in the same spot on the couch with his laptop. Ray felt he should acknowledge the man – his soulmate – in some way but any words, along with his cavalier façade, got stuck in his throat every attempt. Too unsure and self-conscious of the situation, Ray quickly neatened the bed and grabbed a fresh bottle of water with plans to leave immediately after, however, just as his hand touched the plastic bottle, Skeletor spoke.

“How are you feeling?”

‘Huh, déjà vu,’ Ray mused.

It wasn’t as awkward as last time, still terse but more casual as he calmly regarded Ray from his place on the couch.

However, Ray was just as self-conscious as their first encounter, “Uh, yeah, fine,” and avoided Skeletor’s gaze while he took a swig of water.

A small noise of dissatisfaction came from Fake AH member, shortly followed by, “Is it the mask?”

“Huh?” Ray uttered unsurely, finally turning his body to face Skeletor’s direction.

“You don’t look at me; I figured it’s because the mask creeps you out,” he elaborated, closing the laptop shut and placing it beside him on the couch.

Ray thoughtlessly responded, “Oh, uh, no, the mask doesn’t bother me.”

“…Then?” Skeletor prompted and Ray cursed himself for not calculating his response better.

“Just not really good at the whole eye-contact thing,” Ray admitted, somewhat mumbled as he mildly panicked to be convincing. It wasn’t a complete lie but with Skeletor it was a more complicated matter.

“Really?” Skeletor said dubiously, clearly sceptical, though didn’t voice his doubts. Instead he said nothing and the silence grew long enough for Ray to believe the conversation was over, until Skeletor eventually asked, “Why are you so intent on leaving?”

For a senseless second, Ray thought he meant the room, but realised he was referring to the safe-house and the Fake AH crew.

He was confused by the question; wasn’t it obvious ‘why’?

In lieu of saying as much, bordering on irritated, Ray refuted, “Why are you forcing me to stay?”

“Because-” Skeletor started loudly, suddenly standing from the couch, only to abruptly cease talking as if thinking better of it. He tried to compose himself, although the tension that held his shoulders was still evident, and calmly settled with, “…Because you’ll do no one any good in your condition.”

A small lump formed at the back of Ray’s throat, and he pretended it was from indignation, not hurt as he tried to swallow it down, but the lump and his grief remained unmoved. Although not said plainly, Ray heard Skeletor as clear as day: ‘You’re a liability’.

Ray gave a smile that he hoped came across as tired rather than defeated, and assured, “It’s fine. I’ll be leaving early in the morning, so, I’ll never bother you or your crew again. Hopefully, we won’t even cross paths,” He kept his voice light and distant, to camouflage the sullenness he felt.

A sudden look of distress flashed over Skeletor’s eyes before he was swiftly making his way in front of the mercenary, who had taken a few steps back, and wrapped his hand around Ray’s uninjured forearm. Instinctively, Ray yanked him arm away, but Skeletor held firm and looked Ray in the eye.

“I don’t want that,” Skeletor desperately proclaimed, “Why do you think I want you to stay?”

Confused and irritated, Ray tugged at his arm again, and Skeletor relinquished his hold, “Oh, I don’t know: suspicion, distrust, curiosity, indecisiveness of what to finally do with me. Maybe you think I’m gonna run off and tell your enemies where this one safe-house is, or that I’m working for someone to take you out. You tell me.”

Skeletor made a noise of exasperation, “Have we not made it clear that you’re not under any sort of suspicion or danger? No one’s going to harm you; as if I’d allow that.”

Ray was quick to rebut, Skeletor’s last comment falling upon deaf ears, “You and your crew have said a lot of things and I’ve listened, but that doesn’t make anything ‘clear’. Words aren’t worth much for people like us.”

‘And wouldn’t I be the idiot for believing you might actually want me here,’ He thought desolately.

Ray struggled as his real feelings fought against the surface and his voice strained to keep a steady, plain inclination, no longer having the strength to sound light-hearted or humorous.

Skeletor’s eyes narrowed into a glare, and with unrepressed anger and frustration he bit out, “And did the whole soulmate-thing not cross your mind at all?”

Ray went rigid at the question and tried to assess what Skeletor was trying to accomplish by confronting that subject.

“Or were you just so set against it that you pretended it didn’t exist?” Skeletor bitterly accused.

“What? Why would you- Why would that- I’m not-” Ray halted his confused ramblings before he admitted to something he really shouldn’t, and settled himself as he tried to back away from the conversation, “Look, man, I’m just trying to stay out of your hair,” And as if to support his statement Ray reversed a few paces.

Skeletor was stoic for a moment before he ground out the word “Why?” through clenched teeth.

It seemed as if the conversation was running in circles and Ray knew it to be his fault as he continued to cover his tracks rather than speak plainly, but what would the latter achieve? Nothing good, he was sure. Ray was slowly becoming more and more irritated and perplexed by Skeletor’s insistence on dragging the conversation out. If he was still trying to unveil Ray’s true feelings, was it still to sus out if he was a potential threat? It seemed a bit excessive at this point and Ray thought he had done an acceptable job at appearing purely neutral and uninterested in the crew, however, maybe Ray had slipped up somewhere along the way, or maybe Skeletor was just as untrusting a person as Ray was. Or it could be some sort of stubbornness or curiosity? Well, whatever the reason, Ray was sure he was being set up to fail.

So, Ray decided to give it one last shot to try and establish his complete disregard for their current topic.

And, with a constructed, obnoxious sigh; his expression disengaging and insipid, Ray said, “You know we don’t have to deal with this, yeah?”

“You mean, you don’t want to deal with this,” Skeletor amended in such resigned disappointment that it made Ray’s stomach feel like solid stone, but he was obstinate not to fall for the probable pretence. However, even as he told himself to remain sceptical, Ray struggled and found he couldn’t trust his voice, instead only contributing a miniscule shrug as his reply.

Skeletor’s eyes gave nothing away as they turned dull and blank, to some extent mirroring Ray’s own, although Skeletor’s were more morose than indifferent. A coarse instant of time passed before he continued, “So you’d prefer to leave - to not try at all.”

It was spoken like a statement but he was expectant for an answer – hopeful.

It was being served similarly like an ultimatum: Skeletor was giving him the chance to either end the conversation, and in turn any future progression of their potential soulmate relationship, or to accept to seeing ‘what could be’. Ray opened his mouth, ‘yes’ the planned response, however, his throat contracted and tightened so not a sound could pass. He tried again to no avail and Skeletor’s forlorn, apprehensive expression didn’t help the cause.

Eventually, Ray found something his throat approved of; “It doesn’t matter,” he struggled out.

Skeletor’s placidness morphed into frustration once again and loudly he began, “Stop-” before cutting himself off and lowering his tone, “It does matter.”

They were still stood facing each other, a good distance apart, neither comfortable moving.

More than anything, Ray hated being the key cause of all Skeletor’s soured moods and multitude of negative expressions since he was brought to the safe-house; any interactions between them that weren’t layered with tension and irritation were rare and few. Therefore, even if Skeletor had no intention of hurting him and was genuine, Ray still felt leaving was the best option for them both. He wanted Skeletor to be happy, however, being a coward, Ray was too busy avoiding getting himself hurt that he hadn’t realised he was only complicating an end.

And he had become tired; and was only feeling worse by running around in circles. Even if he was uncertain and afraid, he knew he had to get it over with if he was to move forward. Besides, Ray liked to think that the worst was already over - his biggest fear already realised: he’d been shown disappointment and disdain from someone he wanted most to be liked by. He inwardly shook his head at himself; it was so childish and laughable, and yet he felt no such immense fear at being held at gun point. To be honest, Ray knew his resolve had been slipping ever since he had met eyes with the white skull for the first time.

‘Ah, fuck it.’

“No, I don’t want that,” He finally said, simply though resolutely.

Skeletor’s eyes squinted, unsure and tentative, although the frustration lingered as he spoke, “Then, what do you want?”

Despite Ray’s decision to put ‘all his cards on the table’ and be shamelessly honest, it didn’t make it any less difficult or mean that Ray was at all prepared.

So, he clumsily tried to explain, “Err, you know, that whole ‘trying’ bit.” Unfortunately, the attempt was met with a tilt of a head and questioning eyes. Ray huffed with misdirected annoyance, his nerves growing, “Uh, come on, you know, the soulmate-thing…”

Ray trailed off feeling foolish and rolled his eyes at his inept display, ‘Alright, this is awful. Goddammit, just shoot me.’

“Really? You…changed your mind, like that?” Suspicion was laced through Skeletor’s exterior; however, he held a new, hopeful attention.

Ray was quick to prove his sincerity (briefly noting how they had seemed to switch places) and raised his voice a little in protest, “I never changed my mind about the soulmate-thing – just if I should be honest about it.”

Skeletor eyebrows drew together, confounded, “What- Why?”

Although Ray surmised Skeletor must have already had some idea, he began to erratically answer into a helpless ramble, “Because! I don’t know you or your crew, pretty sure you were (are) going to kill me, most or all interactions we’ve had you get upset or angry or quiet – nothing good really, so, I was giving you an out.”

Unconsciously proving Ray’s point, Skeletor growled, “I never wanted or needed an ‘out’,” apparently offended by the insinuation, “and if I’ve ever appeared ‘upset’ it’s only from your incessant desire to get away from me.”

Ray sighed tirelessly, “Come on, dude, you think I’m ‘reckless’ and an accountability, you’re pissed off whenever we talk, and you’re constantly keeping tabs on me,” he argued with a sympathetic inclination, hoping to coax Skeletor into confessing his true nature; it’s not as if Ray wanted to hear it but it would be less painful than for it to be drawn out like it was.

Skeletor had stiffened when he recognised his own words, and guilt clouded his eyes, “Ah, no, that- I was being a dick. I was frustrated you didn’t – don’t care about the fact you nearly got killed,” His tone had steadily grown angrier, however, was quick to notice and berate himself, “That’s not an excuse. I’m sorry.”

Ray sighed through his nose; nervous and impatient to reach a climax.

“Dude, it’s fine. I get it-”

To Ray’s annoyance, Skeletor interrupted with a pronounced, “You don’t,” nevertheless he waited as the other continued, “You don’t get what it’s like to find your soulmate bleeding out before you’ve even introduced yourself.”

The confession struck Ray hard and guilt took a hold of him as he struggled for a reply.

“Yeah, you’re right,” was all he could say. He could imagine though; just the thought of finding Skeletor in any injured state felt awful and terrifying. “I’m sorry,” he remorsefully added. Ray anxiously crossed his arms as he made another attempt at his own confession, “Uh, for the record, I was really happy when, er, when I saw you,” and flapped his hand a little to emphasise the red-string attached to his pinky, “even if it was through the lens of my sniper scope.”

It was an understatement in comparison to how he really felt, but Ray thought it was unnecessary to say anything more, still anticipating rejection despite the kind, genuine nature of Skeletor’s words.

Skeletor’s shoulders slackened and his eyes had widened in disbelief, apparently not having expected to hear those words from the sniper; and Ray instantly felt he had made a mistake. He couldn’t take the words back, even as they dispersed through the room and into a harrowing silence. Ray’s perpetually wavering conviction was crumbling away and his eyes turned from the skull to the window that called for him; however, Skeletor was quick to shorten the distance between them, but left a foot of space so not to crowd the sniper, and he once again clasped a hand around Ray’s arm.

The touch caused Ray’s gaze to return to Skeletor’s and saw that his eyes had softened; he looked cautiously happy, hopeful and elated. It was a new expression Ray hadn’t seen before and he was stuck staring, all the while hanging on to his plan to incapacitate Skeletor and run for the window if things went bad (although he had no idea how the execution would go).

“I’d tell you what I thought when I first saw you, but you wouldn’t believe me,” Skeletor said gently and Ray imagined he was smiling beneath his mask, if the crinkle in the corners of his eyes were anything to go by.

Ray held himself back from answering, ‘Probably not,’ and traded it with, “Oh no, I know what you thought, ‘Pasty, skinny guy who’s aiming a sniper at me? I won the soulmate lottery’,” Ray said sarcastically with a small flourish of ‘jazz hands’ at the end (Skeletor’s hand still wrapped around his arm).

“I mean- That’s half right,” Skeletor answered vaguely still smiling under his mask, before he continued, “I was also happy when I first saw you – even at a distance.”

Ray let himself smile and the happiness he had been pushing down bubbled up, but just as quickly as it fluctuated he squashed it back down. He reminded himself to keep cautious of Skeletor’s movements in case there was a sudden change of situation now that he had revealed his feelings, and prepared himself for a quick escape; however, Skeletor had yet to show any signs of disingenuousness and made no move as he continued to stare at Ray.

“You’ve got your guard up…” Skeletor said startling Ray; apparently he hadn’t been as subtle as he had hoped.

As Skeletor looked at him with concern and something akin to disappointment, Ray couldn’t help but feel remorseful. It wasn’t as if he wanted to hold such distrust towards someone he cared for.

“Uh, I’m sorry… I just can’t be sure.”

Not angered or deterred, Skeletor appeared understanding as he met Ray’s eyes and began, “I know words are cheap but, I would never hurt you,” before he continued in a joking manner, “And hey, it’s not like I haven’t got anything to worry about, what was that success rate again?”

Ray appreciated the small banter, it alleviated his nerves, albeit minutely.

“That’s true,” he said with a small smirk (and refrained from mentioning how he’d never be able to actually hurt Skeletor) while he mindlessly rubbed at his stabbed shoulder which had been aching profusely.

Skeletor spotted the unconscious action and growled under his breath, “I want to kill that guy,” more to himself than anyone else.

Ray ignored the slight tug at his heart and said with a raised eyebrow, “You know he’s dead, right?”

“Well, I want to make him dead squared.”

“I heard that’s not a thing.”

“It’s gonna be.”

Ray genuinely laughed and the start of Skeletor’s darkened mood dissipated as he released Ray’s arm.

Ray would have questioned Skeletor’s intense feelings if he didn’t share them himself, although they probably didn’t show as he had refrained from revealing them openly like Skeletor had. Ray looked at the string on his pinky curiously, was it a soulmate thing? It wasn’t a good feeling to think you’re being influenced by something other than your own character; and Ray would prefer to think his feelings for Skeletor were more than just a forced effect because it sure as hell felt like more than that. Ray wondered if Skeletor had also noticed his own intense feelings and had questioned them when he had only known Ray for a little over a day.

