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Blood, Steel, Skin

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The pool of blood was manageable. That was Kale's second thought when he knelt down by Donald's cooling body, how manageable it was--for one thing, no exit wound at the back of the head meant a lot less spatter--and he was glad to see that Will hadn't done anything stupid like trying to wipe it up himself. Maybe Will was learning something after all. At the very least, he'd followed instructions, and hadn't taken "Don't touch anything" to mean "Oh, anything except for that blood by your kitchen table, go ahead and get after it with a wet washcloth that's guaranteed just to spread it around and get it down under the floorboards."

It was something to be grateful for.

The cleaner, to whom Kale did not speak, saw to the body itself. Perhaps that was something else to be grateful for. But Kale wasn't; he concentrated on removing the blood, and was instead pleased by the absence of relief. It meant he was on-keel, and if ever there were a time not to fall out of lifelong habit and training, now was that time. His thoughts stayed focused on the task, honed to a point on the small details. In a tight spot, focus was everything. Irrelevancies were more than useless and distracting, more than weak. They were deadly.

...Irrelevancies such as the fact that the situational analysis had been his second thought.

His nose is bleeding; he feels it on his upper lip and tastes it in the back of his throat. The boy who hit him--Pete, he thinks? He's only heard his name in passing when their schools meet on the baseball diamond--tries to flex his hand, wincing. Kale heard something pop at the moment of impact, and thought it might be his nose, but apparently it was Pete's knuckle instead.

Only a few months ago, that would have made him nervous, waiting for the pain to turn to rage and make things worse. But lately, he's come to understand a couple things. One is that getting hit hasn't killed him--he can take a surprising amount of punishment, can come home from a beating out by the athletic field and still end up having a pretty good night, now that it doesn't get to him. He can't remember quite how that happened, but it did. The bruises and cuts are far more upsetting to Eddie, who tends to get shaky and very quiet, insisting on ice packs, pressing his hand over Kale's to hold them in place.

And there's another thing that's changed just in the past few months: he met Eddie, and he knows that none of this is a phase anymore, if it ever was. Maybe that should make him feel worse, like he deserves to take his lumps, but instead it's like he's waking up. To what, he doesn't know, but he's ready to find out.

Today was turning out to be a good day, a rare stolen afternoon with Eddie by the pond--nothing, really, just lazing in the grass, tossing stems at each other so they could occasionally touch under the pretense of picking them back off again. Eddie's warm fingers were idly sweeping a dandelion blossom out from under Kale's collar, and he was saying something about buttercups, some kid thing about liking butter, when Pete showed up and things went to hell.

"Aww," says Pete, still nursing his wounded hand. "Looks like your little homo boyfriend ran off and left you."

"Is that what it looks like," Kale says dreamily. Maybe part of him is still sprawled in that thick grass, flower petals tickling along his throat, because he doesn't recognize his own voice.

Neither does Pete, it seems, because he squints, hesitating. Kale swallows the taste of copper, touches his tongue to his upper lip, draws it along very slowly.

"Listen," Pete growls. "I don't know what you perverts think you're doing--"

"Oh," Kale says into the momentary pause, "I'm sure you don't."

Pete doesn't seem to like that. Kale notices, though, that only one of his fists clenches now. That knuckle really must be bothering him. And he isn't swinging with his off hand instead, or stepping in to grapple. Kale thinks, in a quiet, dry fashion that feels new to him, He isn't used to pain.

"What's your problem! Huh?" says Pete, puffing up.

Kale smiles. "Come a little closer," he says. "And see."

The sounds behind him finally stopped, and even though the music from Will's stereo continued its crashing and thumping, filling the air with an almost physical thickness, something inside Kale still felt the quiet.

By the time he had done his final pass over the woodwork and turned around, the cleaner's equipment, dismantled and wiped, lay in neat rows of parts on a towel. The cleaner was carefully packing the big duffel. Kale shook up a fresh solution of washing soda and distilled water and went to work.

It wasn't that he truly expected investigators to show up with little spray bottles of luminol in one hand and blacklights in the other. That wasn't the gambit their opponents were playing. But it had always made sense: if you could leave the square guarded, you did. Just in case.

The equipment cleaned up well, even in the crevices, obviously thoroughly scrubbed and honed between jobs. He appreciated a craftsman who valued his tools. It was easy to give them a quick, neat polish; the metal reflected back to him nothing worse than his own steady eyes.

Glenn is still wearing his sword; he always does that, stripping out of his dress blues starting with cover and shoes, then pants and socks and gloves, leaving the sword as long as he can. He'll put each article away with solemn care, the scabbard dangling down his bare leg. He doesn't seem to mean it to be funny, and Kale never quite laughs.

