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Still breathing hard from killing a man, Kelly slid his arm around Scotty's waist.

Scotty was obviously out of it, nearly dropping where he stood, his eyes wide and fixed, his pupils huge and glassy and reflecting the torchfires of the abandoned ring of sacrifice.

No more sacrifices. Not today. Kelly held Scotty against his side, disregarding the wet cement thickly splattered over Scotty's bare torso and clumped on his shoulders. In his mind he had a hundred things to say, but he'd had a good long time to learn how not to say them. All he'd murmured instead as he drew Scotty close was a rueful "Edward G., Edward G., headed for the East River." Now Scotty would live to watch more gangster films with him, on slow rainy afternoons between assignments, although maybe from now on they would skip the ones where stoolies ended up wearing the proverbial cement shoes before they slept with the fishes.

He walked toward the path heading down to the dock, and at first Scotty's legs moved unsteadily to follow whithersoever he might lead. It was simple to take Scotty's weight with hand and arm and hip at every stumble and faltering step. Being able to hold him, his skin chilly to the touch, one hand dangling behind to brush against the small of Kelly's back, steadied Kelly's heartbeat and helped him catch his breath. Scotty was safe. Now all they had to do was complete the world's slowest three-legged race down to the boat without running into any of the scattering bad guys, and that, as they said in the trade, would be that.

Scotty abruptly stopped and wrenched himself awkwardly away, twisting out of Kelly's careful grip. He still stared at the path before them with his desperately intent eyes, his glittering pupils, and Kelly remembered that from the time he'd approached, Scotty had never once looked at him.

They hadn't been in training for very long, but it already felt like forever, and the field was narrowing every day. Dr. Akivic's pretend torture sessions started out as harsh as a high school play, and even then guys were getting washed out. Then the pretend went up a rung, and another, and another on top of that, and they were getting chained naked in a basement until they tipped into actual hypothermia, or having their heads held underwater. The medical section was energetic but brusque--no aid and comfort, just a check to make sure you probably weren't actually going to die right there and then, and now let's get back at it little soldier.

The print on the long form they had to sign before this particular day's training session was truly fine. Tiny, and full of syllables that all added up to say WHEN THIS KILLS YOU IT WON'T BE OUR FAULT. Kelly scrawled his signature across the bottom of the last page without even finishing, because who had time to read encyclopedias.

...Alexander Scott did, of course, that's who. The well-dressed, well-read, well-adjusted thorn in Kelly's side, always neck-and-neck with him in the classes, always looking down his nose. He pored over the form for at least five solid minutes after everyone else had handed theirs in. Akivic stood before Scott's desk, patient, his dark and smiling eyes hooded like a lizard's; Scott never looked up, just read painstakingly through each and every word before starting again. Everyone stared at them.

For a second it seemed like Akivic had lost the unspoken contest when he spoke first: "I do not mean to rush you, Mr. Scott."

Scott shook his head absently, tracing the tip of his pen along a line of heavily punctuated legal terms with little parenthetical numbers in them.

"Perhaps we should take a brief recess," Akivic continued kindly, "in case you need to call home."

The tip of the pen slowed noticeably. Kelly eyed Akivic's blandly pleasant expression, and he thought he could hear what was being said underneath: to ask your mama for permission. Kelly wasn't a hundred percent sure why he didn't think it was Scott's father under unspoken discussion.  

Scott didn't look up, seemingly cool and cucumbery as always, but he did turn deliberately to the last page and sign it. The pen scratched loudly in the class's nervous quiet. "That won't be necessary."

Akivic just bowed his head, the smile still lurking in his eyes and behind his mouth in ways Kelly didn't like. Kelly looked over at Scott, hoping he'd glance this way so Kelly could offer a little silent support, but he never did.

Kelly was called into the test chamber early on, he remembered that much. The needle jabbed hard, the tip blunt, and while he could still think straight he wondered how many other arms it had punctured in its time. But his thoughts didn't stay straight for long, and when he felt a familiar warmth spreading down the back of his neck and shoulders, something uncoiling deep inside his chest, he sighed and opened to it.

When next he could comprehend, he found himself telling Akivic the story of getting hit by that car when he was little. It was flowing out of him, not just what happened but how he felt and what he thought, even thoughts he hadn't known he remembered. Part of him still knew where he was and who he was with, though, and right before he opened his mouth to let out a huge and darkly-colored surge of emotion--all about his mother, of course, and how little time they had left together though he didn't know it--he experimentally stopped himself.

"Yes, Kelly?" Akivic prodded, patient as ever.

And Kelly wanted to keep talking, he really did. It felt so good when the knots untied themselves and the burrs snagged inside them got loose and worked their way out.

But just for fun, just to see, he sighed and smiled and took Akivic's hand in his. He could see the doctor startle, and felt as much lazy triumph as training had ever brought him. Akivic sort of forgot to dig after what Kelly was about to say, and it got lost in a shuffle of other ideas until Kelly felt safe to let go again and sink under where the whirlpool was calling him.

Okay, he thought, nice, ah, I, and when he opened eyes he didn't know were closed he was lying alone on a mat on the floor of a spare little room with a towel folded under his head. He had a headache, but nothing to compare with the skull-pounders he'd purposely inflicted on himself in his day, just for kicks.

So he drank some water from the table in the corner and sat against the wall, stretching his legs. Sometime someone would come and get him, and hopefully they weren't adding starvation-practice to today's lessons.

The door opened after a while and two attendants dragged a limp figure in between them--it was Scott, his head hanging. They paused just inside the door, and Kelly unfolded himself upright.

"Hey fellas," he started, but they sort of heaved Scott out of their grip all at once, and as he crumpled, Kelly leaped forward and grabbed hold, wrapping both arms around him and bracing hard. The man was solid, Kelly had to give him that.

"Could you guys--" Kelly said, but the attendants left without another word, and he heard the deadbolt turn. "...I guess you couldn't."

He lowered Scott to the mat as gently as he could, using his whole body. He lowered himself right next to him, in close, and put his palm to Scott's cheek, not liking the ashen undertones of his face.

"Uh... Alexander," he said. He rubbed his thumb along Scott's cheekbone, nice and slow. Whenever he himself had been that high, it had taken touch a while to percolate in. No reaction, though. Scott's breathing was steady, not damp or clogged, but it was harsh, somehow. Dry and forceful on the exhale, like a frustrated gust through clenched teeth.

"Alex?" he tried, although he'd never heard anyone use that one. He nudged his knee against Scott's, kind of rubbed their knees together the way his thumb rubbed Scott's face.

Scott's eyes opened all at once, wide. "Nn-nn."

"Okay, man, not Alex, I dig. Alexander." He patted the side of Scott's face gently.

"Nn-nn," Scott repeated slowly, and it really did sound like his teeth were clenched very hard. His jaw muscles moved slightly. Kelly knew some cats it took that way, grinding their molars, even if they were otherwise floating free and easy.

"Okay," he said, still quiet and reassuring, keeping close. The times he'd been down the deepest were the times he was happiest to have some warmth and life next to him on the way up. When he bothered to think about it, he figured it made sense, like a seedling plant climbing on its way up toward the sun.

"Nn!" Scott said, very forcefully, and Kelly knew something was wrong.

"You sick?" he said, keeping calm. Calmness was important, keep the vibe steady, no need for a bad trip on the way out. "Here, I'll turn you, just be cool."

