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And Now, Like Always Ever

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They turn off the county road onto the bottom of the driveway at nineteen hundred hours on the dot, while the early-June light is still strong and clear. Just beyond the approach, the driveway is blocked by a big six-bar tube gate hanging a little crookedly between a pair of six-foot posts. A hand-painted sign, peeling with age, tells them NO SOLICITORS.

“Looks like the place,” Jack says, as Gabriel eases the car up to the gate and puts it into park. He unbuckles his seatbelt and lets it retract.

Gabriel frowns through the windshield and taps his thumbs on the steering wheel. “Better hope so,” he says, “or someone’s going to shoot you.”

Jack reaches under Gabriel’s outstretched arm and jabs his knuckles between his unguarded ribs. Gabriel hisses and clamps his arm down against his side.

“Some of my favorite people have shot me,” Jack says jovially, shouldering his door open and ducking outside just as Gabriel takes a retaliatory swipe that comes up short as the radius of his seatbelt holds him back. Jack waves cheerily as he bumps the car door shut with his hip and approaches the left side of the gate, where it’s chained to the fence post. From either side of the gate, three-strand wire fences demarcating the property lines run parallel to the county road. There’s a tree immediately next to the gate; the trunk is on the other side of the fence, but the lowest branch arcs across it toward the road, easily within reach. Jack hooks his hand around the base of the branch and finds, at the crook where it joins with the trunk, a little hollow place packed with dry leaves. He touches something that jangles under his hand, then turns around to show Gabriel the ring of keys swinging from his fingers.

“Got them!”

Gabriel raises his hand in acknowledgment of a job well done.

The padlock on the chain is marked with a dab of blue paint, which matches a blob on the biggest key on the ring. Jack unwinds the chain, then twines it around fence post and locks it into place. Then he walks the gate open and stands in the ditch at the side of the driveway to let Gabriel pass. Gabriel noses the car forward, moving just far enough up the driveway for Jack to be able to swing the gate shut again. But when he comes around the passenger’s side and reaches for the door handle, the car suddenly lurches forward a few feet. Jack blinks, then turns and tries to open the door again. He moves faster this time, stepping quickly forward and lunging out for the handle, but the car jumps ahead a second time, taking the door back out of reach. Jack smacks the trunk with his palm. The car leaps forward like a startled horse, then starts to cruise steadily along. Jack pursues it at a jog, and then is forced into a sprint as it picks up speed. The car stays just out of range, and soon it begins to pull away as it reaches a speed he can’t match. Jack flips off the retreating car with both hands as he runs for several more yards, then drops his pace and lets himself fall behind while Gabriel drives onward.

The driveway is unpaved and climbs at a fairly steady nine degree angle, curving slightly with the slope of the hill so that the end isn’t visible from the bottom. It’s tunneled in by beech trees, and the old wheel ruts have become channels for rain water, creating two parallel valleys. Jack walks along the grassy high ground in the center of the driveway, craning his head back to stare at the tree canopies. They sway above him, letting through irregular dapples of light. He hears the cries and flutterings of birds that are hidden amongst the leaves and branches, and smells road dust, and moist soil, and tender green things.

The driveway is about a mile long. He finds the car parked at the top, and Gabriel lying on the hood with his hands laced together under his head. His eyes are closed, and he doesn’t react at all as Jack comes crunching across the last few feet of gravel. Jack stops beside the car, stands there for a couple of seconds, and then reaches through the open window and slams his hand against the horn.

Gabriel flings himself off the car and lands in a wide, defensive stance. He meets Jack’s eyes—serene, self-satisfied—and lunges at him. Jack catches his rush and pivots with it, using Gabriel’s momentum to swing him around, and, still grappling at one another, they stumble into mutual orbit. They spiral close together, stepping between each other’s feet as they wrestle in a circle, and Jack ducks in to smear an ungainly kiss against the corner of Gabriel’s mouth before pushing off from him and backing away.

“Ass,” Gabriel grunts, squaring up his shoulders and lurching half a step closer like he’s ready to take a swing.

Jack stands his ground. “You deserved that, and you know it.”

“I was just helping you stretch your legs after the long drive,” Gabriel says, brimming with innocence.

“Yeah? Well, I feel pretty stretched now, thanks, so I’ll give you the chance to stretch your arms by carrying in the stuff from the car.”

