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For Want

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Scots pines border each side of the road. They lean in even though their spacing suggests their planting was planned. Behind them lurk large deciduous trees that stretch down the far slope and mark the boundary between organized trees and old forest. No grass grows here. The ground is covered in pine needles, cloths of moss and lichens, broken stones, and intricate root systems thicker than a man’s arm. A resounding stillness fills the air occasionally broken by rustling leaves and groaning oak.

Raymond inhales deeply. Distilled countryside surrounds him like water. He closes the truck’s door and the sound ricochets through the trees. Something stirs in the shadows that fringe the ditches. It detaches from the dark as a tall silhouette devoid of features. Just a stick figure cut out of the fabric of this place.

He tenses in spite of himself. Then the shadow steps into light and Bram fills the void. His hair is closely cropped all military style with the bearing to match. He has that vibe of being one careless twitch away from lunging. Underneath the pallor and raccoon eyes is a well-proportioned face. Strong jaw, knife nose, thin lips, frown lines. Too stern and careworn to be a welcoming. But once upon a time, it could have been. Startling grey eyes, although he wouldn’t appreciate being told that. They’re flat, too. Like someone took two nails and hammered them into his skull.

He’s armed and in uniform. Raymond can barely make out the bulk of a machine gun and bullet-proof vest. Bram moves sideways so he can see all the angles around the truck. It’s an automatic gesture, done so many times it’s mechanical, so Raymond doesn’t tease him about it.

“Hey, man.”

Raymond goes in for a kiss, but Bram grabs him by shoulder and holds him at arm’s length. Not tightly. Not enough to hurt. But firmly. Enough to show that he could. Bram’s fingers are strong and crooked. Crisscrossed by scars. He smells like metal, sweat, and the inside of a gym bag. He’s come straight from work with no time to spray his armour with deodorizer.

“Sorry.” Raymond steps back.

Those hard grey eyes soften a little. Not a lot, but a little. It’s still hard to ignore the machine gun.

“Hey,” he says again. “I did all those cool-as-fuck spy tricks you showed me. I wasn’t followed. Also? It’s extremely weird that you know all the in’s and out’s around my apartment building.”

Bram’s eyes flick over his expression, guarded, nearly shy. The boyish look suits him, but he wouldn’t appreciate being told that, either. The only way this man will listen to anything that isn’t layered in a thousand different meanings is if it’s said in silence. That’s Bram’s language. Silence.

“And I brought a blanket,” Raymond says.

“It’s not a fucking picnic.”

The Belfast accent makes Bram sound extra gruff and grousing. Something warm expands under Raymond’s sternum expands. He smiles.

Bram drops his hand. “Aye, fine. Bring it.”

“Gimme a sec.”

Raymond leans in the open window into the driver’s side. He grabs the old grizzly-brown blanket he used to keep in his truck back home as part of his winter emergency kit. It still smells like horses. A nice smell that takes him back to cold nights spent in a warm barn checking all his dad’s horses.

The air here is chilly not because the temperature is low, but because humidity is high. Sometimes it’s so high his bed sheets feel damp. No wonder people invest so much in hot water bottles and electric blankets around here. But for right now, Bram’s body heat radiates across his back and that’s enough.

Raymond turns, throws the blanket over his shoulder, and goes for a rugged mountain man pose. Bram looks at him for a moment with the same air of anticipation and then tilts his head towards the forest as if to say, Shall we?

They head into the ravine and up the steep climb to the tree line itself. The ground eases off into a gentle slope that rises up to the light. Moonlight is sifted through countless branches overhead. The nearest ones are full of pine needles, but gradually give way to distinctively shaped leaves. Oaks. What moonlight makes it to the forest floor is as thin as skim milk.

A few rustles off in the dark. Some birds chirp anxiously at their passing, which makes Bram stop and raise his machine gun. While Raymond hasn’t enlisted in any special forces lately, he’s seen enough movies to stop and crouch. Bram lowers himself to the ground and morphs back into a featureless shadow among the ferns. His head stays cocked, nose up, scenting the air. A large animal with a bulky chest and gunmetal scent that tests the silence for betrayal. Nothing moves.

After a long pause, Bram starts off again while Raymond straightens up and rubs his thighs. The ache in his muscles fade with a steady walk. He’s careful not to trip over any roots or stones, but it requires constant attention. Bram glides through the woods like his boots never touch the ground.