But this time, when Glenn finally unstraps the belt and eases the shining steel slightly out of its sheath, his head bent over it, mesmerized, Kale does laugh. Just a little.

"Ingram," Glenn groans when he's facedown on the mattress. He always says that, his head turned to the side, eyes closed. This time, his brow is heavily lined--not like he's in pain, but like he's concentrating, trying to remember something that escapes him. His back is damp with sweat, but cool and clammy to Kale's chest, and it takes him a long time to come.

"Listen," Glenn says afterward, sitting on the edge of the bed. That wide back is still flushed pink from exertion.

"Yes," Kale answers lazily, drawing the word out--and it is an answer, though he can tell Glenn thinks it's a question. Kale can see the whole conversation before it ever takes form in the air. He waits, and lets Glenn stumble through it. In the end, it'll all be moot, all the clumsy suggestions for what they'll have to do after Glenn's promotion, the clumsier warnings in case Kale thinks he can rock the boat.

Of course, Kale will not be rocking Glenn's boat anymore. The Central Intelligence contact finally made a direct pitch, and soon he'll be on his way to something new, something promising. No point, he thinks, idly watching Glenn's skin fade from pink back to pale, in having so much training in his particular skills--skills he cares about, but having little apparent application to the civilian world--without some way to put them to better use in the service of his country.

After all, a purely ceremonial sword might as well just be a butter knife.

The cleaner made the first trip out to his van on his own. Kale spent the time scrutinizing the rug, making sure it was all right to leave there. Surprisingly, it was. Will's run of luck lately had been superb, though Will himself probably wouldn't agree. He should have known better, but despite his history, it was clear that he just didn't know quite enough about luck yet. Especially how easily it ran out.

When the cleaner returned, Kale found himself re-checking the edge of the rug, flipping it back and forth. But it didn't need any more checking. No, this wouldn't do.

Kale rose, flexed his hands inside the latex gloves, and turned to help carry the heaviest duffel. It was even heavier than he had expected, and the straps pulled and bit. The gloves didn't help. But he was glad he had them on when he shook hands with the cleaner. The touch felt firm and distant, and no heat came through their gloves at all.

The cleaner headed for the driver's-side door. Kale, against protocol, suddenly said in Polish: "He has a tattoo."

The young man nodded once. "Yes," he answered, also in Polish. "It's all right now." He slid his massive frame behind the wheel.

Before he could close the door, Kale spoke again. "The East River," he said, in English this time, as if giving instructions to a taxi. "Williamsburg."

The cleaner considered. Not with reluctance, it seemed, but just digesting the command. Kale leaned in to him, fixing his gaze very carefully. "It's important," he said in Polish. "Crucial." He didn't say to whom.

"Yes, sir," the cleaner replied, and Kale knew he would obey. The van started up. No one was waiting or watching, and it left without a shadow.

"Goodbye," Kale said to the van's receding taillights. He said it in English, soft and final. It was not to the driver.

"You know what I always heard about Marines," Donnie says, rocking back in his chair, thighs spread.

Kale looks down at the disassembled parts of his pistol, humming a negative.

"What I always heard is that they come in two flavors."

Kale peers up, tucking his tongue in his cheek. Donnie's eyes return the almost-smile he can feel in his own. Kale's known for a while he could have Donnie sometime if he wanted him, and now he knows he could have him today, right now, this very second, spread out and gasping in this quiet little Beirut room. He looks back down and touches the firing pin with the tip of one finger.

"Two flavors," Donnie says. "Big and mean... and small and mean."

"That does sound familiar." Kale assembles the pistol, the sequence of quiet clicks restful, almost lulling. As he finishes and eases the slide back and forth, Donnie's chair scrapes against the floor. "Ready?" Kale asks.

"Oh, hell yeah." Donnie's on his feet now, rising on his toes. He gives a fierce stretch, thrusting his clenched fists toward the ceiling, arching his back. His shirt stretches smooth against the flat of his stomach.

When they return to the room at three in the morning, two people are dead, and Donnie's energy has not subsided. It's stronger, if anything, his muscles nearly jumping with it. He walks close behind Kale through the doorway, one hand ghosting a light touch at his waist.

"Jesus, that was great," he says. "You were perfect."

Kale checks the curtains over the glass doors to the balcony, switches on the lights. "So far, so good."

Donnie's beaming at him, showing his teeth. "Aw, hey. Don't you like your work?" His eyes, his voice, his entire body, show that he's a man who likes it very much indeed. More than likes it. "You sure you were a Marine?" His tone isn't challenging, but almost sweet. Playful.

