"I need coffee, aspirin, and someone to kill me," Julio muttered, collapsing onto the bench in the changing room. Every bit of him ached. Even parts he didn't even know he had. It all cried out in agony every time he breathed. He was getting too old for this shit.
"Aw, who knew you were so delicate?"
Julio glared up at M then winced as a ripple of sharp, stabbing pain twisted down his neck. "Unlike some of us, I'm not invincible. Really wish I was, though. Dios."
Terry laughed. "Aye, me too. I think they make walls harder in Paris." Terry gathered her damp hair into a ponytail, a grimace on her face that Julio completely understood. There were dark bruises peppered along her shoulders, and a mark the size of Julio's head on her thigh. "But mmm, coffee sounds like heaven. You buying, Ric?"
"Unlike some of us, I'm also not rich."
Monet sighed, a pillar of suffering wearing only a tiny white towel.
"I'll buy," Sam said, coming in from his shower, towel hanging low around his waist. "I'll take it out of the budget. God knows we all could use a little pep-me-up after everything that's happened in the last few weeks." He plopped down on the bench beside Julio, towel coming open at his hip. Julio stared at the smooth bare skin then quickly looked away.
"We're fine," Jamie, and Jamie, and Jamie said, in unison, as one dupe dried Jamie with a towel and the other rubbed his shoulders. That was what Rictor needed - more of him to do the things his arms were too sore to do, like pull on a pair of pants.
Terry nodded. "Aye, me too. They tried to turn me into ground beef, is all."
"Might've cracked a couple ribs," Ric confessed when Sam turned on him, knowing better than to try to lie to a guy he'd fought side by side with for years.
Sam had been keeping a closer eye on him than usual, after that Weapon XII mess. But Julio was over that. Darkstar had died, but he hadn't thanks to a previously unknown resistance to brain-infecting zombies. But the guilt he felt for surviving was something he had no resistance to and mostly tried not to think about. It had changed him, though, somehow.
He just wasn't sure how yet.
"Where?" Sam poked him. "Here?"
"Firstly, fuck off," Julio said, twisting away even though it hurt more to do that than sitting there and taking it, "and secondly, si. I'll wrap 'em later. Just need aspirin."
"Done." Jamie banged his head against the wall and a dupe popped out, scurrying out of the room without a word. "Hey, did we even get the bad guys, Mr. Leader Man?"
"Looks like we did, according to the reports. Good work, team. We're definitely getting better at this."
"Terry did most of the work, amigo," Julio said idly, stretching his torso, testing the severity of his injury. The pain from everywhere else was making it hard to focus, though. "Hey, someone want to explain to me why I'm always the first one taken out?"
"They can tell you're annoying from first glance," Monet replied, zipping out of the way when Julio reached out to flap a hand uselessly at any part he could reach. She smirked at him then tossed her towel over his head. Julio heard Sam squeak, and grinned.
"Ach, you shouldn't tease poor Sammy boy."
Jamie hooted. "No, no, by all means, tease him. Naked, if at all possible, please."
Julio blinked as M snatched her towel back, twisting it up to snap at Jamie. After a brief struggle, he finally managed to move enough to get his sweatpants half-way up his legs. He was going to be stiff tomorrow, and he was supposed to be working all day manning the phones. Usually, they got one of Jamie's dupes to do it, but he had requested a vacation. Julio could only hope the chair was plush and comfortable, and he could sleep in it.
The dupe came back with aspirin and a glass of water. Julio mumbled his thanks then downed the two pills with a rush of cool liquid wetting his throat. He stood carefully, stuffed his feet into his loosely laced boots, yanked his pants the rest of the way up, and finally, with his ribs throbbing in painful protest, pulled on a large sweatshirt.
"Are you okay?" M asked quietly as they filed out of the changing room. Sam and Terry were up front, going over the mission in painstakingly boring detail, determined never to make another mistake like the Weapon XII debacle. Jamie and his dupes were still in the change room, playing rock-paper-scissors to decide who would stay behind and work.
"Just sore," Julio assured her. "And in desperate need of caffeine."
M grinned, and Julio grinned back. Some days, he still didn't know what to make of Monet. They hadn't been friends until the Weapon XII thing, but when he had woken up in the hospital with a killer headache but no worse off than that, she had been there, determined to be his new best friend. He hadn't asked why, but she had turned out to be pretty cool, and he'd always liked insanely perfect people. He liked everyone in the group, actually, which continually surprised him and convinced him that he had made the right choice. He had also been offered Los Angeles and Mumbai after his initial interview for X-Corporation.
There wasn't anything about Paris that he didn't love, even the people. He loved the look of it, the gothic architecture and the constant looming presence of the Eiffel Tower, and the sound of it, always busy like back in Guadalajara, filled to the brink with people.
He missed some things, though, about the life he'd left back in Mexico.
He missed feeling like he had made an obvious difference in the world. Without him there as a constant thorn in their side, he knew the more unsavoury members of his family were going to undo all the work he had done getting them shut down and their guns off the streets. He did good with X-Corp, but it wasn't nearly as personal to him.
He missed his mother at strange times, because they had finally found a place with one another where she could look at him without seeing all the people he had killed when his power first manifested, and he could look at her without feeling the bitter old sting of rejection and abandonment. He didn't love her like a son should love his mother, but he loved her in his own damaged way. It was the best he could do, considering.
He missed Shatterstar, too, wherever he had ended up after Julio had taken the job with X-Corp and 'Star had decided to embark on a mission to find himself, because he had seen people do it on television and it sounded like a good idea. Julio got postcards from time to time, addressed to him in 'Star's neat, small writing, with nothing else written.
He was lagging behind the group when he first felt it, the electric crinkle of unnatural energy in the air. Sam and Terry stopped up ahead with Sam shouting out, "look ready, folks," as they took defensive positions. Julio's eyes darted wildly around as he tried to locate the direction of the impending attack, but the streets were strangely empty for this time of night.
There was a snap of noise, like the crack of a whip, and Julio flinched, closing his eyes reflexively against the violent sound. He opened them just in time to see a mangled body spill out of the shock of light that had formed in the middle of the street. It landed with a thud on the pavement then groaned as it tried to push up on its one remaining arm.
"Shatterstar?" Sam shouted over the roar of the anomaly as it closed, closest to the struggling body, but Julio quickly closed the distance, Shatterstar's name echoing hysterically inside his head. It was overlaid with Julio's own internal voice, screaming no, no, no! "Guys, it's Shatty! Terry, you and M fly back and get a medic here pronto."
"Done," Terry said, launching into the air with a shriek, M following closely.
Julio approached tentatively. "Is he …?"
'Star stopped trying to get up and turned his head toward his voice. "Julio?"
He had no eyes, Julio realised suddenly, looking at the bloody lines of his matted eyelashes. No blue eyes, and only one arm, and he was so obviously dying that Julio was too scared to go any closer and find out if he was real. "I'm here," he said.
'Star bowed his head briefly, and there was something different about him, a subtle difference that Julio couldn't quite place, only sense on a deep, intimate level. Ignoring the hysteria screeching in his blood, Julio knelt down at his side and reached out.
"The Time-Dancer," Star said quietly, red blood fresh on his lips, bubbling up as he spoke. Julio slid his hand across 'Star's stomach, pulling him between his legs. It was the first time he had ever touched 'Star more tangibly than accidentally banging his hand or stumbling into him from behind. They had shaken hands twice, longer than necessary, and Julio still remembered how it had felt each time.
"She sent me back."
"Back?" Sam asked, Jamie standing sombre and quiet at his side.
"In time. I am not your Shatterstar." He coughed violently, bright blood spattering across Julio's forearm. "I will be, but not for many years. I am more than forty, by earth time," 'Star confessed, and Julio could see it, suddenly, in the subtle lines of his face.
"We'll do our best to save you," Sam promised. "We have medics …"
"Sam, I will be dead by the time they arrive," 'Star replied frankly. "This is a gift, nothing more." 'Star arched suddenly, taking a harsh, gasping breath, and Julio held him tighter, his throat too clogged to speak. This couldn't be happening. None of this could be real, and 'Star could not be saying, "a gift, to die in Julio's arms, like he died in mine."
"Don't tell me when," Julio whispered through the thickness suffocating him.
'Star smiled a bloody smile. "I wouldn't."
Nothing hurt anymore, Julio realised, not his bruised body, which was numb, or his heart, which hadn't caught up yet to what Shatterstar was saying. Part of him wanted to believe it was impossible, but 'Star was a verifiable time-traveller, born a hundred years in the future, and this man, this man was Shatterstar. Julio knew it without a doubt.
"Julio," 'Star said, lifting his one hand, and Julio leaned into it, letting the broken fingers rest on his face. The next words came out in Cadre, their secret language. "I had forgotten how beautiful you were at this age," 'Star murmured, body beginning to relax in Julio's arms. "The memory I keep in my head is much older, but no less beautiful."
Julio replied in Cadre, slow and halting but clear. "Are we …?"
"Yes. And this will be the catalyst." 'Star smiled, his fingers flexing against Julio's cheek. "I am not changing the future, because this is the way it happened." He choked wetly, spitting up more blood, and Julio began to shake. "Julio, be strong," 'Star said. "Be strong and find me because I am too lost in this strange world to find myself."
"And it's that easy?"
"No, but it will work out. You have my word that I already love you."
"I love you," Julio whispered, folding his hand over Star's, helping him map the contours of his face. 'Star hummed peacefully, his breathing slow and steady now. When he urged Julio's face down, Julio went and took the gentle crimson kiss without cringing, struggling to memorise every perfect detail as if it would never happen again.
When the kiss ended, 'Star smiled contently and stroked Julio's cheek with his thumb. "Za's vid, I've missed you. I'm ready to follow you. I'm ready. Julio …"
"'Star," Julio said helplessly as 'Star shuddered in his arms and exhaled sharply and passed away, all the life rushing out of his body and leaving him broken and limp on Julio's knees. Julio bowed his head, closing his eyes against the sudden flood of emotion.
Julio shook his head, and Sam backed off, talking quietly to Jamie as he led him away. Julio gathered 'Star's body more firmly against him, burying his face in the red tangle of his hair, and cried softly into the side of 'Star's head, without any shame.
He couldn't have stopped if he had wanted to.
Julio didn't know how long he had been crying when Sam tugged his clinging arms away from Star's dead body or when Monet helped him to his feet and hugged him awkwardly, because she was as bad at that sort of stuff as he was. He felt numb, like his entire world had come crashing down around him, and his hands shook uncontrollably. He hadn't even felt this bad after Weapon XII.
"We'll find Shatty, Ric, and we'll bring him back here," Sam said, coming up to them, a steaming cup of coffee held out in offering. Julio shook his head, knowing he would just end up spilling. A row of nearby benches was clattering noisily together.
"I'm about to lose control of my powers," he said stupidly, and Monet swept him up into her arms and flew straight up, away from the source of the danger. They flew until Paris was just a series of tiny dots below them, and the city was finally quiet.
When Julio awoke, it was morning, and he couldn't remember having gone to bed. Someone had stripped off his blood-soaked clothes, leaving him naked under a massive swell of blankets. His hands had been scrubbed clean, no traces of red beneath his fingernails, and if he hadn't spied his boots near the door sitting in a bloody puddle, he would have thought he'd imagined the night before. That it had only been a nightmare.
Julio got dressed in his uniform, moving like an old man, hunched over and sore. He skipped shaving, but brushed his teeth and took a piss. In the mirror, he winced at the dark circles under his eyes and the smudge of blood on his cheek that someone had missed. Wetting a cloth, he rubbed at it until his skin was raw and pink beneath his fingers.
"Madre de Dios," he muttered at his pitiful reflection then abruptly puked into the sink, gripping the porcelain like a lifeline. Eventually, he pried his hands away, stumbling over to another sink and splashing his face with icy water before leaving for work.
X-Corporation had two ways of being contacted. One involved just thinking 'X' and Cerebra would pick it up and life would be dandy and devoid of peril and death. It was the way he preferred, because phone duty was mind-numbingly boring, but they hadn't quite worked out all the kinks in the system yet. So the phone was the second way.
Monet was at the phones when he walked into the room. She looked up at him and said, "I was told you weren't working today. You should rest. You look like shit."
"Nah, but I wouldn't mind the company if you're that bored," Julio said, collapsing into the nearest chair and pulling a headset over his ears. He looked over at Monet, and she nodded, settling down again. "Anything exciting happening out there?"
"It's a quiet morning. No morons trying kill each other yet."
"Good," Julio replied, leaning back in his chair. He rubbed at his eyes with his fingertips, willing himself to feel more awake, less like he'd had the shit kicked out of him. Emotionally, he just felt worn, too numb to really contemplate anything meaningful.
Monet brought him a cup of coffee and a blueberry muffin, and Julio smiled his thanks. He looked around the room for the first time, noticing Sam hunched over one of the computers, impatiently poking the same button over and over again. Julio flicked his gaze towards the screen, recognising the little headshot of 'Star even from across the room, tiny face drawn into that faint sketch of irritation Shatterstar always seemed to wear.
"He's in Madripoor," Sam said, noticing Julio's look, "I think."
"The system's messed up, Ric," Sam admitted bleakly, viciously tapping at the keyboard, swearing under his breath. "I gotta get Forge or someone to fix this piece of junk. I guess it's having trouble with Shatty because he's not exactly human, or he's cloaked, or something. Could just be that Shatty's in hiding, which would make sense."
Julio sipped his coffee instead of smacking his head against the wall.
"Or maybe we're looking for the wrong guy. Maybe Benjamin Russell?"
"He fucking hates that name, Sam. You're looking for Shatterstar."
Sam sighed. "He just couldn't make this easy, could he?"
"'Star? Do something the easy way? What have you been smoking, amigo?"
Sam's expression grew grim. "Okay. Back to square one. We've got agents in Madripoor. They're going to find him, tell him what's happened and bring him in." Sam pushed away from the computer. "Best case scenario, he believes them and doesn't kill anybody. Worst case, we gotta go get him, and I get in shit for Shatty killing people."
"Just like X-Force," Julio said, grinning into his coffee.
Sam sighed again.
"It's a good plan, but I can tell you he's not going to go with them," Julio replied, mouth against the ceramic edge of the coffee mug. "I know him, Sam, and if two total strangers show up, it's gonna get messy really fast. He already thinks Mojo is after him."
"Didn't he fulfil the prophecy and kill Mojo, or whatever?"
Julio frowned around the edge of the mug. "Try telling him that."
"If I sent the agents with a message from you, you think Shatty'd believe it?"
"Maybe," Julio said slowly. "He could think I'm a shape-shifter."
"Who speaks whatever it is y'all were speaking before 'Star died?"
The events of the previous night came back like a sledgehammer to the side of his head. "I can try, Sam. It's not like me and 'Star have a secret handshake or something."
"He'll know it's you, you idiot," Monet said quietly, and Julio felt his face heat as the details of the show he had put on grew less foggy behind his eyes. He knew what they were thinking and wanted to tell them it wasn't like that, but he had been told it would be like that, and soon.
"I'll do my best," Julio muttered, staring into the murky swamp of his coffee, and held out his hand for the device that Sam offered him. Sam made some loud excuse about visiting the little boy's room, but M stayed in her chair, turned back to the console.
Julio positioned the camera so it pointed at his face then leaned over to press record. It whirred impatiently at him, blinking green and red lights, so Julio cleared his throat and began to speak. "Hey, amigo. Long time no see. You need to come to Paris for a few days, okay? Something fell out of the sky you probably want to take a look at."
Julio took another deep breath then switched fluidly to Cadre, leaning closer to the camera. "Remember that time in Mexico City, when we were chasing my cousin Hector, and we ended up completely lost and that guy with the ugly moustache offered me ten bucks if I'd, uh," Julio didn't know the Cadre words for 'blow him', "service him?
"Nobody else would know that story, would they? And I wouldn't have the," he didn't know the Cadre word for 'balls' either, "guts to tell anybody about it. Trust me. Come to Paris."
Stretching, Julio leaned over and turned it off, sitting back in his chair, drawing his knees up to his chest. He inexplicably felt like crying again, then felt like a fool for feeling like that. He wasn't a kid, and 'Star wasn't actually dead, and things were fine.
Monet put a hand on his shoulder, and said nothing.
Julio concentrated on breathing.
The eager chirp of the phone jolted him from vague, nightmarish dreams. Julio fumbled for his headset, which had slipped down his neck, and settled it back on. "Thank you for calling X-Corporation Paris. Rictor speaking. What can I help with you today?"
"Ric, my man, how's it hanging, brother?"
"I was sleeping and some steroid-enhanced fucker woke me up."
"This is one-hundred-percent all-natural muscle, and don't you forget it." Jimmy laughed, and Ric could hear Feral in the background, hissing something at him. Whatever it was, Jimmy ignored her, which was the best thing when it came to Feral. "You should be glad nobody's taping this phone call, man. You kiss your mother with that mouth?"
"Only if I'm desperate for the taste of soap. What's up, Jimmy?"
"Thornn was manning the lines and noticed the call go out for Shatty. I tried to get them to wait for information, but you try having an opinion with the Callasantos sisters bitching at you. They're bad enough normally, fighting like cat and fucking cat."
"And that's why I'm in Paris," Julio replied, yawning.
"Yeah, yeah. So what's up with Shatty, man? I haven't seen that freak for ages."
Neither had Julio, for that matter, until Shatterstar, forty years old and ripped to shreds, came tumbling out of a temporal portal into the middle of Rue Whatever-the-fuck. Julio didn't want to answer, didn't want to relive any of it again, didn't even want to think about it, but he owed Jimmy something, so he said, "I'll put you through to Sam."
The noisy background sounds of Feral and Thornn fighting like alley cats and Jimmy's irritated, "will you two fucking cut it out," clicked into silence, and Julio watched the board until the call was successfully transferred to Sam, who would kick his ass later.
He was alone, he realised suddenly, Monet long gone if the number of inter-Corporation memos he had slept through were any indication. Terry would be in soon to cover the night shift, allowing Julio an escape from this claustrophobic little room. Maybe he'd take that trip to the medic, his ribs still tender from the beating he'd taken the night before.
He was staring off into space when Terry showed up, still dressed in her pyjamas, a book tucked under her arm and a mug in her hand. "Ric," she said fondly, mussing his hair with her free hand. She climbed into the seat next to him. "Hey, you all right, boyo?"
"Sure," he said, pulling the headset off his ears. "Just a little tired, I guess."
"Yesterday was pretty intense."
Julio shrugged noncommittally.
"You ever want to talk …"
"Not my style, Terry, but thanks." Julio stood up, cracking his back then hissing, partly in relief and partly due to the sudden stab of pain. Definitely had to see the medic. "Listen, Sam's running some sort of program trying to find 'Star. If anything happens …"
"I'll call," Terry promised.
The hallway was empty when he stepped into it, all the daytime personnel long gone. Only the permanent staff -- the mutants, the core of the program -- remained on-site around the clock, staying in dorms on the top floor of the building, living and breathing X-Corporation. It wasn't quite like X-Force, because he'd always had the option to leave when he wanted to. It had taken a while to get used to all these people living in his pockets, with no means of escape.
The medic, Dr. Lee, was still on-duty, dozing in her chair, and when Julio cleared his throat, she nearly rocketed out of it onto the floor. She clucked at him when she saw the heavy bruising under his arms, gave him the usual annoying spiel about being too damn macho to admit he'd been injured, and wrapped him up so tight he could hardly breathe.
"I see you too often, Rictor."
Julio snorted, pulling his tee-shirt back on, trying not to wince and betray just how rotten and battered he felt. "Yeah, well, tell everyone to stop kicking the crap out of me."
Dr. Lee shook her head as she put away the unused supplies. "I don't know how you kids do it."
"Someone's got to, and I don't see anyone else volunteering." He took the bottle of painkillers when she held them out to him. "And besides, mutants heal quickly." He shrugged.
"You're younger than my son, do you know that?"
"Been doing this since I was thirteen," Julio replied, shrugging again, and she didn't have a response for that, so he left with a murmured goodbye and paused outside, briefly, to pop a couple pills. He liked Dr. Lee, but he really didn't need another mother.
His footsteps echoed hollowly as he walked down the dim corridor, hand braced against his side. It wasn't his imagination. Every time they faced down the newest creep, it felt like they always went after him first. Sam had tried to explain that he was the one considered to be the biggest threat, but Julio didn't feel like much of a danger. Seven years later, and his control over his powers remained tenuous at best. Extreme emotion obliterated all the skills he had learned, and he still couldn't narrow down his field of focus without using his fingers to direct his seismic waves. Some threat he was. Right.
Without consciously intending it, he ended up stopping outside the little room they used as a morgue. Not that many people had died, but they would eventually, and everyone knew it. Darkstar was only the first. Julio tried the doorknob, and it turned easily under his palm. A table lamp had been left on, casting the room in an eerie macabre glow. 'Star lay there, on a metal table, dead.
He didn't look old enough to be forty, but Julio had heard that mutants with healing factors tended to age slower than everyone else. Wolverine was hundreds of years old, if the grapevine wasn't full of shit, and he didn't look that old at all. But the history of 'Star's life was visible on his face, the hint of lines around his mouth, subtle and almost invisible, but undeniably there. Julio had studied 'Star's face often enough to recognise the changes.
Forty years old and dead twenty years in the past. But 'Star would live longer than him, Julio remembered suddenly. He turned their brief conversation over in his head. It had sounded to him -- though admittedly he hadn't been paying much attention -- that he had lived long enough to change 'Star's memory of him, no longer this confused young man at all.
He'd probably live to see thirty, then, and maybe thirty-five, thirty-six, thirty-seven, but never forty. And that was so much longer than Julio had expected. It gave him a peculiar feeling of hope even as it hurt his chest to think of his own death. The inevitability of his end had always been something Julio had resigned himself to, not overly eager to meet it but not afraid either. The encounter with Weapon XII had rattled him, but not destroyed him. And now 'Star had just promised him another ten years, at the very least.
Julio reached out and touched the silky strands of Star's copper hair, which had been washed and combed out, spread around his naked shoulders like a funeral veil. Gently, Julio brushed his knuckles over the immortal pout of 'Star's full lips, surprised, briefly, at how cold he was, how dead he felt. He had only known how people felt at the end, when they were still warm, when you could pretend that there was still a chance.
This Shatterstar had loved him, and this Shatterstar was gone.
Julio wiped the tears from his cheeks without even knowing they had fallen.
"You shouldn't be down here, Julio."
Julio looked up at the wall, wondering how long Monet had been standing there and how much she had seen. There were too many questions he wasn't ready to answer yet. Julio was a fiercely private man, stubborn and hot-headed, but shy about the deeper things.
"I fixed the computer. This Shatterstar of yours is definitely in Madripoor."
Julio didn't say anything.
"You really shouldn't be down here."
"I know," Julio muttered, casually lifting his hand to his face and surreptitiously checking that his face was clean. They were good friends, but not that good. Convinced his pride was intact, he turned around. "It's just a shock, you know, to see him like this."
"It's very," M's gaze flickered over Shatterstar's body, "violent."
Julio turned back to him. "That's not the part that surprises me. You don't know him, but this is a fitting end for him, going out fighting. Violence is 'Star's way of life." Julio touched the red hair again. "It's just … I can't seem to believe he's still alive."
"We'll find him, the one from our time. I'm very good with the computer, Julio."
"Very modest, too."
"And absolutely no need to be," M replied, smirking, not a hair out of place, but he could see the underlying concern in her eyes. He wanted to tell her that he was fine, but he'd just been caught lovingly stroking a dead guy's hair, in a morgue, in the dark.
Julio reluctantly stepped away, heading toward the door and not stopping even when M touched his elbow. He made it halfway down the hall before Monet caught up to him and grabbed him again, this time making sure to get a firm, superhuman grip.
"I'm terrible at these sorts of things, you know, but I can get you drunk," Monet said seriously, like it would solve all of his problems, and while it wouldn't fix a damn thing, it would help him forget about it, at least for a night. "We can even go dancing."
