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Life in Dark Places

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It took Ajay months of being in Kyrat to figure out that Pagan doesn’t love crab rangoon.

Sure, he’ll eat it, likes it alright; he just finds the concept to be the height of hilarity, the punchline to a joke that people don’t even realize is being told. He serves it and keeps going on about it to see if anyone will find it as funny as he does. In fact, it took Ajay awhile to even put all the pieces of the joke together: a British-Cantonese Triad druglord steals the throne of a tiny Himalayan country, then turns around and serves bullshit Americanized Chinese fast food at the equivalent of state dinners. He’s even making fun of himself (and who would have thought that a man like Pagan Min was even capable of self-deprecation)...and it’s brilliant. And so subtle and sly that nobody gets it. Ajay’s probably the only one to figure it out so far.

Although he was often too freaked out to properly appreciate it before, Pagan is funny as hell. The calls about boils and the fucking candles and zippered meat pockets, all of that shit was the Pagan version of bad dad jokes. Just Pagan calling, lonely, sometimes a little drunk or high, and trying to get him to laugh. Sometimes those calls were downright confessional. Pagan once told him about his trip to the States and longing to see them but being afraid to reach out, uncertain of his welcome after so many years and worried that he wasn’t the man that Ishwari once knew and loved anymore, of being jealous of Paul Harmon’s proud fatherhood...and that was even before Ajay knew about Lakshmana. He feels bad now for never responding then, never acknowledging Pagan’s clumsy attempts at comfort and reassurance as the world went mad with blood and fire and death around him, feels bad about Eric, feels guilty for ever even considering killing him.

When Ajay had that gun trained on Pagan’s head (and Pagan, to his credit, didn’t even flinch from him), that conversation about Ajay’s hypothetical school recital was what popped into his mind...and he couldn’t. He knew about sixty seconds later what an absolutely massive fuckup that would have been; for Kyrat, but most of all for himself. Once he was up there at the Palace, even if he didn’t have Pagan to fill him in, he would have found Lakshmana, found Mom’s letters and pictures, read the message on his pen, compared the new pieces to Mohan’s diaries...and known just how colossally he’d screwed up, all alone at the top of the world with only Pagan’s cooling body for company.

A world without Pagan in it would be a sadder, less colorful place.

Thankfully, for once during his time here, he’d put the fucking gun down and listened to what Pagan was trying to tell him. And when he realized that Pagan was walking out of his life as quickly as he’d walked into it, and how both he and Pagan were the only family that the other had left, he’d held up a hand. Motioned him back. Had mouthed, “Please.”

Pagan had watched him steadily from his seat for a heartbeat, two, three. Then he got up and moved to the cockpit and tapped the pilot on the shoulder. Was back on the ground and back in his life in under a minute.

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Pagan himself wonders just when it was that the balance between them changed, became more reciprocal. He’s always cared about the boy, of course, but he can’t put his finger on any one incident that said to him, Ajay cares about you too. But it may have started when Ajay kicked his door in, waved a gun in his face, and said ‘fuck you.’ There had been no real heat in it though.

He’d mostly kept it off his face, but Pagan was so inordinately pleased to see that look in Ajay’s eye.

This, he’d thought to himself, this we can work with.

Because he knew that Sabal and Amita had had him for months to themselves, playing psychological games that Ajay was probably not even aware of, at least at first. Trying to bend him into the shape they wanted. If they had worked together, they might have succeeded. If they had ever been able to create a united front, Pagan might have actually had to lift a finger and wipe them off the map, instead of just ignoring them and their clumsy attempts at Viva la Revolución. They’re so bad at it he almost wants to take them under his wing and show them how it’s done.

But in any case they hadn’t succeeded, because when Ajay had come up to the palace, kicked the door in, and aimed that gun at his face, he had paused. Pagan had waited, wondering if today was going to be the day. He’d given it a fifty-fifty chance at the time, but now...he doesn’t think he was in any real danger. Because, like him, Ajay is curious, and he thinks about things, and killing people is so very final. He’d had that look in his eye, that thinking look. And then had put the gun down.

In the most heated moment, in the moment that all of Anita’s and Sabal’s whisperings had primed him for, all that bullshit about what Mohan would have done, when it would have been the easiest and simplest and the seemingly most right thing to do to just pull that trigger...he’d stopped. Looked at Pagan, instead of just the gunsight. And had put it down.

AJ the American that was dragged off of that bus was still a child, despite his paltry brushes with the law and the fact that he is so much older than Pagan was when he had first come to Kyrat. Ajay the Kyrati is a weapon, a well-honed knife, and the most important lesson about a weapon is when not to use it. When is the time to put it down, which is a lesson that Pagan had to learn the hard way too.

Pagan had come to the decision that he was, indeed, leaving Kyrat in better hands than his own, and went to take his leave.

And then Ajay had said, “Please.”

Pagan, oddly serious then, had told him, “My dear boy, I’ll stay as long as you wish me to, but you know good and well the Golden Path are not going to stop until I’m dead. Amita and Sabal won’t rest until they have my head on a pike; doubly so since you’re here with me now.”

That had made Ajay smile a little, but it had quickly turned sharklike.

“You let me worry about that, okay?”

And Pagan had given him a slow smile of his own, hard and sharp like a knife; pleased with that expression and what it meant.

Ajay had frowned at him then, his head cocked at bit. Had leaned close, and sniffed at him. Pagan felt the air from it moving against his neck. He had recoiled a bit, bewildered.

“The fuck?” he muttered.

Ajay leaned back, still frowning.

“Pagan, are you drunk? It’s like, not even five o'clock yet. Jesus.”

Pagan had rubbed the back of his head ruefully.

“Well, now that you mention it…oh! That reminds me, I have a broadcast to go cancel.”

And that’s how their strange friendship started, such as it was.

 

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In the end, Ajay didn’t actually kill either of the erstwhile leaders of the Golden Path. He just had them bound and marched them over the borders; Amita into India, far from her northern contacts, and Sabal into Tibet, for the same reasons.

Amita went with more dignity than he thought she would, and caused no trouble. Sabal held himself cold and remote at first, but when he spotted Pagan his eyes had gone to hot fire. After they landed he was just lounging against the helicopter with his arms crossed, watching the proceedings, but his mere presence seemed to incite Sabal’s white-hot fury. His and Mohan’s and Kyrat’s ancient enemy, Bhagan the Demon on the thangkas.

Sabal threatened to return then, swearing revenge in Mohan’s name, threatened the both of them…but before Pagan could intervene Ajay had kicked him into the dirt face-first instead of cutting the rope that bound him like he had intended.

“You know Sabal, I admired your sorry ass for about ten minutes, right until the lies and the bullshit started. And that’s all the time it took. About ten fucking minutes. You knew. The both of you knew. I talked to that woman in Tirtha, Sabal, and she told me the truth. Everybody there knows that story, everybody knows who Lakshmana was, and where. You lied to my face and led me along and I killed people for you, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people. Well, I’m not what I fucking was, Sabal, that’s for sure. You made your bed, now you lie in it.”

He rubbed his face, hard. Maybe trying not to cry.

“I swear to god if you step foot into Kyrat again, I’ll make you regret it. And I won’t just make you regret it, I’ll make your family regret it. All your friends regret it, the ones you have left, anyways. You got most of them killed. You tore this country apart over bullshit.

Ajay spat at Sabal’s feet, and then turned his face away so he wouldn’t see the hurt there. He’d believed the ‘brother’ business, at least for a little while. He’d wanted to believe it for much longer than that.

Sabal had hauled himself up and said, “Fine. You have my word never to return…Ajay Min.

He had hissed it at Ajay like a viper would. The ultimate insult, in his mind. But Ajay had just looked at him. Looked at Pagan. Had blinked. And then laughed. Had laughed until tears flowed, just the three of them alone in that great and rocky desert.

“Oh man, Sabal,” he’d said, wiping his streaming eyes, “Your word isn’t worth dogshit, but you call me Ajay Min like it’s an insult.

 

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And it’s been mostly good, since then. Ajay’s learning a lot, and trying to help people, to try to heal some of the damage that he’d helped to perpetuate. He’d always tried to protect civilians and innocent people from the chaos and crossfire, from the raping and pillaging perpetuated by both sides, but he had personally fanned the flames of this stupid war and almost single-handedly ripped the country apart. And now he’s trying to patch it up, as best he can. Him and Pagan both are, after Pagan had realized just how bad things had gotten, and just how much damage he’d done by checking out and leaving things up to the likes of De Pleur and Yuma. Who was actively trying to overthrow him, and probably kill him, in a military coup.

Him and Pagan. It’s kind of a strange thought, and a strange friendship. It seems weirdly natural for him to move into one of the guest suites at the Palace though, when Pagan asks him. It’s just…too lonely, at the homestead. Too quiet. No sound but the whipping wind in the eaves. Living in the Palace with Pagan is, of course, not really like living with him. It’s more like being tenants in an apartment building, but at least he’s around. Every so often stumbling drunk about the place, or high off his gourd, but he’s there.

They talk about things, sometimes.

He seems to realize that Ajay has questions that only he can answer, that he’s the only one left alive to answer, and he does his best. They sit out on the balcony in the evenings occasionally, their knees almost touching, and talk about things. Sometimes Pagan has to excuse himself, ostensibly to get another drink when things edge close to painful. Sometimes he just comes back with the whole fucking bottle, and hands it off to Ajay so they can share his glass. Sometimes Ajay senses that there are dark pits in him, things that he can’t and won’t talk about, and that’s okay. Like Lakshmana, like what happened after his mom left. And sometimes he finds himself sliding his knee a little closer and touching Pagan’s leg with it, awkward and wanting to comfort, but not knowing how.

 

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One of the things Ajay likes to do best is to ask around and see if anybody just…needs his help. Doing things for civilians, even chores, was one of the only bright spots in the war. It made him feel a little human for awhile, instead of just a killing machine. It takes comparatively little of his time and effort to make major changes in the fortunes of one person, or a family, or a village. And sometimes, being curious, even Pagan will come too. Ajay remembers one fine day this past spring, when Pagan came with him to watch him do a little farming, and how that day was the one that made him realize that he was bizarrely, against all odds, starting to fall in love with him.

Chapter Text

Ajay stood in the little kitchenette on the second floor, cooking himself breakfast very early one cool spring morning. He was cheerfully turning eggs in the skillet, but something made him pause, made the hair stand up on the back of his neck, like eyes on him. He looked back over one shoulder but it was just Pagan, coming to investigate, to make sure there wasn’t an intruder near their rooms. His eyes moved down to the gun still in Pagan’s hand, and watched the tension flow out of Pagan’s body like he’d thrown a switch. That transformation was always amazing, from cold-eyed predator to a rumpled man in pajamas stifling a sudden yawn, gun held loosely in his other hand.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you. Here, sit down,” Ajay said, gesturing at the little table. Pagan flopped into a chair and slid the safety on before he set the gun down on the table and rubbed at his eyes.

“Ajay, my dearest, it’s not even four fucking-thirty yet. The sun is still asleep. The birds are still asleep. What are you doing?” Pagan covered another jaw-cracking yawn and scratched his stubble.

“Making myself some breakfast. I didn’t want to wake the servants up just for scrambled eggs. I promised Sanjay and his wife down in the valley that I would help them transplant their rice seedlings today and I wanted to get an early start.” The toaster popped then, and Ajay snagged the two pieces with his other hand. “Apparently he’s been sick and they could use the help. Coffee?” Ajay held up the steaming pot and two mugs.

Pagan nodded blearily and Ajay filled the cups. “That’s...impressively altruistic of you. But why you? Why not send a few of my men down?” His tone was dubious. “You know what the task requires, correct?”

“Well, I figured that they’d show me what to do. I could use the exercise, get out of the palace for a bit. They’re old and they do it every year, how hard could it be?”

Pagan snorted into his coffee cup.

“And I know that things are getting better, but people are still afraid of your soldiers. With good reason. And I like spending time with the regular people, getting to know them and stuff.”

“A fair point, about my men,” Pagan conceded. He held his mug out for a refill.

“I suppose I’m awake now, you wretched boy.” His grumbling tone held no rancor, so Ajay ignored it.

“Good. Want eggs and toast? There’s plenty.” Ajay pulled another plate out of the cabinet and handed it off to Pagan, and then put the plates of food on the table. As he sat down, he thought of how quickly he’d adapted to life here and how completely normal and unconcerning it was that there was a loaded gun on the breakfast table. He merely reached out a finger and pushed the muzzle to the side so he wasn’t being covered, and loaded up his plate.

As he watched Pagan prod at his almost burnt eggs and butter his toast, Ajay had a brilliant idea.

“Hey, why don’t you come with me today?”

Pagan scoffed and waves the butter knife around.

“Do I look like I do manual labor, darling? Do these hands look like the hands of a farmworker?”

Actually, they kind of do, Ajay secretly thought. Pagan has big hands, broad shoulders, and is like a head taller than the average Kyrati farmer. He wisely didn’t say so, though.

“Not to work, I know better than that. But don’t you want to come watch me sweat my ass off in some random field? It’ll be fun.”

Ajay was half-joking, but Pagan looked like he might actually be considering it.

“Mmm, the view of you bent over for hours at a time would almost be worth the trip. But what shall I do besides watch your shapely derrière, as fine as it is?”

Ajay snorted.

“Bring a cooler, sit in the shade and get drunk, play on your phone, yell encouragement from time to time. You know, the usual.”

Pagan looked up from his plate and gave Ajay a steady stare. Do you actually want my company, or are you just yanking my chain? Ajay heard what he didn’t say and gave him a tiny nod and a smile. Of course I want your company.

Pagan pushed his plate aside and picked up his gun. “Yes, well...I’d best get dressed then.”

 

It took Pagan almost two hours to get ready, but Ajay didn’t mind; what was once going to be just him on his old battered ATV has become something party-like, or at least more fun. He had plenty of time to notify the security staff that Pagan was leaving the palace for the day and find a servant as they were starting work.

“Uh, hello. Is there any way I can get the kitchen to make up a cooler with drinks and a picnic lunch? Nothing fancy, just ham and cheese or something like that, and then whatever Pagan wants. For two. No, make that four,” he says, remembering Pagan’s security detail. “Sorry, no...for six, please.” Sanjay and his wife would appreciate the extra food, he was sure. “And a blanket and a couple of lawn chairs, maybe? Do we even have stuff like that? If not it’s fine, we’ll work it out.”

“Of course, Mr. Ghale, the staff will have everything ready within the hour.”

He’ll never convince them that just Ajay is fine. He’s tried and tried. So he just thanked the man and went to see about the helicopter.

The staff had everything packed and ready to go just as Pagan came strolling out, immaculate as usual. Ajay shook his head. Of course Pagan dressed to the nines to go hang out in a muddy field. As they were climbing in the helicopter, Ajay noticed the ridiculously enormous basket of food the staff had put together, along with a cooler that’s almost big enough to fit a body into. He just shook his head again. There was so much it made for a bit of a tight squeeze for him, Pagan, and the two royal guardsmen. He was pressed all up against Pagan’s left side by necessity, but his warmth and solidity was nice. Pagan kept giving him little side glances that may or may not have had a hint of leer about them. He was always doing shit like that, and making those little flirty comments, but Ajay never knew how seriously to take him. It would probably be smart to never take him seriously about anything.

They touched down in the empty field near Sanjay’s house just as the sun was really coming up in earnest. It promised to be a warm day, Ajay thought, as Major Kamran and another younger Guardsman named…Lang? he thinks? unloaded their picnic supplies. The chairs that the staff had packed were…odd. They were a kind of wooden folding chair, with a precise way of unfolding that kept them locked open. They were made out of some very heavy, very dark wood, and are intricately carved and painted. They looked like antiques, like they were made by hand for some 19th century Kyrati nobleman. Ajay sighed, because that was just palace life.

Pagan’s guardsmen got a chair set up for him under a shady tree, which he promptly went to sleep in; chin on chest, hands folded over his belly, long legs stuck out. Ajay smiles, and went to find Sanjay and his wife, and see what they wanted him to do.

As it happens, he now understood Pagan’s comment about his understanding what this task entails, because it was now only 9:30 and his back was on fire. How the FUCK do they manage this, Ajay thought despairingly, thighs burning. They were both at least seventy, and Ajay couldn’t believe they do this every year. They had him very carefully reaching down into the mud with his fingers and digging up every other little green shoot, which Sanjay and his wife were putting in wet baskets so they could transplant them to the other field. Ajay was trying hard not to look at his watch, but his back and shoulders felt like they could ignite his shirt at any moment. The hot sun didn’t help anything. He would have loved to have taken a break, but he gathered that the little shoots would start to wilt if they were out of the water too long, so he soldiered on. He kept sneaking glances at Pagan as a distraction.

Pagan woke up, yawning and stretching after about an hour, and gave Kamran and Lang the hand signal to indicate that he was watching their surroundings as well and it was okay to go down a readiness level. He’s at least as deadly as his guards. Probably more so. As he once told Ajay, ‘My dear boy, motherfuckers have been gunning for me ever since I was sixteen years old, when I started working for Gang.’ Pagan never refers to him as his father. Ajay knows how that feels. ‘It just won’t do to grow careless now, would it?’

9:35. Kamran and Lang broke out a deck of cards, while Pagan played on his phone. 9:46. The guards dealt Pagan in for a few hands. 10:30 rolls around, and they’re finally ready to start planting the seedlings.

He got a brief stretch break before Sanjay waved him over, to demonstrate how they need to be replanted. But Ajay was having trouble understanding exactly what he wanted. They were easy enough to dig up, but the instructions for replanting were more complicated, and were being communicated in pantomime because Sanjay didn’t speak much English and he can speak almost no Kyrati. He was watching Sanjay make intricate motions for the fourth time when Pagan strolled up to watch.

Sanjay and his wife were a little freaked out by Pagan and the helicopter and all at first, but Ajay tried to reassure them that nobody was going to start shooting. Sanjay still looked faintly terrified that the tyrant King of Kyrat in all of his pink glory was standing within touching distance, peering with curiosity into his rice field, but Pagan wasn’t looking at him and so he soldiered on.

When Ajay still didn’t get it, Pagan crouched on the bank and pointed.

“See, my boy, you’ll want to do the rows about this far apart, and leave about this much between each plant.” He indicated with his hands. “And then you’ll want to make this motion, to make a little indention in the mud for each plant, and then carefully move the soil back around the roots. But don’t press too hard, as they’re delicate. That’s what your friend is trying to tell you.”

Ajay looked up at him, a little dumbfounded.

“You said that you don’t speak Kyrati,” he said, squinting in the sun.

“Oh, I don’t. Well, only the profanity. But I used to do this when I was a child. Gang’s parents owned a little farm on the outskirts of Shenzhen, and I’d go there on school holidays and help out. They were much better people than he was.”

He stands and looks around him, taking in the scenery.

“It looked quite a bit like this, actually.”

Pagan gave him a little smile and sauntered away.

Ajay watched him go dubiously, but Sanjay seemed satisfied by the spacing now, at least. He pushed his floating basket of sprouts ahead of him up the row. But he still couldn’t quite get the trick of seating the roots. They would flop over, or float back up; they just wouldn’t stay in place.

He’d started to get frustrated, back aching, when Pagan came back with a bottle of water for him and Lang in tow. Apparently Pagan wanted to have a conversation, and Ajay stood and drank his water and watched the drama unfold, wondering what in the hell it was that Pagan wanted. Lang didn’t speak a lot of English, but he did speak good Kyrati, so Pagan spoke to him in Cantonese and had him translate.

“The King wants to help Ghale plant your field, so he wants you to give him a basket too.”

“He…what?” Sanjay said.

“He says the boy is doing a shitty job and that they will be here all night if he doesn’t help. Also, he says that he is trying to get to know the populace better.”

Two elderly Kyrati faces looked back at him blankly.

“How the fuck does the King know how to plant rice?” Sanjay said wonderingly, but it’s a rhetorical question so Lang simply ignored him.

“…why?” blurted Sanjay’s wife.

Lang started to lose his patience then.

“Woman, I don’t know! ‘Why’ is not a question you ask King Min. He’s fucking crazy. Pretty good to work for though,” Lang conceded. “But one of the dumbass Army regulars shot at Ghale once, and King Min killed him with a pen! Like a tiger! Just give him whatever he wants so nobody ends up stabbed.”

As they stood there speaking, Pagan pulled off his jacket and handed it to Lang, toed off his shoes and socks, and started rolling up the legs of his nice trousers. Everybody was watching this extremely odd situation unfold, but Pagan acted like this was something he did every day as he put a hand on the bank and vaulted in, rolling up his sleeves as he went to Ajay.

 

And that’s how it happened that, on a tiny rice farm in central Kyrat at eleven o’clock in the morning, the King of Kyrat and the son of Mohan Ghale were companionably working together, dark head next to light one as Pagan held Ajay’s fingers and showed him how to plant the tender roots.

Later that day, while the sun painted the mountains in golds and peaches and pinks, Pagan and Ajay looked out over their handiwork. Ajay sighed with satisfaction and shifted just a little closer, so his elbow was brushing Pagan’s. He gave Ajay an inscrutable look, paused, and wrapped his own arm around Ajay’s shoulders, stiff at first. Ajay felt him relax against him a little when Ajay didn’t pull away, and put his own arm around Pagan’s waist. Together, they watched the sun go down.

“You know, dearest boy, a thought occurs to me,” Pagan said.

“What would that be?”

“We should come back here at the end of the summer, see how our crop is coming along,” Pagan said contentedly. “If all goes well, it will be up to our waists then.”

That thought had made Ajay’s stomach do a little pleasured flip-flop, getting to come back and see something green and growing that they helped make that way, together. Ripening to gold in the sun.

 

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That was one of the best days that Ajay had ever had, and they had a lot of days like that. Those days were what made him fall in love with Pagan; his brilliance, his charm, the way that his hands seem to have all sorts of secret skills. The way that he was so gentle and friendly with the schoolkids when they’d come to visit the palace. And then Ajay caught himself noticing things like how good he always smelled, even after all day in a hot muddy field. The delicate hollow at the base of his throat. That vulnerable soft place behind his ears, easy to see because he keeps his hair so short.

This revelation didn’t trouble him much, really, like it may have someone else. It didn’t bother him that Pagan was twenty years older, that he had been in love with his mom, that he was obviously and patently (and self-admittedly) batshit crazy; that he’d never been attracted to a man before, not seriously, much less found himself falling in love with one. None of that really mattered, and he thought about it a lot. He knew exactly what he felt, and the reality of who he felt it for. It just was, like a force of nature. No sense in denying it, or trying to argue about the realness of it. He laid in bed at night and turned it over and over in his mind, this new, Pagan-shaped thing. What Ishwari would have thought. As he considered that, it occurred to him that she had said to him once, ‘The heart wants what the heart wants, Ajay, and that’s all there is to it.’ Of course, he’d had no idea then who she was talking about then, but knowing him and knowing Pagan he’s pretty sure she saw this coming and sent him anyway. And Ajay’s going to have to tell him, at some point.

Pagan doesn’t magically turn into some kind of wonderful person to him because of this realization of love. He still gets fucked up sometimes, has bad days where he’s a complete asshole or doesn’t bother to get out of bed, still occasionally takes out his anger on people and things that have nothing to do with it, but so does Ajay. Well, not the getting fucked up part. He’s done with that particular coping mechanism. It worries him sometimes that Pagan still hasn’t figured out that it doesn’t help in the long run, but he tries to encourage him to take a step back and breathe. Redirect.

Things are getting better all over Kyrat.

And then…then there are days like today. Followed by a whole fucking month of them.

Chapter Text

“I still can’t believe you’re fucking doing this again,” Ajay says, voice flat. Hard.

They're standing in the middle of Pagan’s living room, amongst the detritus of another of Pagan’s Party of One; his jacket crumpled on the couch, half empty bottle of scotch, white powder dusted liberally across the glass table. TV blaring. Ajay glares at it, like it's personally offended him. Pagan watches as he walks over and shuts off the TV, kicking another empty bottle out of the way as he goes. When the TV goes quiet, Ajay discovers that the stereo is also blasting, so he has to go and turn that off, too.

“And what would that be, dear boy?” Pagan says, a little giddy, trying not to slur. Oh, and this high is so, so nice, running close to the redline of almost too much, just the way he likes it. His heart is probably going to blow someday, but what of it? He’ll probably be too numb to feel it.

The coke even keeps him from feeling the disappointment in Ajay’s voice, the anger with him, and if he wants to join the number of people he’s disappointed in his life the boy’s just going to have to get in fucking line. He throws back another mouthful of scotch.

“This, you fucking asshole.” Ajay gets in his face, actually snarls at him, something he’s never heard from him before. He’s usually so mild-mannered. Sweet. Like her, his mind whispers, and he tosses back the rest of his scotch to shut it up.

That’s why he’s fairly taken aback when Ajay swipes his hand roughly across his nose and mouth and holds his bloody fingers at Pagan’s eye level. His hand is trembling minutely. Oh, whoops, Pagan thinks. There’s…quite a lot of it, actually. Wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened though.

Ajay further surprises him by smearing his bloody fingers across his face like a brand, hard, and then slaps him. Also hard, the sound a sharp crack in his ears.

It doesn’t hurt much, not like it ought to…although admittedly, he may have overdone things a bit this time because his face is rather numb. He scrubs the blood off with his sleeve. Doesn’t give a shit. He’s starting to feel just a little aggravated though, because Ajay’s apparently trying to ruin his delightful buzz. Ajay is genuinely mad at him. Not sure why. Not sure he cares why, to be perfectly frank. But before he can step away, Ajay has a fist in his shirt and is shaking him like you’d shake a misbehaving puppy.

“Why? Why do you do this shit to me?”

“Let go of me and stop being so fucking melodramatic,” Pagan says grandly.

Oh, and isn’t that fucking rich, coming from you, Ajay thinks.

“And it’s nothing personal. You just happen to be here. I’m not exactly sure why you still are, though. You asked me to stay that day, instead of flying off to parts unknown, and so here I am...but you seem to have no interest in ruling.” There. He’s proud of those sentences. Not too fast, not too slow, not too slurred. Pretty sure not. Perhaps.

“Not if this kind of bullshit is what ruling means. If I wanted to leave, would you even let me? You still have my passport, unless you’ve lost it,” Ajay retorts, although it sounds like he’s cooling off a bit.

“Darling boy, I am the King, and passport or no you can be at New Delhi International in two hours, a shiny first class ticket to wherever the fuck you want clutched in your little paw,” Pagan says. He’s afraid he did slur that one a bit. “Go! Have fun! Pack your bags, see the world on Uncle Pagan’s dime! I certainly don’t give a shit.”

“And if I said I want to stay?” Ajay says, even cooler. A little cold.

“Then stay!” Pagan throws his arms out expansively. “We’ll build you your own wing. We can get some dynamite and make some more room on this mountain. Definitely not a problem.”

“Pagan, you really have no fucking clue why I’m still here, do you?” Ajay says. “Here in the Palace...you don’t even know why I’m upset with you. No clue. I can see it on your dumb drunk face.”

Pagan puts his glass down harder than he intends. It clanks loudly against the table. “Then why don’t you feel free to enlighten me, darling?” There’s a hard edge in his voice now, a blade. The darling is not an endearment.

Ajay sighs, rubs his face. He really wanted to have this conversation while Pagan wasn’t high or drunk or both, but there you go. He usually runs on a pretty even keel, keeps things under control, but he’s gotten bad like this twice in the last month that he even knows about and it’s really starting to piss him off. Just him sitting up here all by himself, getting royally fucked up. He knows that edge that Pagan’s running, has seen it for himself. It has to stop.

So, I guess we’re doing this now, because he’s too self-obsessed to see it for himself.

No, that’s not fair. In too much pain to see it for himself.

Ajay’s been there, too.

“I’m mad at you because I give a shit about what happens to you. You’re cutting it way too close here with the drugs and the drinking bullshit, and one day your luck is gonna run out. Sooner rather than later, at the rate you’re going,” Ajay says.

Pagan looks a bit startled. “Why?” he blurts.

“Why what, Pagan?” Ajay says, trying to keep the long-suffering tone out of his voice.

“Why do you give a shit?” He looks genuinely confused as to why anyone would.

Ajay wants to facepalm. He wants to slap him again, wants to hug him, wants to kiss him, wants to take him to bed and hold him until he doesn’t need to do this to himself anymore...wants to work this out without a physical altercation and without being thrown out of the building. Ajay breathes in. Breathes out, steady, steady.

“Because I love you, you asshole. I want to be with you.” He swallows. “Want to wake up beside you every morning.”

Pagan blinks. And blinks again, while Ajay’s palms gently sweat. Then, Pagan’s face goes hard. Stormclouds. Ajay’s belly does a long, nervous roll. Fuck, he’s going to fight me on this, he thinks.

“You don’t know what it is you’re asking for, boy,” and his voice is so flat, so final, and heads to the table to pour himself another drink. Ajay refuses to accept it.

“I believe I do,” Ajay responds, keeping his voice mild. Pagan whips around.

“You..." he growls, "you are fucking insane. I’m old enough to be your father. Hell, I almost was your father, you little shit.” There is no trace of humor in his voice.

“Or have we forgotten that so very easily?” He smiles then, and it is small and very, very cruel.

Now the knives really come out, Ajay thinks, readying himself. Here we go. He braces for impact.

“Do you really want me to tell you exactly how I had your mother at every opportunity, had her bent over every surface in this place?” Pagan stalks closer, his face starting to flush with rage. He’s not slurring a bit now. “I can share all the sordid details. How your cunt of a father whored her out in every sense of the word? I knew why she came here, knew what he put her up to, and took blatant advantage of her inability to refuse. Oh, the things I made her do, MADE her do, do you understand me, boy...” and the venom in his voice is intense, calculated to hurt as much as possible.

Ouch, Ajay thinks to himself. But it’s a lie, and an obvious one. The first that Pagan’s ever told him. Desperate. He manages to keep his voice calm.

“Is that supposed to get a rise out of me? Push me away? That you did fucked up things twenty five years ago that have no relevance to me? Well, boo-fuckin’ hoo. Shit on me all you want, Pagan, but leave Mohan out of it. Leave Ishwari out of it. Leave the fucking past out of it. What you did or didn’t do to her doesn’t matter now, she’s dead. It’s a lie anyway, and a shitty one at that.” Ajay gazes at him with warmth then, warm compassion that burns him. Pagan wants no part of it. “You’ve been half dead yourself this whole time. Half a ghost with them, with Lakshmana.”

Ajay can see that he’s upset enough to flinch at that name, for all he tries to disguise it.

“Hiding up here...and for what? You had two good years, Pagan, two good years, in twenty five. Well, fuck that. When are you going to stop fucking punishing yourself? Goddamnit, when is it enough??” Despite his best efforts, he’s picking up his own head of steam.

Pagan can make his eyes look like flat black glass when he wants, but now they’re burning hot with rage. It’s mostly fear. He is so very, very afraid in there, and a part of Ajay feels warm with compassion, wants to just hold him close, while another part struggles to not retreat from what he sees in Pagan’s face. Oh, if he gives ground now, Pagan will wave a dismissive hand and make a blithe joke and Ajay will lose it all. He’s exuding raw fury, sure, but at the moment he’s also engaged and listening.

“Fine, is time a factor for you, then? What about De Pleur?” Pagan snarls the name at him. “I knew exactly what went on at those little parties of his, and never once lifted a finger to put a stop to it. Noore’s family? I tormented her for years with that, and I wanted to break her.” Like I was broken. He doesn’t say it, but Ajay hears it all the same.

“In your travels around this godforsaken shithole of a country you must have somehow missed all the innocent lives I’ve ruined, all the spirits I’ve crushed, all of the broken families, the orphans, the re-education camps...shall I go on? All of that shit was me, every fucking bit of it was me!” Pagan’s voice has been steadily rising. The way he says “me” makes it sound like something you’d scrape off your boot. Ajay aches for him, aches with him, stands his ground. If he’s ever going to heal at all, he’s going to have to get all of this out. Much of this stuff Pagan’s probably never said out loud.

“Oh, and speaking of the past that you seem so fucking eager to disregard,” he sneers, “don’t forget about the Royalist plot that Yuma and I cooked up! You know, the one that also ended with a murdered child. You think Mohan was bad, but at least the child that HE killed was the child of his enemy! I killed a boy I didn’t even know for greed, for politics...FUCK!!

Pagan roars. He’s squeezed the glass he had in his hand hard enough to break it. He pivots and slings the whole mess of blood, glass, and scotch across the face of that stupid portrait that doesn’t even look like him.

Ajay had it at about fifty-fifty odds that he’d get it flung at him, so there’s that.

As Pagan stands there staring at his bleeding palm, Ajay is out of his chair in a flash, flings himself bodily at Pagan. He tries to fight but Ajay already has a death grip on one wrist, catches the other, blocks the knee meant for his groin with the outside of his thigh, and pins Pagan to the wall. Ajay shoves his hands over his head and traps both with one of his own at the wrists. Blood drips sluggishly over both their hands and onto Pagan’s hair, the back of his collar, his neck. This close, Ajay can see the fear behind the rage in his eyes. But he’s not trying to get away.

“Fuck, what is it you WANT from me, boy?”

“You know what it is I want,” Ajay says, mild as a spring breeze. He looks Pagan over. “But you’re asking the wrong question.”

“Fine, I’ll play your little fucking game,” Pagan hisses like a viper. “Why? Why me, of all the people in the world?”

“Because you’re you. Brilliant, charismatic, devoted you.”

Pagan laughs at him then, but it’s dark and sarcastic and unamused. Ajay ignores it.

“And there’s so much you don’t know. You may have done all that shit, but why would I care about it, really? A lot of that stuff happened before I was born, when you were way younger than I am now. I don’t know that Pagan,” he says. “I can’t go back and meet that guy, either to love him or condemn him. The only Pagan I can know is the one right in front of me. I live for today, and you’ve been nothing but good to me since I got here.” He pauses, tilts his head. “I’ll admit I was a bit taken aback by the bus thing...”

“He tried to shoot you,” Pagan interjects.

“See, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. Aside from tonight, the only times I’ve seen you angry was when somebody was threatening me. Are you so furious because the thought of anyone hurting me pisses you off, but you’re afraid that this time it’ll be you doing the hurting?”

Pagan’s teeth are clenched. Won’t look at him.

Bingo.

“Pagan, don’t be stupid. You’re so much smarter than this. You were going to turn Banapur into a smoking crater until you realized they weren’t torturing me and weren’t holding me against my will. Then you backed off, let me learn my lessons. Dug me out of the snow at Durgesh, and I know it wasn’t fucking Gary that patched me up, it was you. You were there, with bandages. So careful not to hurt me, and then holding my hand. I remember a little and that hot pink jacket is hard to miss, so don’t try to pretend you don’t give a shit. That you don’t love me, too.” There, he’s said it, and he knows he’s right. By some instinct he knows Pagan does love him, in some fashion.

“You saved me again and again. And you never, ever lied to me, until just now. You were the only one here that never did. You’d tear the world apart to keep me safe...and you and I, we’re the only ones the other has left. We might as well be the last two people on earth.”

Pagan rolls his eyes at that.

“Oh, so it’s the pity fuck scenario, is it? Don’t make me laugh.” But all the heat and vitriol has gone out of it, and Pagan looks so tired, tired to his bones. Ajay can feel it in his own bones too.

“That’s not what I mean, and you know it. Do you have any idea of how many people I’ve killed since I’ve been here? Five hundred? A thousand? I don’t even know. After you hit the triple digits, you kind of lose count. Your soldiers, they all had families and children too. They begged me for their lives, but I slaughtered them anyways. I’d grab the pin off a guy’s grenade and kick him into his buddies. Rained destruction down on your patrols just to watch the blood and metal fly. Dropped out of trees on them like a leopard. Because it was fun.” Ajay pauses for breath. “You take the blame for all of it, but how many broken families and orphans am I responsible for? How much pain?” He meets Pagan’s eyes, brushes the back of his hand across his cheek. “Pagan, if you’re a monster then I am one too. I think that we may be the only two people that understand each other. No judgment. No lies. No fear.” He’s made his voice as soft and hypnotic as possible.

Pagan’s eyes close, and Ajay moves closer, body to body. He nuzzles at Pagan’s ear and feels Pagan slump against him a little.

“I’m going to let you go now. Please don’t hit me when I do, your hand is hurt.” Pagan leans against Ajay and winces a little at the stiffness in his shoulder. Ajay has his arms around him, pulls him down with him to the floor, holds him close. Examines his hand, carefully reaches and pulls a sliver of glass out. Gets a bandage on it, produced from a zippered pocket.

Pagan looks at Ajay’s gentle fingers, or Ajay’s knee; anywhere but his face.

“I didn’t mean that about your mother. I...it wasn’t like that. It was never like that, between us.”

“I know, Pagan. I know that you loved her. We both did, and we both lost her.”

“I did my best to show her how it could be...to have a relationship, such as it was, with a man who loved her and treated her as an equal. Mohan married her when she was just a child, and then kept her shut up in that house all alone. A child of twelve. It was reprehensible.” He’s rambling a bit now.

“Shhh, let me take care of you,” Ajay murmurs. “Here and now. Nobody’s ever done that for you I think, not really. Be here with me. Right here, right now. Just you and me.” In that same hypnotic tone. Pagan looks at him then, not understanding. Ajay lifts his bloody hand and starts to clean it with his tongue, tracing the path the blood took along his wrist.

Pagan blinks, but doesn’t pull away. Watches, fascinated, as Ajay’s tongue moves against his pulse point. Then he moves to the drips on the back of Pagan’s neck, cleaning him.

Pagan shivers under his ministrations. It’s not precisely sexual; he doesn’t know what the fuck it is, or what to call the bloom of warmth in his chest as Ajay even delicately laps at his hair, leaving faded pink stains behind.

He’s right though, it really does feel like they are the only two people on the planet in this moment.

Ajay starts in on his shirt buttons and Pagan lets him, lets him ease the heavy silk off, watches out of the corner of his eye as Ajay strips his own shirt off. Pagan feels like he’s trapped in some strange, slow-moving but warm dream as Ajay scoots close, wraps his legs around Pagan’s waist, and holds him skin-to-skin. Tucks Pagan’s head against his neck.

“Just sit here with me for awhile.” He reaches for one of Pagan’s hands and lays it on his own chest. “Feel my heart beating. I love you.”

“I don’t know if you even know what that means,” Pagan mumbles into his hair.

“Yeah, I do, and do you know why? It’s because she taught me. She was the most loving person that I ever knew.” Pagan nods his head against Ajay’s neck in agreement. There’s not much else to say.

“And it’s going to be okay, Pagan, it really is. It’s okay to mourn, because she always did want to come back. I don’t think there was ever anybody else for her, just you. But she couldn’t go to you...she got sick so fast Pagan, it was so fucking fast, and part of it’s my fault because I was such a shitty kid. I kept doing such dumb shit, and she’d have to work doubles to pay for court costs, for bail money,” Ajay says hoarsely. “I stressed her the fuck out, and I fucked everything up for her and for you too, because what was she supposed to do? Come back to Kyrat while I sat in jail? Actually, that’s probably what she should’ve done, but she never would have. Or brought her smackhead son with her to heroin Ground Zero?”

Ajay shakes his head, and Pagan realizes it’s to flick his tears away. He does it as unselfconsciously as an animal would. Just getting the tickle feeling off his face.

What IS this boy? he thinks, for probably the twentieth time since Ajay came to Kyrat.

“In any case, she couldn’t come back to you, Pagan, so she sent me. Do you understand that?” Ajay says. “I didn’t know it right then, but she gave me a mission: find you. She wasn’t very sentimental about death; it wasn’t Lakshmana she really wanted, it was for me to be here, with you. And she would have wanted you to be happy, Pagan, would want you to live and be happy, and she wanted the same for me. For both of us. We are the two people that she knew best in the world, and I think she knew it would happen. Knew I would fall in love with you. And she sent me to you. I’m how she wanted to tell you goodbye. I’m her last letter to you, don’t you see? So it’s okay to let go, it’s okay to say goodbye. I’m here now.”

Pagan can only sit there, stunned beyond words.

Ajay kisses his ear. “I do understand about the drugs and the drinking and shit. Trust me, I really do.” He makes a wry face.

“But,” Ajay’s eyes suddenly blaze,“I’m still not gonna let you self-destruct like that. No. I didn’t come all this way to find you, halfway around the world, to watch you die by inches. Fucking no. I refuse.” His lip lifts in an unconscious snarl.

Pagan suddenly thinks that this boy may be part honey badger, perhaps part rabid wolverine, and so he should probably agree to whatever he wants.

He’s also pretty sure that his heart is not going to get out of this unscathed.

Ajay goes on: “If you decide that this isn’t what you want, a relationship with me, that’s fine. That’s your prerogative, and I’ll deal. But that other shit stops now. I need you alive, Pagan.” He pauses, like he’s swallowing around an obstruction. “I can’t lose the both of you.”

“All right, fine. I can’t believe I’m fucking saying this…” Pagan mutters. “Heaven help us both, if you want...this,” Pagan gestures to everything; the broken glass, the blood, himself, “then I’m willing to try. Try, being the operative word. And that’s all I can promise you, boy.” His tone turns a little plaintive then.

“Ajay, are you absolutely certain that this is what you want? That I’m what you want? If we do this, and you decide that I’m too much to deal with, too...” Broken, his mind unhelpfully supplies. “...just too much, I don’t want to wake up alone with another note on my pillow.”

The coke wore off long ago, but he must still be drunk. Pagan can’t believe he’s saying this maudlin shit, has to be off his rocker to agree to this…this lunacy. Soft, warm lunacy.

“I’m here for good, if you’ll have me and not kick me out for leaving the cap off the toothpaste,” Ajay says, grins a little. “Just like you, I play for keeps.” He starts the process of unwinding them. “C’mon, let’s go take a bath,” he says, pulling Pagan to his feet. “I’ve always wanted to try out that giant tub of yours.”

“You could have used it anytime you liked, you know,” says Pagan, skeptically.

“Oh, you probably wouldn’t have minded, but you wouldn’t have been in there with me,” he says, with a little smile.

Pagan lets Ajay lead him by the hand to the bathroom, feeling very off-kilter. Ajay has to be some kind of warlock because whatever spell he cast is still working, sapping Pagan’s willpower as he lets Ajay just...do what he wants with him. It really is incredibly unlike him. Did the late great Yuma spike his stash for a laugh? Maybe it was the blood. Ajay doesn’t bother with the bathroom lights, since there’s still some gray afternoon light coming through the small window. He immediately starts filling the tub and stripping off his jeans and boxers, completely unselfconscious. Pagan’s slower about getting undressed, but Ajay’s already in the tub and doesn’t even seem to be looking at him. He’s busy checking the bottles and sniffing them.

Pagan eases in, pulls the bandage off his hand. It doesn’t look too bad, has mostly stopped bleeding. Ajay moves over closer and puts a hand on his shoulder and starts kneading it a bit, encourages him to turn so he can get at the other one too.

How long has it been since someone’s touched him like this? Years and years. He used to have a masseuse, but he sacked her because she just would not shut up when she was working on him. Ajay hasn’t said a word. And also, masseuses generally don’t profess their love for you and then drag you into the bath. It’s very nice though, and he finally starts to relax a bit in the hot water. But Ajay’s managing to keep him a little on edge somehow by not really doing...anything. Pagan figures he’d want something by now, would want him to kiss him or touch him or...something. But he seems perfectly content with rubbing Pagan’s shoulders. Is he waiting for him to do something? Does Ajay expect him to know what that thing is?

It’s been so many years since he’s been expected to be romantic, or try to navigate a relationship. Or, whatever this is. He feels himself starts to tense up again under Ajay’s hands.

“Stop,” Ajay says, a low murmur against the back of his neck. “Stop thinking. Stop worrying about shit. Just be here with me,” and he seems to be perfectly content to rub Pagan’s back. His caresses are...sensual, maybe. Not really sexual. He believes. Now that he’s thinking about it, it’s hard to stop.

“Ajay, did...do you want this to be a sexual...do you want to have sex with me?” Pagan winces internally. Christ, couldn’t he have worded it better than that? He sighs.

God, he’s out of practice at this.

“Is that what you want?” A low rumble against his neck, but he still doesn’t seem to be trying to turn him on or anything.

Pagan frowns. Doesn’t he? What an odd question.

“Yes…I believe so,” and now he’s just confusing himself. He blows out an exasperated breath.

“What do you want, darling boy? You’re not giving me a lot of hints here.” Ajay kisses the back of his head, and it’s not exactly an erogenous zone for him.

“This is about you right now,” he says. “This goes wherever you want it to. It stops when you say so. Now, what is it that you want? Or is it nothing at all?” His voice is low, quiet, hypnotic still.

And Jesus, for some reason that makes a lump come up in his throat. What is wrong with him? The tears are suddenly so close he can taste them. Pagan turns to face him, to see what his expression is like, to try to get any grip on this increasingly weird situation. The blood licking thing was somehow less strange than this, this...whatever this is now. It keeps changing. And Ajay’s face doesn’t tell him a thing. It doesn’t even look expectant. It looks a bit content, maybe, but that’s it.

Pagan can feel himself tensing up all over again.

“Easy,” Ajay says. He still has his hands on his shoulders. Scoops up hot water, pours it over where his hand was. “How often do you get choices about things that really matter to you? Good things that will happen to you? Not what you’re going to have for lunch, or who you’ll be forced to execute today. Good things. Pleasurable things. It seems to me that you haven’t had those kinds of choices in a long time. And maybe that’s why you keep tensing up. Remember what I said? No judgment. No lies. No fear. No regrets.”

Ajay moves a little closer. “Don’t be afraid of me, please. I’m the last person you have to be afraid of. But the choice is yours, it’s all on the table. Anything that could make you feel good and I can give it or do it, I will. Because I love you, and nobody’s done anything like this for you in a very long time, or ever. So choose. Or don’t, and nothing changes.” He pours hot water over his other shoulder this time.

“With that tone of voice, my boy, we may as well have been discussing takeout options,” Pagan says. He was going for light, a bit of sarcasm, but he hates how shaky he sounds.

“Is that what you want tonight? Takeout?” In that same perfectly pleasant tone.

Something snaps in Pagan.

“Goddamnit, Ajay...what the fuck are you doing to me?” Which also comes out all shaky and thin and snarling, and he’s scrubbing at his eyes angrily and he’s so pissed because he’s crying and he can’t hold it back anymore.

He’s also pissed at Ajay, because this is all his fucking fault. Couldn’t leave him alone, oh no...couldn’t just leave him well enough alone, drunk and coked out of his mind and watching soap operas. He’s been doing the same thing for years, after all. And after a few more benders like earlier, getting that fucking high, he probably won’t have to worry about doing it for too many more.

Alone.

And he’s fucking crying in earnest now, chest burning and painful, his teeth clenched as those damned tears drip off his jaw and he refuses to let his fucking lip quiver like a child. Ajay pulls him close again and presses his hot face against his neck. “I think that this is something that hasn’t happened in way too long either,” Ajay murmurs, and he sounds pretty shaky himself.

That pulls a single choked sob out of him. And Ajay’s head is against his and he’s kissing his wet hair and he puts his arms around Ajay without even thinking about it, rubbing his back under the water, comforting him too.

Chapter Text

They sit there for a long time, just holding.

And Pagan does feel better. Like something that’s been hurting him for so long that he’d just tuned it out and then all of a sudden...doesn’t so much, anymore. And now he understands what Ajay was trying to tell him, now that he’s sobered up some and a lot of that wire-tight tension is gone. They can just...be. Here, together. This will only be brand-new once, so go slow, and savor.

And Ajay was right; no one’s ever done this before. Never given this.

This, this is a brand-new thing. An Ajay thing.

And Pagan’s getting the idea that all the old scripts in his head need to be chucked out, that being with Ajay is not going to come with an instruction manual. It’s also beginning to be obvious to him that there’s something low and simmering between them, and probably has been for awhile now, but he doesn’t know what it’s going to look like. What shape it’s going to take. But he does know that this isn’t something that he wants to rush. So much of his time with Ishwari was rushed. But it really had been good with her; he’d truly, deeply loved her and she him, and they hadn’t been able to keep their hands off each other. But they never got to have meals together, or sleep in the same bed like ordinary people. They had had to keep their relationship a secret for the majority of it and all their time together had felt stolen, like they knew it couldn’t last.

But this...this could go on forever. Ajay said so, and heaven help him, he believes him. Is starting to believe that he may actually love him, for his own Ajay-ish reasons.

 

Pagan decides what it is that he wants, at least for tonight.

 

“Would you mind terribly, my dear, if we just slept?” he says slowly. He’s drained; physically, emotionally.

Ajay laughs then, delighted, like he’s just happy to be here with Pagan in any capacity.

“Tell me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think either of us are the type for quick and dirty, at least the first time.”

He’s right of course; except for Ishwari and a couple of snatched and meaningless encounters years and years ago, (decades, he remembers, it’s been decades) and his own hand on occasion, this bath is it. He has a completely undeserved reputation for debauchery; the staff might be having giant orgies or some such thing and that's where those rumors come from, but they’re certainly not inviting him. The only kind of parties that he throws are the sort where people sit and eat food and talk to each other.

Pagan wants to make that first time something as burning and exquisite as he can, but tonight…tonight he just doesn’t have it in him. Ajay wraps his arms around Pagan’s shoulders from behind and kisses his cheek with a loud and goofy smack.

“You are such an odd boy, did you know that? You’re the first person in years to be able to surprise me. I never know what kind of weird shit is going to come out of your mouth,” Pagan says. He reaches up and puts his hand on Ajay’s forearm, strokes it a little, leaves it there. He could be convinced to stay in here for many more hours, but the water is cooling and he’s sure that they are both well pruned.

He turns his head a little and murmurs in Ajay’s ear.

“Will you come to bed with me?”

And Ajay smiles.

Ajay insists on putting another bandage on his hand, and then they dry off and go climb in his big bed with the silky sheets that he’s never properly appreciated before. Ajay brings this out in him, he’s decided. Not really hedonism, just…an enhancement of the sensory. The sheets feel delightful on his bare and sensitized skin, and beside him Ajay makes a little appreciative happy noise, eyes closed. However, as the seconds pass he’s beginning to feel a little awkward, a little self conscious, doesn’t know what to do with his hands. He runs one over his flat belly. He stays in shape, knows he looks decent, broad shoulders and waist still trim, but even still. Forty-eight is still forty-eight. He also has a not-inconsiderable amount of scars; a puckered one under his ribcage from the Royalist days, an old, old white line from a Kowloon City deal gone bad...a rival Triad fuck had gone for his liver. He’d only been seventeen. Another puckered one in his shoulder from a failed assassination attempt. The scar from the exit wound on his back is…not pretty to look at, and that shoulder has never been quite right since.

Ajay’s such a handsome lad and could do so much better than him, aging and battered and fucked up as he is. Maybe he should turn the lamp off or something. Put some clothes on.

“Stop,” Ajay says, his eyes still closed. He reaches over and puts his big warm hand on Pagan’s belly.

“Stop worrying about whatever bullshit you’re telling yourself. It’s okay. Just be. Just breathe. Just be here with me. I’m not even looking at you, although I want to. You’re so beautiful. Have you even seen the way you fill out a dress shirt?” And it’s so weird and so Ajay that Pagan snorts laughter, tension dissolved. It would be trite coming from anyone else, but Ajay always says exactly what he means.

“Here, close your eyes too,” he says, hand still on Pagan’s stomach. He does, and they lay there in somehow not awkward silence. Ajay’s right, it’s better with his eyes closed. All he can hear is the air whispering in the vents, the occasional tiny creak that such an old building makes when the wind picks up outside.

“What are you doing tomorrow? Anything fun?” Ajay murmurs.

Pagan thinks about it.

“I do need to fly out to Lost Valley sometime this week, figure out what’s going on with Yuma’s little campers out there. She took an entire battalion out there with a fully-stocked garrison and they’ve been no contact for months. Fucking ridiculous. She wasted so many resources on that relic shit, that absurd obsession with all things mythological. And she said I was the weak one.” He yawns. “Would you like to go with me? We could go tomorrow. Probably boring, and possibly freezing, but the views are awesome.”

“’Course I’ll go with you. Sounds cool. Do I need cold weather gear? I don’t really have any.”

Pagan waves a hand, eyes still closed. “Staff can deal with that in the morning. They’ll send us with a case of such things. Boots, parkas, all that. I’ll let them know you’ll be going with me.”

Ajay lets out a jaw-cracking yawn.

“We’ll have to get up early then,” he says. Pagan reaches over and sets the alarm on his phone, switches the lamp off. Pulls the covers up over them. Ajay’s hand is still warm and heavy on his belly.

“Pagan?”

“Mmm?”

“Can I hold you?”

Pagan is silent for a time.

“…I think that I would like that,” he says, low and husky.

 

----------------------------------

 

Ajay wakes the next morning before the alarm goes off, temporarily confused as to where he is and who he has his arm around.

Pagan. Pagan, warm and naked and sleeping easily against him.

Last night went so much better than he was afraid it was going to, so much better than he’d dared hope, and here he is, waking up beside Pagan, just like he said he wanted. Even if they never did anything else, he’d be happy, warm skin on warm skin. Just together. He freely admits he’s probably been a little touch starved. He rarely has anyone put their hands on him unless they’re trying to kill him, and Pagan is probably the same. So it’s so comforting to just be here like this with him.

When Pagan’s sleeping, he makes these little tiny whuffs of air that Ajay finds adorable. They’re not snores, just little huffs that he only makes when he’s deeply asleep. He’s entertaining himself by running his hand along Pagan’s arm, his side, along his ribs, down his back. Every time his hand touches down, the little sound stops, and then starts gradually again as his hand slides along his skin. He’s building a catalog of sensory impressions of Pagan: he doesn’t want to touch him too much and wake him up, but he wants to learn the differences in textures between the skin on the top of his forearm and the fine hairs there, versus the softer, paler underside. The scar on his back against the smoother surrounding skin. Wants to learn everything. That soft and vulnerable place behind his ears is as velvety to touch as it always looked. He moves his nose to where neck meets shoulder.

Sleepy Pagan smell. It’s different than Awake Pagan smell; a subtle difference to be sure, but there, soft and warm. He can still detect a little of the alcohol, but not the bitter cocaine smell. This is a good time to smell him, since he usually also smells like cologne, and aftershave, and the stuff he uses on his hair. Which, admittedly, smells pretty great. But now, it’s just clean soapy Pagan. He rubs his nose a little against the stubbly hair on the back of his head. It’s softer than beard stubble would be. He’d rub his nose against that too, but Pagan’s back is to him. Someday, he’s going to get to map all of him, all of his soft places and scars, the gun calluses on his hands. One of those places won’t stay soft for long, he thinks, with a little smile. But they’ll get to that. All the time in the world.

Then, after he does all of that, maybe he’ll start back at the beginning and do it all over again and remember the first morning he woke up beside Pagan, just as he’s wanted to for months now.

“How long are you going to go on sniffing me, hmm?” a sleep-roughened voice murmurs. But there’s a smile in it.

“Depends. How long are you going to let me?” Ajay punctuates this by inhaling loudly. Pagan swats at him.

“Tickles, you wretched creature.” Still with that smile in his voice. His arm comes up and flails around until he finds his phone, checks.

“You have fourteen minutes to continue to smell me and be strange until the alarm goes off. Ugh,” he says, with a groan, squinting.

“I guess I’m done smelling you for the moment, but I can’t help it that you smell awesome. How are you feeling? Little hung over?”

“Yes. Definitely my own fault.” He pauses, thinks, rolls over on his back so Ajay’s looking down at him.

“Ajay...We discussed a lot of things last night, but it occurs to me that one thing I didn’t say was that I’m sorry, and I meant to.” He lifts his hand and runs his fingers through Ajay’s messy hair. “I was an asshole, and I worried you, and I’m sorry for that.”

Ajay ducks his head a little.

“I still should’ve kept a better check on my temper. I shouldn’t have hit you like that, it left a big red handprint.” He runs careful fingers over that side of Pagan’s face. “No bruises?”

“Dearest, it’s fine. My face was so numb…it was not long after then that I realized that I had very much overdone it and been an idiot.” He looks up into Ajay’s eyes, dark and intense.

“I will try very hard not to let that happen again.”

The intensity in his eyes shifts to something else, a kind of flickering heat, heavy-lidded. They move from Ajay’s eyes, down to his lips, linger there for a moment, and then back up. He raises his head a little and Ajay leans down, slowly, and their mouths meet for the first time.

At that first touch of his lips it feels like the jolt of an electric current, curling low in Pagan’s stomach. Ajay gets to see the amazing sight of Pagan’s eyes fluttering closed at the sensation. His lips are velvety soft against his own, sweetly nudging and brushing at his mouth. He feels an answering jolt deep in his own belly.

Just as he’s getting ready to tease at Pagan’s bottom lip a little with the tip of his tongue, the damn alarm goes off.

 

In hindsight, he shouldn’t have jinxed them by saying that ‘all the time in the world’ shit.

 

--------------------------------

 

Forty five minutes later, dressed and breakfasted, they meet out in the courtyard by the helicopter. The pilot is running through last minute flight checks while Gary yells in Pagan’s ear about something, trying to be heard over the sound of the engine. Ajay watches as Pagan kicks open a big footlocker on the ground beside one of the runners and leans down to sort through it personally, and Ajay sees it contains the cold weather gear they’ll need up there. Satisfied, he drops the lid and motions to the waiting porters for it to be loaded on, comes and motions for Ajay.

He leans over and shouts, “Well my boy, are you ready? Let’s go! Oh, wait, no…” Gary comes back at a jog with a paper cup and a couple of aspirin, which Pagan gratefully downs.