Gabriel scoffs, but he doesn’t refuse. He trudges over to the car, then trudges back a moment later with a bag on each arm. Jack lets him take the lead toward the house, then calls, “say cheese,” and, when Gabriel jerks around to snarl at him, snaps a picture without giving him a chance to say anything at all. Gabriel’s expression turns murderous.

“Don’t fucking send that to anyone!” he barks.

Jack says, “Okay, I’m deleting it.”

He types out Made it to the love shack and sends the picture to Ana. The cabin is there in the background of the photo, out of focus behind Gabriel’s wrathful face. The whole picture is slightly blurry.

Ana responds with a string of heart and eggplant emojis.

Exactly, he writes back.

The house at the end of the driveway is a cabin built partially into the slope of the hill, with a daylight basement and cedar lap siding. The main level has a wide covered deck extending over the open side of the basement, and the basement and deck each have a pair of south-facing sliding glass doors. The actual front door is around the corner from the deck, on a side of the house with an elevated landing that connects a corner of the deck with a flight of steps from the ground to the main level. The house itself is huddled to one side of a large, open, grassy space cleared on the hillside. There’s a single tall elm perhaps forty feet from the house with a bench beneath it, and a raised garden bed, overgrown with weeds, near the bottom of the steps. A tiny creek slashes the property into uneven diagonal halves. Jack can’t see the water, but there’s a wobbling line of taller, greener grass from one side of the clearing to the other, which suggests its existence. Some kind of shed stands beside the little creek where it passes closest to the house. Behind the cabin, where the clearing gives way to the woods at its northern end, the elevation suddenly steepens. The upper part of the hill is rockier, and the deciduous trees are crowded out by evergreens. The smell of them is on the air.

Jack goes first up the wooden steps, and Gabriel follows. There’s an unlatched wire screen door, which Jack holds open with his foot as he flips through the ring of keys. The lock on the main door has a little blot of yellow paint. Jack scratches it with his fingernail, and it flakes away easily.

“Just one key for this door,” he says, showing it to Gabriel. “We should put it on a separate ring so we can leave it somewhere around here if we’re not together.”

He lets the screen door swing shut and feels around under the rail cap on the outside corner of the landing, a spot hidden from view except by looking for it from the ground at the rear of the house, until he finds the protruding head of a nail. He taps the rail above that spot. “It can hang right here.”

Gabriel shrugs and looks on over his shoulder as he finishes unlocking the door. “Rustic,” he mutters. “Very quaint.”

Jack holds the door open for Gabriel, and they step into the house. To their right is an open plan kitchen with a long dining table. To the left, a furnished living room with a little wood-burning fireplace set into a broad knee-high brick hearth. The big sliding glass doors take up half of the living room’s far wall, showing off the deck on the other side. Gabriel drops their bags beside the front door, and they poke their way around the kitchen. All the appliances are in working order, but the fridge is empty except for a bottle of ketchup and an unopened jar of dill pickles. There’s a salt shaker and a pepper grinder on the stove. In the cupboards they find a can of chickpeas and a box of peaches-and-cream instant oatmeal packets, along with other dry goods: baking soda and powder, a plastic container of sugar, some spices. Gabriel opens the cumin and sniffs, then derisively sets it down again. “Old,” he says.

Having satisfied themselves with the kitchen, they walk down the hall directly across from the front door. There are three doors: the first two, facing one another, are a bathroom and a linen closest. The third door is at the end of the hall, on the right side, while the left side turns into a descending staircase. They open the last door and peer inside together. It’s the master bedroom. There’s a big bed with a solid wooden headboard, a dresser, a standing corner lamp, a ceiling fan. Tall windows look onto the sunlit trees.

“Probably shouldn’t take this one,” Gabriel says, after a second. “Seems rude to fuck you in the bed that your family is going to sleep in.”

Jack sputters, and laughs, and elbows him in the ribs. But he doesn’t disagree. They close the bedroom door and go down the stairs.

The stairs bring them into an open den with the second set of glass doors leading to the area under the deck. There’s a work desk against one wall, and several bookcases packed with actual books. A big wheeled grill has been brought inside and pushed into a corner, resting on a piece of plywood. Both of them make vague, delighted noises, and then go to opposite sides of the room: Gabriel to the bookcases, and Jack to the grill. It’s greasy and a bit dented, and gritted up with charcoal residue. He lifts the lid and inhales. It smells like lighter fluid and char.