A new silence had started, uncertain but not uncomfortable, and he felt the need to break it, “Um…So, what now?”

“Uhh,” Skeletor replied and Ray was glad that Skeletor was just as lost as he was.

Feeling as if he should take responsibility too, Ray proposed, “…We could talk?” And instantly cringed at the how lame it sounded and quickly added, “Or see what the guys are doing,” To try and dilute his embarrassment.

However, Skeletor only appeared happy and grateful for the suggestion and eagerly agreed, “Talking sounds good.”

The fast agreement made Ray unable to hold back his smile, one that didn’t give nearly enough credit for how relieved and overjoyed he felt.

It was awkward to start but after deciding to stay within the privacy of the bedroom, where they were less likely to be disturbed, and sitting themselves comfortably, Skeletor on the couch again and Ray at the end of the bed opposite him (he wasn’t confident enough to take the place besides Skeletor), they began to find a good, though tentative flow of conversation. They opened with vague mentions of upbringing, no serious details revealed and slowly delved into other areas. Age cropped up at some point and Ray found out that there was a substantial number of years between them – nine to be exact (Ray being 27 and Skeletor being 36). It didn’t bother him, and he hoped it didn’t bother Skeletor; unfortunately, it had been hard to tell as the subject was short-lived and quickly passed over.

Skeletor initiated the topic of their ‘Strings of Fate’, when they showed up and how they reacted at the time. He told Ray how he had been 25, before he had met the Fake AH crew, and it appeared when he was in the middle of a job that was going terribly; and that it had caught him so much by surprise, he had almost crashed the motorcycle he was driving off the road. He was hesitant and watched Ray worriedly as he regretfully admitted that he was fervently against the idea of meeting his soulmate and had no desire to acknowledge the string or his soulmate. He hastily began to reassure Ray that he was different – angrier and callous – more so than he was now at least.

Ray listened patiently and interestedly, and gestured for Skeletor to continue – that he wasn’t upset.

When he was 30, Skeletor had grown a modest reputation as ‘Vagabond’, and he took his first job with the Fake AH Crew; they were a small gang but seemed competent and had the money to hire him. The job was simple with moderate pay, just a minor bank heist downtown. It went by smoothly, however, Skeletor had never worked with such an odd group before; they didn’t care for civilian deaths, but compensated with unnecessary, colossal damage to everything else, and definitely enjoyed what they did. Also, they treated him as they did each other and didn’t even seem that afraid of him -that afraid of him while making casual conversation. After that first successful heist, they kept hiring him and they slowly began wearing him down. He gradually began to like each member of the crew and formed friendships with them.

However, one day something from his past crept up on him and, in Skeletor’s words, ‘some stuff happened’. There were obvious parts of Skeletor’s life he wasn’t ready to share but Ray was more than understanding of that and let Skeletor finish without interruption. Skeletor had never expected for the Fake AH crew to come save him simply from not being able to contact him for a week. It was then Geoff officially offered a position in the crew, an offer Skeletor’d been presented with before but had declined each time, uncomfortable with the idea of being part of a team. This time was different though. He accepted gratefully with hope of one day repaying them back for their help. It wasn’t long after that that he began to crave to meet his soulmate and genuinely hoped to find them one day. He even admitted to following the string at some point, even though the String of Fate was famously deceptive as it would often misguide you.

Thankful that Skeletor felt comfortable enough to share his story with him, Ray, even though he was nervous, felt he should return the favour and awkwardly - clumsily, spoke of his own time with the String of Fate. He was brief in details as he told Skeletor how he was 16, homeless, a thief and that the String of Fate was a beacon of hope for him – how it was a sign of something better. He couldn’t look Skeletor in the eye as he went on to explain how those feelings gradually changed over the years to fear and dread - that it had turned into a sign of an end. His solitary lifestyle and his work had made him untrusting, and not only that, but he had found all kinds of reasons that he would disappoint his soulmate and fail to ever be what they wanted him to be. Ray was careful to secure his joker-exterior so to lessen the vulnerable and serious tone of his tale.

It appeared unsuccessful however, Skeletor’s eyes only showing grief and longing throughout all of it causing Ray to worry he had said too much, but Skeletor only said, “I wish we had met sooner.”

Of course, Ray had brushed off the subject with carefree inclination, not wanting to seem pitiable, and quickly went onto other topics.

Ray mainly kept to stories that would make Skeletor laugh, and cherished when he succeeded, while Skeletor told a mix. Overall, Skeletor was slightly more open to sharing than Ray, although he definitely had a lot he wasn’t prepared to discuss; he very rarely spoke of his life before the AH Crew. Ray was even more reserved and only indulged to short, interesting happenings without particulars or context. He knew it wasn’t fair, and he wanted to be more open with his soulmate, however, it was still too soon for him, despite how he felt towards the man in front of him. Though they both understood each other and never pushed for more than they were given.

Ray never asked about the mask, he could tell Skeletor would breach the subject on his own if he wanted to address it. It was strange, but as they talked the mask didn’t hinder Ray’s ability to understand Skeletor; for among his body language, his voice and the change in tone, and the way he held himself, Ray didn’t notice the mask at all, and actually found it endearing.

They talked for hours of little things and, one could argue, next to nothing, though Ray would disagree. Those hours were meaningful to him and his feelings only grew, which was a frightening thought, yet, he couldn’t find it in himself to run away like he felt he should.

During that time, the sky had steadily darkened from the milky-grey it had been when they had sat down, to a dark-charcoal when they were suddenly called for dinner. Ray was shocked to see that the clock in the kitchen read 8:25 p.m. as they joined the others to eat in the living-room; and scorned himself for the shy-excitement that sparked when Skeletor sat beside him.

The group unquestionably noticed the new favourable air between the two, however, were sensible enough to not risk unsettling the positive development by acknowledging it. Instead, they all chatted pleasantly about other things; Ray still felt slightly intrusive but less so now that it didn’t appear as if Skeletor hated him. Plus, the crew were pretty good at making him forget himself, which he had yet to decide was good or bad.

As soon as they had finished eating and throwing scrunched up takeout wrappers at each other, with little else to do, they set up the Xbox and took turns playing as they had earlier. Everyone ended up moving about often, changing seats whenever players switched, and Ray pretended not to feel how his face grew warm or the pleasant giddiness that swirled around his chest when Skeletor would move in way to accommodate staying close to him.

Ray watched as Skeletor, Vav, Mogar and Pattillo played ‘Overcooked’ and chastised himself every time he caught his attention drawn and stuck on the masked-man. He was too old for that kind of adolescent behaviour; was what he thought, despite having very questionable experience in the area of relationships – or people in general. Each time he found his eyes moving back to Skeletor, Ray would force them down to look at the string attached to their pinkies instead.

He was startled out of his thoughts when a voice next to him asked, “What time you heading off tomorrow?”

Ray turned to Ramsey, “Oh, uh, I was thinking around six or seven.”

The reminder of leaving made an uncomfortable lump fill Ray’s stomach and it only took him a second to understand why. Ray wanted to laugh at himself. While he had been so determined to leave, he hadn’t thought of what it might feel like to part from his soulmate. He knew he couldn’t stay though, because even if they turned out to be as honest as they portrayed and they did in fact accept him, it was too much too soon.

“Early,” Ramsey noted nonchalantly.

Ray shrugged paired with an ‘eh’ noise in response.

A beat passed of watching the others play before Ramsey said, “You’re welcome to stick around.”

Although he spoke in his usual cavalier way, Ray felt there was more to Ramsey’s offer than his tone suggested, but brushed the thought aside, “Thanks, but I know you guys have gotta get back to your ‘HQ’ or whatever, and I should do the same.”

‘‘HQ’. Shitty apartment with a stash of guns. Same thing.’

Granted, Ray had no plans to ‘stick around’, Ramsey’s offer was nice (if genuine) and Ray liked the idea of hanging out with the Fake AH Crew again, though he wasn’t sure his cautiousness would allow it.

Ramsey bobbed his head slowly, accepting Ray’s reply, then asked, “You got a way to contact ya?”

Ray’s eyebrows furrowed downwards, confused and taken aback by the question; his guard instantly doubled by instinct. He glanced at Ramsey for a moment by the corner of his eye, before he returned to watch the game on the screen.

“Nothing more than through the grapevine; you can get me through DragonFace and Lunatic if you need help with a job.”

“I wasn’t necessarily keeping it to business reasons, but I’ll take what I can get.”

“What other reasons are there?” Ray asked curiously, masking the suspicion he had.

“You still owe me a rematch in Halo,” Ramsey reminded with his usual tired smirk, “and I don’t think the rest of the guys would be happy to hear you have little intention of meeting them again. They’ve already grown attached,” He added as his smile turned to one of fond teasing.

A ghost of a smile made it’s why onto Ray’s face and he couldn’t help but hope Ramsey’s words were true, because he knew he had become attached to them as well. He even felt slightly bashful by the comment and automatically made a joke to hide it, “What am I, a dog?”

“Who’s a dog?” Lil’ J suddenly jumped in as he sat beside Ray. He and Caleb had been getting more drinks from the kitchen and had chosen that moment to return, catching the middle of their discussion.

“Me, apparently,” Ray replied in a deadpan way.

Ramsey rolled his eyes and sighed as he turned to Lil’ J, “I was just asking him about how to get in touch with him after he leaves tomorrow.”

Lil’ J leaned forward to look at both Ramsey and Ray with interest, “Oh yeah?”

Ramsey nodded before stating plainly, “He’s giving us nothing.”

“What?” Pattillo head shot to look at the three before landing his gaze on Ray. He sounded shocked and maybe even offended by the news, but was pulled back to the game when Mogar shouted at him to pay attention, his character being idle.

Feeling guilty, Ray was quick to defend himself and although Pattillo wasn’t looking anymore, he held his hands up in surrender as he began, “Hey, I gave him all I had. I only have a bunch of burner phones for work, none of which I know the numbers by heart or have on me right now.”

As it turned out, Ray hadn’t felt guilty enough to be honest because he did have a personal number and he did know most of his work numbers from memory; however, he just couldn’t bring himself to tell them.

Gruffly, all the while keeping his attention on the game, Mogar asked, “What about an address?”

Ray was stunted for a minute, unable to form another lie as he had before. When he tried a response, all that came out was an awkward, “That’s a bit…” that trailed off.

There was a beat of nothing as they waited for him to continue before Lil’ J came to his rescue, “Yeah, he’s only known us two days, dude.”

Mogar didn’t respond and when Ray looked over at him, as the red-head remained focussed on the game, he seemed as if he was sulking.

Vav, who had said nothing till then, chimed in casually, “It’s okay, I know of Lunatic and DragonFace. I can reach him through them, like he said.”

Surprised, Ray inquired, “You heard?” He hadn’t thought anyone had been paying attention to them, let alone Vav; he was more astute than Ray gave him credit for.

The game ended and everyone put their full attention on the conversation at hand. Skeletor as well, however, he hadn’t said a word on the subject which Ray found to be quite strange.

“Not on purpose,” Vav said, as he went to grab his beer that sat on the coffee table.

Although Ray wasn’t sure if he appreciated Vav finding a way to contact him (even if that way was one he suggested himself), he still found himself saying, “Thanks, Vav.”

Ray wished he wasn’t so nervous at the prospect of new relationships or involvement with others, yet that nervous part of him was glad he was so cautious and careful. It was a constant pull and push.

Ray was grateful that the topic of conversation moved on to a different one, but was still worried by Skeletor’s silence. He feared he might have angered him again in some way, however, Skeletor returned to his usual self when the subject changed. He spoke to Ray as he did before and they continued their tentative, gentle steps at trying to get closer to one another. And yet, any time the subject of Ray leaving popped up, he said nothing and withdrew into himself.

-

Midnight came and went before Ray was ushered into the ‘medical room’ for another check-up. Once everything seemed as it should, Caleb let him go about his business. Ray decided to get ready for bed, exhaustion heavy behind his eyes, and when he reappeared from the bathroom, he was yet again met with Skeletor sat on the couch.

Ray had hoped Skeletor would have become comfortable enough to leave him alone for the night – apparently not. Ray tried to urge the gang member to go sleep somewhere more suitable, “Sk-Vagabond, go sleep in your room, man. The couch can’t be good for your back.”

Skeletor instantly looked troubled by the suggestion and turned back to his book as he replied, “It’s not that bad.”

Rolling his eyes, Ray tried again more strongly, “Yeah, right. Dude, go to bed,”

Skeletor made no movement and stubbornly kept his attention on the book in his hands, as he said, “It’s fine, I’d rather stay.”

Ray sighed and his body sagged ever-so-slightly, “I’m not going to leave out the window,” he assured.

Silence followed and Ray waited patiently while he watched Skeletor lower his book to his lap, and say, “It’s not just that.”

“What is it then?” Ray asked carefully, worried of the answer.

Another silence; however, Skeletor broke it with an obstinate, “I’m staying,” before he brought his book back to his face, much to Ray’s frustration.

But he wasn’t one to push things, so instead attempted to fix another of his concerns, “Fine, then you sleep in the bed and I’ll take the couch.”

Finally, Skeletor faced Ray, only to look at him as if he were crazy, and sternly protested, “No, you’re injured!”

Ray groaned and gave an exaggerated sigh, “You’re not making this easy, are you?”

“I’m staying,” Skeletor simply repeated, similarly to a petulant child.

Tired and not wanting to make Skeletor angrier, Ray gave in, “…Okay, as long as you’re sure.”

“I am,” Skeletor confidently affirmed, and already looked alleviated by Ray’s acceptance.

Ray still felt unsettled by the idea of sleeping with someone else in the room, but was resigned to the fact he didn’t have much of a choice in the matter, and went to bed without another word. Skeletor switched off the light and Ray listened as Skeletor shifted and moved about, presumably laying out across the sofa. The twenty-to-thirty minutes that passed were filled with muffled noises from places inside the house where the other members still lingered. Ray had pinned his eyes back on the dark sky through the window as he feigned ignorance of the reason he could not sleep or to what caused the harrowing feeling in his stomach. The more time that passed the dreaded sensation steadily increased in intensity.

Then, as if to dissuade or distract those thoughts and feelings from reaching their peak, he suddenly spoke out into the room, “There wasn’t another job.”