The forest rapidly thins and then it abruptly stops. Raymond squints at his feet. There’s just enough light to see a disused pair of tire tracks.

Something’s back here. They follow the road until they come upon a clearing. In the centre is an overgrown stone house. It looks like something out of a fairy tale. A cottage with a rotten roof that has several holes, one big enough to reveal a weather barrier flung up by wind and able to catch the light. Looks like the blanket will come in handy tonight. This place is in desperate need of rethatching.

The windows are broken. The door is gone. The sills are white, but most of that paint is peeling to reveal rotten grey wood underneath. They find the door a few feet off the path. Also once white, but a lot farther along in its disintegration than the sills. Bluebells crush sweetly underneath their feet.

Someone restored this place only to let it fall back into ruin. Raymond lowers his voice to a whisper. “What is this?”

Bram doesn’t answer right away. He scans their surroundings and freezes just outside the house. Its doorway yawns open like a mouth. He gestures for Raymond to take cover by a broken section of wall before he disappears inside. Raymond hunkers down, thin stones and lichen poking at his back. There’s some scraping inside before Bram reappears and circles the house. He even goes back into the forest, makes a barely audible circle through the oaks, and steps out a few feet from where he went in. His head angles up and night goggles jut off his face.

Looking for drones? Satellites? Santa Clause? Hard to tell. Maybe all of them. Raymond props an elbow on his blanket and waits. A fox cries in the distance and he startles. It’s only then Raymond admits to himself that he’s afraid.

If someone is out here, Bram will find them. The brisk way he conducts his sweep speaks of long practice. A self-assurance born of experience. If he finds someone, he knows exactly what to do with them. The machine gun looks like a comfortable weight across his chest.

Raymond doesn’t know how to feel about that yet. Or if he ever will. It’s part of the sinews of this country now. Underneath all the reassuring ads televised overseas, Ireland has a darkness roiling under the surface. Like a volcanic lake. It looks pretty but if you step in without protection, you’ll burn alive.

Bram finally walks back into the clearing and turns his goggles off. He gives the nod and Raymond goes inside. It’s dark, but smokey. He lets his eyes adjust and moves cautiously around the single room. A small glow lines an overturned table. He steps around it and finds a small fire flickering in the old fireplace. The table hides all light from the outside. Smoke, peat, damp, and mould all mix together. He nudges a few briquettes aside and lays the blanket down.

The floor is bare soil, but so packed down by time and use that it’s more like linoleum. He empties his pockets of condoms, lube, disinfectant, tissues, beer, and a utility knife. All the essentials of a hot date. Bram drags a bench across the doorway so any invaders will have to contend with that before anything else. The narrow windows are covered by cling wrap that’s only visible at certain angles. If anything is tossed in, it’ll bounce back outside.

These are the things one prepares for. Raymond props one arm on a table leg and wonders when he got used to it. After 20 minutes of surveillance, Bram finally kneels on the blanket. He lays his machine gun aside. Then the beret, vest, cornucopia of knives, and sidearm follow. The man looks ready to star in an action movie.

“It’s a Famine cottage,” Bram says. “Done up for tourists years ago.”

“Now there’s no more tourists.”

“Aye.”

He reaches for his jacket zipper, but Raymond covers it with his hand. “You mind?”

Bram lets both of his hands drop into his lap.

Raymond holds the zipper steady and leans in. They kiss, but Bram’s lips remain firm. Too much, maybe? Raymond pulls away, but those crooked hands grasp either side of his neck. Immobilize him. Bram stares at him so intensely that his eyes have a light of their own. Burning cold. It’s obvious how this man survived for so long. Who could stand up to him?

The second kiss catches Raymond in mid-breath. It’s quick, at first. Almost clumsy. Then it deepens. And then—wow. He makes a surprised noise, but doesn’t pull away. The hands on his neck slide onto his shoulders. Rough and warm. They part slowly. A sort of ungluing. Raymond tilts his head forward and inhales. He tastes cigarettes and very strong coffee.

“I didn’t expect that,” he admits.

Bram straightens up and draws his arms to his sides.

“Relax. I just mean…. Well, you smooch.”

“Smooch.”

“Yeah, man. Like a total sweetheart. It’s not bad.” Raymond flicks the jacket zipper. “Doesn’t gel with your big bad soldier vibe, that’s all.”

“Please stop talking.”

Raymond cups that world-weary face. “But you’re so fucking adorable.”