“Ah, thank you Gary. Now we’re ready!”

 

---------------------------------

 

A couple of hours later, they’re heading over the Lost Valley to the landing site, the sky an intense shade of blue. It’s a gorgeous, sunny day, and everything sparkles like it has a diamond coating: the snowpack under them, the low shrubby growth, the rocks, the gigantic mountains that surround them on all sides. Pagan’s mostly been watching Ajay watch things out the window.

It’s a much different experience than buzzer travel, Ajay decides, without the wind tearing through your hair and the tooth vibrating whine of the lawnmower engine. At some point, Pagan takes off his right glove, casually, leaves his bare hand palm up on his thigh, looks elsewhere. Ajay smiles a bit to see it, peels off his left glove, and entwines their fingers. Even though Pagan is not turned towards him, he can see the ghost of a smile in the way his cheek moves. Pagan’s thumb strokes his palm in slow circles. After awhile he lets go of Ajay’s hand with a little pat and undoes his harness, and then leans down to say loudly, “Just going to check our ETA with Lang. Be right back.” While it doesn’t have that gnashing whine of a buzzer, it’s still a little loud even with the doors shut.

As he’s coming back up the aisle between the cargo, something catches Pagan’s eye from the window to his right, something in the rocks there…it’s a minute puff of smoke.

His eyes widen.

He whips his head back around and bellows, “Lang! LANG, RPG!! EVASIVE MANEUVERS!! LANG, JUST DROP IT!!” but even as he’s saying it, he knows it’s too late, far too late, and whoever it was had the perfect vantage to hit them before they could see it coming.

Lang’s reaction time is unreal though, and he can already feel a belly-rolling change in their altitude as Lang disengages the rotor and just lets the big helicopter fall out of the sky, exactly as Pagan asked him to do. He has a fleeting surge of hope that the rocket will go just over them…and then it’s slamming into them, into the right-hand engine which blows with a fireball that slews the heli sideways and down.

The impact rips the door three-fourths of the way off, filling the cabin with smoke and the pulse of red lights and klaxons as Lang’s instrumentation goes mad. The helicopter makes one hard, flat spin that finishes ripping the door off and then begins to tilt under Pagan’s feet: twenty degrees, forty-five degrees. He throws himself towards Ajay, aiming to grab the stanchions under the seats, feet skidding on the diamond plate of the flooring, but he’s not going to make it. Knows he’s not going to make it, a sick feeling in his belly. The heli tilts even further and he’s sliding towards that open door that holds only fire and jagged metal and the flat white of snow.

Ajay is out of his harness and has a hand twisted in the collar of Pagan’s coat before conscious thought kicks in, the other arm wrapped around the stanchion. Lang screams back at them to brace for impact, he can’t do anything else with the controls and the g-force slamming them around suddenly makes Pagan weigh four hundred pounds instead of his usual one seventy-five or so, and Ajay loses his grip. Snarls and grabs his forearm, loses that too and tries to jam a hand in his sleeve but he misses, misses that last hold and Pagan is tumbling out through the fire, Ajay watching helplessly.

Pagan instinctively tucks up to protect himself and he’s terrified of being caught on that jagged metal, impaled and roasted alive. His head bounces off of something in a bright flare of pain but then he’s through, past the metal and the roar of flames, in freefall. Not that this is much better, he has time to think, as the world spins in dizzying flashes of dark blue, white, and the black and orange of the screeching helicopter. Ajay, Lang, no.

And Ajay is his last thought as he hits the snowbank.

There’s a terrific explosion as the other engine goes, and then a rending, smashing vibration that threatens to shake the mountain down on them.

And then darkness.

-----------------------------

Ajay wakes up in the snow, beside the remains of the burning helicopter. Alone, except for Lang’s charred body. Lang had become something of a friend, ever since that day in the rice field, and Ajay is saddened by his loss. He was a good man, one of Pagan’s best. He just couldn’t get out of his harness in time. If he hadn’t undone his harness to grab Pagan, he’d be dead too, burnt to a crisp. If Pagan hadn’t gone up to the cockpit to get their ETA at the moment he had, they’d both be dead.

Pagan might be dead anyway.

His mind, snarling, shoves that thought away.

Ajay sits up and rubs his eyes, hard. No, Pagan might be okay. Might not even be hurt, if they were low enough. He can see that the snow is deep here. He could have landed in any number of soft drifts. They had dropped altitude rapidly for several seconds before he fell. He stands up and looks over that precipice, tries to force himself to think, think, think. What angle did they come in at? If he can remember…no, that’s not going to work, the heli had been going down in big spirals, they didn’t go down in a straight line that he could work backwards along. He pulls out his old battered camera and does a sweep of the valley once, twice, three times.

Nothing, no movement, no Pagan-shaped imprint in the snow. Not even a hint of pink.

Chapter Text

Dark blue, through a blue-white window. His face is on fire, and his head thumps in time with his heartbeat, an agony that can only be escaped by going under again, like a diver into deep water.

 

This time the dark blue is gray, and the window is gray, and why can’t he see out of his eye?

 

The dark, the wide black, spangled with stars. His head doesn’t hurt nearly as much anymore. Nothing hurts much anymore.

 

You can’t do this.

 

You can’t do this, get up.

 

 

Is this where you want it to end? After all these years, all these miles, all this strife? All these wounds you dealt with, now that you finally have something good again? Someone good again?

 

Get up, you bloody fool, you don’t have much time.

 

 

 

Pagan, if you leave me now I am going to be so fucking pissed at you. Don’t go where I can’t follow, do you hear me? I came halfway around the world for your sorry ass, now GET UP!!

 

Ajay, Ajay…

 

Pagan sits up with a jerk. He’s completely alone, and mostly buried in a snowdrift. It’s a wonder he didn’t suffocate.

It’s dark, and he is very cold and very, very confused.

He fell, though.

He remembers falling, and the flames licking at him. A bright, hot, lancing pain in his head.

He brings his gloved hand to his face, still can’t see out of his right eye…tries to get up, makes it to his knees before he slides and the world tilts out from under him.

Begins the laborious process all over again, gets his feet under him…and the world threatens to dip out from under him again but there’s a big black thing next to him in the lesser black of the general darkness and he grabs at it with unfeeling fingers. A rock formation. Pagan’s stomach turns when he dimly considers how close he came to landing on it. The rock helps keep him upright when the ground moves like it does, but he can’t stay here. Has to keep moving.

Knees shaking under him, he pushes through the powdery snow but it’s getting harder and harder to tell where his feet are. He moves downhill, the only direction he’s capable of going at the moment.

He feels liquid on the icy skin of his face, burning hot in comparison. Probably blood, but when he tries to check it’s too dark. That sick throbbing in his forehead is starting again.

 

Please, let me not have lost that eye, that it’s only blood and bruises…

 

He comes to again lying on his side; he’d fallen and not realized it.

He doesn’t know how many times he can keep doing this.

 

He wakes to snowmobile lights in his face, and that light is like a diamond sharp lance in his skull. He moans and tries to turn his head away.

Someone has their hands on him then, and he wants it to be Ajay so badly, Ajay, please, is it you…

It’s not, and when he sees the man’s painted face he shouts and kicks out, kicks the guy in the face with as much strength as he can muster. He’s scrambling to get away, hand diving for the gun in the pocket of his coat without conscious thought. Somebody else grabs his arm and twists and they have him then, his teeth bared and snarling but there’s just not enough fight left in him, and he’s going out again, sounds going dim…

 

He comes to in torchlight, still in the snow. Hands are pulling his coat off, why…

 

This time he’s in a dark, rocky place, lying on his back. Someone is standing over him with a torch and they’re dabbing at his face roughly, hurts, and then there’s someone else bending over him with a knife.

The torchlight catches the man’s eyes, his face, and Pagan’s throwing himself backwards, away, terrified. He hits the one with the knife with all the strength left in his arm and tries to run. He makes it two steps before the floor swings one way and he goes the other…

 

When he wakes again, it’s to a little room built out of rocks...no, a cave. He feels a bit better this time, less cloudy. He’s warm and dry, under a pile of furs, and his whole body goes limp with relief when he discovers that he can see out of both eyes, although that sickening pain is still there, thumping gently in time with his heartbeat. His forehead and face burns a little.

There’s weak daylight coming through a small hole in the ceiling, a few snowflakes drifting down. A fire is burning in a little recessed shelf of rock, and the smoke goes up and out the hole.

Someone has also stripped him down to his underwear.

Confused, still dizzy, he just lays there breathing for a time. Willing the nausea down, but it’s not that bad, not urgent. Was that guy’s face something he imagined, some fever dream?

No, he’s seen it twice now…

He brings his hand up to his head to rub at that itching, burning sensation and discovers a huge cut on his face…well, cut may be a misnomer. He tries to keep his fingers out of it while also assessing damage, but gouged furrow may be more appropriate, from hairline to cheekbone. From the twisted and torn metal of the helicopter, he supposes. That memory is very hazy, but he remembers that white-hot impact.

He really is lucky to still have that eye. And…as his fingers explore further, he discovers that the front of his hair is in a little fucking braid.

Good lord.

Perhaps that’s what that rude Knife Guy was trying to do, cut his hair shorter. Keep it out of this mess on his face. And he’d been…combative with them. With excellent reason.

Lucky to be alive. Lucky his brain didn’t swell in his skull and kill him. Lucky the cold and snow didn’t kill him, which may have been what stopped the first thing from happening. Lucky he still has his full compliment of fingers and toes. A little sore from frostburn, but all still there when he wiggles them in assessment.

He really should be thinking about how to get out of here, how to find Ajay, how to get them both out of this valley filled with unhinged people. It’s obvious that Yuma’s expedition is a total loss, and it would be best for them to just get the hell out of Dodge. Find a radio with enough transmitting power, call in the cavalry, but as he’s thinking of that he’s sliding back into sleep, eyes closing without his input. He’s so tired.

When he wakes again, there’s a man sitting on the edge of the bed, bald as an egg and face painted like a skull.

“Ah, King Min, our honored guest! You are awake at last. I am sure you have many questions, many questions indeed. And I will answer them, for I am the Master here.”

His smile is deadly, that of one predator to another.

 

After he leaves Pagan levers himself up, wanting his clothes. Recognizes the desire for what it is; the desire for a shield, for some distance from this insanity, however paltry that shield may be.

Here’s his shirt, here’s some sort of cloak thing that isn’t his…and nothing else. No shoes, no pants…god. Nothing makes any sense in this place, this madhouse.

 

----------------------------

 

The next day, Pagan is well enough to be up and about a little; still a bit dizzy, but the headache is only intermittent now, and he’s able scrounge some fatigues and boots from the supply crates laying about the place. And also something else, which he hides in his bedding. They’re really not keeping a very close eye on him, which is all to the good. The Yalung cultists allow him to go outside as far as the crash site, although they do stick with him, and then herd him back to the caves after a few minutes. No chance to escape. So that’s as far as his ‘guest’ status extends, then. That’s all right, for the moment. The sight of Ajay’s footprints leading away from the charred helicopter was all he needed to see.

Later, they insist on showing him around 'their' valley. At least some of it.

“Paradise on earth! Praise to Yalung!” they say. Pagan looks around at the icy desolation, and while it’s beautiful in its own way he figures any true paradise should have at least one beach.

They take a jeep out and Pagan tries to keep track of landmarks, building a map in his head. He has to think hard to hold onto it and that scares him a little. This sort of mental exercise used to be something he could do easily, an idle game. Now, even concentrating he keeps losing it.

I suppose that’s what being flung out of a helicopter will do to you, he thinks.

Fortunately, the sporeheads are not conversationalists, and don’t try to speak to him or distract him.

Ajay, Ajay, my boy...where in the fuck are you?

Unfortunately, the trip is short and he sees no sign of Ajay, not that he expected to. He knows that Ajay’s not dead, or even hurt so badly that he wasn't able to walk out. He saw the footprints himself, before they left the canyon, has to keep telling himself that he’s fine, that he’s tough and smart and fast. He knows that Ajay will come to him. He just has to make sure that these crazy fuckheads don’t kill him on the way in.

They reach their destination, a cave not far from the canyon. Also not far from that tantalizing glimpse of smoke on the horizon that may be a farm or an outpost and thus the possibility of a radio, but they don’t let him see that, oh no.

‘Honored guest,’ my ass, he thinks irritably.

When he gets out of the jeep, a wave of vertigo assails him and he has to hold onto the door for a few seconds and hope they don’t notice. He’s doing his best to move with his old self-assured stride; the more kingly he behaves the less likely they are to just kill him out of hand, but it’s difficult. He aches all over. His head has started hurting again and the light feels searingly bright, so he’s grateful for the relative darkness of the cave.

He still has no idea what they’ve brought him out here to see.

 

They lead him further in and it’s set up as a sort of jail cell with bars and a locking door, if jail cells were very large and had altars in them. Curious, he peers in but sees nothing of any real note, just a brazier with no fire currently in it. The standard assemblage of religious statues and prayer flags and lamps. This was probably once the local shrine for the abandoned village just outside.

The cavern beyond is huge and seems to continue back further, but the light from the butter lamps doesn’t reach very far.

He hears the sounds of scuffling feet behind him and turns to see two of the cultists leading a third man, a Sherpa by his looks and dress. The man is sobbing and seems past speaking, and the cultists unlock the door and drag him through.

There are metal rings set in the floor in front of the altar, Pagan sees now, and they secure the Sherpa’s wrists to one of these. They come back, shut the door, lock it. They all stand in hushed silence, watching the bound man.

What in the fuck? Pagan thinks.

Silence.

 

And then something bellows from the back of the cave, and the sound makes every hair at his nape stand at attention. There’s something wrong in it; something alien, something indescribable. Suddenly their faces are shadowed as the...thing stands and blocks the wan light, and it must be ten feet tall. At least.

The Yalung guys all call out joyously, “See the Awakened, the Child of Yalung! He accepts our sacrifice!” as the shape lunges for the Sherpa.

Pagan’s eyes widen as the man’s screams are suddenly cut off as his head is yanked off and flung, with no more effort than plucking a grape from the stem. He has...never felt fear like this, not as an adult.

This is the all-encompassing fear of a small child who has bad dreams in the night. This is that nightmare made real, but at the same time it defies reality, defies sanity.

 

Pagan can only watch in absolute horror as the cultists start cheering and the sound of moist gnawings fill the air.

 

-----------------------------------------

 

Ajay rakes the valley below with his battered old camera for what feels like the five thousandth time, hunting for any sign of Pagan. It’s been three long, agonizing days since the crash, and he’s found nothing so far, except for Yuma’s men in the distance. He’s stayed as far from them as possible.

On that third day though, he finds Pagan’s wool coat crumpled at the foot of one of the weird deer skull shrine things he keeps finding. He picks it up with trembling fingers.

“Oh Jesus,” he whispers. There’s so much blood on it, from the collar all down the right side.

Throat tight, he just holds it to himself for a moment. He’s seen enough blood on clothes to have a good idea of the difference between your own and somebody else’s, and isn’t that a disturbing thought, but he’s almost certain that it’s Pagan’s. He was going to roll the coat up and put it in his pack, but he finds his hands going through the sleeves, putting it on. Hunting for clues, he searches the outside pockets and finds an extra pair of gloves, a few pieces of linty candy, and a handkerchief. He gratefully eats the candy, starving.

But the coat still feels heavier than it ought to, and the inner pocket reveals a stainless Beretta, one of Pagan’s personal guns with grips that were made for his hands. It feels pretty good in his own, as well. He gratefully tucks it into the back of his waistband. There’s also a small black case that turns out to contain a pen.

Oh, it’s that pen. The stabby one.

With all my love, Ishwari, he reads on the side of it. A picture of his mother and Lakshmana tucked into the lid. God, she was so young. Beautiful. Twenty, maybe? They were both so young, her and Pagan.

Obviously, this is something that’s really important to him, and he sets the case gently to the side as he shrugs the coat on all the way, belts it. He’s grateful for it; the cold is fucking brutal up here and while it’s tailored for Pagan, it fits him pretty well. They’re almost the same size.

Ajay touches the peacock pin and remembers Lakshmana’s urn. He undoes the pin’s clasp removes it, putting it with the pen case.

Something in the air makes him lift his head. He needs to move, he’s spent too long here. Already the sky is darkening into evening and the wind is picking up, and he needs to get to a lower elevation and get a fire going for the night. He grabs his extra pair of socks and carefully wraps up Pagan’s things and pushes the roll into the middle of his pack, the safest place.

Searching for Pagan has been an exercise in continual frustration. He’ll have to hike down further into the valley to find shelter and firewood and then hike all the way back up here at daybreak to search for tracks. He has his penlight, but there have been patrols all over the place and he senses that they are not friendly. Yuma’s administration was never that loyal to Pagan, hasn’t been in years, and while Pagan’s spent the last six months or so rooting the traitors out these guys have been out here for longer than that. But beyond that, there’s something else, something about this whole situation, the way that the soldiers are moving, the patterns…it’s all wrong, somehow. He can’t put his finger on it.

He keeps his fires hidden and stays in cover as much as possible, which makes his search that much slower and more difficult. Down south, the rock outcropping that the shrine was propped against would have been a nice windbreak and been plenty of cover, but here the nights are shivering misery. Not having a fire is not negotiable.

He finds a decent spot for a camp, gets a fire going with hands that rapidly go numb without gloves on. The cold is pretty brutal, but he doesn’t dare make a larger fire. Pagan’s thick wool coat helps a lot though, and as he burrows into the pile of dead leaves that is his bed for the next few hours of snatched sleep, Pagan’s gun next to his hand, he tucks his nose down into the collar of the coat to keep it from freezing off.

It still smells like him.

It makes him think of waking up with Pagan’s warm weight against him, running his hand down his side, so grateful that things were okay between them, that they could do this, that Pagan was willing to try, for him. Only three days ago. It makes him want to cry.

I’m coming, are his last thoughts before drifting off. Hold on for just a little longer. I’m coming for you quick as I can, just like you would for me. And that’s true. Pagan would move heaven and earth to find him, even if it was just himself in a borrowed coat, with a borrowed gun. He thinks of the sock roll in his pack and stubbornly refuses to let his mind dwell on what if I can’t ever give those things back to him, keeps steering it away. He can’t, he can’t do that. Can’t go there.

He has to stay sharp and focused. His best hope is that some of Yuma’s former soldiers have found Pagan and still have enough respect to help him. Hell, Pagan might be fine and those patrols he keeps seeing might be Pagan’s efforts to find him. But he knows that’s not right, his instincts say that’s not right…and his instincts have kept him alive many times before. It’s only wishful thinking.

Late in the night, he’s startled awake by his radio going off, and his heart soars.

 

--------------------------------------------

 

It isn’t Pagan.

 

“Attention, Interloper in the Sacred Valley, we have what you seek, what you have come to assassinate. You pollute this valley with your very presence. If you want to kill the man you came to kill, you will have to come to the Canyon of Awakening and brave Yalung’s fury.”

The radio goes silent.

Ajay sits there dumbfounded, and responds on the same channel.

“I’m…not looking to kill anybody, I’m just trying to find King Min. Our helicopter crashed up on the ridge. Who is this?”

And what does Yalung have to do with it? Like, the demon god thing in the mythology? That Yalung?

“All you need to know, Interloper, is that I am the Master of this Valley, chosen by Yalung to be an instrument of his will. And I see through your lies. You are here to pollute, and desecrate, and murder. Your target lies with us. Come and find him, if you dare.”

Ajay sighs, pinches the bridge of his nose. It’s obvious that everyone in this place has lost their ever-loving minds.

“Are you with the lost battalion, Yuma’s men? If you have Pagan with you, is he okay? Can I talk to him? If I come to this canyon, will you let me talk to him?”

No answer.

Just as he thinks there’s not going to be an answer, the radio crackles to life.

“The Canyon is just to the south of where we brought your vile helicopter down, Interloper. We await you. Your death will be pleasing to Yalung.”

The radio goes silent again.

Well, at least he know where Pagan is now and is likely alive, if it isn’t a lie to lure him in. What in the fuck is going on in this valley?

 

----------------------------------------------

 

Pagan brings his fist down as hard as he dares on the Master’s desk, just enough to emphasize his point.

The man’s name is Sandesh, and he’s apparently the one in charge of this utter…whatever this is. The now spore-infested battalion. He seems possibly saner than his underlings, but in a megalomaniacal, television preacher sort of way. Benny Hinn painted up like a sadhu and rambling about spores and elixirs and fucking Yalung. Just looking at him makes Pagan’s battered skull start to hurt again.

Crazy people are the hardest to deal with. You can never predict what in the bloody hell they’re likely to do.

“Sandesh, I explicitly do not want that man in the valley harmed. He’s hardly an assassin. He is my valued associate and I want him safely returned to me.” Pagan takes a breath. “You may be the Master here, but I am still the King.”

And that right there is all he dares to push Sandesh’s prickly ego, thinking of that…thing that Sandesh keeps in a cage to feed his enemies to. Or random civilians. He’s not too clear there, what the criteria is.

Oh, his head aches.

Sandesh leans back in his chair. Steeples his fingers.

“He is a pollution in this sacred place. Unclean.”

“If he is a pollution, Sandesh, then so am I,” Pagan responds easily. An ease he certainly doesn’t feel. Something building into raw fury, more like, is what he feels.

Sandesh pretends to consider this, while Pagan vibrates gently with rage and tries to keep it off his face. Since the injury, it’s been hard, very hard, to keep his emotions in check. It makes dealing with these fucking idiots even harder. It’s always games with this one, and that makes his blood pressure skyrocket faster than anything. To be toyed with, while Sandesh holds the not-so-subtle threat of his monster over Pagan’s head. Of harm to Ajay. It will be a fine day indeed, when those tables are turned. It won’t be today, or even next week, but they will be turned. Nobody threatens that boy. Nobody.

Pagan is very patient in certain facets of life.

Finally, Sandesh lifts his hands in a magnanimous gesture.

“Very well, King Min, you shall have this…associate of yours, this valuable man back. However,” and isn’t there always a fucking however, you shitstain, Pagan thinks savagely, “he will have to undergo the Ritual of Purification upon his arrival. You both will. It is the Will of Yalung.” Sandesh smiles a little then, as if this is profound or something.

How convenient, you sanctimonious twat. Everything that is your own sick idea is conveniently Yalung’s Will.

Pagan tries to keep the dismay out of his expression, even though he half anticipated this sort of thing.

Oh Ajay, my love, please don’t hate me for this…but I can’t see any other way. These people are all insane. And they are always on the edge of bloodshed.

“Together?” he grunts.

“If you wish it to be so. Together, or with others, I care not.”

“Together, and I have conditions. In one of the secondary caves, ringed with torches, and silence.”

Sandesh looks a little taken aback, but then laughs as if Pagan has made a fine joke.

“King Min, you are a bold man. We are both bold men, are we not? Rulers, in our own right?”

He goes so far as to actually clap Pagan on the shoulder, as if they are comrades, as if he has no idea that Pagan wants to force him to eat his own liver.

Sandesh removes his hand then.

“Very well, I am feeling generous. It will be as you ask,” and Pagan tries not to let Sandesh see him sag in relief, glad he’s already let go of him. It’s something; not much, but something. It might be just enough to keep this from breaking them.

And then Sandesh just has to go and say it.

“I have every confidence that the two of you will make a fine showing for our Lord Yalung.”

And Pagan shivers in disgust.

Sandesh, the day of your death is approaching, and you don’t even know it. For this thing, for all of these things, you are going to pay, and pay, and pay.

 

---------------------------------------------

 

After the arduous climb back up, past the remains of the helicopter, Ajay can see a twisting path through the ice and rock. He had missed it before, or maybe just disregarded it altogether, knowing Pagan wasn’t that way. Funny, maybe he should have just stayed here and waited. The thought has a tinge of bitter amusement to it, after four days of survival, evasion, and attempting to track Pagan. But any case here he is, now headed to Pagan, or at least the trap that these guys can spring around him by just using Pagan’s name as bait. They may not realize how effective that bait is, but he knows himself; he would come to investigate every time they used it. Couldn’t not do it.

He rounds the corner and sees the actual canyon now, the caves and bridges and feels the icy, pervasive wind. He keeps wanting to drop into a stealthy crouch and has to keep forcing his knees straight. Some part of him knows that he needs to walk in here with hands out and empty, let them take a look at him and decide what to do.

If they don’t actually have Pagan...well, there’s always time for shooting afterwards.

And here is his welcoming committee. These guys have been chasing him through the bush for days now, and he still hadn’t gotten a really good look at them, but what he sees now is bizarre.

They’re wearing the remnants of standard cold weather Army gear, but some of them have attached skulls to their hoods, some of them have stuff painted on their parkas, some of them seem to have painted their faces...and there’s another guy in the middle of them, taller than the others, that seems to be wearing some kind of long cloak. As he walks steadily forward, hands held out to his sides, the sun comes out from behind the oppressive cloud cover for just for a moment, illuminating the tall guy’s head. His hair, he realizes. Holy shit, that’s Pagan.

The cold wash of relief makes him shaky for a moment, but he keeps wanting to drop into that wary and defensive crouch because this situation is so weird. They’re all still standing there, stock-still in the cold wind. Including Pagan. None of them has made a sound. He’s going to keep moving forward until they stop him, keep moving to Pagan, try to think of what to do.

As he gets closer, Pagan looks...stranger and stranger too. The cloak has fur across the shoulders, wolf maybe, and goes all the way to his boot tops. He’s wearing boots, Ajay realizes, standard army issue. He’s never seen Pagan in anything not resembling fine and Italian. Actually, he’s wearing boots and gray fatigues. His face is painted too, at least around the eyes a bit...a rough, primitive looking version of his usual makeup. And the long part of his hair in the front is in a little braid. Somehow, that’s the most fucked up thing.

He’s been hurt too, nasty looking gash on his face under that braid. Some bruising on that side that he can see, now that he’s closer.

The overall effect is...dark, and primal, and disturbing in a way that causes just a touch of arousal down deep. Mirror Universe Pagan; he remembers that old tv show.

No, no time for that. Push that down.

And all these guys are still just standing here, still doing nothing. So he finally stops about ten feet from Pagan, and waits for someone to do something. He has the gun in the inner pocket of Pagan’s coat, where he can plunge a hand in easily, ready to draw at the slightest provocation.

Pagan’s face is impassive. After a few seconds, he jerks his head a little at the caves behind him.

“Come with me, Mr. Ghale.” And turns, that cloak swirling around him.

Shit…what? Mr. Ghale?

The...he doesn’t know what to call these guys, they’re certainly not regular army anymore, shuffle aside to let him through. As he passes, he happens to look one more closely in the face and recoils. The eyes, the guy’s eyes are fiery orange, and the whites are a sickly yellow-green. And not all of their faces are painted, some are just crusty with gray white stuff, like something you’d find growing on a fucking tree. Jesus, he thinks, and Pagan stops, looking over his shoulder like he’s expecting his order to be obeyed, and Ajay doesn’t know what to do besides follow and hope to figure out what in the actual fuck is going on here.

Pagan leads him into the dimness of the caves, a long and twisting route. It’s a huge network, passages going off in all directions, the occasional torch bolted to the wall at an intersection. Pagan leads him through a doorway into a small cave that appears to be being used as a living quarters.

As soon as they’re both in the privacy of this room he turns and surges into Ajay’s arms, pressing his lips to his in something more elemental than a mere kiss, like he wants to breathe Ajay in, then buries his face in Ajay’s neck.

“My darling boy...” Pagan mumbles into his skin. And Ajay can feel tears sliding down his own face in sheer relief.

Maybe, maybe this is going to be okay.

 

Holding him like this makes Pagan’s face hurt, but he’s too busy taking in lungfuls of Ajay to much care. The relief of having him here like this is almost overwhelming, but it’s tempered by the weight of having to tell him what they’ll have to do later, a sharp anxiety in his chest.

“Pagan,” Ajay whispers into his neck, “I think you need to kinda fill me in on what the fuck is going on here. I kind of feel like we’re in some kind of crazy alternate universe.”

“I know exactly what you mean, my boy. I’ll do my best, but some of it defies explanation.”

They sit together on the edge of the 'bed'; there is no other furniture in the room.

“How badly are you hurt?” Ajay gently reaches out and brushes his fingers along the edge of his bruised eye socket, feather light and avoiding the cut.

“A concussion, for certain.”

Ajay winces. “Bad?”

Pagan nods. “Bad enough. I was lying in the snow for hours, drifting in and out of consciousness. I really don’t remember much of that part though,” Pagan says. “These...cultist guys, or whatever, found me and I was so out of it that I kicked one in the face. I came to again and they were wrestling me out of my coat. I still have no idea why.”

“Well, you did bleed an awful lot on it,” Ajay says, waving at the right side of said coat. “I found it at one of those skull shrine things. It scared me when I found it, but head wounds always bleed like crazy.”

“Hmm. I’m sorry that they left it for you to find like that. In any case, I came to again, here in these caves somewhere and there was one of them leaning in with a knife in my face.”

Pagan reaches out to snag Ajay’s collar and pull him closer, so close their heads are touching.

“I’m afraid that they might be listening,” he murmurs. His warm breath ghosting across Ajay’s ear makes him shiver a little. “But if we talk quietly, it should be all right.” Pagan leans back again.

“That time there was light enough to see his motherfucking creepy eyes. You know what I’m talking about. I hit that one as hard as I could and tried to make a run for it, but the floor tilted up to say hello before I could get more than a few steps. Silly me. I hadn’t realized yet just how hard that knock on the head had been. The next time I woke up I was in here, clad only in my underpants. They had cleaned my face up, and did this.” He flicks at the braid.

“I think that rude fellow with the knife was trying to cut my hair to keep it out of the mess, but I suppose they thought it wise not to try again. And I can understand why they’d take my coat and jacket off, maybe, but every-fucking-thing else? Everything about this place and these people is bizarre. Nonsensical. They left my shirt and this cloak though, so here I was running around this place barefoot and pantsless looking for the rest of my clothes, which I never did find, by the way. I had to steal things from some supply crates. I keep thinking I’ll see one of those fellows wander by in my silk jacket, and another in my good trousers. Good thing it hasn’t happened yet, because I would have to point and laugh and that would probably bring them all down on us.”

While Ajay is chuckling at that mental picture, Pagan wiggles his booted feet and sighs.

“The only thing I couldn’t find was socks. One of those things that you don’t really miss until you don’t have them. I’d kill to have a pair right about now.”

In all the excitement, Ajay forgot about the sock roll in his pack. He digs around and finds it and hands it to Pagan, along with his gun.

“Here, no killing necessary. I have an extra pair, and…I knew you’d want these things back,” he says, suddenly a bit shy. When he looks back at Pagan’s face, his eyes are suspiciously shiny. He’s running his fingers across the peacock pin.

“Thank you, my dear,” Pagan says, a little huskily. The endearment makes Ajay’s ears warm. “These things are important to me, yes, but not nearly so important as you.” He ruffles Ajay’s hair.

“I was so worried about you. But I knew you were alive and well enough to walk away from that crash, and that you’d come back here. I saw your footprints leading away to the cliff’s edge, and I remembered your grappling hook, resourceful boy.”

He smiles and hands the gun back to Ajay.

“But here, you keep this for the moment, and my coat too if you’re cold. It looks good on you, except for the blood. I’m warm enough in this ludicrous blanket thing.”

“Actually, I think the ludicrous blanket thing, as you call it, looks pretty good on you too. Kinda hot.” Ajay grins at him.

“Oh please,” Pagan says, rolling his eyes, “fucking spare me. I look like a shitty extra on that television show, that one with the girl and the dragons.” He sighs again. “I have no idea why they insist that I wear it, but I’ve indulged in whatever little weirdnesses they’ve sprung on me. When they came to get me to meet you, one of them looked me in the face and says, ‘You don’t have your king eyes. You need king eyes.’ What the fuck does that even mean? I thought to myself. So one produces some of the facepaint they use, and made me stand there while they smeared some on my eyes in some approximation of eyeliner, I suppose. I have no idea, I haven’t actually seen it.” He shakes his head.

“Madness. But they’re all hair- triggered. Do your best not to piss them off, it’s like flipping a switch and then they’re shrieking and cutting each other’s heads off with machetes, I kid you not.”

“Fuck,” Ajay says, eyes wide.

Pagan gets up and pokes his head into the hallway, listening for a minute, and then comes back.

“I gave you back my gun because I found something else while I was searching those crates, look,” and reaches back and pulls some of the bed furs away from the wall. Ajay turns to see and holy shit, he’s got an LMG squad support weapon tucked down in the gap. An MKG maybe? It looks huge in this dim light and it seems weird that it was just left in a random crate, because someone’s mounted optics on it and painted it with a ridiculous red and black tigerstripe pattern.

Pagan sighs happily, pats the gun with fondness.

“I know, my boy, I know. Beautiful. I named it Ripper,” and he sounds like he’s a little in love, a little gleeful, like that time that they got an MG42 out of the armory and shot a bunch of squash with it.

“And look here, AP rounds. Yuma went all out, it seems, to our partial benefit now. However,” and he flicks the furs back into place, “we are not out of the lion’s den yet, I’m afraid. Their leader here is a man named Sandesh, formerly Colonel Sandesh. Now he just calls himself the Master.”

“He’s the one that called me on the radio,” Ajay says.

“He is insane…they all are, but he is maliciously so. He was Yuma’s second-in-command for this little field trip, and all of this, the men’s eyes, the Yalung cult stuff; all his doing. He’s been doing experiments with the local plant life. These caves are full of mushrooms that he’s been distilling…mushrooms that fucking move. They’re all drinking it, the resulting elixir shit…getting high off it? I don’t know, but they think it helps them commune with Yalung, or something. It’s all very confusing and nonsensical, even more so than the general run of religion.” Pagan pauses, sighs unhappily. “I did get exposed to some of the spores once, and there were voices, and…it was deeply unpleasant. I certainly don’t recommend it. Definitely not the fun kind of mushrooms.”

Pagan decides to leave the conversation about the yeti things for another day, not sure how to even begin to describe what that’s all about, not sure how much he himself understands. But he does understand one thing; he’s going to have to tell Ajay about his conversation with Sandesh. What they’ll be doing shortly, and he can’t put it off any longer. His heart thuds slow and loud in his ears.

“One of the things that they believe is that anyone other than themselves is a pollution in their ‘sacred valley’ and Sandesh is insisting that the two of us undergo a purification ritual that they do here, to make an offering to Yalung.”

It’s difficult to force the words out. How in the fuck is he going to tell him this, let alone do it?

Ajay sits there, looking at him expectantly, waiting for him to go on.

“Yeah, what do we have to do? Sacrifice a goat or something?”

“There is sacrificing, but that’s not what we’ll be doing. Apparently they think Yalung is pleased by the spilling of bodily fluids of all sorts, and our part,” and Jesus Christ, he can’t believe they’re in this position…“is to fuck while they watch.”

He genuinely wants to hide somewhere.

Ajay recoils. “What.” And his voice is flat and angry.

“That’s…not funny. That’s a fucking shitty joke, Pagan. Fuck,” and he’s rubbing his eyes and Pagan’s chest hurts him a little.

“I thought you might have died, Pagan, for days I wasn’t sure if you were dead or alive. Goddamnit.”

Pagan sighs, looks away.

“No, I’m not joking with you,” and his own voice is flat, wooden. “I wish it were a joke. I wish you were only angry with me for an off-color joke, not…this. That cunt Sandesh threatened you to get me to agree to it, and…heaven help me, I couldn’t see a way around it. It’s do it, or they kill us both.”

“Just…please, try not to hate me for this,” Pagan says, angry, miserable.

Silence from Ajay, and not a comfortable one. Pagan has to continue, staring at his hands.

“I was able to get some concessions out of Sandesh. They usually do this ritual business in the big cave, with the spores and altars and dying animals and all that, and I insisted it be the two of us, not paired off with others, in one of the smaller caves. With torches set up so that they can see us, but we can’t see them. No talking, no…chanting, or whatever. No wailing. And that’s the best I could do for us. Even that was pushing it.”

Ajay still doesn’t say anything. Won’t look at him.

“Say something, boy,” and shit, it comes out more terse than he meant, anxiety making his voice sharp.

“What the fuck do you expect me to say? Huh? That I’m completely fine and hunky-dory with this shitfest?” He curls on himself slightly. Pagan reaches out to comfort, and Ajay flinches away from him a little. He lets his hand drop. Doesn’t know what to say. It looks like despite his best efforts, this has already broken them. Broken what’s between them, their fledgling relationship, before it even really got started.

Pagan finds himself hunching slightly too.

“This…you’re right, we don’t have to do this, it’s completely and utterly demeaning, a sick game. We’ll come up with a plan. We have the big gun, perhaps we can go that route…”

“You know that’s not going to work. You’re injured, I’m exhausted. I haven’t slept in four days, just snatches here and there.”

Ajay’s head comes up a little. “No, I’ll do it. If that’s what we have to do.” He winces at the tone in his own voice. Maybe he can get into a mindset where this doesn’t feel like a humiliating chore, like having to take out the trash with no clothes on. He reaches out, rubs at Pagan’s shoulder. He turns and looks at Ajay and his eyes are bleak. Like he thinks that they’re done or something. Like Ajay doesn’t want him. That look in his eye is starting to make him feel pissed off, fucking pissed. How dare these sporehead Yalung cocksucking motherfuckers.

 

And anger is always better than humiliation.

 

“Yeah, you know what?” he says hotly, “Fuck that Sandesh son of a bitch. If those assholes want a show, then we’ll give ‘em a goddamned show. I mean, it was going to happen between us sooner or later anyways, right? If they want to watch, let them watch, I don’t care. If this is how our first time is going to be, then so be it.” He suddenly stands up.

“It’ll be an act of defiance, like a protest. We’re gonna do it, and we’re gonna enjoy it, and we’re gonna shove it in their faces that we’re having a great time and they’re not. A protest fuck.”

Pagan blinks at him. Blinks again. Ajay’s standing there with his hands on his hips, eyes blazing, jaw set. A defiant little smile on his face. A protest fuck.

And Pagan can’t help it. This entire situation that they have found themselves in is so bizarre, so ludicrous, he can’t help but laugh. And once he catches a glimpse of Ajay’s face again, he really can’t stop. Partly the situation, partly the diffusion of tension has him laughing so hard he’s crying, and apparently Ajay can also see the absurdity of the universe because he starts too. They laugh until they’re holding their aching bellies, and Ajay falls half into his lap while wiping tears.

After they’ve calmed down, Ajay looks up at him.

“So,” Ajay says cheerfully, “How are we going to do this. Like, logistics. Have you ever done this? I hope so, ‘cause I sure as shit haven’t.” He still feels bad about earlier. He really didn’t mean it as a personal rejection.

“It’s been many many years, but yes, I have.”

“Do you think we should, like...” Ajay struggles to find an appropriate word. “Practice, or something?” He makes a face. “Maybe we should get just really, really drunk.” The thought of “practicing” is doing warm things to Ajay’s insides, but Pagan is laughing and shaking his head.

“No, in this one case I think being drunk is not...well, maybe a little bit drunk, but no getting blitzed.”

“Well, I think you should do it,” Ajay blurts. “You’re the one with experience, after all. I’m afraid I’ll hurt you.”

Pagan blinks at him. “Your logic is...not very logical. If I’m the one with experience, shouldn’t I be the one on the, erm, receiving end?” He really can’t remember the last time he’s blushed, grateful that it’s a bit dark.

“Yeah, but how long has it been? Since before I was born?”

“As it happens, technically yes, when I was away at school...although could you make a man feel any older, really, Ajay?” Pagan grouses.

And then his traitorous and injured brain, before he can even register it, let alone stop it, pops out with, “But later there were a few times with Ish...”

“Oh my god.” Ajay says, eyes wide, as Pagan’s hands shake with the effort of not physically slapping his hands over his own mouth like in a cartoon. Whoops.

“No details. Jesus Christ Pagan, please, no details.”

But Pagan can see the wheels turning in poor Ajay’s innocent mind, as it attempts to not paint a mental picture of how that would work exactly. Everyone knows how well it works when you tell your brain to not think of something. Apparently he’s come to some sort of conclusion because he makes a deeply pained sound like he does when he has to skin something.

“Ajay, I am deeply sorry about that. But, to answer your question...that was the last time.”

Ajay shudders a little.

“Well, I am so sorry I asked, I really am. But while I don’t want to think about it, or picture it, or allude to it again in any fucking way…I actually really don’t care about whatever kinky shit you guys got up to. You know, in the abstract. Very abstract. You made her happy, and that’s what matters. As I got older, even though she never talked about you I got the impression that she had left somebody back in Kyrat, and that he was pretty much it. You totally ruined the dating game for her.”

“Well, I have to say she rather did the same for me, as well,” Pagan says.

Ajay looks at him, and Pagan finds himself admiring the smattering of freckles across his nose.

“You know, this conversation went in a weird direction, and I totally and completely blame you for it. Let’s…talk about something else now. Maybe what we were talking about before shit went off the rails.”

He smiles up at Pagan then, and there’s a little heat in it, just a little.

“You mean how you’re going to do the honors, as it were?” Pagan says, and puts a hint of a purr in it.

The way the low light is sparkling in Ajay’s eyes and the way he’s draped over his lap like this really, really makes Pagan want to kiss him.

And of course, because that’s how things seem to go for them, the sporeheads choose that moment to show up.

Chapter Text

Ajay doesn’t like the fact that they take them in separate directions, but Pagan shoots him a warning with his eyes not to argue. The spore guys bring him to an even smaller room where there’s a pan of hot water and soap and some makeshift towels. The Yalung guys start to try to pull his clothes off him but he waves them off and does it himself, still in a state of disbelief that this is happening. Then they try to actually fucking wash him and Ajay has to wave them off again, incredulous, and does it himself as quickly as possible.

They bring this loincloth…thing for him to wear, but beyond a muttered “You gotta be fucking kidding me,” he’s quiet and lets them mostly do what they want. He would laugh if he knew that Pagan was off with his own “attendants" and saying almost the exact same thing. A muttered “Really, guys? Really?”

They lead him and Pagan out at the same time from opposite sides of the room, and Ajays’s first glimpse of Pagan is like being punched in the gut.

He’s got his own stupid little loincloth but it sort of fits because he’s also wearing that cloak and the warm light makes his hair look like burnished gold and the rest of him is all planes and shifting shadows as he moves. This is the first time he’s really gotten to look his fill, since he seemed a little uncomfortable with the scrutiny that first night, and oh man…Ajay has no idea why, he’s gorgeous. He’s struck again by how intense his first reaction to seeing Pagan again was, relief and arousal mixed up together, and the sight of his broad shoulders and big hands and the sort of molten look that he’s giving him right now is doing very interesting things to his insides.

Oh, Pagan wants this all right, he can tell, and if he was ever unsure about it himself…well, he can put that to rest. It was going to happen eventually, Yalung crazies or not…but right here, right now, despite everything they both want this, and something that was a tight knot eases down low in Ajay’s belly.

Pagan wants me, wants me inside him, Ajay thinks, and to be connected like that…he’s getting hard thinking about it, breaks out in goosepimples. Thinks of how it will feel, to be that close to him.

It’s chilly in the cave, but he knows Pagan will be warm, will keep him warm.

Pagan has long since stopped seeing Ishwari when he looks at Ajay, but the torchlight shining in his dark eyes is doing visceral things to him, a flashback to seeing the same firelight in her eyes, that same heat, that same welcome. Ajay’s skin seems to glow over plush muscles and Pagan’s mouth goes dry.

He’s determined to keep Ajay focused on him and only him, and dear lord is he beautiful. He’s determined to make this as wonderful and mindblowing for Ajay as he can, because really, having to have coerced ritualistic sex is kind of the pits. They both want this, but fuck these guys.

If he can distract Ajay enough to keep intrusive thoughts of where and why they are doing this, and who is watching at bay…then maybe, just maybe, he won’t change his mind and hate and resent him for this. He wants it now, but he’s hoping Ajay won’t regret it in the morning.

They just stand for a minute, watching, taking each other in. Pagan’s “attendant” pushes a vial of oil into his hand, nudges him forward, and steps outside the circle.

Dead silence.

Ajay listens hard, but he can’t hear anything but the crackle of the torches. This cave has a low stone shelf kind of like the one in Pagan’s room, except bigger and not attached to a wall. It probably used to be a giant stalactite or something, broken off long ago. The cultists have put furs on it and big floor torches in a circle, just like Pagan asked. He has no idea if there are ten people or a hundred in this cave with them.

The vial in Pagan’s hand is a tangible reminder of what they are going to do, and Ajay swallows hard. He watches as Pagan sweeps off his cloak and lays it over the furs. He puts the oil down in easy reach, and climbs onto the shelf, on his knees. He waits for Ajay to come to him with that heat in his eyes, a tiny smile curling his lips.

He wonders idly if Ajay has noticed that he hasn’t been able to stop his hands from shaking since they walked out.

Feeling like he’s in some kind of slow-moving dream, Ajay climbs up too. He wonders what his own eyes say. Pagan touches his arm so gently, but he still feels it like an electric jolt, he’s so keyed up. Pagan slides his hand down Ajay’s arm, takes his hand in his. Moves them so their fingers align, as if he’s comparing the length. He looks up and his eyes skewer Ajay.

“So, what do you think, my boy?” His voice is low and intense and like rough silk brushing at his skin. “Are you looking forward to having me, hmm? Having your fingers inside me?” Ajay shudders all over. Sweet Jesus. His stupid loincloth is almost instantly uncomfortable.

“Oiling your fingers and slipping them inside me, feeling that heat?” Pagan moves closer, shifts his fingers around Ajay’s to slide them up and down slowly. Ajay watches their joined hands, mesmerized.

“Or perhaps you would rather watch while I do that part?” he says, smiling, and that smile is fucking filthy. No, this is already absolutely unlike any other sexual experience Ajay has ever had, and how does being with Pagan this way feel so comforting but dangerous all at once?

Pagan just keeps watching him with those burning eyes and that smile, and Ajay realizes that he’s waiting for him. Waiting for him to come to him, maybe to prove that he’s not going to shy away, that he wants this as much as Pagan does. And he definitely does, oh does he ever.

He reaches out his other hand and lays it on Pagan’s chest, and gently slides it down to his belly as he shifts closer. He’s surprised to find that Pagan is trembling slightly, the faintest vibration under Ajay’s hand. Ajay finds himself wanting to kiss that dirty smile off his face.

Will he close his eyes in pleasure as I push into him? Will he writhe with how good it feels and Ajay needs to shut that line of thinking down, or this is not going to last long.

Not going to be much of a show…

…and god, he really shouldn’t have thought that last thing.

He can’t help it; his eyes dart to the torchlit circle, trying to see past it, trying to sense past it. What are they doing? There could be twenty, thirty, forty guys that could pour in on them at any second, orange eyes wide and mad, shrieking, kukris held high…

And Ajay’s mind slams back to Pagan because Pagan’s gotten his arms wrapped around his waist, skin to skin, their chests together. And his teeth are in Ajay’s ear, nibbling gently; Pagan has his sudden full attention. His entire body shudders.

“Now now Ajay, we can’t have that. Stay with me, hmm? I’m jealous and don’t appreciate wandering attention in my lovers,” Pagan breathes directly in his ear.

Goddamn, that was a near thing, Pagan thinks. Ajay’s eyes had narrowed, his body had gone wire-taut, ready to bolt. Possibly outside, probably toward a perceived threat, but Pagan’s almost certain that the collective lust of their hidden watchers can turn to bloodlust at the drop of a hat. Anything resembling refusal or aggression will probably set them off.

He absolutely refuses to hurry though; he wants this first time to be slow and burning and beautiful, but he really hopes that Ajay will soon be completely focused on fucking his brains out.

It’s his turn to shiver at a thought, and then Ajay has his face between his hands and is kissing him and he can’t help but groan into it because Ajay’s tongue in his mouth is like an electric shock that makes the heat pool in his groin.

Ajay thinks that it sounds like Pagan’s a man in the desert and Ajay is his water. It feels like Pagan is everywhere; hands circling his back, fingers threaded through his hair, another hand squeezing his ass gently. Ajay brushes his thumbs over his ridiculous cheekbones and thrusts his tongue gently along Pagan’s.

When he has to break away for air, he breathes in Pagan’s ear, “I really want to be inside you. I want to feel you that way, see myself sliding into you…”

The gut-punched sound he makes is like music to Ajay’s ears, and his hands go to the ties of their loincloths. Their only real redeeming factor is that they come off easily, and his first sight of Pagan makes that melting feeling in his belly happen all over again. He doesn’t get to look long though, because although he wants to touch, Pagan is pushing him down on his back and has his dick in his mouth in one smooth movement.

Ajay’s brain feels like it is literally melting. Although Pagan swears he’s out of practice, apparently it’s like riding a bike because it’s only awkward for a moment or two until he finds his rhythm. Ohgodohgodohgod, is all his stunned mind can think. He’s had girls do this to him approximately twice before, and as nice as he remembers it being they obviously didn’t know what they were doing.

Pagan sure as shit knows what he’s doing, and it’s so good, all hot slick suction, and when he looks down and sees how his hair is gleaming gold in this light, Pagan’s wet pink mouth wrapped around him, Pagan’s burning-bright eyes locked on his…he can’t take it anymore, he’s suddenly going to explode and dragging Pagan off of him and up into his arms has got to be one of the hardest things he’s ever done.

Ajay isn’t coherent enough to even remember why he shouldn’t have just come right there and then, groaning Pagan’s name. Maybe yelling Pagan’s name. He just lays there and breathes until a modicum of self-control comes back, holding Pagan close, and then he realizes that Pagan is rocking gently against his thigh like he can’t help himself, little helpless nudges, his length hot and heavy against Ajay’s skin. This time when he looks at Pagan’s face, his eyes are warm and gentle.

“I think it might be time, don’t you?” His voice is rougher than it was and Ajay kisses him in answer, and this time it’s slow and sweet and his hands are in Pagan’s hair. He can taste himself in Pagan’s mouth, on his tongue, which should be weird but he kind of likes it.

He’s curious and wants to touch but not tease him too badly, since Pagan seems awfully close himself. So he just gently brushes his hand up his length. Just feeling, and comparing. They’re pretty close to the same size in this department too. This slight contact still makes Pagan gasp, his eyes sliding closed. His head falls back and Ajay can’t help but press open-mouth kisses to his throat, to the delicate hollow at the base of it that he’s been admiring for months now.

“Ajay darling, as wonderful as that feels…oh…if you want me to come with you, it’s going to have to be soon,” and his voice is so, so wrecked.

The thought of Pagan coming around him, coming undone while Ajay is inside him has him scrambling for the bottle as Pagan gives a low, rusty chuckle. This brings him face to face with the ring of torches and the darkness behind him, but he hurriedly turns back to Pagan’s bright presence, to the steadying warmth in his eyes. Pagan takes the bottle from him and pours the gleaming oil over his fingers while he watches Ajay watching. Then, he reaches behind himself.

At first, his face looks like he’s concentrating, like it doesn’t really feel good yet. His expression shifts to a little wince, and Ajay almost stops him but then his face smooths out and he shivers in obvious pleasure.

Ajay has to see this. Pagan’s fingers are sliding in and out wetly and the oil gleams gold and that place is pink and inviting and Ajay has to touch too. He gets some oil on his fingers and runs his other hand up along Pagan’s ass and over the small of his back.

"I want to touch you,” he whispers. “But I don’t want to hurt you. Tell me what do.”

“Start with one first, easy, and just…oh, yes, like that. Just...just like that.”

Pagan's back arches a little as pushes back and he opens to take in Ajay’s finger and…wow. He’s so hot and smooth and tight inside, god…once they do this he knows he can’t last long. But he wants Pagan to come first. Or maybe Pagan’s orgasm will push him over…no, shove that thought away. Ajay thinks of cold showers, ice water, until Pagan tells him he can add another finger, and shows him how to stretch the muscles there.

Pagan is panting, head hanging, and Ajay can feel how trembling-close to the edge he is already.

Ajay has to have him, has to be inside him now, can’t wait any longer to have that connection. He pulls Pagan up against him for a moment, kissing and nuzzling, and then lies down because he can’t stand to not see his face when they do this.

Pagan gets more oil and drizzles it over Ajay’s cock and then in one smooth motion he’s straddling Ajay’s hips, grasping him and sliding down and it’s so hot and wet and tight, which threatens to make his eyes roll back in his head. It simultaneously makes Ajay worry about hurting him but Pagan just keeps taking him in, a slow hot slide until he’s completely flush. Ajay has his hands around Pagan’s hips and shudders, just watching his face.

Pagan has his eyes closed. He’s trying hard not to show any discomfort, but it burns a bit more than he remembers and he’s never done it this way, with him on top. But he’s been craving this so much…oh yes, so very much indeed. Ajay feel incredible inside him like this, like they were meant to fit together. He just has to hold still and let things stretch a bit, while Ajay vibrates underneath him. His flushed face and tousled hair and sparkling eyes are making his heart turn over in ways that it hasn’t for so long.

Ajay’s biting his lip with the effort of not moving when all he wants to do is thrust up into that slick heat, but Pagan has to be the one to set their pace here.

He moves his oily hand down Pagan’s chest and belly and gives him a little experimental stroke. He’s so ready he’s dripping. Pagan’s eyes fly open with a gasp and he looks down at Ajay with something that looks a bit like love and a bit like an inferno. Eyes locked with his, Pagan shifts just a little around him and Ajay quakes with how good it feels to be inside him.

Muscles flex under Ajay’s hands, and then Pagan starts to move. He puts both hands on Ajay’s chest and rocks up and down easily and it’s so, so mind-numbingly good. Pagan’s eyes keep sliding closed like it feels too good to keep them open, heavy-lidded and drugged with pleasure. We should have been doing this for months, Ajay thinks. He forgets where they are, who is around them, everything. They may as well be the only two people on the planet. In the universe.

In the background someone gasps, quickly stifled, but they’re way too lost in each other to hear it.

It takes them a bit to find their rhythm, but when they do he’s stroking Pagan and Pagan’s stroking him from the inside and it’s getting a little hard to tell where one of them ends and the other begins. If he props up on one arm, he can get close enough to kiss him. Strokes his tongue with his. Breathes in his breath. He’s shaking, Pagan’s shaking, they’re rocking together and it’s so very right. Pagan’s got his arm around Ajay’s neck and Ajay’s trying to find the perfect tightness for Pagan to fuck into, oily slide between their bellies and Pagan’s rocking against him even faster, and holy shit it’s perfect and he wants this to last forever but it can’t because Pagan ruts hard against Ajay and thrusts into Ajay’s fist once, twice, three times, and then comes apart in his arms.

His hoarse, strangled shout may have been Ajay’s name, and as Pagan’s come splashes over his hand and all over his chest and belly and as Ajay thrusts up into him the pleasured spasms of Pagan’s orgasm pull him off the cliff’s edge too, and they’re flying.

Pagan’s pressed against him hard and shuddering and Ajay thinks deliriously, We’ll be chasing his high for the rest of our lives; that and This is what love looks like. Him. It’s the last coherent thought he has before he spirals down into dark.

When Ajay regains awareness, it’s to Pagan touching his face and stroking his hair back.

“How long was I out?” he says muzzily.

“Only a minute or so,” Pagan murmurs.

He’s put a little space between them, not knowing quite how Ajay will react once he comes down, and Pagan doesn’t want to crowd him if this …this was it, the only time they’ll be together like this. If being forced to do this for a potentially murderous audience has broken something between them. This shit was a lot to go through for two people that had never even kissed properly before.

That thought of this being the only time makes Pagan’s throat burn a little, but he’s much too old to believe that sex of any sort, fucking mindblowing though it might be, is any reliable indicator of relationship status.

Keep telling yourself that, his traitorous mind whispers. But just because he personally couldn’t have responded that way, with that intensity, doesn’t mean that Ajay is wired the same way. Sure, even if he didn’t love him he could have gotten the job done for their purposes, and it might have even been enjoyable, but what they did together was…something else. Like it was just waiting for them to unleash it, regardless of when and who was watching. Less like sex and more like immolation.

It’s only happened to him one other time.

Pagan hates it when he has to compare Ajay to his mother, but in many cases he has no other frame of reference. He and Ishwari had come together like that once, connected like that just the once, but she had shied away after that. She had said that it was wonderful but too intense, too much like dreams of falling. Scared her a little.

And because he had loved her with every fiber of his being, he’d kept their lovemaking so gentle after that, even encouraged her to take control and fuck him instead a few memorable times, as he had inadvertently revealed to poor Ajay.

Oh, she had thought he was such a kinky bastard when he introduced the idea and the equipment necessary…but it was all for her. Everything for her. He had always let her dictate their pace, always gave her the escape routes she needed. The control she needed.

He had understood.

She had spent so much of her young life under the thumb of someone else, never in control of anything; first as the fucking Tarun Matara, later as Mohan’s child bride. Men had always stolen her control; over her destiny, her choices, her body, but Pagan had given that control right back to her. He still remembers her scandalized but amused look when he offered to let her tie him to the bed and paddle him raw. He would have, too. Anything she wanted. Anything.

But being with him the way he always wanted after that one time, fierce and wild and burning like the sun still felt too frightening, too out of control, even if it was only an illusion.

He never did learn how to do anything by half measures.

In contrast, when faced with those same feelings, Ajay had grabbed him with both hands and flung them right off that cliff and into the fire. Loving it. But really, what else could he expect of a man who goes leaping off of mountains for fun, with nothing but a wingsuit, a parachute, and a prayer?