“I swear I haven’t seen a charcoal grill like this in thirty fucking years,” he says, turning to Gabriel.

Gabriel is holding a book pried from one of the shelves. “Half of these are fucking Star Wars novels,” he says, accusingly, as though Jack is to blame.

Jack puts his hands up, pleading innocence in the matter. “Don’t you like Star Wars?”

“Not—” He shakes the book for emphasis. “This is—”

“Well, I’m going to look at the other rooms,” he cuts in before Gabriel can really get going.

The other half of the basement is built into the hillside: two more bedrooms with narrow windows set high on the walls, and a bathroom and utility room between them. Both of the bedrooms have about the same dimensions and are similarly furnished, but Jack lingers in the eastern room. They’ll at least get more light from the sunrise if they’re on the eastern side of the house.

“This one all right?” he asks.

Gabriel looks past him and says, “Sure,” shrugging. “I’m going to look around outside. Want to come?”

They leave through the basement’s glass doors and walk in a complete circle around the whole cabin, which reveals nothing but a pile of deer droppings and a dried-out compost heap that Jack had mistaken for an old pile of dead leaves. As they wander past the garden bed, he pauses to tear up a handful of weeds and, not knowing what else to do, throws them aimlessly aside. They walk up to the elm tree, and Gabriel, moved by some boyish compulsion, launches himself off the bench and gets a foothold in the fork of the trunk where it separates in two. He gets twenty feet up the tree before he says, “Oh. Ants,” and rapidly scales his way back down. They spend the next minute and a half slapping at his arms and neck. Jack, nobly, only laughs for ten seconds of that time.

From the elm tree they move on to examine the little wooden shed, which is actually a pump house. And, up close, the adjacent creek is bigger than expected. In a couple of places it widens into shallow, sluggish pools harboring clouds of tadpoles clustered inside the shade cast by the tall grass. Jack crouches to dip his hands into the sun-warmed water and scoops up a joined handful of thrashing tadpoles. Gabriel takes several steps back and looks on with distaste. Jack laughs and spills the tadpoles back into the water, then stands and wipes his hands on the hips of his pants. Gabriel looks away like he’s witnessing something unendurable.

Then they walk straight north until they pass from the clearing into the shade of the evergreens. They climb steadily uphill for perhaps half a mile before a wire fence crosses in front of their path and cuts them off. It wouldn't be a challenge to climb over, but they turn to follow the fence, which leads them in a straight line across all the dips and rises in the hillsides. It’s an easy walk: the trees are widely spaced, with few low-growing branches, and the canopy is so dense that there’s little undergrowth. But the blanket of pine needles does disguise jutting pieces of rock, and both of them stub their boots and stumble more than once as they pick their way along. Aside from the fence, there are no other signs of human settlement, though Jack is certain that they’re not far from other properties. But all they see are squirrels bouncing over fallen pine needles and frisking up and down the tall, straight tree trunks. It’s dim and quiet. Peaceful. Gabriel, however, slowly goes tense all over. He tracks every noise and movement with his eyes and head, his arms held slightly away from his sides.

Jack reaches out to squeeze the juncture between his neck and shoulder, projecting the motion so that Gabriel won’t be surprised. The muscle is all bunched up and rigid. “You all right?”

“Yeah.” Gabriel jerks his shoulders slightly. “Just not used to… just… walking like this. Feels like something is going to happen.”

Jack knows what he means. Ambushes, traps. Watch out, watch out. Something is waiting to get you. These are particularly nonthreatening woods, with good lines of sight and plenty of space to move freely, and still it feels like something might come rolling over the next hill crest and start firing on them. Even now they haven’t left all their instincts behind.

“We should go camping sometime,” he says, off-handedly. “Maybe this fall. One of the big national parks. Yosemite, Yellowstone, you know. Lots of people around.”

“Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m missing: tourists.”

“There are isolated spots. We could be around other people, or not. You just feel strange because you don’t have a pack or anything. Makes you feel unprepared, right? It’d be different if we were geared up for a real hike.”

Gabriel makes a noncommittal noise, but, uncharacteristically, he’s the one to say, “Let’s turn back,” a few minute later.