Ray didn’t understand why he chose to speak those words of all the things to say into the darkness, however they were out before his mind could catch up to his mouth. As Ray had expected, he wasn’t granted a response and when at least thirty seconds went by after the words were released, he sighed out a quiet breath of relief.

“What?” Was the sharp, very awake, reply he did get a minute later.

Despite his regret, Ray elaborated truthfully, more thankful by the distraction from the gnawing feeling that had crept back up during the silence. “The Red Cardinals were the only people who hired me, there wasn’t another client,” His voice was level and even, to hide his apprehension of Skeletor’s reaction.

Ray heard the sofa moan as the weight on top of it abruptly shifted, Skeletor having sat up suddenly by the new information.

“Wh- Then what were you doing? Why were you- Why?” He asked–almost demanded, stopping and starting as the bubbling anger and confusion stilted his words.

Ray sat up as well, and calmly said, “You know ‘why’.” Through the darkness of the room, Ray looked down at the covers around him instead of the direction of the couch where Skeletor sat and his eyes that were no undoubtedly straining to find him in the black. There was a bout of nervousness in Ray’s chest and he was glad for the dimness that acted as a second layer over his façade.

Almost another minute went by before Skeletor spoke again, “So, you got hurt for- because of me?”

“No,” Ray defended quickly, exasperated that Skeletor would blame himself. “Everything I did was for me and because of me. And I got hurt because I was an idiot and underestimated someone’s tenacity to hate me,” He tried to morph his tone into one of humour and assurance in an attempt to lighten the mood and Skeletor’s troubles. “Maybe there was another way I could have done things but I don’t regret what I did, and I think it went pretty well; the worse that happened was a couple of bruises.” Ray had no idea if he was fuelling or distinguishing Skeletor’s temper at this point, but he could never handle silence well.

“It’s not just a couple of bruises,” Skeletor bit out instantly before quietness once again returned. Ray looked at his hands that rested in his lap and held himself from saying anything else; it was becoming dishearteningly clear he wasn’t helping the situation. Skeletor eventually spoke again, “I’m grateful that you went so far for me-to protect me and the crew… but you can’t do that again,” His voice was so strained and Ray knew he wanted to say so much more and was holding back on other concerns. However, be it for the conversation’s sake, sleep’s sake, or maybe even Ray’s sake, he didn’t voice them; not that night at least.

Ray felt guilty that he couldn’t agree or promise him that he wouldn’t get involved again, so instead lamely joked, “Puerto Rican Thunder rarely strikes twice,” to avoid giving a real answer.

Skeletor huffed out a laugh but it came out hollow. It was a sad sound.

“Goodnight, BrownMan.”

“Goodnight, Skel-Vagabond.”

Ray heard the other chuckle softly at his slip-up, a nicer one than the last.

No other words were spoken that night and, as he laid back down, Ray scorned himself for having caused another bad atmosphere between himself and Skeletor. He spent the rest of the night trying and failing to fight off the raging discord that thrashed about his stomach and chest that effectively made sleep difficult. So, to say the least, Ray didn’t sleep well that night, and unbeknownst to him, neither did Skeletor.

Chapter Text

The night dragged by excruciatingly slow, yet the dull light of early morning came far too soon, signalling to Ray that it was time to get up. He carefully scooted out of bed, not wanting to wake Skeletor who was sleeping on the couch, and quietly walked by to reach the bathroom. He washed and changed out of his borrowed night-clothes into the day set he‘d been given. When he came out he was startled by Skeletor stood up as if panicked, looking between the empty bed and the window; however, as Ray quickly approached to ask what was wrong, his hastened footsteps making himself known to the masked man, Skeletor visibly relaxed at the sight of him.

Ray was not at all eased though and worriedly spewed out questions, “Are you okay? What happened?” His voice was laced with concern while he looked over Skeletor for injuries, and after determining Skeletor’s well-being, scoured the room for any form of threat.

Satisfied that there was none, he turned to Skeletor who stared back, bewildered until he shook his head a little and unconvincingly assured, “O-oh, uh, I, uh, nothing. I was just… startled awake, I guess.” He looked away as he spoke, causing him to appear more suspicious than before.

Although he seemed fine, weird but fine, Ray needed the confirmation and probed again, “So… You’re okay?” The sudden worry overpowered his constantly maintained straight-face, and his real feelings of concern were left as clear as day, unbeknownst to Ray himself however.

Skeletor turned his attention back to the sniper, his eyes gentle as he sincerely and strongly affirmed, “Yeah, I’m fine,” trying to soften the young-man’s troubled expression.

Finally, his mask reconstructed, though never having noticed it being broken, Ray was back to his casual, fun-loving tone of voice, “Phew, you scared me there. Thought He-Man had shown up or something.”

Skeletor chuckled under his breath.

Although still a little worried as to what had actually startled the guy, Ray wasn’t one to push, instead changed the subject, “Oh right, it’s fine if not, but is it cool if I get my stuff back?”

Ray understood if Skeletor and the crew weren’t comfortable or trusting enough of him to return his weapons, but he felt it was worth asking. Surprisingly, Skeletor simply nodded and left the room without any sort of hesitation, making a weird swell of warmth sprout in Ray’s chest.

While he waited, Ray put on his shoes (the only article of clothing that did belong to him) and studied the residual blood stains; they were hard to see against the black cloth material of his converse but Ray could easily spot them. It wasn’t long before Skeletor returned with Ray’s guns and hunting-knife; and Ray gratefully though slowly took them, putting his knife under the waistband of ‘his’ jeans and swinging the sniper bag across his back. The sniper could be dismantled compactly enough to fit into a discrete carrying case that Ray had customised to look like a casual sling backpack. However, he had no such disguise for his machine gun, having thought he’d be leaving straight from the Red Cardinal’s job in his own car, which he’d hidden back near the warehouse.

He looked at the machine gun in his hands thoughtfully before handing it back to Skeletor, “Eh, you can keep this one, I can’t hide it. You’re welcome to throw it away or repaint it,” he told Skeletor who took back the gun and cradled it gently.

As he tidied up the bed, Ray was taken aback when Skeletor said, “I’ll just hold onto it…until we next meet.”

Ray had involuntarily paused his movements, his brain having had shut-down at Skeletor’s words. After waking from his short stupor, Ray quickly returned to neatening the covers, busying himself to avoid making eye contact as he gave a quiet, “…Yeah.”

A knock on the door drew both their attentions away as it gradually opened revealing a sheepish Pattillo, “Sorry to intrude but I need to steal Vagabond for a bit, is that okay?”

“Yeah, sure,” Ray said giving a small smile of reassurance that the man hadn’t interrupted anything, and briefly wondered if any of the crew held normal sleeping hours; it was only a little before 6 a.m.

Skeletor, however, looked none too pleased with being coursed away and very reluctantly agreed.

Sensing his friend’s upset, Pattillo turned back to Ray and said sternly though not unfriendly, “Don’t leave yet. Everyone wants to say their goodbyes before you spirit away.”

Giving a lazy smirk, Ray complimented Pattillo’s tone with a jokey-compliant, “Understood.”

The two left, but not before Skeletor looked worriedly over to Ray again, who smiled back in hope to pacify his reluctance to leave.

When the door clicked closed and he was left alone, Ray sat on the bed that he had straightened moments ago, his hands gripping the edge of the mattress either side of him. His head hung low as he sunk into himself while the heavy saddening mood intensified in his solitude. He loathed himself for having such conflicting feelings: he wanted to remain with Skeletor, but he wanted to run away from him and everyone else too. It was still difficult for him to admit that he had such strong feelings for a man he had only met two days ago; although, not because Skeletor was lacking in any way, on the contrary, Ray thought he was a head above anyone else he had ever met, to put it modestly, but that only strengthened his insecurities and everlasting doubts.

Ray didn’t understand how he could be paired up with such a person and couldn’t think of a single reason Skeletor would be happy to call him his soulmate, which often led Ray checking to see if the red thread had faded away realising its mistake. And, although Skeletor showed promising displays of reciprocation -and a scary kind of concern over Ray’s safety- Ray couldn’t let himself believe it. It was against everything he had learnt in his life and those deeply embedded trust issues weren’t going to vanish overnight – they hadn’t. He still anticipated a ‘gotcha!’ followed through with a bullet to the head and reminded himself frequently how everything could be a devised plot.

However, even with all that against him, Ray couldn’t deny how much he wanted to remain in Skeletor’s life. The thought of never seeing him again, while calming to his more anxious side, was devastating to every other part of him. If things were as genuine as he hoped, then it must be difficult for Skeletor too… and Ray knew his distant attitude didn’t help, but it was so ingrained into his being to be cautious and hidden that the idea of including another person into his life was so overwhelmingly daunting and naively stupid.

Ray sighed quietly. He didn’t know what to do and only felt more lost and torn than before. He couldn’t sit there forever though and tipped his head up to look out the window. He had to get a move on.

Heaving himself off the bed, Ray made his way to the door and pulled it open, it wheezing at the hinges. The moment he stepped across the threshold into the hallway, Caleb called out to him a few rooms down, “BrownMan, you up for another check-up?”

Ray wandered down the hall, having identified Caleb’s voice coming from the ‘medical room’ and found the nurse packing away some of the medical supplies (though not all, Ray noticed) into a duffel-bag.

“Are you sure? You don’t have to, you look pretty busy,” Ray said from the doorway. Caleb turned and gave him a scolding look in return, to which Ray raised his hands in surrender, “Ready when you are.”

Ray got to removing his clothes, going through the motions as Caleb checked over his wounds and stitches, re-disinfecting and redressing them all.

“Have you felt any more nausea since last time?”

“Nope,” Ray said simply and Caleb glanced at him suspiciously before apparently letting it go. Ray stared at a spot on the wall opposite him as he continued awkwardly, “Uh, thanks for all your help by the way, I know you didn’t have to.”

“Actually, I did have to, unless I desired the removal of my appendages, but you’re welcome. I doubt this’ll be the last time though,” Caleb mused casually as he finished the last of his procedures, then turned away to resume his packing.

Ray looked at the nurse oddly, confused by the assumption, “Really?” His tone inclined in an ‘is that so’ kind of way, as he pulled his clothes back on.

Not turning away from his business, the nurse just said in his misleadingly apathetic tone, “I’ll see you soon. Be careful on your way home.”

“Uh, yeah, I will, thanks,” Ray replied dumbly. He took another glance at Caleb before walking out, going down the hall towards the living area where he could hear Vav and Mogar, along with some clattering noises.

When the two Fakes came into view, they were gathered around the coffee table, packing away things into duffel-bags just like Caleb had been doing.

“Are you all going on vacation or something?” Ray asked nonchalantly as he watched them.

Vav instantly greeted him jovially while Mogar answered, “We’re packing some stuff to take back to the base.”

Ray nodded in understanding, realising the crew had been as stuck at the safe-house as much as Ray had, waiting until Ray was able to leave, and were probably relieved to be going to wherever they call home.

Vav moved away from the coffee table and approached the sniper with his usual friendly countenance, but with a little disappointment in his voice as he asked, “Are you leaving now?”

“Soon, yeah,” Ray replied with a small smile.

“All right, well, we’ll see you later then. I’ll be in contact soon,” Vav told the mercenary, smirking confidently.

Mogar joined the two and added, “He really will be,” as if in warning, before punching Ray’s shoulder and giving an off-handed, “See ya,” with a broad grin. Luckily, or hopefully purposefully, Mogar had gone for the non-stabbed shoulder.

Rubbing said shoulder, Ray jokily complained, “Stop the bullying.”

He wasn’t sure how to feel about Vav following through with his plans to get in touch with Ray, but tried not to think about it until he was back at his apartment where he could sort through his thoughts and feelings from afar.

“Good thing you didn’t do that in front of Vagabond,” Ramsey commented, walking into the room, “You dicks mind leaving so I can talk to BrownMan?”

All three glanced at each other briefly before the two Fakes quickly complied and carried their things away downstairs. Ramsey didn’t appear particularly threatening or aggressive, however, Ray was wary enough to remember his knife.

Not letting his apprehension show, Ray supplied a calm, “Sup?”

Ramsey came closer till he was only a few feet in front of the gunman, “So, you were hired by another crew huh?” He deadpanned, unimpressed. It only took Ray a second to comprehend what was happening: that Skeletor had told him. The mild betrayal he felt must have shown through his sudden rigidness because Ramsey quickly began to try to defuse it, “Don’t be mad at the guy, he just wanted credit given to where credit’s due. And it just proves my instincts were right about you,” he said smugly.

“How do you know I’m not lying?”

Ray wasn’t trying to make them suspect him more than he assumed they already had, but he wanted to try and pry out Ramsey’s real reasoning, Ray not being so trustful himself.

“You’re not lying. The line about it being a ‘coincidence’ that your soulmate showed up on the job you happened to be working as a mole was too suspicious. This makes a lot more sense, and I’m never wrong about these things. You saving your soulmate while all odds were stacked against you shows that you care a lot more than you’re willing to say - and that you’re a romantic little fuck.”

Ramsey was grinning almost proudly at Ray or maybe with himself, it was hard to discern, but suddenly the cocky grin softened slightly as he added after a beat, “You should join the Fake AH crew.”

Ray heard the words but they only processed ten seconds after. Although Ramsey had mentioned before how he was planning on asking Ray to join his crew, Ray assumed that was a ship that had sailed long ago, “…What?” He asked cautiously, thinking it might not be a serious proposal.

“Come on, I was planning on asking you anyway, why not now? You’re the best at what you do but there’s a lot of advantages to working in a group. We could teach you stuff, you could teach us stuff, you’ll be with friends, not to mention your soulmate, and it’ll be so much safer than how you’re working now.” Ray was unsure how to reply, which spurred Ramsey to continue, “We’re not like other crews: we won’t abandon you. Vaga-dick sure as hell would never let that happen and he’d be ecstatic if you stayed.”

Ray couldn’t deny how there was something mildly appealing to the proposition, however, that desire fell short when he knew he wasn’t at all ready for such a commitment; his trust-issues and uncertainties holding ever strong.

At Ray’s persistent hesitance, Ramsey sighed but had a kind smile on his face, “Maybe not now then, but someday. You’re welcome to contact us regardless. Be seeing you soon for that rematch sooner rather than later anyway,” and squeezed Ray’s shoulder as a parting gesture.