He rolled Scott away onto his side and lay comfortably along his back, one hand on his waist. Scott's shirt had come untucked there, and Kelly's fingers rested against smooth, chilled skin.

"It's all right," he said into Scott's ear. "Just relax. If you need to sick it up then go on. You're safe, and you're gonna be okay." He wondered if Scott was still too far down to understand the words, but at least maybe his tone would get the point across. He smiled faintly at the back of Scott's head, remembering a chick he'd been with one time at the end of a spectacular weekend party. "You are a part of the universe," she'd kept telling him. "You are a child of nature." It hadn't done any harm, anyway, and a good laugh was always a fine way to keep the afterparty blues at bay for a while.

There was a tremendous heave of effort in Scott's muscles, and for half a second Kelly did think Akivic's special dope had made him sick. But that wasn't what was happening. He was moving--it was slow and awkward, but he was moving, and he was moving away.

"Hey, now, take it easy," Kelly said, reaching out again to lay his hand on Scott's waist, ground him. But as his fingers landed under that rucked shirttail again and brushed across cool skin, Scott jerked. He didn't use any identifiable letters in the sound he made this time--it wasn't a growl, not a shout, just a forceful sound pushed all at once from the bottom of his diaphragm and through his whole body. Kelly felt it in the tips of his fingers like a scorch and yanked his hand back.   

"Yeah okay," he said. "You're all right. I, uh. I won't."

That didn't make any difference to Scott's hunched, knotted posture, the muscles of his back straining against a spreading sweatstain on his shirt. Kelly didn't have to get bitten by a snake to know what the rattle meant.

He lay there and idly watched Scott's breathing. It wasn't the sort of thing a man should take personally, but it was undeniably strange. Not that he and Scott were kissing cousins, especially given the competition the instructors seemed to be stoking between them. But up to now, Kelly had been fine with falling into Scott's arms when necessary--and there'd been some training fights, and one of the physical-torture practices, too, where Scott had even done the same thing. Kelly had scooped him up and stanched his bloody nose, or laid fingers under his jaw and tipped his head up to check his eyes, and they had even grinned at each other for a lightning-flash of a second there, foreheads brushing so close you could feel the sweat mingle.

Now, though, even though Kelly wasn't touching him, Scott remained as spiky as a sea urchin, giving off waves of...was it embarrassment? Kelly didn't get it, hard as he tried. So eventually, Kelly just turned over on his back and contemplated the ceiling, keeping a watch more subtly by ear. But all he ever heard was that hard, hissing breath in and out through tight molars, except for once or twice when he swore for a second that he might have heard a damp catch in Scott's throat, quickly cut off.

For the very first time since they'd first crashed into each other as little baby spies in the spy cafeteria, Kelly found himself wondering if Alexander Scott was going to stay with the Department. He even wondered for a second if Scott could.

Scotty could, of course, and so could Kelly, and the partnership and the years had swallowed all that newness and strangeness and even calling people "Alex" of all the ridiculous things.

What had not changed much was the difference between beaten-Scotty and doped-Scotty. And Kelly had learned that difference the hard way, although he'd never ever come to like it.

It went like this: when something happened to Kelly, from heartbreak to gunshot to the iron maiden, Scotty was there, the end. His entire body was somehow always beneath or around Kelly like a crash mat, blunting the worst of the razor edges that life threw. Kelly couldn't remember how many times he'd felt their ribs pressed together and mixed up whose heartbeat was whose, Scotty's skeleton standing in for Kelly's with no trouble while Kelly found his feet again, however slowly. He didn't have to remember how many; it wasn't even a question or anything you owed back.

And when Scotty got hit, or stabbed, or shot, Kelly didn't have to think. He'd scoop him up or he'd sit him down, he'd touch and soothe. He'd curl himself down into Scotty's space and tangle their legs together, peppering him with jokes about his dwindling skills and automatically observing how he answered, did he get the rhythm, how were his eyes, his teeth, was he bleeding, did he shiver when he shouldn't or not-shiver when he should.

There was an exception, though, and Kelly had had to consciously learn to remember this one. If Scotty got doped--and it had only happened a few times, as if Scotty could ward it away with only the force of his formidable will--then all ordinary bets were off. Do not touch. Do not talk. Scotty himself certainly wouldn't talk, if he didn't absolutely have to. He'd stagger forward as best he could, a veritable electrical field surrounding him that was death to cross. His eyes were fixed and powerfully absent; he looked away, he looked ahead, he looked into a terrible middle-distance that Kelly couldn't interrupt.

Now, when Kelly had found him at the ring of sacrifice, if he'd wondered for long what ailed him--was it head trauma that made him stagger, was it violent force that had made him so weak, leaning there in his makeshift coffin even with the lid off--Kelly was told in no uncertain terms when Scotty pulled away. Not just the pupils and the slow, long blinks, but the sure giveaways of a subtle agony somewhere in his eyes and that damned electric field that reasserted itself around him.

It was so hard, this time. He didn't know why, after all these years and some rough lessons learned, but it was the hardest it had ever been. Kelly even found himself reaching out again without meaning to, wanting so badly to pull Scotty back against him. But Scotty made the faintest noise in his throat and chest, staring ahead, and Kelly brought all his remaining energy to bear on stopping himself. He lowered his hand.

"Scotty," he said carefully.

Scotty wavered on his feet. He wasn't going to be able to get himself down the hill, that was clear. But they weren't in immediate danger--Zarkas's people, whoever they'd been, were obviously not committed to finishing the job after their boss had taken a short walk off a long cliff.

They'd left behind a trail of debris in their wake. Guttering torches, a cap, someone's left shoe. And a few of the robes they'd had on for the ceremony, the seal-Scotty-in-a-box ceremony that was supposed to end with a long, slow, leisurely drowning. Put that in the tourist brochures.

Kelly forced himself to focus, bending and grabbing up one of the stupid robes. "Here," he said, trying to move into Scotty's field of vision, such as it was. "Let me--"

But as he reached out with the robe to try and wipe off the wet cement, Scotty moved away. He lurched away, in fact, and one more lurch like that would knock him down.

Kelly held up both hands. I come in peace, bearing lingerie. "Will you let me get that stuff off you, please."

As it had been before, those mercifully few times, something about his even tone or maybe the word please seemed to do it. Scotty held still now, but he looked past Kelly's shoulder and quivered with something so deep that even Kelly had never entirely been able to read it. Embarrassment, sure, maybe, but sometimes in the past he'd thought it could have been rage.

Kelly wiped the cement off with as light a touch as he could, so as not to grind the fine particles against Scotty's bare skin. He was glad to notice it was a sloppy mix, too liquid, none of it having dried just yet. He used up a couple of the robes, taking pains, leaving Scotty's torso mostly clear but for a thin gray film over the top of his chest and back.

"Okay," he said, tossing the second robe aside. "We better go."

He reached out very slowly this time--hating the way Scotty looked past him instead of at him--and took hold of Scotty's upper arm. The muscles there contracted under his touch, but Scotty didn't pull away, and that would have to be enough. It never would be, of course, but that was typically how Kelly's life went, wasn't it.

"Come on," he said easily, about eighty times more relaxed than he felt. And he worked at balancing Scotty with that single grip as they continued down the path to the dock, keeping a close eye out for anyone he might need to knock down and step on in order to get Scotty home.

