It was supposed to be a simple shopping trip. Bread, eggs, milk.
The sky was slate gray and the air damp. The weather service was predicting a classic Atlanta thunderstorm, with extra high winds and a chance of flash floods. The mayor had told people to stay off the roads once the storm started in force. But by the time that announcement came out, they had already been on the road, and Barabas hadn't wanted to waste the tech - he hated chanting the car engines up.
Julie and Christopher had left him in the dairy aisle to flee for the parking lot, where Christopher could breathe and Julie wouldn't have to defensively elbow anyone else in the ribs. In retrospect, it was a good thing that Kate hadn't come.
"The man in front of me tried to leave the line ." He checked that he wasn't carrying the eggs before tossing the bread into the trunk of the car. "He'd forgotten one thing. "
"What you do?"
"I didn't do anything. The cashier stabbed through his shirt to pin his sleeve to the counter. She said he had to finish checking out and go back through the store again if it was that important." He exhaled, forcing out the last of his breath.
Christopher frowned slightly. "The cashier had a knife?"
Julie snorted. "I'd have a knife if I had to work at a grocery store right before a flood."
"Let's get out of here," Barabas said. He slammed the trunk shut with both hands. It didn't make him feel any better.
He had started to turn toward the driver's side when Christopher suddenly grabbed his elbow and pulled. Reflexively, Barabas latched onto the back of Julie's shirt and pulled her down to the concrete with them. She squawked, but quickly ducked back down after peeking over the top of the trunk. The air was starting to feel misty and a couple drops of rain stained the shoulder of her t-shirt.
"What is it?" Barabas asked, as neutrally as he could. Christopher's hand on his arm felt hot through the fabric of his shirt. Christopher had recently ripped a hole in the living room floor because he thought he'd heard something crawling around underneath there. But the whites were showing around Julie's eyes.
"It looks like an owl," Christopher said, slowly. He was using the voice that said he knew he was starting to freak out but was trying very hard not to.
Barabas twisted until he could grip Christopher's hand in his. "Can you describe how-" he started, a drop of rain hitting the back of his neck. He stopped mid-sentence when a metal screech came from the other end of the parking lot.
Unfortunately, he was familiar with the sound of a car roof being torn off. It was even more ominous than usual as the mist had turned to sprinkling and the breeze had turned icy. A distant peal of thunder warned that they needed to be inside sooner rather than later.
"Owls are solitary."
Another metal screech, some organic thudding, and the start of warning shouts as the few other shoppers in the parking lot dashed safely back into the store. They all inched further behind the car. Julie clambered over them and tilted the driver's sideview mirror up, trying to see if she could catch a reflection of the other side of the parking lot. While she fiddled the drizzle shuddered visibly in the wind, and the air itself turned gray. It was well and truly pouring.
Barabas inhaled and decided he was going to hope that car-sized owls had something in common with their regular, non-car-destroying counterparts. He had a knife on him and there was a gun in the car. He just needed to get it out and do - something - until Christopher could get Julie away. There was no more shouting from the parking lot. If everyone else stayed inside and he could keep the owl away from the store, nobody (except him) could get hurt. If he was very lucky, maybe there were some mercs also frantically pre-flood shopping who were just about to join them outside. He looked over at Christopher, who was staring at him.
"You should take Julie and go," they both said at once.
Julie sputtered. "I'm not leaving!"
Barabas took in Christopher's hunched shoulders and the wary set to his mouth. "I need to know Julie isn't alone. It will probably be faster to drive home than to find a working phone. Then you can come back with Kate and Curran."
"I'm a better fighter than you," Christopher said, pale hair slick against his scalp.
Barabas opened his mouth.
"I can take care of y - this. I can take care of this while you take Julie." Christopher's eyes had gone dark. Usually, at this point, a chill would start to creep up Barabas's spine. Now, he couldn't quite close his lips, or move his eyes from Christopher's. "Also? I can fly."