Bram groans like he’s in pain.

“Okay, okay,” Raymond laughs, “I’ll stop.”

He slowly drags the zipper down. Its teeth click steadily until the jacket peels open. He pushes it off Bram’s shoulders and studies the shirt underneath. It’s black with pale seams fading with age. Another whiff of sweat. Hair peeks tantalizingly above the neckline. He slides his hands down Bram’s chest, feels all the muscles contract on contact, and hooks the hem with his fingertips. More hair grazes his skin. He grins and pulls the shirt up over Bram’s head, who raises his arms obligingly. He then throws it beside the condoms, the foundation for a clothing pile destined to get a lot bigger.

The sight of Bram’s bare chest is something else. All damp hairs and sweat that glint in the firelight. Scars, jagged and white, seek out vital organs. Raymond traces a few of them. Warm fibrous ridges that map out a life spent in conflict. He leans forward and presses his mouth against a particularly large scar under the clavicle. Then kisses his way down, grazing both nipples as he does so.

A sharp inhalation. Raymond feels the rush of air, the billowing expansion of both lungs, through his lips. Hands tug at his shirt and unsnap each button with maddening fastidiousness. He pulls back and rips the shirt off over his head. The muscle shirt underneath snaps on his chin and he pulls it off with one hand before throwing it into the pile.

Bram laughs softly. If a mountain could laugh, it would laugh like that. Raymond pushes up against him for another kiss. It’s electric. He can feel Bram’s erection through his combat pants. Each point of contact surges towards his core.

Raymond flicks his tongue over one nipple, then the other, while Bram’s chest heaves under his mouth like a sea. Hairs tickle his cheeks and chin as he slides lower down the treasure tail. Then his chin rasps against the hem of Bram’s pants. He looks up grinning.

Bram’s mouth flattens into a somber line. “You’re sure?”

There’s something so tentative buried in his voice that Raymond can’t trust himself to speak out loud. He kisses a little crease just above Bram’s belly button and rests both palms on the soft spots above the man’s hips. A part of Raymond has always suspected. He keeps his face tilted down and gives a few kisses as cover. If he ever figures out who’s responsible for that pain, he’ll kick their ass. But he can’t let that show because Bram will compartmentalize that, too. So he schools his expression into a smile and tilts his head back up.

“I’m sure if you’re sure.”

Bram scours his face for any sign of reluctance or fear, finds none, then struggles to decide if this is what normal people do or what Raymond does. It’s endearing even if it lances Raymond in the chest. He waits until Bram gives the OK before unzipping his fly. Bram leans back and lifts his hips so Raymond can pull his pants and underwear down. His cock juts out of a dark thicket of hair. Despite all the sweating and exertion, Bram’s relatively clean. Somewhere between work and here, he washed all his relevant parts.

Raymond smirks at that, puts one hand on Bram’s hip and he shimmies out of his own pants and underwear. Strokes himself a few times as he gives Bram’s cock a lick. Bram’s breath stops. All out stops. Raymond sits there, watching, waiting, ready to call it off if he sees any of the pain he just heard. There isn’t any so Raymond takes it slow.

When those crooked fingers slide through his hair, he wraps his hand around the base of Bram’s cock and swallows him down until those wiry little hairs tickle the tip of his nose. His eyes smart, but Bram’s groan is worth it it. Muscles flexing, hips twitching, thighs spreading so Raymond can get comfortable. He bobs his head, tightens one hand in time, and hums a tune off the radio. Bram’s pretty quiet at first. Then he starts squirming, trying not to just start thrusting with wild abandon. His huffs turn into soft gasps and he puts one hand on Raymond’s shoulder. Raymond lets his cock slide from his lips and looks up. It takes a moment of them looking at each other, something fragile held in the air between them, and then he understands.

“Don’t worry,” he says. “We’ve got lots of time.”

Bram squints at him like his trying to figure out what he’s looking at, then rumbles something in the back of his throat. Raymond kisses the head of his cock and starts his rhythm again. He swallows down and pumps his hand in time, now slick with saliva. Bram’s pulse thrums against the roof of his mouth so he starts humming another song off the Top 10. Bram suddenly hisses, his body contracts like a single muscle, and exhales raggedly. His voice is crumpled black velvet. Helpless in the best way. The only way anybody should know. Raymond starts stroking himself again, a pulse banging in his ears, and he’s not sure if it’s Bram’s or his own.