“There you go again,” says Ajay, and his smile is gentle. “I can hear you worrying from here. Lost way too far in your head again. Earth to Pagan, come home to me, over.” He reaches out and rubs Pagan’s knee.

“I love you, I loved what we did, I completely forgot that these fuckheads were watching, and holy shit what was that. You did that. You got us through that, got them to make those concessions, and made it wonderful. I came so hard I blacked out…shit. You’re a fucking tiger, Pagan. If I had known that this is how it would be…but no, we had to build up to that, I think.”

Pagan supposes he means the bath and snuggling and fairly chaste kisses that was all they’d shared before now.

“Stop it. You wretched boy, you’re making me blush,” Pagan grouses, and it’s true, Ajay can see his ears are a little pink.

Ajay’s happy laughter at that is one of the best things he’s ever heard.

Chapter Text

They both start when one of the cultists approaches them. Pagan grabs his cloak and throws it across the both of them, wishing he had a weapon. He’s not sure why he bothers, they’ve all seen everything, but still.

Between the facepaint and the crusty spores it’s almost impossible to tell these guys apart, and he can feel Ajay tense up in readiness for whatever, talking or attack. But the man merely looks them over, and says, “We have accepted your purification. Yalung is pleased this day, praise to Him.” His voice has a tremor in it. With that, he turns a little unsteadily and walks away, back into the impenetrable dark.

“What was that about?” Ajay whispers. It was a little hard to see his expression, but the guy had looked stunned. Dazed, maybe.

Pagan looks back in the direction the cultist guy went.

“Let’s not talk out here,” he says, and they head back to their little cave room.

When they’re settled together on their furry bed, Pagan says, “I suspect that they’re a bit shaken up.” He smiles a little. “My dear, we may have put on too good of a show, believe it or not. I had the misfortune of seeing one of these little ritual parties when they first brought me here, and it was…not pretty. Bharal and sambar bleating, waiting for their turn at the altar, two guys joylessly and mechanically fucking, and that spore cloud shit making everything look all wavy.”

He shudders a little, shifts comfortably against Ajay, entwines their fingers.

“In any case, we broke the mold. We made beautiful, burning, epic love, which honestly was fairly surprising for all parties involved, given the circumstances.” He winks at Ajay, just to hear him laugh, which turns into a huge yawn.

Pagan’s face turns serious. “I still have zero trust in any of these madmen to keep any promises they make, so we should still be very careful, but hopefully we have won a bit of a reprieve. Long enough to get what we need and get the fuck out of Sporetown Central. Perhaps they all got their fucking rocks off and there won’t be any screeching and wailing tonight.” He sighs. “One can hope, anyways.”

“Pagan, we gotta talk about that tomorrow, but I have to pass out now,” Ajay says blearily. “Cn’t keep my eyes open annmore.”

“Shhh, dear boy, go to sleep. I’m here, and watching.”

“You gotta sleep too, Pagan. Hafta. You gotta let your brain heal, kay? So we can get outta here.” Ajay tugs at him. “Sleep.”

 

---------------------------------------------

 

Much later in the night Ajay jerks himself awake, unsure of why, but then slides immediately back into dreams that are all dark, all featuring the same theme.

In one, he and Pagan are enemy snipers that face each other from opposite sides of a battlefield. Pagan’s bullet thwips by his ear in a way that means business.

In another, Pagan is a demon with white hair and gold skin and claws. He swipes at Ajay and gets a hand around his throat, screeching in triumph. The muscles bulge in his bare arm as he tries to squeeze the life out of Ajay, but Ajay has his kukri and cuts Pagan’s arm off.

In yet another, they are warriors in antique steel armor, expected to fight in the name of honor and tradition, a long-standing feud. Ancient enemies. They’re really only enemies in name but Ajay kills him anyway, his blood pooling all over a dinner table.

He jerks himself awake at the end of every dream, heart pounding and breath shuddery, and Pagan is still there safe beside him. They have their arms around each other and every time he wakes Ajay pushes his head into Pagan’s warm chest and listens to his heart going slow and steady. Every time, Pagan nuzzles at him a little in his sleep, and all is right in the world. At least in this tiny corner of it. Right now, in this moment, they are safe and warm and together.

Ajay lets his eyes close again, willing the tone of his dreams in another direction.

 

And this time it works.

 

In this one, they’re fighting an encircling horde, their backs pressed tight against each other. He has an assault rifle and Pagan has Ripper trained on them. Ajay can feel his heat even through layers of clothing. The...things coming for them are monstrous, their eyes glowing orange and putrid yellow in the flare’s light. They’re probably going to be overwhelmed, but at least they are together, pressed warmly together, facing their enemies together.

 

When we wakes this time his back is against Pagan’s chest, almost too warm. Pagan’s sound asleep, which is very good. He needs to rest and heal as much as he can. One arm is draped over him, and Ajay’s using the other as a pillow. He looks along Pagan’s outflung arm and sees that he has his gun held loosely in his upturned palm and has it pointed at the door, which makes Ajay feel much better about them sleeping at the same time. His nose is buried in Ajay’s hair, little whuffs of breath stirring the hairs at his nape.

This is having an unfortunate effect on certain parts of his anatomy.

Pagan stretches and shifts a bit and slides his hand further down Ajay’s belly, nuzzles at the back of his neck a little...and sinks back into deep sleep.

That certainly didn’t help anything because his hand is now so low that Ajay’s pretty sure that his dick is going to bump it at any second. Maybe he can just shift Pagan’s hand down a bit? He doesn’t want to wake him, of course, but the thought of that big warm hand just resting its weight on him is a delicious one.

Oh, and it is, once he’s gently shifted it down with both of his own hands. He just lets it rest there, and the heat and weight and the slight roughness of his skin feels amazing. Ajay feels a tiny thrill like a secret, like he’s getting away with something, and he can’t help but rock up just a bit into Pagan’s hand.

He wonders, if he’s quiet about it, if he can come this way without waking Pagan up? That thought makes him swell even more. He needs this, this...affirmation of life or something after the dreams he’s been having. This affirmation of Pagan’s solid and continued existence against his back.

He presses Pagan’s hand down a little and rocks up into it again and again, gentle and easy, and tries to stifle the sound he makes. It’s so good and he’s rock-hard and dripping by now and fighting with the effort of holding back, just rubbing gently against Pagan’s palm, biting his lip.

Suddenly, Pagan’s hand tightens around him and he can’t stop the moan that the increase in friction pulls out of him. Almost simultaneously, Pagan’s tongue is sliding up the back of his ear.

“Insatiable,” Pagan murmurs. “You’re going to be the death of me.”

Pagan shifts his hips closer to Ajay’s ass, and he’s almost as hard as Ajay despite only having been awake for about 45 seconds. Ajay writhes in his grasp at the feel of his answering hardness, and moans.

“No, not death...only life.”

Which doesn’t make much sense, really, but it doesn’t matter because he suddenly knows that he wants Pagan inside him, wants to be connected the way they were last night, wants to feel him alive and thrusting and groaning Ajay’s name. Affirmation. He stills the stroking of Pagan’s hand because he’s already close, and pushes back against him.

“Need you,” he whispers, rocking his ass against Pagan’s answering hardness. Pagan props himself up enough so he can see Ajay’s eyes in the half light.

“Are you sure?” Pagan whispers back, lifts his free hand and ghosts a thumb along his eyebrow, his cheekbone. All this time, he’s kept the gun in the other hand trained at the door, and something about that fact makes Ajay love him just a little more. The way that it’s his instinct to protect them even while he’s sound asleep, even while Ajay’s distracting him like this.

“Yeah, I want you. Inside.” Ajay blushes a bit. “But it’s okay to put the gun down. We’ll be quiet, it’s okay. If we’re gonna do this, I want both your hands all over me,” Ajay says, a bit deliriously. Then he thinks of what it will feel like to have those long fingers inside him, where no one’s ever touched him before...he groans. He’s not going to last long at this rate, even if it does hurt a little; the mere idea of it has him so turned on he’s shaking with it.

Pagan can see that now-familiar glittering heat in his eyes, his flushed face, and carefully lays the gun to the side. He uses that hand to pinch a dusky nipple, and Ajay jerks and pants. Pagan can tell he’s already close. He rubs the other hand down the small of Ajay’s back and over his ass, slowly, so as to not surprise him. He wants to make this other first time as perfect as he can, under the circumstances. When he brushes his fingers against Ajay’s entrance, he writhes back against his hand. Jesus, Pagan thinks. I might not last very long either. He stops rubbing his nipple and just holds him tightly for a moment, so grateful again that the night before didn’t break something between them.

He lets the pad of one finger slip into Ajay’s entrance, just a tiny bit, and Ajay’s answering moan is so filthy that it surprises one out of him too. He mouths at the back of Ajay’s neck as he flails around behind him for the oil bottle, finds it, and then has to awkwardly get the lid off. Ajay, the little shit, just laughs at him but then helps, and then the sight of Pagan’s oiled fingers shuts him up.

As Pagan touches him again, slick and hot, he mutters Pagan’s name, and what sounds like a strangled yes. He works one finger in fairly easily, and when Ajay shudders he can feel it around his hand and he is so goddamned hot inside. Ajay’s already pushing back against him as Pagan stretches and teases and strokes, looking for that little spot inside. He adds another finger and Ajay grinds down into it.

This boy is everything good in my life, Pagan thinks, already lightheaded from the amount of blood volume that is tied up in his groin. He’s so hard it almost hurts.

Once he adds a third finger, he finds the spot he’s looking for and brushes against it gently. Ajay’s head snaps back with a muffled gasp, but Pagan’s ready for it and keeps his nose out of the way. He latches onto Ajay’s throat and bites, gentle, gentle, just a little suction and scrape of teeth as he holds Ajay firmly.

“Please, Pagan,” Ajay grinds out. He keeps repeating it like he’s not even sure what he’s saying anymore, and Pagan’s slicking himself up in record time, trying not to touch himself too much. He lines them up and Ajay just opens around him and he has to bite his shoulder a little with the effort of going slow. But Ajay is moving back against him too and slowly, together, they push until he’s seated to the hilt.

It is absolutely incredible, and he just holds Ajay and keeps still, savoring the feeling of tight heat and being as close as they can ever possibly be. Pagan kisses his ear.

“All right?” he whispers, and he can hear how shaky his voice is but he doesn’t have to be embarrassed because it’s Ajay. He nods, but there’s tension between his eyebrows. He opens his eyes and sees Pagan’s concerned face.

“It doesn’t hurt, it feels good,” he reassures him. “It’s just...different. A little weird. Just give me a sec.” Pagan knows that feeling. He holds him, brushes a hand through his hair, pets a soothing line down his chest and belly. He’s delighted to discover that he can feel Ajay’s heartbeat from the inside.

“Okay, move a little bit,” Ajay says, after a minute. And Pagan does, and they both gasp at the same time.

Ajay’s shocked to realize how much he loves this, being filled up and aware of his every shift, every small rocking movement. Pagan’s trembling against his back and Ajay reaches back for his hip to pull him even closer.

“It’s good, go faster. Actually, it’s better than good, it’s fantastic. I never thought I could feel like this, we’re so close, we’re so close together, like last night...” he rambles near Pagan’s ear, and Pagan groans.

His voice, like rough silk, “My darling, I’m sorry, I’m not going to be able to last much longer...”

“Shh, it’s okay. I bet we can come together again,” and Pagan smiles to hear the brightness in his voice, the joy. He picks up the pace a little, and Ajay shifts and then hisses.

“That, that right there. Right there. Oh my god Pagan, do that again.” And Pagan does his best to oblige, and Ajay makes a shaky wrecked sound and pushes back against him with every thrust. Pagan slides his still oily hand down and takes ahold of Ajay and he jerks, torn between thrusting into Pagan’s hand and pushing back to get more of that feeling. It’s so good that it’s hard to keep his eyes open, drunk on pleasure the same way Pagan was. He can feel the climbing tension in Pagan’s body, his shudders of pleasure, and Ajay gets his hand under Pagan’s head to grab a handful of his hair as an anchor. He can’t really kiss him from this angle, but he probably couldn’t do more than pant into his mouth anyways. He’s close, so incredibly close and Pagan’s hand is stroking him just right, almost like he can read his mind and what is happening in his ass feels like pleasurable electric shocks every time he brushes that spot, but he can also feel that Pagan’s still holding back and he doesn’t want him to.

“Come on,” he grunts. “Harder. Let go. It’s okay to let go, I want you to. I know you’re holding back on me.” He moans a little. “I want to see what you look like wrung dry.”

Pagan seems to be past words for the first time since they’ve known each other. He’s panting against the side of Ajay’s throat, big shuddering gasps, but he hears and grabs Ajay’s hip with his free hand and thrusts hard five or six times, short and sharp and fast, hitting that place inside him and it’s perfect and then Pagan buries himself and comes hard with a shuddering groan that he muffles in Ajay’s shoulder and Jesus, Ajay can feel it, feel him pulsing inside, and it pushes him over the edge too and he’s coming hot and creamy over Pagan’s fingers.

His brain just whites out for a few seconds, and when he comes to Pagan is still inside him, still gently stroking him. He’s murmuring a weird mix of swears and endearments in both languages, but Ajay can’t understand any of them because his voice completely wrecked.

Ajay just...breathes for a moment. If anything, he’s the one that’s been wrung out like a wet cloth, hot and boneless. Maybe they both are. He pulls away just enough so that Pagan can slip out, and his come sliding out too should feel gross, but it doesn’t and turns in Pagan’s arms to kiss him, heedless of their mess. He just wants to see his face. He didn’t get to last night, right after.

Pagan’s face is flushed and sweaty, his chest is still heaving, his hair is a wreck from Ajay’s fingers in it, and he looks younger than Ajay’s ever seen him. Beautiful. Throughly debauched. Adorably, uncomplicatedly happy, at least here in the afterglow. Pagan presses their foreheads together, noses touching, and kisses him lazily, nuzzling at him like a big cat. Ajay laughs and stretches out against Pagan, listening to his heart slow back down to something resembling a normal speed.

Life, he thinks muzzily, remembering his dreams; Life. Us. Nobody’s taking him from me again. He’s mine, and Ajay grips a bit tighter. Fierce. He’s seen so, so many people die, killed so many himself (and however many he’s seen, Pagan’s seen more), but it’s not going to happen to them. He smiles, sharp and hard. He refuses to let it.

“You’re mine, you know,” he tells Pagan. “You’re mine, and I’m yours.”

“Mmmm...o’course, my dear,” Pagan slurs a little. “All yours. I love you, too.” He’s already half asleep again. He shifts comfortably, holding Ajay close. A thought seems to intrude in his pleasure-soaked brain though, and he opens an eye, grinning. “You’re all right though? It was good? Everything you ever wanted? Better than caviar? Better than your pop tarts?”

“It was magical, and you’re so fucking strange sometimes.”

“Oh, that’s good then. Because barring last night, I’m quite out of practice at this sort of thing, you know.” He pushes some of the furs back and the cold air feels good on his overheated skin. It’s a delightful contrast to Ajay’s warmth against his side.

It’s snowing again, and they watch it fall through the ceiling for awhile, glittering gently against the small patch of gray sky. Pagan wonders idly if they should get up, clean themselves up. “Nah,” Ajay says, like he’s read his mind. “There’s always more furs if we need new ones. These cultist assholes kill so many animals, there are crates of them everywhere.”

“You’re right, my dear. I don’t particularly want to get up either. As usual, it’s fucking freezing outside of our little love nest.” A random thought occurs to him.

“Do you really suppose that these voyeuristic fucks get off on murdering every furry thing they can find? Or does it just seem like it?”

But of course this is a rhetorical question, since he’s not about to ask them, and a glance at Ajay shows that his eyes are closed and his breathing is evening out. Pagan shifts and settles comfortably and follows him down into sleep, Ajay a warm weight against him.

 

----------------------------------------

 

Some minutes later, Ajay jerks himself awake with nameless anxiety. Pagan is sound asleep, making those quiet little whuffs of breath that aren’t quite snores. He glances at the door in a habitual check. His eyes follow the line of Pagan’s outflung arm, the one that’s not holding him, and there in his hand is the gun. Loose in his palm, but trained at the door. He always remembers.

Ajay smiles. His other hand reaches back and feels Ripper in its place, tucked between the bed and the wall. All is right with the world, nobody can fuck with them without being met by a wall of hot lead, and he sinks back into sleep with Pagan’s heart thudding against his ear.

 

-------------------------------------------

 

“Two weeks, Pagan,” Ajay says the next day. They’re having a whispered discussion about how they’re going to get the fuck out of here. Ajay’s worried about his concussion. “Longer, if we can swing it.”

Ajay holds up a finger in an effort to forestall argument.

“But getting down that mountain...” Ajay shivers a little. “It will be hard. What if they spot us, chase us? Run into patrols? And there’s the road you told me about, so we don’t have to go up and down the side of the mountain like I did, with the grappling hook, but I’m sure it’s still steep. But if we go before your brain is healed, that kind of exertion at this altitude could kill you.” Ajay tilts his head. “Actually, no, scratch that. It will kill you. The only chance you’d have is if we could airlift you out to a modern medical facility.” Ajay laughs then, a short, humorless bark.

Pagan looks at him with slightly sad eyes. “Darling boy, we may not have a choice.”

“Oh, fuck that. We’ll figure something out. There’s always a choice. Being shot by the fucking sporeheads would be better than watching you slip into delirium and dying as your brain swells.” Ajay realizes this conversation is really upsetting Pagan about a second before he’s surging up out of his seat, his finger in Ajay’s face.

“I’d rather go like that, with the sun on my face and in the clean air...it would be better than being made to watch one of those, those things pull you apart,” Pagan growls.

“And that’s what Sandesh will do, Ajay, if the whim takes him; he’ll separate us and throw one of us, probably you to be honest, in with that monstrosity and force me to watch what happens next. I’ve seen it, and I’d rather put a bullet in my own brain first! Or fling myself into a chasm! The end result would be the same!”

“Damnit, keep your voice down,” Ajay hisses at him. Pagan glances down and realizes his other hand is fisted in Ajay’s jacket. He lets both drop.

“Easy, easy. I didn’t mean to upset you,” Ajay murmurs. He moves and takes Pagan in his arms, buries his nose in his neck, rucks up his coat and shirt to get his bare hands on Pagan’s back. Pagan’s hands are in his hair, nudging his face up so he can kiss him. Before he can though, something that he said registers with Ajay.

“Wait, what monstrosity?” and Pagan shivers in his arms.

“Never mind, let’s not talk about any of this right now,” Ajay says. “There’s time. We have time. They might just leave us alone and one day we’ll ghost out of here like a breeze.”

Pagan looks down at him a little. “I do hope you’re right, Ajay. I do hope so.”

 

And so begins a period of time in which they are more or less in soft captivity. They leave the room as little as possible, are as wary as they can be without actually sleeping in set shifts, and steal supplies whenever they can. They keep conversations to mostly whispers and generally try to make the cultists forget that they are even there. It would almost feel…embryonic, like a cocoon, if it were warmer and less stressful. Pagan spends much of it sleeping. The fact that he feels the deep desire to sleep 12 hours a day finally convinces him that it might be a good idea to take it easy on his poor frontal lobe and let it heal. He’s usually more of a six hours a night kind of fellow.

He sleeps, wakes a little, sleeps again. Ajay is often sitting behind him, leaning against the wall with Pagan using his knee as a backrest. Dark, intense eyes on the door, thinking. He often rubs Pagan’s head softly, for hours. He likes it and it helps Ajay think, distracts him when his thoughts try to go in circles.

It becomes their signal: It’s okay, I’m watching, you can let go and fall into deep sleep. When Pagan is awake he often sits much the same way, Ripper on his lap, knee against Ajay’s back, hand in his shaggy hair.

The nights are bad sometimes; they never know what triggers it, but sometimes the Yalung guys go madder than normal, screeching and wailing through the halls, sometimes fighting, sometimes ganging up and slaughtering one of their buddies. A sacrifice to Yalung? Somebody who seemed weak, or wasn’t devoted enough, or refused to keep drinking that elixir shit? Stole some other dude’s yak jerky? They never find out why the hell they do it, but those nights they each stand on either side of the door, guns ready, safeties off, until they settle the fuck down. Thankfully it doesn’t happen often.

During the day the caves empty, and Ajay and Pagan are left to their own devices. They steal firewood and scrounge for food and weapons; not much of the former, but a whole lot of the latter. There’s a hard limit on how much of that stuff they can carry down the mountain, but Ripper is going with them for sure, and Ajay finds a beautiful new bow with a fancy sight that he loves. Probably not quite as much as Pagan loves Ripper though.

Daytime is when they can take the opportunity to nap together, curled around each other. They learn each others’ bodies in the way new lovers do, all their ticklish spots, what drives the other crazy. Pagan is obliging and lies on his back with his arms crossed under his head and just lets Ajay explore. Pagan trims his body hair; no surprises there, but he’s pretty utilitarian about it, no weird shapes or anything, just short and neat. What is surprising is the fact that he does his armpits too, which fascinates Ajay for some reason. He runs his fingers through the short hair there until Pagan can’t stand it anymore and swats him away. He doesn’t think he’s ever touched another person’s armpit before, which makes it weirdly intimate somehow. He gets used to Ajay touching his scars, which made him flinch at first, like those places once revealed to be susceptible to damage through the application of bullets and knives are forever more vulnerable than the rest of him.

“Yuma dug this one out of me, during the Royalist days,” he tells Ajay, indicating the one almost under his ribs. “I was so proud of her. I was unfortunately conscious for most of it, so they had to tie me to someone’s kitchen table. I was screaming and she was crying and there was blood everywhere but she did it, and saved my life. She had just turned eighteen.” Pagan smiles, as if this is a bit nostalgic. He finds Ajay’s own scars, insisting on hearing the story behind each one. He has way fewer than he ought to, thanks to that miraculous green leaf stuff. It seems to work even better on him than it does on anybody else.

Pagan seems entranced by the faint smattering of freckles on his nose, tries to count them. You’d think he’d never seen freckles before, even though he has them sprinkled across his own shoulders. He brushes his fingers softly along the wings of Ajay’s eyebrows, loves how they make his expressions look more serious than they actually are. Ajay learns he is way more into having Pagan’s teeth fastened gently on his ear than he thought he would ever be, and that when he grazes that area where thigh meets torso with his fingernails, it seems to short-circuit something in Pagan’s brain. It makes him squirm, like it tickles but feels amazing all at once and his body doesn’t know what to do with it, doesn’t know to move into it or away. Ajay will never get tired of doing it. Often these explorations lead to lovemaking, of course, but they are wary of drawing attention and keep it quiet and easy.

When Pagan’s not sleeping, he’s often working on their map. He’s found a large piece of leather and is drawing on it with a bit of charcoal and his pen, getting down what he remembers of his brief views of the valley. Ajay helps, who saw different parts of it, and from different angles. Very crude, but better than nothing, and it keeps them occupied. They put an X where they both agree that they think that smoke is coming from, and that’s where they decide to head when they leave. There’s something there, an outpost, a camp, something. Very possibly a radio.

When Pagan adds a location that Ajay hasn’t seen and labels it ‘Sacrificial Cave,’ he attempts to explain what he saw to Ajay. ‘Ten foot tall, bellowing man ape thing’ is about the best he can come up with, and that description really doesn’t properly convey the pure existential horror of seeing the thing in person provoked. Even when he described how it had popped that man’s head off with no visible effort whatsoever. Really doesn’t capture the hugeness of the shadowy form, the overwhelming sense of wrongness, of the alien, the otherworldly. Pagan just hopes that Ajay never has to experience that kind of fear for himself.

Their initial escape plan is easy enough; get ahold of two parkas and just go out with the others for the day, run and gun if it goes south. The contingency part leaves much to be desired, but they are working with limited resources. The Yalung guys have made it very clear that, while they have mostly free ranging of the caves, they are not to go out. To test them is to possibly set off their hair-triggered aggression and there are more than enough of them to overwhelm two people, badass LMG or no. And they have no good place to cache items, so the timing will be tricky to pull off.

Ajay, crouched low, sweeps his eyes over the empty dormitory area. The torchlight from the hallway doesn’t penetrate very far into the absolute black of the cave system, so he takes out his penlight and holds it so only the tiniest sliver of light is exposed, reddish from his fingers. Thus equipped, he moves silently into the room. Pagan is better at hand-to-hand and is pretty stealthy himself, but Ajay can move like drifting mist.

He takes a general look around, and it’s like an army barracks turned insane asylum in hell. There’s trash and belongings and weapons thrown haphazardly all over the room. None of the beds have sheets, or blankets. The smell is intensely foul; old food, unemptied latrine buckets, unwashed bodies, mold. Breathing through his mouth, Ajay moves further into the room. He opens a couple of foot lockers and finds nothing but more furs and a pair of busted old boots. Do these nasty fucks only have one parka each? he thinks in desperation, nervous to be in here any longer than absolutely necessary. He wonders irrelevantly if their eyes glow in the dark, glow orange, if he’ll be able to see them before they cut his head off. No, this is a no-go. And absolutely disgusting. And apparently they only have one fucking parka each, the ones that they're wearing.

He has to go back to Pagan and report mission failure. Pagan scratches at his stubble, thinks.

“Should we try to go down the mountain the way you did? With the grappling hook?”

Ajay thinks of the several close calls he had, dangling out over empty air without even so much as a pair of crampons, and shivers.

“No, that way is…it’s too hard, Pagan. I barely made it, and with two…we’d be knocking rocks and ice down onto the other person. No, I think we have to go out that same tunnel that they go out, and down the road. Do you think we could just…sneak out really early in the morning? Like right before they leave? Keep ahead of them? I wish we could have scouted that road section better…or at all, really.” They go over it all again, what Pagan remembers of the landscape near the road, anything they could use for cover, and it’s about the best they can come up with.

As it turned out, they were being overly cautious. It was simple to set out in the gray early light that let them see what they were doing but still provided some cover. By the time the sun was well and truly up, Ajay and Pagan were comfortably settled in a thicket not far from the road, watching the Yalung guys go out to do…whatever it was that they do in the valley every day. Do a little hunting maybe, scout around for any civilians to feed to the yeti, whatever.

Pagan gathers some dead leaves together and lays his cloak on top, and they have a fine little nest all but hidden from view. He takes the opportunity to just laze in the sun for a few minutes and breathe fresh air, while Ajay scans their surroundings with his camera. They should be close to wherever that smoke is coming from. Pagan has one arm behind his head, the other wrapped around Ajay’s waist, hand up under his shirt and fingers brushing at the downy hair at the small of his back. He’s chewing at a grass stem, the picture of relaxation, just shy of dozing off. Ajay snorts laughter at him. It really is a relief to be out of there, and if Sandesh had actually wanted them to stick around, he should have done more than to leave them with a bunch of crazed and moldy babysitters.

Chapter Text

What they were hoping might be a place like an old house or a farm that might happen to have a radio turns out to be a big radio tower, some kind of relay station or something. Equipped with an alarm and heavily guarded but very few of the sporeheads have guns, even; mostly machetes. Working together, they’re able to kill them all without setting off that alarm, Ajay skewering them with arrows and Pagan right there to grab the body and drag it into hiding without a sound, then using Ajay’s kukri to cut a cultist’s throat just as Ajay’s arrow lodges in his partner’s skull.

After that, they break into the building to see where the radio is. Ajay has to slam his shoulder hard against the old wooden door to get it open, and there’s the radio…but this house, ugh. Pagan, behind him, is wrinkling his nose.

“Oh, that is fucking foul. What is that, dirty feet? Coal smoke and feet? Good lord.” Ajay gestures to the shrine that dominates one wall. “The rotting meat offering with the flies over there isn’t helping anything. Gross. We’re going to have to clean all of this shit out of here.”

“But hey! There’s a bed…of sorts,” Pagan says, and immediately shoves the two cots together. Ajay picks up an old pump-action shotgun that’s leaning precariously against some shelves and and sets it in the weapons locker, empty of course.

“Well, in any case, let’s give this radio a try, shall we?”

Pagan flips on the power, lets the unit warm up for a minute, and then dials it to their frequency, the one that should reach the Royal Guard fortress at the bottom of their mountain. Not even sure if the thing is operational or not, Ajay picks up the mic and says, as a test, “Come in, come in, is anyone there? Goddamnit, does this thing even work?”

A voice answers back almost immediately.

“Hello, hello, yes, we are here!” Pagan and Ajay look at each other. That’s certainly not proper military comms procedure. “Who is this?” Ajay says doubtfully.

“Um…this…this is the Royal Guard. Uh, who is this? What is your location?”

And it’s a good thing that Ajay has taken his finger off the transmit button because Pagan bursts out laughing, they both do, it’s so ridiculous.

“Do they really think we’re that fuckin’ stupid?” Ajay says.

Pagan doesn’t answer that. Instead he picks up the mic, trying and mostly failing to keep the amusement out of his voice.

“Royal Guard operator, this is Havoc Two-Nine requesting implementation of Heron protocol. Repeat, implement Heron, authorization code 52693-P3. Relay this signal to Reddog Eight and provide own authorization code, over.”

He repeats this twice in a fond and indulgent tone, like the person on the other end is a toddler that’s playing with the equipment.

No answer, not that he expected one.

“What was all that?” Ajay says.

“That was just in case there was someone new manning the comms booth who is completely incompetent, but even a fucking imbecile would respond with their code and run for Kamran when they heard my callsign and his. The Heron protocol is ‘Whoops, the king’s in a pickle and is requesting immediate extraction. Triangulate this signal and send in the cavalry.’ These cultist guys don’t even remember being soldiers, I think.” Pagan sighs. “In any case, even if they did remember the proper way to answer a fucking transmission and try to trick us with it, their codes are all at least six months out of date. So yes, to answer your question…I believe they really think we’re that fucking stupid.”

“Cool. Do I have an awesome callsign too?” Ajay says, half joking.

“Of course you do, my boy! Can’t have my favorite person running around without an awesome callsign! You’re Blacksnake Four. And you are authorized for the Heron protocol as well, heaven forbid you should ever need it.”

“Hmm, okay…that’s moderately awesome. And good to know. But why Blacksnake?” Ajay says.

“Because of Kalinag!” And Ajay, stunned, thinks How in the fuck does he know about Kalinag? He never told anybody about that. And even he isn’t sure that any of it actually happened.

Pagan goes on. “The whole family had callsigns as a security measure. I picked ‘Blacksnake’ for you when you were a little boy because you loved those old stories so much. Kali Nag, Black Snake, you know. You used to ride on your elephant all around the garden, pretending…” he trails off, and Ajay sees that he’s gone somewhere else for a few seconds, somewhere painful.

“Anyway,” he says, shaking his head a little, and he sounds more like himself. “So now that we know that they’re signal jamming outgoing transmissions, we’ll have to take care of that at some point. If it’s being done manually, we can always find a bit of C-4,” Pagan says, a little gleam in his eye at the prospect of blowing shit up.

“And if it’s being done digitally, I’m sure our good buddy Sandesh has the codes and maybe could be convinced to give them to us,” Ajay says, a little gleam in his eye at the prospect of torture for someone who really does deserve it.

It was then that the radio crackled to life again, and this time the voice is shrieking, unhinged.

“Interlopers in the relay station! You have defiled the Sacred Valley long enough, and you shall feel the burning wrath of our Lord Yalung when we perform the Ritual of Purification. We will destroy the station, and destroy you! We will wipe that place clean of your polluting presence!”

The radio goes dead again.

Pagan cocks his head. “Ritual of Purification? Didn’t we already do that? You know, with the…” and Pagan makes an obscene gesture with his fingers.

Ajay laughs. “I guess these shitheads have zero imagination and call everything the ‘Ritual of Purification.’” He looks around at this place; stinking, no weapons, one wall almost falling down, no defenses to speak of except for a bunch of broken walls outside. He sighs. “Guess they know where we are now.”

They spend the rest of the day and afternoon cleaning and cataloguing their resources. Ajay hauls the whole shrine mess away and flings it into the creek while Pagan sweeps the worst of the dirt out and finds them some clean hides and furs. Later, he boosts Ajay up to the second level, oddly inaccessible from the inside, or any other way, so he can see what’s up there. The building is much larger than the little living space with the radio. After Ajay kicks the door in, the upstairs turns out to be a storage room. It’s seems like it stayed pretty dry up here, which is good; just a faint musty odor and a lot of dust and dirt. He looks around with his penlight and finds a tarp that he throws to Pagan, still on the ground.

“There’s a lot of stuff up here. If you can spread that out down there, we can get it laid out and see what we have.” Pagan nods and goes to find a few rocks to weigh the corners down with, while Ajay starts dropping the lighter, non-fragile stuff over the side.

Once they get all of the boxes and crates pulled out of there and lowered to the ground, they start in on the contents. Pagan finds a small stack of clean-ish uniforms, a new parka, and a few wool berets. He picks one up and sniffs at it experimentally, finds it to not be too offensive, and sticks it on, careful of the wound on his face. His head keeps getting cold. Ajay finds a couple of small crates of canned food that look okay, coated with dust but otherwise not bulging or rusty. He lays these out so they can get an idea of how much there is. There’s also a few rifles in good shape, still packed in grease in the original crates, some body armor, extra ammo. Pagan finds a box of first aid supplies, a bar of old, slightly off-smelling but probably still usable soap…and a single toothbrush. The ridiculousness of it strikes him and he holds it up triumphantly.

“My darling boy, we’re saved! Clean teeth for…well, one of us.” Ajay looks up from examining some grenades.

“Shit, I’ll take it, one’s better than none. Beats chewed twigs by a mile. You have any objections to sharing? I sure as fuck don’t.” His mouth quirks into a sly smile. “Not like you haven’t had other things of mine in your mouth, no sense in being picky now,” and then ducks as Pagan flings snow at him and then pounces. He lets Ajay win the ensuing scuffle, just so he can look up at him haloed by the sun, so that Ajay will lean down and fasten his mouth on his just like he knew he would, so he can reach up and tangle his fingers in all of that soft dark hair.

After a too-brief but pleasant interlude, they go and build a fire in the stove and heat food in a weird parody of domesticity, as if they’re setting up a new household. Pagan thinks it might be charmingly novel, if it weren't for the smell.

 

-----------------------------------------

“We’re on our way to the relay station now. We’ll send everyone we have!”

Ajay lifts his head, a little fuzzy-headed from the thin sleep he had gotten with Pagan. He can hear the wind howling outside now that he’s awake, feels icy air drafting through the holes in the wall. He looks over at Pagan and he’s already up, straightening his hat and working the body armor on, zips it and pulls on his coat. That beret should look ridiculous on him, especially pushed back on his head like that with that little blond braid poking out, but he always just manages to be so fucking classy.

Ajay snorts. “Did they really just announce that they’re coming? On a channel that they know we can monitor?”

Pagan gives a condescending snort of his own. “It would appear so, my boy. What fucking imbeciles.” He checks the mag on Ripper and yanks the charging handle, props it easily on his shoulder. Ready to kick ass and take names. Until he tries to open the door. The wind is blowing so hard that it’s holding it shut, and he has to set the gun down and shove with his shoulder. As soon as there’s a crack, the wind catches it and slams it open, almost dumping Pagan in the floor with the sudden lack of resistance. He curses when the wind flings snow and ice into his face as Ajay goes and gets the parka on over his own body armor, and brings Pagan the cloak because it’s starting to look a lot like blizzard conditions out there.

“Perhaps these poor bastards will freeze solid before they can get here,” is Pagan’s only comment on the situation, as he ducks his head into the storm, marching grimly out with Ripper.

Their rough plan is to have Ajay on the roof of the building here, as a sniper and spotter and to shoot anyone trying to come down the hill at their backs, and for Pagan to move between the other three points with the LMG, mowing them down. That was the plan, at least until the storm started. He might have to move closer to Pagan, or vice-versa, because visibility is pretty limited. He does approve of Pagan’s headwear though; the gray wool hides his too-bright hair and makes his head less of a visible target.

He can hear vehicles in the distance, barely audible over the wind; the high-pitched whine of snowmobiles, the deeper roar of jeeps. Ajay sighs and puts his bow back over his shoulder, readies his rifle. He doesn’t have much ammo in this caliber, but the wind is gusting hard and will make accuracy almost impossible with the bow, which he’d counted on to snipe targets for Pagan. He’s going to have to move closer to him because his cloak flapping in the gale is the only part of him he can make out in this murk. He can’t see anything, the entire fucking battalion could be bearing down on them and they wouldn’t know it.

Ajay swears in frustration just as someone throws a flare. It doesn’t really help all that much, but apparently Pagan’s seen them because the deep chattering rattle of the LMG starts, stops for a few seconds, starts again, in short bursts. He’s trying to save his ammo; they don’t have more than a few hundred rounds for the big gun and less than thirty for the assault rifles. Ajay takes two that are making a suicide run, then three more that are trying to go over the south wall. They are not very well armed, mostly machetes and molotovs, but they could still easily get swarmed in the dark and confusion.

Speaking of which, Ajay watches them run down the hill and just like the feeling he got when he saw their patrols, there’s something...off about them, about how they move. He almost has it, it’s right at the tip of his brain. He has an image of a beehive, not even words, but he loses it as he hears Pagan’s bellow of rage. They’re trying to flush him out from behind the barricades with molotovs and the licking flames have turned the snowy ground to churned mud. He’d lost his footing and went down messily on one knee, but he’s back on his feet almost instantly, the big gun up and turning the screeching cultists trying to rush him into hamburger.

Ajay turns the other way and sees a couple of them trying to come down on top of the station. One drops down and is trying to set a C-4 charge when Ajay’s kukri takes his head clean off, just as one of his buddies gets in a lucky shot from above and Ajay’s leg buckles under him. He gets the two on top of the building and tries to assess damage. It seems to be no more than a bad graze and he checks on Pagan just as one of those sporehead fuckfaces chucks a grenade behind him. He rushes forward but he’s too far away to grab it and throw it back, and he keeps waiting for Pagan to roll over the barricade to cover.

Keeps waiting.

Curses.

Finally screams his name, actually, honestly frightened.

Then watches in horror as he just ducks down with his back to it, covering his head and relying on the slight shelter of two converging walls and the body armor to take the brunt of it.

That fucking reckless asshole, Ajay thinks with real rage, as his leg throbs and burns under him and the grenade goes off with a dull concussion and a spray of snow and mud. Pagan’s up right after though, up and seemingly no worse for wear, and screaming from his left draws his attention and occupies Ajay for a few seconds. Pagan’s bursts of fire are coming less and less frequently, and he hopes that means that these Yalung shitheads are all dead or running and not that Pagan’s almost out of ammo. He himself is down to his last two in his last magazine and uses his kukri to get another that was trying to plant another charge, this time on the tower itself, and he looks up just in time to see a guy skid around the barricade behind Pagan.

Unlike the others, this one is eerily silent, and Pagan...doesn’t see him. He’s charging for Pagan’s unprotected back, and Pagan doesn’t see him. He knows it’s pointless to try to yell a warning over the din, snaps the rifle up...

And both fucking shots go wide. He flings the rifle with a snarl and just sprints to intercept, all the pain in his leg forgotten in the haze of rage and fear filling him. He’s going full-out and he’s not going to make it, fuck, he’s not going to make it, summons an extra burst of energy from some reserve down deep and squeezes a little more speed from somewhere.

He’s going to have to take the guy down low, or the downswing of his machete is going to get Pagan anyway...ten feet, five feet, and Ajay flings himself forward, knees skidding in the mud, everything moving in slow motion as the machete is descending towards Pagan’s back, to cleave him right through the body armor.

Ajay braces his shoulders, tenses, and shoves the kukri with all the force in his arms into the guy’s abdomen.

He's watching that machete still coming down, coming down, like in a bad movie...and brush the bottom edge of Pagan’s cloak as the momentum from Ajay’s sliding strike carry him and the guy in a skid right past Pagan and slams them both into the barricade in a tangle of limbs and, oh god, entrails. He managed to actually disembowel this fucker.

Pagan’s there then, has his hands on him, is dragging the spore guy off and away from him. He lies there a little stunned, which he can afford to do because that seems to be the end of the attack. Pagan is kneeling next to him in the mud then, trying to look him over.

“Are you all right, dear boy? You have a bullet hole in your lovely denims, just here.”

“It’s fine, don’t worry about it,” Ajay says, his voice coming out small and strained, but he lets Pagan help him to his feet. He’s not even limping much. No, it’s not pain he feels, it’s...he can’t describe how he feels, beyond it might be nice to sit down somewhere.

 

While Ajay barricades the door, Pagan sinks to his haunches in front of the stove. They needs to get a fire going, it must be ten below in this shack, but he just...breathes. They’re both exhausted, blood and mud and gunpowder residue all over them. Ajay turns and sees the dejected picture Pagan makes; head hanging, hands between his knees. But then he looks up at Ajay with that same sunny look in his eyes that he had the first time they met, by that bus: you’re here now, safe with me, and that’s all I need. His smile is a pale crescent in his dirty face.

But Ajay is suddenly furious, so mad he’s shaking with it. Zero to sixty rage out of nowhere, aimed everywhere. He grabs Pagan by the collar and yanks him up, which wipes the smile off his face in a hurry but he goes with it, lets Ajay do what he wants.

Ajay pulls that damn cloak off of him, peels the coat off, flings the beret in a corner. He’s running his hands over Pagan to see if any of the blood is actually his, and he winces when Ajay runs rough hands over his upper arm.

Shrapnel from that damn grenade, though the body armor caught most of it. Way too close to his face. Ajay jerks the zipper down, hard.

“Get that off, you’ll need a new one.” Face hard, voice hard.

“Ajay...” Pagan begins, although he doesn’t really know what to say, and then Ajay is on him, crushing their mouths together with bruising force, shoving him toward the bed. It feels less like a kiss and more like an attack. His face is a study in misery.

Pagan really doesn’t know how to deal with this, but he has an inkling now of what it’s about. Ajay’s pinning him by the shoulders with shaking hands, but Pagan lets him even though he’s hurting him a little. Ajay throws a leg over and straddles him, one hand still fisted in the front of his shirt as he reaches back and roughly palms him through the fatigues he’s wearing, much too rough to be a turn-on. Pagan sighs. He’s too tired and too sore to get it up even if he wanted to, and he’s never been one for angry sex anyway.

“Ajay...stop. Just stop.” Low, and warm, and quiet. Ajay jerks his hand away and shakes him hard, and Pagan winces.

“You are so fucking stupid,” Ajay grinds out. “You could have died. Again.” And left me utterly alone, is what he doesn’t say. “That guy that you let at your back, that shit with the grenade…you goddamned reckless asshole.

Ajay curls up and touches his forehead to Pagan’s even as his hands tighten in Pagan’s shirt, knuckles bloodless. Pagan’s afraid he’s going to break.

“Ajay, look at me.” But he’s not ready for that yet, although he does loosen his hold just a little. He’s heavy and is making Pagan’s ribs creak a bit, but he ignores the discomfort and runs his hands up Ajay’s back. Gentle, gentle and soothing.

“I’m fine, we’re both fine, you see? Easy, easy...you were watching my back, like you always do, you nearly cut that fucking cunt in half and it was magnificent. I trust you darling, you kept me safe and I kept you safe and all is well, it’s just a few splinters. But I admit I’m a bit worried about your leg. Won’t you let me look at it?” All in a low murmur that Pagan hopes is getting through to him.

“I know that it’s hard, Ajay, it’s so hard to love people when they seem so fragile, all too easily torn flesh and all too breakable bone.” Ajay thinks of Ishwari, and Lakshmana, and makes a tiny anguished sound. Pagan is handling this so much better than he is. His rage runs out of him like water, and he’s finally able to unclench his hands.

“But I’m not so easily broken. And neither are you.”

Ajay shifts off of him and he sucks in a deep and grateful breath as Ajay buries his face in the side of his neck.

“I’m sorry, that must have hurt you,” he mumbles, as Pagan runs a hand through his filthy hair and holds him close.

“You have nothing to be sorry for. I’m the one who’s sorry for worrying you so. But you were watching so I could direct all my attention toward those fucking... lemmings, and you were wonderful and terrible and so beautiful. Do you think that I can have a proper kiss now?” And Ajay leans over and obliges him, and Pagan keeps it soft and easy and tries to put love in it.

Ajay pulls away a little and says, against his mouth, “And you’re not stupid. And you’re only an asshole to other people.”

“I know, my dear. May I see your leg now?”

“...yeah, and I want to get a look at your shoulder. I’ll go out and get water if you’ll do the stove?”

Peace moderately restored, Pagan levers himself up with a groan. He’s already starting to stiffen up; the cold isn’t helping and he knows the morning will be miserable. Ajay’s limping is worse as he throws the medkit on the bed and grabs the kettle. As Pagan gets the fire going again, Ajay goes out and comes back with water. As it’s heating, he shucks his dirty jeans off so Pagan can clean his leg. It’s only a graze and already clotting well so he merely disinfects it and puts a light bandage on.

His hands are so gentle and careful and he’s kept his voice low and quiet this whole time like Ajay’s a wild animal that’s liable to attack, or bolt, and Ajay’s ashamed.

This is the second time that he’s hurt Pagan when he’s been pissed at him, and that scares him. Mohan was the one who let his rage and pain loose at the people he professed to love. For all of his faults, and they are many, Pagan turns all of his pain and anger inwards, and lashing out like that at the people he cares about is something that he has never done and will never do. And Ajay never wants to do it again.

He runs his hands through Pagan’s hair as he works, trying to apologize through touch. His hair has grown since they’ve been here, and the shaved parts are getting soft and losing their bristly feel. Plushy, almost. It’s growing in dark brown instead of black like Ajay expected, a nice chocolate color. His scruffy beard is a novelty, still short enough to be a little abrasive against his fingers. It makes him look a little more like he did in those old propaganda posters, and Ajay smiles when he spots a single silver hair glittering in the firelight. He rubs the back of Pagan’s neck, runs his finger over the stud in his ear, leans over to nuzzle at him until he earns a small smile.

When the bandaging is done, Ajay gets the forceps as Pagan eases out of his shirt. And he was right; there’s really not much shrapnel in his arm and none are deep. He won't even have to put any stitches in him. Ajay feels a heady sense of relief as he makes short work of them, kisses his shoulder, thanks whatever deity that may or may not be responsible for Pagan continuing to have two eyes.

Being able to sluice the worst of the dirt and mess off with hot water and honest-to-god soap feels downright luxurious, and by the time they’re done Pagan’s so tired he can barely keep his eyes open. When they climb into bed, the stove throwing off warm red light, Ajay gently pulls Pagan against his chest, relishing the feeling of being skin to skin. I love you and don’t deserve you.

“Yes, you do,” Pagan murmurs sleepily. “You deserve the world, my dear.”

“I...didn’t say anything.”

“Funny,” Pagan says as he lets out a huge yawn. “I thought you had.”

He seems completely content to ignore it, but Ajay notes that this has been the third or fourth time this has happened, like one could hear the other’s thoughts or something. It should worry him more, but he’s sinking fast into sleep and Pagan’s already gone. He touches his gun in one last check and burrows against Pagan’s warmth.

Ajay wakes hours later, arms empty, but a quick glance shows Pagan up and shoving his bare feet into boots, shrugging Ajay’s jacket on, not bothering with a shirt (his own is still in a corner somewhere), and grabbing the coal bucket. Ajay relaxes when he comes back in a swirl of snow and icy air, swearing softly. He has the fire stoked in record time and slides back under the covers fast, shivering and teeth chattering. The wind is picking up again. Ajay holds him close until he feels Pagan’s body heat up enough to relax into the warm pocket they’ve made, kisses him in thanks, starts to drift off again. This place is dirty and it smells, but there is warmth and it’s safe for the moment. They’re okay. Tomorrow though, they’re gonna put up barricades and lay out some fucking minefields.

Chapter Text

In the gray light of early morning, Pagan dreams.

It starts innocuously enough, as he relives parts of the attack on the relay station, his sleeping mind at first just rehashing the events of the day, but then the dream changes. The Yalung cultists are coming down the mountain at him, but there begins to be more and more of them, and the way they move…it’s like a school of fish or something, or lemmings, like he told Ajay. Unnatural, like they’re all being…guided by something. There are so many now that they cover the entire hillside and it’s eerie, the way they break around the rocks, a hive mind, but he senses that they won’t harm him now. He doesn’t even have a weapon in his hand, as they pour towards him, around him, over him as they turn into a dark mist. When the mist covers him, he’s abruptly in a different place but it’s a nowhere sort of place, just dark. No up, or down, his feet touching nothing, but there’s a voice in the distance. It starts faintly, but then seems to come closer, closer, and it makes the hair prickle on the back of his neck, because it sounds a lot like that voice from the canyon, the one that he heard when those spores went off in his face.

The mushroom things move around, are they conscious? Is this their voice? If so, it sounds wrong, and corrupted and alien, the way that the yeti roars did. It’s not the same voice at all, but that feeling in the pit of his stomach that the sound invokes is the same. That voice comes closer to him in the dark, unintelligible whispers that almost sound like words, like if he listened harder he could make out those words, but he doesn’t want to, wants away, wants to wake up with Ajay’s arms around him. The voice moves so close he fancies that he can feel its putrid breath wash over him, and this time he can hear it loud and clear, right in his ear. “There you are…” it purrs.

Pagan’s eyes snap open.

Ajay does have his arms around him and his head on his bare chest, but he’s awake, eyes wide and frightened. It’s an unfamiliar expression on his face.

“Pagan,” he whispers so quietly that it’s like he’s afraid they’re going to be overheard, “what was that? What in the fuck was that? You were dreaming, and I could see it a little...and then you stopped breathing. I had to shake you to get you to wake up.”

“What?” Pagan says. It’s the only coherent thing he can find to say. His head aches, feels stuffed with cotton. “You could see what I dreamt? Ajay, that…doesn’t make any sense.”

“I know it doesn’t make any sense, and I don’t know how I did it. But I was awake and first you were dreaming about those spore guys, and there were so many of them, and you thought maybe something was making them move like that, and then you were in a dark place and that voice…what the hell? It was like it was…like there was something looking for you, or something, and it was wrong, so wrong.” His voice goes so quiet that it’s more like breath just gusting against his collarbone. “Was that Yalung?”

Pagan’s head is starting to clear some, and he runs his fingers through Ajay’s hair, trying to be comforting, although his heart is still pounding. “Dearest boy, that’s just a religious fairytale. There’s no such thing,” and Ajay goes stiff at the slightly patronizing tone in his voice.

“Yeah, well, ten-foot tall man beast ape things don’t fucking exist outside of stories either, but you told me you saw one, didn’t you? That’s called a yeti by the way, like Bigfoot or some shit. They have that story in America, too,” Ajay said, a little hotly. He stops himself, shakes his head. “I’m sorry, that whole thing just now scared me. The sooner we can get out of this fucking crazy valley the better.”

Pagan doesn’t say anything for a time, just holds him close while his own frightened heartbeat slows down. Finally he says, “I think it’s the spores. I think the cultists move the way they do because they’re being controlled, or directed. And I was exposed to them, too.”

“By Sandesh, you mean? Can he do that? Control them, like that? And you might have gotten a dose of the stuff, but nothing like those guys. You said that Sandesh is distilling it and making them drink it. Or they like drinking it, or something. Gets them high.” Ajay says, thinking hard.

“Apparently they hear Yalung’s voice…” Pagan says, and trails off.

“Shit…well, if you were exposed, I probably was too. I’m sure it’s everywhere in this fucking valley. In the air, the water…probably no way to not be, at least a little. I don’t think we can be controlled that way, or anything like that. I’m not worried about that. If Sandesh could, he would have already done it.”

Ajay sits up a little, staring. “Wait…is that how it seems like we keep hearing each others’ thoughts? Not all the time, but a few times now. Remember before we fell asleep, you thought that I had said that I didn’t deserve you out loud? I only thought it, but you heard it. Heard it in my head somehow.”

Another, even more sinister thought strikes him. “Can the spore guys all hear each other, and Sandesh, the way they hear Yalung? If that’s true, we’re lucky that the stuff seems to wreck their brains as well. If they were smart and could communicate like that, we’d be dead ten times over.” He shakes his head. “This shit is so freaky. Goddamn.”

Pagan steeples his fingers, taps them against his lips, thinking. “This relic thing they keep going on about is tied to Yalung, is a representation of Yalung…or is bloody Yalung, somehow? I thought it would be some sort of statue or some such thing but there are plenty of statues of Yalung everywhere so it seems like it wouldn’t be just that. These mushrooms certainly don’t grow in our part of Kyrat, so does the relic make the mushrooms grow? Is Yalung a mushroom? Perhaps an extra-large fucking mushroom? Or maybe it’s an alien from another planet! Crash-landed! You’re right, Ajay, this fucking bullshit is freaky.” Pagan laughs then, feeling a bit manic.

“I’m glad you can laugh, cause I am absolutely creeped the fuck out right now. Ugh,” Ajay grumbles.

Pagan lets out an odd sound and sits up abruptly, dislodging Ajay. “Sorry, my dear,” he murmurs, patting Ajay’s head in apology. “I had another sudden, rather disturbing thought. I understand now. I understand why fucking Yuma was involved in all of this. She wanted these spore things for her little concoctions, her hallucinogenic research…she was trying to weaponize this spore shit. And Sandesh, her second-in-command, figured out how to do it, albeit at the expense of his own sanity. Oh my god.” He flops back onto the bed, covers his face with his hands and rubs hard. “She was crazier than I thought. She went completely, utterly mad. Bonkers. What is it about this country that drives people off the deep end? She was my sister, and I had loved her since we were children, and she was trying to overthrow and murder me and create some sort of fucking zombie army. Jesus Christ.”

Ajay thinks about that for a moment, and then says in a quiet voice, “I didn’t want to kill her. I tried not to, I’m sorry. I knew that she was your family too and that you cared about her, but like you said then, choices have consequences. She made you choose between us, forced your hand…and you chose me.”

Pagan reaches up then, strokes Ajay’s cheek, brushes his thumb across his cheekbone. “And I always will, Ajay,” he whispers, “Unfailingly. Never forget that. Never doubt it. Always.”

 

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After an unsatisfying breakfast of old canned vegetables, they decide to go out exploring around the valley and fill in more of their map. There are plenty of snowmobiles with gas in them so they don’t have to walk, and they need to try to find more food and ammunition anyway. Pagan claps his hands together. “So! Who is riding bitch on this fine conveyance, my boy?”

Ajay rolls his eyes. “You are. When was the last time you drove anything? If you can remember when it was, I’ll gladly hand you the keys.” Pagan opens his mouth, shuts it. Climbs onto the rear seat, defeated. “You need to draw stuff anyway, so you need my back as a flat surface, right?” Pagan pinches his ass as he’s climbing on. “I can think of better reasons to have you bent over, my dear,” he breathes in Ajay’s ear as he puts his arms around his waist.

Ajay smiles. He misses audacious, flirty Pagan sometimes.

Once they get going though, he’s all business, busily sketching on the piece of leather that he’s holding against Ajay’s back with one of the AKs balanced across his knees. There’s only seven rounds in it, and that’s only because there were some loose bullets rattling around in the bottom of the food box.

They need supplies of all kinds, badly, and they both know that Sandesh is probably just going to keep sending waves of his followers at them. There are only two of them, after all, and they need food and rest and Sandesh can just keep throwing resources at them and driving them until they collapse, if he wishes. If they can find some better guns and enough ammo and maybe get a little hunting done, then that will definitely help even the odds. But they also have to shore up the defenses around the station, as shitty as they are, and they’re going to have to get stones and fix that wall so that they don’t freeze to death. Even with the stove fired up before they fell asleep, they’d woken to frost across the topmost fur and a rime of ice inside the water bucket.

It’s exhausting to think about, and Ajay knows already that he’s going to take the brunt of the work so Pagan can have the extra time to recover. Pagan’s vigor and ability to kill people like a fucking panther often makes him forget, but the fact remains that he’s almost fifty with a bad shoulder and a recent head injury and wakes up stiff in the cold. Ajay’s surprised that he hasn’t complained much, Mr. And I Got Blood On My Fucking Shoes, but he suspects that he’s just too tired for it and it’s pointless to bitch anyway. If they start complaining, they’ll start sniping at each other, and then they’re going to drive each other crazy. They already have to share a toothbrush, for fuck’s sake.

Although, as insane and dangerous and fucked up as this ordeal has been, this constant contact is pushing them closer together instead of driving a wedge between them. Ajay finds himself loving him more every day, sometimes just watches his sleeping face for as long as he can before he himself passes out. He falls asleep with Pagan’s warm weight against him every night, and wakes up with it still there. Sometimes he half wakes with Pagan’s warm hand around him, sometimes it’s Pagan gently rocking into his, seeking contact, just for the closeness and comfort in it. Even being tired and cold and hungry and stressed, just having that goes an awfully long way towards making him feel a sort of contentment.

 

They come back with their haul early in the afternoon, the proud new owners of an assortment of fine weaponry, including a .50 cal sniper rifle that Ajay has balanced across the handlebars. The storage compartment under the seat has as much ammo as they could cram into it, and their pockets are weighted down with the rest. A good haul.

Ajay manages to get a fat pheasant with his bow while Pagan gathers wood. They had wondered why there were two stoves in the station, but it turns out that cooking food over the soft, smoky coal imparts everything with a distinctive and disgusting sulfur flavor. The other little stove uses wood, so they make a kind of stew with leftover vegetables and the bird. It’s a little watery and not much meat for two, but it’s hot and tastes good.