Everyone was still gone, would wonders never cease. Kelly let go of Scotty for a minute to untie the boat, feeling a little more in control of things--until Scotty walked on without him, stepping right down the stairs at the end of the dock and plunging into the water with a splash like he was in a Wile E. Coyote cartoon.

The water wasn't very deep there, maybe waist-high, and it wasn't dangerously cold, but it would surely have a nighttime chill, especially with Scotty in the state he was in. He flinched with the shock and surprise and turned instantly back toward the dock, but then he just stood there blankly in the water as if he was out of ideas.

Kelly kept his cool and crouched at the bottom of the steps, his voice still calm and courteous. "Would you get in the boat, please," he said.

It worked again, and this time Scotty seemed to accept Kelly's grip more smoothly; Kelly hauled him up by the arm but let go as soon as he could, so as not to press his luck. Scotty walked stiff-legged to the little boat and tottered aboard.

Kelly sat back by the motor and steered them home, for certain values of home. He watched the back of Scotty's head and the rigid set of his shoulders, blotched with the remnant film of cement. He imagined he could see the barriers around Scotty from here, glowing a volcanic red.

On an ordinary day--or at least, during an ordinary rescue, and these days rescues for them could be pretty ordinary--Kelly would have been talking all the way. They both would have. Kelly would criticize Scotty's cement-based hygienic habits, Scotty would remind Kelly that if someone not-naming-any-names had showed up a few minutes earlier then there wouldn't be any cement on anybody. Kelly would wonder if Scotty was aiming to set a record for the most diverse set of injuries sustained by either of them in one day, Scotty would reminisce meaningfully about the time Kelly's daily injuries included a camel bite in a tender place.

But now it was so quiet, the motor running rough, the wind off the dark water flat and cold and fishy. Kelly's throat ached with the absence of words. Scotty must know what he was doing, what he needed to get by, but for Kelly it was almost too hard.

He landed them at the same dock he'd borrowed-actually-stolen the boat from and climbed out. "Over this way," he said tiredly.

Scotty clumsily made his way onto the dock but wavered, almost taking a header right into the water. Kelly took hold of his upper arm again, steeling himself against the flinch he felt run through Scotty's frame. "Yeah, sorry," he said. "I know you won't like it, the crowds and all, but it's as much of a back way as there is."

If it had been Kelly still under the bad-guy influence, they could have played it as him being happily drunk, being towed home by his pal. Hell, half the town seemed to be out drinking tonight, if not more. Kelly would even have had a good time with the pretense, playacting as he'd drape himself in Scotty's arms all the way home.  But the brittle denial Scotty wrapped himself in, the mercifully-few times he'd been the one doped, never permitted any of that. No good humor or rueful acceptance or playfulness, not ever. Kelly didn't know of any other place in Scotty's life that fell that quick off that kind of cliff. He wished again, hard, that he himself had been the one given the dope, let alone crammed in the box and nearly killed. And not just for the usual reasons, either. But as always, his wishes fell through, whistling hollow like empty bottles half-buried in the sand.

He made his way back to the hotel, trying to keep a relaxed air and a lazy smile on his face, supporting Scotty without making a big deal of it. Scotty's arm was clenched under his touch like someone reacting to a steady electric current. Passersby occasionally grinned and shouted at them, things Kelly couldn't understand but Scotty surely could. He trusted they were friendly enough; the language of the boisterous partier was a bit of a lingua franca in most of the places they traveled. But he hoped against hope they weren't being too friendly, watching one disheveled fellow help a handsome barechested man up to his hotel room. If they were...cheering him on, so to speak, or making remarks along those lines, Kelly didn't think he wanted to know.

Kelly had considered making a serious pass at Alexander Scott very early in training. It wasn't that Kelly didn't know how to keep his hands to himself, or that he was a helpless slave to good looks. But he was a little lonely, a little bored, and frankly struck by the confidence that Scott seemed to wear like a bespoke jacket. Up to and including challenging one of their instructors to a game of chess and starting to beat the shorts off him, before seeming to realize that that would be a very bad idea at this early stage of the game when the focus was still supposed to be on stripping the students down to the bone before building them back up. Kelly figured Scott had never been in the Army, because for Kelly himself the pattern was old-hat.

The closest he'd come to making his move was actually after that very chess game, in fact. It wasn't the beautiful sight in the communal shower or the gym or the track that had finally pushed him past his better judgment--it was watching Scott over that chessboard, cool and intent and heading for victory, that invisible jacket providing him an extra layer against the world that Kelly couldn't even imagine having. He found himself itching to get under it and take it off, along with the rest of those well-fitting clothes.

So he'd helped Scott remember to lose the game, and afterward they'd had a little conversation, loaded with potential. Kelly had offered some sideways looks and subtle invitations, fishing; he'd half-expected it to fly completely over Mr. Straight Arrow's fine head, or even for Scott to reward him with a punch right in the mouth. But to Kelly's delight, Scott seemed to shift into a newer, subtler rhythm in that little chat, picking up on the game (or at least that there was a game) and batting things lightly back-and-forth with Kelly without ever hitting so hard that the whole confection crumbled. He hadn't had anything like it for a long time, maybe even ever. It was like dancing your own made-up step your whole life, until someone shockingly cut in and knew just how the dance went, showed you what it could be like, someone who could lead and follow and change the direction in ways you never would have on your own.

Kelly had had such a good and tantalizing time, even just in that one conversation, that he put the serious pass on the backburner to spin out the event. An open pass generally led to one of two things: a rejection (with or without said punch in said mouth), or an acceptance and then a morning-after and the bright bubble of possibility was gone forever. Either way, Kelly didn't want to lose this feeling too soon.

And then training had brought them tentatively together, and inclination had brought them further, and Kelly had buried his temptation as deep as he possibly could so as never to risk the loss of what he had found. Because the longer he had it, the more he knew he could never bear to see the end of it, less still if he himself had been the cause.

They reached the hotel room without any trouble. The desk clerk hadn't been disapproving, only curious, and Kelly slipped him a big tip while explaining that Mr. Scott had taken a fall into the water and could use some hot tea. He could feel a thin shiver running through Scotty's arm and shoulder, whether of exhaustion or chill or an amping-up of the need for distance he couldn't tell. But tea never did anybody any harm, and it kept the clerk from following them up to the room and nosing into their business in the guise of offering helpful advice.

He eased Scotty against the wall, trying to look into his eyes and judge the pupils again while Scotty stared over his shoulder. "Listen," Kelly said gingerly. "I know you don't-- I hate to have to--"

He wouldn't even have had to put it into so many words on a normal day, even a normal day that involved getting shot full of holes or wrestling a giant squid or something. Dammit.

"Go ahead, get that stuff washed off," he said finally. He gestured to the bathroom in a manner that he hoped looked casual and not an actual reminder of which way the tub was.

He turned his back then, hoping against hope that he'd hear Scotty rustling around to get out of his clothes by himself. "We're gonna have to throw the pants away," he said. "Maybe even those shoes, too, though you never know, Filippo always says he can do wonders with polish, we could stop by his stand on our way to the ferry tomorrow."