Bram suddenly clutches his shoulder in warning. Raymond quickens his pace and adds a few extra twists. Bram grunts, hips thrusting forward, and comes. His balls squeeze against the underside of Raymond’s wrist. Raymond swallows deeply despite the bitter taste and feels himself rushing headlong off the cliff, too. A thrill zings up his navel. He lifts his head, neck and jaw aching, and clenches his teeth. Bram bats his hand away and the bright oncoming release stutters down to a lower gear. He looks up, mind blank, until Bram pushes him over onto his back.

It’s quite the image. A scarred military man taking his cock into his mouth, red-lipped, eyes half-closed in concentration. Wet sucking heat, the sounds of it, tongue and ridges, a teasing scrape of teeth, just a hint of danger. Except he knows deep down that it’s not a hint, it’s all around him with someone like this, someone who can hide it all except for a hint here or there. Someone who has enough practice at it that it’s nearly second nature. Raymond groans loudly and grabs one corner of the blanket.

“I’m gonna….” He inhales noisily and bites his lip. “I’m….”

He shouts as he comes. Insides singing hot, sparking, taut to the breaking point. Snapping. Bram swallowing it all down, fingers digging into thigh muscle, all those scars catching light. It’s the image Raymond carries with him as he shuts his eyes and rides the wave, throbbing, prickling, tingling; so hot he must be glowing. His entire body reverberates like a bell.

The pleasure fades, throbs, fades a little more. It wrings the last thrusts out of Raymond. He moans a curse, doesn’t even have the wherewithal to know which one, and drapes an arm across his eyes. That hot clever-tongued mouth pulls away from his cock and the cold air feels colder. After a few gulps of air, he puts his arm behind his head and watches Bram stretch out onto his side. Eyes and mouth soft. All his hard angles finally rounded.

They catch their breath by the fire. When the flames are nearly out, Bram throws another briquette on with visible effort. His eyes start to flutter and it’s hard not to touch him. Raymond wants to put his head on the man’s chest, listen to his lungs expand and contract, and nod off on that steady see-saw. Listen in while he sleeps. The rustling breaths. Stomach gurgles. Skin sliding on fabric. All the secret rhythms people have, but only some get to hear.

After a while, Raymond reaches for a can of beer and opens it with as little noise as possible. It hisses like a baby snake and Bram immediately snaps awake.

“Shit, sorry.”

Bram blinks slowly like a cat and holds a hand out for the beer. They share it, then Bram lights a cigarette that Raymond declines. The silence is comfortable and devoid of expectation. No awkwardness or need for chatter. The idea of Bram struggling to hold his own while talking about the weather makes him laugh.

“What?” Bram rumbles.

“Just imagining you doing small talk.”

“Is that what you want?”

“Hell no.”

Bram sizes him up again. Does this go in the normal or the Raymond file? Raymond wants to answer, keep the mood light, but that would be analyzed to death. The idea that people do things for the reasons they say they do, that it can be that simple and straight forward, isn’t something Bram’s assimilated. Not that his line of work lends itself to transparency.

Raymond leans over and kisses his shoulder. Tastes salt and skin. Now that Bram’s awake, he tucks his chin into the damp crook of his neck and dozes.

After a long while, Bram’s hand slides over his and tucks it tight against his ribs. The wind carries something piney and floral from outside.

“Raymond.”

“Mm.”

“Remember I said this is dangerous?”

“Mmhmm.”

“No, listen.” Bram squeezes his hand when he speaks, his voice rough. “You need to know this.”

“Okay.”

He takes a shuddering breath. “You’re not the only one. You know that by now.”

“I know that by now,” Raymond agrees.

Bram hesitates. The easy acceptance must throw him. Maybe he’s hoping the lack of openness, monogamy, and date nights will push Raymond away. He digests that for a little while, hand still tight over Raymond’s. Everything in his body demands closeness like a dehydrated body demands water, but he can’t stomach that without full-disclosure.

“If this goes any further…. He’ll kill you if he finds out. Not at first, but eventually. He will kill you.”

The he needs no explanation. There’s only one person Bram is afraid of.

Raymond squints at the fire. “Further as in….?” When there’s no answer, he stumbles on. “You mean sex? Sex sex?”

“Sex se….” Bram mutters something that sounds like Jesus Christ into his elbow. “Yes.”

“So this is different.”

Bram stays silent.