Afterwards, they go out and gather spare rocks from the other ruined walls outside to fix the back wall of the station, the one with just some pallets shoved into the hole. They walk back and forth carrying them and dropping them off near the hole, but there’s something about this that’s bothering Pagan. Not like it hurts him physically, but like it reminds him of something painful. He keeps stopping and staring at the stone in his hands, miles and miles away. Ajay comes and rubs his back, asks what’s wrong, but he doesn’t speak. Or can’t. Some intuition prompts Ajay to pull off his glove and put his hand on the back of Pagan’s neck, rubbing gently, trying to hear what he’s thinking. He closes his eyes and concentrates but all he can feel is a distant, numb sort of static. A sense of icy water. He’s not even sure if this is from Pagan or in his own head or what, but he takes the stone from Pagan and asks him to go unload the snowmobile, and he performs this task willingly enough and seems fine after a few minutes. Ajay mostly forgets about it as he gets back to work fixing the wall, trying to puzzle the stones together to make them fit as tightly as possible.

Later, looking at the well-stocked weapons cabinet and the repaired wall, they feel a sense of major accomplishment. Ajay wanted more barricades and wanted minefields laid out, but there’s only so much they can do in a day. Pagan flicks hot water at him playfully as they’re washing up, in a silly mood again, and it’s good to see. It’s nice to sit here and just make out for awhile in front of the stove, where it’s warm; they’re too tired for much else. But kissing always makes little tendrils of heat down in his belly spark to life, and it’s nice to be warm inside and out. It’s starting to feel like they might actually have a handle on things here.

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Chapter Text

Late in the night, the door bangs open. Ajay had gone out a few minutes earlier and Pagan’s more than half asleep while he waits for him to come back; it was his turn to fetch more coal from the pile behind the building. But whoever goes out usually tries to be quiet with the door, if the other is sleeping. Pagan opens his mouth to give him a drowsy hello, and then his eyes widen. He’s up on his knees, gun in hand, muzzle trained on the two guys that have Ajay tied and pinned between them before conscious thought kicks in. One has a gun to Ajay’s head. There are two because one isn’t enough to hold him; even tied and gagged he’s fighting like a wildcat.

Ajay sees the look in Pagan’s eyes and thinks, Oh, you guys are so dead. Maybe not right this instant, but none of you are making it out of this alive. No one in this whole fucking valley.

Pagan’s hand is rock-steady, not a wobble in it as he keeps the muzzle trained on the one with the gun; he knows he only has time for one shot and that cunt’s head is awfully close to Ajay’s. As he’s deciding whether or not to take that shot, the door bangs again and someone who is not Sandesh but is dressed like him strides in.

Pagan doesn’t take his eyes off of that gun, but he says pleasantly, “Hello, welcome to our humble home. You must be one of Sandesh’s little monkeys.”

And he’s so steady. His voice is perfectly polite but Ajay can hear the dark edge under it, the lurking madness. Ajay’s not sure the others can. They probably ought to, and move the gun away from him.

“I am the Inquisitor,” and if he is offended at being referred to as a 'little monkey,' it doesn't show. He has the same unctuous, televangelist sort of voice that Sandesh has. “The Master and I have conferred, and we have come to the decision that you two are both strong, fine men! Oh, yes! You were tested and found worthy by the Ritual of Purification, and it would have been a waste to kill you out of hand. You will both be noble sacrifices for the Awakened, especially you, my esteemed King! Praise Be to Yalung!!” His annoying voice reverberates off the ceiling.

Ajay thinks to himself, Which bullshit ritual do you mean? The fucking one or the fighting one? He has never wanted to go all Pagan and stab a shithead in the throat as badly as he does this guy.

“Come, come, we will go to the cave now!” the Inquisitor continues. Ajay’s heart sinks, but he expected something of the sort. Pagan doesn’t acknowledge this statement, doesn’t even blink except to let a hint of contempt sweep his face, all his focus on the gun to Ajay’s head and how he can remove it.

“Let the boy go, and we’ll talk,” Pagan says then, a low predatory purr that makes the hairs stand up on the back of Ajay’s neck.

These motherfuckers really ought to take this gun away from his head before Pagan goes batshit. He can see it in his eyes, a rising, hot insanity.

The Inquisitor just smiles blandly, and continues on in his cheery voice, “But King Min! All of this is not necessary. It is a great honor we offer you...to become one with our Lord Yalung! Which is why...” Movement behind the man, in the dark. Pagan’s instincts have him swinging the muzzle away from Ajay’s captor to bear on that movement…

A small something zips out of the darkness of the doorway behind the Inquisitor and strikes Pagan in the throat just as Pagan fires, the report and flash enormous in the small space.

All hell breaks loose. Pagan has his fingers around the dart and rips it out almost as it hits him, and Ajay drops his full weight to the floor, goes limp and then surges back up, knocking two of his captors flat on their asses. He nearly gets free, but they manage to get his legs kicked out from under him and get him pinned to the floor, the gun barrel pressing into the back of his head. He can barely feel it.

But it’s obvious that their little dart trick worked as Pagan lurches off the bed, makes it three staggering steps toward Ajay, and then collapses full-length on the floor. He makes it another foot or so at a crawl, reaches for Ajay, and then goes limp. The blend of rage and confusion on his face hurts Ajay’s heart.

 

-------------------------------------------------------

 

I am going to murder every last one of these motherfuckers, Ajay thinks to himself. His simmering rage is the only thing keeping him warm.

He had to watch as they trussed Pagan up and then dragged the both of them out into the snow, past their buddy with the hole in his forehead. They heave Pagan’s unconscious form roughly into the back of their jeep like cargo, and then leave him on his stomach with his hands tied behind his back. Are they TRYING to kill him? Ajay thinks in frustration. He’s able to slide his boot forward and carefully push Pagan’s face to the side to try to keep his airway open, and prays for him to wake up soon.

At least Ajay has his jacket; unzipped, and no shirt underneath, but it’s something. Pagan is both bare chested and barefoot, and Ajay watches as his back gets paler and paler, snowflakes fluttering down on his skin. He’s starting to shiver hard, even unconscious.

“Hey, you fucks better throw a coat or a blanket or something over him, or he’s gonna freeze before we get there!” he yells. “Don’t suppose your Yalung buddy likes frozen dinners, huh?”
He’s too cold and worried to be witty, but he’s hoping the sound of his voice will help Pagan wake up; they’ve bashed him twice already with their rifle butts for working the gag off and yelling Pagan’s name.

Ajay spends the time remembering and cataloguing every hurt and indignity that’s been done to them, especially Pagan. Once they get out of this shitty valley, they’re going to come back with the other helicopter and napalm the whole fucking thing. That will cheer Pagan up immensely.

Ajay is about to announce this to the company at large when he glances over at Pagan and sees his eyes open. Nobody’s home though, and it takes a few more seconds before Ajay sees his brain come back online and awareness return to his eyes. He doesn’t jerk upright immediately, instead looking around without moving his head, assessing. At the same time, Ajay can see the muscles in his shoulders and arms bunch, testing the ropes. His eyes finally meet Ajay’s and they melt in relief. His whole body sags in relief. And then he’s trying to get enough leverage with his elbow to push himself upright. It takes a few tries, but he makes it to a sitting position.

“Oh, hello Ajay!” he calls out, just as loud and cheerfully as he ever did in the old days, but the effect is somewhat diminished by the hoarseness of his voice and the effort to keep his teeth from chattering. Ajay sees his eyes shifting, noting enemy positions; the two back here with them, the driver, and that fucking Inquisitor beside him.

“So, what’s for breakfast, boys? I don’t know about you lot, but I’m fucking famished! Also a bit chilly, but well...” a melodramatic sigh, “I suppose that’s to be expected. Could there possibly be toast? A bit of currant jam, perhaps?” He turns a high-wattage smile on the nearest cultist, who stares back blankly. Pagan at his crazy, confusing best.

As he’s chattering away, Ajay feels his bare foot creep under the ankle of his pants. He doesn’t look down, of course, but he feels Pagan’s toes searching around his ankle for the throwing knife he usually keeps there, but the cultists found it when they searched him.

Pagan comes to this conclusion himself, gives Ajay’s bare ankle a little caress with his cold toes, and withdraws. He shifts into a more comfortable position, almost lounging, and actually gives Ajay a little wink.

“What sounds good to you, my boy? Eggs, bacon, those...hmm...pebble things you like? Fruit pebbles?”

He manages to inject even more smarmy cheer into his voice.

“What about the slow-roasted heart of our good Inquisitor here? I think it would be wonderful paired with a nice Chianti...” He waggles his eyebrows for emphasis.

The genuine laugh he surprises out of Ajay is lovely to hear, which of course was the whole point. One of the cultists tries to thump him with a rifle butt to shut him up, but it’s a half-hearted thing. Ajay’s eyes are still sparkling at him, and he grins in return.

 

If it’s to the gallows he must go, either body or heart, he wants to do it with Ajay’s warm laughter as one of the last things he hears.

 

They finally arrive at the cave. As their captors march him and Ajay through the windblown ruins of the village, it’s hard to stave off the compulsion to fight. To snarl and bite and kick so viciously that they have no choice but to club him or shoot him, or use the drugs again. His fury and despair keep rising like black water, and if he were alone he might be tempted to let himself go, let himself drown in it, but he keeps shoving it down.

He won’t do that to Ajay, doesn’t want the boy’s last memory of him to be of frothing madness.

No, he’ll go to his death as the king he was for twenty-five years. He was a usurper king on a throne of shit, but nonetheless, he’ll go forth with dignity. Despite being half naked. Why oh why are these cunts always stealing his fucking clothes?

Ajay, I am so, so sorry, darling boy. I got us into this whole mess and then wasn’t strong and clever enough to get us back out of it. You deserved better. You deserved so much better than me. He doesn’t realize that Ajay’s been watching his face this whole time.

Ajay catches his eye, and when Pagan looks at him his eyes are so full of love it takes his breath away a little. He watches his back straighten, his shoulders go back despite the icy wind, his head come up. His face is sad, but gentle. Ajay recognizes the change for what it is. He’s making his peace.

Oh no you don’t, old man, Ajay thinks, viciously, you don’t get to give up so fucking easily. You don’t get to give up on ME that easily, fuck no. What did I tell you? You’re mine, and I don’t give up what’s mine; not for anything. I didn’t come halfway around the world to find you just to lose you now. No.

After the wind outside, the cave feels almost warm. When they unlock the cell door, it grates open on squeaky hinges. When they haul Ajay past him through the door, Pagan thinks, Ah, so it’s to be my heart they kill first, then.

The cultists push him to his knees, shove him against the bars, hold his face there so he can’t turn his head away. He holds himself composed but that dark water is at his throat, up to his chin, threatening to take him under the same way it did after Lakshmana. After Ishwari.

I always told myself that I’d never do this again, but they say there’s no fool like an old fool. I never did learn how to do anything by half-measures. I just wish we could have had longer. My dearest.

And then Ajay is there, bright and beautiful and burning like the sun, the firelight a halo around his shaggy head and he’s kissing him so very sweetly, nuzzles at him and there’s a smile on his face for him and a promise in his eyes. He’s walking backwards as the cultists are tying Pagan’s numb body to the cell bars and then turns and jogs away, the yeti’s alien bellow sounding in the distance. Once he’s out of sight Pagan lets himself slump against the bars, cold and fear finally causing his consciousness to retreat, to take refuge in the unfeeling dark.

 

As they push him through the cell door, the wave of Pagan’s despair is palpable to Ajay. He’s surprised that the Yalung shitheads can’t feel it, tearing anguish that his own chest wants to take up and resonate with too, but he can’t let it. He has a mission that he can’t be distracted from: Get out of here somehow, kill that thing if he has to. Get back to Pagan.

Actually, maybe they can feel it because their captors seem reluctant to keep touching Pagan, let alone hold him there. They get some rope and just tie him in place, and while they’re distracted with that he darts forward to kiss him, nuzzle at him, tries to comfort. His eyes are so bleak.

Hold on, I’m coming back for you.

Ajay doesn’t know exactly what he’s facing, or if he’ll be able to pull this off, but he’ll be damned if he’ll die in front of Pagan. He refuses to do that to him. So walking backwards, watching his lover the whole way, Ajay goes to meet his fate.

Chapter Text

He’s back in less than fifteen minutes.

 

Really, they should be getting used to these stunning levels of incompetency, Ajay thinks, as he rappels down the cliff face in the dark. Once he was out of sight it was simplicity itself to find a sharp bone on the floor and cut the rope around his wrists.

As he was zipping up his jacket he had to walk through a spore cloud to go further down the tunnel, and although he held his breath he could suddenly feel Pagan’s misery amplified ten-fold. No wonder those sporehead junkie motherfuckers didn’t want to hold him there.

Hold on, hold on for just a bit longer, he’d thought hard, willing Pagan to hear him. I’ll think of something.

In the end, the only bad part was when the yeti thing was above him on a ledge, so close Ajay could have patted its monstrous foot.

And Pagan was right; there’s something about this thing that inspires visceral terror, a panic-reaction you can’t help. It’s awful, and between the fear and it’s unbelievable stench Ajay might have thrown up if there was anything in his stomach.

But the yeti just didn’t seem that interested in him, maybe because the sporeheads had already thrown like five fresh bodies in here before him. Really, how dumb do you have to be? The spores have to be rotting their fucking brains. Ajay almost facepalms when he finds the grappling hook, the rope conveniently leading to the outside. He’s even able to find a not-too-bloody shirt and vest that may fit them. No boots though. He rolls these things around a medpack he found and ties it around his waist with a bit of extra rope, and shimmies up and out of there.

Once he gets down the cliff he sees some of the sporeheads are left patrolling in the village; it seems like they’re using this spot as a sort of outpost. Good, that means food and supplies as soon as him and Pagan cut all their throats. The Inquisitor’s jeep that they came here in is gone though.

He sneaks back into the cave, simplicity itself, and they’ve just left Pagan tied there.

He feels that hot righteous rage flow up again. He’s going to kill every sporehead in this valley, but he’s going to dissect the leaders.

Pagan’s skin is waxy pale and Ajay rushes to him, puts his hands on his shoulders. He is so cold, and not moving.

Ajay leans forward and whispers warm in his ear, “Told you I’d be back, Pagan. You wanna get out of here? Go someplace a little warmer?”

No reaction.

And then Pagan makes a sound like a hoarse sob as Ajay is slicing through the ropes with the scalpel in the medkit. As soon as Pagan can turn his head his mouth is on Ajay’s, and if Ajay could give him half his body heat he would.

Once he’s got all of the ropes cut he gets his arms around Pagan and helps him stand but he’s wobbly; almost done in. He might not be able to help much with the guys outside. Ajay takes his jacket off. It’s still warm from his body and he helps Pagan get it on, puts his bare arms around him and chest against his, skin to skin. His skin is so cold it makes Ajay hiss, but he meant it about sharing.

“Put your hands on my neck...there you go.”

They’re both quiet for a moment, just savoring the presence of the other.

“I wish you’d trust me more,” Ajay grouses at him. Pagan just nods.

He seems past words, but then rasps out, “I’m sorry, darling boy.” The words are barely recognizable.

“Shhh, it’s okay now, everything’s okay. We’ll get warm really soon, okay? You just stay here and I’ll go get the guys outside out of the way...”

Pagan grabs his wrist, squeezes gently. His eyes are savage, and his lips form a very small, very cruel smile. Some color is starting to come back into his face.

“Oh no, I think not. I very much think not.”

 

In the end he’s only able to take two himself; the rest Ajay kills with the primitive bow he finds propped against the woodpile. However, he impressed Ajay by slicing one ear to ear with the scalpel and then yanking his buddy down and breaking his neck with a hard twist, and that’s what matters.

He’s now in their command tent wrapped in a blanket in front of a merry fire, an old pump-action shotgun across his lap and his feet in a pan of warm water, sipping at what passes for tea on this godforsaken frontier. It’s hot, so no complaints there, but he can’t help a tiny grimace every time he takes a drink. Ajay made it from juniper berries. It tastes like hot watery gin, Pagan had said. Shut up and drink it, and be happy you’ll get to keep all your toes, Ajay had said. So Pagan had shut up and drank it, and said thank you.

Lucky, they were so fucking lucky today. If it weren’t for the absolute bloody incompetence of these guys, they would both be dead.

Pagan’s trying very, very hard to not let his thoughts stray in that direction; that way lies madness. That way lies the black water, threatening to drag him down. It was already over his head when Ajay came and pulled him out. He’s not terribly aware of what happened between Ajay leaving (going to his death, his mind still whispers) and Ajay’s living hands on his shoulders, so warm his skin felt it like burning, Ajay’s hot breath ghosting over his ear. Pagan had turned and sought his mouth as surely as any drowning man would, desperate for warmth, but more desperate for the solid reality of him.

And Ajay had yanked him away from that darkness as surely as he pulls him toward that other, bright cliff.

Pagan really wishes he’d come back already, to feed him and distract him from these thoughts. Wants to have him close, in his apparently maudlin old age. And after today’s epic shitshow, he’s not sure how keen he’s going to be on letting him out of sight ever again.

He would go to the door and check on Ajay’s supply gathering progress, under the pretense of gathering more firewood perhaps, but he’s under strict orders to leave his feet in here for twenty more minutes. And so he’ll stay, because as far as he’s concerned Ajay can have anything his little heart desires for the next long while. He saved their collective bacon today when Pagan couldn’t. And if what he desires is for him to sit here with his feet in a tub, pruning, then that is what he shall do.

The door swings open hard and Pagan has the shotgun to his shoulder and has the bead on it in one fluid movement, but relaxes and slides the safety back on when Ajay bangs in, carrying a large wooden crate. His face is red-cheeked from the cold and he looks delighted.

“Pagan, look...these bastards were holding out on the ones up in the canyon. They have instant ramen.” Ajay sets his box down, cheerfully removing things.

“And socks, clean ones. And a grenade launcher. And these boots will probably fit you. It’s like fucking Christmas.”

“Ajay.”

He looks up from the cans he’s examining. “Yeah?”

“I love you, I fucking love you so much,” Pagan says, voice unusually sober. “I love you, and you’re just going to have to put up with me saying it with annoying frequency for awhile.”

He looks down at his hands. “You know that I had an opportunity to say it long ago, and stupidly didn’t take it until it was too late. Not with words, anyway.” He looks up again with a little self-deprecating smile. “Contrary to popular opinion, I do sometimes learn from my mistakes.”

Ajay gets up and comes to him, moves the shotgun within easy reach, sits in his lap. Rests his head against Pagan’s. Pagan runs his hand through Ajay’s unruly hair.

“I love you too. Also not annoying,” he says, a bit muffled. His arms come up around Pagan’s neck. Pagan’s at the perfect level to mouth at Ajay’s throat, which he makes sure to take advantage of. Tasting him. Burrows his face into Ajay’s chest.

He smells pretty bad, really; to be frank they both do, but he doesn’t give a shit. It’s a comforting smell all the same. Dirt, sweat, blood, gunpowder, and Ajay. Since he’s currently taking in deep lungfuls of Pagan’s dirty hair, he probably feels similarly.

“I think we’ll be okay to stay here tonight, don’t you?” Ajay says, slightly muffled against Pagan’s hair. “The Inquisitor will report back that we’re now yeti food, so no reason for them to attack the station. Oh, and by the way,” Ajay says, moving back and looking at his watch, “Your time’s up.”

 

To be able to wash hands and faces and sit and eat hot food feels like the ultimate in luxury after the day they’ve had, and the noodles are hands-down the best thing Ajay’s ever tasted. Lacking bowls, they settle for just sitting on the rug eating out of the same pot. They’re currently having a slow and lazy argument about said noodles.

Ajay keeps pushing more to Pagan’s side of the pot, citing the increasingly obvious appearance of his ribcage, and he keeps pushing them back, going on about how younger men have higher caloric requirements. Ajay has to watch him carefully, or Pagan will just sneak them back over to his side while he’s not looking.

After they’re done, Ajay starts sorting through the cans, deciding what to warm up next. Pagan picks up one of the packs of Kyrati Royals that are ubiquitous around the country.

“You know, after the day we’ve had today, I’ve never been so tempted to resume this dirty habit,” he says, tamping the pack against his knee. He spots the can in Ajay’s hand. “Oh no, darling, not that. That can’s older than you, I guarantee it.” It’s a can of those Momo’s dumplings. Ajay shoots him a look as he puts one of the cigarettes in his mouth and holds a twig in the fire.

“You get one of those fucking cancer sticks, old man. Exactly one.” He waves his finger in Pagan’s face. “I will be so pissed at you if I don’t get at least thirty years with you, do you hear me?” Ajay glances back down at the can. “And my god, you’re right…the date on here says 1984. Shit.”

“Duly noted, my boy. Hear you loud and clear,” he mutters, lips clamped. He lights his cigarette as Ajay pokes the can like it may explode violently at any moment. Takes a deep draw. And immediately coughs violently.

“That…is absolutely fucking vile,” he says, when he can talk again, eyes watering. “Good lord. What the fuck was I thinking?”

“But Pagan…they’re Fit for a King!!” and then has to duck as Pagan hurls the pack at his head in disgust, laughing on the dirty carpet.

A few seconds later the door flies open, a square of warm light illuminating the snow. The pack of cigarettes flies out into a snowdrift. The can of dumplings follows a moment later, and then the door bangs shut again.

 

Pagan is brushing his hands off and turning back to the fire when Ajay grabs him with a dirty little grin, backing him up against the cots they’ve pushed together. He can’t help his answering grin, hands gripping Ajay’s shoulders, tangling in his hair, licking into his mouth as Ajay pushes him down onto his back.

Pagan tugs Ajay on top so that he can get his hands on Ajay’s jacket zipper, then digs through the layers to get at bare skin. Ajay hisses when he rakes fingers along his ribs, leans down and catches his mouth again, shattering open mouthed kisses that make Pagan gasp.

Ajay smiles against his lips. He still tastes like tobacco and juniper berries. He sits up to work on Pagan’s vest and shirt, dragging his warm fingers along Pagan’s heaving belly. When his hands go to Pagan’s belt buckle, he props himself up on his elbows.

“I want to try it. Want to taste you…I’ve never done this before. With anybody.”

Pagan swallows, and then his brow furrows.

“I am entirely sure that I have both tasted and smelled better at virtually any other point of my life than I do right now. Much, much better. Fair warning.”

Ajay rolls his eyes.

“Yeah, yeah, we’re both filthy and we stink, like I give a fuck. We’re also both alive and reasonably sane, and after today I think that’s cause for some celebration.”

As he’s easing his pants down over his hips, Ajay takes a moment to admire his underwear, rubs his thigh to feel their softness. Like a goddamn cloud. Ajay didn’t know you could even get cashmere underwear before he met Pagan. They remind him of home, their home, the Palace.

His underwear have been the only constant of his wardrobe in this shitshow. Right now he’s wearing the dirty vest and shirt that Ajay lifted from an unfortunate victim of yeticide. They are spattered with multiple people’s blood by now and fatigues that are so dirt-crusted they’re starting to lose their original camo pattern. But his underwear game is on point, fitting smooth and perfect, a nice royal blue color.

He’s already hard, and Ajay can’t help a little teasing stroke, rubbing that soft fabric along his shaft. Pagan groans, trying not to buck up into it. When he does it again, Pagan drops flat, one elbow over his face in an attempt to muffle the sounds he’s making.

Ajay takes that opportunity to slide his fingers into the waistband and ease them down, letting Pagan’s cock spring free, admiring it. He’s right; he does smell pretty strong and musky when Ajay leans over and buries his nose in the short dark hair, but he kind of likes it all the same because it’s him. Pagan, warm and alive and belly heaving with his fast breaths as he takes an experimental lick up the shaft. Pagan’s low moan, slightly muffled, is like music to his ears as he gently fondles his balls at the same time. He’s pretty inexperienced in this department, true, but he’s trying to think of what he’d like, what Pagan did that first night.

The thought of Pagan coming in his mouth, coming undone and throbbing hot and pulsing against his tongue is making his jeans distinctly uncomfortable, but he ignores that for the moment.

Pagan is so sensitive, so responsive, especially when he moves to the head. He takes just the tip in his mouth at first, sliding his hand up Pagan’s belly and up his chest so his fingers can circle a hard nipple.

He’s already panting, shaking with the effort of not thrusting up into Ajay’s mouth but still making tiny helpless nudges against his lips.

When Ajay works his tongue along the underside, he makes sure to pin his hip with his other hand, just in case he can’t hold back, but he really needs to learn to trust him more. He’s a perfect gentleman in the not-gagging-the-inexperienced-partner department, still trembling with the effort of holding still. Holding himself under tight control. He moves his other hand to Ajay’s head to gently run his fingers through his thick hair. Ajay wouldn’t mind a bit if he pulled it a little.

Ajay has a thought then, a wicked thought. He raises his head and looks at Pagan, who is studiously not watching him do this, face still buried in the crook of his elbow.

“Pagan,” he says. Pagan moves his arm and looks at him and his eyes are hot black pools, pupils blown wide.

“Watch.” And locking his eyes on Pagan’s, he takes as much of him as he dares.

Pagan’s groan sounds almost pained, and Ajay has one brief moment where he thinks he’s going to choke but he breathes through it, it’s fine, and seeing that incandescent look on Pagan’s face would make it worth it anyway. He uses his hand on the part of his shaft that he can’t take, and when he starts to move, Pagan can only stand it for a few seconds before he’s tugging his hair in warning.

“Ajay...oh, oh fuck...I’d move if I were you...”

Like hell you would, Ajay thinks. You’d do this and swallow every last drop, I know you too well. And stays right where he’s at, and swallows around as much of Pagan’s cock as he can, tongue still working against the underside.

Pagan makes that long, muffled panting groan he makes when he’s coming and trying to be quiet about it, his fingers tightening in his hair as he pulses against Ajay’s tongue, heart going like a triphammer, chest and belly heaving like he’s run a race.

And oh, Ajay thinks he could get addicted to this, feeling Pagan’s orgasm ripple along his tongue, his salty, slightly bitter taste. Having that kind of power, to make him come undone like this with just his mouth and a look. He’d always figured he was kind of straight by default, but he can totally see why some guys love to do this. Although, to be fair, if it were anybody else he’d probably have little interest. It’s because it’s Pagan. Just doing this to him, pleasuring him like that has him turned on like crazy, already dripping ready in his jeans, panting and flushed. Just short of humping the bed.

Ajay doesn’t get to savor his newfound sense of conquest long, because as soon as Pagan stops seeing stars he's surging up under him, has him by the shoulders and is toppling him over backwards. It’s a good thing these cots are fairly sturdy, or they’d both be in the floor. Pagan is fighting with Ajay’s belt with clumsy fingers, like he can’t stand it that he’s not touching or tasting him right now, and Ajay helps him, wriggles out of the confining cloth and then Pagan is on him and swallowing him down without preamble, just a wet slide of heat and suction and the feeling of Pagan’s throat contracting around the head and suddenly he’s coming so hard he can’t even make a sound, every muscle locked and quivering, his orgasm rushing over him like wildfire.

Pagan makes a low, rumbling, pleased sound around his dick that ratchets that intensity even higher and, just as Ajay predicted, his tongue is catching every last drop.

 

Ajay doesn’t pass out, but he goes blissfully null state for a bit. When he looks up at Pagan, he’s on his knees, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. He’s got that same filthy little smile on his face.

“You are an evil man, you know that?” Ajay says. It comes out pretty rusty-sounding.

Pagan flops bonelessly beside him, having come hard himself less than two minutes ago.

“Mmm, I’ve heard that before darling, but I fancy myself a very nice man. A benevolent man, a dispenser of amazing head. At least, for one loyal subject.” His voice is also pretty gravelly.

“I’m not so sure about that,” Ajay laughs. “You seem awfully experienced and practiced at it, for me to be the only loyal subject receiving such...gifts.”

Pagan slaps a hand to his chest melodramatically.

“Why...my dear boy, I am shocked by your accusations! Shocked!”

“Especially,” he lowers his voice to a purr, “since the same charge could be leveled against yourself.”

Ajay attempts to smother him with a sleeping bag, simultaneously embarrassed and laughing at his ridiculously backhanded compliment.

 

They sleep for awhile, and nothing bothers them in the still, frosty night.

 

They wake, stuff themselves silly on the canned food that isn’t too ancient, and sleep again, curled up around each other.

Chapter Text

They run into another one of the yeti on their walk back to the relay station.

It’s broad daylight, which makes it a little less terrifying, but it’s loose. And just wandering around aimlessly through the grassy plain they need to cross. Pagan spots it first, whips around, and crowds Ajay back down over the knoll they just walked up, eyes wide and a little panicky.

“What...” and then he spots it over Pagan’s shoulder.

“Oh fucking Jesus Christ shit shit shit...” Ajay whispers in a rush. Pagan doesn’t think he could form words if he tried. The yeti takes that opportunity to bellow; it’s caught their scent, because of course they were walking upwind like a pair of fools. But how could they have expected this? Up until now, Sandesh has been sane enough to keep these things in cages...but not anymore, apparently.

Then they’re off and running, the yeti not close yet but gaining ground rapidly. The thing is unbelievably fast when it drops to all fours and charges them, the thumping of its’ hands and feet shaking the ground. There’s no way they can outrun the thing, so Ajay shifts direction, Pagan right on his heels.

He makes for the only cover available: a low rock outcropping. It will have to do, and he spots a shelf they can probably climb up.

Ajay throws himself at it, hooks a leg over and scrambles up, turning back just as Pagan’s doing the same thing, but oh god the monster’s almost on him. Ajay lunges for his belt and yanks him up, and the massive hand, paw, whatever it is misses him by inches.

Pagan’s laying half across him, both of their chests heaving, as the yeti’s roar of frustration echoes off the rocks. Ajay would have loved to lie here under his comforting weight for a minute, but he’s suddenly struck by the horrifying thought of what if it can get up the other side.

He scrambles out from under Pagan fast and seizes the little grenade launcher, the only thing they have that might stop a yeti. He runs the ten steps or so to the other side and then sags in relief; it’s definitely higher on this side, the land rolling away from the base of the rock.

“Well, my boy, it appears we’re stuck up here, trapped by a monster in a fucking children’s story. Awesome. Fan-bloody-tastic,” Pagan says, as he joins him, sagging against Ajay a little. He tries to keep the tremor out of his voice, but he knows he’s not doing a good job of it. “So tell me, why the fuck did they bother with the whole, thankfully shitty, kidnapping routine when they could just dump us in a field somewhere? Why bother, when there is more than one of those fucking things, just…just wandering around?” He flings his arms skyward in disgust.

Ajay holds the grenade launcher out in front of him and sighs. “We’re going to have to try to fight it, I think. Maybe this will work? It’s a little hard to aim, but I get the idea that bullets aren’t going to do much to...” Hearing the sound of giant scrabbling fingers, they turn just as the yeti’s head pops up over the ledge as it tries to climb after them. Startled, Ajay instinctively shoots from the hip, the launcher making a distinctive whump. Even taken off guard his aim is true, and the shell explodes in the thing’s face. It drops down again with another ear splitting roar.

Pagan blinks. Crouching close to the edge, he studies the rocks and he was right, he did see blood fly when the shell went off; it wasn’t just his hopeful imagination. He studies the yeti itself, eyes squinted. It’s still moving easily, but if it bleeds, they can kill it.

 

Granted, it’s also now on fire, not that it seems to have noticed.

 

A plan, an insane, reckless plan is beginning to take shape in his brain. A very simple plan. Ajay is going to either kiss him or kill him.

“Ajay, hand me the kukri,” he says, palm held out for it; he hasn’t taken his eyes off the yeti. Ajay rolls his eyes, heaves a long-suffering sigh. He knows that tone in Pagan’s voice, it’s the tone he gets when he’s about to do something that is a bad idea, like when he fired a rocket launcher off the balcony and accidentally broke the greenhouse. Back home, a thought that causes a pang in his chest.

Pagan turns and looks at him. “Do you trust me?” Hand still held out. The afternoon sun slanting across his face makes the one eye sparkle, the stud in his ear glitter. And Ajay finds that he does. He slaps the handle of the kukri into his hand. “Do what you have to do, I got your back.” Pagan smiles at him then, a charming, roguish thing.

“That’s my boy,” he says, as he drops off the ledge.

In the end, it takes four (four!) direct shots from Ajay’s launcher to stop the thing while Pagan plays one of the scariest games of keep away ever played. It can certainly outrun him, but it can’t out-turn him, and he takes shameless advantage of it. As he ducks and dodges, he finds himself getting more and more pissed; with it, with the whole situation. He’s about bloody well fed up with being cold and hungry and frightened and exhausted and harried about this entire fucking valley. Just the sight of these things provokes a visceral panic in his chest that he does not appreciate… so he and Ajay are going to kill one.

Pagan is a man who prefers to face his fears head-on. Well, rear-on, as the case may be, because if he approaches from the front the thing is going to swat him into next week.

The yeti finally stops moving, bent over and holding its head with an anguished bellow. Pagan slides to a stop and seizes the opening he’s been waiting for. Even crouched down, it’s a goddamned mountain of meat, and he’s going to have to scale it fast.

Thankfully, it’s no longer on fire.

He darts forward and grabs a handful of damp, greasy, disgusting hair on its back and heaves himself up, boots scrabbling for purchase on the thing’s furry ass. He makes it through sheer grit and adrenaline, scrambles on his knees across the yeti’s heaving back.

Pagan lifts the kukri high with both hands, and plunges it as hard as he can into the meaty neck.

As expected, it goes mad under him, but he braces with his knees and keeps on stabbing. The big paws reach up and swat at him, try to grab hold of him to drag him off, but the yeti can’t quite reach so high up on its back. Pagan grits his teeth and just keeps going, snarling at it; curses it in English, curses it in Cantonese, lets it know all about his general discontent with the situation. His last strike severs the spine, the force jarring back up into his shoulders, and the yeti finally goes down.

The thing drops out from under him like a rock and Pagan goes flying off the side, hits the dirt hard, and slides to a stop in a small plume of dust.

Silence.

Chest heaving, he just lays there. He can feel his hip already beginning to bruise. He decides to admire the sky above him for a moment, an impossibly intense shade of blue. He wonders idly how long he can keep this shit up before his body gives out entirely as he listens to Ajay’s boots approach in the stillness.

“Holy shit,” Ajay breathes, looking down at him. Pagan squints up at him, shades his eyes from the sun. He’s covered with yeti blood and a fine layer of dust.

“Are you going to kill me now, darling?” he enquires mildly.

Ajay is shaking his head. “You are such a fucking asshole, do you know that?” But he’s laughing as he says it, and then he’s kneeling by Pagan’s head, trying to wipe the mess off his face with his sleeve. Ajay smiles down at him. His face is in shadow but the light is picking out chestnut highlights in his shaggy hair and he’s so, so beautiful. Pagan smiles and reaches up to touch his face, but spots the blood covering his hand with a disgusted groan. He’s still trying to clean it off on his filthy pants when Ajay leans over and whispers, “You are also fucking amazing, do you know that?” and then his mouth is on his, warm and sweet.

When they break apart for air, Pagan says, “Oh good, it’s kisses instead. Right before I jumped down I thought to myself, ‘Pagan my lad, when it’s all over he’s going to either kiss you or kill you for this.’ I am so glad that you have chosen the former,” which makes Ajay laugh.

But then he lets his voice go serious. “I could do that because you had my back, Ajay, just like you said. You’ll always have my back. My dearest boy.”

Ajay grins. “I love you too, old man. Come on, if we hurry we can grab some food and sleep for a few more hours.”

Pagan sits up with a groan and Ajay helps pull him to his feet. As they walk back, Ajay reaches out and twines their fingers together, heedless of his bloody hands.

“Y’know, you killing that thing reminded me of the first day we met,” he says with a little shy smile that Pagan loves.

“Oh? Do tell.”

“Yeah, that day at the bus...you know, with the stabbing, and you swearing and all. I didn’t think so at the time, but later...kinda hot, in a really fucked up way. Because you got mad and killed that guy just for trying to hurt me.” Ajay looks away, his cheeks a little pink. He adds, darkly, “I don’t know what that says about me.” Pagan throws back his head and roars laughter, which Ajay also loves. “Oh Ajay,” he says, wiping his eye, “Only you could find anything romantic about this. Only you, darling.”

Chapter Text

It’s a great thing to be considered KIA, Ajay muses, as they limp back to what functions as home. It means there is time to rest, time to recover and heal a bit. If the valley is ‘purified’ of their presence, there’s no reason for Sandesh’s minions to keep throwing themselves at the relay station, and their hopes are confirmed when the radio is silent and no one comes for them in the night.

So for two lazy, wonderful days, they do just that. The weather holds beautiful and sunny and warm, for Lost Valley standards. They work on the barriers and defenses and Ajay watches Pagan carrying old boards and nailing them into place as he fills the sandbags. It’s warm enough that he’s stripped down to his fine silk shirt, a strange contrast to the dusty camo and he has extra nails stuck in his mouth, humming to himself as he works.

When he does things like this, manual labor without bitching about it, bearing cold and hunger and exhaustion more or less cheerfully, it strikes him that it’s possible that he would have never seen this side of him any other way. Pagan, being the pink-jacketed, makeup-wearing dandy that he is, makes it easy to forget that he’s also the soldier, the warlord, the general that led an entire army over the mountains into Kyrat before he could legally drink stateside. It’s both warming and disheartening that he is the only person on the planet who knows this man at all, and there are still too many facets to him to keep track of. Enigmatic.

Pagan being the king doesn’t matter at all here, and neither does his own comparative youth. They’ve been forced way out of their respective comfort zones, and both have had to rely completely on the other. Without this equalizing catalyst, this backdrop of near constant danger and hardship, it might have taken years for them to get this close. Or maybe never.

Or maybe he should give Pagan more credit, because Ajay, running on pure instinct, managed to convince him to let him in, to take control and let him take care of him, let him bandage his wounds and clean the blood off of him with just his tongue. Give him choices, other than just numbness and a hangover the next morning. Let Ajay hold him though that single, harsh sob.

There’s no way that Ajay could ever express any of these vague thoughts in coherent words, so he just goes to him then, wraps his arms around his shoulders from behind, gets his nose between collar and neck. And maybe Pagan understands him a bit, as he lifts one of Ajay’s hands to kiss his palm. Maybe hears all of his thoughts condensed down to their purest form: ‘I’m grateful for you.’

 

They go out hunting for hours, easily avoiding the sporeheads and their clumsy patrols. Ajay does the bow work and Pagan does the skinning and cleaning, a job that disgusts Ajay but bothers him not at all. He’s had a lot of blood on his hands lately, and he prefers animal to human. Sometimes they build a tiny, hot fire in a hidden thicket and roast the fresh meat right then and there, on sticks, delicious after days of ancient things in cans. They take the cloak from Ajay’s pack and spread it out on a nice, deep pile of dead leaves and just watch the snowy white clouds sweep across the dark blue sky, much like the day they escaped the canyon. They talk about what they’ll eat when they get back home, what they want to do, what they want in the future. It’s a little strange and uncomfortable talking about the future though; everything is so immediate, all the extraneous stripped away.

Ajay worries a little from time to time about what’s going to happen to them when they leave this place. What will happen between them. Virtually their entire relationship has taken place here, been grown and developed here in the Lost Valley, with an entirely different set of rules and parameters and stressors than their lives in greater Kyrat. Lives that, for all that they’ve both been living together in the palace, have been relatively separate so far. But it’s a moot point, really; even if the Royal Guard came for them right now, they still couldn’t leave. Too many loose ends to tie up. It’ll be okay, and it’s too soon to worry about this stuff. Borrowing trouble from tomorrow. And he really doesn’t want to talk about these things with Pagan, afraid to break this idyllic spell. Today is enough for him, and this tiny slice of happiness.

Pagan’s never lived like this before, and while it reminds him a bit of the Golden Path days, Ajay never felt this isolated. That feeling of it just being him and Pagan all alone in the world is strong. Just the two of them, behind enemy lines. Those couple of days feels like they last at least an entire week, and keeping food in their bellies and guns pointed at those enemies feels like the sum of their concerns. Sex whenever they feel like it, quiet but joyful, breathless tumbles in the warm leaves and sunshine. The light gilding Ajay’s head and bare shoulders, so that Pagan has to run his hands over that velvety skin over and over, the color of the lightest coffee. Strokes the widow’s peak at his forehead, winds a bit of his hair around his finger to examine the copper and chestnut and umber strands hiding in it. Ajay takes hold of Pagan’s chin and gently turns his head, watching the way that same light illuminates the depths of his eyes. They’re beautiful; a bit lighter than his own, with an almost black ring at the edge graduating to dark bronze at the center. Little amber flecks. Like all different shades of brown stones in a clear stream.

Sandesh and his annihilation is on the horizon, as is finding that fucking relic thing and destroying it so no one can ever pull this shit again, but just in this moment, just for today, they feel kind of invulnerable. Kind of content.

Ajay has always been someone who tends to live in the moment, and it’s hard to think of anything as complex as what-ifs and what-might-be when Pagan is softly sweeping his long fingers across his lower back. He loves touching this part of him, says it feels downy, like a fuzzy peach. Ajay wonders idly if he’s up for another round yet.

 

------------------------------------------

 

On the third day, they wake to the sound of a giant, flat explosion that rolls through the valley, echoing off the hills. The radio immediately goes off with frightened squawking about a lost radio maintenance crew and a truck crash. They both sit up to hear better, and the voice commands another patrol to head there immediately, and then go check on their signal jammers.

Jackpot. They’re back in business. And the maintenance crew had a map.

 

The first two jammers were easy for them to take out, just sabotage the generators and done. They didn’t even need the blocks of C-4 they’d brought along. The giant wolf pack that showed up after the second was a bit surprising, but they had both managed to escape unscathed. And of course the weather held sunny and fine…until they had to do this last, most dangerous part.

Pagan’s perched on top of this fucking hill, the icy wind blasting him raw and attempting to hold Ajay’s sniper rifle steady as he watches Ajay fly down to that lower platform like a deranged squirrel, his heart in his throat. Utter madness. Agreeing to this plan was…there has to be something wrong with him, to agree to this. Maybe the constant low-level spore exposure is rotting his brains as well. Wingsuits are purest lunacy, and he’s not even the one wearing the bloody thing. And how in the hell do the sporeheads get over there? To even put gasoline in the generator? They had searched for three hours, around and around, and found no other way over there, and then Ajay had gotten that mad light in his eyes and pulled that fucking wingsuit out of his pack.

So here we are. He watches Ajay through the scope as he deploys the chute and lands neatly, legs absorbing the impact but then he’s struggling out of it fast, sprinting for a stone chorten and sliding behind it. Pagan scans for what it was that startled him. He sees nothing, and dials the magnification back to give himself a wider view. Still nothing. He lifts his head over the rifle but that damnable wind has picked up again and is blowing snow through the chasm between his location and Ajay’s, further reducing his visibility. Muttering a stream of the worst invective that the Cantonese language has to offer, he’s sweeping the area once again when he hears the dull, thudding concussion of a frag grenade going off.

He’s up on his feet before he even has the thought, trying to see anything through the blowing snow. Has to then force himself back down to a prone position, because if he has to fire this thing to support Ajay he’s not going to be able to shoot for shit with the wind tugging at him like this. Not that he’s a particularly good shot at this distance, gale-force wind or no. This sort of extreme long-range gunplay has never been his strong suit; the measured control, forcing breathing and heart rate to slow, the pressure of the trigger squeeze perfectly calibrated. He’s much more of a controlled-chaos kind of fellow, wrangling the big guns or the flailing of an opponent right as he slides the steel home.

Perhaps impressed with the quality of his abusive language, the wind dips for a minute and the snow clears and bit and oh bloody fucking hell it’s another of those goddamn yeti things. Ajay is a tiny greenish figure as he darts and dodges as if his life depends on it, which of course it does. And him stuck all the way over here, instead of there beside Ajay where he belongs, jamming Ajay’s beautifully engraved kukri into its fucking hamstring.

Nothing for it now, as he quickly estimates and adjusts the dials for windage and elevation. Focus. Knowing what he knows about these things, it’s probably going to have to be headshots only to have any kind of impact and pray he doesn’t hit Ajay. Good thing the yetis are absurdly tall, but he’s firing down at them from this angle.

Pagan adjusts the position of the stock seated in his shoulder, flips the safety off, and lines up his shot. Tries to force calm, tries to think of the ocean or some bullshit like that, anything to get his hammering heart to slow the fuck down. It doesn’t work of course; Ajay is over there in danger and he’s stuck here and zen mindfulness is a trained skill anyway. Hissing in frustration, he sucks in a breath and holds it, holds everything as steady as he possibly can and gently, gently squeezes the trigger to its break tension…and then just a tiny bit more and the big rifle kicks hard into his shoulder as the immense, flat crack of the report rolls across the valley, the bullet in flight across the chasm…and strikes the yeti’s muscular chest, down low. He watches as a big handpaw comes up and swipes carelessly at the spot, as one would with a bee sting. A mere annoyance. It’s possible that he did more damage to his own shoulder, he thinks in disgust. He’ll have bruises tomorrow, for sure. This .50 caliber business is no joke, and the only silver lining is that he’s right-handed and doesn’t have to absorb that recoil with the bad shoulder.

Ajay has moved out all the way to the end of the big rocky platform and is hiding behind the largest chorten, grabbing something from the ground as the yeti stalks him, trying to sniff him out. The gusting wind might be confusing its efforts, thank god, and Pagan recalculates, adjusts the dials again, carefully re-shoulders the rifle. He goes through the whole routine again, doing his best to ignore the roil of worry in his stomach, the thudding of his own heartbeat in his ears. As he holds his breath, squeezes, feathering pressure on the trigger, another ill-timed dull crash of an explosion makes him twitch minutely at the last possible moment and this shot buries itself into the stonework, just to the left of the yeti’s head.

Pagan’s roar of frustrated rage echoes off the mountains much like the roar of the rifle did.

It’s at this moment that the yeti is able to corner Ajay, since trying to time the grenade triggers to the yeti’s movements is very difficult to predict, he doesn’t have the launcher, and the assault rifle he’s carrying is just shy of useless. Pagan’s bellow takes on a new dimension as the yeti effortlessly smacks Ajay out from behind the chorten, and as he lands heavily on his side, not moving much, the rifle is up against Pagan’s shoulder again. His eyes narrow, an unconscious snarl on his face as he chambers a round, forcing the shake out of his hands. He’ll make this bullet go in that thing’s skull if he has to will it there, if he has to stand up and fucking throw it there. He is so charged with rage and adrenaline that he feels he might just be able to jump off this fucking cliff and fly over there himself, wingsuit or no. Ajay.

The yeti is making its last, brazen charge now, moving fast because Ajay is still trying to get his feet under him, a helpless target. Pagan has no time for actually sniping, actual finesse, and plans to throw as much lead downrange as he can, as fast as he can possibly chamber the next round. He’s on his feet then, again without thinking, and the next shot he takes hits the thing in the thigh, barely slowing it, but the wind has died down again in his favor. Don’t think, don’t feel, there’s no room for anything else besides work the bolt, aim, fire. Work the bolt, aim, fire. Its less than ten feet from Ajay now, closing fast, although those massive hunks of lead have slowed it some.

A dim, faraway voice in his head that is keeping count of such things warns him that he only has two rounds left when his next shot takes the thing in the head, dropping it less than five feet from Ajay, startling both of them. Perhaps all three of them.

Pagan’s knees won’t hold him then, spilling him into the snow in sheer wobbly relief. Accidental headshot, he thinks, you have got to be fucking kidding me. He’d been aiming center-mass to make certain that he actually did hit the thing, and his aim was so far off he sniped its head by a fluke.

Ajay’s never going to let him live this shit down, he thinks, and with that thought he has the scope trained back on Ajay, checking on him, his back propped against a ruined wall. He’s up and moving, limping a bit, but seems mostly okay. He even gives Pagan a thumbs up aimed at his position on the hill, although he probably can’t actually see him from there. He skirts the yeti as it explodes into that sickly yellow spore cloud and enters the cave, out of line of sight, and Pagan really, really hopes there’s nothing else in there.

He’s back in less than two minutes, to Pagan’s great and eternal relief. Pagan gets up to walk down the hill, the big rifle in the crook of his elbow as Ajay leaps off the edge of the temple’s plateau, but as he glances over he can see Ajay has a problem. His flight is wobbly, way too wobbly by far. Pagan turns and runs, trying to decide on an intercept course. His feet skid once on the slippery marble steps, belly rolling over, but he just manages to stay upright. Abandoning the conventional path down, he simply goes over the side, sliding on the pine needles and loose stones, just trying to keep his boots under him as he slips-runs-falls down the side of the hill. Ajay’s gun is still in his hand, the long barrel threatening to bury itself in the soft soil, the impact of which really would send him ass over tits. Pagan struggles with the strap, finally gets it over his shoulder and around his body just as he clips a tree, but the impact is minor and he stumbles for twenty more feet or so, finally hitting the snow drift at the bottom, knees aching.

He’s really able to take off then, trying to spot that green fabric through the snow and brown tree trunks, breathing hard, trying not to let the gun slip off his shoulder or snag it on anything. An idle part of his mind contemplates how pissed Ajay will be if he fucks up the optics on his prized rifle. He doesn’t feel it yet, but he’s going to be black and blue tomorrow from the recoil slamming into his shoulder…there!

Right there. Flash of green in the snow. Not moving.

He’s close though, so close, puts on a little extra speed somehow, but he really should have been more careful in his panicky rush, looked down occasionally, because he has eyes only for that green fabric when a ravine he didn’t see opens almost under his feet. He has no time to stop or even slow himself; no choice now, unless breaking his neck at the bottom is a choice, but to take it at a bound and hope for the best. Heart in his throat yet again. He vaguely wishes it would move back down into his chest where it belongs as he shoves off hard on the last step, his boots sailing out over empty air, coat tail flapping. He tucks his feet up as he hits the opposite bank and almost doesn’t make it, teetering at the edge and grabbing for vines, roots, whatever to tip himself forward, sprawling.

He lets himself lay there in the snowy brush, panting for air, for a three-count before he shoves himself to his feet. He spots Ajay not far ahead, still not moving, and his damnable heart is trying to creep north again. He slides to a stop and drops to his knees beside Ajay, face-down and tangled in paracord and chute fabric.

“Oh Jesus,” Pagan whispers, and with infinite care rolls him over.

Ajay coughs and looks up at him, squinting at the light, tries to say something and gasps and coughs again. “Sorry, got the wind knocked out of me. I’m okay,” he forces out.

Pagan twists and falls on his ass in sheerest relief, then decides to keep going, why not, until he’s full-length beside Ajay. He’s still panting for air, as Ajay stirs next to him with a little muffled groan. “All right, I may have a couple of bruised ribs as well, not gonna lie. But still relatively okay.”

“Ajay,” Pagan spits out between breaths. “I...really loathe…that fucking wingsuit.

Chapter Text

Limping towards ‘home’ at the end of a long and brutal day seems to be becoming a common theme for them. Pagan offers to carry Ajay, but is waved off a little irritably. “I’m fine, really…stop fussing. It’s just some bruises.”
“I might start to believe you, boy…just as soon as I see you take anything but shallow breaths,” Pagan retorts, eyes narrowed.

Ajay sighs. His sides do ache. “Do you really want to carry me, when I can walk fine? Why?”

Pagan looks a little evasive at this, like maybe he’s been wanting to for awhile and has been looking for an excuse. “Perhaps it might not have occurred to you that seeing you wince with every step makes me feel it in my own ribs?”

“Tell you what…soon as I can tell that your knees aren’t hurting you and not one, but both your shoulders aren’t beat to shit I’ll let you carry me around as much as you want, deal?”

“Fine, fine. Stubborn, beautiful boy. Ice first, then hot compresses when we get back. For both of us. Deal?”

“Deal, you stubborn, beautiful old man,” Ajay says, winding his arms around Pagan’s waist for a moment. He sees movement in the distance behind Pagan’s shoulder though, and pulls him down swiftly into the brush. Points.

It’s a cultist moving through the stunted trees a couple hundred yards away, a hunter by the looks of him. He’s carrying a bow and appears to be alone. Ajay has an idea, as he fingers the radio on his belt and he tugs Pagan’s head over so he can whisper in his ear.

“Do you think you can capture that guy and bring him over to me? Are you up for it? Either knock him out or cover his head somehow, I don’t want him to see either one of us, or to hear our voices. I have this thought and I have no idea if it will work, but we can just kill him if it doesn’t. I know you’re in pain, but if it works we’ll be able to rest easy, sleep as much as we want. Can you do it?”

“I can, dearest. Anything you want.” Pagan kisses him and then is off, stalking the hunter through the brush. Poor guy really never stood a chance, Ajay thinks, as he settles in to wait. The hunter passes over the slope of the hill and out of sight before Pagan intercepts him, but he’s not worried a bit.

Before long, he sees Pagan come up over the rise marching the spore guy in front of him. He didn’t even have to knock him out. He appears to be tied with his own bowstring, Pagan’s handgun pressed to the back of his head. As they get closer Ajay has to try really, really hard not to burst out laughing, because Pagan has merely pulled the drawstring of the guy’s hood tightly and knotted it, effectively blinding him. He can vaguely see the dude’s mouth through the small furry hole in the front of his hood. This has caused the skull mounted on the top of his hood to slide forward and is now wobbling comically with every step. Looking at Pagan’s expression almost sets him off afresh because he’s also obviously trying to keep a straight face, and mostly failing.

 

Pagan puts a hand to the cultist’s shoulder and pushes him to his knees in front of Ajay, gun still pressed to the back of his head. Looks expectantly at Ajay, curious. Running on instinct, Ajay unclips the radio from his belt and hands it to Pagan. He then takes off his glove and, with some trepidation, pushes up the sleeve of the guy’s parka to get at his bare skin. The left arm is a mass of oozy, lichen-y looking sores, so he jerks that sleeve back down in disgust and reaches for the other arm. This one is clear, so he gingerly puts his bare hand on it, grimacing at the cold, greasy, somehow loose feeling of his flesh. Ugh. He motions at Pagan to have the radio ready, and then closes his eyes. Concentrates.

Ajay thinks he can start to hear the guy’s confused, gibbering thoughts as separate from his own. They feel distinct and not like his own thought processes at all; inhuman, animal-like somehow, and nothing like the brief impressions he’s gotten from Pagan.

So far, so good.

It takes him a couple of seconds to adjust, but he feels like might be able to send a message into the other guy’s head. Orders him to say these words exactly, and only those words, and then repeats them until the cultist can’t hear anything else in his own head.

Pagan frowns, watching Ajay’s closed eyes, the intense concentration on his face, eyebrows furrowed. Ajay opens his mouth…but while his lips only move silently, Ajay’s words come out of the cultists’ mouth, moving in sync.

Oh, that is intensely creepy. He pushes the transmit button.

“This is Patrol Four. We checked the signal jammers and they are clear of ice and are operational, over.”

A guy on the other end responds. “Acknowledged, Patrol Four. Well done, brother.”

Pagan shuts the radio off as Ajay comes back to himself with a little jerk. Finger to his lips, Pagan unties the sporehead’s hands and slides away silently into the brush, followed closely by Ajay. By the time the hapless hunter gets his drawstring unknotted and can look around him, the two are long gone. His intense confusion slowly morphs into a deep desire to continue his original mission of procuring meat and he wanders away, looking for his bow. Soon his foggy mind doesn’t even recall that anything went amiss.

Once they are far enough away, Ajay whispers, “Thought you might like to go on being dead for awhile.”

Pagan chuckles. “Dear boy, I’d like nothing better. But how did you know how to do that? It was…disconcerting, to see your mouth move but the sound come out of someone else.”

“I don’t know. Instinct, I guess. I just kind of knew. It took me a bit to figure it out, but it’s…it’s real strange in those guys’ heads, Pagan. I can’t really explain it, but they’re not so much like people anymore.”

“Well, however you did it, it was brilliant. Disturbing, but brilliant.”

 

Later, Ajay and Pagan lay on the dirty rug in front of the stove, mostly naked with warm damp rags all over them. Pagan’s eyes are half-closed with the pleasure of letting that heat soak into his shoulders, the backs of his knees. Ajay is nestled close beside him, with rags all over his poor battered ribcage. Occasionally, he reaches up lazily and stirs the pot of hot water on the stove, exchanges their rags for fresh, hot ones.

“What we were talking about before...I don’t know if I should have done that or not, in hindsight. It seems really dangerous, the whole business,” Ajay says, as Pagan lays more heated rags on him, face troubled even as he wriggles in contentment at the soothing warmth.

“Do you mean messing about with the sporeheads, trying to control them like Sandesh does?” Pagan inquires, mumbling into the carpet, his own eyes closing involuntarily as Ajay rearranges the rags on his shoulders.

“Maybe in part, but...it’s not a good thing, I don’t think, that we can hear each other occasionally. I mean, sometimes it’s pleasant things, or kind of happy things...but it’s mostly not. If it were just strong emotion, then we’d hear each other every time we…y’know, made love.” He blushes just a bit at that, his ears endearingly pink as Pagan runs a finger along the shell of the closest one.

“But I can hear you the strongest when you’re in pain. Anguish. Like that time at the sacrificial cave. I could feel how upset you were, in my own chest. And more than that, the spore fucks could feel it too, when they touched you. They didn’t like it; they were just going to hold you there and make you watch me die, but they couldn’t stand that misery rolling off of you and that’s why they got the rope. And when I had to walk through some of that spore cloud shit I could suddenly feel it, feel you ten times as strongly.” Ajay reaches out and runs his fingers along the velvety spot behind Pagan’s ear. “But when I tried to send back, as loud as I could, that I love you, I’m coming back, just hang on...I don’t think you got any of that. I think that it didn’t want you to hear that, doesn’t want us to hear or feel anything positive, or good, or light, you know? I think...I think it likes pain. But I’m not sure of anything yet. Nothing’s clear.”