They end up overshooting the house completely and run into the county road, and then have to find the driveway to guide them back to the downhill end of the clearing. A chorus of frogs welcomes them back. Jack takes a dim but less blurry photo of the house as they approach and sends it off with assurances that they found all the keys and everything is in fine order.

They pick up the cooler from the car on their way past, gather plates and silverware from the kitchen, and move onto the deck. There are four big Adirondack chairs tied together in a cluster. Jack unlocks them and drags them apart into pairs.

They don’t end up using the plates at all: they just balance containers of food on the joined arms of their chairs and pick apart a roasted chicken, potatoes cooked in the seasoned fat, and a vinegary cucumber, tomato, and blanched asparagus salad.

“Good place for a hammock,” Jack says, after they’ve eaten, nodding up at the solid beams that support the deck’s overhanging roof.

It’s dark by then, the deck softly illuminated by the light from inside the house. Jack leans on the rails and looks up into the open sky above the clearing: treetops, and clouds, and stars. All around them is the overlapping noise of crickets and frogs, the spicy pine-sap smell, the rustle of foliage against itself.

“Remind you of home?” Gabriel asks, and Jack knows that he doesn’t mean their home but his first home, the one he’s revisited only in memory.

The terrain is all different, the way the things smell, the level of humidity in the air. But he says, “A little. How about you, huh?”

Gabriel sniffs and peers out into the yard. “Too fucking dark,” he says, conclusively.

There’s not much left to do after that. They stay on the deck for awhile, just standing quietly, and then go back inside to plan out a grocery list. Then they unpack their luggage into their chosen bedroom and the next-door bathroom. They get ready to sleep.

The bedroom in the basement will be theirs for the next two weeks. For the past forty years, this cabin in North Carolina had belonged to a relative on his mother's side of the family and had been a summer reunion spot for sundry kin and their chosen affiliates. It’s been a month now since they flew into Asheville for Kent Clark's funeral. His wife was fifteen years dead already, and they’d had no children. It had been a very long time since Jack had last seen him. His cousin, Steve, had inherited the cabin and had, in turn, entrusted the management of the estate to his daughter. Maggie herself had already settled most of the immediate affairs and would be returning in another two weeks to finish the remaining business and oversee the possible land sale. Jack, with his comparatively open schedule, is simply the interim caretaker of furniture and other immovable property. The house has been cleared of papers and significant heirlooms and looks, now, like a curiously incomplete imitation of a family home, with all of the rooms properly arranged but devoid of the elements that make a house seem inhabited and real.

Jack has never visited it before. It doesn’t feel like it has anything to do with him.

With the lights switched off, the bedroom is nearly pitch black. The high, narrow basement windows are overshadowed by the trees growing close to the house, letting in not even enough light to create a gradient of darkness. Jack lies with his eyes open, seeing nothing. He waves a hand above himself, bumps it into his own nose, then reaches out until he encounters some part of Gabriel’s body: the side of his face. He’s lying on his back. Jack hears him turn and imagines that Gabriel is glaring.

“What?”

Jack says, “It’s dark."

“No shit. What do you want?”

Jack passes his hand over Gabriel’s face again. “I can’t see anything.”

“We’ve established that. I’m not going to be able to see anything ever again if you keep putting your fucking fingers into my eyes.”

The mattress gently wobbles as Gabriel scoots away and rolls onto his side, turning his back into a wall.

Jack lies as still as possible for as long as he can, but the unfamiliarity of a new environment makes it difficult to relax enough to sleep. There is so little noise that his senses switch over into intense attentiveness, straining to detect and categorize even the faintest disturbances: tree sounds, frog sounds. Are his eyes still open? He holds a hand close enough to feel his eyelashes brush his fingers when he blinks. There’s no difference between when his eyes are open and when they’re closed. He’s been staring unseeingly at—what? The ceiling. Yes. He’s on his back. He rolls toward Gabriel.

“Gabe?”

“Mm?” His voice his clear and immediate, no hint of sleep in it. He’s been awake, too.

“Can’t sleep?” he asks, regardless.

“Just taking awhile.”