The security measures make sense now. In spite of himself, Raymond feels a rush of adrenaline and affection spiral together like two jets in an airshow. “I’m sure if you’re sure.”

Bram rolls over to look at him. His expression is intense, but hard to read. There could be fear, hope, fondness. Or not.

Raymond wonders if he’s ever asked this before. If he’s taken the risk. And it is a risk. But Bram doesn’t appear anywhere without a good reason. In another person, in another part of the world, this would be frivolous. Motivated by nothing more than lust, curiosity, and mischief. Here, where people vanish all the time, it has to be motivated by something a lot more.

This should be normal even if circumstances aren’t. So Raymond trails a finger down Bram’s bicep and hopes what he’s thinking can cross that point of contact.

It must because Bram kisses him so suddenly that it knocks the breath out of him. He strokes Raymond’s cock, a little at first, then harder until he’s erect again. Not that it takes much. Firelight flickers across Bram’s body. Brief glimpses of rippling muscles, gullies between bones, dark match stick hairs that glint dark auburn, and thinning scars that meander like dried up riverbeds. Raymond runs his fingertips across Bram’s shoulders, down his back, the snug ridges of his ribs, then back across his arms. One extended, one bent to access his cock. Each strokes sends sparks across Raymond’s body like a diamond saw. He sighs, lets his head fall back for a while. Reignited heat races through him. Keeps rising, gaining an edge, deep-seated trilling. He gently rests his hand on Bram’s. Bram blinks slowly again.

Raymond brushes one of his knuckles against that granite jaw. “We don’t have to.”

Bram arches a brow, but the downward curve of his mouth eases into a line. Somewhere between an expression and not. Something Raymond can see it from the corner of his eye, but when he looks, it’s gone. All the scouting, cleaning, and scrounging tell him that Bram’s been planning this for a while and thinking about it for even longer. Not a careless man, his Bram. But the choice matters. Even if he sounds like some cliche out of a romcom, it’s better than the alternative. Because when a hurt gets in so deep for so long, it doesn’t register anymore. People go pain-blind. And that shit is unacceptable.

He reaches for the bottle of lube, an expensive brand, and sets it down by his thigh. “I tried it out last week. It’s good stuff.”

Bram opens the bottle. It smells candy-sweet and he does a double take at the label. Piña colada.

“Ah, for fuck’s sake.”

“Shh, you’ll like it.”

The annoyance is all for show and they both know it. Bram squeezes a skiff out on his palm and lets it sit there for a while, absorbing the feel and smell of it. One of his eyebrows twitch. The lube warms and tingles on contact. Raymond grins, takes a dab with one finger, and puts it on his nipples. The tinging deepens, penetrates his chest and belly, until it completes the circuit to his groin. A pleasant round-edged buzz that isn’t overstimulating, but brings that threshhold ever closer. He hums encouragement until Bram follows his example. A little shy and unsure. Not acquainted with this kind of frivolousness. It’s an odd contradiction in a man who has to be sure about everything.

Bram swirls a small lick on his own nipples. Just enough to make his skin glisten. He nearly looks virginal like that. Moving hesitantly, waiting for unfelt sensations to filter in, experiencing them for the first time. Raymond rolls on a condom and watches all those sensations unfold. The bewilderment takes 10 years off of Bram’s face. He looks a little lost. Then he makes an abrupt noise in the back of his throat like one stone grinding against another. His brow twitches again. His mouth parts ever so slightly. He gives himself a few vigorous strokes and settles down on Raymond’s thighs.

He’s heavier than he looks, but not as heavy as Raymond imagines. His thighs are warm, corded, and gristly muscle. Sinewy and tough, not for show. These legs can run a lot of people down. March in the big parades on television. More things Raymond’s not sure about, but the problem is so large, diffuse, and overbearing. A thing he can’t wrap his brain around. He trails his hands up and down Bram’s sides, feels them bunch and stretch like hardened ropes. He reaches for the lube and offers it to Bram, but the man shakes his head.

“Done.”

“What?” Raymond clasps each knee, feels the right is a little misshapen. “You’ve been in uniform like that?”

“Aye,” Bram says warily.

“You slut!” Raymond laughs from deep in his belly. “That is the hottest shit.”

Bram’s so startled, he actually smiles, then the smile vanishes almost instantly. It’s completely egocentric, but Raymond likes to think no one else sees it. Virtually no one would dare, but that’s besides the point.