No noises but breathing, the hard, controlled gusts. Kelly toed out of his own shoes and carefully slipped his shirt off over his head without dislodging all the dust ground into it from his last struggle with Zarkas. Part of him felt like just throwing it away too, because he knew that from now on whenever he wore it, no matter how clean it was, he'd remember Zarkas grabbing at it just before he was flipped head-over-heels to his death far down on the rocks. And the impact, that awful sound. Given the events of his life, Kelly had actually heard that very thing more than once. But that didn't make it blend in or disappear; it only seemed to underscore it, the sounds reinforcing each other in a rising unison.

He rolled the shirt into a careful ball and put it on the floor by his bed. Then he sighed, drew in a breath, and turned with a chipper carelessness. "Okay, Nemo, all submarines descend."

Scotty hadn't made any move to undress or head toward the bath. The thin remnants of wet cement were drying across his skin, cracking with traceries of fine lines. He blinked slowly into the middle distance.

"Hey," Kelly said with an enormous effort to be casual. "You know you gotta wash that stuff off, so let's get at it." He strolled over and sank to one knee, working to keep up the chatter as he tugged at the wet, knotted laces on Scotty's dress shoes. "I don't know if you ever worked with cement much, too busy knocking all the neighborhood over with the power of your mind and the speed of your running back-ness. But me and my dad..." He lifted one of Scotty's feet slowly out of its shoe, went for the sock. "I helped him with a little concrete-work a couple summers when I was a kid. And the thing about it is, wet cement can give you these burns, slow-motion burns. You get it on your skin and it sets on there for a while and has the time to give you a really nice alkaline burn that can send you to the hospital. And we know just how much you love the hospital."

Maybe it was the implied threat, but Scotty seemed to help lift his other foot while Kelly dragged off the other shoe and sock and unwound the bandage swathing Scotty's ankle. The flare-burn still looked sore, but Kelly didn't have a lot of time right then to spare on an examination.

Now it was the hard part. He uncoiled from the floor and waved a hand at Scotty's waist.

"Off'n with your gunbelt, there, Red Ryder."

He could wait a little while, to seem like he wasn't pushing, but not too long. The thing about the burns was true, and he wasn't going to let Scotty get hurt that way if he could help it. Scotty was already a patchwork of dings and dents and near-misses that Kelly was determined to put a stop to.

But Scotty wasn't cooperating. He had turned his head to the side while Kelly'd been kneeling, and now he was staring down at the floor past one of his own shoulders, his brow furrowed.

"Pants, Scotty," Kelly said evenly. "Let's pitch 'em and get you something nicer. Though you do look good in blue."

He could have bitten his tongue at that last, though he didn't think it had gotten through to Scotty any more than anything else. Tentatively, he reached for the button on Scotty's trousers. He managed to get that undone, but as he took hold of the tab of the zipper, Scotty recoiled so fast his head knocked against the wall with a solid thump.

Nice job, Robinson, add another dent, Kelly thought fiercely as he instantly let go. "Come on, if you please, sir," he said aloud, making himself turn and amble to the bathtub. The noise of the water running helped drown out the sound of Scotty's hard, frustrated breaths for a minute.

The water warmed up, and Kelly put in the stopper. He could have wished for an American-style showerhead, but it seemed like Rhodes hadn't gone that far in accomodating its tourists quite yet. And Scotty still wasn't behind him.

He had at least stepped away from the wall, though, and Kelly had to be glad at some sign of independent motion, however small. "This way," Kelly said. "Into the locker room, champ."

Maybe it was that turn of phrase, maybe it sparked a memory of football games past, or even the locker rooms back in spy school, full of beat-up old government-issue furnishings and beat-up new government-issue students. But Scotty did turn toward the bathroom at last and fumble the zipper down as he padded in. That's as far as his efforts took him, though, and his face hadn't changed.

Kelly made himself smile, seeking eye contact and not finding it. "All right, now, look. You'll feel better after we get this done, and you know it. Like pulling a tooth." And with as quick and light a touch as he could manage, thinking of pickpockets, thinking of quick-draw artists, he reached out and slipped his fingers into Scotty's waistband, peeling the ruined trousers and the undershorts beneath down over his hips and legs. The skin he grazed briefly against was damp and chilled, sprung into gooseflesh all the way down.

"Get on in there before the hot wears off," Kelly said, stepping back quickly. "You'll get you some pneumonia and your mother will never let me hear the end of it."

After a long, uncertain pause, Scotty finally got into the tub, each step wavering and heavy.

You got it from here? Kelly was going to ask, wanting so badly to be able to step away and give Scotty the privacy he was screaming for. But part of him already knew Scotty still couldn't manage it, and he needed the help, and didn't want the help. In his turn, Kelly wanted Scotty to have what he needed and what he wanted, and that was the sheer conundrum of it.

So, Kelly bit down on his own feelings and forged ahead with a casual, sporty pushiness. "You gonna sit down? No? Yeah, fine, we'll wing it." He grabbed up the big sponge, dunked and soaped it, and squeezed a fistful of suds over Scotty's upper back. Painfully ignoring any flinch there might have been at the initial contact, he scrubbed at the cement.

But he was running out of things to say. This was Scotty; Kelly never ran out of things to say.

How about that weather? he thought grimly as he passed the sponge firmly down Scotty's spine and over his buttocks. The thin gray skin of cement disappeared, leaving the dark healthy brown and the slightly paler tinge below his waistband and above his powerful thighs. Kelly rinsed and soaped and scrubbed, concentrating on eradicating every touch and fleck of that gray all down Scotty's back and sides before swiping down the backs of his legs and moving around to his front.

Scotty's eyes were clenched shut, his face tight and pained. Kelly said, trying for normal and failing, "At least this'll make you wash nice behind your ears for a change. Next time we go home for a visit, Mom won't even recognize you."

The mention of Mom had worked last time--it had gotten through, or at least it had done something. But there was no reaction now, as Kelly washed firmly down Scotty's neck and spent more time than necessary on his chest. He wished Scotty would make some wiseacre comment, or criticize Kelly's technique, or wax eloquent about the times Scotty had had to try and wash Kelly off around some bandage or cast or other.

Or at least, if Scotty would only open his eyes.

One of their visits home hadn't been all that long after one of Scotty's few other trips to the dark side of chemical intoxication, when he'd been tortured for a while by Nick Fielding, amateur trader in national secrets and professional very bad person. By the time Kelly came to the rescue, Fielding's guys had moved on to a regular beating, and Kelly might never even have known about the dope.

But when Scotty had been patched up and they'd had some time off to go home and congratulate Aunt Ruth on her wedding to the ever-loyal Harry, Kelly got on the plane with one more unread letter from Temple crumpled in his pocket. He'd grabbed it on the way out of the hotel, but hadn't had a chance even to open it until they were in the air somewhere over the Atlantic, Scotty dozing against the window with his tie undone.

Kelly smiled fondly over Temple's descriptions of her new boyfriend the principal, who really did sound like the kind of gentle, bookish guy she could enjoy being with for a change. And he shook his head over her apologies for even having been involved with Fielding in the first place--as if it had been her fault, how crooked he'd been and how willing to use violence to get his way, whether with her or with Scotty.

But then she'd written, At least as Scotty will tell you that unlike me he did not tell Nick anything at all, I heard Nick yelling at his Doctor friend whose name I forget. You did not give him enough, he yelled, but the Doctor friend said he gave him more than enough and even enough to almost kill him but Scotty would not say any thing. Except to disappear, he said that too and sounded very amazed, about how Scotty kept disappearing, I don't know what that means but tell Scotty how sorry I am will you please and I am glad he is allright again.

