The forest provided respite, at the Entity’s whim. It was, after all, a dimension fueled by hope, and after all of their trials, that is the one thing that remained a constant in the survivors’ hearts: hope. Sometimes, the Entity provided a clearing spread wide between the trees, lit by a glimmer of silver at the far end, the distance never shortening and the light never coming nearer. Another time, a river with cold, fresh water and lined with low mosses and shrubs that stimulated nerves in Claudette’s palms she’d nearly forgotten about, appeared in the forest, and even though they followed it deep into the brush, it never seemed to pour out into a basin. The survivors searched and searched after a tall, hollow tree that had arrived, and Min and Quentin fit into to rest, safe in its earthy scent, but they could never find it again.
In this realm, they did not need to eat or drink or bathe, but longed for the sensation just the same, just like the dulling of pain. The searing horror of bleeding and injury was routine, and though it wasn’t permanent, it was just as real for Dwight when he was alive. The survivors had learned to take advantage of any moment of reprieve, however tiny and sporadic they came.
Today, Dwight lingered around a pond, freezing cold but with a smooth, reflective surface and a rocky floor to dig his toes into. He was nervous at first to visit it, expecting it to be pulled away from him, but he ventured there just the same, toting another one of the Entity’s enigmatic gifts to the shore line. He removed his shoes and rolled them to his calves, stepping into the water and wincing at the temperature that pulled at this skin like knives, though he quickly adjusted.
Dwight bowed to touch the water, scooping a handful to his face and sniffing at it thoughtfully. It smelled only of cold, so he drank it, enjoying the coolness in his mouth and throat. He splashed another handful on his face, a tingle of heat in his cheeks clashing with the icy spring water.
Ears tuned to the sound of snapping twigs and even the most helplessly quiet footsteps, Dwight jumped to attention as someone approached, straightening and looking over his shoulder. David stepped into the clearing, thick hand wrapped around a bent tree branch. The bow curved upwards like an extension of his arm, rising into the dark canopy. He tilted his head at Dwight, whose hackles lowered shortly at his presence.
“Hi,” Dwight’s voice creaked a little. David was by far the most intimidating of the survivors, but Dwight was beginning to realize he was also likely the softest. His posture belied his cloistered nature, but like a crab that held his heart in a hard shell, he was sensitive and fair. Still slightly unreadable, though, or maybe that was just Dwight’s awkwardness. He was pleased to know his social maladroit still persisted even in un-death.
“I can’t believe this,” Dwight commented, bending to reach for the clothes he’d left folded on a stone by the edge of the pond. A reddish t-shirt and jeans had appeared bundled at the campfire and Dwight had recognized them immediately. “It’s the shirt from my first job, what’re the chances?”
“No chance, mate,” David answered. His voice was firm but a small, barely visible smirk quirked one side of his mouth. “Nuffing’s by chance, here.”
Dwight wrinkled his brow, gesturing to the clearing itself. “What’d you call this, then?” The surface of the pond sparkled with stars, unobscured by fog or choking grey cloud. Dwight was reminded of King Arthur’s lady in the lake, though whether her blessing of leadership was truly a blessing is something Dwight often wondered.
David huffed. “A trap.”
Dwight looked at the uncanny clothing folded in his hands. “Yeah, maybe.”
Dwight took a step deeper into the pond, the cold water slicing his calves and numbing the flesh, but the cleanness of it was still welcome after countless hours on his belly in the dirt, or trembling against a sandy floor.
He peeked over his shoulder to see David carefully lowering himself onto a rock, piled high with moss, and resting his fingers on his spread knees.
“I was just gonna…wash up and then get changed,” Dwight explained, something out of the side of his mouth, eyebrows furrowed. Modesty was far less his concern than it might’ve been in the past—he and his fellow survivors had witnessed each other sobbing and bleeding and soiling themselves out of fright and pain enough times to make any sense of disengaged dignity moot—but the other man’s presence was something of an intrusion. Not entirely an unwelcome one, Dwight could only admit with his back turned and his blush obscured.