He touches Gabriel’s back, his hand all spread out to feel as much skin as possible, and then sweeps his fingers down the taper of Gabriel’s waist. Gabriel shifts, and says nothing. Jack presses forward, wedging a thigh between Gabriel’s legs. He fits himself against Gabriel’s back and brings his hand around to touch his lower stomach. Gabriel’s abdomen jumps slightly under his fingers.

“You sure you want to start this, Morrison?” he mumbles.

“We’re both awake. Might as well.”

Gabriel gives a short laugh and repeats “might as well” in a sarcastically indifferent voice. Jack grins as he strokes up and down the outside of Gabriel’s thigh, and then sets his mouth against Gabriel’s neck: a gentle bite, and then a quick pass of his tongue. Gabriel stretches an arm behind himself and hooks the top of Jack’s thigh, just below his ass. He tugs Jack forward, urging him to rock their bodies together. Jack grinds into him, obligingly. They’re both undressed down to their underwear.

“No objections to fucking in this bed, I take it?”

Gabriel just laughs again. He lets go of Jack’s leg and brings his arm up and back to grab Jack by the hair, dragging his head forward until they connect for a kiss over Gabriel’s shoulder. It’s a little sloppy. They half miss one another’s mouths in the dark, but it’s still good. It’s good. Gabriel opens his mouth for him, and Jack presses the advantage. In the complete darkness, Gabriel’s body is the only thing that still exists to all his senses, his one anchor to the whole rest of the world. Jack cranes over him, kissing him gluttonously. Gabriel squeezes Jack’s leg between his thighs, and Jack slides his hand down to massage him through the front of his briefs.

“C’mere,” he murmurs. “Lemme touch you.”

“What do you think you’re doing right now?” Gabriel asks, molding his hand over Jack’s.

“Want more than that,” Jack says, and he turns Gabriel around to face him and pushes his briefs down just enough to get his hand on Gabriel’s thickening erection. Gabriel exhales, stirring the air against his face. Jack feels Gabriel’s hands on his hips; his boxers being dragged down his legs; Gabriel’s broad, cool palm on his cock. He's already more than half hard. He pushes himself forward, welcoming the touch.

“I’m going to have to turn on the lamp if you want me to fuck you,” Gabriel mutters, all smug.

Jack shakes his head, sighing: “This is good. Just this. Just keep—yeah, just like that. Just like that…”

They crowd closer, their wrists crossing as they stroke one another. Jack rolls his forehead against Gabriel’s, bumping their noses together.

“This good for you?” he asks, and Gabriel says, “Yeah, it’s good, it’s good.”

They work at one another in the dark, Jack’s mouth grazing against Gabriel’s, his chest beginning to sweat even as his exposed back turns cool. The space between their bodies traps an oval of warm air between them. It's heady but unrushed.

“Gabe,” he says, after a while, “can you finish yourself?”

The pillowcase rustles faintly as Gabriel tilts his head away, instinctively trying to look him in the face for clues. “Mh? Why?”

“Just want you to.”

Gabriel pauses, and then says, “Fine.”

Gabriel stops touching him, and Jack does the same. A second later he feels the slight shiver of motion through the bed as Gabriel begins to pump his arm again. Jack reaches out and finds the back of his hand, then feels his way to Gabriel’s wrist, then his shifting forearm, then his bicep. He rubs circles on Gabriel’s shoulder, then widens the radius of his touch: now brushing the nape of his neck, now stroking his chest, now grabbing handfuls of his legs and ass. He knows every shape of Gabriel’s body; there’s nowhere he hasn’t touched again and again, but this sightless exploration exaggerates his perceptions of everything: Gabriel's whole body seems bigger, sturdier; and here he's softer, and here he's rougher, than Jack can ever remember.

The way Gabriel breathes, and the way he shifts on the bed, tells Jack what state he's in even before he rasps, “Shit, Jack, I’m close.”

Jack turns onto his back and tugs Gabriel toward him by the nape of his neck. “On me,” he urges.

Gabriel laughs, low and breathy. “You’re filthy, Morrison.”

But he slings a knee across Jack’s legs, propping himself up over half of Jack’s body. The darkness makes Jack bold: he runs his hands over Gabriel’s face, rolls Gabriel’s bottom lip open with the pad of his thumb, thrusts it lazily against his tongue. Gabriel sucks it into his mouth. He breathes shallowly through his nose, little brushes of air over Jack’s hand.