"Sounds good," he assured her then smiled. "Hey, you're buying, right?"
M sighed massively. "Yes, you cheap, cheap man."
"Awesome," Julio said, telling himself he wouldn't think of Shatterstar for the rest of the night, and even if he didn't succeed, he wouldn't remember it come morning.
It took them a few days, but early on the third morning, Sam burst into his room and shook him awake, even though it was his day off. Too groggy to realise why he would even be there, Julio groaned at him pathetically and pulled a pillow over his head.
"Ric," Sam said, laughing and yanking the pillow away, tossing it onto the floor. Julio grumbled then pushed up on his elbows, eternally grateful that he hadn't kicked off the sheets in his sleep. His dreams had been frantic and violent, so that surprised him.
"We got him, and he's coming in. Should be four or five hours, depending on the wind. Nobody died either," Sam added, sitting down at the foot of the bed. Julio frowned slightly, but Sam didn't seem to notice. "Don't have much more details that that."
"Did anyone tell him about, you know, the Shatterstar in the basement?"
"He's been briefed," Sam said. "Seemed only fair to prepare him."
Julio nodded, looking down at his belly and the messy ruffle of dark hair leading its way under the sheets. Once upon a time, Sam had been the modest type, politely averting his eyes when a girl wore a skimpy bikini, only showing skin when swimming.
"I didn't tell him about what happened that night, between you and him."
Blood rushed through Julio's ears, making it hard to hear Sam. He nodded again.
"Ric, I want you to be comfortable here, with X-Corp, more than you were with X-Force." Julio opened his mouth to loudly and vigorously protest, but Sam held up his hand. "No, I know. That had everything to do with Cable, and I understand that, but …"
"But," Julio repeated, amused.
"You have me worrying that you're holding back here, not being yourself …"
"Are you asking me if I'm gay?" Julio interjected, before Sam could embarrass himself, or Julio, any further. Sam was beet red, looking at a point over Julio's shoulder on a wall Julio knew for a fact was boring old white. Sam nodded woodenly, looking so chastised that Julio couldn't even be irritated with the fact he was prying. "Well, I am."
"Si," Julio said, wishing Sam had better timing, wishing he had put on shorts before going to bed, but he'd been wasted for the second night in a row, and it was easier to get undressed and stay that way. "And I'm not uncomfortable here. I love it here."
"You didn't say anything."
"I don't say much about anything, Sam," Julio pointed out.
Sam mulled this over, and apparently agreed, nodding briefly, efficiently. He still didn't move, though, and Julio realised with sudden urgency that he had to piss, his bladder full of tequila shots and cheap French wine. "Well, I'm glad to know. Thanks."
"Uh, you're welcome, I guess."
"And you and 'Star …"
"Evidently together forever in the near future," Julio replied, and it was his turn to blush. It was the first time he'd said it out loud, and his heart jumped excitedly to hear it. "But right now, or any time in the recent past? No. 'Star's a … very complicated man."
"And very frightening," Sam added helpfully.
Julio shrugged, the corners of his mouth quirking into a smile. "Not once you get to know him." The blush dropped from his face, threatening to pool in his groin, despite his urgent need to pee. "And listen, Sam, I really gotta … you know I'm naked, right?"
"Yeah, I was hoping neither of us was going to mention it. I'm going now."
Sam patted his foot awkwardly before getting up and leaving, closing the door gently behind him. Julio swung his legs over the side of the bed and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees, burying his face in his hands. "Madre de Dios," he muttered, willing his heart to stop racing. It was the first time he'd come out to anybody.
Now not only did he have to piss like a demon, but he was pretty sure he had to puke, too. He stumbled around the room, dragging on the first pair of pants he found, and sprinted out of the room and down the hall, the walls bending dizzily around him.
"You know drinking's bad for you, right?" Jamie called after him, laughing, and Julio gave him the finger before grabbing the doorjamb, swinging himself into the bathroom. The toilet presented a dilemma, and he settled on shoving his pants down his thighs and leaning over, one hand braced against the wall, in case his stomach gave up.
As his bladder emptied, the need to vomit seemed to pass. He still didn't feel too hot, and the bathroom was slanting at a forty-five degree angle, but at least he wasn't going to miss 'Star's arrival because he couldn't pry his head from its porcelain pillow.
"You need someone to hold your hair back while you blow chunks? I'm sure I can find a dupe who'd be up for it," Jamie said, grinning, hovering in the doorway. Julio glared at him, padding over to the sink to splash his face with water. "You look like shit."
"Imagine that. I feel like shit, too."
"You have a theme going. Excellent."
Julio scooped water into his mouth with the palm of his hand. "You seen M?"
"Bright and early, yeah, and looking like she hadn't matched you shot for shot. Brings back the memories, let me tell you, me and Guido, three bottles of tequila, and those strippers from Los Angeles, who could do this thing with ping-pong balls." Jamie sighed blissfully and started to sing, "memmmmmories of the way things weeeeere …"
Julio looked up, pressing his hands together. "Madre de Dios, please save me."
"I have been sent from God to punish you for pickling your liver."
"Jealous you had to work?"
"Immensely. M never pays when I'm around. Probably has something to do with the fact I've figured out if I get a couple dupes drinking then reabsorb them, it's like I drank those ten drinks in about fifteen seconds. Then I puke all night long," he added.
"Awesome." Julio rubbed his hands vigorously over his face then lifted his head, peering into the mirror. He winced. He looked like he hadn't slept in weeks, dark angry circles under his eyes, lips chapped like snake scales. Combined with the bandages wrapped around his chest, he looked like he'd just been roused from the dead. "Urgh."
"Seriously, man, maybe you wanna cut back a little," Jamie said quietly, kindly enough that Julio didn't snap at him to get the fuck out. Jamie continued, "at least until we don't have a dead guy in the basement, freaking everybody out. Freaking you out."
"I'm fine," Julio muttered, unconvincingly. "I'll be fine," he amended, "once 'Star gets here and we can do whatever it is we're going to do with him. Have a funeral."
"They had a funeral for me once," Jamie said. "I'm told it was lovely."
"I heard all about it from Rahne." Julio combed his hair away from his face with his fingers, knots catching on his knuckles, pulling at his already aching head. "Listen, if this is some sort of intervention, don't bother. 'Star's gonna be here in a couple hours."
"Okay. I'll back off. In my defense, Terry made me do it."
"I'm not …" Like her, Julio thought, and couldn't seem to say aloud, but Jamie got it, nodding. He still didn't fuck off, though. Julio looked over at him. "Are we done?"
"You need anything?"
"Okay, then. Bye."
"Bye," Julio said, turning back to the mirror and vomited, once, into the sink, sinking down to his knees and pressed his back against the cool tile wall. He sat there for a long, long time, the pipes groaning in his ears, the world dancing wildly around him.
Julio napped all afternoon, waking up to the cheerful chirp of his pager as it wiggled across his floor. He squinted at the clock, the neon numbers a jagged blur across his eyes. Six hours rest and he still felt like crap. Combined with a sudden, unforgiving case of nerves and ribs that just didn't seem to be healing at all, he almost didn't get up.
He climbed out of bed, digging a pair of green cargo pants out of his closet then hunting for a clean pair of shorts amid an army of mismatched socks. He paused in the middle of shaking out a black tee-shirt, the room stretching sideways before settling again. Julio began to search desperately for the bottle of painkillers, shirtless, groggy.
He found them in his boot, and took two without water, then pulled on his tee-shirt and shoved his feet into a pair of sandals. He tugged at his hair, unwilling to hunt through the mess to find a comb, then swaggered cockily into the hall, in case anyone was there to see. They weren't, and he resumed his natural slouch, dragging his feet.
There was a helicopter pad on the roof, typically used to launch them into missions, so Julio headed up there, fighting against the nausea that the elevator heartily encouraged. His ribs twinged with every breath, and Julio realised, quite suddenly, that he wasn't ready for this. Wasn't ready to see Shatterstar again. Wasn't ready to tell him.
He just wasn't ready.
The elevator dinged, and the doors slid open with a hiss, and it no longer mattered if he was ready or not. It was too late. Sam had seen him, and Sam wasn't the type of guy to let anyone wimp out of the hard stuff. Julio smiled weakly at him and stepped out.
They waited there for a few minutes, without speaking, before the helicopter came chopping through the Parisian air. The wind picked up, twisting Julio's hair around his face, effectively blinding them. He did nothing to remove it, just stood there, nervous.
The helicopter touched down, idled for a couple seconds, then picked up again. Julio's hair dropped down to his shoulders, and he looked up to see Shatterstar standing there, across the landing pad, regarding them quietly. Relief came up like a sudden, violent wave in Julio's belly, nearly knocking him over. Alive! his brain shrieked giddily.
"Shatty," Sam said warmly, stepping forward, offering his hand like a dork. Shatterstar walked towards him, looked down at Sam's hand then took it, shaking it. "Wish we'd be seeing you again under better circumstances. They told you about him?"
"Yes," 'Star said strangely, still holding onto Sam's hand. He barely blinked when Sam politely extricated himself with a mumble. His mouth was drawn into a thin grim line, something obviously troubling him. Julio would ask him about that later.
"You hungry? Tired? We don't have much to offer, but it's a good living."
"No, thank you," Shatterstar replied, his gaze settling on Julio, and Julio stepped forward, unsure of what he intended until he had his arms wrapped around 'Star's torso, face pressed into his neck. 'Star didn't hug him back, but Julio hadn't expected him to. That he didn't push Julio away was enough, even though he was obviously uncomfortable.
Sam cleared his throat, and Ric lifted his head from 'Star's neck, stepping back. The distance between them remained miniscule, which 'Star also permitted, and Sam continued, "Ric'll show you to your room, and when you're ready, we can head on down and see the, uh, the body. We weren't sure what you do on Mojoworld when people …"
"We eat them."
Sam's jaw dropped and his eyes bulged comically, and it would have been perfect if Julio hadn't started laughing before 'Star even cracked the slightest betrayal of a smile. Sam waved an ineffectual fist in their direction. "You assholes. I actually believed you."
"The look on your face," Julio wheezed, leaning towards 'Star, who grinned down at him. Julio's heart skipped a beat at that, and he stopped laughing, though his face was still split into a wide smile. Warmth radiated from 'Star's skin onto his forearm. "Sorry."
"Sorry," 'Star echoed, with even less conviction than Julio had managed.
"Just get him settled," Sam said, exasperated. "Did I mention y'all are assholes?"
Sam was still shaking his head as he turned on his blast field and launched off the roof, disappearing over the side. Julio turned to 'Star, his gaze accidentally resting on his full lips, slightly parted, baring perfect white teeth, and Julio couldn't stop himself from remembering that kiss, how unexpected it had been, how right it had felt. He'd be lying to himself if he said kissing 'Star was something he'd never considered doing. He'd considered it all right, mostly in the shower every morning and in his bed every night.
"You don't eat your dead, right?"
'Star shook his head, the edge of his mouth quirking. It was a clear, bright day, uncommon for Paris, and the black star around his eye seemed lighter than usual. "We burn them. There are certain rituals performed. Cadre battles songs are typically sung."
"Sounds nice," Julio said stupidly, beginning to move toward the elevator, trusting 'Star to follow. Normally, Julio would have politely offered to take his bags, but 'Star had only brought one small duffel bag. His swords were strapped to his back.
"Sam says it's my choice how to proceed, so I think I will skip all of that."
"I think it should be my choice," Julio replied, stepping into the elevator when the doors slid open. He leaned up against the wall on one side as 'Star slouched against the other, that strange, faraway look on his face again. "I mean, most guys don't plan their own funerals. Someone who, uh, cares for them usually does, and I … care, about you."
'Star's eyes narrowed, his arms crossed stiffly in front of him, fingers tapping against his pale forearms. He dropped his head, tendrils of copper hair falling in front of his face, dusting over his shoulders. "And it's really me? I would not put it past Mojo …"
"It's you," Julio croaked, then cleared his throat. "Trust me."
"I simply find it odd, that I would travel back in time, only to die."
Julio bit his lower lip, unsure of how much he was allowed to say. It had sounded to him like it wouldn't matter, that Shatterstar had been fully aware of what had happened and had passed on that information to him, but he also didn't want to fuck with the future.
"Are you not telling me something?"
The elevator dinged and they stepped out into the hall. Monet was coming out of the bathroom, one towel wrapped around her hair, the other around her body. She glanced at Shatterstar then continued on without speaking, disappearing into her room.
Julio sighed, simmering with irritation. It was hard to stand up to 'Star when 'Star was looking at him like that, like he could see right through him. "Listen, can we talk about it later? It's been a rough couple days, and I'm not ready to get into it now."
"I suppose, if you give me your word we will talk about it. I have fallen for this before," 'Star added, without accusation or anger, just a simple statement of fact calling Julio on the shit he tried to pull. He almost missed it when 'Star had been totally clueless.
The guestrooms were right at the end of the hall, and Julio took him to the closest one to his own, the door unlocked when he tried it. A key card sat on the dresser, beside a set of clean towels and a pager. The small bed was neatly made, military corners and a single, lonely pillow. The room smelled stale, the air stagnant from months of nothing.
"I'm two doors up," Julio said, leaning against the wall, watching as 'Star slowly moved into the room, looking around suspiciously, memorising every tiny, insignificant detail of his tiny, insignificant room. He kept watching as 'Star ran his hands over every surface, pausing at every minor imperfection. "There aren't any cameras in the rooms."
"Hm," 'Star said noncommittally, head tilted in concentration. The blinds on the window were open, clean and crisp light raining in, and his profile was striking against the shower, so irresistible that Julio had to look away before 'Star caught him gawking.
"It's good to see you."
Shatterstar turned to look at him, his hand lingering on the top of the dresser. He nodded briefly. "It's good to see you, too." 'Star paused and glanced down to the floor, an act Julio unwittingly mimicked. "I've found life is not as interesting without you."
"We made a good team, huh?"
Julio smiled and pushed away too quickly from the wall, nicking his ribs on the edge of the dresser. He hissed sharply and pressed his hand to his side, ignoring the bright starbursts of pain in his peripheral vision. "Madre de Dios," he muttered sickly.
"Just m' ribs," Julio gasped, stepping back when 'Star reached for him and smacking into the unyielding wall. Sweat inexplicably climbed down his face, settling in warm, salty drops on his chapped lips. It got worse, when 'Star pulled Julio's hand away and replaced it with his own, gentler than Julio had been with himself. "'S fine."
"You've been to see a doctor?"
"Si. Just healing slowly. Probably stress," Julio grunted when 'Star pressed his fingertips unexpectedly against the sorest area. Julio's knees buckled helplessly, and if it had been anybody other than 'Star trying this shit, he would have happily punched him.
"I did not do this?" 'Star asked, all up in Julio's space, huge and perfect and gorgeous, his usually severe face lightened with concern. If Julio hadn't been in horrible, cock-softening pain, he might have had to worry about a hard-on. "Julio, did I …?"
Closing his eyes, Julio shook his head. "No, no, completely unrelated events, and Madre de Dios, 'Star, could you stop poking at it? It really fucking hurts." His breathing came in harsh, wet bursts, and he squeezed his eyelids together until 'Star stepped back.
"You should go back to that doctor. He missed something."
"She, and no, I'm fine. Been like this for a couple days, and I've been drunk for most of them. I probably fell down some stairs and nobody told me," Julio said, more harshly than he intended. He sat down on the bed, using the hem of his tee-shirt to wipe the sweat off his face, scrubbing harder than he needed to. "Stop looking at me like that."
"I'm not looking at you like anything, Julio."
Julio glanced up, and 'Star stared blithely back at him.
"Okay," Julio said, standing up, vague discomfort crawling over his skin like an itch, "maybe we should head down and see the, uh, the body. If you're ready, I mean."
'Star nodded and followed him out of the room, grabbing the key card as he passed the dresser. M was in the hall again, dressed, and Julio smiled at her then looked back at 'Star to introduce these two unlikely friends of his. "'Star, this is M. M, 'Star."
"I've heard a lot about you," M said, not quite warmly but trying to be.
"I've heard nothing about you," 'Star replied, failing in exactly the same way.
Any more forced interaction was just going to be torture, so Julio spared them both the pain and continued toward the elevator, dragging the back of his hand across his forehead. It came back damp, and he frowned, briefly, before shaking it off. If he was feverish, it was only because he'd abused his body so badly with alcohol and not because of his ribs. They were cracked, he knew that, but there wasn't much he could do about it.
In the elevator, 'Star said, "She's your … friend," voice hitching on the word.
Julio scuffed the top of his sandal against the floor, shoulders back against the wall, arms crossed in front of him. When he looked up, his hair fell messily into his face. He blew at it before saying, "Yeah, and we work together, and she lives next door to me."
"You're very close?"
"I guess," Julio replied, shrugging.
"But she's not my girlfriend, if that's what you're getting at."
Shatterstar didn't confirm or deny this accusation, but Julio realised that it had been exactly what 'Star had been asking, and it surprised him more than it should have, knowing what he did about their seemingly inevitable future together. It made it more real, somehow, to know that 'Star cared about these things, when he hadn't used to.
And if 'Star had, maybe Julio just hadn't noticed before.
Hadn't known it was there to see.
Hadn't believed it ever would be.
The antiseptic scent hit his nostrils first, stronger than it had been two nights ago, but 'Star was three days dead by now, and Julio guessed that meant a lot of chemicals to preserve his body for the funeral, which had been scheduled for Friday, two days away.
Other than that, everything looked exactly the same, his expression still locked into that peaceful mask, like he hadn't been torn to shreds before dying. Julio glanced over at 'Star, the alive one, just to confirm that he was still there, and he was, his eyes locked on the body on the table. He looked vaguely horrified, though he covered it well.
"Where is my other arm?" He demanded, finally, glaring at Sam.
Sam looked, for lack of a better word, frightened, and Julio wanted to tell him that 'Star didn't exactly mean it like he sounded, like he would rip off Sam's own arm if he didn't give the right answer. "Don't know," Sam mumbled. "This is just how we got you."
"How did I die?" 'Star asked roughly, stepping forward then circling the table like it was about to attack him. He was, Julio thought, taking this a lot better than Julio thought he would, or a lot worse. The misplaced, misdirected anger surprised him.
"Massive injuries, I'd reckon. Overloaded your healing factor. We'd have to do an autopsy to know for sure …"
"Za's vid!" 'Star exclaimed, ignoring Sam. "Where are my eyes?"
At this, Sam looked helplessly in Julio's direction, and Julio stepped up to 'Star, putting a hand into the small of his back. It was a gamble, one that would either agitate him further or relax him slightly, and it paid off. 'Star's shoulders drooped, and he closed his eyes, visibly composing himself. When he opened them, he looked pale but steady.
Without another word, 'Star walked over to the table, and before either he or Sam could protest, flipped his body over by the neck and began to run his fingers over his skin, eyes narrowed in deep concentration.
"What are you looking for?" Julio asked, before Sam could.
"The truth," 'Star replied briefly, palming his own ass, as if that held the secret. That unsettled Julio, but he refused to look away. 'Star did nothing without meaning to, no move wasted, every act necessary. He treated his body roughly, like it didn't wear his face.
Sam shifted his eyes to the door. "Uh, 'Star …"
"Sam," Julio warned him quietly, and Sam shut up.
'Star flipped himself over, shucking the sheet onto the floor, and Julio stared at the slack dead face, refusing to let his memories, future or otherwise, be tainted. But he was still disturbed when 'Star pried his jaw open and forced two fingers into his mouth.
'Star examined every inch of his body, poking and prodding, looking for things only he knew about. Julio let his gaze settle on the fire red of 'Star hair, which was still glossy and vibrant, the only part of him that still looked alive. And finally, after what felt like eons, 'Star sighed deeply and gently laid his body back down onto the metal table.
Julio started nibbling nervously at his thumbnail. "It's you, then?"
"Apparently," 'Star muttered, all the answer he was likely to give. He tugged the white sheet up to his naked shoulders, smoothing it until it laid flat against his chest, then, almost tenderly, brushed the hair from his own dead face. "But someone desecrated my body."
Julio exchanged a glance with Sam. "Amigo, this is exactly how we got you."
'Star spared him a dry, withering look. "On my world," he said, "death is clean. We may kill for sport, but it is clean. And this," his glare rested on the stump of his arm, which, Julio noticed for the first time, resembled raw hamburger, "is not clean at all."
"What does that mean?"
"Only that this looks like I was not on Mojoworld when it happened, and that Mojo did not kill me. If this is true then that would make me very happy," 'Star said, a grim mockery of a smile twisting his lips. That seemed to be the final straw for Sam, who mumbled something about giving 'Star some time alone, and rushed out of the room. 'Star frowned at that then said, very softly, "I made him uncomfortable."
"That's okay," Julio assured him, still chewing at his thumb, his other arm wrapped around his waist. "It's gotta be weird, seeing yourself like that, all … all dead."
"Yes," 'Star agreed, brushing his knuckles over his pale cheek. It would have been disturbing if Julio hadn't done the exact same thing. "And I'm so old."
"Did I say …?"
"More than forty."
"Forty? Fekt." That, more than anything, seemed to shake 'Star's resolution and he stepped quickly away, crouching down to the floor, back against the metal wall. He balled up his hands and pressed two white-knuckled fists to his temples, closing his eyes.
Julio watched as the last residue of anger melted away from 'Star's tense body, replaced with something far more sinister: grief. Julio recognised it, because he felt it, too, the ugly sorrow that wormed like maggots in his guts and pierced his heart like a knife.
And, worse, there was more to it than just feeling sadder than you ever had before, and nothing quite so simple as facing your own mortality.
It was facing your own immortality.
Twenty years was practically forever.
"Why would I do this?"
Julio looked down at his raw, bloody thumb.
"Julio, why would I … that body is apparently me, but I would not …"
"You had your reasons," Julio said, without looking up. His eyes felt sticky and hot, his whole face tight with fever. If he raised his gaze, if he saw the depth of 'Star's emotion, he wouldn't have the strength to support him like 'Star needed. His hands were already shaking.
"Fekt," 'Star said, thumping his head against the wall, the hollow sound echoing in the room. "Fekt." He had the heels of both hands pressed against his forehead. "Fekt!" He shouted, a third time, and tugged out a sword. "Fekt!"
"Put that away," Julio said, wearily, rubbing his fingertips into his temples.
"Take them, then, before I do something I will regret."
Julio held out his hands, calling his bluff, then was utterly shocked when 'Star handed them over, his fingers lingering only briefly against Julio's open palms. The swords were lighter than he expected, and still warm from 'Star ferocious grip. "You wanna get out of here?"
'Star nodded, glaring sullenly at the floor, a loose shock of copper hair caught in the corner of his down-turned mouth. They were some pair, the two of them. Julio had managed to stay drunk for two days, and 'Star appeared to be unravelling at the edges like an unloved sweater. Not that Julio could, or would, blame him for that, when his own tenuous control was slowing ebbing away.
Julio ushered 'Star out of the room then shut the door behind them. They walked side by side down the corridor, a grim silence between them. Neither of them were big talkers. Julio could remember hundreds of hours passed quietly on the road, with maps spread out on the dashboard and warm Cokes in the drink holders of the rusty old Jeep they had borrowed from the only one of his uncles who was legitimately employed.
Uncle Luis was Julio's only connection to his birth mother, who had died when he was two years old and whose face he could not remember. He had only one picture of her, given to him by Luis when he turned ten. She was a sad woman; he had her eyes.
She had been murdered in broad daylight, and the assailant had never been caught.
Uncle Luis, a verifiable doctor, had no great love for his sister's gun-running family, blaming them for his sister's death (a belief that Julio shared) and had always been eager to help his sister's only son. His support of his and 'Star's efforts had been both emotional and monetary. Luis had patched him up more than once, never asking questions when they had showed up on his doorstep, covered in blood, dirt and bruises.
Mostly, he recalled, it had been him covered in blood, dirt, and bruises, and 'Star, as always, totally fine. The only things Julio had going for him was raw power, and the ability to take a punch without simpering like a wimp. His ribs twinged to remind him that wasn't exactly a good thing, and he pressed a hand to his side, refusing to wince. 'Star looked over at him, eyes narrowed, and Julio shook his head.