Red smoke curled against his shoulders, and his wings snapped into place. Before Barabas could gather his thoughts, Christopher leaned over and pressed their mouths together. Since he hadn't managed to stop gaping, Barabas's lips were still parted. Christopher tasted like rain and sweat. He held Barabas's face in both hands in a near-bruising grip.
For a second it felt like he wasn't sitting in a puddle in a dark parking lot with lightning cracking overhead. Christopher let a hot breath out against his skin and bit Barabas's lower lip before pulling away.
He heaved himself up, took two steps back and flexed his wings. He didn't even bother to use his legs to shove himself off the ground - he didn't need to, his wings could carry his weight on their own. Barabas put his hands on the asphalt and took a couple of breaths, inhaling rain in the process. His pulse was beating painfully in his throat and his lip throbbed.
"That was hot," Julie whispered. "Are you dating now?"
"No." It was very difficult to focus when he could still feel Christopher's hand gripping his jaw.
Julie gave him a sideways look. "You already live together."
"Get in the car, Julie."
It took eleven minutes to drive back to the house, three minutes to get Julie out of the car and Kate and Curran inside, and two minutes heading out of the subdivision to run into Christopher. He'd flown back home with the owl monster on his tail.
Before she went back to her own house, Kate told him that his eyes had gone red by the time they spilled out of the car together.
It kept raining all through the fight. The ground was covered in a half inch of water when the owl monster was dead. For their houses' sake, Barabas hoped that their neighborhood was on a high enough incline to avoid any further flooding. He stood outside the front door and considered stripping out of his clothes before stepping inside, but Christopher had left the door cracked.
He was leaning up against the wall, his forehead pressed to the plaster.
"How are you?"
Shutting the door against the weather, he stopped to take his shoes off. His socks squelched, so he pulled those off too. Now that he was inside he realized the rain had been freezing - it took a second to peel his shirt off and over his head. Christopher didn't glance over or answer during any of it.
"Come on," Barabas said, after a moment. He took Christopher's hand in his and led him to his bedroom. Christopher let his damp wings trail along the floor behind him, and held onto him loosely. It was hardly the crushing grip he'd used to hold Barabas still earlier but it got them where they were going. Barabas's stomach had an anxious twist to it, but his blood wasn't hot and threatening like it had been when Christopher had bit his lip.
The bedroom vacillated between sparkling and chaos depending on Christopher's mood. Right now laundry spilled over the top of the basket in the corner, but the rest of the place was clean. Barabas pulled a lightly used towel out of the laundry.
"Do you want…?" He stood on the opposite side of the bed.
Christopher made eye contact but didn't move.
After another moment, Barabas gave himself a shake. This was nothing he hadn't had to help Christopher with before. It didn't matter what had happened in the parking lot. They'd just fought a giant owl in the pouring rain. Their clothes were mud-spattered and his own hair felt like it had actual clumps of grass stuck in it. He took a breath and started by toweling off Christopher's head. When that was done, Christopher took his shoes and socks off by himself. He hesitated before stripping out of his shirt, but pulled the hem up as soon as Barabas started backing away. Apparently the shirt already had holes ripped open for his wings. He didn't fold them back in.
Okay. Barabas dried off Christopher's shoulders and briefly swiped the towel over his stomach, trying to ignore the way Christopher was watching his hands. His pulse was up, but he was unsettlingly certain it wasn't at at all related with the god-of-terror thing.
He carefully dragged the towel down between Christopher's wings. The dark red feathers were dripping onto the carpet. It seemed like the water was sitting on top of them, instead of soaked in. He hesitated before pulling his hand back. "I don't know how to touch your wings without hurting you," he murmured.
With a sigh, Christopher's wings disappeared. It was always a slightly disconcerting thing to watch. One second they were there, the next they weren't. Barabas was used to transformations that took a physical toll.
He glanced away when Christopher turned back to face him. "You can have the shower first."