“My dear, you’re not really making much sense. By ‘it,’ do you mea...” Ajay’s eyes cut with sudden sharp intensity to his, and his hand comes around to gently cover Pagan’s mouth. “Yeah, and don’t say it out loud. Try not to even think it. We talked about it before, and we shouldn’t have...to talk and think about it is to...attract his attention, maybe invoke him, I don’t know. But as we get closer and closer to destroying it, everything in this valley becomes all the more dangerous. I can feel it, like a storm building.”

 

---------------------------------------------

 

The next morning, Pagan is stacking extra ammo in the weapons cabinet and Ajay is cooking them a meager breakfast when the radio crackles to life again, but this time the signal is very weak, faint and staticky. “…is Royal Guard op…voc Two-Ni…” Pagan’s lunging for the mic then, but before he can grab it that thin signal is drowned out by a much louder, closer one from the cultists, something about having someone in custody, a bomb maker or explosives expert or something. The Inquisitor cuts in then, and that’s of keen interest to them as well. Maybe even more so than the Royal Guard call. There are still quite a few loose ends to tie up in this valley before they can think of getting rescued, and Ajay recalls the Inquisitor with a particular and very personal malice. The Inquisitor goes on to ask about recovered explosives, and they both sigh a little in relief that the mystery bomb maker has held out under torture, and that they’re holding him in a fortified location while they wait for the Inquisitor to come to them. They really, really don’t need these fuckfaces to have any more ordnance to throw at them.

“Explosives huh? I like the sound of that. For us, of course, not the spore freaks. It looks like it’s this guy’s lucky day,” Ajay says, though he stops to reconsider. “Well, they did make him drink that elixir shit, and he’s probably tripping balls right about now, but maybe he’ll be okay. So maybe not totally lucky, but pretty damn fortunate.”

“Indeed, my boy. It’s fortunate that we can head in there and kill a whole shitload of birds with one stone. Intercept that fucking Inquisitor on his way in and clean out their little rat’s nest. Let that fellow and whoever else is in there go, to reduce the yeti population in this valley, if for no other reason.” Pagan pauses. “But, oh, I have an even better reason!” he says brightly, a little loud, as if the idea has suddenly occurred to him. “They are my loyal citizens in need of rescue, are they not? Then save them we shall.” He sighs with satisfaction. “And they say I’ve lost touch with my subjects.”

Ajay snorts laughter at him. “You realize that someone else who looked just like you used that same exact line, and then had those same subjects executed? It was Rabi Ray’s aunt and uncle.”

Pagan blinks in surprise. “Well, fuck. Eric did that? Who in the fuck ordered that? Or perhaps he did it of his own volition. So it was the Ranas? I knew they were running guns for the Golden Path, but I didn’t give a shit. That was small-time stuff. It was, and still is, all small-time stuff. But it’s a shame about the boy’s family.”

He chuckles a bit then. “I always did like that young man, despite the references to all things scatological. I listened to his station myself, and when I heard his broadcast about how my name sounded like a Cantonese death metal band and that I must have mugged a metrosexual pimp for my outfits…Gary and I had laughed until we cried.”

“Anyway,” Pagan says, refocusing at the task at hand, “I have a bit of a plan for our good little monkey friend. It involves a lot of C-4 and mines. Like, a lot. Are you in, dearest?” he says, with a brilliant, slightly manic smile that makes the edges of his eyes crinkle in that way that Ajay loves.

“Hell yeah, I’m in. Blowing shit up, turning that fucking painted up tv preacher motherfucker into hamburger? Oh yeah,” and his eyes are blazing, thinking of that night, his goons ambushing him and then throwing him down and shoving a gun into the back of his head, drugging Pagan and almost suffocating him, that desolate look in Pagan’s eyes, half-frozen, like they were both already dead.

“I’ll go get the snowmobile loaded up, old man. We can go as soon as we eat.”

Chapter Text

After they’ve eaten, they plan.

“All right, here we are…” says Pagan, finger tracing their map that’s laid out on the desk. “I believe that this area here is where they have their little fortified base, so if our dear friend the Inquisitor is going to travel there, they’ll need to use this road. The odds are high that he’s been bunking with our other dear friend Sandesh, here at his temple…thing, whatever it is, and so this intersection here,” he prods the spot,” is where we’ll set up our ambush. Since his brains don’t seem to be as addled as those of his little minions, I think it would be safe to assume that they’ll be travelling in the standard Army protocol three-vehicle convoy, with at least one gunner. Thus, all the explosives.” He sweeps his finger across the leather with a little flourish.

“Oh man,” Ajay laughs, “they’re not gonna know what fuckin’ hit them. Sky fuckin’ high, baby…sky fuckin’ high.” The light in his eyes is happy and hard and fierce.

They are both in such a giddy, good mood that Ajay tosses Pagan the keys and hops up on the back of the snowmobile, not even caring that they’re packing maybe a hundred pounds of high-powered explosives in the thing. Hopefully the extra weight means that Pagan won’t tip it over.

What follows is a reckless and insane race down the snowy road, Ajay’s arms wrapped tight around Pagan as they barrel along, fishtailing constantly because Pagan can’t figure out how to accelerate into curves and not overcorrect on the steering. This isn’t being helped by the fact that Ajay currently has his tongue in his ear and is rubbing himself shamelessly against his lower back. Pagan swears again, skids them sideways and somehow keeps them from flipping, then chuckles and squeezes the accelerator way too hard. Again.

At least he’s kept them out of the trees so far.

Once they get close to that intersection though, it’s all business. Well, mostly business, as they try to muffle their giggles and excited whispers as they haul all of their ordnance to the conveniently placed crates and tables.

Pagan walks out to the intersection and scans all three roads and examines the area carefully before approaching a fifty-five gallon barrel left almost in the roadway.

“Did someone really leave this barrel of gasoline right here? A pity, that…” as he wrenches the cap off and kicks it over. Ajay is laying out mines at regular intervals and kicking snow over them, which is much more effective than trying to dig holes in the frozen soil to hide them. Pagan’s barrel of gas makes a soft glugging sound as it empties.

“Ajay, what do you think of putting a bunch of C-4 in here after all the petrol is out? Concentrate things a bit? If they stick to protocol, the Inquisitor will be in the middle vehicle, so if you placed the first of the mines here,” he marks the spot with his heel in the snow, “then the middle car should have to stop around…here,” he judges, pacing off the distance.

“Oh, I like that idea. It’ll contain it kind of, focus the explosion closer to that middle car, and we can put junk in it to make more shrapnel.”

“Awesome. Perfect,” Pagan says, low and reverently, and jogs back to get the now empty barrel. Working carefully with the edge of the kukri, they get the top pried off and get the rest of the mines in the bottom, but as Pagan is going for more C-4 Ajay’s keen hearing picks up the sound of vehicles in the distance, moving slowly. He looks back at Pagan and waves for attention, makes the handsign for ‘hostiles’ and trots back just as Pagan is stuffing the last armful in, not a moment too soon. He has the detonator clenched in his teeth and Ajay takes it out of his mouth and double-checks the frequency, helps Pagan tap the lid back on and then they’re running for cover, Ajay in the back and kicking snow over their tracks as fast as he can. Pagan grabs his hand and tugs him down behind one of the big crates just as the convoy comes over the rise down the road. Exactly as predicted. Ajay is leaning out from around the crate monitoring their progress when Pagan hisses, “Oh shit,” beside him, grabbing his handgun out of his coat pocket and dropping the clip in his lap. Ajay watches in confusion as he works out four bullets with his thumb, handing two of them over.

“Here,” he whispers, “I almost forgot. Jam these in your ears, my boy. Works surprisingly well.” It’s also not the most comfortable, but Ajay would like to keep his eardrums and so he works them in, one eye on the lead vehicle. This one’s gonna be a big one.

It seems to take that lead jeep an eternity to get to the first of their mines, but when it does it triggers perfectly. Ajay had placed two mines together so that car would blow immediately whether it had armor plating on the bottom or not, and it goes up with a giant fireball that also catches the gasoline. He can feel the heat on his face from here…oh man, they are really kind of close to blow that barrel, but too much further away and the detonator won’t reach. You really aren’t supposed to put like twenty blocks of them together like that.

There are already screams of pain, angry yelling, and he dares a quick glance around their crate to see that second jeep pull up right in the perfect position, just where Pagan estimated.

Fuck it, he thinks…Pagan must be wearing off on him. He waits one second, two…and just as he hits the detonator button Pagan dives on top of him, drags the cloak over to cover both of them, curls his upper body over as much of Ajay as he can with his arms over his own head as their barrel erupts with an earth-shaking roar that hurts even through his improvised earplugs and with Pagan half on him. A distant part of Ajay’s mind hopes that Pagan is also covering his ears as well as his head as the resulting shockwave pressure seems to suck the air out of his lungs. That wave is followed by an intense blast of heat that makes him glad to be pushed half into the snow, as shards of hot metal and bits of flaming material begin to rain down on them. Ajay works his arm from out from under his ribs and manages to reach up to pat at Pagan’s face: You okay? He gets a little nuzzle at his hand in return.

As soon as the junk stops falling on them Pagan rolls off of him onto his back. The thick wool of his cloak is gently smoldering, but the snow quickly puts it out. That thing is just an old blanket that the sporeheads turned into a marginally fancier garment for some reason, but it sure has come in handy.

They both lie there, simply breathing.

“Well,” Pagan says, plucking the bullets out of his ears, “that was fucking stupid. Satisfying, but stupid. Are you alright, my dear? All the important bits still intact?” Ajay sits up with a groan and hands his bullets back to Pagan. “I’m okay, and yeah, yeah, that was fucking dumb of us. I realized we were way too close right as the first jeep went up, but I blew it anyway. You had that barrel in just the right spot, paced that distance off perfectly. Couldn’t resist,” he grins. “What about you, are you okay?” Ajay leans over and pats his thigh.

“Ringing a little, but all important bits are also accounted for.” Ajay shoves himself to his feet with another long groan and offers Pagan a hand up.

As they stand there surveying the damage, Ajay whistles. It really is impressive. The remains of the first jeep that blew are now more than twenty feet up the road one way, the rear car is off the road entirely and is wrapped around a tree, and the second jeep is mangled metal at the bottom of a crater that’s at least three feet deep.

Pagan pulls his cap off and runs his fingers through his hair in what may be mild frustration. “Are we even going to be able to find this fucking key? It’s possible we accidentally vaporized it…”

“Oh no, don’t you come bitching to me,” Ajay laughs, “I’m not the one who chose the nuclear option here. But I did also agree and help you, so let’s look around. With any luck, the Inquisitor’s body got thrown free somewhere…”

And he turns out to be right, but it’s so gross he makes Pagan do the dirty work. The guy is gently charred on the outside, but it’s only his clothes that are holding his pieces together. Ajay had been joking, but he wasn’t far off on that hamburger description.

Pagan heaves a gusty sigh and starts stripping, handing layers of outerwear to Ajay for him to hold. He starts rolling up his shirtsleeves, but then on further consideration of the scope of the problem he takes that off too, opting to just go bare-chested. Ajay stands between him and the wind and stands watch just in case anyone comes to investigate, as they probably will, eventually. He’s considerate that way.

It’s so nasty Ajay can hardly watch, as in the end Pagan just has to sort of…rake through the sludgy stuff at the bottom, feeling around for those fucking keys. He thinks he has them once, but it turns out to be a belt buckle, which he tosses away.

“Ahah!” he finally barks in triumph, dangling the gory keyring. He cleans them off with a handful of snow, hands them up to Ajay, and finds his own clean patch of snow to wipe off with. Ajay holds his shirt open for him when he’s done so he can wriggle back into it gratefully, shivering.

Once Pagan has everything back on, they stand looking down at the mess of the Inquisitor.

“Maybe Sandesh will be a little more…I dunno. Better than this. More revenge-y. Or something.”

“Revenge-y?” says Pagan, incredulous. “My goodness boy, what is it that they teach in American schools these days? No, don’t answer that, I don’t want to know.” At Ajay’s mock scowl, he says, scratching at his stubble, “Fine, you know what? ‘Revenge-y’ it is. And you won’t hear me say it often, but we may have perhaps gone a bit…overboard this time. Overkill, as it were.” He ignores Ajay’s small, amused snort. “I believe what you’re trying to express is that there wasn’t enough torture for your tastes. A totally valid concern, on your part. What he did to us was fairly torturous.”

He pauses to rub a bit of bloody snow off the toe of his boot with his other foot, considers the body again. “Although, I must say, turning someone into a fine paste like this is a new one on me. Definitely a new one. As assassinations go, I would say this one was pretty successful.”

Pagan gestures to what’s left of the unfortunate Inquisitor, the still-smoking landscape, the twisted, jagged metal, the crater. “I mean, you really can’t make someone any more dead than this.”

Chapter Text

Paste or not, they have the keys they need, and despite the wind picking up and snow showers moving in it is relatively easy for them to find where the fortified base is. There are more cultists than were at the sacrificial cave, and they are better armed and armored, but so are Ajay and Pagan.

“Two alarms outside, that I can see. One near the entrance, other near the command tent. Probably at least one more inside.” Ajay reports, scanning the area with his camera. Pagan’s running a last check on Ripper; quick visual inspection down the inside of the barrel through the breech, confirmation of no dirt in the ejector port, just being his usual thorough self. Ajay’s already done his necessary weapons check, essential for the equipment that keeps them alive. Pagan slaps the magazine home and looks ready to roll, but he hesitates for a moment and then puts the gun aside. He tugs his gloves off and reaches out for Ajay. Ajay looks at him, curious and expectant, figuring he’d be eager to be off and shooting things…but instead he just takes Ajay’s face in his hands with a sweet little smile, like he’s memorizing it.

“What’s up?” Ajay whispers, with a small but puzzled smile of his own, but Pagan doesn’t say anything, just kisses him softly and then pulls him in close, nose against Ajay’s neck.

They embrace there, on their knees behind a boulder not all that far from their enemies, but neither are particularly inclined to let go of the other, Ajay leaning into him and relaxing against the solidity of his chest, Pagan leaning into Ajay and soaking in his warmth, arms around one another. The smell of snow and wool and leather and gun oil and the smell of their combined skin, with the faintest tinge of gasoline. Familiar and comforting.

Pagan leans back then, ruffles his shaggy hair and lets him go. “I’m ready now, I just…I…” He frowns a bit, forehead wrinkling, when he can’t find the words he wants. He rubs at the back of his head, still trying to put a name to that impulse. But Ajay understands. “I think what you want to say is ‘I love you.’ I think those might be the words that you want,” Ajay smirks at him, then grins. Pagan looks at him, face breaking out in a sunny smile, one of the real ones that only Ajay gets to see, warm all the way to his eyes. “Yes! That’s it exactly, how remiss of me. I love you, Ajay Ghale, I love you so very much.” He laughs then, delighted, but he keeps the volume low.

Ajay just shakes his head at him. “You are so weird sometimes, you know that? I should play it all cool and say ‘I know’ or some shit…but as it happens I love you too, Pagan fucking Min. You ready to go tear some shit up?”

“Oh yes, my dearest boy,” he replies with cheerful malice. “No sugar on their shit sandwiches, not today.”

 

After they size up the situation, they decide to do what they usually do when they’re outnumbered: have Ajay start sniping the ones furthest back and work his way forward, and if anyone notices and starts looking around Pagan will try to sneak in and nail them with the kukri. As Ajay’s putting arrows in people’s heads, Pagan’s going to go for the alarm boxes and disable them. With any luck, they’ll be able to take most of them out before any of the cultists realize they have a problem on their hands. After all, they’re expecting their beloved Inquisitor, not a two-man assault team.

That part of the plan goes smoothly enough. None of the sporeheads even notice the small grating sound of metal on metal that Pagan makes when he dismantles the alarm boxes, or the sputter of cut electrical wires, or the bodies of their comrades dropping behind them to Ajay’s silent arrows. They meet up at the door, which must have been recently oiled since the third key they try turns almost without effort, the door moving on soundless hinges. Ajay closes it almost all of the way back, so that it looks locked to a casual observer but can be opened in a hurry in case they need a quick escape route. That done, he moves further into the cave system, where Pagan is already peering into the gloom for the green ready lights of armed security poles. “Two more, I think,” Pagan whispers to him, crouched down and almost invisible in the murk. As they move forward, they find an Army regular that’s been pinned to the wall with throwing knives, like somebody was practicing a Vegas act and got bored halfway through. “Fuck,” Ajay breathes with barely a sound, wrinkling his nose. Pagan rubs a hand down his arm in comfort, but then freezes. He reaches up and taps at Ajay’s shoulder for attention and makes the hand sign for ‘friendlies;’ he’s spotted at least one of their hostages then. Ajay leans so close his lips are touching his ear. “Let me get the alarms and whoever I can safely take out ahead, and you free these guys.” Kisses his ear before he pulls away. Pagan nods and hands him the kukri, then reaches up with a grimace to pull one of the throwing knives free of the corpse. He gives Ajay the handsign for ‘caution’ then, pats his hand and moves into the shadows. Be careful out there is what he means, Ajay realizes. There’s a muffled gasp from someone who isn’t Pagan, and then a terrified civilian bolts out of the dark, back down the tunnel they came through. Not screaming and being relatively quiet, thankfully.

He seems to have things well in hand, so Ajay moves further into the cavern, bow at the ready. It’s huge and confusing with rope bridges spanning giant holes and multiple levels. He takes out three cultists with three well-placed arrows and moves to free the hostages that were conveniently placed under the green security light. He moves out of the shadows with a finger to his lips, quickly disarms the box, and cuts their bonds.

“How many more of you are in here past this point?” he whispers to them. “Just the one,” the woman answers him. “The one they keep torturing.”

“Okay, good,” Ajay responds. “Go back the tunnel the way I came, and there’s a guy there with a big machine gun, my partner. Go real quiet and find Pagan, and he’ll show you how to get out, okay? Call out to him as quiet as you can so he’ll know not to shoot you in the dark, this place is still crawling with these cultists assholes.” They both look a little confused. “Your partner’s name is Pagan? Like the king?” Ajay stifles a laugh. “Yeah, just like the king. Now get going, I still gotta find that other guy.”

Ajay finally finds both him and the last security box in a supply room turned torture chamber, and upon spotting Ajay the man immediately starts yelling: “Get me out of here, they’re going to kill me! Untie me, please!”

“If you don’t pipe the fuck down,” Ajay spits in a harsh whisper, ripping wires loose, “they’re going to kill both of us. Now, follow close, we’re getting out of here.”

Just then, his radio goes off. They’re sending reinforcements anyway. Shit.

“C’mon, we have to hurry, we’ve got a welcoming committee coming at my partner’s back.” Ajay pushes him roughly ahead at as close to a run as he dares in the dark and on wet rock, mindful of that big chasm. He can already hear angry shouting, screeching; above them, behind them, he’s not sure. The echoes make it impossible to tell. His rescued hostage tries to pull away. “I’ll wait here for you to clear out those bastar…”

“No time!” Ajay bellows at him, knowing that only one way is clear; the way that Pagan is watching, the route to the door. “Just run that way, but stay in reach of me! I don’t want him to mistake us in the dark.” Howls and the chatter of AK fire behind them then, chips of rock flying. They’re almost there, almost to the tunnel…

“Pagan!!” he yells then, because Ajay still doesn’t see him. He grabs his penlight and swings it wildly around; there’s probably some code for ‘hostiles behind me’ but fuck if he knows it. At least he’s never seen a cultist with a flashlight…there! Pagan’s just ahead, already training Ripper on them, the gun huge in the flickering light…

“Drop!” he yells at his charge, grabs him by a handful of vest and dives to the floor almost at Pagan’s feet as Pagan steps over him, moving between him and the threat.

“HELLO, BOYS!!” he roars happily at the cultists, definitely from the diaphragm, and opens fire.

The noise and strobing muzzle flashes are shocking in the enclosed tunnel and the nature of the screams has definitely changed as hot brass rains to the cavern floor around Pagan’s boots and hot lead rains into the faces of the howling cultists. There really are a lot of them, but Pagan’s happily murdering them just fine.

The reinforcements should be on them at any moment though, so Ajay drags the bomb maker up with him, and reaches for the little grenade launcher he keeps slung just under his pack. He makes the guy tuck down in the tunnel between him and Pagan, hands over his ears. The upward slope of the cave entrance makes it tough to see what’s coming, and the unholy number of decibels from Pagan’s LMG makes it almost impossible to hear if there are vehicles or not, let alone people on foot.

Ajay feels more than sees or hears the first of the jeeps come in because the stupid fuck driving it crashes it into one of the big boulders near the entrance so hard it vibrates through the ground. A second jeep slams into the rear of the first almost immediately with a crunch of steel and glass. Fuck, he thinks, they’re worse drivers than Pagan. Fortunately, their lack of defensive driving skill makes it simple to launch a grenade under the first jeep and blow both of them sky-high with one shot, as he ducks back into the tunnel to avoid flying debris. Pagan comes up beside him then, presumably having taken care of anything still moving behind them. He swings Ripper up in a waft of hot steel and cordite and picks off a couple of unfortunates with molotovs trying to slide down the lines. Ajay almost feels bad for the way they explode in midair. Almost. They seem to be the last of the reinforcements though.

The silence is pretty overwhelming after all of that.

The little bomb maker comes out of the tunnel then and joins them, just looking at the mass of gently smoldering vehicle remnants, bodies everywhere.

“Thanks for the save back there, Pagan,” Ajay says.

“Pagan…Min? King Min?! But what…” The bomb maker looks more carefully at the other man; at the cloak, the ordinary soldier’s gear, the beret, the big machine gun slung over his shoulders, the slightly bored expression on his face. He still can’t see it.

Ajay senses the guy’s confusion, and, to be fair, even he admits that Pagan doesn’t really look much like himself lately. Without the fancy suit and eyeliner, and with a month’s worth of heavy beard growth and general dirt, it’s a little hard to see. But Ajay likes how he looks, even likes that scar. He looks like a goddamn action hero, even with that stupid little blond braid poking out from under the front of his hat. He himself probably doesn’t look much different than he did during the war, ragged and filthy and unshaven, when he had also felt like a goddamn action hero.

Pagan inclines his head with a little smirk. “Yes, it is I, Pagan Min. I realize my appearance may be a little…shocking, perhaps. The last month or so has been a trying time in our lives, one could say.” The bomber is convinced then, as surreal as it is to be standing here with him; everyone in Kyrat knows Min’s voice.

“What’s your name, my man?” Ajay asks him then.

“Sir, it’s Digvijay.”

Ajay looks a little taken aback. “Dihjai?”

“No, Digvijay.”

Pagan looks a little interested now, makes an attempt. “Digajay.”

“Almost, my King, it is Digvijay.”

“Spell it,” Ajay says.

When he does, something about that distinctive name pings a memory in Pagan’s brain, that name indeed connected with explosives. With terrorists. He narrows his eyes.

“Diggy, you were an explosives expert for the Golden Path, were you not? I remember that name. It crossed my desk multiple times, in various reports.” His face is all of a sudden dark, sinister, and Digvijay swallows heavily. He doesn’t know if he should drop to his knees and beg for his life now, or wait a bit and see what happens.

But surprisingly, the storm clouds clear as soon as they appeared, and King Min waves a hand carelessly from its perch on his machine gun.

“No matter, Jiggy, no matter at all, my boy. All water under the bridge, hmmm? It’s your lucky day, since you are still my loyal subject, a noble Kyrati citizen that was in need of rescue! Mission successful, all things considered.” He looks inordinately pleased, like this was a fine game that they got to play.

Pagan’s pleased look only lasts until Digvijay’s eyes suddenly go wide, wide and killing mad and he seizes the front of Ajay’s jacket and shakes him, hands going for his neck.

Ajay watches with interest as Pagan’s big hand comes around Digvijay from behind and snatches up both sides of his vest collar at the throat. He yanks the material hard to the side of his neck and twists, using it as a handle to choke him and drag him backwards away from Ajay. Pagan throttles him until he starts to wilt, then takes that opportunity to pin one leg by jamming his boot in the back of his knee.

It’s obvious that poor little Digvijay has no idea what just hit him, fingers scrabbling at his own collar, at Pagan’s fist. Ajay waits until it’s obvious that the fight has gone out of him and then gives Pagan the ‘stand down’ signal, at which Pagan loosens his grip marginally. Then a bit more, as Ajay throws him a slightly reproachful look and shakes his head.

Digvijay’s eyes are rolling around in his head as he tries to look at Ajay and Pagan at the same time, which creates a crazed but slightly comedic effect. Ajay squats down in front of him, just out of grabbing range, and snaps his fingers to get his attention as Pagan frisks him for weapons.

“Mind telling us what that was all about?” Ajay asks mildly. Digvijay responds to their mercy by sinking his fingernails into Pagan’s hand and ducking his head as much as he can to try to bite him. Pagan curses him roundly and shakes him like a terrier with a rat, cuffs him hard with his free hand. “Diu nei! You little shitstain…”

Ajay cuts him off before he can really get rolling. “You try that again, motherfucker, and I’ll cut your goddamn head off myself. Now,” as Pagan chokes him nearly senseless again, “what in the hell is all of this about? Sixty seconds ago you were fine; we were friends and you were all thankful, made your king happy by being an obliging victim for him to rescue. Is it that elixir shit? I think it probably is.” He pauses for a moment. “Pagan, ease up again please, see if we can get an answer.”

And Digvijay starts to cry. Pagan rolls his eyes and throws Ajay a look that says something like it’s too early in the morning for this kind of bullshit.

“They’ve…they’ve had me for three days,” Digvijay all but blubbers. They…the relic…they forced that elixir down my throat and I see visions all the time, they trick me, try to make me do things, like just now…I…I didn’t mean it…I hear voices, always voices, right into my skull, day and night! They’re never still, never silent! All I see is the torture, and hear those voices!”

“What do they sound like?” Ajay asks then, voice low and soothing.

“That voice, it purrs, it feels like insects crawling on me, breathing in my ear…they say ‘Kill Ajay Ghale, and become One with me. It will be pleasure beyond your imagining.’ I know that the voice is Yal..” Pagan claps his free hand over Digvijay’s mouth, can feel every hair on the back of his own head stand at attention.

Don’t say that name out loud, you fucking imbecile. I have some sympathy for your current plight, I really do, but do not push me where Ajay is concerned. Or I will merely hold you here,” he grinds his boot a little more firmly into the back of Digvijay’s knee, “and simply pull,” he twists and lifts with a bit more force for a second, “until something gives. Probably your trachea. Possibly your spinal cord. Both are unpleasant propositions. Do we understand one another?” Digvijay nods as much as he’s able against Pagan’s fist.

“Good boy. Now, Ajay says it’s dangerous to say that word, dangerous to even think it, so do try to listen to what he says. It’d be a shame to have to break your neck before I’ve learnt how to say your name.”

Ajay is still crouched and thinking as he draws little patterns in the dirt. “Hmmm. So it wants me dead. Wanted you to do it. Knew we would come here, in other words, and either it or its lieutenants could control your actions, since they made you drink that shit. But why? Back at the cave, why did they choose me to sacrifice first? Why me now, specifically?” He mutters to himself, runs his fingertips methodically through the dust at their feet. The pattern to all of this is important but he doesn’t understand it.

“One of those lieutenants that presumably made that choice is dead. The other is soon to be,” Pagan says then, dark and cold.

Digvijay twists a little in Pagan’s grasp then, but he doesn’t seem to be trying to get away, just trying to look up. Pagan gazes down at him, looks long into his eyes…and loosens his fist almost all the way. Digvijay reaches up and touches his hand gently. “My king,” he whispers, “I’m sorry that I tried to harm you and your…your person. I don’t know why they or…or it wants me to do so. But please, please, I am begging you…that elixir, it transforms human flesh. That relic is the source…it has to be destroyed!” Digvijay’s voice has been steadily increasing in volume. “I want to see those bastards die for what they did to me! And I think you and Ajay can make that happen.” Pagan nods. The desire for revenge is something he well understands.

“Of course, my dear Diggy, of course!” he says, and lets him go. Ruffles his hair with a chuckle. “Ajay and I are at least five steps ahead of you. The Inquisitor is no more than slush by the side of the road, that painted-up motherfucker Sandesh is next, and then we’ll find that relic and put a stop to all of this bullshit. Way ahead of you, my boy,” and actually winks at Digvijay, who just blinks at him. Ajay can sympathize. Pagan’s shifting and mercurial moods are disconcerting for those who don’t know him, which is most people.

Digvijay opens his mouth, reconsiders, closes it. Opens it again. “King Min, I see now that you are a different man than I have been led to believe. In the Golden Path they told us that you are a literal demon, come to rape and pillage and murder the gods and Kyrat itself. But I can see that that isn’t true. I will never be able to completely thank you and Ajay for saving me, especially after what I did. If you want those explosives the cultists were trying to get, I can give you the coordinates.”

“Oh, no need for that I think. I believe we’ve fulfilled our quota of blowing shit up today. I doubt our poor eardrums could take another round.”

“When he said that the Inquisitor was slush by the road, he meant it literally,” laughs Ajay, looking up from the dirt. “We sort of accidentally turned him into hamburger meat inside his clothes with a shit ton of C-4 inside a metal drum.” Digvijay’s eyes grow wide. “How many did you use? The detonators for those don’t reach very far…”

“About twenty blocks or so, on top of a handful of mines,” says Pagan idly, picking at a fingernail. “We did end up being rather close. Had to roll in the snow a bit to put myself out.”

“You two are insane,” Digvijay blurts, before he thinks about the implications of calling crazy people crazy to their faces, especially knowing that story about the pen. Everybody knows that story about King Min and the pen. But Pagan just laughs uproariously as Ajay stands and slings an arm around his middle.

“Yeah, we know,” Ajay says, with a chuckle.

Chapter Text

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In the mountains, there you feel free.

 

T. S. Eliot - The Waste Land

 

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Now, it’s finally Sandesh’s turn.

They know where he is, of course, have known for awhile. He left the canyon the night of that ritual and has been hiding in this temple place ever since. Anticipation curls low in Ajay’s belly. It’s been hard for him, for the both of them, to hold back and bide their time.

But now is that time. It’s a beautiful clear night, and the moon almost full, illuminating the snow and bright enough to cast shadows. It would be almost too much light for the kind of strike they intend, but the cultists are too stupid to not carry torches, effectively blinding themselves. It’s perfect.

Sandesh is in striking distance, and careless, because really? These walls are supposed to keep them out?

Ajay looks over the temple gates carefully, looking for weaknesses, while Pagan checks the bodies of the “guards” for anything interesting. Sure, they could have gotten Digvijay’s explosives and planted some of them here, but why make all that commotion? The wall on the left side doesn’t fit quite as smoothly against the rocks as on the right. There’s plenty of finger and toeholds, and it’s simplicity itself for him to climb up there, straddle the wall at the top, and drop the grappling hook down for Pagan.

And oh, look at this, Ajay thinks, it’s a sniper’s playground. This is going to be fun.

Pagan smiles at his look of glee, watches Ajay easily scale the ruined building to the right of the entrance. Old crumbling balconies, sandbags for cover…there’s a muffled gasp as he takes out someone who was drowsing at his post.

After a minute of watching their patrol patterns, Pagan sees Ajay’s dark arrows begin to flash down, the moon making them gleam silver for a moment, seeking and finding the targets that are suicidally off by themselves.

 

It’s almost his turn, now.

 

There’s something about this that is making Pagan’s blood heat, suddenly so warm he pauses to take off his hat and cloak; the moon and the snow, and the blood on his hands as he skewers another of their enemies. Exhilarating. It becomes a game that he and Ajay are playing; as he stalks a target around a ruined wall, Ajay is waiting around another wall to snipe them, sometimes hitting shots through cracks in the walls, trying to steal each others’ kills. He has an almost supernatural skill with that bow.

He and Ajay, lively and joyful, like two sleek predators. Ajay’s arrow takes a man neatly through the eye just as Pagan lunges for his partner, Ajay’s fine kukri like an extension of his arm, his very self. Nobody threatens Ajay and lives. Nobody. Nobody threatens him, without Ajay ending their existence.

Pagan feels like they are doing something they were both born to do; no fear, no regrets, these people have threatened them, threatened what they love and no one does that, not ever, and they are untouchable in this moment...in this moment they’ll live forever.

Ajay can’t even begin to explain what it is he’s feeling as he watches Pagan move shadowy and dangerous through the snow, stalking their enemies. Even though he wakes up stiff and rubbing his bad shoulder in the mornings, been beaten, half-starved…he moves like flowing water now, fluid muscle and bone. He feels like his blood is boiling, feels like…like he’s coming apart at the seams or something. He wants Pagan inside him, his legs wrapped around his sides, feeling the muscles of his shoulders contract and bunch under his hands; wants to be inside Pagan, gripping his hips and taking him hard from behind.

After Sandesh, either he or Pagan is going to break and shove the other up against a wall somewhere. Maybe before Sandesh. Probably shouldn’t mix torture and lovemaking, after all.

How can they come back from this, from being free like this, back to that life in the palace? How can they go home again? Neither of them are what they were before.

He knows that Pagan feels it too, that same humming in his blood, because he’s suddenly there in the corner of his eye, crouched behind him. Having killed everyone except Sandesh (who is probably still sleeping somewhere like a baby, the fucking moron), it’s Ajay that he’s stalking now, playful heat in his eyes as he lunges…and Ajay is suddenly not there, is up and over the wall in a scattering of snow.

Pagan bellows laughter and then it’s a merry chase in the moonlight, playing keepaway, darting around walls and chortens and skidding for footing, throwing up plumes of diamond dust. Their breaths smoking, chests heaving.

It’s just a matter of time before one of them decides to be caught by the other.

It ends up being Pagan who catches him after all, and then his hot mouth is on his and Pagan’s backing him into the dark of the big room with the bookshelves ringing it, moonlight pouring in the open doorway. It’s like he’s read Ajay’s mind and has him up against the gritty plaster in a flash. Ajay hauls him in body to body by the collar and bites his throat, just shy of breaking skin, as Pagan growls and jams a cold and still slightly bloody hand down his jeans, not that he cares. Maybe it’s the spores finally driving them crazy.

It’s freezing but they’re both burning up as Ajay fights to get both their pants down enough to feel skin on skin in what has become a wrestling match to get closer, to breathe the other in, he has no idea. Doesn’t care, is just high on the feel of Pagan’s tongue in his mouth, his hips pressing his into the wall firmly, his own hands pulling on Pagan’s ass, trying to get him even closer.

And there, finally, that sweet slide of hot flesh against flesh and they’re moving and gliding against each other, already hard and slick and ready. Ajay gets his hand down between them, around them both and shudders at the increase in friction. Pagan props himself with a hand by Ajay’s head and then his other hand is there too, fingers interlacing with his.

Pagan has his teeth in Ajay’s ear, pinning him and rutting up into that warm tunnel of their hands together, almost on his toes, and Ajay has his other hand around his waist trying to wrestle him even closer, shoving up into him, hips snapping. It’s all so fast and hot and his legs are shaking under him and they’re both trembling with how good it feels, both suddenly so close to that edge. Ajay makes a little twisting motion with their hands as he bites Pagan again, right where shoulder meets neck, face buried in his coat collar.

Pagan comes with a howl, not giving a shit now about how much noise he makes, bucking up into him and Ajay is right there with him, shuddering and pulsing and throbbing against each other. The aftershocks and comedown almost make his legs give out, but he holds onto Ajay and props them both up somehow, nuzzling against him gently through the last of it.

Now is the time for tenderness, with Ajay brushing at the bruises he made in apology but Pagan likes it, likes being marked by his teeth like that. Yours. Always.

They just rest against each other for a moment, their heads together, both panting softly.

Ajay, ever the romantic, holds him close and whispers in his ear, “Did we really just get off on killing a bunch of spore dudes?”

 

Pagan’s loud and rolling laughter really should have clued Sandesh into the fact that he had a big problem on his hands. Namely, that every minion in his temple compound was dead and his enemies had so little respect for him that they were taking a brief pause to fuck each other senseless against a wall before coming for him…but maybe that elixir had finally started to rot his brains too. In any case, he slept blissfully on.

 

------------------------------------------------

 

Sandesh wakes just after midnight to something tickling his nose.

Still mostly asleep, he rubs at it and rolls over onto his back with a snort, settling back into the mattress. This time, whatever it is pokes at him, and he swats at it and opens his eyes in confusion.

Moonlight is streaming into his chambers from the open window, and the light glints off a steel arrowhead. Behind the arrow are two shadowy figures, and his drowsy mind finally registers that the person on his left has a bow at full draw and trained on his head. The figure on his right steps into the moonlight. It illuminates him and turns his hair bright silver. Sandesh’s eyes widen. There’s only one man in Kyrat with hair that color, and he’s supposed to be dead.

“Oh, hello Sandesh!” Pagan Min calls out brightly. “Have you missed us?” His face is spattered with blood, his hair, the droplets shining like rubies. “As you can see, the rumors of our deaths were...greatly exaggerated.” He gives Sandesh a fond and indulgent smile. He’s holding a kukri that’s black with blood, tapping it restlessly against his shoulder. The thing is almost as long as Sandesh’s arm. The feeling in his chest that began as mere anxiety is edging toward panic.

The other shadow adds, “Still alive, shitbag,” with a dark laugh.

He opens his mouth to say something, anything, and as soon as he does that arrowhead shifts from near his nose to approximately three inches from his left eye. He can feel his eyes trying to cross as he focuses on it.

He shuts his mouth.

“You may wonder why we are visiting you, interrupting your sleep and all. Indeed, it is quite rude to call on friends at this late hour. However,” he reaches over and rubs at the other figure’s shoulder, ruffles his hair affectionately. Sandesh still can’t see his face, but he can only be Ajay Ghale. “My young partner here has compiled a list of...concerns, grievances, you could say, that he’d like to present to you. He would be most appreciative if you could address them.”

At this, the arrowhead moves closer, so close that it’s brushing his eyelashes. The panicky feeling in his chest ratchets up a few notches.

“I personally might be willing to let bygones be bygones between us, but,” he leans closer, eyes twinkling, “I really can deny the boy nothing. He is a fantastic lay.” Pagan winks at him as the other shadow gives a small chuckle. Crazy Pagan at his crazy finest.

Pagan shifts back again. “However, I do have...one small concern of my own, one small grievance that I hope you can rectify before I give the floor to Ajay.”

Quick as a striking snake, Pagan plants his boot in Sandesh’s shoulder and shoves down hard as he leans in again. Sandesh lets out a strangled gasp in shock, feeling the grind in his shoulder joint, and then another when he sees Pagan’s face. All previous affability is gone; there’s nothing sane left in it. His eyes are dreadful, hot and dark and mad, and Pagan moves in so close that Sandesh can feel his hot spittle on his own face.

“THIS, YOU FUCKING CUNT,” Pagan roars, his bellow loud enough to hurt Sandesh’s ears in the enclosed space. Sandesh doesn’t see his hand move, but suddenly a line of liquid fire is drawn over his forehead and down the outside of his cheek. He can’t help it; it shocks a panicky whimper out of him.

Pagan’s voice drops to a hard, hissing snarl. “Is for my FUCKING. FACE.

Ajay chuckles again. “You done yet?” he says mildly.

“Of course!” he says jovially, taking his foot off of Sandesh, affable expression back like it was never gone. “All yours, my boy!” It’s a little difficult to see his bright, tv star smile through the blood pooling in his eye.

High up on the mountain, Sandesh’s screams split the icy night air again and again, but of course there’s no one alive to hear him.

Chapter Text

“Oh, here we go!” Pagan exclaims, stepping over the puddle of blood on the floor to pick up a piece of parchment on the nearby desk as Ajay gives Sandesh’s cooling body a final, satisfied prod with his kukri.

“Say hello to Yalung for us,” Ajay mutters, defiant. Let that fucker hear him say that name, whatever and wherever it is. He’s sick of this bullshit and still has no idea why it wants him dead so badly, him in particular.

Pagan notes that this map is much more complete than theirs, more accurate, and has their destination marked on it and labeled. The culmination of a trek up what has to be the tallest mountain in this region. Hajura’Amako Hatana.

Of course it would be up there. Of course.

At least there’s a rough illustration of a trail leading up there, better than nothing. Pagan moves the map closer to see it better, then sighs bitterly and moves it back again so it goes back into focus. He loathes the fact that he needs reading glasses. He holds the map out to Ajay, angles it so the moonlight makes it a bit easier to see, and taps it with his finger.

“God,” Ajay murmurs, “all the way up there?” He’s been higher, according to the altitude listed in the margin, but except for tonight the weather has not been in their favor since the day they took out the signal jammers and is going to be ten times worse on top of that fucking mountain. He shivers just thinking about it. The roaring wind, the deep, killing cold. They’re lacking in the proper gear, have no medicine in case of altitude sickness…

“All the same, all the bloody same…we have to do it. Sheer fucking lunacy, but there you have it. Somebody at some point will try this shit again if we don’t put a stop to it at the source.” He suddenly feels so tired that he’s drunk with it, swaying on his feet. It’s not even fun drunk, just dizzy stumbling, his hearing trying to cut in and out a bit. Now that they’ve gotten Sandesh out of the way, he simply wants to lie down, pull Ajay against him, and sleep for a week. Fat chance of that though.

“I know we have to do it, but we also have to prepare some. Find more warm clothes, at the very least.” He yawns hugely, leans into Pagan. Not the best idea, since Pagan’s balance is not at an optimum. “Shit, sorry…” as he holds Pagan steady to keep him from careening into the wall. “Let’s go back, get some sleep. There’s probably a snowmobile or something around here, surely.”

By the time they get back to the relay station the east is starting to pale to dark turquoise, the few kinds of hardy birds that live in this place starting their usual early morning calls. Pagan’s tired enough that it’s hard to stay warm, body wracked with chills that make his teeth chatter. His beret and cloak are rolled up in Ajay’s pack though, and it’s too much trouble to fetch them. Easier to just grab the coal bucket and go get it over with while Ajay fetches them some fresh water.

Ajay finds him a little while later on the rug in front of the crackling fire he’s built, sitting with his arms around Ripper and forehead resting on the gun, mostly asleep. He’d probably intended to field strip it and clean it. Poor Pagan.

“C’mon, come to bed with me. That’s right, just lean on me, okay?” Ajay gently disengages the gun from his arms and sets it within easy reach of the bed and pulls him up, gets an arm around Pagan’s waist to help take his weight.

“You’re too good to me, lovely Ajay,” he mutters, no more than half awake.

“Nah, no more than you’d do for me. I couldn’t just leave you there on the floor anyway…can’t sleep without my big hot water bottle.” Pagan snorts amusement as Ajay lowers him onto the bed, where he fumbles ineffectually with his bootlaces. “Here, I’ll do this part, just take your coat off.”

Once boots and coats and shirts are all removed they settle together skin to skin, pulling a soft sigh from Ajay. Pagan nuzzles at the side of his neck, his hand splayed across Ajay’s ribs. Ajay’s arm is up and around his shoulder, hand buried in Pagan’s hair. Their legs entangled, curled tightly together in their warm nest.

They don’t yet know it, but this will be the last untroubled sleep they’ll have for a long time.

 

-------------------------------------------------

 

It’s the middle of the morning, and Ajay is dreaming. They are dark, disturbing dreams at first, with twisted figures and glowing orange eyes, but that gradually changes to that gold light he remembers, the blood red leaves of Shangri-La. He hasn’t seen it since he reassembled the thangka in the homestead, what feels like years ago now.

Nothing is very clear though. He hears an elephant trumpet off in the distance, answered by a tiger’s roar. He tries to look around, but everything is nebulous, obscured by gold mist. When he turns again there’s a shadow, a figure there, and it startles him badly. But he relaxes a little when he realizes that the person’s shape is a familiar one.

Where am I? he tries to say, but in the way of dreams sometimes nothing comes out of his mouth. He knows that shape though, as it becomes clearer, knows that golden bow and quiver as if it were his own. Which it was, for a time.

“Kalinag,” he breathes, and this time his voice works. The shape that is Kalinag motions with his arm, pointing at something and Ajay turns to see what he is gesturing at. He’s pointing at a large thangka suspended in the mist, seems to want him to look at it. Ajay moves closer, and it doesn’t look like any thangka he’s ever seen. The style is right, but there’s bands and splashes of dark pigment all around the edge, like the picture inside is being seen through a dark window.

It’s hard to make out, but there’s a fire and a bundle of peach colored fabric, and what looks like a wall, or part of a building, made with white stone. The stones have red smears on them…blood? Then there’s another fire, but this one is on a battlefield, with dead bodies, and there’s definitely blood in this part. Ajay turns back to Kalinag, confused, but Kalinag gestures back to the thangka. His voice is faint and hard to understand and he feels the words more than hears them, but Kalinag says, “Remember, you must remember this. Yalung. Bhagan.”

And that name, said that way, suddenly calls up one of his very oldest memories: being held close, in warm arms by someone much taller than his mother. A giddy height. The gentle rasp of a cheek against his own small face, the smell of aftershave. He’d forgotten.

 

Pagan.

 

“The pictures? The pictures are important to Pagan?”

“Yalung wants these, wants this from your Bhagan. From the King. He wishes to make him One. He eats and drinks the darkness as men eat and drink food. You must take half, to save him.”

And with that, he swings his arm down, and the thangka rips itself in two, right down the middle, and dissolves into the mist.

“You must use the spores, and take half. Go to the relic. The mountain, and Yalung’s body. You will know what to do. Remember the pictures. I will protect you from Yalung’s magic when you eat of his body.”

“But you must hurry. He has spread his spirit wide across this valley, into the spores, but he gathers himself back now, back to the cave. You must strike, and destroy him. You and Bhagan. There is so little time left. Remember this! Go! I will help as much as I am able.”

 

Ajay jerks himself awake so hard he almost smacks Pagan in the face with the back of his head. Pagan’s hand is in his hair, trying to comfort but Ajay can’t stay there, the raw urgency of the dream is already fading and it feels really, really important that he remembers what the fuck it was about. Something about Yalung, and Pagan, and Kalinag telling him to remember. A thangka.

Ajay scrubs at his eyes and rolls out of bed, already missing Pagan’s warmth against him. Pieces are trying to come together in his head.

“Your pen, where’s your pen! I had a dream, and it’s important or something…” It comes out louder than he intended, but he sees Pagan’s coat on the back of the desk chair and lunges for it before Pagan can answer him. He digs around in the inner pocket and grabs the pencase and a piece of paper and slaps them on the desk. Ajay throws himself into the seat there and squeezes his eyes shut. First there was a fire…there were two fires. But one was different…

He grabs the pen and starts to sketch. The whole thing had a dark frame, like shadows, and there was the fire, but it’s running out of his head like water, so fast…

The fire was like on a platform, and there was a bundle of cloth, a light color, like pink or peach…he sketches quickly, draws a rectangle for the bundle, and labels the color. The colors seem important.

Once he has one down the other two come more easily. A stone wall, with red on the stones. A field, of smoke and fire and blood on the ground. And dead bodies.

He stares at what he’s drawn, and there’s something else, about spores, and Pagan, and Kalinag protecting him. From the spores. Because he has to use them, to get this. To help protect Pagan, somehow. Eat them, maybe? He has to eat the spores? He shudders at the thought, but Kalinag…

He reaches out and carefully draws a jagged line down the center of his picture. And that’s as done as he can make it.

Pagan has gotten up to see what in the hell it was he was doing, watching with idle interest because it’s important to Ajay, but as he draws and draws Pagan leans closer and examines it more carefully. Narrows his eyes. What the hell? And then he’s jerking away, backing away from Ajay, eyes wide and suddenly his legs won’t hold him anymore and he’s sprawled on his ass in the floor and he can hear Ajay calling his name. It’s very dim over the rushing static in his ears.

Ajay watches Pagan recoil as if he were honest-to-god burned by this piece of paper so he must be on some kind of right track, and the notion that all of this shit means something isn’t just in his head. Because he has zero clue what these pictures mean. He feels terrible for putting that wide-eyed look of horror on Pagan’s face though, a sharp pain in his own chest and belly.

He flips the paper over and quickly jots a few notes of what he can remember about talking to Kalinag before they’re gone for good, but it still feels like he’s lost something important, and he needs every piece…

But it’s gone. It’ll have to be enough. He gets up and goes to Pagan then.

Ajay gets down in the floor with him, and his eyes are raw and afraid and angry and when Ajay tries to gather him up in his arms Pagan shoves him away with a hard snarl like a trapped animal. That hurts like a shard of ice in his own heart. That he’s caused this pain through a drawing of a mere dream, so much pain that he can’t even give comfort. But it’s way more than just a dream, and Ajay knows it. It might be the key to everything. He also knows somehow that there’s probably more pain to come, a lot more.

“That…” Pagan rasps, voice cracking. “Where in the fuck did you see that? Did you pry it out of my fucking head?” Furious and distrustful and just shy of panicked. Ajay flinches like he’s been slapped. He doesn’t understand, can’t comfort, can’t produce a bandage and dress this wound he can’t even see.

“No, I dreamed it,” Ajay murmurs, and realizes how stupid that sounds. “I’m sorry that this hurts you, I didn’t mean to cause you pain, and I’d never do it on purpose, you know that.” He sighs. “I’d also never pry things out of your head. But this…whatever this is, it’s important somehow. What is it?”

“No. No.

“No what, Pagan? Please talk to me.”

He just shakes his head in negation, watches Ajay with wary dark eyes.

“We…we have to go to the relic, to that cave, and we have to go soon. We’re running out of time.” He’s suddenly, painfully on the verge of tears. “I can’t fix this and we’re running out of time. Please.”

Ajay can’t stand to look at him like this and tries again, reaches out as gently as he knows how, touches just his fingertips to Pagan’s trembling shoulder. This time, this time he lets Ajay shift close to him and hold him loosely, so he doesn’t feel trapped, lets him kiss his ear. Or at least holds stiff and still for it, face tight. “I love you so much, but we’re running out of time,” Ajay whispers against his hair.

Pagan says nothing. Seems beyond words.

 

An hour later, after Ajay makes him sit on the bed and drink some more of that awful hot gin water tea and some of the color has come back into his face, Pagan tries to speak and finds his voice rusty but functional.

“I suppose I owe you some sort of apology for my behavior,” he sighs, voice resigned. “What you drew are my memories of what happened after…after Lakshmana,” he says, and coughs a little.

Ajay’s heart sinks at that, and he studies the picture carefully again. He knows that that was a devastating time for him, and is still obviously a raw and bleeding and painful wound even after all these years, but these images make no sense and seem unrelated.

“I really don’t understand. Is there any way you can tell me mo…” Ajay begins.

“No.” Pagan barks. Short and bitter.

He sighs, tries again. “I can’t explain because I don’t have the words. I have no words, for that time in my life. Something happened in my mind, it…broke, and I was mute for a time. And I kept becoming aware of where I was, and then…not. But my body was still moving, and doing things, but my mind went somewhere else.”

“Dissociative episodes. That’s what it’s called. When something so terrible happens that your mind can’t take it and has to hide for awhile, for protection,” Ajay says, low and gentle.

“These pictures,” Pagan mutters, “represent all that I remember. That’s all I can give you. That’s all you fucking want, trust me on this.”

“But I have to take half.” He points to the jagged line. “I have to take half of this.”

Pagan just stares at him blankly, in confusion.

“Do you trust me?” Ajay asks, and it sounds easy and light and simple but Pagan knows what he’s asking, knows that he has a plan and that it’s going to hurt, going to rip the bloody heart right out of his fucking chest. Might even have to do it himself.

“…yes,” he whispers. As if there were any other answer for him, for the two of them. To hell and back. And Pagan has some sickening premonition that it may indeed come to that, somehow. The endgame is approaching, fate bearing down on them like a runaway train.

Ajay grabs his hand, squeezes, tangles their fingers together.

“Then I’ll figure it out. We’ll figure it out together. But we gotta get to that fucking cave. Up that mountain. ”

Chapter Text

----------------------------------------------------

From the dawn of time to the end of days
Where innocence is burned, in flames.

A soldier on my own, I don't know the way,
I'm ready for the fight, and fate.

This deadly burst of snow is burning my hands,
I'm frozen to the bones, I am
A million miles from home, I'm walking away,
I can't remember your eyes, your face.

Woodkid - Iron

----------------------------------------------------

 

This mountain…this mountain is likely to kill them, Pagan thinks, gazing up at its unreal immensity. It’s late summer, the season for storms at the heights and indeed, the clouds near the peak are a gray so dark that it looks like night under them. The snow swirling in every direction in the blasts of icy wind, the occasional crackle of lighting, just for variety. God. On a good day in that two or three week period where climbing in the Himalayas is optimal, this might only be a two or three hour trek. But who knows now, with weather this bad. They had to stop and rope themselves together hours ago, just to keep from losing each other in the murk. Pagan figures they may have passed the halfway mark around then, but it’s hard to tell. Doesn’t matter. Keep walking, keep up with the youngster, ignore the burning in his muscles and in his lungs, the throbbing in his head.

Mountaineering is just as fun as Pagan remembers it being from the Royalist days; that is to say, not at all. Back in those days, there was no airport in Kyrat, no real road system either, when it came down to it, and the Nepalese/Indian/Southern Kyrati border had been closed since the sixties. As they were all Chinese citizens (and British as well, in his case) that left only the northern border and traveling through brutal and arid Tibet. So instead of marching through the soft, easy lowland tea country, he and Yuma had the unenviable task of leading an army of ten thousand men from balmy, cosmopolitan Hong Kong through some of the most inhospitable conditions on planet Earth. He was the only one who had ever even seen snow, and his only conception of what extreme cold could be like was returning to his school dormitory in England with the rest of the other boys after a hard day of sledding, all of them rosy-cheeked and shedding wet mittens by the fireplace and raiding the kitchens for hot tea and biscuits and cocoa.

 

It’s a wonder they hadn’t all died, all of their ambitions halted right there on the Khun Lho La. Many of them did.

 

It was an experience that was thoroughly terrible, but not without times of wonder. Him and Yuma standing on the roof of the world with their arms around each other, filthy and freezing but never closer than in that moment. His little sister, before everything went to shit.

And those mountains. He’d fallen a little in love with their harsh beauty, for all that those mountains were doing their damndest to kill them. But he had been such an idealistic and ambitious young man in those days; at twenty he was physically as strong and fast and tough as he’d ever be in his entire life, and a part of him had relished the challenge, relished that test of body and mind. He’d also had the strong sense of marching toward his future to think about, to keep him warm during the brutal nights; his destiny, his fate, all of the wonderful things that his life held in store for him.

He really had been very young.

 

And oh, he had found that fate, all right, had found it in fucking spades. And the future is always a fickle mistress, as they say.

It’s still hard for him to believe that there were only three years between him hiking into Kyrat, getting everything he had ever wanted, and then losing it all, losing it and then some. For all practical purposes, that was the end of his youth, the end of whatever innocence he had left after what Gang had done to his mother, after what he had done to Gang in return. After that plan of Yuma’s, and his murder of the ‘Crown Prince.’

Although that poor inbred child was doomed from the start; if he hadn’t consented to the assassination, Yuma would have done it, and like a young, naive fool he’d wanted to spare her that stain on her soul. Completely oblivious to the fact that she’d manipulated him into it, of course. And if she had declined, then Mohan would have done it; he had seen it in his eyes. That far gone, even then. He’d made sure to secure his position of regent through his marriage to Ishwari and was determined to force his own brand of religious fanaticism on the admittedly not-so-good people of Kyrat.

 

No, that boy was a dead man walking. Six months, a year maybe, and some fatal accident or mishap would have had Mohan ascending the throne, ready to transform the place into fucking Kyratistan. At least he had made that death quick and painless, the only grace he had left to give. Taken the throne himself. Not a good man, no…never a good man, but maybe the best of bad choices. At least he had focus, a plan, a burning ambition, for all that Yuma thought he had lost it. Ishwari had given him more focus, not less. He had lain and whispered with her in the dark of all their plans and dreams for peace, for a safe and modern and equal nation for their children, for all the children.

 

And then, the death of all such dreams.

 

Pagan had unfortunately reached that stage of cold and exhaustion and altitude sickness where he was merely following Ajay because they were roped together, putting one foot in front of the other without any real concept of why he was doing it, lost and wandering in his own mind and travelling to progressively darker and darker places.

 

Ajay himself was about ten feet ahead, thinking about Longinus and his own fucking trips into the high passes. It’s a toss-up which was worse; although he had needed oxygen at that higher altitude it hadn’t been constantly storming like this, the wind stealing body heat, swirling and shoving hard at them at every step. He starts contemplating how very nice it would be to have a fire as he carefully picks his way across the snow pack, breaking the trail for Pagan. He has the makings for a very small one in his pack, just in case. Maybe they can scrape some rudimentary shelter together, a little snow cave out of the wind and get warmed up. They’re wearing every scrap of clothing they could possibly scrape up; parkas, scarves, two pairs of gloves apiece, two pairs of socks, thermals...and it’s still not enough.

Yeah, that would be nice, the warm and cheerful light of a fire, bright on their cold faces. Warming their hands, making them glow all over. And he can see them himself now, two bright glowing spots in the snow, bright spots that he can see from above on the mountainside...

 

No...NO!!

 

Ajay rips his mind away from that thought, heart pounding. It’s searching, that presence is searching for them, he can feel it and he almost led it right to them before he wrenched away and cloaked them again. Careless, careless, fucking stupid.

And Pagan...Pagan isn’t doing well. Lost in himself, but in dark rather than light. He can feel that too. Both are bad at this stage, and the combination will bring it down on their heads for sure. One attracts it and the other illuminates their presence.

