The man slips in through the door with a few flakes of snow. Dusts some off his grey head - buzzed short and neat like some fresh recruit. Not quite, though. He's far too old and, going by the limp slope of his shoulders, surely not military.
Each stamp he makes to clear the snow off his boots trembles his entire body, hidden as it may be beneath a worn sheepskin coat. One sleeve dangles empty, but the lone trucker at the counter sees nothing more than another man in the middle of a long haul. Grey hair, grey eyes, grey pallor to his skin. Could have been shaped from the heavy clouds outside that cluster in with a promise of even more snow.
The owner of the diner is a sturdy man, long hair tied loosely back who wears sunglasses even at night. Not blind yet, but he doesn't spare a glance for the newest customer as he trudges to the counter and collapses in a seat. When the owner finally sees him he still doesn't say a word, only slides a menu and a unasked for coffee across the counter. There's a certain kind of customer that comes to the diner across from the truck stop at night, and the owner is well used to them.
But the grey man doesn't drink. Doesn't look at the menu. The owner disappears into the kitchen, comes out with a burger. The grey man looks through it, right down to the speckled Formica counter.
The lone trucker finishes his meal. Raises two fingers and is quickly taken care of. He heads back to the long haul through the territories without a backwards look.
The owner leans on the counter before the grey man, frowning.
The grey man looks up.
The owner says a few words in some other language. Could be Japanese.
“Miller?” Ocelot’s voice is barely a scrape.
Miller smiles. “You made it back.”
“Miller,” he says again. Tired. Perhaps a little clearer, though.
“Eat up. Your food’s getting cold.”
“I’m not hungry,” Ocelot says. “I ate -”
“No, you didn’t. Have a coffee, too. Unless - you’d rather sleep soon.”
Ocelot picks up his burger. The tomato slips out and falls. He stares at it while Miller goes around the counter. Turns the sign and locks the door. Two hours before he typically locks up at midnight, but it’s a slow night anyways. By the time Miller’s back Ocelot has set down the burger and picked up the tomato.
Miller watches the tomato tremble between Ocelot’s pale fingers. Carefully he brings it to his lips and takes a bite. Chews thoroughly. When Ocelot swallows Miller sighs, leans back.
The clock ticks off an hour. Ocelot looks vaguely queasy, but he’s eaten half a burger. It must be enough for Miller, who runs a hand over his shorn head. Drags it down his cheek, until he brings Ocelot’s head in between both hands and bows it towards him to kiss his skull.
“You kept the mustache,” Miller tells him. “Good.”
“Do you have -”
Miller disappears behind the counter again. Goes far into the back, jingling his keys. When he returns the spurs are jingling now, attached to a pair of old leather cowboy boots that have been kept well oiled. Almost pristine.
Ocelot wants to put them on himself, but he can’t quite undo the laces. Miller huffs, bats his hand away.
“You got rid of it, hmm?”
Ocelot nods. He’s still getting used to one-handed living. Something Miller understands too well.
Miller tugs off the plain black shoes and slips the cowboy boots on. Tucks in the khakis.
“There you go,” Miller says, straightening. Ocelot flexes one foot and watches his spurs spin. “Come on, cowboy. Let’s get you to bed.”
“I’ve still got to drink this.”
“Nope. Too late.” Miller grabs the mug and takes a gulp. It’s long gone cold, and he smirks at the taste of it. “On your feet, Ocelot.”
Ocelot smiles. It takes a moment for his legs to realize they must go down. Miller hovers, but Ocelot makes it to his feet and manages to stagger after him. While Miller drains his dish sink and turns off his ovens, Ocelot leans against a steel table and blinks.
“The diner? Almost six years now. Business is slow as ever.”
“I’ve been here before.”
“Yeah. You had a burger.”
“You always do.”
“Miller,” Ocelot sighs, and Miller comes back to him. Holds his shoulders and rubs circles with both hands. The right one is silver-smooth, and Ocelot’s eyes slide over it.
“You didn’t throw yours in the sea, did you?” Miller asks.
“They were the same.”
“You were a little too excited about that. Chopped off your entire arm just so they could match like some kind of lunatic.”
“I had to -” Ocelot starts. Stops.