Christopher took the towel from his hands. He shook his head silently, and brought it up to towel Barabas's hair. Under damp pink cotton (the towel had gone through the wash with a brand-new red t-shirt recently), Barabas blinked. The towel couldn't get rid of much of the water at this point, but it did brush some grass out.
Next, Christopher brought the towel down behind Barabas's head and neck. He didn't think much as the man rubbed warmth back into his shoulders, but that was mostly because he was concentrating hard on staying still and keeping his eyes down. He wasn't sure what would happen if he knew what Christopher's face looked like right then. He managed not to make a fool of himself until Christopher let the towel fall around his waist, wrapped the ends of the fabric around his hands, and used it to pull Barabas a step closer.
Barabas swallowed audibly. The only other things he could hear were rain against the windows and his heart thudding in his chest.
He couldn't catch his breath, and had no idea what to do with his hands. His choices were to let them hang at his side or to splay them against Christopher's stomach, which was tempting, but he his fingers were still cold and Christopher's entire body was radiating heat. The towel dug in as the other man tugged him a little closer still, not quite touching, except when Barabas tried to take a deep breath to steady himself and their chests brushed. The breath didn't help at all.
"You have a bruise," Christopher said.
"It's fine." Actually, it was lodged painfully between two of his ribs but he wasn't going to say that. Christopher was blinking slowly, breathing slowly. He hadn't met Barabas's eyes. For a second he struggled - it would be so very easy to reach out, to roll his thumb over Christopher's stomach, to take his -
A hard crash of thunder shook the house. The room went black.
Somewhere downstairs, Maggie whined, and Barabas was distantly aware of her starting to climb the stairs toward the bedroom. Christopher dropped the towel and took a couple of jerky steps back until he hit the mattress edge.
Barabas had to wipe at his eyes before they adjusted to the dark, and then he was touching Christopher: running both hands up the side of his face, back through his hair, down the still-damp nape of his neck. It was routine. It felt like the tech was still up, but this wasn't the first storm of the season and they'd dealt with power outages before. Together they had built a system.
Hands on Christopher's shoulders now. "It's fine, it's fine," even though wrapping his arms around the man and tugging him into a tight embrace aggravated the bruise on his ribs and something deep in his chest that he hoped wasn't an internal injury. Christopher's skin was burning up and his stomach felt like fire pressed against Barabas's.
Christopher jerked his hands up and clutched at Barabas's arms. Normally he would twist the fabric of his sleeves in his hands, but Barabas's shirt was still on the floor. His fingers slipped over Barabas's skin and he plucked at them a little uselessly. "It's fine, it's fine," Barabas whispered, trying not to shudder when Christopher's head suddenly dropped against his shoulder. His lips were resting on Barabas's bare skin.
The rain kept falling while Christopher shook in his arms. Barabas's bruise hurt, his chest hurt, his gut twisted guiltily. All he could think of was Christopher's mouth. How tight Christopher was holding his arms and how hard he'd gripped Barabas back in the parking lot, his tongue in Barabas's mouth for a moment, his teeth tugging on Barabas's lip.
The dog padded into the room, whuffing softly.
Christopher let him go to kneel on the carpet. "It's fine," he told Maggie. "It's fine."
"I shouldn't get in your bed without showering," Barabas said, watching them settle underneath the covers. He knew Christopher probably couldn't make out the details of his face in the dark, but he still shot Barabas an extremely Kate-like expression at that pronouncement. They were spending too much time together.
He hesitated, then decided that he could do laundry tomorrow, and reluctantly climbed into the bed, too. It was storm routine. It was storm routine.
Christopher gingerly rolled over, careful not to crush the dog as he put his back to Barabas. After a long, quiet moment, he murmured, "It's fine?"
"Yeah." Barabas felt the ache in his chest expand as he reached over and pulled Christopher's back up against his chest. Storm routine. Hold him close, and it didn't matter if the power didn't return until the next day. Except normally they had shirts on. He forced himself to laugh when Christopher shivered a little, because the alternative was to roll on top of him. "I'll warm up in a minute," he promised.