During the rest of the visit, Kelly thought at first he was managing to refrain from looking at Scotty too much and for too long when he thought Scotty wasn't paying attention. But then there was an afternoon where Scotty and Jo had gone to pick up a few things for dinner (Kelly was doing his best to eat Mrs. Scott out of house and home, as she insisted he do, though Scotty wasn't keeping up his end nearly as well). It was gray and dismal outside, and Kelly was busying himself by fixing a leaning bookshelf near one of the windows, concentrating on getting it just right. The screwdriver made a quiet creaking noise in the peaceful stillness of the house, and watching the shelf slowly come together under his hands was mesmerizing. The footsteps of Mrs. Scott coming up behind didn't even startle him at all, that's how safe he felt.

"Thank you, Kelly, that's a nice job." He settled back on his heels and looked up at her, and she smiled. "Now I won't keep having to pick James Baldwin up off the floor."

"Yes ma'am," he said. "Although I wish you'd let me get you a bigger are we supposed to get you more books for Christmas if there's nowhere to put them?"

"Oh, I think it'll last a little while yet." She brushed a bit of sawdust into the palm of her hand and then the wastebasket, and regarded the shelf critically. "If I don't miss my guess, that work is all finished. Is it time for the books to go back up?"

"I can do it, Mom," he insisted, but she shushed him with one gentle look. So he moved over.

They organized and reshelved in comfortable silence for a minute, swapping books occasionally, slotting everything back into her standard categories. Kelly was cautious and fretful with the older ones, afraid that the calluses on his fingers would snag the worn paper jackets, but Mrs. Scott handled them with the confident familiarity of old friends.

The quiet, companionable task had lulled Kelly back into an almost-hypnotic state, when Mrs. Scott spoke again.

"Ruth was so glad to see you boys. She knew you had to miss the wedding, of course, but it's lucky you could visit so soon after."

Kelly laughed. "She just about kissed Scotty's face right off his head."

"It's been such a long time. She hardly recognized him."

"I suppose he has gotten pretty big since you all lived in the old building," Kelly said, handing her a copy of Profiles in Courage to go in her section of biographies.

"And he was smiling," she said. The book slid gently into place. "She doesn't have many memories of him smiling."

Kelly carefully reordered a stack of books by his feet, his heart thumping a little harder. He'd hardly ever been told anything about Scotty's early childhood, when the whole extended family had eked out a living together in a neighborhood much worse off than the one Mrs. Scott lived in now.

"She remembers how serious he was," she went on, "and how hard he tried. How scared he was."

Scared of what, Kelly wished he could ask, but from the bits and pieces gleaned during their life together so far, he thought maybe he could guess that it should instead have been scared of who. Or was it whom. Scotty would know.

"Alexander was always the one who'd step in when things got so bad with him, and when the very sight of me only seemed to set him off."

Him. Kelly knew that didn't mean Scotty. He never had known the name of Scotty's father, and he couldn't imagine being able to ask. He did doubt that the man's last name had been Scott, if only because now Scotty took that name forward so proudly and used it with such ease between them.

Mrs. Scott traded a Moroccan cookbook for Kelly's History of the Peloponnesian War. "Alexander would get him in off the stoop if he could. Clean him up. Try and stay with him until he came out of it, although it was never too long before the need would set in again and he'd take it out on Alexander."

Kelly misshelved the cookbook at first, blinked hard to clear his eyes, and moved it to its proper place. He stared at the colorful spines of the books until they merged into one flowing pattern.

"It has always seemed to me," she said quietly, echoes of very deep feeling behind her calm words, "that Alexander takes many things on himself only because he feels he must. And he won't let himself take other things on only because he feels he must not. He can be so definite. But...and this is where he fights his hardest battles...he is not always right. We know this, don't we."

Kelly nodded, unable to speak. And all at once he felt her rare touch on the crown of his head, her fingers so gently carding through the hair there, ruffling it.

The lock rattled in the door and Jo and Scotty tumbled through, arms full of grocery bags, teasing each other with some old family joke about the apartment building's stairwell. Kelly rose and advanced just behind Mrs. Scott, and they started to unload heavy bags from Scotty's arms despite all his protests.  

Kelly passed the sponge gently across Scotty's chest once more, then followed the line of trickling soapsuds down his stomach. There were only a few flecks of cement there, and Kelly washed them off in slow, meditative circles while Scotty's muscles jumped beneath the sponge. The angles of muscle and bone carving out the grooves between his abdomen and groin and hip caught runnels of water, sent them sparkling down between his thighs.  

Kelly had thought he might be able to have some mercy on Scotty somehow, if he could only demonstrate some kind of detachment, a show of absent casualness. But as he knelt to wash carefully around Scotty's burned ankle, feeling each flinch as if it came from inside himself, he knew he must be failing, and he swore silently.  

He rinsed and wrung out the sponge very well and then soaped it once more, pulling the plug to let the murky water drain.

"Okay," he said, rising, reaching out very tentatively to touch Scotty's cheek. "Hold your breath a sec." He stroked the sponge over the planes of Scotty's face and along his hairline, then over his hair, dislodging a few crumbs of drying cement. He used his thumb to brush away some errant suds dripping down toward one of Scotty's closed eyes, moving jerkily beneath its lid.

When he had contented himself that not a trace of the cement remained to settle in for its long burn, he turned the faucets on full blast and began a careful rinse. He was thorough, using spongeful after spongeful of fresh water, wringing and wiping, getting his own bare chest and face and hair damp with the splashback. He rubbed one last dose of water through Scotty's hair and then cast the sponge aside to grab a towel.  

"Well...that's it," he said, draping the towel over Scotty's shoulders. He desperately wanted Scotty to start drying his own face, to cover those closed eyes and make the fixed expression vanish, but Scotty simply stood there, dripping.

"Can you--" Kelly started carefully, but he was interrupted by a knock on the hotel room door.

It was the tea, a full pot, with two cups and a sugar bowl and a little pitcher of what was probably goat milk, plus a few touristy curlicues. Kelly rummaged out some drachmas and overpaid, shooing the glorified bellhop away as quickly as he could, thinking that now would not be the time for Scotty to come shambling out in all his nude, dazed, soaking wet glory.

Despite the warm vapor in the bathroom, Scotty had already started to shiver by the time Kelly came back. At least his eyes were open, great shining droplets scattering from his lashes as he blinked. Kelly slipped a hand under his elbow and urged him out of the tub, and grabbed the towel to give him a brisk once-over. This was more like the actual locker room, if you looked at it sideways, and he put extra oomph into his hands like the rubdown they'd get after a Turkish bath. "Better than that harbor water," he murmured as he worked. "Much less chance of tetanus. I mean, as far as I know. Though maybe this hotel really has gone downhill."

They dragged on him, the silent spaces where Scotty would ordinarily have been batting the ball back and forth. He felt them like heavy claws down his back.

"There's tea," he said at last, tossing the wet towel on the rack. "Milk, too, veddy British. Maybe sit down, give your leg a rest before we gotta start in with them mummy bandages again." He hoped that sounded casual enough, distanced enough. Not showing how much he longed to carry Scotty bodily to the bed, put his burned ankle up on a pillow, cover the rest of him with every blanket this place afforded. Steal every mattress from every room and build a bunker.  