"It's nothing, amigo, just a couple cracked ribs. Can't do much more than keep them wrapped and keep taking those pills the doctor gave me. I wasn't kidding about those stairs, either. You know how loopy I get when I'm wasted," Julio added, knocking 'Star with his shoulder, then laughed when 'Star shoved back, one-handed, into the wall.
Julio winced at the stab of pain, though it wasn't any worse than he'd done to himself recently with things like eating, and taking a piss, and breathing, but it was still uncomfortable. "Shit, amigo, did we not just finish talking about my crappy ribs?"
"I was careful," 'Star replied, "and you should be careful with my swords."
Julio looked down at them, surprising to see the tips dancing dangerously close to his toes. He lifted them higher, holding them out in front of him and tapping the blades together until 'Star glared at him to stop. Blades like these could behead a man in one stroke. Julio knew because he had seen it happen. 'Star was a dangerous guy like that.
"How'd you end up in Madripoor?"
"You don't know, or you don't want to tell me?"
"I know how I got there, Julio." 'Star said, sounding tired and world-weary in a way Julio had never expected from him. He sounded like he'd grown up, emotionally, since they'd last been together, which had been one of 'Star's personal-enlightenment goals, but it looked like that knowledge had come at a price, the kind that made your body ache.
"How long do you think you're going to be in Paris?"
"As long as it takes to get this over with. If you insist on a funeral -- and you are stubborn enough that I know you will -- a few days. My employer," 'Star's mouth twisted briefly and bitterly over the word, "will fire me, if this takes much longer than that."
They paused at the elevator, waiting for the doors to slide open, and Julio leaned up against the wall, resting the swords against the floor. "Please tell me it's not a pimp."
"I do not believe so," 'Star said slowly, mouth stretching into a thin, perplexed line. "Unless this is some reference to MTV. I find that channel far too much like my home world, and you know I don't watch it. I think it's entirely possible Mojo owns it."
Julio smiled. "No. I'm talking Pretty Woman, and you're Julio Roberts."
'Star's nose wrinkled adorably, and he shook his head. "Definitely not."
"Good," Julio murmured, straightening when the doors opened and waiting for 'Star to enter first. Despite everything else, he found it impossible not to grin at 'Star. It just felt right having him here in the flesh where Julio could count every steady breath he took, listen to his faintly accented voice, even smell him. 'Star always had smelled great.
"You tired, amigo?"
'Star nodded, head tipped back against the elevator wall, throat exposed. "This day has been difficult." His voice sounded strange, and Julio realised it was because he'd never seen 'Star so obviously exhausted, his iron guard only now beginning to crumble.
Julio's stomach dropped as the elevator lifted, and he watched the numbers climb, counting them in his head. When they stopped, his stomach twisted again, unpleasantly. Julio stepped out first, looking back over his shoulder as he spoke. "It's not everyday you're called in to identify your own dead body. That's gotta be tiring."
"I'm still not entirely convinced it is me," 'Star admitted.
Julio lifted an eyebrow, leaning forward on the swords like they were canes. "Say what?"
"My motivations," 'Star murmured thoughtfully, bringing a thumb to his mouth, beginning to gnaw at his nail. It was a habit he had undoubtedly picked up from Julio, which would undoubtedly irritate his mother, who had spent most of Julio's life trying to break him of it.
They stopped at Shatterstar's door as 'Star rooted around in his pocket, and Julio looked up at him, swords held limply at his side. "What about your motivations, amigo?"
"I do nothing without a reason."
"Why are you assuming you didn't have a reason for doing this?"
"You are obviously upset about it, and I am … reacting oddly," 'Star said slowly, dropping his gaze, expression serious and sombre, before composing himself again. "I know I have been accused of being an attention hooker, but this is not how I would act."
"Attention whore. And maybe you changed in twenty years, huh? You're not the same guy I knew even two years ago. And that's a good thing, by the way," Julio added snidely, not quite sure why he was so pissed off about this, but he couldn't help it either.
"Perhaps," 'Star agreed, in a way that made it clear he didn't agree at all.
Julio gritted his teeth.
'Star deserved to know the truth, but Julio was too tired to get into it. Tomorrow, he thought, or the day after that, they would sit down and get into it, but not right then. Julio just wanted some time to be with the living 'Star before going back to the dead one.
"Do you have a training room?"
"Fifth floor, end of the hall. Your room key will get you in."
'Star nodded then turned, unlocking his room and opening the door. He paused in the doorway, head bowed, before whirling around and walking back to where Julio stood. 'Star leaned forward, close enough that they were almost chest to chest, then lifted his arm and laid it very gently across Julio's back. His breath was hot and damp on Julio's neck. His ponytail tickled Julio's cheek. 'Star squeezed him lightly before stepping back.
"Thank you," Star said, "and give me my swords."
Julio held them out, smiling crookedly as the door shut in his face.
For the first time since 'Star had landed mostly dead in the streets of Paris, Julio woke up feeling well rested and in only a minimal amount of discomfort. It was insanely early, but he'd crashed hard the night before, and slept straight through the night without waking up once. He pushed up slowly, sending a foot out to hunt for a pair of shorts, then yawned as he pulled them up his legs, tempted to grab another few hours rest.
But he knew 'Star's schedule, knew he would already be up and doing productive, impressive things with his day. Julio grabbed his towel and his shampoo then swaggered into the hall, eyes narrowed into slits against the assault of bright neon lights. Jamie was already in the showers, forehead pressed against the wall as water raced down his back.
Jamie looked over at him. "My dupes are morons, man, which probably looks bad for me. Half of them were too hyped up on coffee to sleep after we got off work, and the rest of them wanted to go out and get laid. I had about three guys on my side, for sleep."
"It's like herding cats, man. We seriously need to hire more people, or invest in some decaf coffee."
"Blasphemous," Julio said dismissively.
"Don't worry. I'm voting for more people who are not me, too."
Julio ducked his head under the spray as it came on, letting it push his hair away from his face. "I take it you didn't get laid," Julio said, eyes closed against the stream.
"French women just don't appreciate me."
"Didn't you say that about American women?"
"Good point. Maybe I should see if Mumbai is still hiring."
Julio squirted a blob of shampoo into his palm them began combing it through his hair, enjoying the feel of the water against his skin. He hadn't bothered taking off the bandage around his chest, knowing he'd never get it back on as tightly without help and completely unwilling to go back down to Dr. Lee and listen to her try to mother him.
"Speaking of getting laid, you're looking less like ass than you did yesterday."
Julio scooped the soap out of his eyes, then glaring over at him.
"I'm just saying," Jamie said, grinning. "Anything you want to tell me?"
"Um, I'm gay?"
Jamie looked at him like he was a moron. "Well, duh."
Julio ducked his head back under the stream, hoping Jamie understood that the communal shower really wasn't the place to talk about it. Whatever "it" was, anyway. He hadn't slept with 'Star and could only imagine himself doing so in the most vague, abstract ways. And even thinking about it distantly sent the blood straight to his cock.
When he looked up again, Jamie was gone, and Julio breathed a deep sigh of relief then immediately wished he hadn't. His ribs did feel better, though, minutely, and maybe that meant he was finally healing. "About damn time," he muttered, smiling.
Julio went back to his room and got dressed in a pair of well-worn jeans and an AC/DC tee-shirt he'd found in one of those vintage clothing shops Terry loved so much. It had a hole the size of a dime in the armpit, and the name "Martin" written on the tag.
He stopped by his mailbox on the way down to the training room, and gathered the envelopes under his arm before taking a detour to find coffee then, eventually, ending up in the observation room, watching 'Star work out. Julio kicked his feet up onto the console, took a long swig of lukewarm coffee then started flipping idly through his mail.
There was a nice cheque from his Uncle Luis masquerading as a belated birthday present, an envelope of newspaper clippings from his mother, an inter-office memo from Sam enthusiastically stamped, several times, with "urgent" in blood red ink. Looking up briefly just in time to see 'Star launch himself off the back of a Mojo-esque hologram, Julio watched as 'Star arced through the air, flipping so fast that it made Julio dizzy, then landed lightly on the opposite side of the room, crouched low to the floor, swords ready.
"What exactly is his power?" M asked, and Julio jumped wildly, sending his mail raining to the ground in a storm of white envelopes. He glared at her as he gathered them, but she was too busy eyeing 'Star to notice, leaning forward, her expression thoughtful.
"He converts sound into energy," Julio said, settling back into his chair and ripping open the urgent note from Sam, trepidation making his fingers slow and clumsy. Sam's inter-office memos were never good. "Everything else is just a bonus, I think."
"He's really," M leaned forward, tapping a finger against her lips, "athletic."
Julio scanned the memo from Sam, which informed him that 'Star had deferred all funeral arrangements to him and Sam wanted him to have it all done by five, delivered in writing, to Sam's room. Any later, and Sam would kick his ass from there to Kentucky.
"He's stunning," Monet said, sitting back. "There's absolutely no way around it."
Julio had no idea how he was going to plan a funeral by five. It was impossible. Just thinking about it made the nausea that had been following him for days rear up in his stomach, lodging as a gooey lump in his throat. He should have just listened to 'Star, but some sick part of him wanted a funeral. Needed it, really, for reasons he didn't dare explain.
"Nothing," Julio muttered, folding up the memo and shoving it in his back pocket. He would worry about it later, because it was too damn early in the day for shit like that. He took a deep breath, reaching for his coffee. "You were saying something about 'Star?"
"Just noticing how gorgeous he is."
"Oh," Julio said, sipping at his coffee, both hands curled around the ceramic mug. He stared into the murky liquid for a few more seconds then, briefly, flicked his gaze in M's direction, immediately looking away when they made eye contact. "I guess he is."
M sighed. "Julio, please. I was there that night. Everyone was there, and we all know. Sam was the only one polite enough to ask, on the off chance that was your way of reacting to a dead team-mate. He's charmingly naïve sometimes," she added, smirking.
"Okay, then. You're right. He is gorgeous. He's really … something else," Julio said, his heart thudding frantically against his chest, like it was trying to break free. He focussed his eyes on 'Star as he twisted and turned through the obstacles in front of him, beheading some enemies, gutting the others. All of it done systematically, unforgivingly.
"I've always known," M said, matter-of-fact, "how you feel about him."
Julio took another long sip of coffee.
"I take it you were never going to tell me."
"It just never came up," Julio mumbled lamely, trying not to think about the many times he had abandoned Monet in a club and fucked off with some guy to make out in the bathroom, or the nearest dark corner, or the first alley they stumbled into. When everyone else talked about their sex lives, he had nothing to add. He wasn't fucking anybody, and hadn't yet. "I'm just a private person, and I didn't want to make a big announcement …"
"Which you succeeded at quite impressively, I must say. Or not at all. Unless you're Sam, who was quite willing to believe you kiss all your male friends on the lips."
"Shut up," Julio muttered sheepishly.
"All I'm saying is that I would watch out for him around mistletoe."
"Shut up," Julio repeated, rubbing a hand through his hair, trying to scratch that particular image out of his brain. He liked Sam, but Sam was not his type. And even if Sam tended to kiss everyone when drunk on eggnog, Julio wasn't going to tell M that. She would just have to find out for herself at the X-Corp Paris Annual Christmas party.
M regarded him quietly for a moment then said, "Please tell me you're not traumatised by any of this," in the most condescending tone Julio could have imagined.
"What? Traumatised by my future lover-boyfriend-whatever dying in my arms, or being gay? Because, actually, si, I am a little traumatised by what 'Star did to me," Julio said, with more bite than he intended to put into it, "but the gay thing I'm totally fine with. Most days," Julio added wryly, smirking around the edge of his coffee mug.
"Good. I can be supportive, but I can't handle things like that."
Julio gave her a weak smile and felt better, all things considered. M's no nonsense way of approaching things reminded him a lot of 'Star, who was logical to a fault, and it comforted him in a bizarre way. He didn't like to be coddled, and neither of them was capable of it.
And now, he was out to three people, and the world hadn't ended, and nobody was treating him any different, which was unfortunate in Monet's case. He could tell by the evil gleam in her eye that she was out to torture him, and he was too glued to 'Star's performance to do the right and proper thing and run away screaming like a little girl.
"Well, this explains why you're still a virgin."
"Madre de Dios," Julio muttered, horrified, his face bursting into a fiery red, and knowing that he was blushing made him blush even harder. "Please do not go there."
"I think it's sweet. You were waiting for him."
"Urgh. It just happened that way, I swear," Julio moaned, slumping in his chair.
"It's all very romantic."
"Dios, please," Julio begged her, already laughing, "please stop."
"Oh, I'm sorry. Do you not want to talk about your pathetic sex life? Too bad."
They were laughing too hard to speak when 'Star came into the booth, a towel looped around his neck, the top half of his costume tucked into the back of his pants. Disarmed by the giddiness coursing through his veins, Julio allowed his gaze to swoop down 'Star's glistening body, from his full pouty lips, to his pink pert nipples, rock-hard abs and mouth-wateringly impressive bulge, and finally, his amazingly powerful thighs.
Julio glanced away, drawing his knees up.
Sometimes, 'Star was just too much to take in all at once, but that never stopped Julio from trying to memorise every perfect inch of him. It was worse now. He felt out of control, anticipation making him stupid, but he wanted it, wanted 'Star, so damn badly.
"I'll leave you two alone," Monet said, grinning like a serial killer, and Julio rolled his eyes, but didn't beg her to stay either. 'Star frowned at her, stretching to his full, imposing height as she pushed past him. He didn't like her, or didn't trust her …
… Or he was jealous of her, which seemed more likely, knowing what he did.
Dios, Julio thought dazedly. 'Star really was a different man these days.
"You done with your workout?" He asked brightly.
"Yes," 'Star said, sitting down in the seat M had abandoned. He looked troubled as he leaned forward, elbows on his knees, hands tightly clasped. "You were laughing."
"I tend to do that with friends," Julio replied, dropping his feet to the floor. He began to swing the chair soothingly from side to side, subtly regarding 'Star through the dark veil of his own messy hair. "I've heard you laugh, amigo. I know you can do it."
'Star hummed noncommittally, and Julio decided to change the subject.
"So your funeral …"
'Star arched a perfect red eyebrow. "Yes?"
"If you could give me, like, a run-down of a traditional Cadre funeral, like, a little more specific than you already have, I'd appreciate it." Julio had to give himself bonus points for how casual it came out, like he was the type of guy who always asked for help.
'Star brought his clasped hands to his mouth, pressing them against his lips. It was a couple minutes before he spoke, every word coming out slowly and quietly. "On my world, death is very common. When I fought in the arena and a warrior died, the body disappeared." He smiled grimly. "There were rumours that the Spineless Ones ate them."
Sam had obviously known something Julio didn't. "Dios. Did they?"
'Star shrugged. "I would not be surprised if they did. We were nothing more than animals to them. But nothing was proven, and there were a good many rumours that I now know are untrue. If nothing else, we fought harder to avoid such a gruesome fate."
"Is that why you burn the bodies of your dead?"
"In part," 'Star admitted, eyes dark beneath his troubled brow. "Our bodies belong to Mojo, even in death. If we develop mutations without his permission, they are only ours until death, when the code is given to the bioengineers. Not that there are many mutants. I can only think of four, and unlike mutants from earth, our powers are flawed."
"You do all right, amigo."
Silence settled over them, comfortable like a worn old blanket. Julio felt the physical distance between them acutely, even though 'Star was only three feet away. Not close enough to touch, and Julio wanted to do that desperately. He was allowed to now.
'Star shifted suddenly, and began to speak again.
"The night before, the warrior is prepared, his body anointed with oil and his hair braided, one for every year of life," 'Star explained, sitting straight in his chair, his hands now balled into white-knuckled fists. "At dawn, so the fire does not alert the enemies to our presence, we take the warrior to the nearest clearing, provided there is cover in the surrounding area. Traditional Cadre battle songs are sung, in the language that we as a people created. And the warrior is burned, freeing his uemeur, his soul, from the confines of his Mojo-made body and sending it to the next world, where Mojo cannot follow."
"Your uemeur? Isn't that what Spiral transferred to …"
"Yes, it is the only thing, besides my mutant power, that Mojo did not create."
"Do you have gods on your world?" Julio asked quietly, wondering why they had never talked about any of this before. Maybe because he didn't believe in anything. Once upon a time, he had been Catholic, but that felt like another man's beliefs these days.
"Who sings the Cadre battle songs?"
'Star shrugged. "I suppose I will have to."
"I can, too, if you want," Julio offered, feeling strangely shy. He had a good voice, and he knew it, but singing was a private thing to him, limited to cars and showers. But he would do it, for 'Star, because he had to -- nobody else spoke their secret language -- and more than that, he wanted to. 'Star deserved an awesome, warrior-worthy send-off.
"I'll teach you the songs," 'Star decided. "I will write them down."
"And since when is Cadre a written language?"
"Hooked on phonics worked for me!" 'Star said gleefully, so abruptly and so unexpectedly that Julio stared at him for a moment, utterly perplexed, before cracking up, tossing his head back and letting a belly-deep gale of laughter tumble off his tongue.
"Amigo," he gasped, tears streaking down his cheeks, "warn a guy."
"But then it wouldn't be funny," 'Star pointed out, the slice of his grin a brilliant white blur across his face, a startling counterpoint to his vibrantly red hair. He didn't do it often, but when he smiled, it was gorgeous, the most perfect thing Julio had ever seen.
"I'm gay, you know."
'Star blanched, which almost sobered Julio right up. He was still giggling, but it was half-residual and half-nervous, something he couldn't stop. He hadn't even meant to say it, because the moment wasn't perfect at all, and he'd just killed a really funny joke.
"Just so you know," Julio added quietly. "Everybody else knows already."
'Star nodded, his grin gone, replaced by a troubled frown, his teeth gnawing on his lower lip like he did only when his world had been completely knocked off it axis. Julio had only seen it twice before. Once, with the Benjamin Russell mess, when everybody else had fucked 'Star up before Julio had been able to get there, and a second time, that night in the club, with that Stecky woman, who had been rubbing all over him.
"I don't know what to say," 'Star murmured, quietly, like he was ashamed.
"You don't have to say anything. I'm just telling you, because you're my friend, and I guess I'm finally coming out. It's no big deal," Julio added casually, even though his heart was jumping around in his chest like Tabitha on speed, making him dizzy.
"No big deal," 'Star repeated slowly.
"Amigo, you've watched tv. We're in the new Millennium. Shit is different now. Maybe American television isn't the best thing to watch, but French television, Madre de Dios, I don't understand most of it, but it's pretty wild. You'd like it," Julio said, trying to change the subject, but 'Star didn't look like he was going for it. "Talk to me, 'Star."
'Star lifted his eyes. "I really don't know what to say, Julio."
"Just assure me you're not gonna hate me, because I'm about to puke here."
"Why would I hate you?"
"I don't know."
"Well, great. Thanks," Julio added, as an afterthought, and was surprised it came out so sincere. He couldn't figure out what 'Star was thinking, his face sliding back into that careful mask he always wore around people he didn't trust, which seemed to be everyone, except for him. 'Star had never looked at Julio like he was out to get him.
Until then, at least. Until that very second.
Julio looked away quickly, suddenly ashamed.
"I'm sorry," he said, without understanding why he was apologising.
"I think I will return to my work out," 'Star replied, standing up and pausing, briefly, to put a hand on Julio's shoulder. Julio looked up, and 'Star looked almost apologetic now, like he knew he was acting like an idiot, and couldn't stop, and regretted it.
"I have stuff to do anyway. But if you want, I'll probably be eating dinner on the roof around six or so. If you wanna join me, grab something from the cafeteria, and I'll be there. You should see some of Paris while you're here, even if it's from a distance."
"I will be there," 'Star promised.
Julio smiled, patting 'Star's wrist. "Okay, cool," he said.
"Cool," 'Star agreed, any brand of slang always hanging so awkwardly on his lips, but he kept trying it out anyway, though usually only around Julio. 'Star did a lot of things around Julio that he didn't do around anyone else. Laugh, for one, and nap, for another. The first time he'd closed his eyes on the couch, Julio had thought he was sick.
Julio got up on shaky legs, heading for the door, watching his feet. He felt sick, and disappointed, and embarrassed. 'Star, the older one, the dead one, had told him it wouldn't be easy, but he hadn't thought it would be this hard. With him and 'Star things had always seemed to happen naturally, but not this time. Ironic, Julio supposed, that the only one who had reacted badly to him coming out was the guy he was coming out for.
He looked up. "Si?"
"Your ribs," 'Star placed a big, warm hand against Julio's chest, right under his arm, where his ribs had been bothering him the most. The touch knocked the breath right out of him, worse than the initial kick that had cracked them in the first place.
"Better," Julio promised, trying to wiggle away from 'Star's sudden concern. It didn't seem fair, that somehow in the last day, 'Star had picked up a cue that made touching implicitly okay, when they had spent months with an ocean of space between them. Julio entirely blamed himself and that relieved hug he hadn't been able to stop.
It was just another way that 'Star tortured him without realising, filed in Julio's head alongside his annoying habit of taking his shirt off all the time, that secret smile he flashed Julio when nobody was looking, and the fact that he had never noticed girls.
Hope really was the cruellest thing in the entire world.
In his room, Julio locked himself in, jabbing an angry finger at his stereo until something suitably loud and drowned kicked in then, with a sigh, he slid down the wall and bowed his head. "Madre de Dios," he muttered, bumping his brow against his knees.
He hadn't expected anything. Not really. Just a little bit, with that secret part of him that stared longingly at 'Star when 'Star wasn't looking, the part that imagined all the romantic shit that he tried not to think about, the part that tended to daydream idiotically.
But then 'Star had practically fallen into Julio's lap, saying all the things Julio had always wanted to hear, and never expected to. If 'Star was right about Mojo's involvement, that meant that Julio had been wrong. Worse, it meant that he had been stupid, and if there was one thing Julio couldn't abide by it was his own stupidity.
That was how the thing with the Right had happened. A man, a stranger, had offered him atonement for what he had done to Guadalajara, and in that brief second of consideration, when he had been dazzled by the promise of betterment and forgiveness, not just for him but for the city he had been born in, they had nabbed him. Just like that.
Just like that, and he still hadn't gotten over it, and probably never would.
It felt the same, now, as the thought that he had been taken for a fool finally crossed his mind. He realised, quite suddenly, that 'Star had suspected this all along, and the idea that Julio had led him into something bad without even considering that he was just a pawn made him queasy. Why did everyone know to exploit his biggest weakness?
Emotionally, Julio was fucked up. He knew this, and apparently, so did everyone else. He had tried to be like 'Star, cold, suspicious, disaffected, but he seemed genetically prone towards idealism, that things would work out if he only believed in them. And it wasn't like they ever did. Julio couldn't think of a time when he had had a happy ending.
Yet he still fell for the same joke, time and time again. Still trusted the villains.
His secondary mutation was evidently complete idiocy. That was good to know.
Julio laughed bitterly into his jeans, his fingers wrapped around his shins, keeping his body curled into a protective ball. Music pulsed in his blood, loud enough that his ears already ached. If Jamie was trying to sleep, Julio would probably have forty men trying to kick down the door in five minutes. Forty men, and not the one Julio wanted.
Julio closed his eyes.
In his defense, everything was happening too fast. He wasn't ready for it, not with the fact that 'Star was going to die, not with his own mortality, and definitely not with everybody knowing everything about him, all those hidden bits of him he wasn't ready to share. It wasn't that he was ashamed of being gay. That wasn't it at all, but he was just so tired of being different all the time. Even among mutants, he was different.
It exhausted him, always being strange, never fitting in.
It was emotionally tiring.
And he couldn't think of a single moment in his life when he hadn't acutely felt that difference. But he knew that wasn't entirely true. In Mexico, with 'Star, he had felt comfortable, like he had finally grown into his skin, but that hasn't lasted, and everything had reverted back to normal, with him feeling like a freak, removed from everyone else. Even his mutant power set him apart. Hardly anybody could destroy a city accidentally.