Ray scrambled for a suitable response, “Uh, yeah, right, well thank you for all the help.” He inwardly scowled at the poor response. He wanted to express the gratitude himself but something stunted any sentimental words to leave his lips. Ramsey’s face didn’t falter though and left with another small gesture of farewell. Ray rubbed the back of his neck as he looked around the empty room. It was odd but although he had spent such a short time there, he already felt nostalgic towards the sparse space. Even with his wounds that still ached and stung profusely (that he had learnt long ago to bare as if they didn’t exist) the atmosphere seemed calming to his stressful mood.

The assassin let himself stand there for a minute, before he straightened himself up and followed the others downstairs. When he reached the ground floor, Ray was a little bewildered to what he saw; the layout was almost the same as the floor upstairs except that it was a lot more put together interior-wise. Spotting Ray’s confusion, Lil J told him it used to be a house that had been made into two separate apartments or something to that extent, before the crew bought it as a safe-house. He continued to tell Ray that they hardly used the bottom floor as it was a sort of ‘staging area’ for if any cops ever showed up, until the Fake wandered off to resume what he was doing before. Everyone seemed pretty busy carrying bags and packing things into a large car in the connecting garage.

Stopping one of the members long enough to ask to borrow one of their cell-phones, Ray called his mechanic to drop off his closest vehicle a few blocks away from the safe-house, and deleted the number from the phone’s history out of habit. Caleb seemed quite concerned with Ray driving with his stabbed leg and so soon after recovering from the obvious symptoms of his concussion but Ray assured him that he had driven with far worse. Oddly, it didn’t seem to reassure the nurse much, however accepted that Ray wouldn’t allow to be driven by anyone else to his home.

As he re-entered the room, having gone to another for privacy during his phone call, Lil J began to approach him. Ray gave a small smile of gratitude as he handed the burner-phone over.

“Everything good?” The Fake enquired, but not imposingly.

Ray nodded, “Yep, they should be here soon.”

“Sorry we’re so busy on the day you’re heading out.”

Ray shook his head, “No worries.” He was actually relieved that the others’ attention were split and weren’t focusing too much on him leaving, and then as if on cue, Lil J was called away.

Lil J gave another apologetic grin before he sincerely said, ”Well, take care, buddy. Better see you again soon,” as he gripped Ray’s shoulder the same way Ramsey had.

On reflex and without much thought, Ray reciprocated with a, “You too, man,” and although a part of him meant it, another was annoyed he hadn’t replied more vaguely.

And just as Lil’ J moved away, Pattillo took his place with a regretful expression, “Uh, hey, sorry for taking Vagabond away earlier, needed help with the car.”

Ray furrowed his eyebrows at the man’s worry and reinstated, “No problem, don’t worry about it.”

None reassured, Pattillo replied, “Still, it’s your last day here and I know he- Well, anyway, it doesn’t matter, you’ll see each other again soon,” But there was something questioning in his eyes as he looked at Ray.

It made him nervous, “R-Right.”

The bearded man smiled kindly as he continued, “And obviously we all want to see you again, so be careful out there. Don’t go taking on armies,” He finished with a somewhat serious tone.

Ray laughed through his nose at the exaggeration and cheekily replied, “I would never, sir.”

Pattillo shook his head, smile still on his face before he had to return to the others.

Ray watched as the Fakes walked in-and-out of the room, transferring bags from upstairs to the garage downstairs; he had offered to help but was politely declined. So, with nothing to do but wait for the message from his mechanic telling him his vehicle had been dropped off at the requested location, Ray propped himself against a wall and let his mind wander elsewhere. Thinking back to the farewells from the crew, Ray noticed the force behind each ‘see you again soon’ and how no member said anything with a conclusive ‘goodbye’; and although he held warm, mutual feelings, nerves and guilt muffled them. He was a coward through-and-through after all, and he still couldn’t find the consistent, constant determination to try and fight for what he knew he wanted. Despite the contrast to his ability to feel nearly no anxiousness for most jobs where his life was in danger and the outcome undetermined, Ray had no desire to act on his wishes where there was the minute possibility of a negative result.

With his heavy thoughts compensating a little of his awareness, Ray vaguely perceived someone approaching him but didn’t fully acknowledge them until they were stood directly in front of him. Skeletor’s jean-cladded legs came into view, blocking the floor where Ray’s eyes had previously been parked, and made him lift his gaze as he manifested a small smile.

“Hey,” He chirped.

Skeletor sounded both relieved and troubled as he said hastily, “I’m glad you’re still here. How long do you have before your ride arrives?”

“Not long; maybe twenty minutes - max,” Ray replied easily, in contrast to how he felt.

The reply made Skeletor’s eye widen for a split second as if shocked or concerned, but nodded as he looked at the floor for a moment before he began guiltily, “I, uh, I told Geoff what you told me last night,” His eyes flickered to Ray’s, most likely to find a reaction but when the young-man’s face didn’t change, he continued to explain himself, “I didn’t tell the rest of the crew though, I figured you probably wouldn’t appreciate that kind of attention. …I wanted to, to be honest, I wanted them all to know that it was you who got us through that and how much you put on the line for us. I chose to tell Geoff because I thought he’d be the most indebted and grateful – and he’s promised his secrecy.”

Although still a little sore from it, Ray was glad Skeletor told him the truth and came clean to telling Geoff, however, he was surprised Skeletor had such gratifying words for Ray whereas before he had only shown disapproval of Ray’s actions the day of at the warehouse.

“Oh, and I didn’t actually thank you for what you did. So, thank you, seriously,” Skeletor finished sincerely, earnestly looking at Ray who shrunk at the expression.

A burst of happiness filled Ray and a genuine, shy smile slipped through the cracks that he quickly tried to conceal; however, by the surprise in the other’s eyes, it was a tad too late. He hastily tried to distract from his mistake and awkwardly spoke, “Uh, no, it’s fine – I mean, you’re welcome.” It took everything in him not to roll his eyes at his own idiotic response, which was most likely making his embarrassment more transparent. So, before the other could say anything of it, Ray tried again with a question, “Why the change of heart?”

Skeletor eyes travelled to the floor, hardening with contrite as his gaze fell back onto Ray, “I… realised I was being unfair, and after imagining myself in your position I knew I would have done the same thing if it were you being held at gunpoint by thirty guys. I still get angry when I think of what you did, for sacrificing your own safety for ours, but not at you… just out of fear,” He once again looked away from Ray as he said those words and didn’t elaborate; there wasn’t any need to. He returned his gaze to the mercenary when he continued, “And I know I should be happy that you did so much for m-me,” he said ‘me’ unsurely as if he could be wrong or came across assuming, “and I am – believe me, I am; but I’m also terrified whenever I think about how much worse it could have been.”

Skeletor looked devastated and aggravated at the very mention of such a thing happening, to which Ray could fully understand and longed to reach out and comfort the man before him. It was moments like that that Ray truly didn’t understand himself: knowing he wanted to give this person everything, yet at the same time seeing them as only a force of eventual pain. He craved to know Skeletor to his bones and although he wanted the same from Skeletor, he feared the man wouldn’t like what he saw - to him it’s a guaranteed failure.

Ray wanted to say so much in response and to assure Skeletor that he reciprocated those same feelings, but being the stubborn coward that he was, he could only reply with, “…I can understand that.” It came out quiet and pitiful, and Ray had to swallow a groan of annoyance at himself. Feeling foolish and restless, Ray began his attempt to leave, “Well, I better be getting outta your way,” referring to the packing the rest of the crew were doing.

As Ray took a step to the side, Skeletor was quick to follow the movement so he could remain in front of Ray’s path, making it difficult for the assassin to move forward. Then, just as Ray looked up at him questioningly, Skeletor spoke softly, almost desperately, “You should stay…”

Ray’s heart tugged painfully at the sound and it took a fair amount of restraint to stop himself replying with, ‘I want to,’ because as much as the sniper wanted to stay by Skeletor’s side, he knew he would eventually run and crumble from the weight of it all. He needed to do things slow and on his terms if he wanted to actually learn to trust others. His insecurities would surely get worse too if his independence was taken away from him, and from Skeletor’s overprotective nature, that would most likely be compromised. …But maybe they were just excuses to accommodate his cowardice’s agenda.

“I…I can’t…”

Skeletor said nothing for a while and made no move to let the sniper pass, but eventually nodded his head in understanding, though his eyes showed anguish.

Urgently wanting to wipe away such a sad expression from Skeletor’s face, Ray rushed out, “I’ll come back,” surprising even himself.

Skeletor looked at him, his eyes softening only slightly, before he promised, “I’ll find you if you don’t,” it came out plainly, and maybe was meant to come out as a joke but probably held a definite threat too.

Still trying to pry the forlorn look from his eyes, Ray urged, “I will come back. I want to come back. I want to see you again,” As he awkwardly punched Skeletor on the shoulder, like Mogar had done earlier, lost for what to do, before shyly adding, “Don’t think it’s only you…”

Ray nervously looked down to the side as he spoke, too scared to see Skeletor’s reaction.

After a moment, he was startled as he felt fingers slide across his palm until a hand gripped around his own. Ray didn’t dare look up and hated how panicked he felt simply from having Skeletor’s hand within his own. Skeletor’s hand was rough and larger than his, and by the way he had been so tentative about it, wasn’t overly confident in Ray’s reaction. Being able to empathise with that kind of nervousness, Ray squeezed Skeletor’s hand with the goal of erasing any doubts the masked man might feel and to reassure him that he felt the same; however, Ray did so without any thought of how his own anxiety would grow from instigating such an affectionate gesture. He didn’t let go though or pull away, having no desire to break the contact and Skeletor seemed to share the sentiment as he gripped a little tighter.

Too embarrassed to acknowledge their connecting hands, Ray continued in an attempt to elaborate his thoughts, “I just… need time to settle into things, you know?” It was vague and a poor excuse of explaining himself, but it’s all he could offer right then. He still had his head angled to the floor and scratched his head nervously with his free hand in a restless movement.

A silence fell between the two again, but Ray could feel Skeletor’s eyes on him and was both curious and fearful to what they saw. Then, Skeletor finally spoke, softly and understanding, “Yeah… yeah, I know. I get it, I do. Just… be careful, please,” and squeezed Ray’s hand harder as to punctuate his plea and worry.

It was a simple, caring action, yet for Ray it was overwhelming and made his chest contract with a strong queasiness that tickled at his throat. He swallowed in a vain attempt to subdue the fluttery sensation, as he bound together his resolve to meet Skeletor’s eyes and replied assuredly, “I will,” before asking the same of him, “You be careful too.”

Skeletor gave a nod, his eyes never leaving Ray’s face, and although he definitely seemed happier and somewhat astonished by Ray’s reciprocating behaviour; having a broad understanding how hard it must be for the sniper to open up that way, there was still a heavy lingering sadness and dread that never left his gaze. Ray imagined that Skeletor anticipated that moment being the last they saw of each other and that Ray wouldn’t return, despite Ray claiming he would… And truthfully, Ray also worried that he’d achieve those expectations, and that his deeply rooted distrust and insecurities would hold him at bay. He already felt calmer knowing he would be leaving soon, no longer having to wait for Skeletor’s negative judgement or betrayal that he thought to be inevitable - even after everything. His own attachment and quickly growing fondness (to put it mildly) also fuelled his cowardice, as he now felt he had so much more to lose than before, because before it was just an idea - a sense of hope from a red thread but now that he had met the other attached to it - meeting Skeletor… it made it worth so much more.

However, although he wanted to run, that didn’t make leaving any less painful.

Looking at their joined hands, Ray tried to conjure his best carefree smile as he looked back at his soulmate, but it came out crooked and didn’t meet his eyes, “…See ya.”

Skeletor made no move of letting go of Ray’s hand and once twenty seconds had passed, Ray wondered if he ever would, until the crew member finally relinquished his grip and took a step back.

“Yeah,” He said softly -sadly.

Ray grinned casually at him before making his way to the door. The others had been good to not disturb them when Skeletor was the last to say goodbye but had reappeared at Ray’s departure. They called small words of parting and Ray was quick to give simpler, similar words as he opened the door and left, all the while feeling Skeletor’s eyes never leaving him.

Once the door was closed behind him, Ray hurriedly strode where his car was expected to be as the tension left his body the further away he got from the safe-house and the crew. When he got to his car, he got in without hesitation and began his drive home.

Something hurt while he drove away, something besides his wounds, and the more distance he made between himself and that safe-house, the safer yet emptier he felt.

Chapter Text

“Dude, I know you said it’s nothing to worry about before, but I have to ask again: what’s going on between you and these guys? Are you in some sort of trouble with them?” Lunatic, one of Ray’s intel ‘friends’, asked through the phone.

“No, it’s nothing like that, just - can you keep dodging them for me? They’ll have to give up sooner or later,” Ray replied as he kept the tension out of his voice; the subject not one of his favourites. He had his cell-phone tucked between his shoulder and ear as he undid the buttons on the cuffs of his white dress shirt before pushing the sleeves up to his elbows.

Sounding extremely dubious, Lunatic questioned, “Are you sure? It’s almost been three months.”

Taking the phone in his hand, Ray sighed and ran the other through his neatly combed back hair, “I’m sorry… I…” He trailed off as he tried to think of a helpful solution but failed to find one.

There was a pause as he struggled to think of what to say, until Lunatic began to speak again, “It’s all right, man. They’ve actually been pretty chill apart from when that Vagabond guy takes the phone… He isn’t so friendly, but it’s normally Vav who I talk to, so it’s fine,” He spoke reassuringly with a cheerful voice that Ray was grateful for; however, the mention of Skeletor made him falter for a second and an odd, short silence fell between them.

“Uh, thanks, I owe you one. I’ll try and get this sorted soon,” is what he said, but really Ray had no idea how to ‘sort’ or help the situation.

“Okay, but don’t do anything stupid; you’re already taking on more jobs than any one man should,” Lunatic finished good-naturedly, then shared short words of parting before Ray ended the call.

Ray sat at the end of a king-size bed and rubbed his eyes from underneath his glasses tiredly.