“Git on wi’ it then,” David replied, running his fingers through his beard and twisting a few long hairs at the centre of his chin.
Dwight flushed, glad his back was turned and that the moonlight cast everything in a movie-tone black-and-white.
Dwight balanced on one leg with the stealth and balance he’d learned from Nea, carefully pulling out of one pant-leg and then doing the same for the second, then shuffling into the water until it was up to his thighs. He folded his slacks and then tossed them to the shore, stepping until his waist was beneath the water. He was tempted to squat down completely, submerging himself in the pewter water, but settled instead on wiping down his filthy arms with splashes. He swiped the dirt and old blood and sand and grit away, revealing white skin and fine hair, slicked down smooth with the wet. He rubbed his dirty fingertips into his opposing palm, kneading the particulate from beneath his nails. It felt good to be clean, even if he knew he would be a mess again very soon, likely sobbing and dragging himself through the tall grass, scraping his forearms through gravel and staining his new clothes with the taint of rotting green.
David just watched him in silence, silvery eyes (and they really were silver; that wasn’t a trick of the moonlight, Dwight had long since noticed, just as Meg’s were really green as sea glass and Min’s were black as volcanic obsidian) trained on him. The smirk working at the corner of his mouth poked cheerily upwards, though his eyes were steely. Dwight may have turned his hips just so to bend his waist in an appealing way, arcing his back just slightly as he smoothed his elbows clean.
“The top?” David asked, and Dwight felt a small shiver run up his spine and dance along his ribs, but he hid it easily.
“I’m getting to it,” Dwight answered, looking hard into the water rippling softly around him.
“Take your time,” David answered, and Dwight rolled his eyes, though his mouth curved into a soft half-moon.
His ratty tie came loose with a single tug, and Dwight unspooled it from its knot and tossed it aside. It was a second-hand store find, and suited nothing, he realized, fashion so beyond his reach in life and only less meaningful in un-death. He tossed it to the riverbank and David caught it, ducking to scoop it just before it hit the mossy ground. The gesture felt like an actual strip tease and Dwight blushed harder, clearing his throat.
He started to undo his top button, then the next, working carefully down and letting the shirt fall open behind his fingers. Half-turned to his solitary audience, he bowed his back, tilting his neck in a way he knew let it catch the light and show its appeal.
The white shirt, greyed with grime, dropped easily from his shoulders, revealing his chest, even paler than his limbs, having never seen the sun or moon; the smoothness of his sternum, and the little trail on his belly that ducked below his waistband. Dwight balled the ratty garment up and tossed it without looking, knowing David would catch it and being pleased when he did. Out of the corner of his eye he saw David bring the wad of cloth to his nose and smell it, inhaling the grimy scent with a predatory smile. Dwight felt his flush was permanent now.
Growing bolder with each passing second, Dwight reached down and stuck this thumb in the waistband of his shorts, stepping deeper into the water as he pushed them down, so he was hidden in the water from the waist down. The cold was a bit of a shock to his sensitive parts, but he bit his lip and reached in to step out of his underwear, squeezing the water from them and tossing them to the shore with a flourish. David was watching him rather slack-jawed now, silvery eyes hooded.
“Come on, love, show us the rest,” David implored, tilting his head. Dwight chuckled a little, enjoying the power of his position. He was completely naked under the water; a single step would reveal his most intimate parts. He half-wanted David to follow him into the water and make him show them, to step up beside him, drenching his clothes, stretching out of his thick coat and sidling up next to Dwight, meeting his height eye-to-eye, leaning imposingly into his space. The water could contain them; they could dream they were somewhere else.
Dwight pulled off the last of his clothing, his glasses and digital watch—the latter of which had long stopped functioning and served only as decoration, the former on which he still depended.
“Hold these?” He held them out to David, leaning over and reaching as far as his arm would allow, making David stretch to meet his hand and take the items. David’s eyes dipped shortly to the accessories in his hand, but the quickly returned to Dwight, gaze falling to his mouth and then back to his eyes. Dwight returned to the water, pinched his nose, and sunk beneath the surface.