Except he could, and had, and probably would again, if the wrong person ran into him and pushed him over the thin ledge of control he always toed. Even now, twelve stories above the earth, he knew the ground would be shaking under his feet if he stepped on it. Emotionally, all his great strength, his protective armour, had been stripped away.
Julio's eyes snapped open, and he looked around suspiciously, examining every dark corner, every shadow out of the ordinary. The thing with Mojo, the thing that made him truly terrifying, was that you didn't know when he was watching. 'Star had explained it once, that he took your life and made it into entertainment, and you didn't always know. Julio had begun to lose track of the number of times Mojo had already caught 'Star, forcing him into one of Mojo's ratings grabs. Even on earth, he wasn't safe.
Nobody was. Not 'Star, and not him.
Julio had never understood 'Star and his paranoia more than he did right then.
He pushed those thoughts to the back of his head, refusing to put on a show for a madman, if that was what this was. He wasn't entirely convinced yet. With shaking hands, he reached for a pen he spied on the floor, underneath a stack of pay stubs. He grabbed the nearest stub, and began to write on it, keeping his words simple and concise.
Even if that man downstairs wasn't Shatterstar, he was someone.
Julio still thought it was 'Star, though.
Still wanted to believe.
When the memo was written, he folded it up and wrote SAM across it in big, bold letters. He sealed it with a price sticker he peeled off a tag sitting in his garbage can. Slowly, using the wall for leverage, he stood up and stopped at the mirror before leaving.
"Dios," he said to his pitiful reflection, "you look like shit, amigo."
If anyone saw him, he wouldn't be able to lie and say he was fine. All the good feelings he'd woken up with were gone, dark circles back beneath his eyes, the set of his mouth curved permanently downward. He smiled to test it out, but it looked fake. Closing his eyes, he took a series of deep breaths, forcing his face to relax and accept the lie.
"I'm fine," he said, forcing his face to believe it, and he could almost feel the harsh lines evening out. Opening his eyes again, he was almost fooled by his deception. Julio spared himself one last look then headed for the door, memo clutched in his fingers.
The hallway was empty, and he tiptoed over to Sam's door then slid the note underneath it and broke for the elevator. X-Corp wasn't busy enough that he'd randomly run into people, but he didn't want to risk Sam and another one of his awkward pep talks.
Morbidly drawn to the basement, he pressed the button before he could talk himself out of it, holding his breath as the elevator plunged downward. His mind drifted to 'Star, the alive one, and he pulled it back just as quickly. Thinking about 'Star, the one upstairs, just knotted up his guts and made him feel like crap. Sometimes, secretly in the deep recesses of his brain, Julio wished that 'Star was less complicated, and more human.
The dead Shatterstar was right where he was supposed to be, face still locked into that mask of peacefulness and rest. He smelled funny, but Julio forgave him for that. Corpses, in general, didn't smell like flowers, and 'Star was no exception. It was sick, that he was even there, doing this, but even though this 'Star had ripped out his heart, he'd put it back together, too, and Julio wasn't sure the other one was going to be so kind.
"I'm so mad at you," Julio murmured, in Spanish, as if Mojo wouldn't just slap a couple subtitles under his chin. Julio brushed his knuckles over 'Star's cold cheek. But he would know, wouldn't he, the difference between a real Shatterstar and a fake one?
Julio dropped his voice, and murmured, "Did you really come back for me?"
'Star lay there, unresponsive, dead, his final smile still ghosting his lips.
"I would know you," Julio said, a little louder. "I would be able to tell."
His words echoed mournfully against the bare, metal walls.
"Don't talk me out of this. Your paranoia isn't something I like about you."
'Star was still smiling, wearing the same smile the alive one would have been wearing, if Julio had complained about the same thing to him. Maybe Julio understood why 'Star always had to watch his back, had to be suspicious of everything, but he didn't have to like it, and one of them had to be angry about it. 'Star mostly seemed resigned.
"Idiot," Julio muttered, and didn't know precisely whom he was referring to.
A few hours spent with 'Star's corpse, and Julio felt a little more grounded, lying on his back on the roof, waiting for Shatterstar to arrive for dinner. It was unseasonably warm, the clouds in the sky a cheery white, and he'd immediately stripped off his shirt before falling into a comfortable sprawl, the bright yellow sun eagerly warming his body.
He had balled his shirt up into a pillow, and it was comfortable enough, if he ignored the rough stone rooftop biting into his back. He knew the minute 'Star joined him, followed his steps by the sound of them, felt when he was close enough to cast a cooling shadow. Julio opened his eyes, squinting at the harsh sun, and said, "Amigo."
Julio settled back down, resting a hand on his belly. "If you're hungry, go ahead and eat. I'm gonna lie here and enjoy the sun. You have no idea how often it rains."
"Too often, I would think, for your liking."
Julio grinned. "Damn straight. Give me dry sweltering heat any day."
"You would like Mojoworld, then. It's too hot to breathe," 'Star said absently, sitting down on the edge of the roof, looking over the side. Sunlight tangled in his hair, making the red so wildly vibrant that Julio stared wildly for a second, forgetting himself.
Julio spread his legs a little, suddenly restless, and held his breath when he noticed 'Star watching him, blue eyes focussed on Julio's stomach, his spread fingers. His expression was unreadable, but Julio wanted to believe there was attraction there.
"You are going to get a stripe where your bandage is," 'Star pointed out.
Julio looked at his chest and the gauze he had stopped noticing somehow. Out of sight, out of mind, and just thinking about it made his ribs ache again. Phantom pains, he hoped. "Madre de Dios," he muttered, putting a careful hand against his side, testing.
Julio sat up, reaching back to brush the pebbles off his back, hissing when he strained a couple muscles and realised his pain wasn't so ghostly after all. 'Star narrowed his eyes, but didn't say anything as Julio stood up and joined him at the edge of the roof. It was a long way down, but not high enough to make the people into busy little ants.
Julio reached for the sandwich he had hidden in the shadows, next to a bottle of now lukewarm water and a half-melted chocolate bar. When he looked up, he caught 'Star watching him, and beckoned him closer with a tilt of his head. 'Star leaned in.
"Amigo," Julio whispered, "If I fell for some huge Mojo-esque joke, I'm sorry."
'Star frowned at him, then replied, just as quietly, "If you say that is me then I will believe it. You know me best, so you would know the difference." Up close, the blue of 'Star's eyes look less like the sky and more like water, deep and intense, a surreal type of colour that stopped people in their steps and forced them to stare. "And I apologise …"
"You don't need to," Julio said quickly, keeping his voice low.
"I do," 'Star insisted, still frowning.
"I surprised you. Should have said something sooner. No biggie, you know."
'Star didn't say anything, just continued glowering at him, the skin between his red eyebrows deeply furrowed. The silence wasn't exactly uncomfortable. It felt better than it had that afternoon, when he'd felt sick to his stomach, convinced he had just fucked up the only healthy long-term relationship he had ever had with another man. The idea of spending another twenty years with him was nothing short of utterly thrilling.
"What?" 'Star asked, looking around, like someone else had to be the source for Julio's sudden wave of happiness. And Julio realised, in that second, that even if they were knee-deep in Mojo's illusions then at least he had gotten something out of it.
Months apart, with 'Star on one side of the world and Julio on the other, had been too much, and Julio hadn't realised how much he missed him until he was sitting right there, in front of him, looking sombre and miserable and all those amazing human things.
Jealousy being another one of them.
'Star lowered his eyes. "Is there someone … some man … ?"
"No," Julio whispered, shaking his head, "no, there's no one else, I promise."
'Star nodded briefly, head still bowed, chin practically touching the base of his throat. His ponytail flapped in the warm wind, brilliantly red, and when he tilted his head, the sun caught his profile, highlighting his chiselled features. He raised his eyes.
"Tell me why I came back, Julio. You said I had my reasons …"
"I don't how much I'm allowed to say, or if I'm gonna fuck with the future …"
"You want that badly to preserve it?"
Julio smiled, and nodded. "Very much, si. I'm fucking terrified that this is all Mojo's doing, that none of it's going to happen. All the stuff you told me, it didn't scare me at all. Even that I, you know, die. That I'm dead in that future. I'm okay with that."
"I'm not okay with that," 'Star said, horrified, and Julio laughed.
"Well, amigo, I don't think you have much say." Julio shrugged. "'Sides, I got a couple years left in me, if what you told me is the truth, and I really do think that's you down there, 'Star. I can't even tell you how I know. I just feel it in my gut, you know?"
"Your gut is sometimes right," 'Star agreed, reluctantly, probably thinking of the same thing Julio was, all those fights on the rural back roads of Mexico, lost with only an outdated map and a vague sense of direction. Whenever 'Star had won, they had usually ended up in the United States. "But it is not right about everything," he added quietly.
"Yeah, I know. But I've always been kinda right about you, haven't I?"
"You would say so."
"Because I know so, amigo. You aren't what people think you are."
'Star smiled down at his hands, though his eyes seemed sad, and Julio wanted to ask him what he was thinking, but didn't. Knowing 'Star, he wouldn't be able to explain it even if Julio did inquire. It probably wasn't any one thing, either, just a heavy weight on his shoulders, the same one he'd been lugging around for months, and the one he had shown up still bearing, noticeable from the moment 'Star had stepped off the helicopter.
"I am still unsure about things," 'Star confessed. "I don't know why …"
"Yes, you do," Julio insisted, laying his hands on 'Star's forearms, balanced on the edge of the roof, straddling the wall that enclosed the ancient shingles. One of his legs hung over the side, miles above the street below. But he wasn't afraid, not at all.
Suddenly, he wasn't afraid of anything, not with 'Star looking at him like he was.
"There's one thing you'd come back for, isn't there? One thing …"
'Star lifted his eyes, and nodded. Below them, someone started honking and yelling in French, speaking too quickly for Julio to follow it. Distracted, he looked down, but couldn't see anything more than two angry little dolls waving their fists at each other.
When he looked back, 'Star was staring at him, intensity frozen in his features. Julio's heart sped up, so fast that he was sure 'Star could hear it thumping away in his chest. Slowly, Julio moved his hands up 'Star's arms. His thumbs led the way, sweeping up the hairless skin on his forearms, to the damp skin in the dip of his elbows, then the convex curve of his biceps, and 'Star watched all of this, unspeaking, before murmuring,
"Me," Julio agreed, leaning forward, kissing him, finally.
It wasn't like the other kiss. There was no desperation in it, not yet, and 'Star's mouth tasted like mint, not rust, still wet but not in the same way. It was awkward and strange, but not entirely unpleasant, and it got better when 'Star finally got what Julio was trying to do with his tongue and parted his lips, letting him inside, welcoming him.
Even though he was the more experienced one, Julio hadn't kissed many people beside 'Star. Rahne, a couple times, but it hadn't felt like this, which more and more resembled a lazy afternoon exploration. So it wasn't like those frantic hook ups in clubs, either, when he knew he only had ten minutes to make the best of a difficult situation.
Because things were different now. This was a man he was kissing, a man he knew, a man he considered his best friend. If someone stumbled upon them, Julio would be more annoyed than embarrassed. Everyone knew now, so that part was over. It left him with this: 'Star and the potential of a future together, where everything worked out.
Where something, finally, worked out.
By the time they stopped kissing, entirely reluctantly, pushed apart only by their growling stomachs, the sun had already set, and all of Paris had lit up into a dazzling night-time canvas of gold on black. A cool wind had settled over the city like a blanket.
"Wow," Julio said, staring out at the city, but hoping 'Star knew what he meant. His entire face tingled, his lips still damp and catching the chilly air, but his heart had slowed into a steady pulse, no longer too big and frantic for his chest, but happily sated.
'Star still looked troubled, though, like nothing had been solved for him.
'Star sighed. "Julio …"
"Please don't," Julio said, putting his hands back where they'd begun, resting on 'Star's forearms. He really wanted to place them on 'Star's thighs, feel the curve of their muscles underneath the worn fabric of his ratty old jeans, the same pair he always wore.
"Why did I do this? I must have known …"
'Star sighed again. "How I feel right now. How lost in this world. It is so …"
"Confusing?" Julio offered helpfully, lightly rubbing over 'Star's tense arms.
"Yes. Everything is so confusing, and I … we … you kissed me," he muttered, shaking his head, and Julio smiled at him, bemused but utterly unrepentant. If 'Star had betrayed even the slightest hint of discomfort, Julio would have stopped, but he hadn't.
Which Julio took to mean he could do it again, so he did.
They made out leisurely, even as their stomachs engaged in a symphony of protests. Julio let his hands wander this time, down to 'Star's hips then under his shirt, sliding into the small of his back, where it was warm and damp, then up his spine until 'Star shivered. 'Star wasn't quite as adventurous, keeping his palms on Julio's knees.
When they parted, Julio reached for his sandwich before he could be tempted again. 'Star did the same. They kept a comfortable silence between them, broken only by the crinkle of plastic as they opened their meals, but there was no distance to match the quiet. Julio had practically ended up in 'Star's lap, his thighs draped over 'Star's, his knees at 'Star's hips. It was oddly comfortable, though the brick bit into his ass a little.
When they finished eating, Julio asked, "Did you get a chance to write out those songs for me?"
'Star nodded, leaning forward, his chin practically resting on Julio's shoulders, and fished a piece of paper out of his back pocket. It was still warm when Julio took it, unfolded it and quickly scanned the words. They didn't make much sense to him, written.
"Amigo, I'm not really understanding this. Sing it for me?"
'Star gave him a look, the sort of withering look that made most people shy away, but Julio just nudged him in the side. It took a minute or two, but then 'Star started to sing, quiet at first, then louder as Julio listened. He followed along with his finger, matching the words coming out of 'Star's mouth to the phonetic sounds on the paper.
He began to sing along by the third verse, the melody blissfully repetitive. There was a mournful quality to 'Star's voice that Julio tried to match, a match that came easily and quickly. If there was one thing Julio understood above all others, it was feeling sorrow so deeply that you couldn't breathe because the sadness choked the air right out.
He remembered his mother wailing, after his father had been murdered. His own screams echoed in his nightmares.
It was an old memory, one that still hurt a lot. Sometimes, in the dead of night, when he was particularly broody, he wondered how his life might have turned out if his father had been around. He wouldn't have wasted all that time hating Cable, for one thing, even though Stryfe had been the one to pull the trigger, but Julio hadn't known that.
He didn't know a lot of things, it felt like, sometimes.
All of the time.
He had wasted too many nights, twisting and turning, wondering if his father could have handled him being a mutant, being gay. The optimistic part of him said yes, but the realistic part wasn't so sure. His mother didn't know, officially, about the latter, but he would be the first to admit he had fucked up by bringing 'Star to Mexico. He had heard the whispers, and very few of them had been encouraging. Worse, he thought, than all the shit they said about him being a mutant. Which was funny, but only in a really sad way.
He looked up, jolted out of his thoughts, and realised he had stopped singing.
"Are you okay?" 'Star asked, like someone was dragging it out of him, and Julio smiled. That was one thing they had in common - neither of them liked answering personal questions. It was probably the reason they had made it this far without ever talking about this huge and terrifying thing between them that had always seemed to be there, even in the beginning when Julio had dismissed 'Star as a terrifying weirdo like everybody else.
Julio didn't believe in love at first sight, but he could be persuaded.
"You think maybe we should talk about this?"
'Star shrugged, looking vaguely uncomfortable, his thighs tense beneath Julio's legs. They were precariously perched on the edge of the roof. One unexpected gust of wind, and they were probably going to have a whole lot of fun trying to fly before dying.
"You said things to me," Julio confessed, "right before you died."
'Star nodded, obviously not surprised in the slightest.
"And we kissed, in front of everyone, so everybody knows. Sorry," Julio added.
'Star nodded again, but there was a smile playing on his lips. Julio saw it before he managed to bite it away, his face resuming his usual stoic mask. He was gorgeous when he smiled, but Julio had to admit the strong-silent-type thing suited 'Star perfectly.
"You didn't say anything about Mojo, but you mentioned … um, uh …"
Julio glared down at the roof.
"Spiral," Julio muttered. "I think. I mean, you called her the Time Dancer …"
'Star frowned deeply, any lightness immediately gone from his face as he tilted his head, eyes narrowed suspiciously. Spiral didn't get 'Star going quite as badly as Mojo did, because 'Star knew Mojo's main motives. Spiral's were much more unclear.
The only thing Julio knew for sure was that Spiral had had ample opportunity to kill 'Star or, worse, drag him back to Mojoworld, and she never had. He wasn't naïve enough to believe she was one of the good guys, but her actions regarding 'Star had always been contradictory. Spiral's involvement was the only part he was truly unsure of. With Spiral, you could never really tell, but maybe, he hoped, this time you could.
"This is what it will be like, with me," 'Star murmured, turning his head toward Paris, eyes cast down towards the bustle of the city beneath them. "I don't have a life, Julio. I am a weapon. I am owned. And not even my death frees me from that, apparently."
"We don't know that she was still working for Mojo."
'Star's expression darkened. "Mojo never frees you from your contract."
"Then maybe Mojo's really dead! You killed him, 'Star, I saw you do it. On tv, remember? When I saw you die for the first time. I should be pretty pissed at you, amigo, always dying when you know I'm watching," Julio joked weakly, patting 'Star's thigh.
"He'll kill you to get at me, Julio. He'll kill you for entertainment."
"And if he does, it's gonna take him twenty years to do it. I'm not afraid of him."
"You should be."
"I'm not," Julio insisted, lifting his chin defiantly. "And I'm not afraid of you, either. Being with you. If you want," he added, feeling weirdly shy, "to be with me."
The skin at the back of Julio's neck prickled unpleasantly, and he knew what was coming, felt it as a sickly swirl in his belly. He reached for 'Star, grabbing by the wrists then twisting their fingers together. "Don't do this, 'Star. Don't say it. Just don't, okay?"
"I won't make you happy."
"Please," Julio whispered. "It'll work out. I promise."
"I cannot even be sure that is me …"
"It is," Julio insisted, trying to keep the desperation out of his voice. He didn't want to beg, didn't want to force 'Star into anything, but it was out of his hands now. Every part of him wanted this, needed it, and to deny those parts now would kill him.
"Fuck!" Julio shouted in 'Star's face, then sprang up, nearly going head first over the side before 'Star caught him by the ankle and yanked him in the other direction. It felt good to have stone under his feet as he stomped across the roof. "You're an asshole!"
"You told me this would be hard, but I just … fuck! Fuck, fuck, fuck!" He kicked the nearest object, a bucket filled with rainwater, across the roof, then marched up to 'Star, torn between punching him and kissing him. "I can give this all up, you know."
"I don't want you to. You're happy here."
"Yeah, I'm not gonna lie. I am, but I'd be happier with you. I was happier in Mexico, you know. I was … so happy there, with you, and then you …" Julio paused, took a deep breath, and continued. "Have you even found what you're looking for?"
Julio thought, briefly, about throwing himself over the side of the building, but settled on sitting back down on the edge, facing out toward the city, legs hanging over. 'Star was unnaturally still, his knees pressed up against Julio's thigh, warm and firm.
"I'm fucking lousy at this, amigo. Sorry. I'm gonna be better, starting now."
"I don't even know what you are talking about, Julio."
"This. Us. Or not us, I guess. Something. Fuck," Julio added, just for good measure, tucking a hand against his ribs to press at them, ground himself. The shock of pain felt good, refreshing, like someone had dumped a bucket of ice-cold water on him.
"Stop that," 'Star said, curling his fingers around Julio's wrist, pulling. "And I still don't know what you are talking about. I did not … I did not say no, Julio. I should," 'Star added, "but I'm tired of being like I am. Of being this … inhuman."
Julio glanced over, startled. "Amigo, you aren't. Why are you even …?"
"Because I am not human."
"Your body is human," Julio muttered unhappily, ignoring 'Star's glare at the mention of the man 'Star had once asked him to pretend never existed. In retrospect, it probably hadn't been the healthiest thing, emotionally, to help 'Star bury Benjamin Russell.
"Perhaps," 'Star said, finally, reluctantly, "but my uemeur is not."
"You have human memories," Julio added, unable to stop picking at this huge gaping wound. 'Star glared at him, but he could do that until his eyeballs fell out because Julio wasn't going to admit that 'Star was inhuman. He just wasn't, and that was that.
"These memories are not mine. I am not Benjamin Russell. If I was …"
"This would be easier for you?"
"It wouldn't be, 'Star. You want to be human? Here's your first lesson: it sucks. Nothing makes any sense, and you do stupid things, and have stupid things done to you. You're human to me, okay? I … I wouldn't feel like this, towards you, if you were this thing you think you are. I just wouldn't, okay?" Julio muttered, looking down at his feet.
"I'm still not human," 'Star insisted, stubbornly.
"Okay, fine. You seem perfectly human to me, but whatever. What do I know?"
'Star shrugged, and Julio burst into abrupt, almost painful laughter.
"Madre de Dios, 'Star." He leaned into 'Star, bumping him with his shoulder, and 'Star looked at him like he had lost his mind, which he had, somewhere back in Arizona when being 'Star's friend had seemed like no big thing. "Thanks for the ego-boost there."
'Star rolled his eyes as Julio continued chuckling, feeling a little better now. The good thing about 'Star was that Julio could act like a complete moron around him, and 'Star never held it against him. The first time Julio had realised that he'd nearly crashed the Jeep into the nearest ditch, and it shamed him to realise it had taken him so long to figure out just how much 'Star meant to him. He was the best friend a guy could ask for.
"Listen, just forget I said anything, all right? Or that we, you know, kissed."
Julio blinked. "What?"
"No," 'Star repeated. "You cannot take it back, Julio. Not this time."
Julio dragged a hand wearily down his face, too emotionally strung out to come up with a response. He was just tired, tired of never having any control over his life, tired of always wanting more than he was given. Just tired like he could sleep a hundred years.
They sat in silence for a long time, Julio hunched over like an old man, 'Star still leaning toward him. At some point, 'Star took his hand and held it, brushing his thumb over the back of it, back and forth, soothingly. Julio didn't know where to go from there.
"It's late," Julio said, finally, forcefully pushing it out of his own mouth. A big part of him was happy to stay there all night, broody and anxious, but the rest of him just wanted a break from the sheer intensity of it all. "Dunno about you, but I'm exhausted."
'Star nodded, pushing off the ledge of the roof and offering his hand to Julio, who took it. All Julio wanted to do was press his face to 'Star's stiff shoulder and keep him there, but melodrama had always pissed him off, especially when he was the source of it.
"Tomorrow, I was thinking, we probably need to buy supplies, right?"
"I know this place we could have lunch -- they make amazing sandwiches -- and you might as well see some of Paris while you're here. It's an awesome city. If you want to see it," Julio added, casually, so 'Star wouldn't think it was a date or something.
'Star hummed a little, agreeable enough that Julio took it as a definite yes. It wasn't surprising, when you thought about it, that the Cadre language was based mostly around hums, grunts and other primal sounds. It was 'Star's favourite way to communicate, and Julio had long ago learned to decipher what every quiet noise meant.
The elevator was silent, not entirely awkward, but nowhere near comfortable either. In an ideal world, 'Star would have just broken down, pressed Julio up against the wall and admitted that he couldn't live without him. Julio smiled down at his feet. Like that would ever happen. Nobody showed high levels of self-restraint quite like 'Star did.
"I never asked," Julio said suddenly, "if there's someone else, like, for you …"
'Star's eyes widened comically, then he shook his head, sharply.
Julio laughed. "Amigo, you're pretty hot, you know. Everybody thinks so."
"Sam does not," 'Star pointed out, "and James, and Roberto, and Nathan, and …"
"Okay, okay, I get it. I'm just saying, though. It was a valid question."
The elevator dinged, and the doors slid open with a hiss. Julio stepped out first, ignoring the collection of leering Jamies gathered down the corridor. His first instinct was to check his neck in a mirror. They had been kissing for an awfully long time.