Pagan’s still up and moving, but isn’t really responsive when Ajay gets his arm around him and yells at him over the howling wind. He should have been paying more attention; all of this is physically harder on Pagan, and some whisper in the back of his mind tells Ajay that his part to play in this is going to be even tougher than his own. He reaches out and unwinds a bit of Pagan’s scarf to check on him. Frost on his eyelashes, in his beard, same as himself. He nuzzles at his face; it’s cold but not bitten cold, cheeks and ears and nose still nice and pink.

“Just hold on for a little bit longer, okay?” Ajay tells him, a little sick at heart at all the times he’s had to say it...just hold on and keep suffering, okay, while I try to figure out what the fuck to do.

 

He spots the rocky outcrop not too long after that, while Pagan is thankfully still willing to walk with him. At this temperature and altitude, he won’t be able to carry him very far at all without killing himself. A cursory inspection shows that it’s about the best they can hope for. He leaves Pagan tucked up in the lee of the rock out of the wind and gets to work as quickly as he can, digging into the snowdrift and hollowing out the space underneath. When he hits gravel, there’s just about enough space for them to sit up. Perfect. He lays out a sleeping bag for them to sit on and pushes Pagan inside, punches an air hole at the top and then uses the extra snow to wall them in.

Penlight in mouth, he starts building the tiniest of fires. Make it much bigger than a lamp flame and their shelter will start to melt and drip on them, but they can have a little warmth this way. Thirty degrees and still air is way better than that blasting wind and negative ten or twenty or whatever the fuck it is out there.

He looks back to check on Pagan and his eyes are already brightening up a bit, not quite so dull and listless-looking. If he can get him to sleep a little bit, an hour or two, maybe eat a bite, get some water in him, that will help him a lot. Help both of them a lot, although Ajay’s a little afraid that the thing that is searching for them can find them in their dreams, like before. That presence is growing ever stronger, the longer they wait, but flesh and bone has hard limits and whatever instincts are driving him tell him that if they get up there with nothing in reserve, they’re both going to die.

He shivers then, but not from the cold.

 

As Ajay is sitting there feeding and guarding their tiny little spark of life in all the freezing dark, Pagan’s only slightly chilly bare hand slides up under the edge of his parka, through all the layers he’s wearing to brush his fingers across the small of his back. Ajay feels a little of the tension run out of him, feeling that big callused hand touching him so gently. He can’t hear Pagan’s thoughts, but he doesn’t need to, or can hear him a different way. Can feel his love and reassurance: Don’t you fret, my dear boy. I’m not done yet. Not by a long shot. It’s all going to be okay in the end, no matter what happens. Trust me.

Ajay gets Pagan to take a few measured sips of water from their canteen, share a few bites of yak jerky with him before he makes a face and turns his head away.

“It’s okay, maybe you’ll want some more after a while,” he says, though he was hoping for better. His voice is almost unrecognizable to himself, so he takes another small sip before he puts the container away. Ajay grabs the cloak out of his pack to use as a blanket and shifts against the rock to use it for a backrest and tugs Pagan into his arms and up in his lap, tucks his head against his neck. He comes without resistance, close to exhaustion. Dangerous up here, so dangerous. He gets the thick and cozy wool wrapped around both of them.

“Try to get a little sleep, okay? I’m going to set the alarm on my watch.” Two hours is all he dares give them, with that wind still roaring unchanged, still blowing the snow every direction.

Pagan is quiet, has been for a long time now. Ajay feels him breathing maybe a little more deeply, a little more labored than he usually would but his ribcage moving steadily under his hands. His eyes are closed. Every so often he coughs, hoarse and dry, a tired little sound against Ajay’s shoulder. If he’s sleeping it’s not enough to wake him. Ajay holds him and tries not to freak out and let himself tremble in his distress. That cough is a bad sign, his quiet is a bad sign, he himself is so tired and his head is pounding...all bad signs. His mind keeps trying to race, come up with some plan...but they’re already doing everything they can, everything right, and they’re way past the halfway point on this fucking mountain. Too late to turn back. Too late to do more than keep going and hope that fragile flesh and bone can take the strain...

“Ajay,” Pagan whispers then, a harsh croak. He swallows and tries again. “You told me to go to sleep but your worrying is too fucking loud, my boy.” There’s a little of that old snap in his voice, although he doesn’t bother to open his eyes and his expression is smooth and untroubled. “Remember what you told me? Easy, be easy. Relax, and just be here....just be here with me. Right here, right now. It’s warm...well, enough anyway, it’s safe enough. Just be.”

Pagan pulls off his gloves then and starts undoing buttons and zippers, ignores Ajay’s inquiry as to what he’s doing. He gets Ajay’s hand and tugs his gloves off with his teeth and then steers his hand through the hole he’s made in all his layers until Ajay feels warm skin and can splay his hand out on Pagan’s belly.

Ajay heaves a gusty sigh, because it does help, the solid reality of his warm skin, satiny over the muscles. He looks over and Pagan’s watching him with just a little crinkle of amusement at the corners of his eyes. Amusement that flickers into something else, a spark of heat and lowered eyelashes as he reaches up for Ajay’s lips with his own, rough and chapped but that little frisson of warmth happens just the same. Just like every time they kiss.

Pagan pulls back just enough to murmur against his lips, “That’s warmer than any fire could make me.” Ajay responds by teasing at his mouth with his tongue, licking into him a little, slow and comforting. Pagan slides one arm around his neck and presses their foreheads together while his other hand starts undoing more of his clothing so that Ajay has unfettered access from throat to belt line, trusting the cloak wrapped around them and Ajay’s heat to keep him warm.

Ajay slides his hand up slowly, brushes at the tender skin of his throat, at the edge of what is an actual beard by this point, thicker and heavier than his own. It’s a good beard, the hairs straight and soft and most of the patchy spots filled in by now. Looks good on him, though it might be strange with Pagan’s fancy eye makeup. In any case he’s had it for so long that it’s going to feel weird to kiss him and touch his face without it. He runs his fingers over the delicate hollow at the base of his throat, feels him swallow against his fingers. He ghosts his thumb across his too prominent collarbone, down across the patch of dark hair at the center of his chest, more obvious now that it’s grown out some. Same with the dark trail further down that disappears into his waistband that his fingers also skate over, and then back up to sweep around his belly button.

Ajay glides a hand lightly over his ribs, a little sad at their state. When this is all over they’ll stay in bed for days, just feeding each other the best of whatever the kitchens can come up with. He lets his hand pass lightly over the pectorals, not avoiding his nipples but not actively seeking them either. Slow and measured, back up to his throat and down again, just petting him. He doesn’t have to be able to read Pagan’s mind to feel his contentment at this treatment, relaxing into Ajay’s encircling arm, occasionally fluttering kisses against his lips, his cheek, his throat. Ajay is trying to lose himself in this as much as he can, sinking into the feeling of this measured sweep of his hand along Pagan’s skin, his warmth and smell, trying to crowd out any other thought. The instinctual part of his brain keeps trying to inform him that they are drawing closer to the end and deadly danger of a kind he can’t fathom, and the logical part is telling him, over and over: This might be the last time you get to do this. Hold him, touch him, breathe him in like this.

That part of his brain is the one that ensures that he takes nothing for granted, lives for what the day offers, but right now it’s not helping. Thoughts of an hour from now, a minute from now aren’t helpful. Crowd out all the doubt, all the fear with this. Fill it with right here, right now, the flickering gold of the miniscule flame on his eyebrows, his hair. The way his eyelashes, absurd even without the mascara, lie against his cheek. His little sigh of contentment against the side of Ajay’s throat.

Pagan’s free hand, the one that’s been resting on his own thigh trembles minutely, and then slides over to his own belt buckle, working at it. Ajay lends his own hand to help. “You sure?” he whispers, “not too tired?” He’s silent for a moment. “Pretty tired,” he admits, after a long pause. “But my love, I only want…I…” he trails off then, face a little tight, a little unhappy, and Ajay understands then. His mind is telling him the same things; he just wants to be lost with Ajay for awhile, and he wants to be touched here too. Ajay helps him with the belt and zipper, just enough for access, then lays his big warm hand where Pagan wants it. He’s not even a little hard, but that doesn’t matter; he’s not either. This is something different, maybe. Sensual and intimate, just getting lost in each other. Ajay’ll pet him wherever he wants however he wants for as long as he wants it. His warm musky smell intensifies in the confines of their cloak blanket, and Ajay breathes him in deeply, gratefully. Brushes his fingers across his balls, also fuzzier than the first time Ajay touched them, and he smiles a little. Glides his palm lightly up the shaft, sparing nothing but with no more focused attention than he’s paid to any other part of him. Up the line of dark hair, back up his belly and ribs and chest and throat. Slow, measured, back down again.

Pagan arches up into his strokes a little, mouths at Ajay’s throat. He moves his tongue gently against the pulse point, which makes him shiver a little with the sensation of it. After awhile though, he just rests his lips there and his rolling shifts up into Ajay’s hand slow, then stop. He turns his head a bit so he can look down to check on him and he’s fast asleep, easy little whuffs of breath against Ajay’s neck. He hasn’t coughed for awhile either. He feels something low and glowing in his belly and chest, and Pagan’s right. No matter what, it’s going to be okay, because they have this, this glowing gold thing between them right here and now, and in this moment they’re safe and together. Ajay tucks his knees up more, slowly and carefully, and gently rests his head against Pagan’s and lets himself sink into sleep with him. This time that glow of warm contentment conceals them, like two quiet little animals in a den, and the seeking miasma that is Yalung passes right over them, off into the whipping wind.

Pagan wakes gently and easily before Ajay’s alarm goes off, and he feels so much better he’s confused where he is for a moment, besides tucked in Ajay’s arms and leaning against his chest. He remembers then; up on that mountain, in a tiny snow shelter. But they’re okay here. His lingering headache has lessened some and that tickling cough is almost gone.

It’s not fair of him to let Ajay take care of him like this all the time though, as wonderful and snug and intimate as it was. He’s a little taller and a little heavier than Ajay and surely all his weight in the boy’s lap and being curled up against him like this is uncomfortable, for all that he’s still asleep. He’s exhausted and has been trying to hide it; when Pagan moves off of him it doesn’t even wake him up. He puts his own clothing to rights, and then carefully shifts Ajay forward a bit, away from the rock so he can get his own back against it. It’s his turn to be a warm barrier between all things hard and cold. He scoots behind him and stretches his legs out alongside Ajay’s. Tugs him back against his chest and gets the cloak wrapped back around them, feels him shift around in his sleep to the most comfortable spot against him. Holds him warm in the circle of his own arms. Perfect. He lets his eyes close and drifts off again, chin resting against Ajay’s shoulder, Ajay’s breath soft and even against his ear.

Later, when the tinny alarm on Ajay’s wristwatch jerks him out of slumber, somehow it’s Pagan that’s holding him instead, Pagan that has their supplies ready and is urging him to eat and drink. Pagan, with a smile for him and a fierce light in his eye. He looks like he’s ready for a fight, ready to go round two with this fucking mountain, and seeing that makes Ajay feel like a boulder is rolling off his heart. Even the shrieking wind outside is not quite as loud as it was.

They may just make it after all.

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But still the Vine her ancient Ruby yields,
And still a Garden by the Water blows.

I came like Water, and like Wind I go.

 

The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

 

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The relic shrine at the peak of Hajura’Amako Hatana obviously used to be some sort of monastery or temple. They’re not in the death zone yet, not for another couple thousand more meters, but it still seems like a completely inhospitable location to put such a place…maybe that’s the point. The cultists have been here somewhat recently, their gear and equipment and ammo caches arranged around the front entrance, but there’s no one here now. Abandoned. Ajay honestly expected it to be guarded, for them to have to fight their way through.

They creep into the entrance as softly and quietly as it is possible for them to be. Although being out of that brutal wind is wonderful, the stillness and silence is oppressive. For long minutes they crouch listening at the entrance. Nothing. Nothing but the continuous howl of the wind behind them. As they move further in, even that sound becomes hushed, and then inaudible. Utter stillness. Ahead are pools of wan gold light that pulse slowly: spores then, because torches would flicker. That light glitters oddly against the walls, the floor…ice, Pagan realizes. The whole thing is made of ice, like rippling, dark blue glass. Mummies of the meditating Buddhist sort that he’s seen before, bodies desiccated by the cold dry air. Still creepy as shit, how they tucked themselves in the lotus position and sat there until they died. Some of them are grotesquely shaped, like perhaps they were in the middle of transforming into yetis when they died.

Pagan shies away from a cloud of yellow-orange spores and follows Ajay deeper into the cave and nearly runs into his back when he stops dead. “What’s wrong?” he whispers, and Ajay points imperiously, back ramrod-straight. Black wisps running along the floor in somehow sickly-seeming patterns. Pagan has to suppress the urge to back away.

“I’ve seen these before, Bhagan, in the depths of Durgesh. Where the Rakshasa drift in the wind, and the prisoners are all convinced that they are spiders as well.”

Oh fuck. Pagan’s stomach drops and goosebumps break out all over his body.

The voice is wrong as well; still his voice, but also like there’s a deeper, thicker one laid over it. And Bhagan.

With infinite care he puts his hand on Ajay’s shoulder, squeezes a little, and Ajay startles and his body settles back into more familiar lines, rubs at his face a bit. “I should have killed Yuma myself and gotten you out of Durgesh back then, tough love be damned. Before all of that bullshit happened. And you haven’t called me Bhagan since you were three. The Kyrati way. Ishwari said my name that way as well. I thought you had forgotten that…Ajay, what in the everloving fuck is going on?”

“I did forget, and that wasn’t quite me. I’m sorry, it really would take too long to explain,” and his voice is his own this time. “But it’s okay, I promise you. That’s our help, our backup, but we have to hurry. It’s almost too late. Just…watch those black wisp things, I don’t know what they’ll do if we get too close. Be careful and don’t let them touch you.” He moves off again, and Pagan can only follow, bewildered. Not much choice in the matter.

The deeper they move into the cave system, the stranger-looking it gets. Giant, ancient roots tangled in the walls, running over the floor…roots. At this elevation. They’re at least a thousand meters above the timber line. Pagan has never felt more on red alert than he does now, almost floating over the roots under his feet, every sense ratcheted to the maximum.

His distant ancestors may have stalked a giant direbear with their pointy little sticks through a primordial forest or entered the den of a saber-toothed tiger in exactly the same fashion.

It’s still disconcerting that they’ve entered the resting place of the relic, the thing that all the unhinged people in this valley have been fighting and dying for…and they’ve encountered no resistance. Not a single cultist, not a single yeti. No sound, but the occasional drip of water and their own soft breaths. It’s almost as if whatever is at the heart of this place, that presence that they don’t dare even think about, especially this physically close, wants them to come here. To walk right into the ancient tiger’s den.

How nice of you to join me for dinner, it might say.

Pagan’s hair has gotten long enough in the back to actually stand up, and after that thought he lowers his hood and pulls his hat off and scrubs at it hard to get it to lie down. He’s pretty sure it’s been standing at attention for awhile now.

Ahead of them is one of the most bizarre things that either of them have seen. The end of the tunnel they are in looks like shimmering water, like a pond set the wrong way, like something out of a sci-fi film. A portal, or a barrier, or…who the fuck knows, really. Pagan doesn’t want anywhere near it, but Ajay, lunatic boy that he is, sticks his bloody arm through it before he can stop him and then has the sheer cheek to wave back at Pagan through the shimmer. And they say he’s the crazy one.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” he hisses, which just makes Ajay grin and reach out with his other hand to tug the hair on his chin playfully. Pagan swats him away.

“It’s all right…I’m not sure what it is exactly, but it won’t hurt us. It feels kind of how it looks like it would feel. Try it.” And sure enough, when Pagan puts a hand through, teeth gritted, it feels like cool water on his skin. He pulls his hand back out and looks at it. It’s not wet and looks fine, ordinary. He takes his gloves off and pushes his sleeve up just to make sure. Nothing. When he looks up again, Ajay has already walked through to the other side, where he can just make out his shape through the watery portal. Heaving a long-suffering sigh, he squares his shoulders and steps through cautiously himself, eyes squeezed tightly shut. Just for a moment, that really odd sensation of moving through un-wet water is strong, and then he’s through beside Ajay, who is standing there mouth open. Pagan turns his head to see what it is he’s staring at and his mouth drops open a bit too. He doesn’t know why he bothered trying to make his hair lie flat; it’s becoming very obvious that it’s not going to cooperate for the foreseeable future.

Looks like they’ve found the Relic.

It’s…it’s indescribable. The word tree might come closest, but it’s wholly inadequate at the same time. It’s like nothing else on Earth. “Pagan, you were almost right,” Ajay murmurs. “It’s not a mushroom, but you guessed it, it’s alive. Maybe it is from fucking space.” He remembers what Kalinag said then. “This is definitely it. The relic. This is that thing’s…body, or whatever. This is the real corruption in this valley. I won’t say the name, but this is what we have to destroy.”

Ajay!!

Ajay gasps, goes rigid, every muscle locked. Pagan stares at him, starts to reach for him in concern.

Ajay, go! It has to be now! Remember the thangka! He’s coming for Bhagan! He’s almost there!!

That voice thunders through him, that voice that is and isn’t his. Kalinag.

Fuck! No time!” Ajay wrenches away from Pagan and grabs a piece of that spore shit off the wall, the sickly yellow color of it already turning his stomach. He eyeballs it, and running on pure intuition, breaks off a smaller piece that he thinks will do the job.

“Ajay, what…” Pagan says, eyes wide.

“Now, Pagan, it has to be now, you have to show me about Lakshmana, what you remember. I am so sorry that we have to do this to you, but we’re out of time! This is where you have to trust me!”

“Oh shit…Ajay, no, wait!” Ajay pops the piece of spore in his mouth and starts rapidly chewing before Pagan can grab his arm, grimacing at the taste.

“It’s okay, it won’t hurt me, I have help…but it’s coming, Pagan, he’s almost here…”

Pagan has never been more confused in his entire life. Is this the part where we have to rip my heart out? he thinks…but he trusts. Knowing nothing, he trusts this man, body and soul. As surely as if it were an actual thing that could be held, he reaches out and places his heart in Ajay’s large and gentle hands.

“What…what is it that you need me to do, my dearest?” he says, and it comes out a little unsteady.

Ajay thinks fast, pulls his glove off. Goes to Pagan, unbuttons his parka, undoes layer after layer to get at his bare chest. Puts his hand in the middle of it. Leans in and kisses him. “I think it will help in the end, and I would never do this to you if I didn’t think it would. Hurt you like this, I mean. I love you, I love you so much.” He rests his head against Pagan’s for a precious half-second.

Ajay is starting to hear him in his own mind, just a little bit, if he concentrates. His confusion, his bewilderment, his trust, his love. He trusts so much that it makes his throat ache. Please, please let me not fail him.

“Okay,” he says huskily, “so picture as clearly as you can what was on the thangka, everything associated with those memories and that time that you can remember. Think about letting me see it, like…sending it to me. Sending all those feelings, okay? Like handing them over.” He braces himself, rubs Pagan’s chest softly. “Okay, do it. Send it to me.”

 

And on the tail of a deep and shuddering breath, Pagan does.

 

He’s holding Ishwari tight and his hands won’t stop shaking and she is screaming and screaming and screaming and screaming. She screamed herself hoarse and still can’t stop. Those choking cries are the saddest sound that he has ever heard, but what is more sad is that he can’t find any words of comfort for her.

 

He was the one to find her and when he did, it felt like ice water had rushed into his belly, filling him until it reached his heart, his throat, and froze there. Lacking anything else, he had pulled his own shirt off and carefully wrapped it around her tiny body.

For the first time in his life, he has no words. He can’t force any sound out past that obstruction, the iceberg in his chest. His throat is locked.

She makes a pitifully small bundle in his arms.

He holds Ishwari, holds the baby, tries to hold the three of them together because they’re flying apart, he can feel it...where is Ajay? He needs to hold him too. Hold them all together. He turns, looking for the boy

 

The next thing he knows, he’s approaching the burning ghat with Ishwari beside him. In his hands is the tiny bundle that both is and is no longer Lakshmana. It appears that they’ve forgone the traditional shroud and are sending his little girl to the flames in that shirt, his shirt; pale peach silk, (one of Ishwari’s favorites, he thinks irrelevantly) neatly pressed and pinned.

He’s wearing his nicest suit, not the pink Chinese brocade, but the sober gray wool one he keeps for occasions just like this. He knows this because he can see his own sleeve. His cufflinks are the pair that Ishwari gave him last Christmas. He’d given Ajay an elephant, which the boy had promptly named Hurli. His present from Lakshmana was a pin shaped like a silver peacock that Ishwari had had made for him. She had loved chasing them around the palace grounds, fat baby legs running, falling on soft grass, running again. His own little moraka.

His thoughts feel like leaves swirling in water, sinking, only to be pushed up again. He feels like there’s something missing, something that he should be feeling but the ice in his chest is blocking that too. Ishwari’s hand is on his arm but he can’t feel that either.

As they approach the pyre it strikes him that he’s going to have to take his tiny daughter’s body and lay it in the fire. He must be the one to do this because he is the King. The thought of leaving her there brings a sudden dull pressure in the vicinity of his heart, and it’s distracting enough that Ishwari has to tug him to a stop. It’s good that she did so; if she hadn’t he might have just kept walking right into

 

When he becomes aware of himself again, he’s in the courtyard with a stone in his hands. He’s carrying it to a small square foundation of them that are already laid out on the ground, near the low wall that overlooks the valley. The stones are heavy, and his hands hurt. Before long, he notices red smears on the stones as he sets them into place. He doesn’t mind the pain; at first he was a little afraid that he might be dead too. Ghosts don’t bleed, or get cold and hungry and thirsty, as he does as he works into the night.

 

Someone turns on the helicopter pad lights. A soldier tries to take a stone from him; he slaps the man’s hands away. The walls that he is building are up to his chest now and his arms shake a bit when he lifts the stones up. His hands are numb now, past pain. That’s okay.

He has the shape of how he wants the structure to look in his head, but it keeps scattering like snow when he thinks too hard about it. That’s okay too. He just has to keep putting the stones one on top of the other, making them fit neatly.

His soldiers try to help, but he won’t let them. This is something that a king does, and he is still the King. Ishwari could help him though, she’s the closest thing to a queen that he’ll ever have. Where is she? Where is Ajay? Who is watching the baby? He tries to ask the soldiers, but the answers sound like they’re coming from underwater. Someone brings food and hot tea but he doesn’t want it. The smell of Ishwari’s flowers by the back door remind him of her hair.

 

Gary is there now, with one of the guardsmen. He is talking to him but it’s just sounds; nothing important. Then Gary says Ishwari’s name and he tries to listen but they’re grabbing his arms, and he fights them. He’s leaving red handprints on their nice clean uniforms. They try to pin him to the ground and almost succeed but he twists and gets a hand up to the guardsman’s harness, jerks the guard’s combat knife free of its sheath and buries it in his thigh. The man goes down howling. He swings back and slams his elbow into Gary’s face so hard the shock jolts all the way down to the ends of his fingers.

There are other hands on him then, too many to fight off. The hands shove him flat and hold him there. Someone has their hand on the side of his head, grinding his face into the pebbles and dead leaves. He doesn’t feel it much though. He doesn’t know why they keep trying to stop him.

Someone’s making a strange sound and he realizes it’s coming from him and that he’s probably been making it for awhile now. A low-pitched, unending moan of negation. His vision goes strange and drops of water splash onto the ground. Maybe he’s the one that was underwater. If they’d just let him up, he can go find

 

He raises his head and everything is on fire.

He doesn’t think it’s nighttime, but the smoke and fire hide the sun. He’s crouched down with a rifle across his knees, covered with blood. His hands are bloody, white knuckles showing through where he’s clutching the gun. He tries to make himself let go but his fingers won’t unlock.

The ground is churned mud and blood, a reddish-brown paste, and his boots are sinking into it. Everything is red; the sky, the ground, the smoke rolling across the field, the bodies that surround him. Even his hair, dripping, almost in his eye. The body armor he’s wearing feels too tight around his ribs. Difficult to get a breath.

Some of the bodies around him have red uniforms but most of them wear blue and yellow, where it’s not obscured by dirt. By offal. It doesn’t matter really, they’re all dead. Maybe he’s dead, too. But that doesn’t matter either. He lets his head drop, rests his forehead on the warm metal of the rifle. His hair drips gore into the mud, on the

 

He wakes for the final time with hot water pouring down on his head. He’s in the shower, his own shower, sitting in the floor of it. The lights are off; the only illumination is from the small, high-set window. It’s plenty of light for him to be able to see Ishwari’s letter on the sink. He stands up slowly, and for some reason every muscle hurts. He turns off the water, gets a towel, dries mechanically. He moves towards the sink, toward the letter, lifts his hand over it, lets his fingertips barely touch it. The paper is of that soft handmade sort that is common all over Kyrat and her words are a sharp, messy scrawl, in contrast to her usual careful script. She was always proud of her education, her ability to write in English. This is still her writing but a hurried version, a frightened version. Maybe a pained version.

He lets his fingers splay, his hand rest flat on her letter. He thinks that maybe he can feel some of that pain through the paper, an answering resonance in his chest; the longing for her, for all of them already a hard spike. Almost searing. It hurts immensely and will probably get worse before it gets better, will probably cripple him, but it’s still preferable to that choking ice. That squeezing pressure. He runs his fingers over her name again and again.

The shattered pieces of his mind, of what was Pagan Min, are starting to coalesce and reassert themselves in a configuration that is somewhat similar to what it was before. Like a broken vase carefully reassembled but the pattern not quite right.

This paper is his talisman. This letter made that reassembly possible. She says that she loves him, and that they’ll be together again. One day. So, he will wait for that day. It’s the absolute least he can do, after he failed them all so terribly, as a partner, as a father. He’d held Lakshmana on the day she was born and swore to her that he would be nothing like Gang, that her childhood would be so much better than his own, that she was loved so much. Cherished.

So many broken promises.

Gang had been a shit husband and a worse father, but at least he’d been able to keep him alive. Kept him and Yuma both alive. There’s a certain bitter irony there, he thinks.

He will wait for her then, and he feels just a tiny bit better for having decided that. No melodramatically flinging himself off a cliff, no pitiful notes and then the muzzle of a gun in his mouth, no. He’ll glue himself back together as best he can and he’ll put one foot in front of the other and wait for them, as long as it takes, for her and Ajay to come home again…

 

Pagan becomes aware again, becomes aware of being on his knees, Ajay’s arms around his neck, Ajay’s tears against his throat, his own hands at Ajay's waist. Can hear him murmuring his name as the static in his head subsides. There are tears on his own face too, but he doesn’t feel as wounded, as rended, as he thought he would.

“Jesus Christ, Pagan, you couldn’t find us, find any of us, wandering alone in the dark…” he rambles, sobbing. His chest burns; he can feel that ice that Pagan felt. Oh god. And suddenly he understands, what Kalinag meant. Take half meant Take half of this burden from him. Take it into yourself, so he doesn’t have to carry the whole load alone anymore. Fifty-fifty, right down the middle. Never alone. Now there’s someone else who knows exactly what happened, how he was lost, someone who loves him.

He’s also suddenly furious at his mother.

“Shhh,” Pagan says, and rubs his back. He can hear a little of Ajay’s thoughts too, but just a tiny bit. The barest echo. Ajay’s always been better at it than him. And he does feel better…lighter, stronger, maybe. But he never would have chosen this for Ajay, would never have done this if Ajay hadn’t told them they had to, for reasons still unknown to him.

“Don’t be angry with her, my dear boy. She did what she felt she had to do, to keep you safe, and I never begrudged her that. Not once. It’s not as if she could trust me to protect the two of you.” The bitterness in his voice hurts Ajay a little. “Also, unlike you, she couldn’t actually read my mind. But those were dark days, Ajay, terrible days. Ishwari had a vision for peace in a place where everyone had forgotten what peace looked like. Including me. Especially me. We were so in love, but…it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough, and it’s amazing that we both made it out of that situation alive. That’s how bad it was.”

“But all that doesn’t matter, she still should have been there, should have been there with you. I can’t believe she left you, when that’s how it was. Jesus,” and Ajay shivers all over. “I would never have left you, no matter how many kids we had.”

“Oh?” He suddenly quite likes this idea of him and Ajay and little ones.

“Fuck no,” Ajay says, and his voice is dark and hard. “I would have kept us safe. Kept all of us safe. You and me, we would’ve gone up to Durgesh or somewhere actually defensible, carried some artillery, some mortars up there, and rained destruction on whatever Golden Path fucks wanted to try us. I would’ve gotten Mohan from a thousand meters, just sniped him right out of existence, that fucking shithead. You would have been taunting them through the loudspeakers while we did it too, telling them to just go right on ahead and fuck themselves. Our kids would think we were heroes.”

It’s an oddly touching image, one that warms him to the core. And he knows that that’s exactly what Ajay would have done, too. Once he has what he wants, what he loves, he doesn’t let it go. Will fight to the death to defend it. Rip the world apart, leaving a trail of blood and bodies in his wake.

In many ways, he’s not like Ishwari at all. And that’s a wonderful thing, perhaps one of the best things about him. He’s not like either of his parents. As much as he had loved Ishwari, she wasn’t someone who would make others bleed on his behalf, or take care of him and protect him the way Ajay insists on doing. Fifty-fifty. It’s a sublimely warm feeling to have someone like that. Someone that will always choose him.

“Oh Ajay, my crazed honey badger, my little rabid wolverine, I don’t deserve you. I really don’t,” he laughs, and holds him so closely that he can feel Ajay’s heart beating hard against his own.

 

It was then that the last of Yalung’s essence converged on the cave, inserted itself into its otherworldly body, the seat of his power, and batted Pagan’s mind away like a cat with a toy.

Chapter Text

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Little by little the night turns around,
Counting the leaves which tremble at dawn.
Over the mountain watching the watcher,
Breaking the darkness.

Whether the sun will fall in the evening,
Will he remember the lesson of giving?
The heart of the sun, the heart of the sun…

One inch of love is one inch of shadow.

 

Pink Floyd – Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun

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“There you are,” a voice says, smug with satisfaction, and Pagan shudders to hear it. It sounds...thick, clotted, like worms, like worms through grave dirt, or sour milk, or vomit. It’s absolutely revolting and is more terrifying than the yetis, just immediate, intense visceral panic that Pagan has to fight hard to push down.

He looks around and he is in a dark, featureless place. His feet seem to be on something solid, but everything else is like dark smoke, formless. Like that dream. Ajay isn’t here with him. Also like that dream, but Ajay said he could see it, had watched it…is he watching now?

That voice laughs. Oh god.

“No, that one isn’t here. He is not the important one. Just you. Just you, little one, here with me.” That voice is like an invasion.

It sounds so trite and clichéd, but Pagan doesn’t know what else to say, really.

“What the bloody fuck do you want with me? Why are you here? Why am I here?”

“Why, for us to be One, of course. I have wanted you, waited for you since that day in the Canyon of Awakening, when the Purification of the Two was so bright, perfect, like sunlight…ripe to be crushed, yes. To crush like a grape, and drink the resulting anguish, the sorrow. Perfection. You, my little one, are as much light as you are shadow. Your essence will be bittersweet on my tongue.”

He/it laughs again.

“Where is Ajay?” and Pagan tries to keep the strain from his voice.

“That other is tainted,” and here the voice sounds displeased, disgusted, “tainted by the hunter. No, he is useless…useless, but for one task. He will be as a key in a lock, and then he will break, after he opens you to me. We understand each other, do we not?”

Oh my god, Pagan thinks. This is purest insanity.

And there’s nothing to be said anymore, nothing to be done anymore, but bare his teeth and fight this thing however he can. Even his fierce, ambitious, hardassed spirit, the warrior in him, quails a bit at the prospect.

“Oh, my little one,” that clotted voice murmurs, “you really are a delight. A fine wine. I will enjoy drinking you to the dregs.”

He can feel Yalung considering him then, and it feels like bugs crawling over his skin, like those clotty grave worms are brushing against him. He shudders in revulsion.

“Hmmm. But perhaps we do not even need the key.”

And then he’s dragging Pagan under, and Pagan kicks and fights in stark terror, panicking like a swimmer caught in a riptide.

There is no light, no air, and that toxic mix of anguish and despair and rage is rushing up like a maelstrom, a tidal wave. It’s going to actually drown him this time; if he breathes it in, he’s lost, he knows it. Will lose everything.

He twists and thrashes to get free and still that awful wormy voice is whispering in his ear, still dragging him down. His consciousness starts to retreat and he fights to hold onto that too, but it’s dark everywhere; no up, no down.

Nothingness.

Somewhere in the distance, a tiger roars.

 

Pagan is able to open his eyes then. There’s no dark water, no voice, no hands dragging him into the abyss.

…What in the actual fuck? he thinks again. He has the feeling that he’s going to be saying it a lot for the next little while.

He looks around. It’s still dark, but he’s in a place this time; a gray misty sort of place. His feet (clad in fine Italian leather, he notes) are in a red stream. It looks like it could be blood, but it doesn’t smell like it. In fact, there is no smell at all. The air is completely neutral.

He’s clean-shaven and dressed in one of his own well-tailored suits, but he’s not actually here. Yet it doesn’t feel like a dream either. It feels a bit like a place he’s not supposed to be, or a…state of being he’s not supposed to inhabit. Trapped between worlds.

As he’s standing there, the tiger roars again, closer. The sound is followed by the trumpeting of an elephant, although both sounds seem muffled by the mist.

Pagan blinks. This must be what it feels like to go completely, helplessly nuts. He suspects that he needs a straightjacket and the heavy duty meds.

A shadow takes shape in the mist, and it is indeed a very large elephant, striding toward him. As it gets closer he can see that it’s elaborately painted, and a white tiger stalks at its side. The tiger’s gold ornaments wink in the low light.

The elephant has a rider.

Kalinag, it’s Kalinag...right out of those stories that Ishwari would read to Ajay and the baby, he thinks, bewildered. He remembers the illustrations. Kyra singing the world into existence, Banashur watering it with his tears. Red streams, and red leaves against a gold sky. But here, the sky is dark, gray mist whirling, and wrong. The sense of absolute wrongness about this place strikes him suddenly.

The elephant is very near him now. He squints at it, because it looks suspiciously like Hurli.

As the rider slides off he can see that it’s Ajay, or at least some version of him, and his heart leaps in his chest with relief. He’s mostly naked, swirls of cream and gold and crimson pigment on his skin, and he carries a beautiful golden bow and quiver on his back. Pagan just stands and takes him in, his shaggy dark hair that he loves to run his hands through, his handsome face with those intense dark eyes, that small smile just for him. Ajay/Kalinag is wearing that smile now. He stops within arm’s reach of Pagan, opens his mouth...and a stream of guttural and archaic Kyrati comes out.

Pagan blinks.

The man coughs, clears his throat, and Ajay says in his normal voice, “Whoa, that was fuckin’ weird. Hey Pagan.” He looks around.

“I know this place. I’ve been here before.” He shakes his head. “But it’s not right. Can you feel it?”

“My boy, I have not a single solitary fucking clue what is going on here. First, there was that awful cave, and then Yalung or whatever was trying to drown me and then I was here.” It seems foolish to avoid the name now, after they’ve been blindsided by the fucker. He gestures at the tiger. “I think your friend saved me from Yalung.” Ajay looks worried. “No, no…we are not saved at all. It’s definitely not safe here. Safer than where you were, maybe, but not safe at all. Can’t you feel him? Yalung’s the one making it wrong. He’s here. He’s getting closer.” Pagan opens his mouth to say that he can’t, in fact, feel it, but then Ajay is backing away from him with wide eyes, as the elephant trumpets angrily and the tiger snarls. “Pagan,” he whispers, “Look at your arm...”

Pagan holds it up and instead of the suit jacket sleeve he expected to see, his arm is bare, the skin a shade of bronze-gold. Golden armbands decorate it, and his fingers end in...claws?

“What the hell?” he mutters, but then the arm that is both his and not his jerks forward, his whole body jerks forward, and the clawed hand seizes Ajay, wraps itself around Ajay’s throat and squeezes. Hard.

NO! NO!! he tries to scream, panicked but it comes out like a furious screech, like stones scraping together, like something inhuman and awful. And dear lord, does he have fangs? He can feel them in his mouth.

Pagan tries to force himself to let Ajay go but his hand may as well have been forged from actual bronze, for all it budges. The animals are making a terrible racket, but it seems they can’t intervene.

Ajay’s face is already turning an alarming shade of red. And that maelstrom wells up in him again, that dark tide of anguish, (oh fuck I brought it here it’s in me IS me somehow no Ajay Ajay) and Yalung’s clotted wormy voice is purring in his head. “Yesss, there we are,” it sighs, and it sounds almost sexual, and it’s the most polluted thing Pagan has ever heard. It makes him want to scrub his brain. “Together, we will kill what you love, and it will be ecstasy. He is the key to your lock, and you will slide open to me upon his death. You will see, little one. After all, is that not what you already do? Kill what you profess to love? Break those whom you care for? All burned to ashes, in dirty little pots.”

“And when everything is gone we’ll drink up all of that delicious agony, together...” and the longer Yalung speaks the more the voice starts to sound like his own.

Ajay’s face is starting to purple, and Pagan can hear him now, (this is that dream I dreamed this happened and I cut his arm off no Pagan can’t hurt you may as well slice my own off Pagan need to wake up now please wake me up wake up in your arms).

 

This is it, his darkest hour. This is the test.

Pagan closes his eyes, both the inner and the outer ones.

Takes a breath. Opens them.

 

And throws his consciousness at the cancer inside him that is Yalung with all the fury he has. He fights like a cornered animal, like people who lift cars off their children, like a man who is protecting the one he loves more than himself. He lunges and snarls in righteous anger, and his rage this time is clean and fiery because this isn’t just a fight to the death, this is a fight for their very souls. One he is determined to win, because Ajay taught him to never, ever lose hope.

His hand loosens slightly around Ajay’s throat. Yalung forces it right back and he pries at it mercilessly with all of his considerable will. Sinks his teeth in. Plants his mental feet, flexes his mental shoulders, and pulls. Ajay’s able to suck in one sobbing breath before Pagan loses his hold again, mental fingers scrabbling. He slams his fist down over and over, trying to break that awful grip but Yalung in him feels like a fever, a pollution that’s weakening him.

On the floor of the cave, his physical body twitches a little, blood running from his nose.

And Pagan is coming to the sick conclusion that it’s not going to be enough. He just doesn’t have the strength left, trembling all over. He’s pouring everything he has left into making that hand open again...and it’s just not enough. Yalung feels him start to falter and slobbers laughter in his ear.

“Oh little one, you fight so hard...why do you bother? I’ll have what I desire in the end. I am eternal, the void...and I will have my due.” The black water is foaming up past his knees, to his waist, chilling his chest with its icy touch. Pagan refuses to let go, will never let go, but the maelstrom inside him is about to go over his head, and Yalung is there. Waiting for it. Waiting to swallow his heart, his soul.

Please, Pagan thinks, soft. Quiet. Life, not death.

 

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Dayadhvam: I have heard the key
Turn in the door once and turn once only
We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison
Only at nightfall, aethereal rumours
Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus.

These fragments I have shored against my ruins.

Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih, shantih, shantih.

 

T.S. Eliot – The Waste Land

 

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Chapter Text

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The two of us,
All used and beaten up.

If the world should break in two,
Until the very end of me,
Until the very end of you.

When all our hope is gone we have to hold on,
All that we were is gone but we can hold on.

Nothing else means anything.

 

Nine Inch Nails – We’re in This Together

 

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Ajay knows they are in big trouble. Big, big trouble. Pagan/Yalung is terrifying, all sharp fangs and smoking nostrils and sickly heat rolling off of him. Those awful orange eyes that he’s trying not to look into. His throat burns like there’s lava in it. He remembers those dreams though, the ones he had in the canyon. It feels like so long ago now. The ones where him and Pagan were half-hearted enemies who kept trying to kill each other. He did kill Pagan, in at least one. He remembers blood on a dinner table, puddling around the dishes and silverware; a reflection of what would have happened if he’d made a different decision that fateful day up on the mountain, in the dining room.

He remembers this happening too; he’d raised the tooth-kukri and sliced the demonic arm off. As soon as he thinks it the sword is in his hand. He raises it, but...he can’t. He can’t hurt Pagan like that...it would be like cutting his own arm off. It would wound him the same. No, that’s not the right path, he knows it instinctively somehow. There’s something he needs to figure out, and fast.

And dimly, he can feel Pagan fighting in there, fighting so very hard. His hand tightens, loosens briefly, tightens again, as Pagan fights for control. He’s able to suck in one burning breath, but he can feel Pagan starting to lose, starting to slip, so furious but his anguish is rising and that’s what Yalung wants. That’s what Yalung exists to do, feed off of human misery.

What a fucking shitstain, Ajay/Kalinag thinks, in both languages. But he remembers, remembers waking from those dreams like a diver surfacing and being held closely in Pagan’s strong arms, his own arms around Pagan. Pagan nuzzling at him sleepily, Ajay listening to his heart beat slow and steady. Warmth. Life.

Ajay drops the kukri, and it dissolves into dark mist before it can hit the ground. That way is not the answer; it never was.

The fingers of his other hand that are wedged tight and straining against the demon’s are the only reason he’s not unconscious yet, but dark spots are starting to bloom in his vision. If Yalung had full control of Pagan, both his arms, Ajay would already be dead.

He reaches out with his free hand and lays it softly along Pagan/Yalung’s neck. His pulse is thrumming, hummingbird fast.

He knows what to do now.

Ajay thinks about that warmth he felt, lets it fill him up the way that Yalung is trying to make Pagan fill with ice and fear and misery. He thinks about how he’d woken up from those dreams to the warm solidity of Pagan against his back, how he’d wanted Pagan’s hands on him, an affirmation of life. How they’d made love, Pagan inside him for the first time, and how it had been hard to tell where one began and the other ended. How it had felt like an explosion of light when they came together. Nothing else had existed in the world but him and Pagan. He tries to capture those feelings; not the physical so much, although that’s part of it, but the heat and joy in his chest, the answering joy in Pagan’s eyes. There hadn’t been room for anything else.

And that’s the key, that right there; that’s what he needs to focus on. No room for anything else.

Ajay’s growing dizzy, vision tunneling, but he concentrates and pushes that feeling into Pagan/Yalung. If he can fill them enough with it, Yalung won’t be able to stay in him. Can’t co-exist with those feelings. No room in the inn, you sick fuck, Ajay thinks savagely, but even as he does he realizes that he’s not strong enough, he can’t keep it up. His vision is almost gone and he’s faltering, starting to sag in the demon’s grasp. Can feel Pagan going under, sinking, sinking. Yalung swooping in.

No! he screams in his head.

As he’s screaming, Kalinag is calling out softly, a prayer. “Tarun Matara,” he chants, “it is the hour of our greatest need. Kyrat needs you, her Kings need you, both present and future. Bride of Banashur...please help us. Come to our aid.”

And something slams into Ajay like high voltage, and that feeling that Ajay is trying to send into Pagan grows by three times, five times, fifteen times. It’s too much, it hurts like trying to look at the sun. That terrible hand loosens just a bit and he sucks in air desperately, the dark tunnel receding.

Now, now he can guide all that energy where it needs to go, this antithesis of Yalung. As he grasps it gently and pushes, he feels a soft hand laid over his, entwining their fingers, touching Pagan’s throat too. It feels like, it feels a lot like...

“...Mom?”

 

Pagan is sinking into the dark, but it doesn’t hurt much anymore. He still has his hands on Yalung, but he can’t really remember why he’s still hanging on, as Yalung gobbles and slobbers wetly. His mind is trying to go to some far off place; anywhere but here.

Here is the end, and it feels like the end of everything.

The end of me, anyway. The end of us. Oh, Ajay...

The tiny spark of light that is Pagan starts to unravel, and Yalung brays in triumph.

 

Then he feels hands touch that spark, holding it safely, gently stroking. Familiar hands, entwined. So very familiar. Ishwari? he thinks, confused, when the spark of himself stabilizes enough to do so. He feels the sensation of being brushed against very softly and it’s Ajay too; it’s both of them together somehow.

You can let go now, Ajay whispers to him, breathing strength into him.

Let go, my love; we have you. It’s going to be okay now, Ishwari says. And because he trusts, if they tell him it's okay, he'll do it. He believes. He opens his hands.

Lets go.

And he was right to trust, because they cradle his essence softly, protectively as a blast of light sweeps through his mind like a bomb going off. Yalung is screaming, screeching, gibbering, burning, as that awful sick presence is blasted right out of him. It’s not destroyed, but Pagan’s free of it at last, that terrible fever, and the relief has him sagging. The hands hold him close, so safe and secure.

And because he’s Pagan Min, he throws a thought after Yalung in savage triumph, his parting salvo: That’s right, you fucking cunt. Burn in HELL, you lan yeung dogshit-eating motherfucker.

 

When he opens his eyes again, he’s in a bright place, the antithesis of what was before. The same red stream is here, but now the light is soft and gold and right. Ajay is holding his hand, and there is so much love for him in his face, he can’t help but smile. His own heart feels unsteady.

But someone has his other hand, and he turns and it’s Ishwari, but unlike Ajay she’s almost too bright to look at.

“I’m dead, aren’t I?” he says dubiously, and for some reason this makes Ishwari laugh her musical laugh and it’s that same beautiful sound, just as he remembers from all those years ago.

“Oh, my love...no, you are not dead.” She smiles at him, and he can’t help but go to her, touch her face. She looks just like he remembers, but her skin is cool and smooth, not warm like her living flesh. He gazes into her eyes and he can see the reflection there of how she remembers him, twenty again and the whole world laid out in front of them, their whole lives ahead of them, and his chest aches.

“You’re not...really Ishwari, are you?” he says then, his voice hoarse. “I am, and am not,” she says, her voice melodic and just a little inhuman. “I am Ishwari, and I am Bhadra. I am all the Tarun Matara, back to the beginning of time. Like Ajay, who is sometimes Lord Kalinag.”

Ajay’s going to have to explain to him sometime about all of this Kalinag business, but hearing his name makes Pagan realize the terrible mistake he’s made; he dropped Ajay’s hand to go to Ishwari without a second glance. He turns, and Ajay’s has stepped away from them and is studying the ground, the sky, looking anywhere but at the two of them.

Pagan turns, a little unsteadily, and in three long strides has Ajay in his arms. Just holds him tight, and after a second Ajay’s arms come around him, too. His precious, precious boy. “You were magnificent,” he whispers in Ajay’s ear, kisses his earlobe. Nuzzles at him in apology.

Pagan pulls back a bit and his eyes are shining at Ajay and there’s so much love there that his face seems to glow, or maybe it’s the strange light of Shangri-La. In any case, he suddenly looks younger than Ajay. A thought occurs to him then. “This is how Mom remembers you, isn’t it?” he blurts.

He looks closer, in wonder. Touches his face. His smooth forehead. Examines the lack of crow’s feet, of smile lines. Gives a little laugh.

“This babyfaced guy is very handsome. It’s a beautiful face and I’m glad I got to see it like this. But it’s not my Pagan’s face. My Pagan has worn his long enough that he’s comfortable in it, and I like that better.”

Pagan chuckles. “I’m certain it won’t last, although getting a supernatural facelift or time travelling would be among the less weird things that have happened today.”

His face sobers then. “Let’s go to her, say our goodbyes. I doubt we can stay in this place much longer.”

They walk back to the Tarun Matara, fingers entwined. “Ajay,” she says then, and touches his face. “Never, ever doubt that Pagan loves you. I can see into his heart, and there isn’t any room for others. There will always be a part of him that loves Ishwari, of course, and she is a bright star there, but you...you are the sun.” She smiles so sweetly at him, and it is so good to see her like this and not how it was at the end, her so fragile and all the machines beeping. Ajay’s throat aches. “I am so, so proud of you, my brave boy. You did as I asked and found Lakshmana, found Pagan. You saved him, just now, by taking half of his terrible burden, and that made all the difference. If you hadn’t, Yalung would have been that much stronger and we certainly would have lost him, and thus lost everything.” She brushes his hair back from his forehead, just the way she’d always done. “There was so much I wanted to tell you, so much that would have made things easier...but there was just no more time. But you lived the words I wanted to say. I will always love you.” She holds her face between her hands, kisses his forehead. Ajay bows his head, swipes at his eyes.

“And you, Pagan,” she says, with a gentle smile, “I am so proud of the both of you. You have hurt so much, lost so much...Ishwari couldn’t come back to you, and I am sorry for that. I never wished to cause you pain. But, across all the miles and all the years, you too heard what I wished to say. You found Ajay, and protected him, and loved him. Gave him your heart, which you swore you’d never do again.” She touches his face, like she did with Ajay. Her eyes are shining. “My love, I know you have never considered yourself a good king, or even a good man...but you are better than you know. Together, the two of you will protect Kyrat as so many have before you, and when the day comes that Ajay steps into your place...he will truly be great.” She moves a little closer. “Now, you can begin to heal,” she whispers, and kisses his forehead. Pagan is finding it a bit difficult to swallow around the lump in his throat.

“I must send you back now, but one last thing,” she says, laying her hands on their heads. They bend over a bit to make it easier for her. “Take care of Bhadra. The King and the Tarun Matara are the Head and Heart of Kyrat, and she will need you. I love you both so, so much. Take care of each other, be good to each other. And we’ll see each other again someday.” With a last beatific smile, she shoves them hard out of Shangri-La.

 

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Ajay comes to on the floor of the relic cave, the radio on his belt squawking. “...voc Two-Nine, this is Royal Guard Operator One-One-Three-Eight, requesting current status, over. Havoc Two-Nine, please respond if able, over. Havoc Two-Nine, this is Royal Guard…” and the message repeats itself, over and over again.

He’s still holding Pagan’s hand and he’s sure as fuck not letting go of him, so he fumbles the radio off his belt with the free one and then has to lay there and force his muzzy brain to remember the right comms procedure.

“Royal Guard operator, this is Blacksnake Four...uh, requesting implementation of Heron protocol. Please relay to Reddog Eight. I don’t know my authorization code, over.” When the radio crackles to life, a familiar voice responds. Ajay sags in relief.

“Blacksnake Four, this is Reddog Eight. As an alternative to your auth code, where were we four months ago, over?” Ajay thinks back. “The rice field. We were all in Sanjay’s rice paddy.”

“Authorization accepted, Blacksnake. It’s good to hear your voice, we’ve been looking for you for weeks but signals have been jammed off and on. What’s the status of Havoc Two-Nine, over?”

“Havoc Two-Nine is with me, I think he’s okay.” Ajay squeezes his fingers a little.

“Do you require medical?”

“No, I think we’re okay for the moment. We’re at high elevation, but not high enough to need oxygen.”

“Acknowledged, Blacksnake.” Here Kamran hesitates, and Ajay can hear it. “Can you relay the status of Shrike Five, over?” Ajay puzzles over who that could be, and then he remembers. Lang. Kamran’s partner.

“Deceased, Reddog. Didn’t make it out of the crash…I’m really sorry.”

“Thank you for letting us know, Blacksnake,” he says quietly. Kamran’s voice firms then, right back to the professional he is. Pagan has some good people working for him. “We have your coordinates now, Blacksnake...ETA three hours, over.”

“That's awesome, see you then. Oh, and watch out for hostiles with RPGs, that’s what brought us down, over.”

“Acknowledged, and we’ll be watching.”

Finally, finally, finally something goes right. He looks around the cave and it looks like a bomb went off, smoking bits of that spore shit everywhere and a big crater where that thing was. The Yalung space tree…thing. He rubs his face and suddenly everything comes back, everything. “Holy shit,” he mutters. He takes it back. Actually, a whole lot of things went right, when it certainly seemed like they weren't going to.

Pagan’s beside him, their fingers still entangled, but he’s still not moving yet. Ajay lifts him up and scoots under him, gets his head and shoulders up into his lap and holds him. He looks terrible; filthy, cheeks too hollow, the scar a livid red against his too-pale skin. His nose has bled into his beard at some point and dried. Even his hair isn’t its usual cheerful color; it has so much dirt in it that it’s all blended to a dusty brown sameness.

Ajay has never seen a more precious sight in his life and touches his forehead to his.

“Pagan, Pagan, wake up. Come back to me,” he whispers, and Pagan’s eyebrows contract as if he were just waiting for Ajay to call him back to consciousness. His eyes open, and then immediately try to shut again. Sucks in a big breath and coughs and groans as if he has the mother of all hangovers. He suddenly rolls off of Ajay face down on the floor and looks like he’s going to be sick, but nothing comes up. Ajay rubs his back, strokes the back of his plushy head. Ajay’s head doesn’t feel great either, but at least he didn’t have Yalung in his. He shivers, at how close they cut it.

Mom, if you’re out there...thank you, for everything.

Pagan just lays there face down for long minutes, breathing. When he starts to sit up, Ajay helps him. He looks around them at the devastation. His face is beyond stunned. “Was I dreaming? Was any of that even real?” he asks, shakily.

“No, you weren’t dreaming,” Ajay whispers. “And I think it was all real. Every bit of it.” Ajay shifts closer to him, moves so they can lean against each other.

“The radio went off while you were out, our guys looking for us,” he says, low and soothing, rubbing his back, brushing the dirt off of him. “I called in the Heron thing and Kamran says they’ll be here in three hours.” No reaction.

“Home, we’re going home, Pagan. We fucking won. We’re unbreakable, me and you. You were so strong, so goddamn ferocious…you were incredible, you know that? You saved me! And then Mom saved both of us, I think. The Tarun Matara.”

He stares blankly at Ajay, still in shock, not quite tracking, like he’s not even sure where he is yet. Or maybe even who he is. He’s so pale under the dirt and tan that Ajay’s starting to be a little worried about him.

And then, completely and utterly overwhelmed, Pagan drops his face into his hands and begins to cry.

Chapter Text

In the end, it’s only about four or five harsh sobs that are wrenched out of him. There is plenty of time for Pagan to scrub with his sleeve at the layer of dirt on his face, hiding the clean tear tracks. Kings shouldn’t be seen weeping; not in front of the enlisted men, anyways. Lousy for morale and all.

When he and Ajay stumble out of the relic cave, they’re both shocked to see the sun rising high over the mountains…they’ve been in there most of a day and the entire night. Or longer, it’s hard to keep track. His body thinks it’s only been a few hours, but he and Ajay apparently spent longer than he realized battling supernatural forces in a place outside time. God. He scrubs at his face, the sense of unreality still very strong.

It’s maybe more shocking to even be able to see the sun. It’s as if the weather is also tired after all that Yalung bullshit and decided to settle the fuck down for awhile. Without that hurricane-force wind, it’s warm enough that they can peel off their dirty parkas and sit on them at the cave entrance, just soaking up the sunlight as they wait for their ride, companionably sharing a piece of jerky. Pagan figures that they still have a lot of things to talk about, many things that need to be discussed…but for right now, it’s still okay to just be, shoulders leaning together. There’s time.

When the big chopper comes in and makes a perfect, neat landing on the snowy hillside and Major Kamran steps out, Pagan has to actually suppress the urge to hug the guy, so glad that he's headed up this mission personally. He steps back and settles for a handshake after he sees his face. Kamran is trying not to show it, but it’s clear that he’s appalled when he sees the state they’re both in, especially him. He knows how rough he must look; ragged, filthy fatigues, his wool coat more red and brown than gray, a down vest, also with a lot of old blood on it, more crusty dried blood in the four or five weeks’ worth of beard on his face (he can’t actually remember exactly how long they’ve been here); that scar, probably still red and raw-looking, his braided hair. Also reeking. He himself would have run the other way, frankly.

He has them stop at the relay station so they could pick up some of their gear that they want to keep but couldn’t haul up the mountain; mainly Ripper and Ajay’s fancy bow. While they’re there, Pagan gets the tarp and hands it up to Kamran in the helicopter, nods at him. He nods back, also trying not to show his grief. They have one more stop to make, at the crash site this time, for Lang. A sad and sober business, which Kamran insisted on attending to personally while everyone else waited in the helicopter.

And then they were off, back at the Palace before dinner. Completely surreal. Although if his soldiers were surprised by their appearance, they were really shocked when he and Ajay held hands all the way back, fingers entwined.

Ajay leaves him at the door to his rooms with a kiss and a grin, walks backwards away from him down the hall to his own. It’s silly and so very Ajay that he can’t help but laugh.

The first thing he does is strip off his disgusting and crusty clothes, pop an analgesic and run the big tub full. He sinks in up to his neck and good god everything hurts. It takes four cycles of scrubbing, draining, and refilling the tub before the water stops being gray. The second thing he does is call down the hill and set up a mission to send a squad into every cave in that godforsaken valley with flamethrowers. And gas masks, those too. The bombing run will have to be put on hold for now.

The third thing he does is miss Ajay.

The fourth is to put in an order with the kitchen for steak, potatoes, and dim sum. A strange combination for sure, but it’s what he wants. He pauses, and requests enough for two, asks not to be disturbed otherwise for a bit. In case Ajay shows up.

Ajay doesn’t show, so after he eats he goes back into the bathroom and attempts to shave, but there’s so much fucking beard that he has to get the clippers out and use those first, good lord. He runs a hand down his chest, glances further down…might as well do the rest of it too, while he’s at it. Lathering up his face and then the first pass of the straight razor feels glorious. Then he gets the big set of clippers and goes to work on his hair. With the help of the mirrors he does the sides and back, but he’s also going to have to touch up the roots...or not. Maybe he’ll cut it all off. Shock everyone some more, he thinks, as he steps into the shower to rinse off. He doesn’t give a shit. Such concerns seem exceedingly paltry at the moment.