It had been eleven weeks since he left the Fake AH Crew’s safe-house and, just as he feared, his cowardice was quick to act as soon as he returned home. He reached out to his intel team and begged them not to give any of his information to the Fake AH crew if they were to call, even if they said it was about a job. Ray knew he was putting Lunatic and DragonFace in a bad position without giving them any details as to why, but panic drove him to unreasonable lengths so that he wouldn’t have to face the crew or Skeletor again. He had also encumbered himself with every and any job that came his way so as to distract himself from dwelling on his thoughts and anxieties; as well as to keep him on the move, remembering Skeletor’s promise to ‘find him’ if he didn’t return. He took on so many jobs that they piled up and overlapped one another, so much so that Ray hadn’t been to his apartment for over a day since his time with the Fakes; he’d hardly eaten or slept either, staying awake through adrenaline and energy drinks.

Ray laid back on the expensive sheets that covered the bed. He was staying at an luxury hotel for a job; he had been hired to kill some crime-lord who had been masquerading as a well renowned politician to the public, a usual target Ray used to limit himself to before he made his clientele open to anyone who could pay. The target was spending his time in a mansion not too far from The Richman Hotel, and Ray, instead of staking out in the open on some rooftop somewhere, chose to snipe from a window of a hotel room once he verified that it was the right viewpoint to get a sight on his hit. He had to hack the hotel’s booking log to get the right room for the angle he needed, but that was easy even with him being an amateur hacker.

Lifting his wrist above his face to check his watch, Ray hauled himself up figuring it was about time he set up for the target’s arrival. Ray hadn’t turned the light on ever since he entered the hotel room to avoid punctuating his silhouette and presence overall, so, he worked in the dark. He carefully moved the room’s dressing table under the window, then assembled his sniper rifle, and it’s bipod on top of it; before pulling up a chair. Once Ray sat himself down he lined up his shot and fixed his eye through the scope, and patiently stayed that way, being fully prepared for the long wait until his target came into view.

The shot from the hotel window to the target’s bedroom window was around 800 yards which, although appeared daunting, didn’t perturb Ray having had far greater distances to shoot across in the past. It wasn’t arrogance that kept him calm though, he knew things could go wrong – that he could fail or make a mistake, but believed it was useless to worry about things before they happened; all he could do was what was asked of him and hope for the best. Although, that careless way of thinking could likely be tied with his lack of self-preservation; and yet, that being said, Ray realised he must have at least some self-preservation when he so clearly avoids…other ‘elements’ in his life just from the small possibility of it turning out wrong. Then again, he had something far greater to lose than his life. Ray briefly regarded the thread attached to his pinky before harshly banishing that area of such thoughts.

Ray rolled his shoulders uncomfortably, the fitted dress shirt he wore was tight across his back and upper arms, despite unbuttoning the cuffs earlier. Unfortunately, for the sake of being ‘invisible’, Ray had to dress the part of ‘typical rich man from Richman’; which is why he was dressed in a pair of expensive black slacks, dress shoes, a nice shirt and an understated (though still as expensive) suit-jacket that he had immediately discarded over a chair as soon as he entered the room. He’d styled his hair neatly too and even changed his thick black rimmed glasses to a thin, golden framed pair that were considered quite popular to the upper-class around Richman.

Without taking his eye of the scope, Ray itched at the exposed scar on his left arm before immediately putting his hands back around his sniper rifle. Although Ray’s wounds had opened up a couple of times since he returned to his apartment all those weeks ago, having immediately dove into a cluster of different jobs that were physically demanding, they had somehow successfully healed. Ray never used to mind staking out for his target to reveal themselves, however, it had become somewhat harrowing as unwelcome thoughts and feelings filled his usually calm mind, along with memories he wished to forget. The darkness of the room was comforting though and the noises of the bustling night-time party goers, and hotel were soothing as they muffled his unsettling thoughts. He tried to focus on listening to the sounds around him as he kept his eye trained to the scope of his sniper.

He stayed there over three hours before his target finally stumbled into his bedroom, looking considerably drunk, as he began to root around the room clumsily. When Ray was satisfied that no one had followed the man into the room, Ray took the shot without a second thought before standing, shutting the window and putting the hotel room back to order. He pulled his shirt sleeves down and redid the buttons up, then shrugged on the jacket he had taken off earlier, and finally dismantled his sniper into his briefcase (his usual backpack unsuited with his current attire). Even though the suppressor didn’t completely mute the sound of the sniper firing, the rowdy noises of the hotel covered it well and he left without a word from anyone. After handing over his room key and exiting the Richman Hotel, Ray calmly hailed a taxi and gave them the first stashed vehicle location that came to his head.

That’s how he found himself being dropped off at the top of Vinewood Hills and jumping some fences to reach an Akuma he’d hidden between the bases of two trees that were swamped with overgrowing bushes. He wasn’t the most creative when it came to hiding important getaway vehicles apparently and pulling the motorcycle out of the hedges was a lot more difficult than he thought it’d be. After trudging the bike out of the thick foliage, Ray walked it closer to the dirt road before toeing the kickstand down and leaning against it. He pulled out his phone and sent a short message to the intel team that the ‘deed was done’, who would then forward that message to the client; some clients preferred not to be in direct contact with their assassin. Ray pocketed the phone as he wondered what he should do until his next job the following morning. He didn’t feel like it was worth going back to his apartment and he had little faith he would be able to sleep even if he did, so, after a minute or two of deliberating, he gave up and straddled the bike with the plan to drive until he was too tired then would find the closest, cheapest motel.

Once Ray was on the road, his mind began to wander (not so much that it compromised his driving abilities though) and tried not to think about how much he wanted to see a certain skull-masked man. Ever since he’d left, Ray felt a sadness that was the foundation to any other emotion that spawned, be them good or bad, and it left him worse off than how he felt before he met the Fake AH crew. He often considered, although he would never admit it, to find out where Skeletor spent his time, just so he could see how he was doing from afar; however, not only would that be stalker behaviour, he knew that wouldn’t fix anything. Sometimes Ray missed the other so much that he would almost bare enough courage to contact the Fakes, but it always fell short at the pinnacle moment. He was surprised at how much he missed the other members as well, their company having been both boisterous and calming for Ray; they were a fun group and there was something oddly solacing about their presence. But Ray’s thoughts always led back to Skeletor.

Ray would often replay conversations and moments from his time spent with the Fakes and regretted not taking full advantage of their short time together so that he could find out more about Skeletor. Instead, he would replay those memories in a way to relive them, because even though most of them weren’t the nicest and Ray wished he could have been different, he still found happiness in them – in seeing Skeletor. Seeing him in memories was all he had. Sleep had become almost impossible as he mind would never quieten, nor his feelings of loss, which is another reason to the great velocity of jobs he’d taken. The distraction helped and it really did keep him busy – very busy, in fact, he didn’t have enough time to eat proper food or enough of it either, not that he would ever acknowledge it. He also denied that he found food unappealing as of late; he didn’t want there to be a link between these things and his time spent with Skeletor – or rather the knowledge that he wouldn’t see him again. After all, it was his own doing – his own choice, he had no right to feel sadness or regret when it was his own actions that led him to this point. He was so frustrated with himself for being so unsure and fickle with his own decisions.

So much in his head, Ray had been mindlessly driving along the Senora Highway northwards and when he finally broke out of his thought to take in his surroundings, he was instantly confused, then panicked. He had somehow, maybe subconsciously because of his subject of thoughts, mindlessly driven his way into a worryingly familiar part of Grapeseed. His heartrate significantly quickened at how close he was to the Fake AH crew’s safe-house; however, tried to calm himself of how unlikely it would be that they were there. Then, despite those feelings of warning, he slowly drove the few streets to where the safe-house was and parked his Akuma in a nearby alley across the street. He stood in the alleyway, and simply stared at the house for a while; it was dark, as he expected, no-one there for the lights to be on. Grapeseed, an agricultural settlement with mostly farms and fields, had little foot-traffic at that time of night, so, Ray wasn’t too concerned about been seen as suspicious.

He stood in that alley for a good fifteen minutes before his feet began to move him forward, across the street and in front of the entrance door. Ray surveyed the area a second time and found it just as vacant as the first, then causally pulled two bobby pins out of his inner suit-jacket pocket; he always made sure to keep some on his person just in case such an occasion called for it. Ray bent them into shape, crowded around the front door to make it look as if he were simply fumbling about his keys, and with a quick few careful movements, the door was unlocked. Ray swiftly slid into the house and closed the door behind him. It was surprising how easy it was to break in and a little concerning how lack the crew’s security was, but putting that to the back of his mind, Ray took in the familiar sight before him.

Although he spent the least time there, the bottom floor looked the same from what he remembered and he found himself casually ambling around the floor before taking the stairs to the second. The second-floor appeared as unchanged as the first, a part from the absence of the TV and Xbox, which Ray assumed to have been taken by the crew on his last day there. Ray went over to the couch, the one which would have sat opposite where the TV had been, and let his bones rest as he laid back against the couch cushions. It was odd, although Ray had felt mostly awkward and intrusive during his time there, the house and his memories there were warm and pleasant.

Ray quietly groaned as he let his head fall backwards against the back of the couch. He didn’t understand himself. He liked being alone – was good at it and it worked well for his lifestyle, so why had he come back to the safe-house; hadn’t he made his decision? The red thread dangled idly from his pinky and Ray regarded it as, once again, thoughts of Skeletor filled his mind. “I want to see him,” Ray whispered into the empty, darkened room.

For a short while, Ray sat like that, tired and forlorn, before he heaved himself up and towards the bedroom he had stayed in during his time at the safe-house. The bed was how he’d left it: haphazardly made and scruffy; however, Ray’s attention was quickly drawn to the couch where Skeletor had spent a lot of his time on ‘guard duty’. A small smile made its way onto Ray’s face, still able to picture the man reading a book or on his laptop as he stayed stubbornly in Ray’s company. Before he knew it, Ray was sitting on that same couch, though on the half that Skeletor least favoured.

He wanted to laugh at himself. He was sat beside a ghost from his memories while his decision to move past them wavered frivolously. Ray frequently attempted to remind himself of the possibility that Skeletor had probably not a single thought of him since they parted ways and there was still a chance of it being a trap or setup for Ray to reveal weakness. Although…Ray wasn’t sure he truly believed that, not after meeting Skeletor and having failed to find a disingenuous bone in the man’s body. A more selfish part of Ray hoped it to be that way as well.

The sniper stayed on the couch amongst his thoughts until his hands clawed at his hair in exasperation, stuck in a loop of uncertain and insecure broodings; then, with the same exasperated movements, Ray leant forward to pull out his phone from his pocket. He nervously began tapping away on it, before holding it to his ear and listening anxiously to the phone ring out. The moment the receiver picked up the phone Ray’s nervous energy took control and he instantly started talking.

“Uh, hey, er, sorry I know this is sudden, but if you can, uh, could you send me Vagabond’s number? It can be a burner phone he’s using or something - just a way to contact him,” Ray rambled into the phone as he stood up and began to slowly pace around the room.

“Vagabond? Well, we could ask Vav next time he calls… And I thought you didn’t want to be connected to these guys – and you sound nervous, are you okay?” DragonFace worriedly rushed out, quite confused by the new request.

“I’m fine, I promise. I just - could you get his number without anyone knowing I asked for it? Sorry, man, I know I’m asking a lot.”

“I can probably get it through the network, but it might take an hour or so.”

“That’s fine! Thanks, DragonFace. I won’t make a habit out of this,” Ray managed to force his voice into a calmer inclination.

There was a beat of silence before DragonFace uneasily responded, “You’re welcome… BrownMan, you’re not… gonna try and take out the Vagabond, are you?”

Ray laughed a little in surprise, forgetting his nerves for a moment, “No, no, it’s nothing like that.”

DragonFace audibly sighed in relief, “Oh, thank god.”

“You doubting me, man?” Ray teased.

“What? Not at all, but I’m worried what would happen after you did kill him. The Fake AH crew would definitely come after you and… well you’d be outnumbered…and...”

Ray smiled to himself. DragonFace, although in shady business, was actually quite a timid, worried soul, who hated the thought of people he knew getting hurt.

“It’s okay, man. I have no plans on hurting the Vagabond, I just want his number…for social reasons,” He ended unsurely.

“If you say so. I’ll send you a text with the number when I get a hold of it.”

After some small words of thanks and ending the call, Ray briefly wondered how odd he came across to the intel team member, before he pushed himself off the couch to sit on the bed instead. He placed his suitcase beside him and looked out the window while his hands gripped tightly around his phone.

Ray didn’t really know what he was doing or have any type of plan, all that he knew was that he was very tired. He was tired of his cowardice, his indecisiveness, and tired of fighting against something he so undoubtedly hoped for. And if, or when, it blew up in his face, he’d try his best to deal with it when it happened; he wanted to try and adopt his work mentality. However, that was easier said than done when emotions were involved; emotions were unpredictable and they made people vulnerable, that’s one of the reasons Ray had been so opposed to meeting Skeletor since the beginning. Ray hunched forward into himself and lowered his head so that the top of his cell-phone touched the centre of his forehead. There wasn’t an easy answer, but he knew he wanted things to change. He didn’t want to keep practising apathy towards the things he cared about or live like a ghost, floating lifelessly until he finally died.

It was forty minutes after the phone call with DragonFace when Ray’s phone buzzed with a text that simply contained a cell-phone number. Ray quickly replied with a brief, though grateful, message of thanks before he found himself staring at the newest number saved in his phone. It was unlikely it would be viable for long, most people in illegal businesses made sure not to commit to a permanent way of contact; Ray was the same, the longest he kept the same phone was probably two weeks (apart from his personal phone which was well protected). So, if Ray was really going to contact Skeletor without bothering his intel team again, he had to do it soon.

Ray opened up the messaging app and stared at the blank textbox helplessly. He wasn’t sure if he would actually send anything, but it wouldn’t hurt to draft out something for if he did. He had no idea how to start though. ‘How you been’? He rolled his eyes at the thought, although that didn’t stop him from typing out ‘sup’ then erasing it completely. After much deliberation and a lot of blank staring, and retyping, Ray had finally typed out something like an acceptable message:

Hey. It’s BM.
You’re probably busy but if you’re in the area or have time, I’m at the safe-house - the one in Grapeseed.
It’s cool if you’ve got other shit to do, I know this is kinda out of nowhere.