“It’s okay. We can get you a new one.”
“No. I need to feel it.”
“Ocelot…” Miller says, low. “You can’t do that.”
“I took it off when he was finished. We threw it into the sea. We're finished. I don’t need -”
“Hold your horses there. We’re going outside now.”
They leave out the back kitchen door, Miller giving one last sweep with his eyes before shutting out the lights. A green Wrangler is parked near the dumpster. Ocelot stares at where his feet will need to go in order to hop in while Miller starts the engine and waits for it to warm up.
Ocelot’s almost got it. He’s shivering in the cold, though. Miller gets out and goes to the other side. Hefts him up and buckles his seat belt for him.
“Miller?” Ocelot asks.
Miller turns up the collar of his coat. “It’s me, Ocelot.”
“Hey now, back in your glorious motherland -”
Ocelot laughs, shaky. It’s the loudest sound he’s made yet. “When we meet in sweet Siberia…”
“Far from Bolshevik hysteria…?”
“You really can’t sing.”
“Never been able to carry a tune in my life.” Miller smiles. Closes the door softly and goes around to the driver’s side. He turns up the heat as high as it’ll go.
The cabin isn’t so far off the beaten track they have to drive long, but still quite a ways into the woods. The gravel road through the pines is packed tight with snow, the deep ruts already dusted with power. Once they reach the clearing a dog raises its head from the deck of the cabin. Some sort of spitz mix, double-coated and well suited to a life up north. His tail starts thumping on the boards, and when his master jumps down from the Jeep he comes running.
“DD?” Ocelot asks.
Miller calms the dog before helping Ocelot down. “No, this is Toto. Puppy, last time you saw him.”
“Toto. I miss the rains...”
“Bless the rains.”
“No, it’s not that.”
“Don’t you mess with me,” Miller says, nudging Ocelot. “We had a huge fight about that once. Back then you said it was bless, I said it was miss. Back and forth for hours, no. Days. Can’t even listen to that song anymore.”
Ocelot holds out a hand for Toto to lick. Scratches behind his ears. The dog sniffs cautiously at first, but he remembers Ocelot too. When Ocelot squats down to wrap his arm around Toto’s neck Miller goes inside. Soon smoke is rising from the stovepipe chimney, and he tromps back out to fetch Ocelot where he’s gone quite still with his forehead pressed in fur.
Ocelot makes it up the steps on his own.
The cabin has two rooms, sparsely furnished but cozy. A bear pelt is stretched before the fire burning in a pot bellied stove.There’s plenty of chairs - two wooden ones at the table, two overstuffed with quilts tossed over, but Ocelot chooses the pelt, crossing his legs like a child. Toto lies down beside him, head down on his paws.
In the small kitchen Miller pours two glasses of amber. Frowns at them before leaving them on the table. He pulls up one of the softer chairs behind Ocelot and watches him stare into the fire.
“Almost forgot,” Miller says, snapping a finger, and goes into the bedroom. When he comes back with a worn red glove Ocelot holds out his hand to him, and Miller fits it over his fingers. “There you go.”
He takes a seat behind Ocelot again. Reaches for his head, rubbing his temples.
“You want to take off your coat? I’ll give you a backrub.”
Ocelot’s eyes are closed, but he nods. Shrugs it off himself and lets it fall behind him. Miller winces when his back cracks under his hands.
Ocelot hums. Leans back, against Miller’s knees, and tilts his head up. Miller bows to kiss him. Ocelot huffs against his lips. “I’m tired,” he admits.
“Let’s get you to bed, then.”
Ocelot isn’t a small man by any means, but luckily Miller doesn’t have to carry him. The back bedroom is half the size of the main room and mostly devoted to the bed. Ocelot crawls under the quilts and hides with his boots still on. It’s all right. They’re clean.
Miller goes to his knees. Folds his arms on the bed and drops his chin, watching Ocelot.
Ocelot smiles. Reaches out and cups his cheek. “I lost,” he tells Miller, whispering like it’s his most confidential secret.
“Yeah, you sure did. I'm proud of you.”
“I should sleep now.”
“I’ll be with you a minute. Gotta give Toto his dinner.”