Christopher folded a hand over the one Barabas had on his stomach. He linked their fingers together, and rubbed his thumb in an arc over Barabas's hand. Storm routine. "It's fine."
The pain in his chest probably wasn't internal bleeding.
Several hours later, Barabas woke to see the lights back on and feeling exactly like he'd recently been dropped ten feet by a giant owl monster. The bruise on his ribs felt like it had spread out while he'd been sleeping. He took one look at the clock and pressed his face into his pillow. That was why it took a couple of minutes to realize he was smelling … something.
He couldn't face the idea of getting into the shower just now, but he did manage to change into clean sweatpants and a loose t-shirt before going downstairs. Christopher was wrapped up in one of his dress shirts, which made the muscles in Barabas's hands go weak for a split second. Sometimes Christopher did this, take clothes from his closet, and it never failed to catch him off guard. Christopher was looking out the back window and there was a fresh pie sitting on a trivet on the counter.
"You made pie?"
"An apple pie."
"You made an apple pie." Sure, Christopher liked to cook - but the ground outside was still covered in water. It looked like a miniature lake had formed in their backyard. The water was black and reflecting only slivers of moonlight through the clouds and the yellow light from the house. He was surprised the power was on. It would have taken at least a couple of hours to bake this.
"It was something Kate said to me once."
Barabas raised his eyebrows, but there was no elaboration. He stepped closer to the counter and wondered what Kate possibly would have been doing talking to Christopher about pie. They could have just been sharing recipes.
"It's still cooling off," Christopher said, apologetically.
"That's okay. I'm not hungry yet." Which reminded him that the groceries would still be in the car. The bread would probably be okay, but he wasn't swimming just to get it.
He sat down in front of the pie so he'd be breathing in the scent of it instead of his own smell all over the shirt Christopher was wearing. All over Christopher's skin. It almost completely worked. The pie didn't particularly smell like any of the pies Kate baked, but what did Barabas know about food?
Christopher had turned to watch him, now.
Barabas inhaled slowly, trying to block everything else out with cinnamon smell. If he didn't raise his eyes he didn't have to figure out what to say. Probably he was being - it couldn't - Like Julie had said, they already lived together. Of course they were going to be feeding each other. It wouldn't make sense for Kate to have talked to Christopher about that, about what it meant to feed someone you - They must have been sharing recipes.
"I was worried the owl was going to eat you."
Barabas grimaced and felt his bruises twinge. "We-" He started, then remembered Christopher hissing at him, I can take care of this, "-You handled it. Minimal damage. It's okay, really."
He blinked. Christopher looked so sad. "Of course. I'm okay. Really." He stood up like that was going to prove it.
Christopher slowly walked over to him, and raised his fingers to Barabas's jaw. "That's the second time we've kissed and you haven't wanted to talk about it."
Barabas blinked and found himself reflexively leaning back. Christopher reluctantly let his hand fall, pulling it to his chest instead. "We weren't - I mean - at Kate's wedding," Barabas said, struggling to turn with the conversation. When you were wearing that suit, with one of my shirts, he thought. "We had both been drinking, and-"
"Did you think I didn't remember?"
He didn't respond. Christopher kept staring at him, arm folded up protectively against his chest. Of - of course he hadn't thought Christopher forgot, how could he forget, but he hadn't mentioned it the next day, and Barabas had assumed it was on purpose. He opened his mouth, hoping Christopher would interrupt him and he wouldn't have to admit this, but it didn't happen. "I thought you regretted it," he said.
The hurt that flickered over Christopher's face was worse than being dropped ten feet.