Ray stared at the message with a deep frown before erasing it all again. It wasn’t satisfying and it was far too rehearsed, which made sense seeing as it was probably the hundredth rewrite. If he wanted to change…really change, he had to be more clear and honest, like Skeletor had been with him. If Skeletor was no longer interested in meeting him, he would deal with it…somehow, but he couldn’t move forward if he continued wavering. He had to try to stop running away all the time when feelings were involved, no matter how terrifying it was. Ray figured, if it was hard to do, it probably was because it meant something to him and it was worth being scared for.

So, Ray reformed the text to five simple words:

I want to see you.
-BM

Then sent it before he could back out.

And the exact moment he tapped the send icon, was the exact moment a horrible, instantaneous wave of regret and mortification crashed over him.

‘Oh, shit. What have I done… Oh God…’ Ray agonised as he knitted his hands behind his head and curled into himself.

A stream of profanities and berating rushed through his mind; questioning how he could be so stupid to send something so childish and emotional. He didn’t even include any context or reasoning, let alone a location. His gut tightened with each second that passed as he imagined Skeletor reading the message and his only possible reaction being an incredibly awful one somewhere between disgusted and amused. Ray prayed that maybe the crew member might not piece together the elusive, complex acronym ‘BM’. The thought of Skeletor’s growing negative regard for him drove him to his feet with an overwhelming urge to escape, destroy his phone and hide away forever.

However, before he could even take a step to the bedroom door, a loud slam of the front door downstairs suddenly echoed through the house, making Ray stop still. Heavy footsteps began moving quickly around the floor below, opening and closing doors as if they were searching for something, and it seemed as if they were in no way trying to hide their presence.

Had Ray been followed? He hadn’t noticed any signs of being tracked or shadowed, but that could just mean they were above his detection. Could it be one of the crew? Or maybe an enemy of theirs? Whoever it was, Ray couldn’t compromise the Fake AH Crew by letting his carelessness bring about the location of one of their safe-houses to (possible) enemy hands; he had to find out who it was. Unfortunately, Ray had been so intently listening out for the other intruder’s (Ray being the first) movements that by the time they’d reached upstairs, Ray realised he hadn’t devised any sort of plan. They were fast approaching and Ray swiftly, though silently, moved to place his suitcase out of sight and pulled out his pistol from the waistband of his slacks. Then he crossed the room, put his back flush against the wall beside the bedroom door (the side where he would be hidden by the door as it opened) and waited calmly with pistol in hand.

The door opened not long after and as soon as the trespasser passed the threshold, Ray, using the door as cover, came forward just enough to fluidly crouch and tactfully swing-kick out at their knees. It was a successful hit and the stranger stumbled to their knees with a muffled grunt, giving Ray a perfect opportunity to follow up with a pistol-whip. However, as Ray was about to strike the point where their neck met their shoulder Ray caught sight of a familiar mask in his peripherals, which made him falter enough that it gave the newcomer an opening. They quickly recovered, springing back to their feet, and secured Ray’s wrists in each of their hands, tightening in a vice grip.

Chapter Text

Ray was fixed in place, his eyes wide, while his heart-rate steadily increased by the sight of the person in front of him. Skeletor was in a similar state, his eyes no-different from Ray’s own; however, Ray couldn’t read the emotion they showed and it made him feel all the more nervous by the situation. Feeling breathless, Ray struggled to speak and was unable to do anything else but stare. Skeletor stared back, both bewildered as they took each other in, their bodies frozen by stunned stupors. Seeing Skeletor was, as Ray presumed, bitter-sweet; he was happy – so happy and relieved and yet, he was also terrified and filled with tension. Both sides were fighting against each other, but were equal in velocity, and it made Ray’s insides boom with adrenaline.

Once the initial shock had finally passed and his brain began to reboot, Ray croaked out nervously, “I thought you were an intruder.” It was purely fear of Skeletor misinterpreting his violent actions that gave Ray the courage to speak; he didn’t want Skeletor to believe Ray had any intention of hurting him.

Skeletor didn’t reply straight away, still seemingly stuck in his thoughts, as he took another moment to look at the sniper before him; it made Ray feel sick with nerves. He couldn’t even begin to imagine what Skeletor was thinking.

“Isn’t that you?” Skeletor eventually countered without anger or humour. The lack of inclination in his tone worried Ray, but hearing Skeletor’s voice after so long made a lump form in his throat.

“Y-you got me there,” Ray stuttered out jokingly in an attempt to soften the whirl of emotions in his stomach and the tense air in the room.

Unfortunately, his attempt fell flat and was met with a daunting silence.

Ray’s wrists that had been held up between himself and Skeletor, now hung low and the grip around them had relinquished some; however, Skeletor seemed to make no move to release them fully and the grasp was still considerable. In consequence, Ray’s pistol remained in his hand, unable to holster it like he wanted, and instead had to be satisfied aiming it away from Skeletor. He wondered why Skeletor hadn’t knocked it out of his hands or disarmed him in any way, and found himself hoping it was because Skeletor trusted him enough not to use it.

Ray felt some small relief when Skeletor eventually spoke again, “It’s been a while,” though it was plain and gave nothing away.

With a casual tone and an attempt of a normal smile to hide his panic, Ray replied, “Uh- Y-yeah it has…”

Ray was confused to say the least. He had no idea why Skeletor was suddenly at the safe-house when there was no possible way he could have seen Ray’s message, which he had only sent moments ago. So, even though Skeletor must be even more baffled, maybe even suspicious, as to how and why Ray was in his crew’s safe-house; and had much more right to ask than Ray had, Ray couldn’t help but question tentatively, “Why are you here?”

Another lull filled the room.

The skull tilted to the side a fraction (as Ray remembered him doing in the past) and slowly said, “Didn’t you message me?”

Ray’s panic and mortification instantly replenished, and an unconscious reflex made his wrists flinch in an attempt to get out and away of Skeletor’s hold. Skeletor didn’t relent at all, and even tightened his grasp in retaliation, but he looked surprised; the first show of emotion Ray had seen from him, before that surprise turned to irritation, then back to nothing.

Ray’s mind went blank, short-circuiting from the volume of embarrassment and dismay, and all that came out was an inelegant, elongated, “Uhhh,” while he scrounged for some sort of plan. The notion of denying it was tempting, although that would most likely cause more problems than fix them. Also, Ray was trying to be honest about how he felt and he had come so far just by sending the message in the first place; his effort to change would all be in vain if he backed out now. So, as he kept his view forward, and while avoiding Skeletor’s eyes, he forced his voice to be steady as he spoke, “…I did. But how- I mean, you got here so fast. I only just sent that. How-”

Ray’s ramblings were cut short by Skeletor’s calm voice as he began to explain, “Vav saw you on the feed from a hidden camera we have here; there’s a motion-sensor that alerts us when someone approaches the entrance.”

Although he couldn’t have known about the motion-sensor triggering his arrival, Ray cursed himself for not taking into account they’d have security around their safe-houses; before he realised Skeletor hadn’t really answered his question and had only brought about more confusion.

Cautiously, Ray enquired, “I got here nearly two hours ago though and I only just sent that message, so, either this is really coincidental timing or you’re Nightcrawler,” Again, Ray had to throw in some poor referential humour to pacify his discomfort.

Skeletor appeared to hesitate before he replied tonelessly, “I came to the house, but I wasn’t sure how you’d react to seeing me, so I waited a while before going inside. Then I got your text.”

Every mention of his message made Ray want to dolphin-dive out the window, however, the idea of Skeletor doing anything in hesitance because of him made Ray feel something akin to guilt; especially when some happiness (that he’d like to deny) sprouted.

“How long did you wait?” Ray asked carefully.

“Not long,” Was the simple response, but Ray didn’t believe him.

Ray had entered the house a while ago, so, if Skeletor left for the safe-house after receiving Vav’s news, then he should have reached the house over an hour ago; the coldness of Skeletor’s hands proved that theory to be likely. Something fluttered in Ray’s stomach and he looked up to meet Skeletor’s gaze, which only lasted a few moments before he had to look away again.

“You should have just come in. It’s your place after all,” He didn’t mean for his words to come out so softly, but his nerves suppressed his voice.

A beat went by and suddenly the hands around his wrists were gone, giving him a chance to make some space between himself and Skeletor, as well as putting his pistol away. Even though he wasn’t opposed to Skeletor being close to him, he was grateful for the distance while not knowing what Skeletor thought of him. When his eyes flickered to look up to meet Skeletor’s, Ray found him watching his every movement, so even if Ray tried to escape, which he wasn’t planning to, Skeletor would no doubt catch him.

“How could I, when you’ve been so obviously avoiding me?” Skeletor’s eyes never wavered and the hardness in his voice sounded as if he was sitting on his anger, trying to keep it at bay but on the brink of failing.

Ray swallowed as his mouth began to dry up.

“Wh-” He began to defend himself but stopped knowing Skeletor was right, and instead said quietly, “I came back.”

“You did,” he agreed, “after three months of no contact and being dodged by those two friends of yours. It was clear what you were doing,” His voice was rigid and it hurt Ray to hear.

Despite showing little emotion since arriving, Skeletor had been steadily losing patience and his real feelings were beginning to leak through.

While Ray desperately tried to find some words to say in response that would lighten the ever darkening mood, Skeletor continued, “Why now? Why did you come back now- Why did you even bother to break in?”

“No one answered when I knocked,” Ray joked on reflex and he hated himself for it.

Skeletor looked angry, understandably so, and seemed as if he were about to yell, but when Ray sat (more like stumbled) back onto the bed tiredly, the look in his eyes changed. The sudden shift worried Ray and he dreaded to know if and or why he was the cause (not that the atmosphere was particularly good to begin with).

Skeletor’s eyes were squinted slightly as he looked over Ray’s face, who thought Skeletor appeared concerned through his irritation but couldn’t elude as to why. Taking a step closer to the sniper, though still a decent distance apart, Skeletor said lowly and suspiciously, “You… What’s wrong with you?”

Ray looked from where he’d been staring blankly at the wall behind Skeletor to the man’s mask, surprised and confused by the question, “What? Nothin’” He replied unsure.

Ray wondered if Skeletor was referring to his persistent need to make jokes at serious moments; it would make sense, but the tone didn’t fit and Skeletor seemed deterred from his previous promptly response of aggravation.

Luckily, Ray didn’t have to speculate long before Skeletor clarified, “You look awful.”

That wasn’t what Ray had expected, to say the least.

“What? Uh… I do?” Ray enquired, confounded by the sudden change of the conversation’s topic and briefly looked down at himself self-consciously. It was then he was reminded of his higher-end attire he adorned, rather than the normal jeans and t-shirt he usually wore. Ray instantly felt embarrassed and realised what an idiot he must have looked like, and worried what Skeletor thought when he first saw him.

“O-oh, right, uh, I came straight from a job… hence the douche look,” He gave a vague gesture to his outfit with a small hand flourish and kept his demeanour nonchalant, despite feeling ridiculous.

“That’s not what I meant,” Skeletor snapped, his voice raised in volume a little, and it surprised Ray to look up at him. Skeletor seemed to notice his small outburst and reinstalled his placid tone before he curtly amended his previous comment, “Are you sick?”

“No, I’m fine,” Ray replied unsurely, still finding the topic a very odd one for the situation, then remembered himself enough to make a joke, “And that’s uncalled for, man.” It wasn’t really a lie as Ray truly believed he was well, still persistent to deny the lack of sleep and food affecting him at all.

Skeletor crossed his arms over his chest as he looked at Ray with scrutiny, before apparently forgoing the subject after a moment’s thought. However, although Skeletor didn’t continue the conversation, his eyes remained on Ray with an unreadable expression, much to Ray’s discomfort. It still felt slightly unbelievable that Skeletor was right in front of him, and even though it was by no means surprising that the mood was so full of disdain, Ray felt a heaviness on his chest as he realised Skeletor seemed only distraught and vexed by Ray’s presence. And every second that passed Ray could see that Skeletor’s simmering anger was steadily reaching boiling point.

“Why did you come back here?” Skeletor tried again tersely.

Ray looked down at his knees and the need to make a joke or to change the subject was difficult to subdue; the lame line of ‘I was in the neighbourhood’ on the tip of his tongue. He tried to quieten the buzzing uneasiness that fluttered through his entire body, at least to disguise it on the outside. The whole point of sending that message to Skeletor was for Ray to open a door that he had firmly held shut; however, as Ray opened his mouth to speak, his throat closed up. It was as if his entire body was set against his plans and wanted to make the process as difficult as possible.

Even so, Ray was nothing if not stubborn and he wasn’t going to squander what determination he had that had brought him this chance.

“I,” He began hoarsely, his throat tight as he forced out the words, “I wanted to see you.”

No flicker of emotion passed Skeletor’s eyes, but his tone was cold as he responded, “Your message said as much, but you haven’t divulged the reason why.”

Despite Ray’s drive not to back down, Skeletor’s palpable contempt rapidly dissolved his conviction and the hurt he felt was worse than he could have imagined. He was by no means disillusioned into thinking Skeletor would feel the same way or that he would be happy to see Ray, but the harsh nature of Skeletor’s attitude shocked him enough to discredit all his worked up bravado. It reminded him of how he misunderstood Skeletor’s attitude towards him before, but this time he didn’t believe it was a misunderstanding; this time was different. When he was at the safe-house all those months ago, when they talked, really talked, Ray had thought they had come to some sort of understanding of one another, but it appeared as if he’d really bothered Skeletor by contacting him.

Ray wasn’t sure if Skeletor wasn’t able to forgive him for shunning him and breaking his promise to return sooner, or if he had simply never desired to see Ray from the start; but it was obvious he was unhappy by Ray’s return. So, even as Ray planned on leaving, he didn’t feel he was giving up, rather that he had found the answer to his question, even if it wasn’t the answer he wanted.

“I’m sorry,” Ray uttered quietly as he stood on wobbly feet, “I shouldn’t have come here,” and made his way towards the door. He spoke as if he were agreeing with Skeletor, despite that he hadn’t said anything to begin with.

Then, just as Ray was about to pass Skeletor on his way to the door, Skeletor immediately moved in his path and firmly grabbed a hold of Ray’s arm. He was loud as he growled, “Don’t run away,” however there was a layer of distress there too that caught in his throat.

The tone caught Ray by surprise, but he was also growing frustrated and he raised his own voice as he helplessly replied, “What do you want me to do?”