"You do," 'Star said, uncertainly, hovering on the edge of a question.
"I do what?" Julio asked, forcefully ignoring the swarm of Madrox eyes on him.
'Star leaned in, lowering his voice, switching to Cadre. "Think I'm hot."
Julio dropped his gaze to the floor. "Si."
"Oh. I didn't know."
"You weren't supposed to," Julio replied quietly, then added, in hesitant Cadre, "I wouldn't have said anything if all this hadn't happened. The whole thing is embarrassing. Everybody keeps looking at me, and it isn't … it's not like anything's happening, either."
"What is supposed to happen?"
"I don't know."
"Me neither." 'Star glared over at the swarm of Jamies. "And they are nosy."
Julio grinned, fishing his key out of his pocket and looking over at the Jamies again, noting with satisfaction that some of them looked ashamed of themselves. "Welcome to my life, amigo. X-Corp's not exactly busy yet, and we've made knowing everything about each other into a sport. Of course, I didn't have much to know, until recently. I can tell you how much sex Jamie doesn't have, though, if you wanna know."
'Star made a face. "Why would I?"
"Never mind," Julio murmured, laughing quietly, reaching for his door and sliding his key through the lock. 'Star was close enough that Julio could feel him breathing on the back of his neck, a little too quickly, in Julio's opinion. "So I guess …"
And then 'Star was kissing him again, his hand sliding over Julio's where it rested on the knob, pushing the door open. Julio stumbled back, and would have fallen flat on his ass if 'Star hadn't moved that hand to his waist, slipping quickly beneath his shirt. Julio wasn't quite sure why, or what he had done to encourage it, but he went with it. No sane man wouldn't, with 'Star pressed up against him, belly to belly, mouth to mouth.
The door slammed behind them, and they pulled back, briefly, to stare at it.
They stared for an awfully long time.
"Amigo," Julio murmured eventually, "we don't have to. When I said …"
"I wanted him to see," 'Star confessed, sounding a little ashamed of himself. His eyes were fixed on Julio's mouth as he said it, and it took all the strength Julio had not to life his fingers to his lips and see if they looked as wet and thoroughly kissed as they felt.
"That's cool, amigo. But I mean it. Just because you're …"
"I just need to think," 'Star said decisively, rubbing a hand over the back of his neck. "That is all. I need to think this over, and I … Julio, there are so many other men who would love you. Much better men than me," 'Star added, and smiled a little, sadly.
"I'll live if you say you're not interested, 'Star."
"Unless, if I say that, you don't. Maybe that is why …"
Julio lifted his hand. "Dios, if it is, don't tell me. Make your decision on what you want, okay? Not what I want, or what you think Mojo wants. Be selfish for once, please."
"I will try," 'Star promised, an intensity on his face that made Julio shiver. He looked away quickly, before he was tempted to show 'Star a little bit of his own intensity. It was an obvious cue, he thought, that 'Star was free to go, no feelings hurt, no problems at all, but 'Star didn't move. When Julio looked back, the only change was that he had stripped down to his Calvin Klein boxers and had climbed onto Julio's narrow twin bed.
"Is this okay?" He asked, frowning a little, like he expected to be kicked out.
Julio sighed. "Yeah, but if I start humping you in my sleep, it's not my fault."
"I will keep that in mind."
Julio nodded, then stripped down, leaving his clothes in a messy pile on his floor. He noticed, idly, that 'Star had folded his own stuff and placed it neatly on top of the dresser. He thought about buying himself some time, maybe tidying up the hurricane of shirts and pants on the floor, but 'Star was watching him, and would know, somehow.
They had shared a bed before, and Julio hadn't embarrassed himself.
The bed had never been this small, though.
He looked up. "I mean it, about the humping, just shove me away or something, okay?"
"Something," 'Star agreed.
A person would have thought this wasn't what Julio had been wanting for the better part of two years, but he approached the bed like he expected he would approach his own execution: very slowly, and with the inside of cheek clenched between his teeth.
'Star shifted over, his back against the wall, one arm stretched across the top of Julio's pillow. He slipped in next to him, settling on his back, and looked up at 'Star. It was weird. He couldn't pretend it wasn't. But it was nice of 'Star to take the initiative, even though he knew tomorrow would bring him nothing but grief from his idiot friends.
"You make me want to be human," 'Star murmured, stroking gentle fingers over Julio's cheek, wisps of his hair tickling Julio's face. The way he whispered it sounded unbearably sad, and Julio didn't know what to say. Platitudes didn't work with 'Star.
So Julio did the only thing he could, and closed his eyes, letting his body relax into 'Star, resting his cheek on 'Star's gently rising and falling chest. It was the safest he'd ever felt, and he thought 'Star understood that, somehow, because he relaxed, too.
In that moment, everything was fine.
Julio had never been one to sleep through the night. As a baby, his father said he'd keep the whole neighbourhood up with his screams and cries, and as a young boy, he'd spent half the night convinced of devils under his bed and monsters in his closet. As a teenager, nightmares jolted him from sleep more often than not, and as a man, well, nothing had really changed. Maybe he was less terrified of his dreams, but that was it.
He woke up only twice. Once, vaguely aware of 'Star's open eyes and how they fixed steadily on the ceiling before he felt Julio's fuzzy stare. "Go back to sleep," 'Star had murmured, in Cadre, and Julio had easily complied. The second time, 'Star was out cold, hot face pressed against Julio's cheek, still looking grimly troubled, like there was no escape, even in sleep. He didn't wake up, even when Julio rolled onto his side and snaked an arm across his tight belly, but his face lightened imperceptibly, and he sighed.
'Star was still there come morning, even though the clock assured him that it was well past nine by the time he pried his eyes open to check. Rolling onto his back, Julio realised a second too late that it hadn't been the smartest move. 'Star was awake, and while Julio had no memory of humping 'Star at any point during the night, he definitely had an erection now. 'Star noticed, immediately, because 'Star noticed everything.
"Hi," Julio said.
'Star smiled, and Julio wondered, suddenly, if 'Star had just went about his morning routine then returned without him waking up. His breath smelled suspiciously minty, and he didn't seem to be covered in the same sheen of sweat that Julio wore like a second skin. Which was unfair, because it made 'Star seem even sexier than he was.
It made Julio even harder, too.
"I cannot stay," 'Star said. "Whatever happens between us, I cannot stay."
A knot tightened in Julio's belly, heavy and hot and full of nervous feelings as 'Star confirmed what he hadn't even wanted to think about. 'Star wasn't finished doing whatever it was he was doing out there in the world, and Julio wasn't selfish enough to ask him to hurry it up. Still, on some secret stupid level, he kind of wanted to. "I know."
"And you cannot leave. You are too happy here. You belong here."
"I guess," Julio agreed, reluctantly, even though it was true.
'Star sighed. "I wish I wasn't …"
Julio put a hand over 'Star's mouth, sharply shaking his head when 'Star protested. "Dios, 'Star, don't apologise. I might not understand what you're doing out there, but I know it's got to be done. Have I told you how much you're changed since we were last together? And how it's for the better? Whatever you're doing, it's working. Promise."
"The moment I have found it, I will return. I will even join X-Corp. If they let me," 'Star added, as an afterthought, and Julio smiled. Like they would turn him down.
"I can wait, amigo. Lasted this long, haven't I?"
'Star looked bleak as he sighed. "These human mating rituals baffle me."
"I was just hoping we'd get drunk and screw like normal twenty-some-things, but then your dumbass metabolism fucked with that plan." The few aborted attempts had ended with Julio's head in the toilet and 'Star asking if he needed to go to the hospital.
"I think I would like to screw anyway."
Julio jerked out of his sprawl. "What? Right now?"
His mind reeled. "But I thought you had to think about things."
"I did think. All night. And I think I would like to have sex with you."
Julio swallowed. "Right this second?"
"Okay, okay, but give me, like, five minutes, okay?" He was already off the bed as he said it, heading for the door. "Five minutes, 'Star. Don't move a muscle, all right?"
"You are coming back."
"Five minutes," Julio assured him, then launched into the empty hallway. He was pretty sure he was coming back. He'd be an idiot not to, but it wasn't every day that the hottest guy you knew, the honest-to-god love-of-your-life suggested you do it. With him.
"Whoa," Sam said, jumping out of his way, "where's the fire, Ric?"
"Have to piss," he said, lamely, like it would matter at all by noon, when Sam had had time to compare his story of 'Julio running around in his underwear at ass o'clock in the morning' with Jamie's story of 'and then they kissed like horny horndogs in the hall.'
In the bathroom, he took a minute to stare at the wall, trying to calm down. It was lame, on a deep embarrassing level, to feel this excited, this giddy, about sex. People had sex all the time. It was all over French tv, and he shared a wall with Terry, who had a very loud French boyfriend, and it was all they, his team-mates, his friends, talked about.
But having sex with 'Star was something else. Julio was still a virgin, which he could deal with, but so was 'Star, and 'Star was complicated, sometimes, when it came to shit like this. The encounter with Stecky had proven that. The only thing Julio had ever seen 'Star run from was sex. Not that that meant he wouldn't do it. Of course he would.
He was too hard to piss, and, try as he might, nothing eased that pain. Not thinking of his disapproving family, or the threat of his father's ghost, or even all the horror he had seen in his life. He resented having to use that. Resented it more that it didn't work. He wanted it to be like the movies, where he would wake up and be totally ready for it, wouldn't have a full bladder distracting him or gross as hell morning breath.
Julio looked around, first left, then right, then grabbed his cock and pumped his fist over it, once, twice, three times, coming against the porcelain of the toilet. Not soft even then, but enough that he could force himself to go. He closed his eyes, and waited.
With the pressure on his bladder eased after minutes of extreme concentration, he washed his hands then brushed his teeth with one hand, and used a damp cloth to mop around his groin with the other. Not sexy in the slightest, but he felt better about it, after.
Felt better, about having sex, with 'Star, for the first time.
"Dios," Julio muttered at his dazed reflection.
He made the walk back to his room slowly, one hand curled protectively against his belly. It was hard to ignore his cock, which was so over-ready for this that it didn't seem bothered by the fact they were walking in a public hallway, with tented out briefs, but his brain was getting in the occasional protest. Sex could ruin everything. It probably would.
Like, what if it wasn't any good? And they still had to be friends after? He was gay, but maybe 'Star wasn't. Maybe 'Star was just doing this out of pity, and even the thought of that made Julio want to swear celibacy and run the other way. He hadn't saved himself for 'Star or anything stupid like that, but it would look that way to others. It already did.
To have sex, or not to have sex, that was the question.
The only thing that calmed his nerves, even marginally, was the look on 'Star's face when Julio walked into the room. He looked almost scared, smaller than Julio could have imagined, already naked in Julio's bed, a sheet pulled haphazardly across his thighs. It was the most breathtaking sight Julio had ever seen, and he couldn't help staring at the naked expanse of 'Star's hip, abandoned by the useless cotton sheet he wore like armour.
"Madre de Dios, 'Star," Julio murmured, embarrassingly husky, locking the door behind him, shivering when 'Star look up at the sound of his voice. Any worries he might have had rushed right out of his idiotic head, and he knew without a doubt that he wanted to do this. If it was bad, who the hell cared? They could practice until they got it right.
Hooking his thumbs in the elastic, Julio pushed his shorts down his wobbly legs, then stood up, stretching to his full, mostly unimpressive, height. 'Star smiled, and maybe 'Star was a little gay after all, because he turned to Julio, letting the sheet slip off his legs, and the sight of 'Star's cock, fully ready, fully hard, nearly knocked Julio over.
Madre de Dios, but it was big. He knew that, in theory, assuming that a guy so well hung when soft would be pretty impressive when hard, but seeing it was almost too much, and he was infinitely glad he had had the foresight to jerk off in the bathroom.
"You are …" Julio couldn't wrap his brain around the words, English completely gone from his head, only the remnants of Spanish holding on. "Amigo … Dios, amigo."
'Star frowned adorably. "Julio, you are not making any sense. Again."
"I can't sleep with you," he blurted.
'Star was beginning to look alarmed now. "What? Why not?"
"You're too sexy," Julio murmured, half-joking, half not. He felt like he would die, if 'Star touched him now, if he touched 'Star. His hands ached with the wanting, beyond desperate to touch 'Star's naked skin, frightening in a way he couldn't articulate.
'Star stood up, and began to approach, crossing the room in three strides, and then stopping right in front of him. He looked confused, Julio thought, and didn't blame him. This was a terrible way to react to what 'Star had probably been nervous to offer in the first place.
"Are you serious?"
"Not really," Julio admitted, laying the first hesitant hand on 'Star's bare shoulder.
'Star offered his own hand, placing it against Julio's neck, fingers dabbling at the edge of Julio's hairline. "Good," he said, and licked his lips a little, way too sexy again.
"Good," Julio agreed.
He didn't know what to do. Well, of course he knew knew, but he didn't know. Didn't know how to start, or what to touch first, or how to touch first. 'Star's shoulder was pretty nice, rounded with muscle, smooth under his palm. It was easier to focus on that than anything below 'Star's neck, like his flat six-pack belly, or his gorgeous cock. Easier to press his mouth to that innocuous shoulder skin rather than the other two.
'Star still jerked against him, though, when he did that.
Julio looked up. "Amigo?"
"That feels good," 'Star said, sounding surprised, and Julio closed his eyes, praying to god that no laughter would escape his lips. 'Star must have seen something on his face, because he looked suddenly chagrined, like he had realised what he had done.
"I'm not laughing at you," Julio assured him. "I'm just nervous, amigo."
"You still wanna?"
"Very much," 'Star said, playing idly with the long strands of Julio's hair. It felt good, and Julio leaned into him, encouraging it. They were so close. Another inch, and they'd be touching, front to front, naked save for a layer of sweat and Julio's bandage.
"I think, maybe, if we kiss …"
"Yes," 'Star muttered, and bowed his head enough that Julio didn't kill his neck going in for the kill. He'd definitely brushed his teeth, too, Julio thought, the cheater. Julio stepped back, needing the support of the cool wall, and 'Star followed him, settling into the vee of his legs, licking at his lips, his tongue, his teeth, pressed flush against him.
"Mm," 'Star agreed, his fingers buried deeply in Julio's hair.
It was hard to keep still, so Julio didn't even try, beginning to wiggle after only a few breathless kisses, his stiff cock rubbing against 'Star's thigh, testing their boundaries. There didn't seem to be any, Julio realised. It was perfectly okay, then, to thrust a little.
'Star hummed, sounding pleased, and Julio smiled into their kiss, arching his back and shifting around until 'Star's cock was there, settled into the groove of his hip, hard and leaving wet streaks on Julio's skin every time Julio moved against him. Part of Julio wanted to stay there, wall cool against his back, 'Star hot as Guadalajara in the front. He could come from that, easily, just rubbing together and kissing like water-desperate men.
He could, but he didn't want to.
"Bed," he gasped into 'Star's wet mouth, putting a hand against 'Star's belly and pushing him back. It was easy then, to do what he'd been dreaming about for months, and slid just a little lower, curling his hand around 'Star's dick, watching him shiver hard.
"Julio," he gasped, eyes wide open.
"Like that?" Julio asked, stroking a couple times, grinning at 'Star's dazed expression. It felt surprisingly like his own dick, except bigger and more skin, sliding eagerly over his palm as 'Star thrust into his fist, quivering with thinly held control.
"Julio," he said again, his fingers tight in Julio's hair, pulling a little.
"Want me to stop?"
"I don't know," 'Star said, sweat beading across his forehead like he was fighting it, fighting coming, and he probably was. Unlike Julio, 'Star probably wouldn't have thought to jerk off in the bathroom beforehand. 'Star, as far as he knew, didn't jerk off.
"Amigo," Julio said slowly, "this isn't your first, I mean, you've … you've gone the distance before, right?"
"No, yes, I … what are you talking about, Julio?" 'Star hissed, only inches away from the bed, but not sitting down. His legs bowed under his weight, and Julio thought about shoving him that extra little bit before he fell down. "Should it feel like this?"
"This," 'Star said, helplessly, and swooped in for another kiss, not moving away, which Julio took to mean it was all right. 'Star was a freak. Julio already knew this, and if 'Star hadn't taken his advice, and finally bit the bullet and whacked off, it was his fault.
"Can I get you off?" Julio asked, running the pads of his fingers up and down the shaft of 'Star's cock, pausing occasionally to focus on the head, dragging his thumb around it, using his palm for friction. 'Star went wild for that. Julio couldn't blame him.
"Get me off what?"
"I want you to come, when I can see you. Go the distance, so to speak."
'Star contemplated this before nodding. "I should probably sit down."
"Probably," Julio agreed, grinning.
'Star settled on the edge of the bed, his feet flat on the floor, leaning back and propped up by his arms. Too sexy again, but Julio felt man enough to survive it. It would be the cross he bore, for having the hottest alien boyfriend in the entire universe.
"You look good like this," Julio said, kneeling between 'Star's legs.
He had intended to continue jerking 'Star off, but now that he was down there, it seemed like a waste when his mouth was so close to 'Star's dick. Jerking off Julio knew, was a pro in it and had been enthusiastically doing it since he was at least twelve, but a blowjob was something that would put him and 'Star back on an equal playing field.
'Star looked down at him, glassy eyed and pink. "Hm?"
Without a word, Julio asked his question, dipping his head and swirling his tongue, tentatively, in the dip of 'Star's hip, lapping at the damp salty skin. Dios, he tasted good, and smelled even better. He wanted to bury his face there and inhale him, and when 'Star tilted his head and sighed, Julio did, hiding his nose in the reddish curls.
Julio didn't know what to do next, but this time it was because he wanted to do everything he could think of, everything he ever wanted done to him. He settled on the obvious, dragging his tongue across the head of 'Star's cock, tasting him for the first time. The texture didn't surprise him, because he had tasted himself on occasion, and the taste was what he expected and not, at the same time, because this was 'Star.
Julio almost came, realising it.
He dropped his hand down to his own crotch, squeezing his dick until the urgency went away. It worked, and he turned his attention back to 'Star's cock, licking and sucking over the shaft, the head, before finding the balls to take him inside, just a little, carefully.
"Julio," 'Star gasped, lifting his hips, and Julio scrambled to keep him still, pressing down across 'Star's quivering thighs with his forearm. He looked up, lips wide around 'Star's dick, and had to grab himself again at the mind-blowing look on 'Star's face.
With all the encouragement needed, Julio set to the task at hand with as much raw enthusiasm that he could muster to make up for his complete lack of skill. Hopefully, that would come later, and he'd be able to boast, drunk at parties, that he was a master cocksucker. Once he came out to everyone, of course, or, knowing him, even before that.
"Julio," 'Star said again, pulling Julio's hair, either urging him away or drawing him nearer, and Julio ignored him either way, just kept up with his rhythm, bobbing his head, ignoring the relentless ache in his jaw, before, finally, 'Star groaned and came.
He swallowed, because he wanted to, and that was something he'd have to get used to, he thought. Pleased, he knelt back, resting on his heels, and wiped his lips clean with the back of his hand. 'Star looked like someone had clubbed him over the head.
"You are … very good at that," he said, blinking slowly.
Julio snorted. "You're only saying that because you don't know any better."
"Uh," Julio sheepishly rubbed at the back of his neck, "no."
'Star raised his eyebrows.
"Shut up," Julio muttered. "I just, the opportunity, you know, and I ... shut up."
"So you are …"
"Si," Julio hissed, his fuzzy happy feelings keeping the darker ones at bay. "I mean, I've made out with guys, you know, and a couple times I copped a feel, but I never … I never did anything, really, with any of them. I didn't know any of them, and I …"
"Saved yourself for me?" 'Star offered helpfully.
"Madre de Dios, no. That only happens on television."
'Star looked thoughtful, but didn't say anything, just moved back on the bed, making room, and Julio joined him, the brief movement drawing his attention back to the anxious arc of his cock. He looked down at it, amazed he had forgotten about it, then glanced up to see 'Star's eyes focussed on the same thing, wheels turning in his head.
"I would like to get you off now."
"Okay," Julio agreed, happily.
They stayed in bed all morning, trying to figure out this sex thing. 'Star wasn't too hot at blowjobs either, but he was determined to be, so Julio had to suffer through one or two as 'Star tried to figure out what he was doing wrong. They made out leisurely in between attempts, slippery and sweaty, 'Star's hair down and Julio's bandage gone.
"Take this off," 'Star had said, impatiently, yanking at a loose end, and after a half-hearted fight, Julio agreed, even though the bruise was ugly and purple, spanning the entire left side of his chest. It was repulsive, but 'Star just kissed it gently, without causing him pain.
They almost did it again in the showers, tempted by the illusion of privacy and the blatant nudity, but Julio was glad they had restrained themselves because Terry showed up a few minutes later, eyeing them both suspiciously, probably fully enlightened already.
Julio wasn't looking forward to facing everyone else's gleeful expressions.
"I will meet you in twenty minutes?" 'Star asked. "For what we talked about?"
"Okay," Julio agreed, bravely, ignoring Terry's watchful eyes.
He was shaving when Terry came out of the showers, wearing only a towel around her chest, and sat down beside him, butt resting on the round of the sink. She raised a red eyebrow, and smirked, and Julio sighed deeply, trying not to slit his own throat.
"Sam's been looking for you, boyo."
Julio rinsed his razor under the flowing tap. "What for?"
"Autopsy results came back."
Julio's stomach reared up, reality smacking him in the gut. "And?"
"It's Shatty down there, as far as anyone can tell. There's not a single thing off. Which might not mean anything, but I think it's him, don't you? He's always been a little … intense, about you," Terry said, slowly, a teasing smile dancing over her lips.
Julio wiped his face off with his towel. "Has he?"
"Aye. And you've always been a little … intense, about him."
"He's my best friend," Julio said, without the defensiveness he expected.
Julio sighed. "Do you really need to hear me say it?"
Terry smiled sweetly.
"And, I guess, he's kinda … I guess he's my boyfriend, too, if you want to get into labels and shit." Julio tried to sound a little annoyed, but he felt a little too proud, a little too insanely happy, to do it convincingly. "Let me guess: you knew I was gay?"
"You?" Terry snorted. "No. I mean, me and Sam had no clue, but M says we're both completely daft, so take that as you will. But Shatty? Everyone knew about that, boyo."
Terry shrugged. "We thought you were ignoring it."
"As if," Julio muttered, rolling his eyes, and suddenly the fact that everybody, with the exception of Feral, had backed off from trying to get 'Star's attention made sense. There had been a time, early in his days with X-Force, when even Boom Boom had looked like she was going to make a play for X-Force's hottest alien bachelor.
"I'll stop torturing you now. I won't even mention the hickeys."
Julio laughed as Terry sashayed out of the bathroom, though he paused to look himself over, noticing that he did, in fact, have a few red blotches in unfortunate places. He felt proud of them though, happy that he could now brag about something real. Fake sex had been pretty good -- until he had been called on his bullshit -- but real sex was awesome.
He dressed quickly, settling on a borderline clean pair of surfer shorts, a black tank top (the same one from a couple days ago, he thought), and his beloved sandals. He tucked his wallet into his back pocket then walked out to meet 'Star, who wasn't alone.
"Madre de Dios," he muttered.
"This will teach you to give details where spies can hear them," M said wisely.
Terry whistled innocently, staring at the ceiling.
So they set out, picking up Jamie before finally getting out of the building. The only one missing was Sam, who had to work, and Julio was evilly grateful for that. It wasn't a field trip, and he couldn't be sure how he'd react, and he just wanted 'Star.
It was bright and cheery outside, the city already bustling with activity, so Julio forced himself to get over his unwanted companions and decided to enjoy the day without thinking too hard about why a store that sold scented oils was top of the shopping list.
"Please tell me you fucked."
"Fucked who?" Julio asked, doing his best to ignore M's long-suffering sigh.
"You know, a real man would be bragging about finally having sex."
"I tried that once, and I seem to remember you laughing at me."
"Sex that was actually had, Julio. Not sex with an imaginary woman."