Raymond spreads a generous amount of lube over his erection and savours the anticipation. Bram’s weight shifts, all those hard muscles and tendons sliding under his skin, and positions himself forward. Raymond rests his hands on either side of Bram’s hips, but doesn’t apply any pressure. Just there to steady Bram as he guides himself down. Raymond holds his cock in one hand and they slowly lock into place like two pieces of furniture. The squeezing heat. The weight of him. Raymond breathes out and props his right leg up. Bram settles by inches, his breath careful, his eyes closed in concentration. He uses Raymond’s knee to steady himself, keep the pace slow, until they’re finally flush against one another.

They start slow. Bram sighs, one hand still on Raymond’s knee, and starts shifting. His hips lift, cant forward, and sink down again. His expression is relaxed, flushed, his jaw slack. Raymond thrusts in time, even though he wants nothing more than pump mindlessly. It’s the idea, he admits. A badass soldier riding him like a pony? Goddamn.

He forces himself to keep it slow and methodical, presses one hand on the small of Bram’s back, and feels all the muscles move in time with the squeeze and heat. The wet sounds of lube, not sexy but intimate. Raymond braces himself to prevent a muscle spasm that’s menacing his thigh. He exhales slowly, mouth a small ‘o’, and the raw tension fades away. Bram watches him, eyes briefly clear and sober, awash in the flick and tuck of firelight. His hand slides down Raymond’s thigh as if he can sense the pain and draw it out like venom.

He has peculiar calluses. None like Raymond’s ever seen before. All the callused hands he’s known on his parents, his sisters, friends, lovers, all uniformly spread. Earned from work. Bram’s calluses are on his thumb, alongside his middle finger, and the web of his hand. They tell another story.

Raymond tries to cut that thought off. Lose himself in the tingling crescendo rising under his naval. But that hand on his thigh, that map of past action and possible intent, of a familiarity with violence, won’t let him go. He gasps, Bram’s belly tenses in response, and he picks up the pace. Shallow rapid thrusts, undignified wet noise. Ridiculous closeness. Bram grits his teeth, strokes himself with one hand, and steadies himself with the other. Pitches forward. Sweat glistening in the grooves of his arms and shoulders, breaths rapid and shallow as their rhythm. His hair is tight against his skull, temples dark and damp, and all the small scars, all the nicks and scratches, contrast sharply with his flushed skin. His breaths scrape the back of his throat, become gasps and groans, reach a state of feeling that seemed impossible before. Higher-pitched, unhindered.

Whatever Bram says, it feels like it’s been a long time for him. For them both. Raymond draws it all in and feels a smouldering arc up and down his thighs. He suddenly wraps his arms around Bram, steadies him, and thrusts wildly in whatever way makes Bram squirm. And he does squirm. He tenses, makes a strangled noise like he’s pleased and doesn’t want anyone to know, and then wraps his arms around Raymond’s head. Leans in until all Raymond can see are the flame-tinted hairs on planes of pinked slick skin. Breathes in the salt of him. They curl together like two corners of burning paper.

That’s what they are, Raymond thinks. Consumed, rising, lighter than air. He thrusts fast and shallow, holds them together. Locked. Bram’s breath jitters like he’s freezing. He strokes himself hard while his other hand grips like a claw, desperate for release. Purchase. Anything. They’re both rising. Raymond digs his hands into Bram’s back as the current inside him surges sharply. Gathers. Peaks. He groans into Bram’s shoulder, feels that gristly body shudder, tight around him, against him, and thrusts mindlessly until he’s empty. Hot spurts over his belly. Bram moans softly as if, even now, as if someone might be listening.

They ride it out tangled around each other. Panting, deaf to all else. Raymond shuts his eyes and sags against the overturned table. They’re both sweaty even out here. Bram’s skin sheens, but is already turning sticky. He breathes in before grasping his cock and gently pulling out. Bram tilts his hips to accommodate him, then rolls off onto the blanket. They lie there for a while. Fire crackling. Their breaths slowing. Raymond rolls the condom off and throws it on the fire. The smell is foul, but it shrivels up soon enough. Bram adds another briquette.

“Goddamn,” Raymond says.

Bram’s eyes swivel to him. He looks like he might say something, then thinks the better of it.

“You go on a lot of hot dates like this?”

“No.”

Raymond laughs and imitates Bram’s deep voice. “No.”

Bram looks angry, then alarmed, then angry and alarmed. “I thought you understood.”