In the end he decides to just leave his hair alone, but the front is too long and keeps poking him in the eye. He rakes it back to examine his newly acquired scar. It could have used, oh, say, twenty or thirty stitches easily, but what’s done is done. He runs a finger along it. It’ll take awhile to not look quite so angrily red and match the rest of him, but he’s incredibly lucky that this is the only permanent mark that he’ll bear from that whole ordeal. The only physical mark, anyway. His hair almost hides it when he combs it back down with his fingers. Considers styling it, discards that idea. When he turns his head, it pokes him in the eye again. With a long-suffering sigh, he just rakes it out of his way with wet fingers and calls it done. Picks up an eyeliner pencil, says fuck it and tosses it back in the drawer. It’s not like he’s going anywhere.

It’s a pretty wonderful thing to sit in a warm room in his bathrobe, smelling of soap and aftershave, but he’s also restless without grooming to distract him. The television entertains him for approximately ten minutes. His phone is the same way. He drums his fingers on the chair arm and misses Ajay. He checks the inbox in his private office for reports...nothing there. Boots up his computer and checks his email, but nothing requires his personal attention. He sits back with a sigh. Rubs his face. Do they even need him here? He and Ajay were gone for over a month and the administration is still running like a well-oiled machine.

And where is Ajay? It’s been hours; he figured the boy would want his own things, his own bathroom to get cleaned up in, understandable, but then he figured he’d come by, eat with him, something. They could both be in the tub up to their necks in hot water and suds, drinking champagne. Or feeding each other strawberries and then fucking in his enormous bed. Or Ajay’s slightly smaller one, he’s not picky. He heaves another sigh, considers rubbing one out, decides against it. Decides that’s a bit pathetic.

Perhaps Ajay just needs some space? After all, they’ve barely been out of touching distance of each other for weeks. Hell, they’ve been sharing a toothbrush for weeks. If Ajay needs space, then that’s what he needs. He’ll come around when he’s ready.

That settled, he picks up the paper that was delivered with dinner to see what’s going on in the world, but then can’t find his reading glasses. He slings the paper back onto the table in frustration.

 

He’s...he’s really not dealing with this very well. He notes that he’s been subconsciously picking up his handgun and moving it from room to room with him, always in arm’s reach.

Perhaps he should just have a nap, go null state for awhile. God knows he could use the sleep; his eyes are gritty and he almost drowned himself twice in the bath nodding off. He goes around pulling the shades, shrugs off his robe, climbs into bed naked. Rolls up into the blankets, gets comfortable, and he’s out in seconds.

Pagan wrenches himself awake with a gasp thirty minutes later, heart pounding and confused as to where he is and why there’s not a gun in his hand, why Ajay’s warm weight isn’t against him.

That’s right, they’re home and safe, layers of security around them, and Ajay’s just down the hall. Take deep breaths and calm down. No problem. All is well.

He closes his eyes.

He only makes it seventeen minutes this time. He gets up with a snarl and gets the gun, gets a pillow and lays it along his side and puts an arm around it (pathetic, he thinks), drifts off again.

This time he makes it to twenty-two, but he honestly just feels worse for this shitty sleeping experience. If there wasn’t such an adrenaline jolt every time he wakes, it would be easier to deal with.

 

He tries putting on pajamas. No go.

 

He tries turning the television on low, but he dreams the people talking are cultist voices and wakes on his knees, muzzle trained on a sportscaster. After that happens, he calls the housekeeping staff and warns them not to come in until he gives the okay. He’d surely put a bullet in somebody, in his current state.

He’s getting desperate and thinks of the half a bottle of brandy in his desk drawer, but that’s a shit idea. He already feels a bit hungover from getting his brain scrambled last night by an ancient and evil deity that may or may not have been an extraterrestrial.

No. No booze. Coke? No, he promised Ajay he’d be good. He doesn’t really want either one, to be honest, which is a feeling that is somehow simultaneously refreshing and anxious.

Finally decides maybe the bed is too soft and flings the blankets onto the floor, intending to curl up right there…but then thinks about it and shoves the blankets under the bed and crawls in after them. It’s a bit of a tight fit and a little dusty, but it feels better under here somehow.

And that’s how he manages to get any sleep at all; the only indication that he’s under there is the corner of the duvet sticking out.

 

-----------------------------------------------

 

That first hot shower is amazing, so good that Ajay finds himself getting at little weak in the knees. So he just sits in the floor and lets the hot water pour on his head for nearly an hour. Actual toothpaste. Deodorant. He’s suddenly rich in good-smelling things.

Clean clothes. Comfortable sneakers. Awesome.

He’s just wondering what Pagan’s up to and thinking of finding food when he suddenly feels…a little anxious for some reason. Antsy. Like he should be on guard against something. Which is ridiculous, he’s home, they’re both home and safe and he can relax and he tries to shake the feeling off, but it just grows stronger. He steps out into the hallway, that feeling making his heart thud. He stops in front of Pagan’s closed door, hand lifted to knock…and drops it. Pagan probably needs his space, it’s been weeks and weeks of being constantly together, and he didn’t say anything about wanting him to come back here. Except for that night right before they left, he rarely spent any time in Pagan’s rooms. They’ve technically been living here together since the end of the war, but it’s more like they’re neighbors in an apartment building.

He hesitates, anxiety a hard ball in his stomach. He’s probably thoroughly enjoying himself in there, probably watching Mean Girls for the 487th time and eating chocolate ice cream. Imagines him pouring himself a drink, or five. Or more. A scattering of white powder on the glass table like a spray of powdery snow, like diamond dust in the moonlight.

And suddenly he can’t stay here, can’t be in this place, this palace, this gilded cage, no. No. He runs cat-footed back to his rooms, grabs his pack, his kukri, his bow, and is out the balcony and over the side and down the valley road before his brain stops panicking…and he just keeps going. He slips past the fortress and hits the woods around the time that Pagan realizes that he’s been carrying his handgun with him from room to room, missing Ajay already.

 

Later on that day, when being in the clean wind and among the trees and hills had forced some of that knot from his insides, he fingers his radio. Pagan is just a call away, always has been. Could have called him, if he wanted him there. Maybe he’s waiting, missing him, wanting to take him to bed. They’ve never made love in a real bed, but he’s so very, very tired. Maybe they could just sleep, warm and safe, like that first night.

Maybe he’s drunk and coked out of his mind, watching tv, not really giving a shit if Ajay’s there or not, a chemical barrier between himself and whatever he’s feeling.

He looks at the radio, drops his arm, squints into the breeze. Finally, he makes himself stop being a coward, dials Pagan’s frequency. Pushes the button.

“Havoc Two-Nine, this is Blacksnake Four, do you read, over?” Pagan had never told him that it was a breach of security to use their names over the radio, but it makes a lot of sense. He won’t do it again.

But the voice that answers back isn’t Pagan’s.

“Blacksnake Four, this is Comm 1. Havoc Two-Nine is offline with a DND order, do you copy?”

He stands there, trying to fight down the knot in his throat enough to answer. “Yeah, I copy Comm 1. Thanks.”

Well, there’s his answer. He goes ahead and switches the radio off. No sense in wasting the battery. Pagan’s not going to contact him. In fact, it suddenly feels too heavy in his hand, dangerous, like a snake that might bite him. He slowly bends and places the radio down on the pine needles and backs away from it, feeling crazy for doing it, but unable to make himself pick it up again.

 

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From that time on, Ajay’s world shrinks to two concentric circles. The first is a distance of about five miles in diameter, with the palace at the radius. The area of this circle is the area that he can’t force himself to leave. There’s another concentric circle inside the larger circle, but this one is much smaller. Only about two hundred feet or so. This is the area that he can’t force himself to enter, the area where Pagan is. The space between is the area in which he lives now. He orbits the palace, orbits Pagan, trapped. Feels real, honest panic when he tries to go to him. Feels like he’s giving up on them if he strays further afield, which he absolutely will not do.

He prowls his range like a stealthy animal, not caring to have the scrutiny of Pagan’s patrols, or hunters, or anybody on him. If he builds a fire he hides it, feeling much like he did during those four days that he was searching for Pagan in that valley. Catches sleep when he can, but no place feels right, feels safe enough, without Pagan’s warmth and weight against him, without Pagan’s gun trained on the doorway. He tosses and turns in the bottom of a belltower, and jerks awake an hour later from a dream of snow and heat and moonlight, of Pagan’s mouth hot on his ear, teeth fastened gently. The moonlight part is real, streaming from the window over his legs, but he isn’t here. Maybe won’t ever be again.

He sits up, back against the wall. Puts his head on his knees, wills his erection down and tries to make himself cry, just to rid himself of some of the awful tension, like wires yanked taut under his skin, but the tears won’t come. Nothing.

After awhile, he gets up, gathers his gear. He’s been here too long; he needs to stay on the move inside this trap, to try to outrun this feeling before it rips him in two.

Knows he can’t.

 

-----------------------------------

 

Here we go
You led me far away
And let me go.

I’m never far away
But that’s all wrong
That’s all wrong.

I’m still trying to wake up.

LCD Soundsystem – i used to

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Chapter Text

By the third day, Pagan finds himself utterly exhausted. He’s averaging two or three hours a night, if he stuffs himself under the bed with a gun in his hand and his arm around the pillow that should be Ajay, like a fucking lunatic. He doesn’t care though, just wishes the boy would come home. His troops have a vague notion of his whereabouts, with strict orders not to crowd him, observation from a distance only. He still keeps giving them the slip, maybe without even meaning to; he’s just that good. Apparently he’s sleeping in belltowers and sheds and hunting for his dinners. Pagan’s heart goes out to him, misses him with a fierce intensity. Knows he’ll come back when he’s done working through things.

He himself tries to keep busy; demands reports be re-routed to his desk again, keeps tabs on a developing political situation in Nepal, trains with Gary, spends time at the range, takes long walks around the grounds. He takes the newly christened Corporal Kamran with him on these, ostensibly as a bodyguard, but mostly for the company. He always did like Kamran, his steady unflappable presence, and they usually walk in easy silence.

To his credit, Kamran acts like this is something they do all the time, that they’ve always done, and brings him the reports on Ajay’s doings personally. In return, he listens to Kamran talk about Lang. They had been partners in every sense for a long time, and Pagan sometimes rests a hand on his shoulder, pressing gently.

Before Ajay, he doesn’t know how much of a shit he would’ve given, would probably have been at least a few drinks in by this time of the day. A shield against the unpleasantness of dealing with other people and their emotions and their bullshit. It’s a potentially troublesome thought. But it’s also increasingly obvious that he’s been checked out of life for far too long. Being exposed to Kamran’s quiet grief just…doesn’t scrape him raw the way it once might have. As if disposing of some of his own may have left a little breathing room, a little space for empathy.

 

A few hours after their walk, Kamran is back, with a young lieutenant in tow. Pagan shoots a question with his eyes, but Kamran merely turns to…Khan, Pagan reads off the nametag on his jacket pocket, Lieutenant Khan, and says, “Go ahead and tell him what you told me.” Khan stands ramrod straight, and tells Pagan that he was working as Comm 1 two nights ago when Mr. Ghale had called for him, and he had told Mr. Ghale that the king was not available and was not to be disturbed. That the order had come down from the kitchen staff. Then Khan stood there and tried not to shake, because he knew the king was going to kill him. Probably painfully, with his ink pen. Everybody knows that story.

Pagan blinks, and then he can feel the rage bubbling up as that information sinks in. It’s implications. He stalks around his desk slowly and puts his hand on Khan’s shoulder and clamps down tight, fingers digging in. “Do you mean to tell me,” he says, low and deadly, “that between your incompetence and the kitchen staff’s incompetence, the lot of you took ‘Please bring dinner, and then I’d like to not be bothered for a bit so I can eat in peace’ to mean, ‘Block important contacts from reaching me?’ Am I understanding this correctly, Lieutenant? I just want to be sure.” Khan answers “Yes sir,” and tries to keep the tremble out of it. King Min’s hand is gripping his shoulder tighter, and tighter, until it starts to really hurt. His hands are very strong, Khan thinks, and the other one is going to drive that pen into my throat. Any moment now. He closes his eyes.

The pressure eases suddenly, but the hand shakes him a bit and he opens them again. The king’s eyes are dark and dreadful, and he has a finger in Khan’s face, but he’s not bleeding out on the carpet yet.

“I want you to understand something, Lieutenant Khan. Whenever Mr. Ghale calls me, you and the other comm operators put it through. Any hour of the day or night, wherever I am, whether I am asleep or incoherent or in a meeting with important dignitaries, or taking a royal shit on the royal can, whatever the case may be does not concern you in the slightest. You put him through. Now, do we understand one another?” He nods, not trusting his voice. And then, incredibly, the king lets him go. Waves him away, in utter disgust. “Good. Now get the fuck out of my sight. Thank you, Kamran, for bringing this matter to my attention.”

Kamran steps out into the hall with Khan. “I wouldn’t have brought you up here to be personally reprimanded if I thought King Min would actually kill you. However,” Kamran drops his voice low, “if you fuck up like that again where it concerns Ajay Ghale, he surely will.

 

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That night, Pagan dreams.

He dreamt that he and Ajay were back in the relay station, warm guttering candlelight washing over Ajay’s sleeping face. As usual, he’s using Pagan’s bare arm as his pillow, the arm that Pagan generally keeps trained on the door. Even dreaming, the rightness of their bare skin pressed together, their legs tangled together makes something unravel in his chest, a strain that he didn’t realize was ratcheted so tight.

Ajay stirs against him, burrows closer, nuzzles at his throat. Moans a little in his sleep. Nightmare? Pagan thinks, holding him a little tighter. But Ajay shifts against him, rocks against his thigh.

Pagan smiles.

It’s a slow, gentle thing, but Ajay starts waking himself up a little with it, and Pagan kisses his temple. Slides a hand between them, cups his hardness through his denims, an offer. Ajay wiggles them down enough for access, and Pagan sets the gun down to get his other arm around his back. Ajay gasps a little as he makes contact with Pagan’s warm hand, slow sleepy thrusts, grasping Pagan’s forearm. Seeking comfort from him, his sweet Ajay. Pagan figures he’s only about half awake.

Even his climax is slow and easy; he rocks into Pagan’s fist a little harder two or three times and groans quietly, breath gusting along Pagan’s collarbone. Ajay kisses his throat, mutters endearments that Pagan can’t quite make out, and eases back into sleep. Pagan brings his hand up and licks it clean; the most expedient way, but he also just likes the taste of him. He puts his arm back around Ajay, makes sure he’s still covered by the furs, pulls him close. Picks up the gun with the other hand. Resumes his drowsy watch.

 

He wakes easily this time. Rolls over and looks at the underside of the bedframe, thinking. That was half dream, half memory. It had happened like that several times, sometimes Ajay, sometimes him, when they were too tired and hungry to do anything else but wanted to be close.

He knows where Ajay is and what he’s doing and why that place isn’t here with him. Why he himself can’t sleep.

He murmurs to himself, “Now I understand, at least a little.”

 

It’s the middle of the night still, but he begins to gather his supplies. He walks down to the armory, unlocks it, and gets Ripper down from its place of honor. It should be in his rooms anyway. After he does that, he goes through the storerooms. He finds some long-burning candles, and a few skins. Mostly snow leopard, nice big fluffy ones. He deposits these things on the bed, stands and thinks.

He opens the door to his walk-in closet, flips on the light. It’s a little small for his purposes, but it should work fine. He carries the candles in and sets them on the little dressing table he never uses, and moves the chair outside. Stands and thinks some more. Opens the windows throughout his apartment and pulls the shades all the way up. Once he’s done all this, it’s time for the help to be up and about, so he goes and asks for the heat to be shut off to his rooms and for someone to find him a small space heater. Long used to strange requests from him, he has one in fifteen minutes.

He texts Gary and tells him he wants a set of fatigues and a pair of good boots in his size, and then shoos him back out the door when he brings them and tries to ask what in the hell he wants them for and why is it so fucking cold in here. He always was too nosy. He drags the blankets and furs into the closet and deposits them in the corner, flings some pillows in as an afterthought. Sets the space heater on the floor.

Preparation done, he sits in an armchair and watches the sun slowly rise over the mountains, pouring golden light into the room. Dust motes dancing. A cold breeze ruffles his hair, though not as cold as that in the valley. Several magnitudes less cold than up on Hajura’Amako Hatana, to be sure. He’d thought that fucking mountain was going to kill them. There were so many ways they could have died, and through all that they’d been together; slept together, made love, watched each other’s backs...so why are they apart now? His head understands, but his heart just wants, with simple and uncomplicated longing.

Pagan makes a resolution; if Ajay doesn’t come home or contact him by tonight, he’s going out tomorrow himself, and he’ll stay out until they find each other and Ajay works through whatever is troubling him. Then they can come back here and get some actual sleep. He thinks then, of blood and snow and moonlight, and everything scattered with diamonds. The moon will be up and he’ll go out there and this time, he’ll let Ajay be the one to catch him. There. He feels better already.

 

Pagan wakes with a jerk to his radio going off. Ajay? he thinks, still groggy. He’d fallen asleep in his comfortable old chair, chin on chest. But he recognizes the voice now; Kamran. “Sir, Blacksnake Four is back on the grounds, north quadrant, near Storage 2C. Thought you’d want to know.”

“Copy that, thank you Reddog.”

It’s like a sign; his signal to move, no waiting until tomorrow. He has to go get his tablet and pull up the map of the palace grounds to figure out which outbuilding 2C is, and it’s way out on the very edge of the boundary. A few miles. He’ll do a little work here, if he can concentrate enough, check on that developing Nepal situation, have a late lunch, and then walk out there and find his Ajay.

 

A few hours later he’s hiking into the hills, back in boots and fatigues, ordinary soldier’s dress except for his shirt and his wool coat. The coat is unfortunately a total loss for everyday wear; staff did what they could with it, but the stains are still faintly visible. It’s perfect for today though, as he keeps catching the sleeves on brambles. It’s oddly comfortable to wear these things again, he thinks, gun in one pocket, a sandwich in the other. A bottle of water, and a little surprise: a bar of chocolate for Ajay.

It’s good to be out and about, just walking like this, the sun warm on his hair. It’s a pleasant counterpoint to the cold wind that he turns his collar up against. It’s almost the end of summer, and the cicadas are calling all around him despite the occasional drifting snowflake.

The cloud shadows on the hills remind him of that day with Ajay in the rice field, the sun shining in a warm blue sky, ducking behind a fluffy white mass, peeking out again. Although most of Kyrat is still a rich and vibrant green the autumn colors are already starting to come out here in the high country, hints of rusty reds and oranges and golds. Gold like their crop will be, in another month or so. He runs his hands over the tops of the waist-high grasses he as wanders through them. Their rice should be about this high now, a bright and healthy silvery green, if Sanjay hasn’t fucked it up. Maybe when he finally retires he’ll buy a little farm of his own, just for him and Ajay to play in the mud in. He laughs a little at the absurdity of that notion.

He feels lighter than he has in many years, freer, and he has Ajay to thank for that. He has so much to thank Ajay for, has been given so much. His poor Ajay, who is hiding and hurting out here. But even that thought can’t put much of a damper on his good mood, because he’s going to him, walking to meet his lover, a tryst in the high hills. Like something from a movie. It makes him feel unaccountably young again.

His heart is a lodestone in his chest, pulling him, pulling him.

 

He reaches the place as the sun is beginning to color the mountains in pinks and peaches and golds, sliding toward evening. On the opposite side of the sky, the first stars are just visible in the turquoise expanse.

The moon will be up soon, Pagan thinks, with a little frisson of heat low in his belly.

There’s a stillness about this place that has him toeing his boots off well before he gets to the building, which appears to be a small repurposed farmhouse, in a little clearing surrounded by trees. It looks like the royal foresters might store firewood here, to cure for the season.

Some instinct whispers at him to go quietly, quietly, and he makes no sound as he peeks around the open doorway. And he was right to be stealthy, because there is Ajay, on a little pallet he’s made in the corner. He’s asleep but it’s fitful, and his own gun is resting in his hand, that big 1911. Snap a twig, crunch a pebble, and Ajay will probably put a bullet in him faster than his conscious mind could react. But he stays for a moment in perfect stillness, just drinking in the sight of him in the dim light. The blanket that he’s rolled up in is that cloak, he realizes, his breath stirring the fur at the collar, and his heart goes out to him.

That lodestone is pulling at him so strongly now that he’s actually here in front of him but Pagan won’t risk startling him, his little animal in its den. He will wake soon, and when he does Pagan will be here, to hold and not let go. He heads back to his boots, a ghost in sock feet and gets them back on, does a wide circle into the trees, finds a spot at the edge of the clearing where he can watch the doorway. Here, he settles against a comfortable trunk to watch and wait, to guard his sleep, as the last of the sunset colors fade.

 

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In the still of autumn see the Pleiades.
Far out on the sands, danger in the furze.
North of their tents is surely the sky's end
Where the sound of the river streams beyond the border.

On the Great Wall, a thousand miles of moonlight.

 

Li He – On the Frontier, Poems of the Late T’ang

 

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Chapter Text

Ajay jerks himself awake an hour later from a dream about a red field on fire, rubbing his face. Moonlight is streaming through the open doorway, clouds scudding across the face of the moon and casting shadows, and then brightening to silver again. It still feels fairly early, and he feels as exhausted now as when he’d laid down, maybe more so. He slowly gathers up his gear, but instead of rolling the cloak up and tying it to the bottom of his pack like usual, he decides to fasten it and just wear it instead. It smells like Pagan, like him and Pagan together, and because he’s pathetic he doesn’t want to give that up yet, wants to go on breathing his scent for awhile and pretending he’s here. Like he’s just stepped out of the door for a minute. He’s right there in the corner of your eye. Turn and look, and he’ll be there. He resists the urge to actually turn his head like a demented person, as he has resisted many times. Look closer. Look again, he’ll be there this time. Look, his traitorous mind whispers. He’s so tired, tired to his bones.

As he steps outside to leave, his eye catches the shadowy shape leaning against a tree right in front of him. He draws instantly, dropping into a crouch and ready to back into the doorway for cover. But the figure doesn’t move. Except for the white exhalations of their breath, it could be a trick of the light, a shadow on the trunk.

The clouds scud past the moon then and the clearing is flooded with that soft white light again and it catches the stranger’s hair, turns it the color of beaten silver. Ajay gasps. There’s only one man in Kyrat with hair that color, after all, and Ajay loves him more than is possibly even sane.

Pagan steps out into the clearing, hands in his pockets and a big smile for him, with just a touch of that old swagger in his step. Stops, when Ajay doesn’t lower the gun. Slowly and carefully removes his hands and holds them out to the side, all the warmth in his face gone wary, gone uncertain. And Ajay...can’t lower the gun. Tries to force his arms down, or even to make his hands open but he doesn’t really want to do that, if the gun hits the ground wrong it could go off, could hit Pagan...what is wrong with him.

Pagan moves a step closer and he backs up one, can’t let him get nearer, can’t turn and run, he’s tearing himself apart and he can’t put the fucking gun down. Blind animal panic makes him want to flee, get away, get away, while his heart holds him in place, but that same panic won’t let him drop his arms. His chest is going to explode, if something doesn’t give. He wonders irrelevantly what Pagan smells like now, if he’ll smell like cologne and cloying alcohol and the acrid smell of cocaine, if he’ll smell like that soap he uses. If he’ll smell like longing.

And then he’s there, suddenly close. He must have moved when Ajay blanked a bit, and he has his hand on the top of the gun, just resting it there. Not pushing it to the side, and oh god no Pagan no it’s flush against his chest now. He can’t look away from how the muzzle is pushed into the fabric of his coat, how it’s directly over his heart. Can’t look away.

“Ajay,” he says, and his tone is low, hypnotic, almost a rumble that Ajay can feel through the gun, up his arms, down in his own chest. “It’s my turn now, dearest boy, it’s my turn to take care of you now. Shhh. It’s going to be okay. Let me help. Let me take care of you, the way you did for me.” All in that soft, low rumble. Pagan isn’t trying to wrestle the gun from him; on the contrary, he has his thumb on the side of Ajay’s hand, stroking it softly, brushes with infinite care down his trigger finger and back up.

Something about that touch and how that low rumble is vibrating through his chest causes all of his muscles to unlock at once and he sags. Pagan has him, has his arms around him and is lowering him to the grass, gets a leg thrown over his lap, the other against his back, and pulls him in tight. Tucks his head against the side of his warm neck, just as Ajay did for him five weeks ago, a year ago, a decade ago. Ajay inhales his scent and he doesn’t smell anything besides fresh air and woods, clean skin, clean laundry, and...weirdly, ham. It’s that homey combination of fabric softener and the ham sandwich wrapped in waxed paper in his pocket that finally pushes him over the edge and pushes the tears out, face hot against Pagan’s throat.

 

Pagan exhales the breath he’s been holding for the past minute, not even daring to breathe. His poor, sweet boy. That blank, lost look in his eyes, on his face, and then the panic when that magnetic pull had Pagan coming closer, closer, gun or no gun. May as well try to resist gravity. His hand hadn’t shaken at all when he had lifted it slowly and put it on top of the gun. Gently slid it back, and got his finger in between the cocked hammer and the frame. If Ajay had twitched and accidentally fired, it may well have broken his finger but there wouldn’t have been any .45 caliber holes through him. When Ajay had crumpled, he had gotten hold of the gun, got the safety on and had it in his pocket alongside his in one smooth motion. Everything’s fine now, Ajay breathing easily against him, this man in his arms again, his lover, and all the pieces clicking back into place. As long as he has this, then everything else in the world can go off-kilter as much as it likes. Can just go right on ahead and fuck itself.

Pagan understands now what kind of instinct drove Ajay that day, that day that seems so long ago now; he reaches and tilts Ajay’s face to his, and gently licks his tears, cleaning his face delicately with his own tongue. The rightness of it is overwhelming, the desire to give this kind of comfort, soothing his pain in this particular way. Ajay’s eyes are wide, and then he melts into it, just as Pagan did. He uses his thumbs to softly rub the last of the moisture away. “Do you see, dearest Ajay? Everything’s all right. I’m here now.” He holds him so close, nuzzling his slightly cold nose into Ajay’s hair. His low voice is like a warm fire on a cold night.

Ajay twists in his arms and Pagan loosens them; it’s not a panicky twist or a trying to escape twist, it’s a trying to get his arms around him as well kind of twist, and then Ajay has his hand on the back of his head, pulling him down and their mouths are pressing together in that elemental way that is both more and less than a kiss, more of a sharing of warm breath, breathing the other in. Pagan teases his bottom lip with just the tip of his tongue, which has become their own little thing, perhaps. They both groan into it when their tongues meet, sliding together hot and teasing, backing away, chasing. Just like the same game that Pagan was hoping to play tonight by moonlight, like they did before, but he’s already caught, captured, isn’t letting go for anything. Was captured long ago. He feels drunk and a little giddy on Ajay’s tongue in his mouth, the taste and smell of him, is already hard and wants to take, be taken, be touched everywhere inside and out. Is this what they really mean by lunacy, he thinks, a little light-headed and delirious already. He has a vague but pleased thought that it’s just the moon that makes them feel this way, and not the blood and killing. Just the simple moonlight shining down on them.

Ajay pulls back a little, just enough to get the cloak, their cloak, unfastened and spread out in the soft grass as much as he can. He wants...he wants Pagan everywhere, a little calmer than that time at Sandesh’s temple, but with that same drive to be inside him, have Pagan inside him, have his mouth on him, climb inside him. Finally, finally, he’s here with him, with everything glowing and touched with silver and if it’s a dream he hopes he never wakes up, because if he wakes with this feeling unquenched he might just die.

He lays back, pulls Pagan down with him, on top of him, and Pagan fastens his teeth in his ear just how he likes it, hot and cold chills running all over his body. He has one hand on the back of Pagan’s head, the other kneading his shoulders, his back, his ass, and then back up, whatever he can reach. He remembers that thought of having Pagan push into him while he’s on his back like this, his legs squeezing his sides, his hands feeling the bunch and shift of his shoulder muscles as he thrusts into him. He wants that, so much, but he also remembers wanting to fuck Pagan from behind, his hands holding his hips, sliding his hand over his cock from behind, from underneath...he bucks up into him and moans as Pagan licks into his ear, hot and lewd. He gets his hands between them enough to get his coat buttons undone, through the fatigue jacket and to the silk shirt, the fabric so warm from his body, and he’s through that to the hot skin of his chest and abdomen, trembling under his hands. As Ajay sweeps his hands over his sensitive ribs and even more sensitive nipples, Pagan is sucking little kisses into the side of his throat, scrape of teeth where neck meets shoulder, back up to hiss in his ear as Ajay zeroes in and twists a little.

“Please...please tell me you brought stuff,” Ajay manages to gasp, and in answer Pagan digs around and pulls out one of the packets of lube that he had optimistically, bemusedly put in his pockets before he left the house. He presses it into Ajay’s hand and sits up, on his knees, and Ajay misses his heat already. But he says, “Watch, Ajay,” low and breathy, and Ajay can’t look anywhere else as he shrugs off coat and jacket and shirt all in one movement of his shoulders and his tanned skin is like alabaster in this light, plush and inviting and Ajay can’t wait to feel it against his own.

Pagan’s dark eyes bore into his with burning intensity as he moves his own hands over his torso, smoothing over the pectorals, brushing over his nipples with a little hitch of breath that makes Ajay’s breath hitch too. His hands drift down over his abdomen, seeming to enjoy the feel of his own velvety skin, and stop at his belt buckle. Now, his mouth twists into that dirty little smile as he eases the leather belt back through the keeper, then pulls slowly to make the buckle release. As it falls open, his long fingers run across the button, across the zipper tab, and down, brushing over the bulge there, cupping himself and rubbing slowly, letting his eyes slide shut in pleasure.

Ajay tries to swallow and it doesn’t quite work, tries again. If Pagan keeps this up, he’s going to come in his pants with both of them still mostly clothed, for fuck’s sake. Maybe Pagan senses this thought because he opens his eyes then, and they’re crinkled a little in mirth. He reaches back up and pops the button, eases the zipper down...and he’s wearing those same blue cashmere underwear. Ajay props himself up on his elbows to see better and this time Pagan gives him a grin for just a moment that says, look, it’s a little inside joke, a little secret for us to share, and then that molten look comes back into his eyes as he brushes his fingers along the very faint line of dark hair running down his belly. He dips just his fingertips into the waistband there, just enough to emphasize the fact that his cock is perfectly outlined under the fabric. He smooths his hand over it, rubbing that deliciously soft fabric over himself. It’s at this point that Ajay sits up a little more and, never taking his eyes off Pagan, his hands, his face, starts to remove his own clothes. Slowly, like they’re caught in the same dream, not really aware of what he’s doing, the moonlight making everything look a little unreal and otherworldly.

Pagan slides his hands back up and catches the waistband of his underwear with his thumbs and starts easing them down, slowly, slowly, as Ajay’s hands are on his own fly, working his own pants off. Pagan finally slides them off all the way, down his thighs, his dick bobbing free at last, his balls already drawn up just from this. Under Ajay’s scrutiny, a bead of slippery fluid gathers at the tip, and Ajay bites his lip as those long fingers come down to capture it and spread it slowly around the head, thumb dipping into the slit to gather more. Keeping his touch feathery soft, he begins to stroke himself, and it’s Ajay that groans, not him. He can’t help but admire Pagan’s self-control, eyes moving up to his face. He’s still watching Ajay with that dark intensity, but as his touch firms his eyes slide closed, lips parted a little, like he’s getting a little lost in the pleasure of his own touch.

“Jesus Christ, Pagan,” Ajay murmurs. He’s never been so hard in his life. The sound of his voice seems to snap Pagan out of his private reverie, a little rueful grin on his face. He lets go of himself and reaches back to pull his boots off so that he can finish wriggling out of pants and underwear and socks, heedless of the cold air. Ajay doubts he even feels it. He sure doesn’t, wound hot and tight as he is. Once he has the rest of his clothes off, he stretches out on hands and knees beside Ajay, lithe muscles rippling under his skin.

“Is this how you want me, dearest? Like this?” Low and dark and husky. He’s stunning like this, stretched out and flushed and dripping onto the fabric under him. And how did he know? Did he see this in Ajay’s head at some point somehow, and remember? Maybe he just knows him that well.

“Perfect, yeah...perfect. Just like that. You have no idea how beautiful you are, dripping ready for me like that, ready for me to push into you, for me to fuck you hard...” and Pagan’s whole body shudders. Ajay runs a soothing hand over his back and down his ass as he knee-walks behind him, runs his fingers along the crease where cheek meets thigh, scrapes with his nails just a touch and Pagan jerks under his hand. “Easy, easy,” he whispers, touch soothing again. He slides his hand under Pagan to stroke along his hard length, to feel the hot weight of him in his palm. He keeps his touch light, just wanting to admire and to hear the hitch in Pagan’s breathing, and then strokes his hand back over his balls, his perineum, and up to settle again on his asscheek. Feeling him tremble under his hand, skin hot in the cold air. Now this, this is power, he thinks, having this man stretched out and quivering and ready for him like this. All for him.

Ajay’s had the little packet in his hand this whole time so it would stay nice and warm, but as he’s about to rip it open he has a delightfully wicked thought of first spreading him open and tasting him here too. Now that he’s gotten the idea in his head he really wants to, so he spreads his cheeks apart to expose that little bud and breathes hotly along it so it’s not a total shock. He smells good even here, can still smell the soap on him. Soap and his clean skin.

Pagan turns his head a little because he can feel his hot breath ghost over the small of his back, over his asscheek...and then Ajay is spreading him open, and Jesus he can feel hot breath back there too. “Ajay, wha...”...t the fuck are you doing? is what he means to say, but what comes out is some kind of pathetic airless squeak as Ajay laps at his asshole like a crazy person. He lets out a stream of invective. In Cantonese.

“Does that mean stop?” Ajay enquires mildly, and then goes back to what he was doing when he doesn’t get an answer. He’s too stunned to answer. At least I washed it, I suppose? he thinks inanely. He...can’t even begin to describe what it feels like. It feels fucking weird, is what it feels like.

“Oh, fuck,” Pagan breathes then, but doesn’t pull away, and then makes a truly unidentifiable sound as Ajay’s tongue delves a little deeper, a sound of shocked and strangled pleasure. Encouraged, Ajay laps gently at him, works his tongue in a little as Pagan makes that sound again and pushes back into it just a tiny bit. He likes it, Ajay thinks, imagines how it would feel the other way around and it’s his turn to shudder, but definitely not until he’s scrubbed. Maybe after a long bath in that giant tub, Pagan’s big hands bending him over the edge of it...he shudders again.

He’s going to have to stop, as hot and novel as this is, because Pagan’s panting and so ready and Ajay wants to be inside him, has to be inside him. So with a little kiss there, he pulls away and rubs his back in slow soothing strokes, until he calms a bit, his breathing settling into something easier and less ragged.

Ajay opens the lube and gets some on his fingers and gently flutters them over his entrance, circling and teasing. When he pushes in a little bit to see how tense he is, he’s amazed at how easily his finger slides in. He is so ready for this, Ajay thinks, and immediately gets another finger into him, rubbing and stretching, but it doesn’t take much stretching and Pagan is already pushing back against him with little soft groans. Ajay wishes he could see his face, see him get lost in this, drugged on pleasure under his hands and around his cock, but he’ll be able to see him soon. He slicks himself up, lines them up, and starts to push into him, eyes already threatening to roll back in his head with how good it feels, Pagan already pressing back to take him in, hot and quivering around that point of connection, and Ajay pets down his flanks, across the small of his back. He wants to give Pagan a little bit of time to adjust but he’s not having it, keeps pushing back into him, apparently frustrated that he’s not getting pounded into the ground right this second, growls a little.

“Ajay darling, move. Please.” And who could say no to that, really? So Ajay takes a firm grip on his hips and gives him what he wants and fucks into him, fast and hard, and Pagan’s groan of relief has him groaning too but he’s not going to be able to keep this up for long. After a few more thrusts he switches it up and pulls almost all the way out and pushes back in slow, Pagan eagerly thrusting back against him. Ajay can feel him shifting around a bit, trying to get his dick in contact with that little spot inside him, but he thinks oh no you don’t, not yet, and moves with him, smiles a little at his frustrated noise and takes him in hand as a conciliation prize. Pagan moans, shudders, bucks back against him, thrusts forward into his hand and seems generally willing to do all the work, so eager for it that Ajay takes pity on him and shifts around until Pagan gasps and he hits that spot five or six times until they’re both about to come undone...and makes himself stop, makes himself pull back from that edge, already a herculean feat and then Pagan makes this tiny disappointed noise that makes it even harder to not give in and give him what he wants. But Ajay knows that Pagan really wants this other thing too, to be in him as well, and he needs it. He lets Pagan go with a last little brush at his cock, pulls out slowly, and sits back a bit. Breathes, and reaches for the lube packet.

Pagan sits up too, confused, that incandescent glow receding. He’d been about three more strokes from coming so hard that he’d see stars, and he’s been so hard it hurts for what feels like an hour now. He’s about to complain until he sees what Ajay is doing. He has his hand under himself, working himself open with his fingers for Pagan, his own little heated smile on his face. Oh. Oh. That’s worth the wait. When he sees the look on Pagan’s face, he says, “Can’t let...oh...can’t let you have all the fun.” His eyes flutter closed with a little shiver and Pagan can’t help but slide his hand under with his, just to feel his fingers moving inside himself. He touches his face with his other hand and leans forward to kiss him deeply, then remembers suddenly where his mouth has been. Then decides fuck it, that it feels to good to care, thrusting his tongue gently into Ajay’s mouth, hot and slippery, mirroring what his fingers are doing. Ajay moans around it, shuddering and then he’s pulling away, scooting backwards. He takes Pagan’s hands and he is beautiful, just so beautiful, the light slivering the ends of his hair, silvering his skin, accentuating the plush muscles and the dark heat in his eyes; he has a little teasing, welcoming smile for him.

“I need to feel you inside of me too, need to feel you come inside me, feel your heart beating. We’re alive, we’re so fucking alive and we won, Pagan. Do you understand that yet? We won.

With that, he lays back and tugs at Pagan’s hands and Pagan moves over him slowly, dreamily, as he lets Ajay pull him into place, wraps his legs around him. Pagan reaches down between them to guide himself where Ajay wants him, into that tight heat, and he can’t help it when his eyelids flutter closed. He eases in just a little, intending to let Ajay pull him in slowly as he adjusts, but apparently Ajay is feeling as desperate for it as he was because he just hooks his calf around his hip and ass and uses it to pull him hard and flush against him all at once and Pagan has to drop his head and breathe steadily, in and out, to keep from coming right then and there. He lifts his head a little to make sure he’s okay and Ajay’s expression can only be described as blissed out, still trying to wrestle him closer with his thighs clamped around Pagan’s sides.

“Move when you want,” he whispers, not opening his eyes. And Pagan does, slowly rocking into him, keeping it easy at first but what had died down a little to a mere wildfire flares up again to a conflagration almost instantly and he’s trembling with the effort of not just hammering him into the ground. Ajay opens his eyes then, and they’re full of joy. Pure unadulterated happiness, to be here like this, feeling pleasure like this with the man that he loves. Triumph. And Pagan feels it too, and it feels like they’re already flying. Life snatched from death, and they’ll never be as alive as they are in this moment. Until perhaps the next time they do this, a very warm thought.

Ajay hooks an arm around Pagan’s shoulders, takes himself in hand. Gives Pagan a grin that is hard and wild and fearless. Challenge issued, and accepted. And then they’re rutting at each other like two happy animals, Pagan slamming into him and Ajay bucking up into him, giving just as good and hard as he’s getting, squeezing Pagan’s sides and urging him on faster, harder. They’re both sweating and gasping for breath despite the freezing air. He digs the fingers of his free hand into the back of Pagan’s neck like teeth, and Pagan moans and lowers himself so that their foreheads are touching. His thrusts are already going erratic, short and sharp but Ajay is right there with him, the crest of that wave about to slam down on them and he’s surging up between the columns of Pagan’s straining arms, licks across his mouth, sucking, nipping kisses against his throat, his hand on his own cock matching Pagan stroke for stroke, thrust for thrust.

Pagan feels like every muscle is wound as tight as it can go, but that tension keeps building a little tighter, a little tighter, the pleasurable shudders building into full body spasms, threatening to take him apart. He works an arm around Ajay’s back and holds him tight as he thrusts into him as deep as he can go once, twice, three times and on the fourth all that tension explodes like lightning down his spine, searing, pooling in his groin and emptying into Ajay and he’s roaring at the sky, head snapped back, every muscle straining. Ajay can feel his cock pulsing inside him, can feel his hot come deep inside himself and then his own is striping their chests as he bends back in a perfect arch, still trying to get him in deeper, still clinging to Pagan’s neck and howling what may be Pagan’s name, he’s not sure himself, and together they’re so loud that it echoes off the hills and it’s possible that the poor soldiers on sentry duty down at the palace heard them.

 

When Ajay becomes aware of anything again, Pagan is half draped across him and the half that is under him is sweaty and fever hot and the other half is sweaty and ice cold. He’s limp and heavy but Ajay wouldn’t move him for the world, although he is a bit concerned that his back feels like a melting ice cube. Ajay gropes around for a shirt to put over him, the edge of the cloak, anything, but his movements cause him to stir with a muffled groan against Ajay’s shoulder.

“Remind me to thank Gary when I get the chance,” says Pagan, still muffled and gravelly.

“Gary, why? For what?” Ajay says, still feeling after clothing, finds the cloak and drags it up and over Pagan.

“For talking me into all that cardio.” And it’s so Pagan, and so silly that a lump comes up in Ajay’s throat, pure relief.

“I’ve missed you,” he whispers, brushing Pagan’s too-long hair out of his eyes when he lifts his head. “And I, you,” is all he says, nuzzling at Ajay’s face, content. He starts to lever himself off of Ajay but he says, “Please stay, just for another minute.”

Pagan murmurs, “I must be heavy, darling,” but subsides when Ajay’s arms come up around him. Pagan’s hand is stroking up and down his side. “I know that things have been hard for us, these last few days,” Pagan says into his shoulder. “And I understand why you’ve been out here; not completely, but some. And I understand that panicked feeling, I really do, dearest boy. However long you need, I’ll stay with you. Or leave you be, if that’s what you’d rather.” He manages to keep most of the strain out of his voice on that last sentence. “But I very much hope that you would be willing to come back to the Palace with me, because I made us a place, a safe place, just for the two of us. Won’t you come with me and look it over? See if you can stay there with me?”

“Yeah...yeah, I’ll come with you,” Ajay mumbles against his hair. “I just...”

“I know, I know. I never meant to make you feel trapped.” Pagan says, nuzzling at his ear.

“It wasn’t you that made me feel trapped, I trapped myself. Couldn’t force myself away from you, couldn’t force myself closer. I kept having thoughts I couldn’t shake that...that things would go back to how they were, and I couldn’t go to you and see that, see you like that, after everything that had happened to us...”

“Back to how they were...you mean the night before we left. The bad parts of it,” Pagan says gently, running fingers through his hair. Ajay nods against his head. “And then you tried to radio me, to ascertain things from a safe distance, as it were, and that little bastard, Lieutenant fucking Khan told you that I had put a DND order through. Which I emphatically had not. I said to the kitchen, ‘Please bring some dinner, enough for two, and then don’t bother me for a bit so we can eat in peace.’ Because I misunderstood and thought you would be right back. And those fucking imbeciles took that to mean block your calls to me. You should be proud of me Ajay, I didn't kill the little fucker, although I have yet to think of an appropriate punishment.”

He holds Ajay a little tighter. “My love, I am so sorry about all of this...after I took about four baths and brushed my teeth for an hour, I wandered around from room to room, missing you, yearning for you. I couldn’t sleep, I kept waking myself up because you weren’t there and I didn’t know where I was, and I almost shot the television...” and he has to stop and swallow then. “I thought about the coke, the brandy in my desk…but I think you’ve gone and ruined me for all bad habits. All I wanted in the world was you. Just you.”

“Pagan.”

He lifts his head to look at Ajay.

“Let’s go home now. Let’s get dressed and walk home, and you can show me, okay? I want to see it. I want to be there with you, I always have,” Ajay whispers.

Pagan smiles then, so soft, so warm. “I think that you’ll be able to sleep there, with me. I think we both will, and we’ll be safe.”

The moon is so bright that they don’t even need Ajay’s penlight; it lights their way all the way back to the palace. They walk hand in hand, occasionally sharing bites of the sandwich that only got slightly squashed in Pagan’s pocket. Ajay eats most of it, after days of meat toasted on sticks without salt or seasonings, it’s wonderful. As he’s licking the last of it from his fingers, Pagan presents him with the chocolate bar with a little flourish that makes Ajay laugh and tug him in for a kiss.

Pagan’s fingers keep tightening on his, like maybe he’s afraid that Ajay’s not altogether real, a dream maybe, like he’s slide right out of his hands if he’s not careful. It might be slightly amusing, if Ajay hadn’t been thinking for days that if he just turned his head a little, Pagan would be there with him. But he’s here now, and Pagan can hang on as tightly as he wants because Ajay’s not going anywhere. In their own way, the last four days were harder than the four weeks before them.

The palace lights beckon them home, and Pagan boosts Ajay up so he can climb up to his second-floor balcony where all the doors are still thrown open wide.

“This way, you don’t have to do all of that going through doors and halls and things. Wait right there and I’ll meet you, darling,” he says from the ground, and then disappears through the downstairs door. Ajay waits for him there. Ajay will always wait for him.

And then he’s there again after a minute or two, takes Ajay’s hands and draws him forward, drawing him inside. Every window is open, moonlight streaming into the cold room. Pagan leads him past the bare bed and to the closet, pushes the door open. Inside, candles flicker with warm light, the little heater glowing gently. He’s made them a nest in the corner, a soft place of furs and pillows and the duvet from the bed. He’s even brought Ripper in here, on the floor within easy reach. It’s a soft, clean, warm version of the relay station. Safe.

“I think, my love, that we’ll be able to sleep here. Don’t you think? We can take our clothes off and be touching, wrapped up together.” His voice, low and husky and hypnotic.

“I think we can,” Ajay whispers, and he wants to cry from sheer relief, especially when Pagan moves close and undoes the clasp of the cloak and lays it aside, works at his jacket zipper, slow and unhurried. “Let me take care of you,” he murmurs again, gently removing it, gets his shirt off. Strips his own coat and jacket and shirt off, warm light on his skin as he takes Ajay into his arms, rubs his back softly. “Would you like for me to run you a bath?” Pagan says, low and muffled against his shoulder.

“…yeah, I’d like that,” Ajay says, just leaning against his solidity. Pagan takes him by the hand and leads him into the bathroom, just as Ajay did with him, a candle in his other hand, weaving that same spell. Ajay showed him how. He sets the candle on the sink and gets the water going, adds soap as Ajay finishes stripping the rest of his clothes off. They climb in together, and Ajay sighs with the feeling, notes that Pagan left the door open. With the cold fresh air and all the windows and doors open and the high ceilings, it’s almost as if they are outside. Pagan’s being so careful with him, but he doesn’t have to be. He doesn’t feel trapped here with him. He’s not going anywhere.

Pagan moves close and puts his hands on his shoulders, gently rubbing until Ajay is sagging against him, then just holds him so his head is against his shoulder and he can float in the hot water. Doesn’t say anything, just nuzzles at his ear from time to time, his nose a little cold. Finally, Pagan turns his head and murmurs in his ear, “It’s almost the end of the summer, Ajay, my dearest. Our rice will be up to our waists now, bright green, under that blue sky…” and he goes on to describe it so well that Ajay can feel that warm sun on him, can see the white clouds and the shadows on the green hills…Pagan’s warm arm around his shoulders that day, both of Pagan’s warm arms around him under the water. Warm all the way to the heart.

Eventually they have to get out, get towels, uncaring of who is drying who. When they sink into their warm nest on the floor, Pagan pulls him in close, and the feeling of their chests touching, their legs tangled together finishes the last knot of tension that was in Ajay, in Pagan. They’re asleep almost instantly, and stay that way for a long time.

 

 

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He slides inside, half awake, half asleep,
We faint back into sleephood.

When I wake up the second time in his arms,
Gorgeousness,
He's still inside me.

 

Björk - Cocoon

 

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Chapter Text

It takes awhile before things start to feel a little more normal again. Or, at least a new version of normal. Ajay makes good on his promise to keep the kitchen staff busier than usual for a bit, as he and Pagan lay around and feed each other all sorts of amazing things in bed while they watch truly awful daytime television.

They do everything in that big bed except sleep, still preferring their closet nest, but after a week they give it a trial run. After a few nights of one or the other jerking awake in panic, and thus waking the other in a panic, it smooths out. It’s okay. After a few more days, Ripper gets tucked under the bed instead of lounging across the foot of it like an obedient and loyal dog, and the handgun gets moved to the bedside table. That first morning that they make it completely through the night without someone having a nightmare or otherwise flailing awake is a cause for celebration, at least in Pagan’s mind.

Ajay wakes up to his warm weight across his thighs and Pagan’s mouth on him as he proceeds to give him what has to be one of the slowest blowjobs ever; what feels like an hour of Pagan holding him down and giving him almost but not quite enough, squirming for more. Every time he tries to thrust up Pagan just moves his mouth away, his chest heavy against the top of Ajay’s thighs. “Oh no, my dearest, no rushing…this is something to be savored,” he says in that morning-rusty purr, and the wet sounds that his mouth makes as he returns to what he was doing has Ajay’s fingers alternating fisting in the sheets and gently scrabbling at the back of his head. He finally, finally relents and either has mercy on him or his jaw gets tired and he swallows him down until he sees stars.

Not to be outdone, Ajay shoves him over onto his back and gently scrapes his fingers over that spot on Pagan’s hip that drives him crazy, over and over, Pagan’s hand clenching in his hair a little as Ajay reciprocates, his other hand working a finger into him as he comes.

 

It’s around this time that Pagan proposes that he just move into his apartments, finding it ridiculous that Ajay is already in his ninety percent of the time and has to keep going down the hall for clean clothes or a book or a game he wants.

“You sure? Not gonna crowd you?” he says, fidgeting a bit.

“Ajay, if I could spend five weeks in your constant company, filthy and stinking and having to share a toothbrush and never once tire of your company or want to be away from you, I don’t see it happening now,” he says with a little ironic twist to his mouth. “Drawers on the left side of the bureau are mostly empty. I’m not attached to any of it, really, just move things around as you see fit. Or get staff to do it. Anything of mine that’s of any real importance is down in the vault.”
Ajay shakes his head at the idea of staff moving his stuff, a look of slight disgust on his face. “No, I’ll move my own underwear, thanks. It’s already weird enough that they cart it off and wash it and bring it back.” He’s never gotten used to other people doing all the chores, although with Pagan’s order of no housekeeping coming in here still in effect, they’ve been cleaning up after themselves and leaving laundry in bags in the hall. Neither of them are ready for staff to be coming and going yet, not when they’ve just now started sleeping relatively peacefully.

“Pagan, if you’re sure that I won’t be bothering you being here all the time, then…I’d like to move in. With you. But…” and Ajay points to the far wall. “That portrait’s gotta go. It’s creepy and doesn’t really look like you anyway, I can tell Eric sat for it. It’s bad enough that there’s another one in the dining room.” Pagan laughs. Ajay wishes a painter could capture that charmingly mischievous look he has when he laughs like that.

“You’re so right, my boy. We’ll get rid of this one and have one made of you and I this time, perhaps feeding each other grapes in the buff.”

“Keep dreaming, old man…keep dreaming.”

 

They spend their days learning each other’s routines, their idiosyncrasies: the way that Ajay’s shoes left in the entryway drives Pagan crazy for some reason, and the way that Pagan will wander through the place leaving every single light on behind him frustrates Ajay to no end. He can’t help it, Ishwari pounded it into his head early that lights get turned off when you leave a room. Seeing them left on provokes an instinctual revulsion that Pagan, who never spent childhood summers and weekends doing odd jobs to earn money to help pay bills, really doesn’t get. But he tries to remember, and Ajay gets in the habit of stuffing his shoes in the hall closet.

Pagan laughs at the way Ajay keeps an extra toothbrush in the shower, so that in the mornings he can lean against the tile groggily and brush at the same time. Ajay walks in once and Pagan’s sitting in his bathrobe with his feet propped up and his hair all standing on end with purple bleach shit in it. He’s reading a book on his tablet and when he hears Ajay come in, without even looking up, props his free hand on the arm of the couch and raises his middle finger when Ajay snorts laughter.

 

Not long after Ajay moves his things in, Pagan gives him a present. It comes in the form of a little wooden display box, which Pagan handles uncomfortably, like it might be hot, like he wants rid of it at the first opportunity. Hands it over with a grunt.

Ajay just stares at him.

“This is a gift that you might like…I think. At least one that I think you should have.” His voice sounds weird and strained. The fuck is this all about? he thinks.

Pagan clears his throat. “Well, I’m going to the range for awhile. I’ll be back later, enjoy yourself!” This time he sounds much more normal, more like himself as he pulls his coat on and leaves. That certainly wasn’t an invitation to join him. “He is so strange sometimes,” Ajay mutters to himself, to the little wooden box still cradled in his hands. He’s half afraid to open it, if he’s being perfectly honest with himself. With some trepidation he lifts the lid…and there’s a post-it note inside. Pink, of course. He picks it up, and there’s some kind of alphanumeric code on it. He flips it over and Pagan has written, in his elegant scrawl: ‘The username is just ‘Pagan.’ The keys to the kingdom, as it were.’ And then his signature. He looks at it for a couple more seconds, not understanding…

His computer. This is the login for his computer.

Oh wow. He’s not fucking around.

That explains why he was acting so weird, why he took off; he’s embarrassed. Pagan Min, embarrassed. It’s kind of cute, really. What the hell is on there, that he’s embarrassed about?

Only one way to find out.

 

Oh.

 

Well, maybe not so much embarrassing, Ajay thinks, comfortably ensconced in Pagan’s big leather office chair, it’s just that it’s everything. It’s the financial reports, the dossiers, all of the government stuff, but it’s also all of his private files. And it’s an absolutely immense amount of them, drives and drives full. He starts skimming through the folders. Most of it seems to be things Pagan has generated: volumes and volumes of poetry he’s written, translations he did years ago of Cantonese literature, complete with annotations. It’s really amazing how much of it there is. Ajay wonders if any of it has ever been published. There’s also what appears to be part of an autobiography, seemingly abandoned around 1998 or so. This one he opens up, curious:

I was born in a city on the brink of civil war. The year I was born, 1966, was the year of the Maoist rebellion, a year during which riot police armed with tear gas constantly patrolled the streets. A year in which the “People’s Army” attacked any British person they found alone, occasionally killing them. Months of agitation escalated into labor strikes and militant demonstrations, and then the terrorist attacks began. However, as bleak as it all sounds, Hong Kong was relatively insulated from the horrors of the Cultural Revolution on the mainland. The British fought back, and fought hard to save the city from the Maoist rebels. When they broadcasted Communist propaganda downtown, the British blasted Cantonese opera over top of it to drown it out.

 

Interesting, but a little dry. He’ll probably come back to that one though. He closes the file and goes on to…holy shit. One folder has nothing but erotic literature, thousands and thousands of books of it. Looks like he prefers his pornography to be of the textual kind. He opens one at random, skims a bit. At least it’s kind of tasteful.

Oh wait, no, here are the videos…okay, maybe that’s a little embarrassing. There’s not as many of them as he was expecting, but what there is are all neatly organized by genre and many of them are just…strange. Not bad or disturbing, simply as odd and varied as Pagan is. Like, one whole folder is just a bunch of recordings of people’s O faces, which is weirdly more intimate than watching them bang each other for some reason.

Ajay supposes that a man who lives alone at the top of a mountain and refuses to fraternize with the staff and can’t bring anyone else in for security reasons would refine masturbation to an art form. Or maybe he’s more like Ajay; without someone around, that part of him goes sort of dormant. There hasn’t been anybody for him either, not for a few years. But Pagan woke that part of him up, with a vengeance. Maybe they both woke it up in each other.

He was hoping that this section might give him some ideas for other things that Pagan might like, but after he watches a woman get off while reading Ralph Waldo Emerson he’s just confused.

Ajay moves on, just seeking insights into Pagan’s internal eccentricities. All of his music collection is on here, about ten thousand movies…he laughs suddenly when he has an epiphany. Pagan giving him this really is a gift; it’s Pagan’s bizarre version of a mixtape. And since it’s usually all or nothing with him, not a lot of restraint in between, he just dumped the whole thing in Ajay’s lap. This was such a Pagan thing to do. No wonder he was nervous. Hopefully he comes back soon, so that Ajay can hug him and kiss him and say thank you.

 

----------------------------------------------------------------

 

One of the things that Ajay loves the most about living with Pagan is watching his morning routine. He doesn’t really know why he likes it so much, but almost every morning he wakes up before Pagan’s alarm goes off and lays in their big bed, warm under the covers, and watches Pagan sleeping. When it gets close to time he starts touching him gently, stroking his hair back, runs his hands down his chest, along his sides to start waking him up a little so the alarm is not so much of a shock. “The best alarm,” Pagan murmurs without opening his eyes, deeper and rougher with sleep. “You.”