Scotty made his way to the bed without looking directly at it, and there was a moment where Kelly thought that was as far as he'd go before he seemed to remember how his knees worked. Kelly got the covers pulled back just in time for Scotty to crumple onto the mattress, and then he pulled them up again all the way to Scotty's neck, settling them down with what he hoped was nowhere near a tucking-in gesture.

Then he sat heavily on the edge of his own bed and leaned his damp head on one fist, starting the process of pushing all this behind him.

"Ucch," he said on a long sigh. This was not one of those times when you felt any job satisfaction.

Scotty lay on his back, squinting up at the ceiling like a man with a migraine. The blanket moved with his shivering. After a minute, Kelly got up and removed his own blanket, draping it on top of Scotty from toe to neck.

"You're gonna be all right," he said quietly down into Scotty's drawn face, just in case he was listening.

Scotty made a little noise and one hand emerged from under the covers, making a lunging grab for the headboard and holding it tight. Kelly could see the shape of Scotty's other hand under the blankets, sliding over to grab the edge of the mattress.

"Yeah," Kelly said regretfully. "I think you've got the spins."

He wished Scotty could meet his gaze, somehow take the reassurance he was offering. A solid line of sight could even help with the spins. But even stooped right over him, Kelly could only watch his eyes squint into an undefined vacancy, glittering with pain and confusion.

"That's normal," Kelly said, trying to put his reassurance into words but keep it businesslike. "It won't last. You need to remind your brain that the rest of the world isn't actually moving. Uh...try putting one foot on the floor, that's how I got through college." He made himself smile.

At first Scotty didn't move. But after a few moments, he slid one leg--not the burned one--over to the edge of the bed and bent his knee, his bare foot seeking the floor.

"You'll make the frat yet, Egbert," Kelly said. He should have retreated to his own bed again, let Scotty out from under his scrutiny. But he could still see Scotty shivering, the blanket trembling in little gusts. Having to keep that bare foot on the floor wouldn't help, either.

"Scotty," he said at last, grasping at straws. Scotty could hear him now, the foot proved it. "How about I call a doctor."

He knew it would never fly even before he said it. The only doctor they'd ever met on the island was a good pal of Zarkas's--for all Kelly knew, the guy had been at the shindig tonight, waving a torch. Anyone could be suspect. And even if he was willing to take the gamble, would Scotty let a stranger see him like this?

As he'd feared, instead of answering, Scotty yanked his foot back under the blankets and pulled the blankets up over his head, curling onto his side.

Kelly instantly let the idea go, scoffing at himself. He'd only been trying to pawn the situation off onto some imaginary authority figure anyway. The only ones they could trust were each other, as it always had been.

"Okay, I won't. Course I won't." Scotty's foot did not emerge to the floor again; he stayed curled and fragile like a snail wishing for its shell. "You're gonna be all right. I mean, you know I know it, right? How often have you seen me underwater like this, without even your reasons?"

No movement, no sound. Kelly kept on talking, trying to lower a lifeline made of words. "Scotty, listen. I know you're down there against your will, but you know it don't help when someone struggles in the water. The currents are strong, you can't fight 'em. And you don't have to. Just let go. Try and let yourself float. It's--"

He broke off, remembering their latest underwater exploits, and wished he hadn't gone that route. This really was like being underwater for Scotty: trapped too deep, air hose cut, out of hope. Like Scotty needed a reminder. Great job.

Kelly crossed his arms tightly over his chest, thinking about calling for more blankets, for hot water bottles. The tea was cooling and the milk languished undrunk. He should shut up, stop making it worse. Just watch and wait, as he'd ended up doing those few rare times before. Keep his hands off and his eyes averted, pretend none of it had ever happened.

But he was suddenly so sick of that. Sick and tired. And he couldn't stand letting Zarkas have that triumph. Even though Kelly had technically saved Scotty from being sunk underwater to drown helplessly in his weighted coffin, Zarkas had managed to strand Scotty there just the same in a way, alone and disoriented in a dark place Kelly could never touch. And Kelly was supposed to sit quietly and wait?  

He sat on the side of Scotty's bed.

"Look, pal," he said. "You're hogging all the covers."

He dug himself down under blankets and sheet and plastered himself against Scotty's curled back, wrapping an arm around him. Scotty's skin felt chilled and clammy. Kelly thought of things to say, about his promising second career as an electric blanket or the economical size of Greek hotel beds, but in the end he just rested his forehead at the nape of Scotty's neck.

Despite being lost and silent and in the fetal position, Scotty did not seem in any way small. In fact, whenever Kelly had carried him or held him or made helpless attempts to comfort him, even when Scotty had been at his very lowest, he still never diminished. He always felt solid and strong, latent power in every fiber of muscle and bone, his face good-humored or stoic or angry but seldom uncontrolled. Maybe that was why, Kelly mused, breathing in the soapy-cool scent of Scotty's skin, that he never got the sympathy he deserved. He worked so hard at keeping himself wrapped and compact, wound in firmly with no loose ends or jagged edges. And everyone else believed it. Hell, Kelly believed it too, and probably too often. But that was the way of it: in a world made of lies, he believed what he was told if it was Scotty doing the telling.   

He found Scotty's cold feet with his feet, and covered one of Scotty's cold hands with his, rubbing with his thumb, willing his own circulating blood to pick up that chill and take it away. If he couldn't carry anything else for Scotty, he could at least carry this.

It could have been as long as five minutes later when Scotty suddenly spoke, from far back in his throat. "Zarkas."
Kelly lifted his head, peered over Scotty's shoulder. "Uh hum. I hope you aren't getting us confused, Rip Van."

No answer for maybe a minute, and Kelly was thinking it must have been the random word of a sleep-talker, until Scotty said, "Where's he."

"He died." Kelly put his head back down against Scotty's nape.

Another minute. "Sorry."

Kelly sighed, and Scotty's shoulders twitched at the breath crossing his skin. "I don't know what for. I mean, I'm not sorry he's dead. And if you mean sorry for getting hurt, then don't you dare, okay. You just close your fine head on that one."  

More than a minute this time, and Kelly let his eyes close. Then Scotty said very quietly, his words running together, "He says this'll make it easier. I won't even notice the water. Just breathe it in, all over soon. Sorry, Scotty. Over soon."

Kelly's arm clenched and his hand tightened on Scotty's. He had a bright red flash of desperately wishing Zarkas were here. One fall wasn't enough; he would gladly kill him again. And again. He'd gladly listen to a dozen versions of the sound of that man's spine meeting the rocks and the sea.

"He's wrong," Kelly hissed. "Nothing's over. Nothing. Zarkas is dead, and you're here with me."


"Yeah," Kelly said, trying to ease his grip and throttle back the surges of fury. "Just like always." He took in a breath and gave a wobbly laugh. "Okaaay, maybe not quite like always. But I'm here, and nothin's gonna get you. You're safe."

Scotty mumbled something that Kelly couldn't understand, if it had even been actual words. It slurred and descended, like a moan or a plea or a sigh.

"Safe," Kelly repeated. "I just wish..." He trailed off and rested his chin lightly on Scotty's shoulder, remembering the dive. The way Scotty had let him come so close and hold on, accepting Kelly's air without a fight, their bodies naturally meshing while they slowly surfaced as one. Scotty taking what he needed, what Kelly so desperately needed to give.   

"Come on, Scotty," Kelly whispered. "You gotta be tired, man, holding your breath that long. Let it go. It's just me."