"Get me the book, will you," says Kale, smiling, and he settles back down at the table to encrypt their report. Donnie huffs amiably and digs out the tiny one-time pad. While Kale works, Donnie takes off his shoes, drinks a couple of shots of the whiskey he likes to keep around, peers out onto the balcony. Finally he settles down crosslegged on the floor near Kale's chair with a box of ammunition and some empty magazines, and presses bullets one by one into their slot. After a while, he's leaning against Kale's leg.

The report is finished, and Kale seals it into an envelope, then rips the top page off the code pad and lights a match, the treated paper flashing up and disappearing in a bright yellow hiss. Donnie rests his head on Kale's knee, still gripping a nearly-filled magazine.

"You were perfect," he says again, his voice hushed and thick. "Christ." He slips one big hand up Kale's calf.

Kale looks down at Donnie's neck and the thick muscle spreading to his shoulder, tanned almost to a burn. He strokes his fingers through the short hair at Donnie's nape, but nothing else, and Donnie gives a small, almost timid sigh. Had Kale thought he could have him in bed any time he wanted? He hadn't known the half of it. He can have much more.

But watching Donnie there, a faint scratch across his cheekbone from when the second target took a futile swing--he's clutching the magazine with one hand, the base pressed into his thigh, holding Kale's leg with the other hand, and everywhere his skin thrums hot with something dark and ravenous. Something Kale can't see to the bottom of. And if he could, he isn't sure he'd want to... or maybe he isn't sure he'd be able to find his way back up.

When Kale finally ushered Will out of the bathroom, Will hunched there in his bare feet, looking dumbly at the tidy little apartment as if he didn't recognize it. He was like an animal tagged in a catch-and-release, staring around at his natural habitat with doped wariness.

Kale packed up Donald's bag, donned jacket and watch, already thinking of disposal points for the gun, the towel, the other odds and ends. Will had made no effort to do anything about the stain on his shirt; if it had been from Donald, Kale would have taken the shirt too, but he felt all right leaving it. Will should be able to handle something as simple as a patch of his own blood, and it would help his mind start to work again, facing just the one tangible problem.

So Kale pointed at it, and that sluggish attention obediently dipped down and back up. Will's eyes fixed on his for just a second. They were deep, hollow--the moment seemed to stretch. The other times tonight that Kale had looked closely at him, he had been cataloging symptoms: pupils the same size and within normal limits, skin color and respiration good enough, shocky overall but nothing dangerous. But now, for a moment, something about his face... Kale felt he had seen that face before, somehow. Hazy familiarity tugged at him. For a fraction of a second, he might have been the one looking out from those eyes.

He touched Will's shoulder. No glove came between them, and this time it felt strange, almost shocking, thin shirt beneath his fingers, thin skin beneath that, taut over the network of blood and bone.

Kale left quickly. Silence echoed behind him.

He came home empty-handed, and the place was dim and quiet. He had taken extra time to make triply sure he wasn't followed, even though after a while it had seemed patently unnecessary.

Walter was asleep, facing Kale's side of the bed. He didn't stir as Kale passed through into the bathroom. Hot water sluicing down and taking the night's sweat away with it, deep breathing in the cloud of vapor: nothing unusual, just the standard shower after work somehow turning him back into the man who lived here, who could slide into bed and stretch out near Walter's warmth, listening to his soft, easy inhales and exhales.

He had hoped that his thoughts would fall back into line as usual. He had had some bad days before, some dark days, but they were simply not allowed upstairs, in this room and this bed, next to the man who slept so deeply beside him. But now, forces were pressing into the quiet circle. A shadow on the street corner--Truxton's car at the curb--Walter's very side of the bed open to their ears, their probing fingers. And Kale's first thought tonight as he'd knelt in Will's apartment, despite decades of battle-trained nerves and mental discipline: emotion, conflicted sorrow, the memory of how soft Donnie's hair had once felt at the nape of his neck.

He lay on his back under the covers and set to work to recreate an inner silence, concentrating, letting each layer of event and emotion fall away. Walter's breath, faster than his own, was a faint counterpoint.

After a time, he slowly relaxed his mental hold and tested the air. Already, the night felt more distant, padded at the edges, slotting into its proper place. He would sleep, and in the morning, he would take his run, drink his tea, kiss his lover and go to work. As he always did.

His last waking thought was of the East River. How fast the current was, and how it took hold of the unwary, wrapping them in its embrace and sweeping them out to sea.