Ocelot nods and closes his eyes. Miller doesn’t move until he’s asleep. He treads softly, avoiding where the floorboards creak, and pours the dog food slowly to avoid any rattling. There’s day old biscuits on the counter, cooked bacon in the fridge, and he makes a quick sandwich for himself he washes down with the poured drinks at the table. He glances at where the bottle is kept, as if he might be debating another, but doesn't go for it.
The fire is smoldering. He adds another log. Takes off his glasses to rub a fist in his eyes.
There’s a long slender pipe on a shelf, still half-stuffed with tobacco. He sits down and smokes, Toto coming to sit before him. The dog whines, puts a paw on his knee Miller doesn’t notice for a long time.
“Good boy,” he says finally, and his voice doesn't even crack.
Miller unlaces his boots and puts them by the door. Hangs up Ocelot’s coat and his own side by side on the pegs. Puts his glasses on the shelf beside his pipe and rubs his eyes one more time before going to the bedroom.
Ocelot doesn’t wake up when he tugs off his sweater, unstraps his other arm, changes from denim to flannel. He mumbles something when Miller climbs into bed beside him, when Toto jumps up on the other side.
Miller wraps his arm around his husband. Lies there while the snow starts falling in earnest above, while the sky starts to lighten, just watching him sleep.
oh word, another chapter? why not. i mean. this is all... the epilogue to Deadweight Losses and time is an illusion and -
Red and violet lines undulate on the canyon walls that rise high enough to block out the midday sun. His gloved fingers slip across then as he walks. Each band of color represents a couple billion years of history or so, but the gunslinger isn’t a geologist. He isn’t sure if he’s touching the time of the dinosaurs or the ammonites.
The canyon trail is protected from the sun, sandstorms, and roving bands of natives, but the wind’s latest turn has forced a gust straight between the walls, forcing him to walk against it. The river that once ran through here dried up, but mud still sucks at his boots. He’ll have to give his spurs a good cleaning once he’s out of here.
DD whimpers. The gunslinger turns back to his dog. “Something wrong?”
DD lies down on top of his boots.
“It’s only two more miles to the valley, boy. I know you’ve got it in you.”
The dog has been antsy ever since they descended into the canyon. It’s not like him to hesitate. DD has run straight into gunfire before. Not two days ago he tore the throat right out of one of the bank robbers holing up in the old mill. Maybe it’s the canyon that’s got him spooked. They came out West for the wide open horizons, after all. The gunslinger sighs. “DD, get off.”
He should have brought his horse. The gunslinger turns his back on the dog and keeps walking. Smiles when he hears paws trot after him. DD’s a good boy.
Within half an hour the gunslinger can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel, and the canyon spills open into a valley lush with pines. Lodgepole? He was expecting Ponderosa, if any.
Something whistles through the air.
“DD, get down!”
They take cover in the trees while gunslinger peers out at the high walls surrounding the valley. No one on the ridgeline he can see. And he’s positive no one followed them through the canyon. To a sharpshooter on the high ground, they would have been trapped like cattle in a pen.
Another shot rings out. No sign of the enemy.
Wait, this isn’t -
Yes, it is. The first real sniper rifles were made during the Crimean war. The Whitworth - a single-shot, muzzle-loaded, long-range rifle - was fitted with optical sights and suddenly hitting a target at 1,000 yards was feasible. These rifles made their way into the American Civil War. It’s entirely possible there’s a sniper out here.
The next shot is followed by a voice.
Ocelots are not actually native in this part of North America. Bobcats, maybe, or cougars. They call the gunslinger the Wildcat of the West in some places, but few who have seen the Wildcat at work live to tell the tale.
DD woofs, sniffing the air.
But against all commands and logic DD starts to bark. The gunslinger swears under his breath. He’ll have to make a break for it, but he doesn’t want to leave DD behind.
“DD, come on!”
DD howls. The voice is getting closer. The gunslinger sighs, slips behind a tree trunk, and readies his revolver.
“Thank fucking Christ,” the voice says.
Oh. The gunslinger knows that voice.
He peers out at the panting blonde man kneeling in front of DD. Wasn’t that the old hooker at the saloon? But today his clothing doesn’t fit the scene at all. He must be sweating under that strangely-colored parka, and the sunglasses are far too modern.