They usually shower together, which is fraught with possibilities of distraction, but afterwards Ajay slides back into bed to watch Pagan get dressed. Today is a bit unusual in that he lays out a white silk shirt and then a waistcoat and tan trousers. Odd that he’s deciding to three-piece it up today, since he’s not doing anything special in particular that Ajay knows about. Weirder still is when he goes and gets the shoulder holster and works it on over the waistcoat, which Ajay sees now is padding to keep the harness straps from rubbing. He does love that waistcoat though. It’s blue but a bright greenish blue, with subtle gold embroidery. He has a darker blue jacket that matches it. Ajay doesn’t know what you call it, but he saw a picture once of Bora Bora and the water was just that same color. Pagan slides open the drawer in the closet that has all of his handguns neatly arranged in it. He has a collection of pistols the way that another man of means would have a drawer full of expensive watches. He picks out the shiny Beretta and shoves it into the holster and is fastening his cufflinks when Ajay asks, “So what’s the plan for today?”

“Oh, just a bit of business to attend to, nothing major. I’ll be home for dinner though. Won’t you join me? I was thinking we could eat on the other balcony.”
“The one off of the lounge? Yeah, sure. I’ll be around.” There’s something in Pagan’s voice that he can’t put his finger on…not strain, not a lie, but something. Something he’s keeping from Ajay.

Pagan finishes with the cufflinks, shrugs his jacket on, adjusts the position of the Beretta before he buttons it.

“Good, good. We may also have a guest or two joining us.”

Chapter Text

The guards bring in their dinner ‘guest,’ a guy with a bag on his head, some guy who was running guns for the Golden Path. It’s like a sick parody of that time at Paul’s compound, Darpan all over again, even down to Pagan’s choice of being out on the second-floor balcony. He should have expected something like this. Hell, he’s even wearing one of Pagan’s shirts, a nice burgundy one, because he wanted to look presentable for dinner and was expecting to sit down and eat like normal fucking people. I am an idiot. A moron who thought maybe we were past this kind of shit. Guess I was wrong. That scared and bewildered feeling right back in his belly, him looking at Pagan and barely recognizing him, because he sure as shit didn’t know him then, didn’t know what he was capable of. And you wonder why I ran away from you then. A large part of him still wants to bolt, get up get out. Pagan’s glib little smile doesn’t reach his eyes, not by a long shot, and while the guy on his left isn’t Paul, he serves the same function in this little charade. Is he supposed to participate in this shit? Maybe be the good cop this time? All he knows is that most of what he’s feeling is quickly turning to raw fury; with Pagan, with the entire situation. Pagan, what the fuck are you doing?

Pagan is cheerfully doing the introductions, that snide little smile still on his face. He wants to slap it, punch it off of there, and his fear of that desire paradoxically fuels his rage even more. Pagan’s eyes are dark glass, reflecting nothing.

Ajay remembers, like a dream, holding the tiny spark of his spirit in his hands and wants to cry.

“So, you gonna do this right at the table, huh? Yank out his fingernails, get out the hot irons?” Ajay spits out in a snarl, right across whatever it was that Pagan was saying. He’d already stopped listening to that faux-cheery bullshit.

Silence.

“Well, if it bothers you that badly, I’m sure we can take this charming little monkey to whatever venue you see fit,” Pagan says, his eyes narrowing. Ajay can see just a touch of answering anger kindle deep in his eyes. People don’t use that tone with him. People especially don’t use that tone with him in front of his subordinates. Ajay supposes they should be maintaining some sort of unified front in front of their ‘enemy,’ but he doesn’t give a shit, is building a head of steam so fast that it’s getting harder and harder to think.

“But you professed a desire to learn to rule, and so here we are. This is an important lesson. A necessary lesson. Essential.” That last is forced through Pagan’s clenched teeth, just a little.

There’s something about that patronizing tone and the word lesson that makes Ajay hit the boiling point.

“All right, fine, maybe you could explain it then and stop BEING SO GODDAMNED CRYPTIC about shit, because from my perspective all you’ve done is fucking lie to my face. You told me yourself, ‘I feel bad about the Ranas. I didn’t give a shit that they were running guns for the Golden Path.’ And yet, they’re dead. And you want to torture this guy for the same fucking thing. Either you don’t give a shit or you seriously do, so which is it? Have you lied so much you’ve forgotten where the truth is, or was there ever any truth anywhere?” He really needs to stop talking, but he’s terrified that he’ll start crying and not be able to stop if he does. “These are your people, Pagan, our people, not…braindead cultists that only have days or weeks to live anyway. You can’t just do whatever the fuck you want and expect people to believe in you!” Expect me to believe you, that things are different now. “To keep believing in you, after all we’ve worked towards! Fuck!!”

Ajay’s up on his feet now, kicks his chair savagely for being in his way. He can feel the tears on his face, hot and tickling and damning. He shakes his head hard to get them off. Pagan’s new resident torturer takes this opportunity to wisely slink out of his chair and out of his line of sight, out the door with a soft click.

Pagan merely sits in his chair, fingers steepled. If he is at all hurt, at all moved by what Ajay just said, he’s certainly not showing it.

“So, Ajay my boy, tell me what we should do then. Draw from your inexhaustible font of new-found wisdom, your decades of experience, and share with the rest of the class.” Pagan gets up then, comes around the table with that smooth, predatory glide. Ajay should be backing up, backing down. It would be the rational, intelligent thing to do, after all, but since when has he chosen the logical route? He’d be back in California right now, if he had made a habit of it. Do I not matter to you at all? Does my conscience not matter? You haven’t changed a bit, have you?

But because he’s as crazy as Pagan, he’s surging forward, chest almost touching Pagan’s, finger in his face.

“Yeah, go ahead and mock me, mock me for having some goddamn scruples here, since you seem to have thrown all of that out the window. Fuck, just…just let him go, Pagan. The bag’s still on his fucking head, just let him go back to his family or whatever. Let him walk. Is a gun supplier really that important?” Ajay backs up a little, but not down; oh no, not at all. He's instinctively giving himself swinging room.

“Is it fucking important enough to make me...to make me miserable, make me doubt you?” He really didn’t mean to say that last bit, at all, loathes the weak, husky way it came out, wants to hit Pagan with everything in him, fists balled up so hard his hands are threatening to cramp…and Jesus, that scares him.

Pagan’s still close enough to strike, to touch, his eyes burning hot with a little of that old madness, his face tight and furious, thunderclouds.

Ajay gulps a breath, another. And slowly forces his hands open. Raises one, makes himself reach out to touch Pagan’s face gently. Loathes himself in that moment, because it’s so difficult to do it and not hit him.

“Don’t you remember the mountain? Everything that’s happened to us?” Ajay ghosts his fingers over Pagan’s cheekbone. Every so often he looks at him and sees only a too clean, too finely dressed stranger, a feeling he tries hard to bury.

“What are we doing, Pagan?” he whispers then, because the sensation in his chest feels a little like shattering.

Pagan jerks away from him then, with a snarl. And there’s the pain, the pain that Ajay was waiting to see, can see in his eyes under the boiling fury. Backs away, one step, two steps. Turns and slams his forearm down on the table and sweeps all of the dishes off, sends them flying. Whips a folded packet of papers out of his pocket and flings it onto the table.

“I’ll tell you what we’re doing, I’LL TELL YOU WHAT WE’RE FUCKING DOING!!” Pagan bellows loudly enough to shake the fucking pictures on the walls, near apoplectic with rage. He seizes the guy and slams him face first into the table, big hand grinding his head into it like he’d like to pop it off his neck right then and there. He slaps at the papers with his free hand.

“Unfold that and take a look, my soft-hearted, soft-headed darling,” he spits, venomous. Ajay flinches, but doesn’t move.

“Or perhaps I’ll just tell you. This fucking prick is what an assassin looks like, or at the least is a gun runner turned information runner, because he was caught carrying a detailed map of the premises with our itineraries, the routes of our walks, the locations of our little moonlit excursions…oh yes, they even know about those,” in response to Ajay’s shocked look, “…and look here.” He flips open the papers, stabs his finger down at the map. “I know you don’t really read Kyrati, so I’ll tell you what’s written here, next to our bedroom…‘This is where the filthy faggots sleep.’ I’ll let that sink in for you.”

As usual, he’s not angry at Ajay. Never really was, and it’s his terror of losing the one thing that actually matters to him that’s fueling his fury now. Someone has threatened them, threatened Ajay, and he’s responding exactly as he always has. Trying to protect them. And Ajay’s not helping him do that.

Ajay feels very, very stupid right about now, and heartbroken for not believing in him. For wanting to hurt him, punish him. God.

“So what I’M going to do, your cooperation notwithstanding, is to get every piece of information I can get out of our little buddy here. And yes, it will probably involve pliers. And yes, perhaps a bit of light branding. Even a bit of waterboarding. And I’m going to have to do it myself, because I don’t know with one hundred percent certainty how reliable the new guy is. In the past I could have left him in Paul’s capable hands and known that he’d gotten everything I needed and spared myself the forthcoming nightmares, but that’s not an option anymore.” Pagan lets the guy go then with a last hard and angry shove at his head, goes back to his seat and slumps into it, not looking at Ajay. Dull, exhausted eyes trained on those papers. Like he hasn’t slept in days.

“So go play your Playstation or watch a movie or some such thing, go on a little hunting trip, because I have work to do. If you decide to leave the Palace, make sure you call Kamran so he can put together a proper security detail for you. Please, don’t just run off. I can’t…I…” he trails off then. Sighs.

“I can’t deal with it right now. I’m sorry.” Now that his anger has gone cold and flat, he can hear what Pagan doesn't say out loud: Please don’t run from me. Don’t leave me, don’t hate me, I don’t know what to do…

Ajay gets up then, goes to him, just puts his arms around him from behind, nose buried between collar and the side of his neck. Pagan slumps even further at the contact.

“This is one of the hard parts, Ajay. It’s not all boring reports and financial meetings and gourmet food and silk sheets, as nice as those last two are,” Pagan mutters. “There are real, soul-crushing parts to this job, where there are no good choices, where it’s a moral quagmire. No matter how good of a man steps into it. Do you understand me? Do you really understand me, Ajay?” And when Ajay pulls back to look at him properly, he realizes with a cold wash that Pagan might be close to tears himself. He looks down then, grunts a rueful little laugh and rubs his face, and the moment passes.

“Various persons have been attempting to assassinate me since I was sixteen years old; most of Hong Kong, most of Kyrat, even the fucking CIA. It’s a game, it’s all a game, one that I’ve been winning for years and one that I intend to continue winning for many more. For you, if not for myself. But this is the first time that it’s felt personal, and the stakes…the stakes are quite a bit higher now.”

Ajay nuzzles at his ear. “I am so sorry. And that sounds fucking pathetic. Words can’t even tell you how sorry I am right now. I love you so much.” Kisses his cheek, nuzzles at it a little, the one he wanted to strike.

“And I’m not going anywhere, I’m not leaving you to do the hard shit on your own, no. Lesson learned. I didn’t...I didn't understand, but now I do. I’ll take your lead, okay? And we’ll share the burden of whatever we have to do fifty-fifty, remember?” He runs his hand through Pagan’s hair, mussing it, and then neatens it again with his fingers.

“Are you still upset with me?”

“No, darling boy, no, not at all. I just wish sometimes you’d trust me a bit more. Just a bit. And I shouldn’t have called you soft-headed, that was inexcusable. And hardly true. And the fact that you have a soft, good heart is the reason why you’re here with me in the first place.” Pagan reaches back and works his fingers into the thick hair on the back of Ajay’s head, something he seems to love doing. Ajay loves the feeling of his fingers doing it. Complimentary.

“I’ll try to do better on the trusting you front. Would you do me a favor and try to be a little less cryptic? If you had come in first thing with those papers and said, ‘Hey Ajay, look at what this guy had on him! Let’s hang him from the rafters,’ I would have said ‘Hell yeah, let me go get the rope.’ Because that…what they wrote there, the thought of that fucking pisses me off.”

Pagan sighs. “I know you would have. I’ll try to do better at keeping you in the loop. I’m hardly the best teacher, my boy, and this is the first time I’ve had someone else here with me, by my side. But I will try my best.”

They sit there for a minute, savoring each other’s closeness and ignoring the guy with the bag on his head still. Ajay lowers his mouth to the shell of his ear and whispers into it, low and hot.

“How do I make it up to you, since I’ve been bad? Do you want to bend me over your knee, punish me?” Pagan turns his head, showing Ajay one incredulous eye.

“God no, boy…” he stops, thinks about it. “Unless that’s…something that you’re really into? You’ve never shown the inclination before, but if that’s what you’d like, I’m sure we can figure it out.”

“Okay, fine, no spanking. Was just an idea.”

“Mmmm, definitely not the worst you’ve ever had.” Pagan’s eyes move down to his lips then, a demure little dip of his lashes that never fails to cause that spark low down in Ajay’s belly, a tiny electric shock. His eyes shift back up to Ajay’s own, heat blooming in them. Ajay is moving then, climbing in his lap and straddling him without breaking that eye contact, his hands framing Pagan’s face, sweeping his thumbs over his ridiculous cheekbones, the tiniest rasp of stubble against his palms. He’s still getting used to his face being clean-shaven.

“However,” Pagan murmurs slowly, “there are other things you could do to make it up to me.” Ajay feels him swallow, watches just the tip of his tongue move to wet his lips. Jesus. His hands are at the small of Ajay’s back, one hand moving down to cradle his ass, the other slipping up under the edge of his shirt to run those long fingers across the downy skin there.

“Oh? And what would those be?” Ajay rumbles out, as if he’s not about four seconds from shoving him back in this chair and claiming his mouth with his own. Or maybe just ravishing him right here, right now. It suddenly seems like an excellent idea. Pagan can see it too, a faint amusement in his eyes behind the heat and the fondness. The want. Ajay leans down and Pagan moves up into him but just as their lips meet with that same electric jolt that always happens, the man across the table with the bag still on his head takes that opportunity to clear his throat.

“Um…your Majesty?”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Pagan turns his head away from Ajay and barks, “are we annoying you over there? Perhaps making you a bit uncomfortable with our faggot ways?”

The man visibly flinches. “No, it is not like that, at all. It’s just…I just wanted to say that I will tell you anything you want to know, that you do not have to torture me. I will tell you. I was just the courier, and I did not know what was in that packet. I did not want to know, to be honest. But it is…it is not right. The plan to assassinate you, and what they wrote there on that map. I did not know what it was about. It is not right.”

Pagan rolls his eyes in an eloquent way that seems to say: how could any one person be so fucking ignorant. He sighs then, slumps against Ajay, head against his chest. This unfortunately brings his crotch into contact with Ajay’s, and he can tell that he’s already at least a little hard. Poor Pagan. Ajay rubs the back of his head and neck and shifts back minutely to keep from tormenting him.

“Ajay, would you mind going over and taking the bloody bag off our little friend’s head so we can get to the bottom of this mess?” Pagan says, muffled into Ajay’s chest. Ajay kisses the crown of his head and swings his leg over and off of him. Reaches over and yanks the bag off to reveal a young guy, way younger than Ajay. Maybe eighteen, nineteen. He blinks owlishly in the afternoon sun streaming onto the balcony, a little blood on his nose and mouth from Pagan jamming his head into the table. His expression is dismayed, before it firms. He seems to think that the bag being removed means it doesn’t matter anymore what he sees. It doesn’t, but not the way he thinks.

“Your Majesty, I know that I am a dead man, that you are going to execute me. But please, spare my family. I will gladly tell you everything, but please…” Pagan waves a careless hand.

“Contrary to the rash assumptions that some may make about me, I am not a literal demon, nor do I enjoy having children for breakfast…and I am not a random murderer. Tell me what I want to know, and I’ll not only leave your family be, but I’ll let you go as well. I just need the information, not your life...that is, if you are truly as innocent in all of this as you proclaim to be.” That last comes out in a dark and sinister purr. The kid gulps as Pagan pauses and rubs at his chin and goes on in a much more normal voice.

“Ajay, what do you have to say to that?”

Oh, still lesson time. But it doesn't prick at him like it did before.

Ajay stabs a finger in the guy’s face. “I say that this is your fucking lucky day, because five minutes ago I was on your side, and then four minutes ago I might have been mad enough to kill you myself when I saw that fucking map. But I still have a lot to learn about this king shit.” He ignores Pagan’s small sort at the phrase ‘king shit.’

“I say that if you help us you need to get as far away from the Golden Path as possible, because from what I remember they’re a vengeful pack of fucks. Now, they will probably hurt your family for ‘betraying’ them, so if you live in the South I think you should pack them all up and move up here somewhere. I can help you with that. Just…be honest with us, and tell us what we need to know so that we can keep the country together. If one of us dies…it won’t solve a thing. Will make everything go to shit actually; the two of us have been working to make things better, but it won’t happen overnight. Kyrat needs us both, but even if you don’t believe that, you’ll sleep easier at night if you give us what we need to know. Trust me on that.”

“Thank you, dear boy, that’s exactly what I was hoping you would say. Now, I only have three requests for you; I need the name and a description of the rat that’s here in the Palace. That person is our real enemy here. I also need to know if this is the only copy of these documents that exists. The third thing I need is for you to write me a statement with all of this information. Kyrati or English, it doesn’t matter. But I need all of it, everything you can think of. And don’t sign it, because it’s going into Records and I don’t want your name in there.” He pauses, gives the boy a contemplative look.

“You do read and write, correct?”

“Um, yes…yes sir, a little.”

“Well, that’s all right. Ajay can help you with English if he doesn’t mind. I can help a bit with written Kyrati, but I don't speak it. Here,” He digs around in his trouser pocket for the key to the handcuffs and lays it in front of Ajay. Pagan takes quick stock of the room, finds paper on the sideboard and puts it in front of the boy.

“Here’s paper, and here’s a pen. I’m going to clean up the evidence of my little temper tantrum while you two work on this.” He reaches into his breast pocket and takes out his own pen and hands it to the boy, who promptly almost drops it because he wasn’t expecting the weight. He stares at it with wide and fearful eyes. The King handed him his own pen like it was nothing, like it wasn’t a murder weapon, like it doesn’t have Ishwari Ghale’s declaration of love on it, like it’s not hands-down the most expensive object he’s ever touched in his life. Like this pen isn’t infamous.

This guy has to be the strangest, most complicated person he’s ever met, as he surreptitiously watches him go and get a trash can and rake the broken dishes into it with the side of his immaculate, gleaming shoe.

 

The guy works for awhile on his statement, tongue poked out a tiny bit with the effort of writing, but he doesn’t need Ajay’s help. Ajay glances over his shoulder from time to time, and he’s doing a passable job of constructing a rough narrative, in halfway decent English no less. There are several names in there too…good. If Pagan feels as if he’s holding back he might just kill him out of turn. Shit, he himself might kill this guy out of turn, if it seems like he might still be a threat to them.

Some part of him knew of course, but he really understands now that relying on scruples and morality to guide his choices is a good way to get the both of them killed. And he means what he said; Kyrat needs the both of them, and the decisions he might make if it were just his life and his conscience to worry about, like it was during the war, are going to have to be different now. Because he can’t lose Pagan, can’t afford to take risks with their safety to save others, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for mercy. But somehow, some way, Pagan is getting what they need without killing this kid, or even hurting him. Well, much anyway. The kid looks a little star-struck to be honest, seems to have a hard time taking his eyes off of Pagan, Ajay notes with a smile.

Thinking of this stuff reminds him…where in the hell did Pagan’s interrogator go? His stomach sinks then, his instincts prickling…that’s wrong. That shouldn’t be. The man should have come right back in after their raised voices ceased…wrong, wrong.

“Pagan? Where’s the interrogator?” And something about the quiet tightness in his voice has Pagan’s head snapping up, all his internal alarms going off too. He throws Ajay a level look because he’s right, and the little stubbly hairs at the back of his neck are trying to stand up. He unbuttons his jacket as he strides the six paces or so to the hallway door, peeks out the small inset window…and there’s no one out there, certainly not the two guards who are supposed to be standing watch on this room. Fuck. His hand goes for the gun in the shoulder harness. It makes his shoulder sore after too long and the heavy Beretta banging around in his armpit is certainly an annoyance, but he’s glad now that he took the time to wrestle the thing on. Ajay is not armed, however. They’re going to have to have a talk about that. However, when he glances back he has their friend on the floor on his belly, hands re-cuffed behind his back. Pagan watches as he sweeps up all of the papers, including the statement and tucks them into his own pockets. Grabs Pagan’s pen and tests the heft of it in his hand. Smart boy.

“We’re going to have to move, aren’t we?” Ajay says, voice kept low. Pagan nods. This room is too big; no small, defensible space they can get into. Pagan strides back to Ajay, shrugs out of his jacket altogether and throws it carelessly in the direction of a chair.

“The guards that should be in the hall watching this entrance are missing; dead or mere deserters I have no idea. I saw no bodies or blood, but the angle isn’t very good. Now,” Pagan steps in front of him, faces the doors, gun held in the ready position but aimed at the floor. “Where do we go from here, Ajay?”

“Are you serious?” Ajay says, flat. Pagan looks back over his shoulder, his eye bright and a tiny smile curling his lips.

“You wanted to learn ‘king shit,’ as you so graciously put it. So here we are! Possible assassination attempts are definitely part of that.” He pauses, smile widening. “Consider it on the job training! Although I wish you’d gotten one of my guns out of the closet instead of my shirt, as nice as it looks on you. But…what’s done is done. So what’s it to be, my dear boy?” His voice is downright cheerful. Their informant looks at him like he’s grown another head.

Pagan grins at Ajay's look of trepidation. “You're in charge here. Where are we headed?”

Chapter Text

Ajay shakes his head. “Y’know, every time I think that you’re halfway…nevermind.” Ajay turns to their charge, hostage, whatever he is.

“Sorry man, I’m going to have to put this back on you.” The guy had a detailed map, but Ajay doesn’t want him to see any more of the interior of the Palace than they can help. He assists the guy up with a hand on his elbow and puts the bag back on while Pagan watches the door.

“The little kitchen on this floor. We can put him in the bathroom,” Ajay decides. Pagan looks back at him then, glances to the pen in Ajay’s hand, his other hand on the boy’s elbow, and walks back.

“Here,” he says, “trade me, dearest. There we go.” He passes the Beretta to Ajay and takes the pen back and toes his very nice but slightly squeaky shoes off. This will work better, Pagan thinks, since Ajay can hang back a bit with their informant and back him up from a distance if necessary. He looks into the warm brown of Ajay’s eyes, steady and serious and with a coal of anger there that Pagan is happy to see. Anger not at him, but focused where it should be: towards those who have dared to fuck with them, and he can’t help the impulse to pull him close for just one precious moment before they leave the relative safety of this room.

“I have your back, always and always, my love. Just like old times, eh?” Pagan whispers in his ear with a grin. Ajay doesn’t use endearments with him (unless ‘old man’ counts, which Pagan is a little dubious about), but he nuzzles into Pagan and murmurs, “Love you, love you so much,” and that’s better anyway.

--------------------------- 

A neutral party initially observing the situation might have been forgiven for thinking that Pagan cut a slightly ridiculous figure as he prowled silently through the halls of his own home. After all, he was hardly dressed for stealth or combat; bright white shirt, bright aqua vest, bright shock of blond hair, in his sock feet with a pink and gold pen held easily in one hand. However, if that same observer had studied his eyes, they would see the icy, calculating rage there that would go to roaring flame just as soon as he had acquired a target for it. They might also have studied the way that he and Ajay moved together like two halves of a well-oiled machine as they confirm that each corridor between themselves and their destination is clear, always remaining in sight of the other and using handsigns to communicate.

In short, the hunters become the hunted, and as Pagan takes the first of them in a silent spray of blood that paints the corridor he doesn’t look ridiculous at all.

---------------------------- 

Ajay and Pagan crouch down to examine the corpse, clad in dark, nondescript fatigues. He isn’t carrying a gun, which is strange. When Ajay tilts his face into the light Pagan recognizes him: one of the two guards that were supposed to be watching the door. The door that his interrogator set them to watch, the man that he’d interviewed and hired himself a few weeks before that disastrous trip out to the Lost Valley. Careless. He hadn’t been in the best place then. He absolutely cannot afford those kinds of mistakes in the future. The price is suddenly much too steep to pay.

The lack of bodies, besides the one at their feet, and the lack of any signs of struggle in any of the corridors they’ve come through is pretty damning evidence that this is an inside job. Not surprising, really, Ajay thinks, without that map and that information it would be extremely difficult to pull something like this off any other way. Although they still don’t know how many they are up against; three, now two? Or more of the staff, the ones that make their food, the ones that smile at him as they deliver clean towels and offer him treats that their wives have made for them. He’s used to people trying to kill him, but this is something different, darker and insidious, a different way of combat that may be more chess match than anything. That is, until the King outplays you and you’re on the floor with a pen jammed in your carotid.

He really hopes it’s not a bunch of the staff involved because he likes most of them and they like him back, or seem to after he convinced Pagan that the carrot would work better than the stick. ‘Why not both? Or they’ll think I’m going senile,’ he’d said, and his reputation for occasional tyrannical behavior as an employer finally began to give way to one of hard, but fair. Ajay hopes that this is a minor insurrection that doesn’t make him regret interceding on their behalf, but he can’t help but feel a little sting of betrayal. The guards are supposed to be helping keep them safe, not stalking them through their own hallways. Well, attempting to stalk, until they’re ambushed by a true master. Pagan’s right though, he’s so naïve about some of this stuff. It’s hard not to take it personally, but then again Pagan said he’s having trouble with that too.

They reach the second floor kitchenette without incident. Pagan silently swings the bathroom door open while Ajay covers it with the gun, but it’s clear as well. It’s just a little half-bath for the guards and staff or whoever is up here on the second floor. Ajay pulls the kid in by the elbow and flicks the light on.

“Now,” Pagan says, pulling the hood off, “I want you to sit right here, safe and sound, and finish that statement for me.” He recoils with a little cry that Pagan immediately muffles with his hand when he sees Pagan’s blood-spattered face, blood up to the elbow of one arm of his white shirt and smeared across the hip of his nice tan trousers. Ajay muses that it’s probably a good indication of how fucked up their lives are that he didn’t really notice. He undoes the kid’s cuffs but leaves them on the left wrist and attaches the other side to the sink’s exposed plumbing. When it’s clear that he’s done squawking, Pagan carefully removes his hand.

“Bag or no bag, you probably have gathered that we’re in the middle of a small…incident. Yes, we’ll go with incident. Which Ajay and I are going to go take care of. You can sit on the floor and use the toilet lid as your, erm, writing table. There we are!” Pagan exclaims, laying out the papers that Ajay hands him, along with the pen. Frowns, picks it back up and rubs it a bit cleaner on one of the blood-free patches on his sleeve.

“Sorry about that, lad.” The kid is still staring, taking him in from head to sock feet, and Pagan frowns again, ducks and looks at himself in the mirror.

“Hmm yes, I understand your shock now. I am quite the mess, aren’t I? Well,” he says brightly, “if it makes you feel better, my boy, none of this is mine!” Ajay just rolls his eyes.

That was when the murderous terrorist assassin house servants decided to cut the power.

The bathroom is as black as a cave for two seconds as the kid makes another noise that Pagan muffles, estimating where his mouth is and slapping his hand over it. Then the emergency lights kick on, dim and strange. Pagan lets him go again and continues as if he were never interrupted.

“I would wash up, but I highly doubt that this is the last of it. Oh no, I very much doubt that,” and his voice goes low and dark. Ajay slaps him on the back, gun still in his other hand.

“Pagan, you’re scaring the kid again. Let’s go kill some fucking shitbags.”

“Of course, dearest, of course. I put you in charge for a reason,” he says then, all warm fondness like that other voice never existed. Ajay sympathizes with the kid’s Pagan-induced whiplash and herds him toward the door. After a quick check for hostiles, they’re out, the door swinging shut gently. The young man lets out a sigh of relief. Even when he’s trying to be nice, the king is frightening. He’s certainly not the demon that the Golden Path say he is, but he’s not at all like a regular person either. He’s like Kalinag’s tiger, bright white and gold and playful…until he’s not, and then he’s dripping with the blood of his enemies. He feels a little shiver, picks up the pen. He’s just putting it to the paper when the door opens again, and the king pokes his head back in, eyebrows furrowed a little.

“Still working?”

“Ye...yes, your Majesty,” he gets out without too much embarrassing shake in his voice. King Min’s face does one of those eerily fast changes of expression and now it’s him that’s getting that fond look.

“Good, good! Just what I like to see, productivity! Oh, and fair warning my boy, you may…no, probably will hear gunshots and such. Just ignore all that.”

The king just watches him for a second that stretches to two, then three, until it begins to be awkward. Then really awkward, as the seconds continue to tick by. Is there something he should be saying, or doing? Should he continue to look at his face, or drop his eyes in deference, or ignore him and keep writing? He stays frozen in indecision until the king cocks his head a little and smiles sweetly at him.

“Well, don’t let me slow you down!” he says cheerfully, and withdraws again. The informant drops his head into his hands and breathes in relief, and then gets back to work.

As Pagan is letting the door shut quietly behind him, a grenade flies at them from the dark end of the hallway, hits the bathroom door with a clunk and rolls almost at their feet. Ajay kicks it back the way it came, where it bounces off the opposite wall from the kitchenette’s doorway but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. This time, it’s his turn to dive on Pagan, dragging him down by the arm and curling over him with his hands over his ears as smoke and fire and shrapnel billow down the hall with a dull thudding concussion.

“Guess they know where we are now,” he mutters into Pagan’s ear as soon as Pagan takes his hand away from it. He just grunts in acknowledgement, grunts again when Ajay levers himself off of him and his weight becomes heavy for a moment, then grunts yet again in dismay at the thought of the mess, the fuss and expense and inconvenience of having to renovate because of motherfuckers throwing grenades inside their house. Also annoyed at the rapid escalation aspect of it. Most people start with a little light gunplay before the explosives come out. And him not even wearing fucking shoes, for godssake.

Then he glances over.

“Oh, Ajay,” he murmurs, “oh no…” Pagan’s there then, has his face in gentle hands, probing for damage. Ajay didn’t feel it, didn’t even realize he has blood all over him from a myriad of small cuts. Pagan yanks his shirttail out and blots carefully to make sure that the injuries are minor and that’s really all the time for first aid they have.

“I’m okay, I’m okay. Didn’t even feel it. Probably just some stone chips flying or something.” Pagan presses their foreheads together, still looking a little worried, and Ajay is reminded so much of the Pagan from the valley…

...and he absolutely needs to stop thinking like that. He’s gotten it into his head at some point that somehow there are different Pagans and he has to stop, because there aren’t. The glib manipulator from the dinner table and the rough soldier and the makeup-wearing dandy and the tyrant and this man that’s looking at him like he’s the most important thing on the planet are all the same person.

He doesn’t have to like every part of him, but he needs to love every part of him; the whole him, for what he is.

Just as Ajay has come to this conclusion, Pagan says, forehead still against his, “My dearest boy, now that they’ve started with the grenades I think we ought to contact Kamran so he can bring in the cavalry. I’d like to get this over with as quickly as possible before they manage to catch the place on fire.”

Ajay thinks this over, and pulls out his phone, only to learn that he has no signal. They’ve jammed the cell reception then.

“We’ll need to go back to our rooms so we can grab the radio,” Ajay says. He’s still surprised that the infiltrators are not just charging in and trying to overwhelm them, they have to know there are only two of them…and yet, only silence after that initial grenade.

The corridors between them and their rooms are also clear, the door still shut just as it was left. No sign of struggle, not counting the bits of wood and chunks of masonry now flung haphazardly down the halls. Pagan picks his way over these carefully, now thoroughly regretting his decision to leave his shoes behind.

“I’ll grab you another pair, okay?” Ajay says, and kisses his cheek and slaps the gun into his palm. Pagan waits until he closes the door and then moves to a more shadowy spot to keep an eye on both the door and the hallway, gun held easily. He throws a look over his shoulder from time to time, where the heaviest darkness lies. Beyond this point is one of the service entrances and he doesn’t anticipate attack from that direction, but he still checks out of habit, and that’s how he registers the dark shape hurling itself at him.

Pagan has no time to react before the shadow hits him hard body to body and slams him into the wall. A hand simultaneously flies up seeking his throat, and like some kind of inexperienced fool Pagan loses the Beretta right out of his hand. The man is wearing body armor and Pagan is not, and the force of the hard plates crashing into his ribcage has him gasping for breath, already winded and bruised and the fight barely begun. He’s able to get a forearm up to block those grasping hands and swings a fist into his temple and a leg between the other man’s and then they’re on the floor battering at each other, the emergency lighting making everything dim and surreal but Pagan catches a glimpse of his face; his erstwhile interrogator. This is his real enemy, then. And he’s good; oh, he is very good indeed. He wouldn’t expect any less.

After all, that’s why Pagan hired him.

Pagan’s beginning to feel a little desperate, especially when the man gets a shot in on his eye and cheekbone that stuns him a bit and then twists his arm up and wrenches that left shoulder hard and he can’t help the hoarse bark of pain that it forces out of him. He also wonders why he hasn’t been shot or stabbed yet. Kidnapping attempt? his mind supplies, and he fights all the harder then, mindful of syringes and darts and manages to scramble out of that hold with an effort that makes the whole arm burn.

Those hands drive for his throat again and this time that left arm doesn’t respond quite quickly enough for him to block and the fucker gets it pinned under his knee anyway, sitting on his stomach and choking the life out of him. Or at least the consciousness out of him. His right arm is flailing, resisting attempts to get it pinned as well and searches for anything, a chunk of masonry, a sharp piece of wood, anything. His hearing is going dim, black spots blooming in his vision when his groping fingers find the checkered grip of the Beretta, and Pagan never hesitates.

Pagan swings the gun up and shoves it into the body armor and fires twice in rapid succession, right into the man’s midsection, which won’t penetrate the armor even point-blank like this but he knows from experience that it feels like getting kicked by something hoofed and angry. The pain makes him loosen his hands and Pagan sockets the muzzle of the gun deep into the soft underside of his jaw.

Taral, the man’s name is Taral, he thinks, remembering that day all in one flash: in his formal office downstairs, sharing a drink and shaking Taral’s hand, smiles all around and him grateful that he had finally found a decently qualified person for the job. Remembers telling Ajay about how the attempts on his life are all a game.

“I win,” Pagan snarls into Taral’s face, voice almost unrecognizable and pulls the trigger, the gun kicking hard in his hand and blowing bits of skull and brain matter all the way to the ceiling.

Thankfully the angle is such that he mostly avoids getting splattered. But before the body can even start to slump Ajay is there with a bellow of rage, diving on it with the big kukri in his hand and knocking it clean off of Pagan.

A little late, he thinks, but a sweet gesture nonetheless, as he rolls over with his ears still ringing, coughing and gulping air gratefully. He doesn’t know what Ajay is doing to the corpse because he’s pretty sure he’s already taken care of things and wonders dizzily if he might be willing to leave off so that he can be held for a minute or so.

As soon as he thinks it he feels Ajay’s hands on him and he relaxes, Ajay has him then, has him half in his lap and is combing his hair back with his fingers.

Pagan doesn’t know what he sees in his face but whatever it is has him saying, “Shhh, it’s okay. Everything’s fine, everything’s fine now. I got the call out and Kamran’s troops are clearing the building as we speak.” Ajay gently touches his bruised cheek, his scraped and bloody knuckles. “You look like you’ve been on the losing end of a bar fight.”

Pagan laughs then, a weak little chuckle.

“Oh no, my dear boy…you should see the other guy. I’m all right though…we’re both all right.”

He levers himself up carefully and Ajay helps him to his feet, a little wobbly but it’s passing quickly, and so is the ringing in his ears. Ajay’s brought him his boots and he puts them on gratefully, carefully propped against the wall while he does so, and they head back to the kitchen to check on their erstwhile charge.

---------------------------

The kid is still safe and sound where they left him and is done writing his statement, which he hands up to Pagan along with the pen from where he’s sitting on the floor. Ajay unlocks his cuffs and helps him up while Pagan looks over the papers. His eyebrows furrow, and then raise in surprise.

“Oh really,” he mutters at one point. As he’s reading, Ajay fills the guy in on what he needs to do.

“The soldiers will escort you to the King’s Bridge, and I’ll give you three days to get your family and get back. Pack as lightly as you possibly can, and I’ll be waiting for you.” The informant nods. It’s a good deal, when he ought to be dead.

“This is exactly what I needed, and thank you. I really do find torture distasteful, and I appreciate you not making me do it,” Pagan says and then looks him up and down, a strange little smile on his face. It’s a bit bitter.

“My boy, if you ever find yourself in need of a job, you come and find me.”

That smile widens a little.

“It looks like we’re going to have several openings come up in the near future.”

------------------------------ 

There ended up being six altogether in the Palace; the loyal staff evacuated when the explosions started going off, just like they’d been told to do, and Kamran’s troops had swept up the perpetrators easily. Pagan killed Taral the interrogator and one of the guards, so that left the other guard and three members of staff who are now on their knees in front of them in the mostly ruined lounge, hands on their heads. Pagan walks up to each one, crouches down to look them right in the eye, lets them look their fill at him, filthy and bloody and bruised up; one eye swelling a little, the ring of bruising around his throat standing out starkly against his skin. He's still a little paler than Ajay thinks he ought to be. Ajay himself is dismayed when he realizes that one of the staff is someone he recognizes, someone with security clearance high enough to be allowed on the second floor and around and in their rooms.

Are you the one that wrote that on that fucking map? he wants to scream in the guy’s face, and the betrayal hurts, it hurts way more than he thought it would. It’s betrayal of the worst kind, and even Amita and Sabal didn’t pull shit like this. Sabal tried hard to make the Golden Path into a legitimate army with uniforms and rules of engagement, and in return Pagan didn’t wipe them off the map. Even when Sabal and his soldiers managed to breach Paul’s compound they didn’t do it by planting their own among the household staff. Part of the reason that Ajay didn’t execute either one was because of those small shreds of honor and decency, and he and Pagan had conferred and decided to treat them as defeated generals and merely exiled them.

Ajay looks over to Pagan then and he can see the hurt there too. But Ajay also sees the other thing that’s in his eyes, and that’s the fact that he’s going to execute all of these people, and probably everyone listed in that document the kid wrote. Pagan’s eyes have real grief in them, but they are also pitiless. Inexorable. It’s not even a matter of punishment, or sending a message, it’s a matter of eliminating a threat and ensuring that these particular individuals are not going to be broken out of jail and come at them a second time. It’s a kind of peace; the peace of strength, of eliminating a threat that exists out somewhere in the world so they can sleep at night. It’s the Lost Valley all over again, with Sandesh throwing wave after wave of enemies at them to try and break them under the strain.

So they’d killed everyone, no questions asked, just in order to get some fucking rest.

This is hurting Pagan, and Ajay can tell that he definitely doesn’t want to kill these people but it’s also not going to stop him. He’ll do what needs to be done, and Ajay…Ajay agrees.

God help the both of them, he agrees.

They have even more than themselves to worry about. The Tarun Matara said that the two of them have a duty to protect Kyrat, and they can’t do that if one or both of them are dead. So if they’re going to save Kyrat then they’re going to have to do whatever they have to do to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Oh Jesus, Ajay thinks then with a frightened pang, wasn’t this what Sabal was trying to do? Isn’t that the mindset that they have to worry about? Of thinking that you have the blessings of a deity on whatever dirty shit you do? Isn't that what leads to religious zealotry and honor-killings and all of that shit? He shivers a little. What makes them any different?

But there's no time to contemplate that now, because Pagan holds out his hand to him then, not looking at him but wanting him. Ajay walks over and takes it, lacing their fingers together but careful of his scabbed knuckles. They stand there hand in hand, just gazing at their prisoners. They say nothing, and neither do Ajay and Pagan. Finally, Pagan speaks, low and raspy and a little wooden.

“Go ahead and take them, Kamran. Firing squad. Oh, and you’re going to need this,” and presses the entire packet into Kamran’s capable hands.

“When that’s done, drive this young fellow down to the King’s Bridge for me and make sure he’s all right and then let him go.”

“Yessir,” Kamran says then, all business, and gets everyone herded out of the lounge, leaving them alone. Pagan pulls him in by the hand, and Ajay leans against him gratefully.

It probably says some pretty fucked up things about their relationship that Pagan seems more right to him when he has smoke, dirt, and somebody else’s arterial spray smeared across his face, when Ajay presses his nose into him and the mix of blood and spent gunpowder and his sweat and cologne makes him feel more real under his hands.

Pagan, carefully tilting his head toward the light to check the cuts on his face, his hands so gentle. Pagan, holding him like he’s the most precious thing on the planet. Ajay ghosts his fingers across the livid bruises around his throat, across his bruised cheekbone and the eye that’s almost guaranteed to be black tomorrow.

“I know that it’s not even eight o’clock yet, but do you mind if we just…take a shower and go to bed?”

“I think that sounds like an absolutely wonderful idea,” answers Pagan, still raspy.

--------------------------- 

Once they’re inside their own bedroom Ajay slides his fingers under the straps of the harness and gets the buckles undone and gets it off of him, more careful when he sees Pagan wince.

"That shoulder?" he murmurs, and Pagan nods.

Ajay puts the Beretta on the bedside table and drops the holster in the chair, then goes to work on the buttons of his waistcoat. He works it off of him, then the shirt, careful of his shoulder, and lays them neatly across the chair. The shirt is probably a loss, but they might be able to get the blood out of the vest. When Ajay turns back to him, he hisses in anger at the sight of the dark bruising all up and down Pagan's ribs. He runs his hands across them as lightly as possible. "Any of these cracked, do you think?" Pagan just shakes his head.

"I'm all right my love, I'm all right," he says rustily.

Ajay strips his own shirt off with quick efficiency while Pagan watches, and then comes and puts his arms carefully around Pagan’s waist, skin to skin, forehead against his.

“This is the only thing that makes sense right now,” he whispers.

“We’ve been distracting ourselves with dainties from the kitchen and whose shoes are in the entryway and fucking in the moonlight,” Pagan murmurs, hands making soothing sweeps across his back. “But we haven’t really…talked about things since we got back, you know. Discussed things of any importance.”

“I know it. And I know we have to.” Ajay lets go of him and heads for the bathroom, shedding the rest of his clothes as he goes, Pagan right behind him. Ajay gets the shower on and turns Pagan so the hot water can run over his sore shoulder, and Pagan sucks in air at the pain/pleasure of it, Ajay rubbing it carefully. Pagan gets the soap and washes the cuts on his face gently, gently. After they're clean and dry, he insists that Ajay sit on the toilet lid and let him doctor his face properly. He hisses at the alcohol sting but sits compliantly as Pagan skillfully applies bandaids with one hand while the fingertips of the other hold the blobs of antibiotic ointment at the ready.

"There we are, dearest boy. Probably won't even scar," he says with a little smile, and kisses his forehead. Then they switch and it’s Pagan’s turn to hiss as Ajay cleans his knuckles as gently as possible and bandages them with more of the ointment.

Medical treatment complete, Ajay climbs in the bed, Pagan sliding in beside him. They lay facing each other, and Pagan thinks that perhaps he should put a little space between them, give him a little breathing room. They’ve personally had a rough day, and he’s not sure how upset Ajay still is with him over everything that’s happened. He debates whether he should shift over to the edge of the bed on his side when Ajay reaches out and puts his big warm hand on his belly, both freezing him in place and killing the doubt, just like that first night.

“I almost wish we were back in that fucking valley,” Ajay says, closing his eyes. Pagan nods against the pillow.

“Life was hard then, but achingly simple. All we had to worry about then was killing the imbeciles that ran straight at us and keeping food in our bellies. Well, and not being consumed by an ancient and evil deity, but I digress.”

“You weren’t the king there, and I wasn’t…whatever I am. And us being in constant danger hasn’t changed that much, has it? I’ve been living here in the Palace for six months, but…there’s a lot you’ve kept from me, haven’t you? About what living here is like, what it means.”

“I...yes. I have. I wanted to spare you the worry for one, and before six weeks ago I may have been slightly more…cavalier with my own safety. But the stakes are different now. It’s not just me anymore, it’s you as well, dearest…and it’s the whole damn country. Ishwari went and charged me with protecting you and Bhadra and all of bloody Kyrat, and that went oh so very fucking well last time, didn’t it?” Bitterness in his voice, just like every time he talks about what he perceives as the biggest failure of his life.

“Stop. Stop beating yourself up for things that happened decades ago. We’re figuring it out. It’s not like she didn’t tell me the same damn thing, so it’s not your burden alone. She meant us together. Me protecting you too. When it’s time, I’ll go get Bhadra and bring her here and she can stay in the Palace with us. It’ll be easier to keep the three of us alive if we’re all in one place, yeah?” Pagan can barely see his eyes in the near dark. He wants to turn on the light so he can view his expressions, but also wants the concealment. Takes a deep breath. Lets it out slowly.

“Ajay…are you going to be able to do this?” he murmurs. “Live in this cage with me, as soft and pleasant as it is? Because make no mistake, it is indeed a cage. Are you going to wake up one day and decide you can’t stay? That you’re trapped here, chained to someone who has more of his life behind him than in front of him?” He almost has to force the last bit out, his jaw tight, and he can’t keep the strain out of it. “If you can’t do this, please do me the courtesy of…of telling me, before you go.”

Remembering that letter, and all those years.

It’s hard, so hard, but he has to say those words. He knows that if Ajay leaves, he’ll die. It will kill him as surely as putting a bullet in his head and it will probably kill Kyrat as well, all of it lost in a haze of war and famine. Ishwari leaving almost killed him, actually broke him; there’s no way he could survive this. If Ajay had left that night that they talked about sending him to the airport…he may have been able to come back from that loss. But not now. Not since Ajay shoved him into the wall, and then held him and cleaned him and told him he was loved, that there existed a person on this planet who loved him. But he won’t say any of this. It has to be Ajay’s free choice, without any trace of guilt or coercion, no matter the fallout. He would never trap him that way; it would also kill him to see the warm regard in his eyes slowly turn to resentment, to bitterness…to regret.

Their love poisoned.

Ajay almost blurts out with a laugh, ‘Why, are you asking me to marry you?’ Which is a dumb thought but also gives him an unexpectedly warm feeling in his belly, like a little hot coal. That gives him pause. He…didn’t realize that was something he might want. But he can hear the strain in Pagan’s voice, so it’s not time to be joking or flippant, especially not about something that might be emotional.

“Pagan, cage or not all I want is to wake up beside you every morning, like I said. All I need is you, all I ever wanted is right here. Here, or in a smelly shed or under a bridge or in a tent in the woods, I don't really care. As long as you're there too, that's all that matters.”

He sighs then, having things that he doesn’t want to say either.

“But earlier, when we argued…I wanted to hit you. I wanted to hit you so badly I could barely make my hand open, wanted to punch that glib little smile right off your face, I was so pissed at you. And that terrifies me. It makes me think, ‘Is there more of that shithead Mohan in me than I realized?’ He was the one who lashed out at people that he said he loved. And I remember thinking about this after that fight at the relay station, when I was mad at you for almost getting yourself blown up and then skewered. I thought that, for all your faults, you would never do that. Don’t get me wrong, you lash out plenty, but at the people you care about…never. I feel so ashamed, Pagan. I wanted to hurt you, wanted to punish you…and that’s so fucked up. Are you sure you want somebody like that? That wants to harm you when they get a little pissed at you?”

As he’s been talking, Ajay’s been wriggling further and further under the duvet, curling in on himself. Pagan listens to all of this patiently, very patiently, he thinks. Hasn’t interrupted a single time.

He folds his arms under his head comfortably, stretches a bit.

“But you didn’t.”

“What?” Ajay says, small and muffled.

“You didn’t do it. I could tell you wanted to, I could see it in your eyes. I’d let you, of course, if it would make you feel better, but it wouldn’t. You’d just feel like shit and I’d be nursing bruises, nothing accomplished there. But if you want to know the difference between you and Mohan, it’s this: you felt that same impulse and made a different choice. You forced your hands open, and you caressed me instead. I was angry, but I was also proud. You put the weapon down. Like that day on the mountain, you looked me in the eye and somehow saw past the dictator, the tyrant, the murderer, the completely fucked up person that I am. When it would have been easy, when you felt like it would have been completely justified, the right thing to do, you saw me…and put the gun down. Laid the weapon that is yourself to the side. And I love you and against all odds you love me and I know you’ll make that choice every time.” Pagan slides his hand down to Ajay’s, the one still on his belly, and entwines their fingers.

“My dear, what we think, what we feel, always takes a backseat to what we do. Even if the choices are fucked all to hell, we choose, and then deal with the consequences.” He thinks for a moment, and adds, “I don’t count that time you smeared my own cocaine-induced nosebleed across my face and then slapped me. That was entirely justified. I was out of control and making an ass out of myself. You should have done it again after that bullshit I said about your mother.”

Ajay laughs then, rolls closer to him and puts an arm around him, careful of his sore ribs. “You were just afraid of me. I dropped a bombshell on your poor inebriated self and terrified you. I wanted to wait for you to sober up but you had to go and be all stubborn on me.”

Pagan breathes out slowly. “If you’d waited, and I had gone out to the Lost Valley the next day alone, I would have died out there. When I was in the snow, drifting in and out of consciousness and slowly freezing to death I heard your voice, mad as hell, telling me not to go where you couldn’t follow me. That’s what made me get up, get up and keep struggling.”

They both lay there, quiet, thinking of all the close calls and the almosts and what had to happen just right for them to both be here together like this, healthy and relatively sane. How incredibly lucky.

Maybe even how fated.

“You told me once that you would always choose me. Unfailingly, never doubt it.” He smiles gently then, in the dark; Pagan can feel it against his chest. “And I make the same choice. Always. Every day, every minute, every second…you. Always you. So ditto.”

Pagan works his fingers into his lover’s shaggy black hair. “And you told me once that if anyone threatened us you’d blow the shit out of them with artillery, which makes me feel warmer and fuzzier than it probably ought to. You’d rip the world apart to save me, leave it in bloody tatters and a trail of bodies in your wake. As would I. Always. You’re the only thing that matters.” He cranes his neck a bit to kiss the top of Ajay’s head. “So ditto.”

Pagan sighs against his hair and starts to drift a little, relishing Ajay’s warm weight against him, the feel of his warm breath brushing his chest, so familiar and comforting.

 

“We’re going to be all right, you and I.”

 

---------------------------------------

People like us know how to survive,
There's no point in living if you can't feel alive,
We know when to kiss and we know when to kill,
If we can't have it all, then nobody will.

The world is not enough,
But it is such a perfect place to start, my love.
And if you're strong enough,
Together we can take the world apart, my love.

 

Garbage – The World Is Not Enough

 

---------------------------------------------

Chapter Text

The day that Ajay deems it safe enough to brings Bhadra to the Palace, Pagan is waiting for them in the courtyard.

He notes that Pagan’s picked out the charcoal gray suit to wear, his nicest formal 'important visiting dignitaries' three piece, complete with tie. He hates ties, says he hates the feel of them around his neck. A shame, because he looks really, really hot in them. But that, more than anything else convinces Ajay that he’s really trying to make this work; not that Ajay ever, ever doubted that, or him. He just appreciates the gesture of respect, one leader to another.

Dressed to the nines, hair on point, makeup on point. He may even be wearing a tiny bit of lipstick, the same pink shade as his tie. But maybe it’s just the cold wind.

Ajay is so proud of him.

 

As the car pulls into the drive, Pagan gently waves Corporal Kamran off and opens her door himself. Gives her a small bow and a murmured Namaste in the Kyrati style, appropriate to her station. Offers his hand in the English style. Pagan at his charming, attentive best.

When they approach the door, Pagan stops in front with his hands clasped behind his back. He stands very straight like a schoolboy reciting a lesson, clears his throat, and speaks the traditional, ceremonial phrase:

“Tarun Matara. Krpaya, raaja ke mahal mein aaen, aur aapaka svaagat hai.”
Please, come into the King’s Palace, and be welcome.

He only stumbles a little over the harder words, which is pretty decent. After all, it’s been over twenty years since he’s needed to say them.

Ajay, his arm around Bhadra’s shoulders, lean down and whispers, “He’s trying really hard to do this right.” She smiles a little.

-------------------------

Later, after Pagan takes them on the tour, they sit down to lunch on the balcony. Ajay’s told the kitchen staff all of Bhadra’s favorites and she seems delighted. She even seems to appreciate the crab rangoon, which started as a weird joke of Pagan’s and then blew up all out of proportion. He’s always obligated to serve it now since the King’s Table is famous for it, and everybody who visits wants a sample. Bhadra doesn’t have to know that the “crab” is actually pit viper meat; even Pagan has limits on what he’s able to import reliably. It’s still tasty.

After they are finished, Pagan clears his throat. “Miss Dharini,” he starts, but she interrupts.

“Please, King Min, Bhadra is fine.”

“Yes, well...in that case, you may call me Pagan.” He pauses, a bit awkwardly.

“I...you have perhaps been wondering why I am formally inviting you into the house now when, in your fifteen years as the Tarun Matara, I have never acknowledged your existence.” Except for that one thing I said once when I was drunk, about god children and rifles, Pagan thinks, and winces internally.

He soldiers on.

“I know that I have never been a good king for Kyrat, or even a good man, but I wish to be a better one. Recently, Mr. Ghale and I...”

Ajay laughs. “Pagan, it’s okay, she knows about us.”

Pagan lets out a small whoosh of air, a breath that he didn’t even know he’d been holding.

“Oh! Well, that’s good! That’s...good, right? I mean, that’s...acceptable, to you? I must confess I know very little about Kyrati religion...” he says, fiddling with his water glass.

And Bhadra laughs at him, as Ajay gets up to give him a one-armed hug and kiss the top of his head. He's been waiting to do it for hours now.

“Yes Pagan, it is good. Love is always a force of good in the world, as you well know. And it is very good to see my older brother so happy.” Ajay’s ears pinken up a bit at that. “Your happiness will only bring positivity to the people of Kyrat. Your people now, truly.”

Ajay smiles. “I think what Pagan is trying to say is that we would both like for you to come live in the Palace with us. It’s an old tradition for the Tarun Matara to live here too, and things are still pretty unsettled right now and it’s much safer for you here. Also,” Ajay grins, “I like the idea of having a little sister to boss around.”

Pagan nods. “A truly great lady recently reminded me that while the King is the Head of Kyrat, the Tarun Matara is the Heart, and that Ajay and I should protect you and protect Kyrat to the best of our abilities.” He pauses. “That the three of us need each other.”

“Yes, I know!” she says brightly. “I know something of what you mean. I was there too...at least a little. I know about the struggle that you and Ajay went through, and how he and Kalinag called on me for help.”

Ajay’s eyes widen.

This kind of shit is never not going to be weird.

Pagan looks a bit stunned.

“That’s right,” he murmurs, “Ishwari...the Tarun Matara said that she was Ishwari, but that she was you, too. She was all the Tarun Mataras throughout history.” He pauses, as a frightening thought occurs to him.

“Does that..." he has to swallow, "...does that mean that you know everything that Ishwari knew?” She nods, her eyes a little sad. Sad for him, he realizes.

“Yes, and through her I know that you are a good man, one worthy of love. If you weren’t a good man at heart, you would not be sitting here with me. You would be One with Yalung, consumed.” Pagan feels a tiny convulsive shiver, thinking about how very close it was. He stares at the table, swallowing hard.

“It was love that saved you, Pagan Min; Ajay’s love, Ishwari’s love...and mine.” She reaches out and touches the back of his hand, the merest brush of fingertips. Pagan looks up from his plate, looks into her green eyes. Sees the weight of all the worlds. Of time, and possibility.

“In a way,” she says, so gently, “I am Ishwari’s daughter, too.”

As Ajay sits there stunned and Pagan is surreptitiously wiping his eyes, trying not to smudge his mascara, Bhadra magically turns back into a fifteen year old girl, excitedly chattering about Playstation and movies and all things Western that Ajay’s told her about.

When Ajay gets up to show her, she comes around to Pagan’s side of the table. “I would like very much to stay here, with you and Ajay. Thank you,” she says, a bit gravely. Leans in. Kisses his cheek. Is off, like a butterfly, like a peacock fluttering across soft grass.

 

Pagan sits alone at the table for awhile, just taking in the view of the mountains, thinking.

Touches his fingers to his face.

 

“Holy shit, Bhadra,” Ajay says, when they’re on their way to play Gran Turismo. “Do you realize that within two hours of meeting him, you made Pagan Min cry? The former Triad kingpin, the warlord, the tyrant, the dictator, the guy that once killed one of his own soldiers with a pen because he tried to hurt me…that Pagan Min. You, yes you, made Pagan. Fucking. Min. Cry.” Ajay shakes his head, laughing. “Good thing the Golden Path never exploited your secret superpower.”

“He won’t be angry, will he?” Bhadra says. The words make it seem like she might be worried, but her tone and face say she doesn’t give a shit either way. Ajay smiles. He thinks she’ll fit in just fine here.

“Nah, you made him happy. Well, happy...sad, you know. Bittersweet. It’s good for him to cry though, he doesn’t do it enough.”

“Oh?” Bhadra says, a little curious. Does Ajay feel that his partner ought to have a quota for tears? “How many times, since you have known him?”

Ajay looks past her into the distance, and his face is a little sad, a little wistful. A little haunted. She knows he’s thinking of the Lost Valley, just how close they both came to losing everything, and how it’s tempered with how good things are now. Healing. Life.

 

“Only a few,” he says. And then he smiles.

 

“But that’s not counting the times because I made him laugh.”

 

The next year, when they marry in a ceremony that is an admittedly strange mix of Kyrati, Cantonese, British, and American customs, and Ajay Min is officially named the Prince Consort of Kyrat, it’s the Tarun Matara they say their vows to.

 

End