"Wait," Barabas said, even though the other man hadn't moved. "You weren't there when I woke up. You were outside meditating. You stayed out there for hours. I thought you were trying to tell me I had gone too fast, that I had pushed too hard. I fell asleep on top of you. It felt like I had taken advantage." His face was heating up, bright red, while Christopher kept staring at him. He felt like someone had stripped him bare. The kitchen was suddenly freezing. They'd made out messily after the wedding, fell asleep drunk in Barabas's bed, and… he'd woken up by himself. Like today.
"You didn't force me."
"It felt like it," Barabas said, helplessly. Now it felt like he was trying to hold everything in the house together with one hand tied behind his back, his tongue tired and clumsy in his mouth. It had all felt perfectly rational at the time but now seemed absurd in the light of Christopher's expression.
Christopher's hand clenched and unclenched over his chest. "Does it still feel like that?"
He only barely managed not to say that it hurt, that it ached something fierce. Instead he blurted, embarrassingly naked, "It feels like I can't handle fucking this up."
"Barabas, if you go any slower, you'll be going backwards." Christopher's voice was low and a little gravelly.
He was maybe still unprepared for how quickly Barabas could move when he wanted to, because the noise he made when Barabas wrapped a hand over the back of his head and tilted his face up was one of surprise. But he managed to get his arm out from in between them before Barabas had pinned him to the wall, and he slid his hand under Barabas's shirt while Barabas kissed and sucked a dark mark on Christopher's jaw. His other hand came up to run through Barabas's hair.
"Do you know how hard it is for me when you wear my clothes?" Barabas asked, frustrated that he couldn't get the top button of the borrowed shirt undone. If they were doing this, he might as well leave everything on the table.
"Really," Christopher responded, the picture of innocence. "I had no idea."
Barabas glared at him. "For Kate's wedding," he said, the words coming slowly through the foggy heat in his head, "you said you had to borrow one of my shirts because you spilled wine on the one that came with your suit."
"I like you for your brains," Christopher said, very seriously.
Digging his fingers into the shirt collar, Barabas abandoned fighting with the buttons and tore the shirt open instead. Some of the buttons made tiny clinking sounds as they rolled over the tile floor. The lightly amused look on Christopher's face disappeared, melting away as he bit his lip. Barabas leaned down and kissed him hard enough to force his lips apart. He rocked his hips tightly against Christopher's and was deeply gratified by the noise he got in return.
He ran his hands along Christopher's sides and dug his fingers into Christopher's hips, just barely exposed above the waist of his sweatpants. Christopher tasted less like rain this time and more like he'd been sampling apples and spices as he'd baked.
Suddenly Christopher sucked in a damp breath and ran his hand up through Barabas's hair, twisting it around his fingers. Barabas gave a little hiss as Christopher yanked his head back. He didn't want to stop - but then he noticed Christopher's pupils had gone slightly too wide, and that a sliver of the color had drained from his face. He swallowed noisily and tried to reign himself in. It was hard to take his hands off Christopher's hips, hard to start to pull them back instead of pressing his palms against the wall.
"We can't let Maggie eat the pie," Christopher blurted.
They were words, they had come out of his mouth, but Barabas had no idea what any of them meant. "What?"
"I put nutmeg and cinnamon in it. She's going to eat it."
Christopher tapped a finger against the side of his head and Barabas glanced back at the kitchen counter. Maggie, who normally whined and whined until they picked her up and put her on top of things, was already on top of the stool and had one paw on the counter. She shot them a wide-eyed doggy stare while Barabas struggled to reorient himself. Then the chihuahua-mix lunged forward.
Barabas was faster. Although Maggie did manage to clamp her tiny doggy teeth onto his sleeve.
He held the too-hot pie tin in both hands, breathing through clenched teeth, while Christopher scooped Maggie up and put her back down on the floor. She collapsed in a defeated heap when the pie was safely back in the oven to cool. Not even offering her a treat made her raise her head. (Although it didn't stop her from nibbling on it when Christopher nudged the treat up to her mouth.)
They stared at each other for a second.
"Your room," Christopher said.