"Too late now. You hurt my feelings. I'll never get over it," Julio declared, sidestepping M when she moved to shove him. He'd fallen for that before and ended up dazed and bruised in a mountain of garbage. M didn't know her own strength sometimes.
"So did you?"
"Si," Julio said, quietly, looking ahead to 'Star, who was walking side by side with Terry and Jamie, stuck in a conversation in which he looked like he would rather die than participate. "And before you ask, it was good. I might even be glad I waited."
"Hardly," Julio said, eyes fixed on the shape of 'Star's ass under his jeans. Feral had definitely called him Shatty Buns for a reason.
Eventually, 'Star moved ahead of Terry and Jamie, leaving them to bicker like they always bickered. They had never really dated, but they still acted like they had, like Terry hadn't fallen for one of Jamie's dupes, like it had been Jamie's fault her heart got broken. It got messy sometimes. He didn't like being around when it did.
"He'll be the only one you ever sleep with, you know."
"I know," Julio said. "Nobody will ever compare to him. I know that already."
"You might be missing out."
"Maybe," Julio admitted, "but I don't think so. It feels right."
"Romantic," M said again, but she didn't sound like she was teasing this time, just a little wistful. She hadn't dated anyone seriously since her last boyfriend, who had died. She didn't talk about him, and Julio didn't ask about him, but she seemed wounded by it.
Shatterstar had seemed the same way, Julio realised, before he died.
Oh, he thought, and suddenly understood her a little better.
"Is this where we share blowjob techniques?"
"I fucking hope not," Julio replied sharply, ignoring her laughter. "Give me a couple days to get used to this, okay? Don't laugh at me, but I feel really different now."
"Of course you do. You broke free of everyone's expectations for you. You had sex with another man for the first time in your life, two days after you were dragged out of the closet long before you were ready. Honestly, Julio," she said, and rolled her eyes.
They walked in silence for a while, allowing Julio the opportunity to admire 'Star from afar. Terry had caught up with him, and Jamie had left them both behind, walking up front with a dupe. It was the old twins ruse. Half the time when Jamie got laid it was only because some women were turned on by twins, and Jamie was happy to oblige the fantasy.
He did feel different, Julio decided, tucking his hands into the pockets of his shorts, for all of the reasons M had given and more. He felt infinitely more gay, for one thing. He was no longer gay in theory, but in action, too. All of his friends were mutants, but none of them were gay, except Karma, who he hardly knew, and 'Star.
If 'Star was gay at all. The jury was still out on that one.
Bitterly, he regretted ignoring the memo from Xavier's, about the group that had started up for some of the students. The gay group. He hadn't been ready at the time, had just folded up a printout of the email and tucked it away to stare at wistfully when drunk.
"He has no clue, does he, how gorgeous he is?" M asked suddenly.
"Oh, he knows," Julio replied. "You're supposed to look. He was born for it."
"I couldn't sleep with him," M decided. "He's too attractive. I don't trust men like that."
Julio laughed suddenly, loud enough that Jamie, Jamie, Terry and 'Star all looked back at him, and he dismissed their inquisitive looks, not even bothering to explain to M just why it was so hilarious. He hoped, eventually, he would get used to the look of 'Star, naked, because right now, even the memory two hours muted was giving him a hard-on he couldn't hide.
"He does have a personality, though, right?"
"Once you get to know him," Julio replied.
Monet remained unconvinced. "Well, if you like him …"
"I do," Julio assured her.
Eventually, M moved up ahead, and 'Star joined in the back, relief clear on his face. Julio was aware of him in a way he hadn't been before, aware of his unique scent, and the size of him, and the freckles on his cheeks and shoulders. He wanted to kiss him, right there, where all of Paris could see. It was liberal enough of a city that he could have, too.
He settled on an affectionate hip-to-hip bump instead.
"How you doing, amigo?"
"Strange," 'Star replied, playing with the tip of his braid, staring at the fan of hair as if it held the answer to the universe. "Is this normal?"
"Dunno, but I'm feeling it, too. Like everything has changed, right?"
"Yes," 'Star agreed, slowly, like he was about to say more then didn't.
He did, however, grab hold of Julio's hand at one point, threading their fingers together. Julio looked around for an explanation, and found two blond guys, who had just walked by, joined at the palms. Such a small thing that Julio hadn't noticed, but 'Star had.
"You my boyfriend or something?" Julio asked, grinning.
"I suppose I am," 'Star replied, without any humour, and looked to Julio for confirmation, who nodded. So that was that, and it was easier and harder than he had expected. At least it would be true now, when he went home to his family at Christmas and caused his usual scandal.
They were near the sandwich place Julio had told 'Star about the night before when 'Star said, thoughtfully, "I feel more human," and sounded so happy about it that Julio honestly didn't know what to say, besides fight over the fact Julio thought he was human enough already.
Julio settled on, "Congratulations," and tried to sound like he meant it.
"It's all I want," 'Star murmured, troubled again, sounding so fucking sad, and Julio hugged him, because he couldn't stand it, sometimes, how sad 'Star could get. It was unfair that 'Star couldn't seem to fit in, no matter how hard he tried, and sometimes Julio really felt the injustice of it all.
'Star patted him awkwardly on the back until he let go.
Everybody had already found a table by the time he and 'Star arrived at the little café, and they had conveniently left the tiny bench seat for him and 'Star to squeeze onto. It was just as well that 'Star wasn't planning to stick around after this morbid interlude. Julio couldn't handle days (and more likely, weeks or months) of his friends being helpful.
Julio was studying the menu when Jamie blurted out, in typical idiotic fashion, "Oh my god, I am surrounded by people who know what it's like to give a blowjob."
Terry slapped him on the shoulder. "Ach, like you've never sucked a dick."
"One or two of me, but they're aberrations, I swear."
"No, that just means you're bi, honey," M said, patting Jamie on the knee.
"Madre de Dios, please kill me," Julio muttered into his drink options, looking up at 'Star, who looked like he was torn between killing Jamie and mortally wounding him. Under the table, Julio poked 'Star in the thigh, and 'Star turned to him. "Hi," Julio said, in Cadre.
"What did you say?" Jamie said, quickly. "Is it about me?"
"He is very annoying," 'Star replied, glaring at Jamie. "And he has a small penis."
Julio laughed loudly at that, even though it wasn't precisely true, and took pleasure in Jamie's frantic pleas for translation. It would have been just as fun with Spanish, which Julio knew a lot more dirty words in, but M was unpredictable when it came to language.
They conversed for a bit about nothing in particular, enjoying Jamie's response, until the waiter came up for orders. 'Star ordered first, in perfect French, which Monet mirrored quickly. Julio rolled his eyes, ordered in a broken mess of French, Spanish and English, and tried not to think about why a bickering table of friends made him so damn happy.
"So what do you do for a living, Shatterstar?" Jamie asked as they walked down the street, the women up ahead, scouting, and the men in the back, suffering through Jamie's attempt to bond with a man who obviously wanted to break his legs, all eighty of them available with a few well-timed punches.
"I kill people," 'Star replied, and Julio noticed, for the first time, that 'Star had actually left his swords behind, something the old Shatterstar would never have done. Unless they were hidden somewhere, but Julio had secretly groped him all through lunch and didn't think so. Jamie proceeded, though, entirely unafraid by the possibility.
"How does that pay?"
"All the human flesh I can eat," 'Star replied, his fingers brushing Julio's palm.
"Uh, I'm not entirely sure we're joking here."
'Star sighed. "I believe you humans would call it street fighting."
"Yes," 'Star replied, unhappy again. Fucking Jamie Madrox, Julio thought.
"Are you any good at it?"
"I'm the best," 'Star replied, offended now, bristling and angry and insanely sexy. Before 'Star could kick Jamie's nosy ass, Julio sucker-punched Jamie in the back and sent him racing up to Terry and Monet, who soon had two men escorting them down the street.
It seemed like a good time to ditch them, so Julio grabbed 'Star's hand and tugged him off into the nearest alley, keeping their fingers laced once they were safe. People looked at them, two men still a novelty even in liberal France, but Julio didn't really mind. And there was a possibility they just recognised him as Rictor. Newspapers loved X-Corp.
"You really street fight?"
"Why didn't you want to tell me?"
"It is so typical," 'Star replied, "and I was ashamed that I could not find other work, but this world is … unkind, to people who are not born here. There are too many things I do not know, and I have never been to school, and I do not even have a name."
"Uh, Gaveedra Seven ring a bell?"
'Star snorted. "That is a designation, Julio, not a name. I was the seventh Gaveedra grown from that particular flawed line. There were six before me, and five after me, at last count. It is likely higher now. For all our faults, we were entertaining."
"I like your flaws," Julio said, defensively.
"You're welcome. And you've used Benjamin Russell before. You could do it again."
"No," 'Star said simply, and didn't expand on his reasons why not.
Julio decided to just let it go.
It was bright and warm, and Julio was ridiculously happy in a way he hadn't been since before his power manifested. Even before then, he thought, because life had been unkind to him as long as he could remember, beginning with his father's murder. Maybe 'Star was flawed, but so was he. It was just another example of how well they fit together.
"Did you talk to Sam this morning?"
"He met me in the hall as I waited for you," 'Star replied.
Julio's squeezed 'Star's hand. "Good. Let it be stated for the record that I was right, or that Mojo is the smartest blob in the universe and makes good Shatterstar," Julio added, before 'Star could point out the obvious. 'Star rolled his eyes, but he was smiling.
They walked a little while longer before Julio found the perfect store, a shop that he vaguely recalled noticing when he had walked down this street to the record store he frequented a few doors over. It was one of those places that offered handmade candles and their ilk, things that would brighten your life and make you smell like flowery shit.
"Would this work? They probably sell scented oils for burning, too."
'Star looked up at the sign then nodded. "It should."
Inside, Julio almost had to pinch his nose at the wall of stink they walked into. After a few seconds, his sense of smell adjusted enough that he could walk around without his eyes watering. 'Star headed in one direction, and Julio in the other. He didn't know what he was looking for, but he would know it when he saw it. Hopefully.
The first few scents he tried were too fruity, too delicious, and he didn't need to think about the fact that 'Star would smell like a dessert specially prepared for Mojo. He also nixed basic vanilla and anything that had the slightest hint of cinnamon for the same reason.
When he looked over, 'Star was surrounded by women, three of them offering him all the help he could ever want. It wasn't a new occurrence, but after everything that had happened in the last few days, it was even more hilarious than it had been in the past.
He moved through the earthy scents, the pine and the grass and the herbs he couldn't pronounce. Paused a couple times to blow his nose into the napkin he'd taken from the café for just this very reason. It was a good thing, he thought, that his powers were limited to seismic waves and not a heightened sense of smell. He would be dead.
He stumbled upon the perfect scent quite accidentally, in a section of oils that bordered neutral. He couldn't quite pinpoint why, but it smelled exactly like 'Star, right down the always present suggestion of hard work and clean sweat. The truly freaky thing about 'Star, if you ignored the million other things, was how good he smelled all the time.
"Amigo," Julio said, coming up next to 'Star and offering him the sample, waving it under his nostrils, which were flared like an angry bull's. The women looked annoyed that he had interrupted the party, but he ignored them, leaning in, hand on 'Star's waist.
"Not bad, huh?"
'Star wrinkled his nose. "That one?"
"It smells like you," Julio explained, "trust me."
"Hmm," 'Star said, sniffing again, forehead wrinkled in consternation. Julio stayed close to him, hooking one finger into the belt loops of his low-wrung jeans. It was intimate, something he was allowed to do now, and the women sighed in unison then left.
"Too sexy for your own good."
'Star handed the vial back. "They were just being helpful. Unfortunately."
"Helpful as in they helpfully wanted to take off your pants." Julio dragged 'Star over to the shelves that held the chosen scent, fingers still hooked into his jeans. "Admit it, you're so sexy that French women are throwing themselves desperately at you feet."
"Whatever," 'Star replied, thoroughly unamused, and he was even hotter when he was scowling and annoyed, which was often.
Julio left the actual quantities up to 'Star to decide, though he insisted on paying for it. Hopefully, X-Corp would reimburse him. If not, well, Sam was good for a loan, and didn't get pissed off when you never paid him back. And Julio never paid him back.
The weight of the bag in his hand brought back that knot which had been sitting in his stomach for days. He was embarrassed, now, at how he had acted, how inconsolably he had cried over 'Star's dead body, how his powers had spun wildly out of control. Thinking about it made the knot harden, so he tried not to. He just hadn't been prepared for it, was all. Anybody would have reacted like that, so blubbering like a baby was utterly justified.
Julio really wasn't looking forward to tonight.
Or tomorrow morning, either.
"Madre de Dios," he muttered, ignoring 'Star's inquisitive look.
It would just bring 'Star down, too.
"This is a very nice city," 'Star said suddenly, the sound of his voice, and the trace of an accent that never quite went away, cutting through the haze of Julio's grim thoughts. "It is much nicer than Madripoor. I think I'll like living here, with you."
Julio grinned, sun warm on his face. "Can't wait, amigo."
"Hmm," 'Star hummed, and took the heavy bag from Julio's hand.
They walked, side by side, without speaking, and Julio took in the city. He didn't get to admire Paris enough. He was usually running through it, trying to stop the latest human or mutant menace trying to get his fifteen minutes of fame. Paris seemed to attract assholes, which were even more obnoxious thanks to various powers and deformities. He'd been all over Europe in his role as a mutant Peacekeeper, so he knew the difference.
"You ever miss Mexico?" Julio asked suddenly.
"Sometimes. Yes. Though your mother frightened me."
"What?" He laughed, a little uncomfortably. "No, no, she loved you."
"I disturbed her. And I think she thought that you and I had … relations."
It was one thing to suspect, and another to have it confirmed, and now Julio was convinced his entire family knew his personal business, even though it hadn't been true at the time. Julio shook his head sharply. "Don't tell me that. Did she say something to you?"
"Yes, but I did not understand what she was asking at the time."
Julio had to know. He was masochistic like that. "Dios, what did she ask?"
'Star frowned. "If we were special friends."
"And you said …"
"Yes," 'Star confirmed.
"And here I was worried about officially coming out to her, when she obviously already knows. Special friends," Julio repeated, shaking his head. And the sad thing was Julio probably wouldn't have gotten it, either. He had been too busy trying to play it straight.
"There is something else."
"Oh, Dios. Tell me."
"She asked if we were safe."
'Star bristled, feathers and pride obviously ruffled. "I thought she was speaking about our crime-fighting. I told her we were often not safe, but that I looked out for you."
Julio started laughing, the kind of helpless chortling where you couldn't breathe, and tears squeezed from your pinched eyelids, and you knew you were toeing the line, that if you tried to stop the painful giggles you'd probably break something, or cry a lot.
"I'm not laughing at you," he assured 'Star, between agonising gasps.
"She frightened me," 'Star insisted, unperturbed and only vaguely apologetic. There was a universal rule that Shatterstar could not be blamed for misunderstanding anyone born on earth, and Jimmy had used and abused this rule as often as he could.
"You probably scared her, too. Dios, I thought she'd been acting weird near the end, but little did I know she was probably thinking about her little boy being fucked." It was terrible to imagine, but 'Star was beginning to look distressed, so he added, as nonchalant as he could manage under the circumstances, "don't worry about it, 'Star."
"She makes as much sense as you do."
"Please don't tell me I'm turning into my mother."
"Well," 'Star said, and grinned when Julio shoved at his shoulder.
"Hey," Julio said, leaning in close, already drunk on the sweet smell of 'Star's skin, "why don't we head back and make all my mother's nightmares come true, hm?"
'Star stared at him.
"Have sex," Julio clarified.
"Ah." The wheels started turning in 'Star's head. "Yes, I would like that."
"Awesome," Julio said.
They returned to broken air-conditioning, and Sam stomping around the main level, shouting about lack of funding and "stupid piece of crap" technology. They didn't have a lot of money, despite being financed by both Xavier and Worthington money. The air was already stale and hot, but it was no worse than when the heating had gotten stuck at eighty-seven degrees last January, or two weeks ago, when the air conditioning system had similarly conked out.
'Star looked like he was about to offer his help, and Julio had no doubt that 'Star could probably figure out how to fix every faulty piece of equipment they had, but it wasn't 'Star's job to spend hours, toiling away, and Julio was too selfish and horny to let him try.
"Leave it," he hissed.
Surprisingly, 'Star gave in without a fight and snuck past Sam before he noticed.
His room smelled rank, and the settling heat wasn't helping it, but it was tolerable, and weirdly sexy, too. It gave him an immediate hard-on. 'Star noticed, either because he was observant or because he'd been eyeing Julio's crotch, and put his hand over it.
"I can do this?"
"Feel free to grab my dick any time you want," Julio assured him, reeling him in for a kiss.
This time, he got to undress 'Star. Dragged his white vee-neck tee-shirt up his long body and even longer arms, standing on the tips of his toes to do it while 'Star laughed at him. Fumbled with the buttons of 'Star's fly, discovering to his delight that 'Star wasn't wearing any underwear underneath his jeans. "Should've told me," Julio murmured.
"It's so fucking hot, 'Star. I would've dragged you into a public bathroom and had my way with you, all for a couple of euros." Julio grabbed 'Star by the crotch of his open jeans, bringing him in close. "We have to fuck as often as we can before you leave."
"Is this," 'Star swallowed, "a rule?"
"Si," Julio said, pushing up for another kiss.
They were interrupted by an insistent knock on the door, and Julio sighed. 'Star stepped back, not doing anything to settle his clothes in a less obvious way, and Julio opened the door, just an inch, to see Sam glaring at him. "Can I help you?" Julio asked.
Sam scowled. "This entire hunk of junk building is falling apart."
"And before you," he coughed, "lose track of time, I just wanted to remind you that we'll be leaving here around 4am in order to make it to Xavier's estate before sun up. Shatty," Sam called over Julio's shoulder, "are we dressing in uniform for this thing?"
"Okay. Now y'all just … carry on with whatever you were doing."
Sam blushed. "I don't need to know the particulars."
"Bye, Sam," Julio said wryly, closing the door. The f-word had wilted his hard on, threatening to kill the mood, but then he saw 'Star, his 'Star, the alive one, and the mood came back with a vengeance. 'Star approached him, prowling like a sexy thing.
"Are your ribs all right?" He asked, sliding a hand under Julio's shirt, brushing gently over his skin until his palm covered the bruise. Ribs, Julio thought, dazedly, I have ribs, and nodded. They were the least of his concerns, and 'Star was a total freak for asking.
"Forget the ribs," Julio said, and lifted up for a kiss, curling one hand behind 'Star's neck, under the jungle of his hair. The nape of his neck was damp, the soft hairs curling slightly and tickling Julio's knuckles, and 'Star's wet kisses grew desperate and wild.
"I still think …"
"Stop talking," Julio muttered, biting lightly at 'Star's lips, trying to distract him. "They look worse than they are, and I wasn't even feeling them until you started being all … all … like mi madre!" And just thinking about her totally killed the mood. He sighed.
"I just know you," 'Star said, by way of explanation, and Julio felt a little guilty. If he hadn't set a precedent, hadn't lied to 'Star about stupid things before, 'Star would probably just take his word for it and get past the hideous bruising. "But if you …"
"I do," Julio promised him. "I would know, you know, if there was a problem."
"It looks …"
"Bad, I know. But what do you and your healing factor know about bruises, hm?"
"Nothing," 'Star said glumly.
"That's right. Nothing. Which is all that's gonna happen now if you don't …" And he didn't need to say anything else, because 'Star grabbed him by the upper arms, and yanked him into a kiss. Julio would never get over it, kissing 'Star, how right it felt. Twenty years from now, Julio knew he would die a happy man, because of 'Star's mouth.
This was all he wanted to think about: 'Star, kissing him, and the best way to get 'Star's jeans off without pausing even for a second. It was impossible to do, so he settled on sliding his hands down the back of 'Star's pants, curling his palms around his firm ass. 'Star had the nicest ass in the world. Bubbly and rounded, and a perfect, solid handful.
Julio was impossibly hard, and desperate to find friction to rub against. 'Star's thigh was good for that, a thick mass of muscle and not afraid to slide between his legs, settling Julio more firmly onto it. Their kisses grew more frantic as they humped like teenagers -- which neither of them were -- and Julio, reluctantly, had to stop them.
"Julio," 'Star said.
"I know, I know, but I'm gonna come in my pants."
"Is that bad?"
"I would have to do laundry," Julio explained, and 'Star nodded wisely.
Julio unzipped his shorts, pushed them and his underwear off, then stood again, unable to keep his own hand off his dick as he watched 'Star, much more slowly, slide his jeans down his long legs, his cock heavily erect, his balls already drawn up tight.
"Fuck," Julio said.
"Okay," 'Star agreed.
He wouldn't admit it, but just being naked with 'Star was enough. It was so new and exciting, despite the fact he had seen 'Star naked a thousand times before and had made peeking at him into an Olympic sport, but the nudity seemed more personal now. Not just a pretty picture, but a real man, flesh and blood, who was actually aroused by him.
"You really like this," Julio said, not quite able to form it as a question.
"Be more specific," 'Star said, eyes fixed on the beat of Julio's fist.
"This. Sex. With me," he added.
"With you," 'Star echoed, his words coming slowly, like he hadn't heard anything at all and was just agreeing to the tone of Julio's voice. Julio pulled his hand away from his aching dick, sliding it up his belly, leading 'Star's eyes up to his face. "I do like it."
Julio smirked. "Very convincing, amigo, thanks."
"Do you need to be convinced?" 'Star asked.
"Well, you gotta admit, this came out of nowhere." Julio couldn't keep his own hands off his body, addicted to 'Star's openly admiring gaze. "Whatever happened to a warrior doesn't feel desire, doesn't need pleasure, and would happily castrate himself?"
"I made assumptions," 'Star said, blinking like he was trying to clear his head. Having this sort of power over 'Star was seductive, and terrifying, too. "I was obviously full of bull's shit," he muttered, so perplexed and so ridiculous, and Julio loved him so much. Loved him in a way that thrilled and frightened him, and forced him to ask,
"Are you gay?"
'Star looked up at that, startled, like he hadn't even considered he might be.
"I don't know," he admitted, "but maybe. I do enjoy being with you."
"Are you attracted to men?" Julio tried again, suddenly desperate to know.
"I'm attracted to you," 'Star said.
"Penises, then. How do you feel about penises?"
"I like yours," 'Star said, as close to coy as someone built like a fighter jet -- long and lean and pure power -- could be. It was almost enough to knock Julio off this interrogative path but not quite. Obviously sensing this, 'Star sighed. "Julio, I do not know."
"I guess what I'm getting at is … you're not just doing this because I wanted to, right?" He hadn't realised how worried he was until he verbalised his fears. 'Star tended to follow his lead, trusting him without question even when it made him uncomfortable.
'Star sighed again. "I don't know much, and this world is very difficult to understand, but I would not do this unless I wanted to. It is too … it scares me too much, and if you hadn't, if you had never … I would not have done this with anyone but you."
"That's … wow. Good for the ego, amigo, thank you."
'Star smiled beautifully, and Julio was, again, painfully aware of 'Star's nudity. He had moments, where he was able to focus on others things like his own inane neuroses, but then he opened his eyes, and 'Star was there, in front of him, naked and gorgeous and alive.
"I find you very hot," 'Star said seriously, his eyes smouldering with arousal, a deeper blue than Julio remembered them being. He shuddered as 'Star's big hands settled on his hips, and 'Star's wet mouth pressed against his throat, beginning a slow sensual exploration that made Julio's toes curl helplessly into the threadbare carpet.
There was nothing to hold onto, nothing to steady himself with, except 'Star. Julio buried his fingers in 'Star's hair, letting 'Star guide the path of his hands. When he licked tentatively across one of Julio's nipples, Julio shivered and tightened his grip.
'Star dragged the flat of his tongue down Julio's stomach, pausing briefly at his belly button, then continuing down the thin line of hair that ran to his groin. Julio moaned even before 'Star's mouth got to his dick, already anticipating how good it would be.