Then Gabriel suddenly turns his head aside, Jack’s thumb slipping out of his mouth. He hisses softly, and then holds his breath as he comes across Jack’s stomach, and his hips, and his cock. Jack moans, squirming beneath him, and slings an arm around Gabriel to stroke up and down his back, encouraging him through it.

Finally Gabriel stops pumping his hand and begins to draw away, and Jack spreads his fingers wide, pressing down on Gabriel’s back. “Stay here,” he says. “Wanna feel you right there.”

Gabriel says ah, under his breath, like he’s been hit. He touches his mouth to Jack’s jaw.

Jack is nearly gone even before he puts a hand on himself, all wet from Gabriel's release and his own insistent arousal. Gabriel’s leg is across him, his weight and closeness making half of Jack’s body sweat. Jack uses his other hand to knead at Gabriel’s ass, at the fat and muscle, good and firm and pliant. Then Gabriel drops himself closer, and his mouth presses against the sloping base of Jack’s neck. It’s not a soft, brushing kiss: he latches on roughly, and Jack’s neck begins to sting under the seal of his mouth. He’s trying to leave a mark. Oh. Oh…

His orgasm isn’t a swift, sudden peak of intensity; it’s a slow and steady pulse of feeling, like a glass being over-filled, drop by drop, until the surface tension finally breaks and spills over. Jack’s hand stills, but his hips continue to twitch up, chasing sensation. For some reason he feels obligated to be quiet, just like Gabriel was quiet, so he turns his neck and presses his mouth against Gabriel’s head to muffle himself. It’s not refined enough to be a kiss. He just pushes his mouth against Gabriel until his lips hurt from being crushed by his teeth. His lips sting, his neck stings. He pours over, pours over, pours over.

“I think you’re drooling on my head,” Gabriel says, after a moment.

Jack pulls back. Sure enough, his mouth is all wet at one corner, and there’s a little smear of moisture on his cheek. His lips had parted without his notice.

He wipes his face with his forearm. “Sorry.”

Gabriel rubs a circle on the middle of his chest. “Feel all right?”

“Think I might be ready to sleep now,” he admits. He kicks his boxers off entirely and gropes around for the covers, long since forced to the foot of the bed.

But Gabriel immediately pushes him, shoving him several inches across the bed. “Oh, no you don’t. Go clean yourself up.”

“Hmh. Wanna sleep.”

“Get your ass out of bed, Morrison.”

Jack sighs, very heavily, and scoots to the edge of the bed to sit up. The wooden floor is unexpectedly cold for June; he retracts his feet in shock and has to spend several seconds mustering up the willpower for another attempt. He shuffles his way across the room with a hand out, but once he makes it to the doorway, the indirect light from the glass doors in the other room is enough to guide him to the bathroom. He leaves the door open and the lights off as he cleans himself up, and urinates, and washes his hands.

Gabriel lifts an arm for him to slip under when he gets back to the bed—and then writhes away, shouting, when Jack puts both of his hands on him.

“Fuck! Dry your damn hands!”

“I’m trying to,” he says, curtly, as he reaches out again. Gabriel folds his leg up to create a wedge between them, and then uses it to shove Jack to the edge of the mattress. He gropes at Gabriel’s thigh and wins another shout. They scrabble around on the bed for a moment, and then Gabriel gathers his wrists together and presses his hands above his head, and rolls onto him, and kisses him until all the fight goes out of his body.

Jack laughs under him, a little breathlessly. “What, you ready to go again already?”

“Just helping you get warm,” Gabriel says. He mouths his way down Jack’s jaw and to his neck—to the other side of his neck, exactly opposite the spot he’d gone after earlier—and sets his lips against it. Jack laughs and tips his head back. He turns his face against the pillow and lets Gabriel create a little patch of pain on his neck.

“I don’t know if you’re allowed to get me off again after pushing me out of bed,” he says. Gabriel pulls his mouth away, and the wet spot on Jack’s neck turns cold when the air touches it. He grimaces and rubs his hand there. “Ah, shit, that’s cold. Thought you were trying to make me warmer.”

Gabriel doesn’t apologize, but Jack does feel him dragging the covers all the way up to his chin. He snorts, but allows Gabriel to tuck him into the bed.

“I don’t get a kiss good-night?” he asks.