Scotty shallowly drew in some air and let it out. There was a long silence without another breath in, everything tensely silent.

Then abruptly he rolled in Kelly's arms, awkwardly, while Kelly tried to avoid bumping into the burned ankle. Scotty clutched at him, actually clutched at him, with his face against Kelly's neck. Kelly heard the harsh sounds of Scotty's breath going uneven and thick, and felt the heaving and catching of his ribcage. Tears touched Kelly's throat and burned there, carrying all the heat that Scotty's cold, shocked body didn't. This had never happened, not in all their years, and Kelly spread his hands on the muscles of Scotty's back as if to physically catch him while he fell.

Kelly didn't say there there, or shh-shh, or any of the ridiculous things that seemed to go hand-in-hand with ordinary weeping. Because what those would say to Scotty is be quiet and stop it, and he knew that that was the first thing Scotty would try to do and the last thing he needed. Kelly couldn't meet this with words, any words, for fear of stoppering the outflow of breath too long held. So he did his best to answer with his body just as he had under the water, holding him, being held. If he could have given Scotty his own air to breathe now, he would have. But all he could do to answer the sorrowful clench of Scotty's heart was keep him close.

They lay that way for a long minute, Scotty's entire body one tense knot as he was physically racked from the inside out with no unwinding or surcease. It was as if he was being beaten from within his own body, far worse than anything any goon had ever done in a futile attempt to break him. Kelly rode it out, holding on as if through a storm. And at last he turned his head and kissed Scotty's temple, with no other thought than the powerful need to stay with him and tell him he was there.

Scotty's arms squeezed him almost crushingly at that; Kelly's old patchwork ribs flared with threads of pain he wouldn't acknowledge now for all the world. And then Scotty's wet face was sliding up from Kelly's throat to his jaw to his mouth, and a mouth salty with tears was on his.

Kelly felt it through his entire body like an electric shock, whiting out his nerve endings. He hadn't been expecting it, hadn't even been thinking of it--as far back as training, he'd put the thought safely and secretly away, and over time he'd gladly taken Scotty in every other respect as his other half in sickness and in health. Having put the idea behind him, he supposed he'd fooled himself into thinking he'd put the desire behind him as well.

But oh, he'd been wrong. Scotty kissed him ferociously, and he was immediately destroyed. He instinctively kissed back, licking and biting, all his hope and want flooding out of him in helpless, muffled groans. If he had had any sense of himself left, he might have been embarrassed, but faced with Scotty naked in his arms and sliding both hands hard into his hair, kissing him so powerfully his breath came short, there was no room for anything else. He only knew the taste and sound and weight of Scotty, pushing Kelly inexorably over and pinning him flat on his back. Kelly couldn't catch a full breath, and dizziness flooded through him like a shot of iced scotch.

Scotty pulled at Kelly's zipper and got his jeans open, yanking them halfway down his hips. His hand was awkward at this angle, but definite, stroking Kelly's cock to hardness, and Kelly closed his eyes.  

He floated there a moment, pleasure rocketing from his mouth to his groin and back, utterly lost in the impossibility of this happening. Of Scotty coming to him like this, opening to him.

He let out another moaning breath into Scotty's mouth and gasped. The tiny influx of air swirled down into his body and woke something there, some flickering remainder of awareness. Because deep down inside him were still some words, there were always words--I didn't mean to and you don't have to and, more clearly, Is he opening? Is he?

Kelly didn't have the answer to that question--he barely had the ability to ask it to himself, lying spread under Scotty's hands. He couldn't have spoken if he'd tried to, his lips and tongue caught up in Scotty's ongoing ferocity. The bed creaked under their weight as Kelly thrust up into Scotty's grip, slicker by the second.

He was going to come, he could feel it approaching, his balls tightening against his body. This was Scotty, his big hand, his lush mouth, somehow knowing exactly how to bowl Kelly over and empty him out. But underneath the need and the opposing struggle to hold back and savor it, all at once Kelly knew he shouldn't. Because...

Because, yes, this was Scotty. Because Scotty knew exactly what to do to knock Kelly six ways from Sunday and make him lose his mind. And because Scotty's skin still felt so cold--the only warmth of him, the hot moisture of his tears, lost in this new effort. In the face of falling, of opening to Kelly at last, Scotty had turned that around and made sure that Kelly would be the one opened. The one ministered to, the one vulnerable.

Kelly let out a sound against Scotty's lips, a whimper rising almost to a whine. He pushed away with both hands and scrambled to create at least a little space, sucking in uneven breaths. For a moment their bodies strained as hard as they ever had in a judo match, before they broke apart. His cock throbbed under the sudden lack of stimulation.

"Okay. Okay okay. Scotty."

Scotty didn't meet his eyes at first. His mouth was wet and kiss-swollen, and his breathing was loud in the sudden quiet.

"Scotty..." Kelly said again. Feeling greatly daring all of a sudden, though he knew on the surface that was absurd, he touched Scotty's chin lightly and patted his jaw. "Where you goin', huh?"

His gaze flicked up to Kelly's then, and he still looked foggy and unmoored, but not just that. He looked startled, too, and wary.

"It's just, you're backpedaling so hard all of a sudden it's like you're falling down a hole," Kelly said.

Scotty cleared his throat, and managed his first truly clear words in quite a while. "You're crazy."

He sounded dismissive, and even a little surly. Kelly couldn't help but admire the smoothness of it, even as part of him started to fire up with actual anger. That Scotty would try to gaslight him, after a night like this!

So Kelly drew in a sharp breath, just about to jump into it and tell Scotty a thing or two. "Listen," he began dangerously.

But he lost track of that thought, and not really because of the sexual haze he could still feel tugging at his brain and his belly and points south. It was mainly because of how hard Scotty was working to stare him in the eyes. How braced and focused he was. Another ploy, another misdirection, practically right outta spy school. The man deserved retroactive extra credit.

The anger dissolved all at once before he'd even gotten a good grip on it. He looked at Scotty, scrambling to wrap himself back up in whatever remained of his shredded armor, and felt a depthless rush of tenderness for him. Beneath that undoubted strength was such terror, such brittleness, that he could hardly bear a moment of letting himself bend, no matter how heavy the provocation.

You're not gonna break, you know, he wanted to say. But he didn't, for a lot of reasons. For one thing, he knew better than to poke right into such a soft spot like that, especially one wrapped up so deep. And really, how could Scotty believe him? Scotty had been formed from the ground up by an entire childhood of seeing a grown man break. And not just break, not one-and-done, but a slow descent down into helplessness and loss. Pick him up, wash him off, listen to his promises, bear his useless anger. Watch him crumble again and again. This made you. This will be you.

"Listen," Kelly said, softly now. "Take it easy."

Scotty gripped the mattress and shook his head. Not like a refusal, but like a boxer who'd stumbled back to his corner and was waiting for the new round.

It wouldn't have taken much for Scotty to drag them both back into the old way of handling it: waiting out the doping with virtual porcupine quills extending a good three feet from him in every direction, expecting Kelly to turn away and forget it. Kelly didn't know where this new hesitation was coming from--maybe Kelly's own urgency, his longing for Scotty to lean on him, showed enough now to matter.

"Not easy on me," Kelly went on. "Easy on you. For a change. I mean, someone's got to."