They stood there only a couple of feet apart, facing each other with troubled, despairing expressions, stuck as to how to continue.

Suddenly, after a timeless period of tense silence, Skeletor spoke, his voice level and stern; and although his anger had lessened, Ray could hear held back emotions which he couldn’t decipher.

“A few weeks after you left I began looking for you- I’ve been trying to find you all this time, even when it was obvious you didn’t want to be found, I couldn’t stop; and with every lead that fell through I became more and more frustrated, and frantic.

“When Vav told me you were here, I left without a second thought, but when I finally got here, with you so close, I couldn’t go in.

“I didn’t know how to approach you in a way that wouldn’t make you want to leave, and then when you messaged me, I assumed it was to tell me to back off, which I am fully prepared to do - with reason; but you have to tell me yourself. It’s not okay to leave me behind without a word when you could have told me from the start that you had no intention of seeing me again, and I would have accepted that - with reason.”

Ray was frozen as he listened, shocked by the confession, and even more confused as to why Skeletor would try so hard to find him. (He remembered Skeletor saying he would come after him when he left, but Ray believed it to be a superficial threat.) Ray hadn’t heard of any such search from any of his acquaintances, but it didn’t surprise him that none of Skeletor’s attempts bore fruit; Ray had always made himself being ‘unreachable’ top priority when he got out of gang work all those years ago and had the means to do so. Even the clients he had worked with face-to-face recently (such as the Red Cardinals, for one example) had never been able to contact Ray directly and was never given more than a fee as information. However, Ray had no idea the extent in which Skeletor would take to find him these three months and he felt a pain of regret, and guilt. He never anticipated that Skeletor would truly feel distraught about Ray avoiding him, or that it would be a worthy reason of Skeletor’s insecurities.

Skeletor’s voice softened as he finished, “Just… tell me the truth. I’ll listen.”

Feeling guilty for so many reasons, the most recent being the overwhelming hopefulness that Skeletor might have felt similarly to Ray over the months they were apart; Ray, although still with doubt and nervousness, was prepared to bare his honest feelings to rid Skeletor of his own uncertainties.

“I’m sorry,” Ray began hesitantly as he looked to the side, “I’ve been an asshole…and I-I was avoiding you expecting you to give up whatever reason you were still contacting me for,” Skeletor seemed to tense up and Ray was quick to continue before any more misunderstandings arose. He didn’t mean to but in his urgency to make himself understood, his tone turned a little desperate as he rambled on, “I told myself it was best for both of us and that we weren’t really losing anything…but I was, I just didn’t want to admit it. I’m a coward and I used my distrust of people as an excuse to not see you again… But it wasn’t because I didn’t want to see you - I really wanted to see you, believe me. But I think… I didn’t want you to see me…”

There was a pause while Ray tried to comprehend himself and his own words.

“...Why?” Skeletor asked gently, with an inclination of his own confusion.

“I just… didn’t want to give you a chance to find something you didn’t like… Pretty cliché, huh,” Ray laughed hollowly at how childish he sounded, and before Skeletor could respond, he added, “I don’t have anything, you know? Nothing valuable or any kind of resources you yourself don’t have, be it a physical thing or ability. I mean, I have money… but I don’t think you’re short there-”

“Stop,” Skeletor interrupted sharply, angrily, “I’m not after anything like that- I’m not trying to use you… I just want to be with you,” He finished in a tone of frustration to convey his honest feelings. “And I know you’re scared, I am too,” he assured wholeheartedly, “Ever since the day we met I’ve been restless that you’ll disappear on me or it’ll turn out you never existed to begin with. I…I can’t help but want to tie you to me.”

Skeletor, who had been facing Ray head on since he had started speaking, looked away as he said the last line. He looked sad, and maybe a little ashamed, making Ray’s chest ache horribly at the expression. Skeletor had let go of Ray’s arm at some point and had taken a step away from the sniper, which Ray erased with a step closer.

Ray looked at the skull that now seemed set against facing him, and said softly, “I mean, I kinda am,” and waved his left hand, and more importantly the Red String of Fate, into his view.

There was a small breathy sound of a laugh before Skeletor replied just as softly, “That’s true,” but as he continued, the sad tone returned, “…but I want you to be with me because you want to be, not because of this,” He said with a gestured to the thread, “…It might be strange or arrogant of me to say, but I care about you beyond the thread.”

Ray wasn’t sure if Skeletor would actually be able to distinguish his feelings from the thread’s influence, but was still happy to hear the sentiment and felt the same way.

“I do- I mean, I want to be with you,” He replied quickly, wanting to wash away Skeletor’s doubts and feeling it needed to be confessed, “I…er… really do like you and I’m happy- lucky that you’re my soulmate,” however, as soon as the words left his mouth, a swirl of embarrassment and panic flooded his stomach.

Ray’s nervousness had been coming and going in waves as he hastily tried to remove any doubts from Skeletor’s mind while having to express and face his own insecurities, and feelings. He found himself looking down, worried of Skeletor’s reaction, before Skeletor’s hand came into view and grabbed his own which had been limp by his side. His brain shut down for a moment as his heart rate rapidly increased and in his surprise his head shot up to look at Skeletor again.

Skeletor’s eyes were gentle and the despondence they had shown before was gone as he looked at Ray, and said, “Nah, I’m pretty sure I’m the lucky one here. Thank you - I’m glad. I was sure this wasn’t going to end well,” He was sheepish as he finished and Ray once against felt guilty for having caused Skeletor grief.

“I’m sorry,” Was all Ray could think to say and he felt useless for it.

Softly, Skeletor replied, “Don’t be.”

Ray was glad that Skeletor no longer seemed angry, but didn’t feel any less remorseful and a short pause fell between them while they simply stood there, Skeletor’s hand around Ray’s. It wasn’t long before Ray broke the silence, thinking it was best he brought up what he originally planned to talk about from the start. He was still anxious, yet determined to fix what he had potentially damaged.

“Uh, I… I’m not good at being around people and I’m not the most trusting of people, but I want to be able to meet you halfway. I might go off on my own sometimes but it won’t be like this. I won’t make you worry again. I’m not going to avoid you or use DragonFace and Lunatic to filter any calls, and I’ll try my best not to block you out in any way,” He had started awkwardly and stuttered, and it was close to a ramble but he pushed forward not wanting to slow the momentum, “Also, uh, here,” He continued nervously as he passed a torn piece of paper from his pocket. “This is the number to my personal cell. Only three people have it - that’s including you - if you take it - I mean you don’t have to, I know it’s not that big of a step,” He said that, but to Ray it was ‘big’; giving out any sort of information of his was a massive deal as he had never trusted anyone enough to do so before. “You’re gonna have to be a bit patient with me, I’m not used to having people - anyone in my life so… uh,” Ray trailed off unsure how to continue, but luckily Skeletor took the piece of paper without him having to.

“Thank you,” Skeletor breathed out as he looked at the piece of paper as if it were something important, “No one else will see it,” He said, understanding how important it was to keep that sort of information safe.

Ray knew it was such a small offer, but Skeletor stared at the cell number with such relief and promise that Ray hoped it meant Skeletor truly understood how hard he was trying to build a bridge between them.

After pocketing Ray’s number, Skeletor sighed, “Thank, God. I’m so relieved,” as he looked at Ray with a fondness that made Ray’s chest swell.

An overwhelming course of uncertainty and happiness tightened around Ray’s neck, but he managed to gather enough rebellious courage to reply, “Same,” as he squeezed Skeletor’s hand a little.

The gesture made Skeletor’s eyes crinkle at the corners, the way they did whenever he smiled and Ray couldn’t stop himself from smiling back.

And all of a sudden, all those weeks- months of little sleep and food came crashing down on Ray; the unsettling, tormenting feeling that had been with him since he left the safe-house no longer holding them back. It was as if, now that the conflicting feelings that had been thrashing around in his mind all that time had suddenly quietened with the potential conclusion, and the exhaustion he’d been ignoring was no longer muffled by the erratic need to keep moving. However, despite the abrupt and pronounced hit of exhaustion, Ray didn’t want to disrupt his reunion with Skeletor, so as he reluctantly took his hand away from Skeletor’s he made his way to sit on the bed; one leg crossed on the bed while the other stayed connected to the floor.

“So, er, how have you been? What have you and the crew been up to?” He awkwardly enquired.

Skeletor watched Ray with concern and Ray knew Skeletor must have noticed his languid way of moving; he was grateful when Skeletor didn’t say anything and instead sat down beside him before he went on to answer Ray’s questions agreeably. He spoke of himself and the crew over the last three months, and Ray was both astonished and guilt ridden with how much time Skeletor had spent trying to look for him; other than a couple of jobs with the crew he did little else but search for Ray’s whereabouts. The crew helped where they could but they had other commitments and often told Skeletor that Ray would eventually find them on his own. It was painful to hear how Skeletor seemed to torment himself over Ray’s absence and Ray promised himself that he’d do all he could not to put Skeletor through that again.

Ray spoke shortly of his own three months, when Skeletor had asked, as all he could say was he’d been working- because really that was all he had been doing. He tried to tell some interesting stories during his time on jobs but he’d been in too much of a desolate mood to even remember if anything had been ‘interesting’. Skeletor looked at him for a moment as if trying to read his thoughts, somehow knowing there was something Ray wasn’t saying, however, Ray was quick to move subject before Skeletor might investigate.

There was a brief moment where Skeletor typed Ray’s number into his phone and gave Ray a couple of his own numbers so that Ray could contact him too. Ray was pleased that Skeletor seemed fine with sharing his personal cell number as well, not that he had ever appeared against it but it reassured Ray that Skeletor trusted him in some respect. And, although he was still buzzing with nervous adrenaline as they spoke, Ray felt content in his decision to see Skeletor again.

They continued to talk, Ray mostly speaking with jokes or humour, both blissful as they relished in the solace of being together again. At some point, Ray remembered he was still wearing his stifling suit jacket and carelessly shrugged it off and tossed it somewhere behind him on the bed. Skeletor looked over Ray with worried, questioning eyes and said, abruptly changing the subject, “All right, I know it’s been a while since I last saw you, but you are definitely thinner than I remember, and you really do look ill. How much extra work are we talking here?” Skeletor held a stern tone that could almost be considered angry.

Ray was a little shocked that Skeletor was able to notice such a subtle thing and that he would address it so bluntly - not because it was a sensitive subject, but simply because no one would think much of it, is what he thought.

Quickly shaking off his surprise, Ray put on a jovial smile and tried his best to convincingly reassure him, “What? I’m fine. It’s just a few extra jobs, nothing major,” while being as casual as possible.

Skeletor’s eyebrows furrowed and frustratedly asked, “I don’t believe you, and why do you even need the extra work? Are you short on cash?”

“No, it’s nothing like that. I just needed to keep busy,” Ray protested thoughtlessly and instantly noticed his mistake. He tried not to let it show on his face that he had said anything out of place and hoped Skeletor wouldn’t pick up on it or think too much about it; however, by the confused, annoyed expression in his eyes, Ray could see the cogs turning and line up.

“’Needed to keep busy’?” Skeletor repeated indignantly, and before Ray could respond, he pithily added, “You mean to avoid me?”

“No,” Was Ray’s immediate, defensive reply, “It was… just to distract me,” He finished uncertainly, weakly.

“From what?” Skeletor asked sceptically.

“I don’t know,” he said a little frantically as he ran a hand through his hair, “From thinking about you- from wanting to see you- I didn’t want to admit it affected me,” Ray panicked at his own words and even though they were true, Ray had hoped he would never have to say them to Skeletor himself. Embarrassed, and terrified of Skeletor’s reaction, Ray looked down at his lap and rubbed his arm nervously as he waited for the blow of whatever was to come.

There was a pause and all Ray could hear was his heartbeat thrumming in his ears.

Eventually, Skeletor spoke, his voice still gruff with frustration but had softened a smidgen from before, “You never had to hold yourself back or deny those feelings; I felt the same.”

Ray smiled sadly to himself. He was happy to hear those words but he still wasn’t able to fully believe them either, although that didn’t mean he didn’t have any faith in Skeletor; the more time he spent with him the more Ray trusted him, but years of distrust couldn’t be erased so easily.

“I thought it was best to hide it…for survival or somethin’,” It was vague and inelegant but Ray wasn’t sure how to explain himself clearly, and just hoped Skeletor would understand that he never meant to hurt him- he didn’t even know he could.

Ray quickly flitted his eyes over to Skeletor. He looked sad, yet understanding as he thought over Ray’s words.

“I’m sorry,” Ray couldn’t help but utter under his breath.

Skeletor turned his gaze back to Ray and shook his head, “It’s okay, I understand, just…don’t go away again.”

A small smile made its way onto Ray’s face that he didn’t even notice as he said, “I’m not planning on it,” and he truly meant it.

Skeletor, from what Ray could tell through his eyes, smiled back and although his tone remained stern, it was definitely lighter as he added,

“Good. Then you better start eating properly or I’ll force feed you.”

Without sparing a beat Ray joked, “Kinky,” and somehow ended up making himself feel embarrassed.

To his relief and happiness, Skeletor chuckled, wiping away any mortification he felt, and he relished in the cheerful sound.

There was a moment where they were simply smiling at each other until Skeletor’s eyes softened and he said, “You look good in a suit.”

Ray looked down at himself briefly and, although he was happy, scoffed to hide his self-consciousness, “What? I look like a tool.”

“Hey, least it’s not a tux,” Skeletor shot back, most likely referring to his boss’s choice of attire. Ray could almost hear the smirk beneath the mask.

Ray grinned despite himself and replied playfully, “I’m tellin’”

“Oh, he knows,” Skeletor proudly assured.

Ray laughed but before he could reply, his phone buzzed for attention where it sat in his pocket. He took it out after giving a short apology to Skeletor and quickly read the message.

Parcel will be placed at drop point at 5:20
The Catalysts’ leader expects you at 6:00

It was from DragonFace about his next job, which Ray had somehow forgotten about while he had been having his ‘reunion’ with Skeletor. He looked at the time on his phone, it read 2:33.a.m. It was later than he thought; he doubted he’d get to sleep before his next job started.

Something much have shown on his face causing Skeletor to ask, “What is it?”

“Oh, sorry, it’s just about my next job.”

“What’s the job?”