'Star eyed his cock for a moment, his lips pursed and thoughtful, and Julio moaned again, tugging at 'Star's hair. "Stop that," 'Star said, swatting at his hands, but not removing them. "I'm merely," he swallowed and slid his tongue across his lips, "admiring."
Julio smiled. "That's a little gay, amigo."
"This is gayer," 'Star said, and slid his mouth over the tip of Julio's cock.
Julio gasped his agreement, closing his eyes at the sensation of 'Star's warm, soft mouth on him, moving cautiously at first, then with more determination. 'Star's fingers skittered over the base of his cock, then between his legs, rubbing lightly at his balls.
"Dios," he groaned, yanking at 'Star's hair again.
'Star grabbed him by the hips, and pushed him onto the bed, climbing up between his legs and licking his cock again. Needing to grab something, Julio reached up and curled his fingers into his headboard, arms tense and straining, bent back, elbows lifted.
Julio thrashed and writhed, controlled only by 'Star's hands, which had abandoned his dick and taken up post under his thighs, holding him against the bed. He was spread open, sprawled and breathless and sweating, and it still wasn't nearly enough.
"Amigo," he gasped, "amigo. Dios, use your …. use your finger."
'Star lifted his head. "Where?"
"Fuck," Julio whimpered as 'Star's hand circled him and began to jerk him off. Even though 'Star was quickly becoming a master at head, he needed a little more practice with hand jobs. Not that Julio was complaining, no fucking way. "In my ass," he hissed.
'Star made a face.
"Dios. I told you to watch porn. You didn't watch porn, did you?"
"The production values were terrible," 'Star protested. "And the music …"
"Okay, okay. Just, okay, get up and um, in my drawer." It was impossible to think, his brain a fuzzy mushy pile of aroused goo, but he managed to gather a couple more words. "There should be lube, and um, condoms, too. You might as well grab some condoms, and Dios, that feels so good," he mumbled, helplessly lifting his hips.
He whimpered when 'Star took his hand away, replacing it with his own. He watched 'Star walk across the room and open his underwear drawer, which was pretty empty, and begin to look through it. Julio had never been so grateful for Dr. Lee's embarrassing sex talk to the group, which had been pretty useless considering he had been the only person who hadn't had sex, and at the time, he'd still been lying about that.
'Star came back with the items, handed them over and sat back on his heels, waiting for Julio to show him the light. Julio took one of 'Star's hands and drizzled some lube from his half-empty bottle of Wet over two of 'Star's fingers.
"Then just stick it in," he said, lying back again, spreading his legs. He squeezed a blob of lube onto his own fingers then slid them behind his balls, slicking himself up.
'Star eyed his ass suspiciously. "Will it hurt?"
"I've done it to myself," Julio muttered, blushing a little, feeling it heat his skin.
'Star nodded, leaning forward, cautiously sliding his fingers across his asshole. Julio clenched up, without meaning to, then relaxed perceptibly, angling his hips upward.
"Please," he said, almost begging. "It's good."
'Star rubbed around a few more times, before one fingertip slid, ever so slightly, inside. It was barely anything, but Julio's cock jumped on his stomach, the tip pink and wet, and he grabbed it with a still-slick hand. "Please, please," he murmured, shaking.
'Star pushed deeper, his other hand splayed on Julio's hip, holding him still. Fully inside, 'Star pulled out halfway then pushed in again, and Julio squeezed his eyes closed, his breath hitching. It felt so much better when 'Star did it, and so much hotter.
"Two fingers," Julio demanded breathlessly, moaning when 'Star complied, and two were just that much better, just perfect. Improved markedly when 'Star slid up his body and kissed him, slicking his tongue into Julio's mouth, driving his fingers in deep.
Julio pushed one hand into 'Star hair, holding him there, fucking his mouth with his tongue as 'Star fucked his ass with his fingers. Julio's other hand worked over his cock, dragging him closer and closer to orgasm, shoving him deliciously near to the edge.
But he still wanted more.
"Fuck me," Julio murmured into 'Star's mouth, licking over his lips. "Please."
"How?" 'Star croaked, kissing him, "with my cock?"
"Dios, please, si."
It was moving faster than he had imagined it would. Not that he'd been able to imagine having sex with 'Star all that clearly, but he'd thought it would happen later, once the allure of blowjobs and handjobs had worn off, or when they were better at them. But all he wanted was 'Star's dick in his ass, fucking him, body pressing him to the bed.
Julio knelt up again and reached for one of the condoms 'Star had brought over, ripping it open with his teeth. Being two freshly de-flowered mutants, he wasn't really worried about diseases or whatever, but he'd heard things, certain messy things, that he would rather avoid.
'Star watched as Julio rolled the condom on his erect dick. That was one of the many things Julio liked about cocks: if the guy liked what you were doing, it was obvious, even if the guy himself never said shit. Cocks were made for guys like 'Star.
Julio squirted lube onto 'Star's dick, loving how 'Star's eyes fluttered closed when Julio touched his cock, then flipped over, bracing on his hands and knees. Julio looked back over his shoulder, and said, "Do it," with as much inflection as he could.
"This will hurt," 'Star said, "unless I am careful, or you have …"
"Just be careful, and go slow. I'll be fine. I want this," Julio insisted.
'Star placed a hand at the nape of Julio's neck then gently squeezed him there before sliding down the curve of his spine and coming to rest on his hip. The effect was immediate. Julio arched his back, biting his lip as he shivered, over-ready for it, practically begging, but still braced for the inevitable pain. Tense, even though he tried not to be. And logically, he knew it was going to hurt more like that, but he couldn't stop. He was such an idiot.
But even his own idiocy wasn't going to stop him.
"C'mon, 'Star. Dios. Just … do it, okay? You're killing me here."
"I can't," 'Star confessed, massaging Julio's hips, kneeling up behind him, in the perfect position, and he couldn't? "I don't know what to do," he mumbled unhappily.
"Dios. You're almost there. Your dick in my ass, okay? It's easy."
Julio checked to make sure 'Star was still hard, and he was, uncomfortably so. Julio would have been humping everything in sight if he was that ready to go, but 'Star's levels of self-control had always been ridiculously impossible for mere mortals to attain.
Ideally, Julio could have just pushed back and done all the work himself, but his body wasn't budging, and maybe this wasn't such a good idea. But he did want it. He knew he wanted it, so why he was acting like such a fucking freak, he wasn't quite sure.
One of them had to do something.
"Okay," Julio decided, "sit back, and um. Just sit back, and keep your hands on my hips like this, and um." He chewed at a damp clump of hair that had fallen over his mouth, and moved with 'Star as he got into position. "Maybe this will be easier for us."
"I do want to do this," 'Star said. "I am just … I'm not good at this … sex."
"Amigo, trust me, you're doing fine. This is kinda how it works, with two virgins," Julio assured him, hoping it was true. Him and 'Star could be two grade A morons sometimes, but they couldn't be this dumb, could they? "You're turned on, right?"
Julio nodded, hovering over 'Star's lap, 'Star's cock rubbing against the back of his thigh. This way seemed easier somehow, with gravity on his side and 'Star's dick tapping insistently at his leg. Muscles straining, sweat pouring in rivers down his arms, he lifted up -- 'Star's hands still fanned over his hips and holding him tight -- and reached between his legs to grip 'Star's cock.
'Star nodded against his back, mouth moving over one of Julio's shoulder blades, kissing and licking like a man on the edge of insanity. Julio felt pretty nuts himself, blood roaring through his ears, so turned on and turned off that he didn't know what the hell was going on. So he just sat down, achingly slow, wincing at the blunt push of 'Star's cock, holding his breath when it felt like it couldn't possibly go in, and moaning when it did.
"Julio," 'Star mumbled against his back, mouth wide and wet and open. Julio wished he could see the look on 'Star's face.
It burned a little, not enough to make him stop but enough to make him pause, 'Star only an inch of the way in. Felt strange, too, different, and so much bigger than two fingers. Fucking huge compared to two measly fingers. Julio grinned. "Just have to be hung like a horse, huh?"
"Horses are much bigger," 'Star said, dismissively.
Julio laughed roughly, sinking down lower, taking him about halfway then having to stop again to catch his breath and fight off the pain of being stretched so fully. Flickers of pleasure, real pleasure, curled inside of him, taunting him, urging him to take more. "Dunno, amigo. You feel pretty … big."
'Star pressed his face firmly between Julio's shoulder blades, breath coming quick and damp against his already slick skin. "Fekt, it's you. You're so tight."
"Good, though, huh?"
"Codlista," 'Star agreed, prying one of his hands off Julio's hip and sliding it around front. Julio gasped as 'Star gripped his cock. He was only half-hard, wilted from the impression of pain and his own flimsy nerves, but he began to harden again at the determined strokes of 'Star's callused fingers.
His legs straining with the effort to keep his body up, Julio relaxed his muscles and took those last few inches, ass coming to rest on 'Star's tensed thighs. He murmured, "Fuck. Okay, that was a little fast, so just … stay still," and leaned back against 'Star's chest for support.
'Star's hand on his cock felt so good, even if the movements themselves were jerky and uncoordinated. Enthusiasm, especially from 'Star, was an insane turn-on. Julio shivered when 'Star's other hand abandoned its post at his waist and began to slide up his belly, reaching his neck then travelling down, pausing to play at his nipples, rubbing and pinching, dancing across his skin, back and forth, until he was dizzy.
Tentatively, Julio rolled his hips, adjusting to 'Star's size, the last tendrils of discomfort slowly fading away, and he remembered how badly he had wanted this. It wasn't like he thought it would be. The physical pleasure was slowly getting to the mind blowing point he had expected, but he hadn't taken into consideration the emotional pleasure at all.
Because knowing this was 'Star inside of him was almost too much.
"Move," he commanded, rocking his hips, lifting up slightly then slipping back down, feeling 'Star's startled gasp against his back. The room was stifling hot now, the sheets beneath them already soaked through with their sweat. 'Star himself was like an inferno, beads of salt raised on his forearms, hot inside and out, just burning with it.
'Star started moving hesitantly, taking his hand off Julio's chest and replacing it on his hip, digging in deep and forcing Julio to submit to his rhythm. Instincts took over quickly, and Julio could tell the exact moment when 'Star gave into his primal nature.
"Fuck," he hissed as 'Star sped up, closing his eyes against the assault of delicious bliss spiralling up from his groin, spreading over his body. He reached out for the wall, needing something to steady himself with, and 'Star used the momentum to lift him to his knees.
Suddenly so much deeper and so much better, and he didn't even bother to drop his arms, keeping them braced against the wall as 'Star moved against him, over him, covering him with his body. They slid against each other, skin slippery with sweat, and Julio leaned his head back, shuddering when 'Star's mouth caught the corner of his lips with a clumsy kiss.
"Fuck," he hissed again, 'Star's fist working furiously over his cock, smoother now, matching the sensual pump of his hips. Julio wanted to come, but didn't want it to be over, didn't want to give up 'Star's cock, or his hands, or his mouth, or his breathless gasps as he kissed and sucked at the back of Julio's neck then bit him lightly.
"Yes," 'Star agreed, dragging his tongue over the raw spot he'd just raised.
They devolved into a grunting, gasping mass of naked flesh, climbing toward the orgasm that, for Julio, was right on the horizon waiting. He could see it, wanted it and didn't all at the same time, but he wouldn't last much longer. It was too good. He couldn't take the torture.
He came with a groan, reaching back for 'Star, grabbing a chunk of his hair and holding onto it like a lifeline, riding through the most powerful and intense orgasm he'd ever had.
His wall would never be the same.
A few more thrusts, and 'Star followed him, mouth open against Julio's shoulder, teeth pressing into his skin. His hands tightened, the one on his hip digging in painfully, the one on his cock only barely but it felt much worse on the sensitive, well-used flesh.
Amazing, too, though, in a way that Julio couldn't wrap his brain around.
'Star pulled out, quicker than he should have, then looked vaguely apologetic when Julio winced, but it wasn't like Julio wouldn't have pulled out that fast, either. This sex thing was going to involve a lot of trial and error. Julio was looking forward to that.
Julio smiled, and 'Star smiled back, and then they were kissing, sinking down onto the damp bed, knowing they were just kissing for the pleasure of it. Julio didn't have anymore in him, and couldn't take anymore, no matter how badly he wanted it.
Eventually, he was too worn out even for kissing. Julio settled between 'Star's legs, head at nipple level, and looked up at him, smiling. "That was pretty good, huh?"
"Very enjoyable," 'Star agreed, reaching out for a lock of Julio's hair.
Julio grinned, turning his head and resting his cheek on 'Star's chest, listening to the steady beat of his heart, feeling the rise and fall of his breath. "I wanted this, wanted you, for a very long time," Julio admitted quietly. "Probably longer than even I knew."
"Me too," 'Star confessed, "even if it makes me faulty by Mojo's standards."
"Amigo, you think if you guys had known about sex that anyone would have wanted to fight? Same kinda rush," Julio pointed, a little disturbed by the similarities.
"Yes. I do not feel so bad about missing my workout this morning."
"I feel kind of bad about that," Julio said. "I like watching you."
'Star snorted, using Julio's hair to tug him up, and Julio went, settling at head level next to him. He didn't know what to say, because all of these really important things inside of him were buried so deeply, guarded so closely, that he couldn't even find most of them. He hoped 'Star knew, though. Hoped he understood just what Julio was willing to do for him, willing to believe for him, willing to change his entire world for.
"Can we just lie here for a little while and pretend that our lives are simple?"
"Yes," 'Star agreed gamely, and smiled.
Eventually, all the bad and uncomfortable stuff Julio had been avoiding even thinking about couldn't be delayed any longer, not if he wanted to get some sleep before their 4am wake up call. He made the first move, climbed out of his comfortable bed and began his hunt for semi-clean clothes, taking stock of what he could wear one last time.
He hated doing laundry.
He hated doing a lot of things.
And though he hadn't done it yet, ceremoniously preparing 'Star's dead body for burial was going to rank number one on the list, and laundry would never seem so bad again. That was the only semi-positive Julio could think of while he shakily got dressed.
'Star never offered to do it alone, and Julio would have been mortified if he had. Chances were 'Star wasn't looking forward to doing this, either, if his earlier reactions in the morgue were any indication. Julio hadn't tried to dwell on how lost 'Star had looked.
He settled on a pair of baggy sweatpants and a grey tee-shirt with holes in the armpits. 'Star just yanked on his jeans and tee-shirt, without ceremony, but Julio made him go back to his room and get a pair of underwear, because he knew how his brain worked, and somehow, 'Star free-balling would never be sexy again if he didn't.
Julio waited in the hall for him, kicking at the bag of oils with toes. His skin still felt warm all over, echoes of 'Star's mouth on his body, with the heat centred on his ass. Not painful, not exactly, but uncomfortable, and frightening. He was glad they had done it, but the lingering sense of fullness weirded him out. Would it go away? It made him feel ... different.
'Star nodded, lifting the hem of his shirt and flashing the elastic of his underwear. Julio smiled, laughed a little even though his stomach hurt so badly he thought he was going to puke, and let 'Star lead the way to the elevator, leaning up against him once they were inside. The steady beat of 'Star's heart soothed his nerves.
Inside the little room masquerading as a morgue, it was cold. Colder than Julio felt comfortable in, and he shivered. His eyes were drawn to Shatterstar, the older one, and he wished he hadn't looked. The angry red stitching from the autopsy made him look even deader than he had before, even the lustre of his hair beginning to fade. Julio had watched too much tv, which was entirely 'Star's fault, and he couldn't help but picturing what had been done to him, how they would have cracked his ribs and examined every organ, like meat.
"It was necessary," 'Star said, without having to ask why Julio was glaring at his body with red hot tears in his eyes. He had meant to be better than this, stronger. It was embarrassing that he couldn't match 'Star's stoic expression. "I wanted to know the truth. They did not ..."
"You deserved better than this," Julio said fiercely, wiping at his eyes, mortified by his extreme reaction. The only consolation was that it was 'Star, and 'Star would never tell anybody, would guard Julio's secrets to his grave.
"I don't know what I deserve, but I am just happy that someone thought to send me to you," 'Star said, a note to his voice that Julio's couldn't quite place. Probably still doubtful that was actually him but trying to believe, for Julio's sake.
Julio knew he would never be loved as devoutly and as deeply as 'Star would love him.
And if 'Star could get through this without breaking, so could Julio. For 'Star's sake, if not his own.
"Okay," Julio decided, "let's do this. What first?"
"We wash the ... my body."
A successful pillage through the cupboards resulted in a couple towels, two bars of soap and a metal washbasin. He filled it with lukewarm water, then pulled up a stool to the table without spilling all over himself and the floor. 'Star sat on the other side, and took a bar of soap and a damp towel when Julio handed them over.
'Star pulled the sheet down to his hips, tucking it in around his groin. It would be too disturbing, Julio agreed, if 'Star's body was entirely naked, especially after everything.
Julio dipped his towel into the water then rubbed the bar of soap against it, creating a slight lather. 'Star's skin was freakishly cold, leathery and gross under his fingers. A startling contrast to the other 'Star's skin, which was so warm and smooth and perfect. Julio looked up, curious to gauge 'Star's reaction, and he looked even more uncomfortable than Julio felt.
"I don't know what I was thinking," 'Star said, "beyond the obvious. It was ... romantic of me, to do this, in a ... disturbing way. There must be more to it," 'Star decided, stubbornly, glaring at his body. "Or I am an idiot."
Julio smiled grimly. "Or a sap."
"I will never buy you flowers," 'Star told him, unapologetically, "unless you order me to."
Julio smirked. "I'll try not to hold that against you. You're lucky I'm allergic to fucking everything. Remember that Valentine's Day when Sam filled Tab's room with flowers, and what my fucking face looked like for the next week? Unless you want me to die."
"Sorry, sorry, tasteless joke," he muttered, running the towel over 'Star's skin, washing away whatever grim still clung to his skin after being carved like a turkey and left to rot in X-Corp's basement. Maybe 'Star wasn't pissed about it, but Julio was. It was irrational and stupid, but he didn't care. "You think, if you hadn't come back, that we would have gotten together anyway?"
"Were you planning on jumping my skeleton?"
"Bones," Julio corrected, absently. "And no, probably not. At least, not for a long time, and who knows what would have happened between now and then? Our lives are so unpredictable."
"Yes," 'Star agreed.
Julio returned his attention to the body on the table, to this more than forty-year-old Shatterstar who had risked pissing off his more than twenty-year-old counterpart to die in his arms, and traumatised Julio in the process. Part of him was grateful, but the other part, the smaller part, wished there had been another way. But, then, in 'Star's head, there was no grey space, just black and white. Maybe there was a reason beyond sentimentality, but Julio didn't know what it was, and wouldn't question it either. He trusted 'Star, both versions of him.
Eventually, together, they covered every inch of Shatterstar's skin, and Julio sat back. "Okay. Is this the hair part or the oil part?"
"Hair." 'Star narrowed his eyes. "But a braid for each year of life ..."
Julio snorted. "You'd look like you just got back from vacation in Mexico, I know. I guess the average lifespan ..."
"No one ever lives to twenty. I am already considered old." Julio wondered, idly, if that ever bothered 'Star. Or if 'Star was so removed from Mojoworld, and his own people, that it no longer mattered. "But I would not change things," 'Star continued, "and I would never go back there, except under duress. I may not be human, but I am no longer that either."
"I used to feel that way about Mexico," Julio admitted. "Things change. Maybe someday ..."
"Never," 'Star insisted. "I gave them my life once, and if it didn't help, there is nothing more I can do. Perhaps I should have died then ..."
"But Spiral saved you."
"That is the only reason I have for believing this man is me." 'Star looked down at his body, and touched his fingers to the corners of his mouth where the only hint of age lay in the slightly marred skin. "I want to believe it, Julio."
"I know, but I don't blame you for doubting it. Fucking Mojo."
'Star nodded, lips twisted into a strange expression, and then he said, "Twenty braids. Approximately one for each year you and I ..." He trailed off, and made vague gestures before Julio smiled and nodded. "And keep them small, or I will look ..."
"Yes," 'Star agreed, empathically.
Julio had seen 'Star fuss over his hair often enough to know what he liked. Oddly, 'Star only did it for missions, for battle, and most regular days simply tied it back or wove it into a single thick braid. Real life probably hadn't seemed worth the effort. 'Star was made for war. Made to be admired for what he did best: fight for his life.
"The hair thing is all very symbolic and deep, isn't it?"
'Star nodded. "In the arena, it was one of the few things we controlled. Our swords, and our hair, and if we were lucky, if our ratings were high, our costumes."
"Oh, shit. I didn't ..."
"I did," 'Star said, tilting his head towards a bag Julio hadn't even noticed. It was the white uniform, the one 'Star had worn when he first burst into this world. Julio hadn't been around to see it, but he'd heard the stories and, once, snuck into Cable's personal files to see the surveillance footage.
They settled into a silence that, while not comfortable, was as pleasant as it could be, under the circumstances. Julio's fingers felt huge and clumsy, shaky as he tried to weave braids into 'Star's hair. It was softer than human hair, and there was more of it than he knew what to do with. Beautiful, too, in a way that made his chest ache.
It was getting late, and he was tired, worn out from a day of walking around Paris, and fucking. The metal stool he perched on wasn't the most comfortable thing, after that. He rolled his hips, trying to find a better position, one that didn't make him think about it, and 'Star looked up at him, eyebrows raised in question. Julio flushed hotly. "Shut up," he mumbled.
"I didn't say anything."
"You were thinking it. I'm fine."
"Whatever," 'Star said, returning his attention to his hands. Whatever, Julio thought, smiling. Half of 'Star's vocabulary had come from him, and no wonder. Most of X-Force still didn't know how to talk to him. This poor world just hadn't been ready for Mojoworld's greatest warrior.
"Just happy you're here, amigo."
'Star looked at him like he was nuts, but Julio was used to that. They butted heads over everything, dismissed each other as morons more often than not, but they were best friends. They were supposed to. Julio took comfort in the fact that that hadn't changed, and probably never would. They were both far too stubborn to let it.
Time ticked by, announced by the clock on the wall. It took longer than Julio expected, and his fingers began to ache, adding to the other injuries his body had suffered. His ribs still hurt occasionally, when he breathed in too deeply or laughed too abruptly, and his ass, well. He was trying not to think about that. He still felt strange.
There was no going back now. Not that he would have changed his mind, or suddenly decided he was straight, but he had had sex, been fucked in the ass, and he had enjoyed it. Part of him was still surprised about that, the same part that he wanted to do it just to get it over with. Do it once, don't like it, and never do it again, but that wasn't how it was going to work.
He had loved it, being with 'Star like that, feeling him inside him. It was the most trust he had ever put in someone, and a tiny part of him, the part that almost agreed with 'Star's not-entirely-baseless fears, wasn't too thrilled that maybe a few million Spineless Ones happened to catch the show, too.
That fear, true or not, was just something he'd have to get used to. If 'Star was willing to turn his world upside down to be with him, Julio could stand having Mojo and his buddies staring at his naked ass.
He'd just have to work out more, was all.
And hope his mother never saw.
At a quarter to midnight, Julio finished his last braid, number ten. He sat back and watched as 'Star started to arrange his hair in a complicated arrangement of braids, ponytails and bobby pins. Julio half expected 'Star's eyes to pop open, revealing the gaping holes in his pale head. He would have pissed himself, for one thing, and would known for sure that Mojo had been behind all of this after all.
So it was a good thing, then, that that didn't happen.
'Star finished, and backed away, looking thoroughly creeped out, and Julio made his decision. The last bit, that would be his and his alone. 'Star had done enough, and it wasn't fair to him when he hadn't even wanted a funeral in the first place. Julio had balls. He might as well start using them.
"Let me," he said, pushing 'Star towards an abandoned chair that sat nearly unnoticed in the corner. 'Star looked annoyed at first, then submitted to Julio's will, sighing.
It occurred to him, as he drizzled the first line of oil over 'Star's chest, that Shatterstar had probably done this for him, when he died. 'Star didn't know it yet, but Julio had decided to be buried according to Cadre rituals, too. Julio didn't believe in much, but he believed in 'Star, and he didn't much like the idea of rotting underground.