“Where’s Ocelot, buddy?”
DD looks back at his hiding spot. The man sits back on his heels.
“Ocelot? Is that you?”
No, it isn’t. The gunslinger steps out with both revolvers at the ready anyways. “I wouldn’t make it a habit of calling me that, son,” he drawls. “Round these here parts, they call me Sheriff Wildcat.”
“Sheriff Wildcat. Right.” The man sighs and tucks a loose strand of hair behind his ear, muttering to himself, before holding up both hands. “Go ahead and shoot me, then, partner.”
“Why would I?”
“I’m a, I’m a, I’m the Banzai Buckaroo. Been stealing horses and robbing banks all over these here parts and you done caught me, Sheriff. Make it quick.”
This is all wrong.
The gunslinger lowers his revolvers -
There’s nothing in his hands.
“You must be freezing,” the Banzai Buckaroo sighs.
He is. His fingers are so numb they’re stuck in the gun pose.
“Kono nishin no souji, ki no nobebashi.”
That language -
“Takeyama uguisu no mori,” the gunslinger finishes, and Kazuhira slowly rises to his feet.
Ocelot falls face-first into the snow.
“Toto, get him -!”
There’s a new parka wrapped around Ocelot, now. His thin red gloves are stuffed in a pair of mittens. No taking his boots off, though, and they stumble and kick over themselves as Kaz drags him through the snow. Toto nudges at his heels when he falters.
“Ocelot? You still with me?”
“We’re almost to the house.”
The house. Ocelot remembers the house. A cabin in a clearing, surrounded by lodgepole and white spruce. There’s smoke rising from the stovepipe, two all-terrain vehicles parked in front, and a child smoking on the front steps.
“Oh, good,” the child says flatly. “You found him.” She’s a rather big child.
“You’ve gotten taller, Catherine.”
“Um. Yeah.” She flicks a look at Kaz Ocelot doesn’t understand. “She’s in the car. I figured - “
Ocelot is very happy to see Cathy. He’d like to ask who her friend in the car is, but Kaz brushes past Cathy and hustles him inside. Seats him in a chair facing the fire, drapes him in a buffalo robe, and starts pulling off his soaked boots. There’s buckets of hot water ready, and a folded stack of towels.
“One of these days you’re gonna freeze your toes right off,” Kaz tells him. “Might come in handy, huh?”
“I could walk without my toes.”
“Yeah, I’d love to see you try.” Kaz frowns and rubs his feet harder. A vague feeling of life starts to tingle down his foot, and now his toes are burning.
“Toto was good,” Ocelot recalls. “Tried to sit on my feet. I’d tell you to train him to nip my ankles, but he’d cut his face on the spurs.”
“Oh, we’re putting the boots back in the lockbox with your pistols.”
“I know,” Kaz snaps. “One hour. Cathy and I leave you for one goddamn hour and you disappear for six. You told me you’d be - “ Kaz folds his lips together. Breathes through his nose. “I’m never leaving you alone again.”
“Cathy, get in here!” Kaz hollers.
Cathy opens the door and stares at them both.
“Can you take a look at his arm?”
“What, you don’t know how it works?”
“Cathy - “
“It’s the same as yours,” she snaps, but comes over to the chair. “Take off that glove.”
Ocelot’s hands are still too cold to move. He’s surprised to see the gunmetal grey beneath his glove when Cathy tears it off. “How have you been, Catherine?”
“Curl your fingers for me.”
They open and fold with metallic whirs. All but the ring and pinky.
“Probably froze up one of the control pads. Or he got ice in the joints.”
“Are you keeping up at school?”
Cathy drops his hand and glares at him.
Kaz sighs, pulling thick wool socks on Ocelot’s feet. “Cathy, please, he’s just -”
“Yeah,” she says, curt. “I’m doing just fine, Uncle Wayne. I’m gonna. Uh. Go check on the car.”
“Why don’t you make us some tea first, honey?”
“I’ll just be - “
“I’m sure she’s fine.”
“You know what? I should let her out,” Cathy says. “I’m sure she’d just love to see Ocelot like this. I bet you all got a lot to catch -”
“Chamomile, I think. He doesn’t need caffeine right now.”