“Drug trade, nothing major,” Ray replied off-handedly.

Skeletor’s eyes suddenly narrowed at the answer and his body stiffened, “You’re still doing grunt work? I thought you were going to return to your contract jobs.”

Ray instinctively straightened up, annoyed by the reprimanding tone and was instantly on the defensive, “I never said that,” he said sharply, “and I like this kind of work.”

So, ‘like’ wasn’t really the word for it, rather it just helped to do less routine work when he was feeling restless, which he had for a long time now (although he did like the adrenaline that came with any and all jobs he participated in, so maybe ‘like’ wasn’t the most inappropriate word for it after all). He couldn’t- wouldn’t just stop because Skeletor might look down on him for it.

“It’s unsafe and asinine to do those jobs when you don’t have to,” Skeletor barked, maddened further by Ray’s response as he turned his body further towards Ray.

Ray didn’t back down though and objected argumentatively, “I’ve done fine so far, and aren’t you the same? You do all sorts of jobs that put you in danger.”

“Yes, as part of a crew! I have people to watch my back, you don’t,” Skeletor retorted.

Ray was stunned for a moment, unable to find a response as he looked back at Skeletor’s serious, troubled gaze; however, his self-consciousness snapped him out of it and he quickly diverted his eyes, and found his voice, “It’s just a courier job. It’s the basic of the basics - it’s work they give to newbies!”

Any job can go wrong, you should know that by now; even a job as an impartial middleman, especially one between two feuding crews,” Skeletor exasperated loudly.

Ray didn’t appreciate being lectured and the bitter feelings of when Skeletor had called him ‘reckless’ resurfaced.

“...Aren’t you the one underestimating me? I’ve been doing this for years and I’m not going to stop doing things the way I always have just because you tell me to.”

Skeletor stilled and his anger seemed to dissipate some, and was replaced by realisation and regret instead as he finally registered his mistake, “No, I didn’t- I’m not looking down on you. I know you’re capable.” He sighed and ran a hand over down his mask before he continued, “I’m sorry, and you’re right; I have no right to stop you from doing things your own way.” However, the words were strained as if it was difficult for him to say them.

“I… I’m worried. Your self-preservation leaves much to be desired,” Skeletor chuckled ruefully, “…and that scares me,” He admitted, looking away for a moment before he returned his sights on Ray and finished, “But that’s my problem and not something I should be forcing on you.”

The admission filled Ray with guilt and he was lost for what to say. He couldn’t promise to stop taking any form of job when he wasn’t sure he’d be able to keep that promise; the way he was now at least. However, he was grateful Skeletor cared enough about him to worry about those sort of things.

Ray wanted to try and reassure Skeletor, and said with subtle, awkward laughter in his voice, “I, uh, I always run away, you know. I never stick around when shit starts to hit that fan.” He wished he could have said something more consoling, but it had been a while since had ever had to; however, he still felt the need to add, “So you don’t need to worry.”

Skeletor’s eyes softened and he breathed through his nose. “I’ll always worry.”

“...Same here,” Ray replied quietly, a little sombrely as he looked at Skeletor’s forearm, which was covered by the sleeve of his black, zip-up jacket; the same one he wore the day Ray met him and he was suddenly struck with the urge to reach out. Ray ignored the impulse and said distractedly, “Comes with the territory, I guess.” Ray didn’t elude as to if he was referring to being soulmates or their lifestyles, he wasn’t sure he knew himself; maybe both.

He worried about Skeletor too, a lot more than he could express. Thinking of Skeletor in any sort of danger made Ray’s stomach turn to lead and a lump form in his throat, but he didn’t expect Skeletor to change his life for him. Ray knew he himself couldn’t get out of his own way of living and a part of him didn’t want to, and he felt like Skeletor was the same in that respect.

Skeletor made a small, dissatisfied noise, “Even so, things are different now; we finally met, we’ll back each other up and there’s the crew too. I’m not going to allow anything to happen to you. So please, for the love of God, call me if things get rough, I’ll be there, no questions asked,” His voice sounded harsh with resolute determination and maybe something uncompromising as he looked at Ray. Then, as if catching himself, he added assuringly, though uncertainly, “And I’ll try not to be too… overbearing.”

“...Good start with that,” Ray smirked good-naturedly; though, despite the sarcasm, Ray was warmed by Skeletor’s concern. Ray kept it to himself that he probably would never ask for Skeletor’s help when there might be even the smallest potential of putting him in harm’s way.

“I know,” Skeletor sighed agreeably, but didn’t seem particularly apologetic from the way his eyes shined with mirth.

Ray wanted to reciprocate the gesture that Skeletor could rely on Ray too if he let him, although he doubted himself that Skeletor would accept or need such an offer; and in his attempt to hide his dubiety with calm casualness, Ray ended up sounding strangely reserved as he said, “If you or the crew need any help too, you know how to contact me.”

In spite of Ray being incredibly annoyed with himself and how he had awkwardly replied so stiffly, Skeletor only looked at him fondly, putting Ray in a blissful daze for a second.

“So what time’s the job?” Skeletor asked conversationally.

The question caught Ray off guard a little, but he answered, “Uh, 5:20. I’ll need to leave here in about two hours.”

“Have you slept?”

“I will once this job is done,” Ray replied flippantly in an attempt to evade answering truthfully, knowing that he had not slept in the last thirty-six hours and that he couldn’t even remember the last time he had a full night’s sleep.

Skeletor seemed to hear the silent implication though and with an unrelenting stare, said, “Go to sleep, you look exhausted. I’ll wake you up at 4:30 and we can head out to the pick-up place.”

Ray glanced over at Skeletor curiously as he enquired, “Uh, ‘we’?”

Skeletor was leant forward where he sat, looking down at his hands that hung between his knees, his elbows resting on his thighs and said, “Hey, I’m just tagging along. I won’t get in your way.”

Surprised and concerned by Skeletor’s sudden plans, Ray’s brow furrowed as he watched the side of Skeletor’s mask. Ray didn’t feel comfortable working around someone he knew and even more so with someone he cared about, let alone Skeletor.

Skeletor finally shifted to face Ray and saw the stupefied expression on the sniper’s face as he said, “What? I haven’t seen you in three months, gimme a break,” with a blasé inflection; however, the way he glanced at Ray made him appear nervous, as if he was anticipating Ray refuting him. “Now go to sleep,” He quickly finished, rushing to cut off the conversation, before he stood from the bed.

Ray frowned while Skeletor had his back to him. Another reason Ray wasn’t quite keen on Skeletor joining him on a job, besides not wanting to put him in danger, was that he was apprehensive that he would be encouraging Skeletor’s growing tendencies to worry himself over Ray and his work (not that he wasn’t grateful or happy that Skeletor cared about his well-being); it wasn’t a good thing for either of them. …Also, if Ray let Skeletor shield him like he wanted and Ray became dependent on him, then what would he do the day Skeletor left him?

Ray stood up too and took a step towards Skeletor, and said hastily, “I’m fine, I don’t need to sleep, we can hang out until I have to leave,” then added tentatively, “You shouldn’t come with me tomorrow.”

Skeletor appeared disappointed but not surprised by Ray’s response, and it hurt a little that he had met Skeletor’s unwanted expectation.

“You’re not ‘fine’,” Skeletor said bluntly before his pitch lightened and, as if reading Ray’s reservations, continued, “This isn’t about what I said before; it’s not my intention to come along to guard you. I do understand that you have your own life prior to me and I can’t force my way into it or handcuff you to me so I feel at ease …no matter how much I want to. I know you’re capable.” Skeletor took a moment and looked Ray in the eyes as he proceeded with, “But this isn’t that. I just… want more time with you.”

A familiar adolescent shyness that only Skeletor seemed to be able to conjure had Ray looking everywhere but him, while butterflies swarmed in his stomach, and he hastily tried to decide what he wanted to do. He knew he didn’t want to part from Skeletor yet either and if Skeletor stayed out of sight, and away during the transactions where he couldn’t be harmed, then it would mostly be them just driving to the pick-up and drop points.

After a moment of considering, Ray said, “...All right, but you gotta stay back while I’m making the trade.”

Skeletor noticeably brightened, “That’s fair.”

“And just this once,” Ray added quickly and seriously. He didn’t like how it sounded as if he were a parent scolding their child but he wanted to be clear, which is the same reason he added hesitantly, nervously, “I, uh, also want to be together longer."

The kind smile in Skeletor’s eyes almost seemed adoring, and eventually he demanded light-heartedly, “Now sleep.”

“Man, you’re bossy,” Ray said playfully, “and what are you gonna do while I sleep for two hours?”

It’s not as if Skeletor had a book or laptop to keep him occupied and, even if he had, Ray wasn’t comfortable sleeping with someone else in the room. Not to mention he’d feel guilty sleeping while Skeletor, whose eyes were rimmed with dark circles, stayed awake.

“I’ll figure something out,” is what Skeletor replied, but it was obvious there weren’t any options, especially not in the sparse safe-house they were in.

Ray looked at him doubtfully, “Come on, dude, you’re tired too, right?”

“Not particularly,” He said simply, but Ray found that hard to believe with the time steadily approaching 3.a.m.

Ray sighed and suggested, “Why don’t we both sleep? We can use the alarms on our phones to wake us,” but Skeletor remained reluctant. “I won’t leave without you,” Ray tried again after a moment’s thought, suspecting that that could be the problem.

Skeletor stiffened and looked a bit ashamed as he replied, “...Okay,” But Ray didn’t blame him, he was a known flight risk.

A small smile of triumph made its way onto Ray’s face, then said, “I’ll take the couch this time.” He was determined not to let Skeletor sleep on the couch again and he wouldn’t be able to use Ray being injured as an excuse this time. Ray did mull over the idea of proposing different rooms, but he fast remembered how unwilling Skeletor was last time he suggested it, and the words died before they passed his lips.

However, Ray didn’t expect Skeletor to counter his suggestion with one of his own, as he easily said, “Why don’t we both take the bed? It’s big enough.”

Ray was struck dumb for a minute, as if unable to comprehend what had been said, but as the words inevitably sunk in, he froze in place while his throat tightened. It shouldn’t have been a big deal- It wasn’t a big deal; they were two fully grown adults, there was nothing embarrassing about sharing a bed…and yet…

Despite the shock, Ray managed to collect himself, determined to hide his childish timidity and quickly spoke, “Uh, yeah, sure, that works.”

Skeletor immediately began removing his shoes and jacket, and without knowing what else to do, Ray followed suit by pulling off his own shoes, albeit considerably slower than necessary. He continued by moving his jacket off the bed, along with his briefcase that was hidden under it, and placed them together on the couch while hoping it wasn’t obvious he was stalling. Unsurprisingly, Skeletor made it to the bed first and laid on his back in his jeans and t-shirt, one arm behind his head. Even though it wasn’t particularly comfortable sleeping in day clothes, Ray was grateful that he wasn’t expected to strip down to boxers. Ray also noticed that the skull mask remained on Skeletor’s face and he wondered if maybe he should have suggested sleeping in separate rooms after all; it looked suffocating to sleep with it on, but he couldn’t bring himself to ask. It was a subject Skeletor never brought up and Ray didn’t want to breach the topic before he did.

With no more ways of delaying, Ray finally lay on the bed besides Skeletor, although leaving a decent distance between them. Neither of them had gone under the covers, it not being a particularly cold night, and Ray was glad for it; as he imagined lying under a duvet being even more intimate somehow. Ray rested his hands on his stomach, not knowing what else to do with them, and tried to quieten his racing thoughts and heart.

As he laid there, Ray was able to realise the situation and it finally hit him that he had actually reached out to Skeletor; and although doubts, and uncertainties still heavily troubled him, Ray didn’t regret it. A part of him still felt he hardly knew Skeletor, but the feeling of belonging that had sprouted since the day- since the instant he had seen Skeletor remained deeply rooted, as well as the desire to get to know him more. It bothered Ray that he couldn’t be open and honest as Skeletor was being (a part of Ray remained sceptical but tried to focus on his faith in Skeletor) and he knew it was unfair, but Ray had always found it incredibly difficult to be anything other than distant and aloof; and although he truly was trying his hardest, so far all he had done was give Skeletor his phone number, which even though was a big thing for him, he still felt he was failing. He wanted to give something more, something that would reassure Skeletor that his feelings were mutual in regards to wanting to be soulmates- that he was happy they had met.

With those thoughts running around his already frazzled mind, alongside the comforting darkness of the room, Ray uttered, “My name’s Ray,” and held his breath. His voice came out plainer than expected, monotone, as if wanting to be heard but not wanting to create a reaction to or unbalance the stagnant air in the room.

It stayed silent and Ray took that as a sign that Skeletor was asleep, before something shifted in his peripherals and the bed dipped as Skeletor moved in his sleep. Ray felt oddly a little disheartened at his failed introduction of sorts, and attempted to shake it off by continuing his staring contest with the ceiling; Ray’s name, although not important as his technical identity, was important to him- it was the only thing he had and he hadn’t given away to anyone till now. Ray was startled out of his brooding when a large hand wrapped around one of his own; taking it away from where it had been lying on his stomach to the space between Ray’s and Skeletor’s bodies.

Ray’s heart was beating a mile a minute and, while hoping the nervousness didn’t show on his face, turned his head where it rested on his pillow towards Skeletor. His breath hitched in his throat finding Skeletor’s gaze on him and that he had changed to lie on his side so he could face Ray. He looked astonished as he tightly held Ray’s hand and Ray felt that he really understood how huge it was for Ray to share anything about himself. Ray squeezed Skeletor’s hand back and offered a diffident smile.

The shock eventually faded and Skeletor was left content as he said, “Hi Ray, I’m Ryan.”

It was Ray’s turn to stare wide-eyed at Skeletor, never having expected him to reveal his own name or so easily, and the word rolled around his head, but he didn’t dare say it out loud, not yet.

“Now go to sleep, Ray,” Skeletor said softly, breaking through Ray’s thoughts.

A genuine smile took hold of Ray’s face and he couldn’t stop even as Skeletor closed his eyes to sleep again, still holding Ray’s hand with no visible intention of letting go.

It was quiet for a beat before Ray thoughtlessly said, “It was the R’n’R connection all along,” unable to go so long without making a silly joke; rather than out of discomfort though, he was just foolishly happy.

Skeletor laughed cheerfully beside him.