Gabriel lands a sloppy kiss on the side of his nose, then rolls over to face the other direction. Jack slithers up behind him, and hooks his chin over his shoulder, and slots his arm around Gabriel’s waist. Gabriel lays a hand over his arm. It feels good to be in bed with nothing between them, and no one else anywhere nearby, and no reason at all to get out of bed in the morning except that they’ll want to, eventually.

Jack sleeps without knowing it, and wakes again in absolute darkness. He’s certain, without checking, that he has slept for exactly the right amount of time to take over for a typical lookout shift for a three-person team: an old instinct, etched into him in some irreversible way, that asserts itself in any new environment. He has rolled to the edge of the bed, facing outward, his arm dangling over the side. He turns himself over and shifts toward the middle of the mattress, where it’s dipped toward the center by Gabriel’s weight, and puts an arm over him. Gabriel’s body is cool, and still, and quiet.

Jack pistons upright. He grabs Gabriel’s shoulder, finding it unerringly even in the dark, and shakes him, and says, “Gabriel,” in a strangled voice that does not sound like his own.

Gabriel stirs and says, “Jack?” He's immediately alert and clear, even woken from a dead sleep.

Jack goes numb all the way through as relief chases the horror out of his body. “I thought—I didn’t think you were breathing. I—”

He knows what’s coming next, and he’s on his feet even before the nausea hits him. This time it’s easy to walk across the room, even in the dark; having done it once, spatial memory takes over for him. He makes it to the bathroom and drops beside the toilet just in time to retch painfully.

Gabriel, still naked, steps into the bathroom barely two seconds behind him and turns on the light. Jack winces and drops his head, shadowing his eyes with his forearm. The nausea has made him salivate, and he swallows several times, not speaking.

Gabriel hesitates, then steps forward and settles into a crouch beside him, and rubs between his shoulder blades as he coughs again, which brings up nothing but makes his eyes mist over.

“I’ll get you a glass of water,” Gabriel says, and starts to stand.

“No,” Jack says, grabbing at his arm. “No, just stay. It’s fine. I can just…”

He coughs twice more and then drags himself across the floor, to the tub, and turns on the tap. Unheated water gurgles out. Jack drapes himself against the rim of the tub and drinks a few handfuls of gut-shockingly cold water, then wets his face and neck with his dripping hands. Water drops roll down to his chest and back, and goosebumps rise across his body. After a moment, Gabriel sits cautiously next to him on the edge of the tub and combs fingers through his hair. Jack switches off the faucet, letting the water swirl away down the drain, and leans his head against Gabriel’s solid thigh. Neither of them speak. Gabriel rubs a thumb behind his ear. Jack lays his cold, wet hands limply across his own lap.

“You used to be so warm,” he says, after awhile. “I’d wake up sweating from sleeping next to you.”

Gabriel’s hand stills. There’s a long pause before he says, “Sorry,” like he doesn’t know what else to offer.

Jack shakes his head and turns to kiss Gabriel’s thigh, and then his knee, and then the protrusion of his hipbone. He tugs Gabriel’s hand off of his head and kisses the wrist, and the palm, and the inner joint of his thumb. He takes the tips of Gabriel’s index and middle finger between his teeth and bites them, very lightly. Gabriel lays his other hand on his shoulder and squeezes it. Then he leans down, and pulls Jack up by the back of his head, and kisses his mouth. Jack holds Gabriel’s face between both hands, his fingers molding against the contours he knows so well. He feels Gabriel’s breath against his lips.

They stay like that. Then they both stand at the same time.

“Let’s go back to bed,” Jack says, and Gabriel nods.

He walks on ahead with Gabriel behind him—and then double-takes as he passes the bathroom mirror, and has to stop and turn to look more fully. His wan-faced reflection gawks back at him, two big round purple blotches stamped on either side of his neck. He doesn’t bruise easily. Jack steps toward the mirror, and his dazedly grinning reflection moves closer from the other side.

“Damn!” he exclaims, swiveling his head to look at either side. “You eally got me. Look at that!”

Gabriel’s reflection looks like it's been caught red handed. But he steps up behind Jack, and slips an arm around his chest, and settles a hand against the base of his throat so that his thumb and fingers span the space between the bruises. Gabriel leans against his back and puts his mouth behind his ear. “Yeah,” he says. “Got you. I got you.”