“I’d take coffee,” Ocelot offers, but Kaz and Cathy aren’t listening to him. Toto sighs and puts his chin on Ocelot’s knee, and he buries his frozen flesh hand in his fur. The fire crackles while Kaz follows Cathy into the kitchenette.
“You’re packing, aren’t you? D.H. Arms exclusive? Desert Lynx, or do you keep it old-school?”
Cathy fills the teakettle.
“Come on, show me. I’d be careful, though. Sheriff Wildcat here might beat you to the trigger.”
The match sputters while she turns on the stove and slams the pot down. A hissing sound as water spills over the edge.
“Is what you’re here for?”
“Shut the fuck up, Dad.”
“Don’t -” Kaz starts, and falters. Three mugs land on the counter. Ocelot listens to a small trickle land in one. Smells like liquor.
“I’m pretty sure Sheriff Wildcat here could take care of it anyways. You know one of these days you won’t be able to find him. You’ll freeze to death yourself looking. And I’ll come and find you two looking like, like the end of the Shining or something. I’ll keep the photos in my diary.”
“Send ‘em to the New York Times. We’ll make front page.”
“The New York Times doesn’t exist anymore.”
“Hm. I don’t care to read the news these days anyways.”
The kettle squeals for a good ten seconds before Cathy turns it off and pours. She brings Ocelot a steaming mug he accepts with a smile. Kaz sits down in the other chair facing the fire and leaves her to sit on the hide on the floor.
It’s very good tea. Ocelot has grown fond of chamomile, though it tastes a bit like wormwood and the pills he didn’t take this morning. He holds the mug in his cybernetic hand while keeping his flesh one on Toto’s head.
The boots are drying in the hearth. Cathy picks up one and flicks the spur. “Jesus Christ. These are the same ones.”
“Yes,” Ocelot tells her.
“I think I still got that picture somewhere,” Kaz says. “They came up to your hips. You couldn’t walk a step in them, but you sure were happy.”
“Still got the same guns, too?”
“That Colt was the first real weapon you ever fired.”
“I can still hear Mom screaming.” She almost chuckles, but catches herself.
“You were pretty good,” Ocelot says. “For an eight year old.”
“Weren’t you like, an assassin at eight? Sniping targets for the KGB or whoever.”
“Something like that.”
Cathy drinks her tea. Kaz sips his liquor. Ocelot pets the dog.
“You keep in touch with David still?” Kaz finally asks. “What’s he up to?”
“Aren’t we all.”
“I think - yeah. He and his family were in the Florida Keys last time I heard from them. On your old yacht.”
“Sunny must be getting big,” Ocelot muses. “Is she walking yet?”
“...Yeah, Uncle Wayne. She’s walking.”
“Right.” Cathy sets down her mug and stands up. “This has been a real blast, guys. I’m out of here.”
“It’s getting late,” Kaz says. “Might storm tonight.”
“I think I’ll be fine.”
Cathy slams the door behind her.
Kaz frowns, glaring, then springs to his feet. He glances back at Ocelot before running outside, though, and stays at the threshold.
“Thanks for the arm.”
Another door slams and an engine starts up. Kaz stays standing at the door until that sound finally fades away before coming back inside. He picks up her discarded mug and takes it away. Pours more liquor in his own cup before returning to the fireside.
“She’s still calling me dad, huh.”
“How old is she, now?”
“I dunno. How old are you?”
Ocelot looks into the fire.
“Don’t take my boots away.”
“I’ll do whatever I have to.” Kaz sips at his mug. “Cut off your damn toes myself if I have to.”
“Kaz, please -”
“You can keep your snow boots. Your slippers, for inside the house. But not those fucking cowboy boots.”
A log cracks. A few sparks fly. The boots are too close to the fire. If Kaz reached out and pushed -
But he doesn’t. He just picks up the boots and sits back with them on his lap, tracing the leather stitching with his fingers.
Ocelot reaches his flesh hand out to touch them, but Kaz grabs it with his own hand of steel.
“I can’t deal with that shit again, Ocelot. I mean it.”
Ocelot drops his hand back to the dog.