The rush of freezing-temperature water was all-filling, and for a moment Dwight couldn’t hear or even think, the shock of cold blocking his senses. He kept his eyes squeezed shut and pinched his nose tight, air sealed off. For a moment, it was like death, a sensation with which he was all too familiar, and then he was floating, rising in the weightlessness of a starry ocean. David floated up behind him, wrapped an arm around his waist. They turned in the water, in a silent, rotating waltz, the currents silver and pewter, wrapping around them like ribbons. Bubbles floated and they were in the real world, holding hands and hurrying to catch the last subway train of the night, jackets pulled tight around them. In another moment, stars sparkled above them on the balcony of their hotel room, the street shining far below. In another scene, a window in a quaint kitchen with wallpapered walls looked out onto a backyard like the one behind the house Dwight had grown up in, and David was standing there at his back, gently embracing him.
Stars swirled and collided and Dwight rose from the water, breeching the surface with a piddling splash and swiping water from his eyes. His skin was soaked, his cheeks and mouth dark from the cold, his lashes dripping. David was just watching him from his silent post, leaning a little forward in his seat.
“Come on, love,” David whispered again, pulling at the seam of his jeans, and Dwight smiled. He stepped closer to the shore, each step revealing more of himself to the still air. His belly quivered as the cool breeze struck his nude body, his thighs breaching the water and his flaccid length settling between his legs.
He watched David’s gaze drop downwards, taking in the look of Dwight as he emerged from the water, droplets rolling down his belly and calves when he stepped up onto a rock at the shoreline and out of the water. He shook off a little, swiping excess water from his chest and limbs, watching the way David’s eyes followed him along the shore.
David still didn’t move, his fingers working anxiously on his pant leg as if itching to do something, but wondering if he had permission. A trap. He’d said it was a trap, and maybe this strange itch of a feeling between the two of them was just another one of the realm’s tricks, but Dwight thought he knew otherwise.
Dwight let himself dry in the air for another few moments, aloof in his movements as he pulled on a clean pair of jeans and the familiar coral t-shirt, huffing at the familiarity of the worn fabric. It wasn’t an illusion or a fake, it was the real thing. He scrubbed a hand through his wet hair, letting it spike in whatever direction it chose, stepping barefoot over the rocks and mosses.
He reached out his hand, appreciating David’s loose-jawed look. It suited his usually arrogant face. David stood, then, as if finally gaining the courage or wherewithal to approach, handing Dwight his glasses and watch. Dwight didn’t miss the brush of their hands, and the way a stray finger stroked the inside of his palm.
With his glasses back on, Dwight could see David clearly, from the glint in his silver eye to the dimple in one cheek, showing his cheeky smile.
“Like wot’ya see?” David asked, and Dwight blushed.
“Yeah,” he stuttered, “and you?”
David hummed his agreement. “Gonna think about it all the time, now.”
Dwight blushed harder, putting the back of his hand to his mouth. “Stop.”
“Nuh-uh,” David answered, “you’re the one got down to his skivvies right in front’a me.”
“That’s what happens when you show up where someone’s taking a bath,” Dwight chided, considering gathering his old clothes, but in a moment of recklessness, leaving them where they fell and taking only his socks and shoes. The realm would provide him others, of that he was suddenly, carelessly sure.
“Kinda like knowing what’s underneath there,” David piped, and stepped closer to Dwight, pressing into his space. He pushed the back of his knuckles against Dwight’s hip, hinting at his nakedness underneath—the Entity didn’t provide a new pair of briefs, after all. “Kinda like knowing I’m the only one knows it.”
Dwight considered pressing further, but shied away in the last moment, turning away from David and back towards the distant glow of the campfire. “Well, keep it to yourself and it’ll stay that way.”
“Maybe,” David answered, “awful tempting to share.”
Dwight rolled his eyes as he started the trek back to the fire. As soon as he turned his back on it, the clearing would be gone, never to be found again, though he hoped the memory of David’s silver gaze would remain.