He looks genuinely frightened in his own way. Which is anger suppressed with visible effort, but stretched thin overtop of something he doesn’t want to show. Raymond’s amusement sours, but he tries to keep up the feel-good glow a little longer.

“Lighten up, man,” he says. “Just because we can die horribly at any moment doesn’t mean we can’t live a little.”

Bram’s brow does that twitchy thing again. A complex series of emotions slide across his face. It looks weird. If he were a computer, he’d be humming, all RAM in use, one wrong click away from a dreaded blue screen. The idea that everything isn’t doom and gloom all the time is still pretty novel. It reminds Raymond how few foreigners are allowed to work here. He’s self-aware enough to admit that maybe, just maybe, he doesn’t take things seriously enough. In fairness, fleeing to the American embassy because he stuck his dick in some shadowy military brass would be funny. It’s probably the one reason neither of his parents prophesied would get him expelled or imprisoned. What a story that would make. If anyone heard it, of course.

Poor Bram is still trying to decipher all the angles of what he said. He’s such a serious guy from a serious place. Does the sex really need to be that serious on top of everything else? No. But people don’t think that way anymore. Everyone needs to smoke some weed. Raymond would offer some, but Bram would probably detain him and then himself.

“Don’t you have any fun at all?” He means it to be teasing, but Bram’s expression shutters closed. “Aw, shit. Come on, I didn’t mean it like that.”

“I know,” Bram says. He sounds like the cottage is bearing down on them and he’s the only one keeping it up.

Every conversation is like a dance, but Raymond can’t hear the music. He still feels like he’s back home in some ways. He’s still in a place where snatching people is frowned upon. Except everyone watches everyone. Say the wrong thing or stay quiet at the wrong time and you’re marked. His status as an American should be a decent shield, as long as he doesn’t shit on a general’s lawn or something, but now he’s not sure. There’s so many unspoken rules. Each one like a tripwire.

“You’ve been protecting me.”

The words pop out of Raymond’s mouth before he registers what they mean. He waits for a response, unable to look anywhere but the fire.

No answer.

He swallows hard, mouth dry. It takes a few tries, but he finally manages to turn his head. Bram meets his eye reflexively, then averts his face. Maybe it’s just the firelight, but his ears look red.

“Holy shit, you have.”

Bram keeps his face averted.

One thing Raymond’s learned here is that it’s not always what people do that counts. It’s what they don’t do. What they don’t say. In the movies, the villain destroys everything and anyone in the way. Ties up all the loose ends. He’s a loose end, isn’t he? And he’s not dead.

Raymond lets the silence sit for a little while longer. “You know, I don’t expect to be the only one you sleep with, but I expect to be the funny one.”

A long pause.

“Better start being funny then.”

“Wait.” Raymond jerks his head back. “Did you just say something funny?”

“No.”

“You did.”

“Fuck off.”

You did.”

“Just leave it.”

“Fine, fine. But we both know what I am.”

“Aye, a bloody clown.”

Raymond bursts out laughing. It convulses all the way through him. He leans back against the table’s underside and laughs until it hurts. Involuntary tears prick at his eyes. The tough guy accent kills him. It takes a few tries before he can breath again.

A bloody clown,” he parrots and wipes his eyes. “Wow.”

Bram glares at him.

“Sorry. Guess I’m feeling that piña colada.” Raymond tries to stifle himself, but his shoulders give him away.

"You’ll be feeling a lot more if you call me a slut again,“ Bram mutters as he reaches for another beer. "I’ve a good mind not to share this with you.”

“It’s my beer.”

He opens the can and drinks a generous portion.

“That’s cold.” Raymond waits until he’s in mid-swallow. “So where did you slick up before you got here?”

Bram splutters until beer comes out his mouth. He coughs and sets the can down.

“Ah ha. Serves you right.”

“That’s disgusting.”

“Was it in the barracks?”

“Of course not.”

“Aw. Stop killing my kinky soldier fantasy.”

Bram clears his throat. “You bury that now, understand?”

“I know, I know.” Raymond gazes out the window and its hidden defences. “I’m not good at hiding myself.”

“Clearly.”

“But you’re way too good at it.”

That makes Bram pause. His brow furrows. In the firelight, his face looks sculpted out of stone.

“Aye,” he says eventually. “Maybe so.”

Raymond rests his ear against Bram’s shoulder blade. Even through bone, every breath sounds like air rushing into a cavern. They both keep quiet while he listens.