He reached out slowly--half-expecting a recoil--and touched Scotty's jaw again with fingers just firm enough to be friendly instead of intimate if Scotty would rather. With his thumb he dabbed lightly at Scotty's cheekbone, where a drying streak of tears still shone.

The braced look remained for another moment, Scotty's eyes concentrating so hard, following the old patterns--and then there was a glimpse inside, uncertain and dizzy. He was still underwater, he didn't know what to do, and he would almost sooner die than to show it. But with Kelly, tonight, it seemed like maybe he could let it show. Just a little.

God, he was brave.

Kelly smiled shakily, and he felt like that smile was pasting everything he felt about Scotty, the whole giant heart-pounding truth of it, across his entire face and down his body. Scotty clearly couldn't bring himself to smile. He was poised uncertainly like a man sitting on a floating piece of debris after a shipwreck, waiting for it to suddenly flip and plunge him under.

"C'mere," Kelly said.

And Scotty did. He moved back into Kelly's arms slowly, without the single-minded ferocity of before. Kelly lay down and Scotty rested on his chest again, this time tucking his face into the crook of Kelly's neck. His breath faintly tickled.

"Gonna still be dizzy a while," Kelly said into the side of Scotty's head. "That's normal. Gonna just ride the currents up, my man. Ride 'em up with me. Okay?"

Scotty swallowed a few times, tightly, and his jaw worked against Kelly's throat. But then he nodded, just a bit.

Kelly held him, and they breathed together. Moments turned into minutes, minutes met and blurred, until time was passing in a quiet flow. Sometimes Scotty moved restlessly, biting back noises, something catching in him somewhere as the dope continued to work. Kelly cupped his hand around the back of Scotty's neck and murmured things to him about how it was like a fever, it was making its way out, the sun would rise and he'd be on-keel again. He promised. He didn't tell any tales of his own long, wild nights, let alone the times he'd been forcibly put under, but of course Scotty knew and thought no less of him. Kelly hoped that someday Scotty would learn how to apply that same grace to himself.

There was a particularly rough patch sometime in the wee hours. Kelly had snapped the light off; neither of them had fallen all the way to deep sleep, but they'd hovered in that space just wavering on either side of waking. And Scotty's breath caught in his throat, his entire body contracting, his foot pistoning out and knocking hard against Kelly's leg. Kelly didn't shush or restrain him, though he did steady him to keep him from falling from the bed. He gazed at Scotty's wide eyes in the dimness and felt the faint trembling passing through him again.


Scotty nodded.

"You're all right."

Scotty shook his head, but amazingly, the refusal didn't pull him out of Kelly's arms. Instead, he put his head back down against Kelly's neck and stayed very still, breathing shallowly as if he were hiding and trying not to make any noise. Then Kelly felt once more against his skin, sparsely, the hot touch of tears. He leaned his head against Scotty's and closed his eyes, keeping quiet, letting his arms and his heartbeat speak for him.

It got better from there, as it was bound to. The faint dimness that hinted at dawn was just starting to filter around the edges of the drapes, and Scotty had seemed peaceful for a while now. Then Kelly felt him shift and move, and he lifted his hand tentatively to the side of Kelly's face.

"Yeah," Kelly said, feeling mellow. If Scotty felt he had to leave, it would only make sense, and he really must be fine by now. The long dark night was over and they could put it behind them.

But Scotty leaned in, his face following his hand, to ghost his nose and mouth along Kelly's cheek and lightly kiss his lips. Kelly kissed him in return, lazy and gentle, his arms loose and easy to let Scotty slip out whenever he wanted to.

It was just that Scotty didn't seem to want to. He stretched out atop Kelly's body, kissing him more deeply. One hand explored Kelly's jeans again, which had been haphazardly pulled back up at some point but not fastened. Scotty's fingers teased the fabric apart and wrapped around Kelly's cock, and oh, they were warm now, definitely. All of him was warm and lively, his bare skin rubbing against Kelly, Kelly's jeans sliding down. Kelly kicked his feet free and shivered at the feel of it.

There was nothing ferocious or overbearing about this. Kelly let himself bask in having Scotty all there, whole and sane and entirely with him. Entirely, he thought, his hand sliding down Scotty's back to his buttocks, and he grinned around a kiss.

He panted in Scotty's grip and muffled groans against his mouth. Scotty was hard against his hip, stroking and grinding against him and then pulling away, easing his hand speed at the same time, not rushing anyone anywhere.

Eventually Kelly felt like his half-closed eyes must be blurred and shining like stars, he was floating so high. Now this is the way to get doped, he thought, almost laughing.

He could tell when Scotty was ready to come: his hand lost its rhythm and then its hold, clenching and relaxing on empty air for a second. Then he leaned in and his thrusts rose to a smoothly pistoning speed, a look of blissful concentration on his sweaty face. Kelly watched him, his own cock pulsing in sympathy, and savored the pleasure and physicality of it. He reveled in seeing Scotty for once gladly taking what he needed, letting Kelly offer it up.

Scotty held still as he came, hot and sudden against Kelly's skin, and then he let himself slip down to lie against him, gasping. Kelly rubbed a hand companionably through Scotty's hair.

The last of it was sweet and simple, Scotty taking a gentle hold of his cock again as it quivered on the verge of overstimulation, and stroking his orgasm easily out of him with finger and thumb. Kelly closed his eyes and let Scotty take him where he would, almost startling himself with his sudden cresting and spilling over Scotty's hand. He felt Scotty nudge against his ear and whisper something.

"What," he said, blinking into the growing dawn light. "What's that, there, Herm."

"Thanks," Scotty said, still quiet, but understandable this time now that Kelly's head wasn't so busy spinning.

Kelly laughed low in his chest. "Seems like that should be mutual, don't you think."

Scotty sat up, and his solemn features were clearly visible now in the advancing light. Soon they'd get up and clean up and pack, and they could catch the mid-morning ferry and leave this place behind them. This place and all its works.

"No," Scotty said consideringly. "Not really."

"Well, it's true a gentleman never tells, but I had a nice time."

"That's not it, Hobey," Scotty said, and Kelly's relief at hearing the swing back under his voice was profound. "I was lost, you see."

"Lost in the desert," Kelly chimed in on cue, matching the rising W.C. Fields singsong. "Like Mister T.E. Lawrence."

"A little bit, a little bit," Scotty said. "But mostly under the water, as you yourself should know."

"I do, I do," Kelly said, and he leaned up on his elbows.

"Lost and drowning." Scotty's voice was playful, but his eyes, meeting Kelly's, were serious.

"Now why you always gotta embarrass me," Kelly answered automatically. He could have kicked himself right after, with all the baggage around dope and embarrassment that had been running close to the surface last night, but Scotty showed no sign of it, not at all, and Kelly relaxed.
"And then you saved me." Scotty's warm gaze stayed on him.

"Well, I wouldn't want to say--" Kelly began, but his share of the joke was unexpectedly cut off.

"Quiet, you," Scotty said. "You saved me." He gave a firm nod and climbed out of the bed, limping only very slightly as the burned ankle flexed.

Kelly folded his hands behind his head, listening to Scotty's morning bath start up, Scotty yelping at something being too cold or too hot. Every syllable, every sound, was a balm on the last of his recovering nerves.

Eventually, Scotty started singing a little opera about a rubber duck following the journeys of Odysseus. And Kelly, the most grateful audience there ever was, laughed until the tears came.