Best then, just to get it over with, and give his ashes directly to the earth.
That was exactly what he would do.
'Star was so cold, and so long gone. Julio laid his hands on 'Star's chest and began to rub the musky oil into his frigid skin. The scent of it hit his nose like a hammer, and Dios, the match was perfect. 'Star still thought he was insane for picking this particular oil, but what did he know? It had taken them weeks to talk him into deodorant.
He began crying again at some point, though he didn't notice when. 'Star said nothing as the tears dropped rolled off his nose, dropping onto the pale lips beneath him. It wasn't until Julio puts his hands on 'Star's face, and noticed it was already wet. He wiped his cheeks on his shoulders, and continued anointing 'Star's body. He didn't need to see it. He already knew what it looked like, and how it felt beneath his fingers.
The fingers were harder than he expected them to be, the knobbly joints like mountains he had to climb, and his belly, and his knees, his ankles, his toes. He was a mess now, face wet with tears and snot, his shirt no longer helping at all. Pathetic, probably, but he kept telling himself that the only people in this room were him and 'Star.
And neither of them would ever tell.
"Julio," 'Star said finally, behind him now, though Julio hadn't seen when that happened either. He blinked at him, and 'Star put his hands on Julio's face, thumbs swiping gently over his cheeks. "I'm alive," he said, as if there was any doubt of the fact.
And maybe there was, because Julio felt his body rebel with a jolt that felt faintly like surprise. It nearly one o'clock now, he noticed, much later than he thought it would be. Had it taken so long, doing what had to be done? And had 'Star sat there for all it, watching him fall to pieces? And just how long, exactly, had the room been shaking?
"Fuck, 'Star," Julio said, reigning his power in, forcing it down, deep into his body, where all the other bad stuff hid. Dani had said once that he had buried his insecurities and doubts so deep that they had become a cancer, festering and deadly inside of him.
Times like this, he was sure she had been right.
"I stopped you, before it became too bad. You've done enough, Julio."
"There's still …"
"It's enough," 'Star assured him. "Now, help me dress him."
Julio nodded mutely, grateful in a way he would never dare say out loud. 'Star had his back, and knowing that gave him a sense of peace that the situation didn't warrant. It gave him enough strength to help 'Star dress his own body in the uniform that had always symbolised freedom to him. Julio wiped his nose on his shirt, and got started.
"Guess we're not sleeping tonight," Julio said, as they finished up, nearly two in the morning now. He watched as 'Star fitted the helmet on his head then stood back, sweeping his eyes down the length of his body. He looked better. More like the 'Star who Julio was used to, scars hidden beneath the tunic, missing arm not quite so obvious.
"Maybe a nap. Or a shower."
"Are you trying to tell me I look like shit?"
'Star smiled. "Yes."
"I could go for a shower," Julio decided, even though bone-deep exhaustion pinched at the corners of his eyes. He could sleep later, when all of this was over and done with, and 'Star was gone, back to Madripoor, back to the life he was trying to build.
He was stiff and cold, and couldn't help walking like someone had shoved something up his butt, but he made it to the bathroom without incident. 'Star took his clothes, then left him alone under the stream of hot water, with only his troubled thoughts and the blissful relief his muscles felt at the sudden influx of heat showering over them.
He dozed off, standing there, and jolted awake when Sam entered the showers with a friendly, slightly cautious, "Hey, Ric," and Julio nodded at him. There was no point in pretending anything around Sam, either, because they'd known each other too long and seen each other go through too much shit, but he and Sam weren't exactly close, either.
He'd give his life for these guys, no questions asked, but he'd always tried to keep a comfortable distance. Fight at their side, watch their backs, and protect them always, but it was just easier, to have that line no one dared to cross. They'd all die someday.
Except, maybe, Sam.
"We lead really fucked up lives, huh, Sammy?"
Sam chuckled. "Yeah, maybe we do, Ric, but would you trade it for anything?"
"Nah," Julio said, smiling in spite of all that crap weighing him down. He'd made his choice years ago, taking the righteous path of hero instead of second-rate villain. He could be selling guns to kids with the rest of his family, but what would be the point? He'd have more money in his pocket, sure, but he'd probably just die sooner, doing that.
Might've gotten laid a little sooner, though.
Or might never have gotten laid at all, knowing him.
Julio finished showering, then headed into the changing room to see his uniform folded up nice and neat on the bench by his lock. 'Star didn't seem to be around, which was just as well. He was distracting, and Julio didn't want to shave with him watching.
He got ready as quickly as he could, only the thought of coffee sustaining him. Beyond tired now, he wanted to sleep a lifetime, but he doubt he would, even if he did lay down. He'd just think of the impending funeral, and his stomach would start lurching, and he'd waste all his time brooding instead of sleeping, like the moron he was.
The funeral was his idea. He had to keep telling himself that.
He found 'Star in the kitchen, polishing his swords with one of the dishtowels. Julio poured himself a cup of coffee, loading it up with sugar, and joined 'Star at the table for the few brief minutes of peace they had before they had to leave. Terry came in briefly to grab a muffin and some coffee. She smiled at them both, but said nothing.
Julio started humming under his breath, the melody one of the songs he was expected to sing. He had found the lyrics folded up in one of pockets of his costume, a subtle reminder to practice, he thought, but he already knew it all. That one, perfect night on the top of X-Corp Paris was burned into his mind, and he wasn't likely to forget it.
"Your voice is truly amazing," 'Star said without looking up, eyes firmly and lovingly planted on his swords. "I have always thought that, so I am telling you now."
'Star nodded sharply, still toiling away at his blades. When Julio pushed away from the table, 'Star stood up and slid them into his back holsters. The uniform he was wearing wasn't one Julio had seen in him before, a mishmash of his original costume and the ones that had come later. He looked every bit the warrior, fearsome and determined.
"Guess we should go, huh?"
"I suppose," 'Star said, almost reluctantly, and Julio entertained the notion for one giddily freeing second to just skip the whole thing and run away, but he needed the closure, and 'Star needed the send off, even if he didn't realise it yet. He would someday.
Julio kissed him quickly, pressing his dry lips to 'Star's mouth, touching his tongue slightly to 'Star's before pulling back. Monet was in the hall, watching them, but she didn't comment. Looked faintly disapproving, yes, but he was used to that from her.
"C'mon," Julio said, "before they leave without us."
"Sam would not do that."
"Not the point, 'Star."
'Star looked at him like he was biggest idiot ever born, and Julio rolled eyes before grinning and booting 'Star in the ass to get him moving.
Nobody talked on the helicopter ride to Xavier's estate. They'd been split up, Sam, Terry and Jamie in one, and Julio, 'Star and Monet in the other. Monet and 'Star passed the time glaring at each other, and Julio spent it admiring the landscape. It was hard to believe how many places he had lived already. Mexico, then San Francisco, then New York. Toronto, eventually, for a few months, where the winter had just about killed him. Arizona for a while, too, which was too damn hot even for him, and now Paris.
All those places, and he wasn't even twenty years old.
They touched down with plenty of time to spare before sunrise. It was dark and gloomy and too fucking early to be awake, yet there were already people there. A lot of people. More people than he expected, because he'd pretty much thought it'd just be X-Corp.
'Star was going to kill him.
"Woo, the gang's all here," Jimmy shouted, walking up to them with his arms spread wide. He grabbed Terry around the waist and swung her around, then did the same to Sam, who shouted at him. 'Star put up a hand in warning as Jimmy turned to him.
"I will cut off your arms," he said.
"Aw, Shatty. Don't you want some lovin'? I bet Ric's been craving it, huh, you sexy piece of Latino ass?" Jimmy leered gleefully.
"Don't even think about it, Proudstar."
Jimmy punched him in the arm instead. "Didn't you miss me?"
"Not really," Julio said, laughing, and 'Star empathically nodded his agreement.
Feral and Thornn hovered a few feet away, Feral's eyes narrowed suspiciously. She approached them slowly, warily, before a canary-swallowing grin spread across her face. She stopped in front of 'Star, admiring him openly. "Hey, Shatty Buns," she said.
"That is not my name," he replied, indignantly.
"Sure, 'Buns. Whatever you say."
She sniffed him, probably ready to make a comment about how good he smelled, something Julio unfortunately agreed with, and the grin dropped off her face. Maybe it was the fact that Feral had the unfortunate habit of carving up his friends, but Julio had always been a little wary of her. At least 'Star could be controlled. Feral was too wild.
Still, he didn't flinch when she turned toward him. "What's up, kitty cat?"
She hissed at him. "Like you don't fucking know."
"Whoa, guys," Jimmy said, always the peacemaker. "What's the problem?"
"She smells Julio all over me," 'Star said, dryly, not looking at them. His focus was elsewhere, beyond the dark din that fogged Julio's eyes. Julio prayed it wasn't Mojo, Spiral or all of the above. "Maybe this means she'll stop calling me by that name."
Jimmy thought about this for a moment, looked at Feral then Julio then 'Star, who still wasn't paying attention. Feral hissed again, hair stuck up straight from her body, puffed up and ready for a fight, but she wasn't going to get it from him. Unrequited lust sucked, but 'Star had made it clear from the beginning that he wasn't interested in her.
Finally, Jimmy said, "So you and 'Star. A little gay together, huh?"
Jimmy nodded, thoughtfully, then grabbed Feral by the scruff of the neck, giving her a light shake as she hissed and swiped her claws at him. "C'mon, kitty cat, why don't you and me take a timeout together, and I can explain why the cute ones are always gay."
"'Buns wasn't gay the last time I saw him."
"Maria," Jimmy said, dragging her away as she yowled bitterly.
'Star was still frowning into the darkness, the shadows clinging harshly to the sharp lines of his face. Julio squinted in the direction 'Star was looking, but he couldn't cut through the black. "What do you see?" He asked instead, laying a hand in the small of 'Star's back.
"X-Men," 'Star said, simply.
Julio looked closer, and realised those vague shapes weren't shrubbery, but actual people. Beast, he recognised immediately, and Iceman, too. Cyclops and Phoenix. Angel. All of the originals plus a bunch of the current ones: the White Queen, Nightcrawler, Storm. Dios, he thought. 'Star was definitely going to kill him. The X-Men were his idols.
Idols, Julio knew, who had never lived up to 'Star's dreams.
Once upon a time, he had come to them for help, got Cable instead, and found himself indefinitely stranded on Earth in the meantime. It was a complicated situation, and 'Star hadn't said a bad word about anybody for never living up to their end of the bargain, but Julio knew 'Star felt something about everything that had happened, even if 'Star himself couldn't explain what. Julio felt a little indignant on 'Star's behalf, actually.
"Why are there so many people here?" 'Star demanded.
"I don't know. Sam must've … sent a memo out or something, I guess."
"Why?" 'Star asked again.
"Amigo, you're one of us," Julio tried again. "They want to honour you."
'Star frowned deeply, shaking his head. "They don't know me. I've done nothing to deserve their admiration. Most of them have never even seen me fight."
"Done nothing? 'Star, you're a hero. You've saved lives. Hell, you've saved mine more than once, and you're probably going to do it again. And jeez," Julio said, punching him in the arm, "since when are you so humble? The X-Men are here, amigo."
"I do not …"
"I'll introduce you," Julio assured him. "Me and Beast and Iceman go way back."
Julio made his way across the grass, tripping only once on some unseen obstacle, but it sure as fuck felt like a really big rock to the foot he kicked it with. That would have been great, to go sprawling in front of the X-Men like he hadn't even mastered walking.
Right before he stopped in front of Beast and Iceman, who were seriously discussing something that sounded suspiciously like videogames, he felt a twinge of potential embarrassment. It had been a few years. Maybe they wouldn't even know him.
"Why, Robert," Beast said, adjusting the glasses balanced on his nose. He looked different, Julio noticed, more beastly, almost feline. Julio was distracted momentarily, until the big furry paw gripping his hand brought him back. "If it isn't young Rictor."
Iceman laughed. "Whoa, dude, what did Cable put in your Wheaties?"
"It's called puberty, dear Robert. You have our condolences that you haven't reached it yet."
"Why I oughta," Iceman said, and bopped Beast lightly on the head with his fist.
"Hi," Julio said, lamely, feeling like a thirteen-year-old kid again. "This is 'Star."
Beast nodded knowingly. "You're looking quite well, for a dead man."
It was happening exactly like Julio expected it to, which meant it was agonising and uncomfortable, and exactly like the first meeting between his family and Shatterstar, who had regarded each other like three-headed aliens. Only Beast seemed comfortable.
"This young man," Beast said, grabbing Julio by the head and giving him noogies, "used to be ninety pounds soaking wet. Still well beyond Robert in physical maturity, who didn't grow a single chest hair until he was twenty-five and then it was just the one."
"I was twenty-three, thank you. Give a guy some credit where he deserves it."
"Twenty-three, my apologies. It was his balls that dropped at twenty-five."
Iceman waved his fist.
Beast laughed, releasing Julio, whose hair had been pushed into his face and tangled into a mess he had to pat at like a lame-ass loser until it sat flat on his head.
"Seriously, though. It's good to see you. Does an old man good to see one of the first mutants X-Factor rescued turned out all right. Seems like an eternity ago, does it not?"
"Si," Julio agreed, "and I owe it all to you guys. If you hadn't saved me."
"But we did," Beast said, "and in the end, that's all that matters."
"I thought sex was all that matters?"
"I'm sure Julio enjoys more attention than you, dear Robert, will ever know."
They looked at him expectantly, waiting for confirmation, and Julio nodded sheepishly, pointing to 'Star, who was following the conversation with a pensive look on his face. Beast got it immediately, clasping 'Star's hand in congratulations, laughing.
"Well done," Beast said, sounding oddly admiring, and Iceman suddenly got it.
"Jesus, is everybody gay all of a sudden? First Hank, and now you guys, and I think," he lowered his voice dramatically, "I think Northstar might be a little gay, too."
Beast made a noise of complete disgust, but Julio wasn't sure if it was due to Iceman's comments or the fact he was honestly the last living person who didn't know Northstar was gay. Even Julio knew he was gay, and he had never actually met the man.
He had read his book, though.
They talked for a few minutes, even 'Star dropping a comment or two, though he was clearly uncomfortable. Sam came over, made some noise about having to start soon, and they followed him over to the helicopter that had carried 'Star's body, the same one Julio had ridden over in. 'Star had insisted he watch over it, just in case Mojo attacked.
Julio started to get nervous, his hands clammy and his heart thudding too hard in his chest. He waved Monet over, who rolled her eyes but left the conversation she was sharing with Husk, Skin and Jubilee. Another team lost to history. Julio sympathised.
"You beckoned, idiot?"
"Just wanted your charming self near me. I'm obviously on crack."
"There is strong evidence for it," M agreed, smirking, then tilting her head in the direction 'Star had been standing. Julio looked over to see X-Treme, offering his hand in greeting. Adam fucking X, the only person 'Star had ever gotten along with immediately.
"Fuck off," Julio growled.
And then it was time.
The sky began to lighten just as Julio's mood darkened again. Nervously, he pulled on his hair, peering at 'Star as he approached. Adam stayed with Sam and Monet, who had agreed to be pallbearers at 'Star's request. Julio would be the fourth. 'Star wanted nothing to do with it, successfully arguing that his duty didn't extend that far.
'Star nodded. "Julio," he said quietly then paused, contemplating his next words, "whatever happens … you have my word that I love you."
Julio felt like someone had punched him in the head. Those words, those perfect words, wiped out the last of his doubt. "Amigo," he said, "nothing's gonna happen. Trust me. I know more about the future than you do, and this is all … it's all just for us."
"If you say so."
"I do," Julio promised, and kissed him, knowing everybody could see.
Someone had built a simple wood platform for the body to rest on, with logs and kindling piled up beneath it and torches, already lit, on either side of the structure. Julio tried not to look too closely as he lifted 'Star's body with M, Sam and Adam at the other three corners. He did, however, catch a glimpse of metal: 'Star's swords, which lay on his belly, one hand curled around them both. Julio looked over to 'Star to confirm it.
'Star, the alive one, was unarmed.
Julio closed his eyes, braced himself and steeled his nerves, then opened his eyes again. He took one step then another, and his legs took over even as his brain resisted.
Time sped up, blurring together in a mosaic of random images. Jean Grey's sympathetic face, 'Berto, who he hadn't even noticed was there, nodding at him, the grass a deep wild green beneath his feet, the wind lapping gently at 'Star's beautiful red hair.
It wasn't like a human funeral. Nobody would stand up and lie about how much they loved 'Star, and how much they would miss him. They didn't know him at all, so Julio felt no remorse or regret over that fact. 'Star wouldn't have the patience for it either. Instead, he was being honoured by his peers, his idols and his family. And by Julio, who couldn't do much more than offer everything he had, however meagre it was.
They sang together, him and 'Star, all those songs that the Cadre had created for their fallen warriors. Their voices blended seamlessly, like they had spent hours practicing instead of hours making out. He thought he was going to find it embarrassing, sharing something so private with people he barely knew, but the sheer determination he felt didn't leave much room for self-consciousness, and his voice rang out without doubt, true and strong and loud. He didn't cry either, thank god. He had really thought he would.
Maybe he had more balls than he gave himself credit for.
It wasn't until the end that he felt his fervent resolve begin to weaken. It was one thing to know, logically, that 'Star wanted to be burned. It was another thing to realise he was going to have to stand there and watch it, hear it, smell it. Feel the heat on his skin.
But he still refused to waver.
"No," Julio said quietly, when 'Star reached for a torch, probably sensing his hesitation. "I'll do it."
With all the chemicals 'Star had been doused in during the last few days, the fire caught immediately, spreading rapidly down the platform and into the forest of wood beneath. The sun was up, the sky bright and clear, and Julio stepped back, watching the flames engulf 'Star's body, letting the image burn into his retinas. This was it, then, the final goodbye.
It wasn't as hard as he thought it would be.
This Shatterstar had lived a good, long life. Had loved hard and deep enough that he had travelled through time to be with Julio at the end. Had fought with Julio at his side for longer than Julio could grasp or imagine. This Shatterstar hadn't had the touch of sadness in his eyes that his 'Star always seemed to have. Julio took all of that knowledge, and held it close to his heart, letting it fuel his flimsy bravery.
He looked away only once, when a familiar figure in the distance captured his attention. Fury rose in his chest, quick and white hot, but 'Star put his hand on Julio's arm. "She's alone," he murmured, "and surrounded by X-Men. I will give her the benefit of the doubt." The this time went unsaid, but Julio understood what he meant. He nodded.
Besides, who knew which Spiral this was? Things did change. Twenty years or twenty hours, with the right type of catalyst anything was possible, even the unimaginable. Especially that.
He turned back to the bonfire, 'Star's hand still on his skin, and watched as 'Star slowly burned away. What would the world be like once he was gone? Julio would return to work, and 'Star would go back to Madripoor, and it would look like nothing had changed when everything was different.
And most importantly: had the future he so desperately wanted been preserved?
Time would tell, he supposed.
He was seeing, but not paying attention, when a sudden flash of white light blinded his eyes. He reared back, startled, smacking into 'Star, who wobbled but held his ground. He curled his hands around Julio's shoulders, steadying him. Julio looked up gratefully just as the light hit him, dead centre in his chest, and passed through his body like a ghost. He gasped, falling forward onto his knees, and felt it cover him again.
It was warm, and bright, and happy. A sensation that he recognised as 'Star on some deep intuitive level. He laughed aloud, so abruptly that it hurt his throat, as the feeling spread through him, coating him in perfect bliss, in peace, and joy, and love.
And then it was gone, just as quickly as it had come, leaving him stunned and breathless, lying in a boneless heap on dew-damp grass.
'Star was on the ground, too, he saw, when he finally managed to look over. A dazed look on his face, like he didn't know what the hell had just happened. The light was gone now, somewhere Julio hadn't had the sense to follow, but he knew exactly what it had been.
'Star's uemeur was unmistakeable.
"Ric? Shatty?" Sam's feet cut through the long grass, stopping at Julio's head. "Y'all okay?"
"Never been better," Julio replied, honestly, physically unable to pry the grin off his own face. The feelings were still there, inside him, frantically swirling around and making him happier than he had ever been in his life. Giddiness quaked through his veins.
The area had cleared out, he noticed, and looked to Sam. "Y'all were down there for a while. I'm not gonna pretend I understood any of it, but Emma said y'all were fine. Here," Sam said, helping Julio get up. Jimmy had already pried 'Star off the ground.
"Is he okay?" Julio asked, because 'Star didn't seem to be standing on his own.
Jimmy tapped him on the head. "Shatty, you all right, man? Brains not oozing out your ears?"
'Star blinked at him then nodded. "I'm good," he muttered, blinking again.
"Oh, Lordy," Sam said, chuckling. He caught Julio when he tried to walk and found his limbs were like jelly. So maybe he wasn't doing much better than 'Star after all. "I took the liberty of inviting people back to Paris. That's how we do it, Shatty."
"I'm good," 'Star said again as Jimmy dragged him along.
There was coffee and water waiting for them at the helicopters. It helped clear Julio's head, which was still fuzzy but rapidly recovering. 'Star gulped down water, first with Jimmy's help then, later, pushing Jimmy away with a glare, embarrassed at the help.
Monet stuck her head out of the 'copter door. "Can we go yet?"
"Yeah. You guys okay to fly? We have barf bags."
So they climbed in, 'Star first, then him, and sat side by side in the tiny seat, fingers barely touching, not looking at each other. After everything they'd done together, from the first hesitant kiss to the naked sexy stuff later, nothing seemed as intimate as right then, when Julio knew everything that 'Star was keeping bottled up inside of him.
It almost ended there, but he should have known something would complicate it. Sam got the call just when they were entering Paris. "Good news or bad news?" He asked then, without waiting for an answer, continued, "bad news is we've got a situation. Good news is it looks like an easy job. Should make it back before all the food is gone."
"Dios. Does the world have bad timing or what?"
"You okay to fight, Ric?"
"Okay." Sam turned to 'Star, who had perked up at the mention of a fight. "Sorry, Shatty, but the rules kinda state we have to keep it to official personnel. The French police are a little wary of us, but they don't ask much, so we gotta respect it."
It was a testament to 'Star's induced good mood that he didn't fight.
It didn't look like an easy job, he thought as they descended onto a nearby rooftop. It looked like a swarm of people, mostly human but a few obvious mutants, trying to kick the crap out of each other. Which was a typical job, if nothing else. Julio cracked his knuckles.
M smacked him across the back of the head. "That's disgusting. Don't do that."
"Fuck off," Julio said, shoving her away.
Sam blasted off the helicopter, heading straight for the heart of the riot. M turned to him, probably annoyed he hadn't just jumped out and hoped someone would catch him, but Julio ignored her, turning to 'Star instead. "You heard Sam. No helping, okay?"
"I said I wouldn't."
"Si, but I know you. Gimme your word, 'Star. You won't help."
'Star made a face, rolled his eyes then nodded. Which wasn't quite as good as his word, but would have to do because the crowd had suddenly reared up, the violence increasing exponentially. Monet made impatient noises, hands already under his arms.
"One fucking second," he hissed at her, then looked back at 'Star. "And thanks, amigo, for what just happened back there."
"I didn't know that would happen," 'Star replied defensively, eyes flickering toward M, whose fingers tightened, digging into his armpits. It fucking hurt, a lot. "If I had, I would have … insisted on more privacy." He paused. "But you're welcome."
"See you in a few," Julio said.
And they were off, dropping fast. Julio hated this part. He wasn't a flier, and he couldn't understand the allure. The earth was the core of his powers, and it was where he preferred to be. He could feel it in his hands, the need to be close to something he could control. Glancing up at M, she nodded and let him go, veering left and flying off fast.
A few well-timed seismic blasts, and the earth was firmly under his feet, rising up to greet him. It was supposed to be a peace rally, he realised, noticing all the signs. Mutants and humans, living in harmony together. Julio snorted. What a great example.
"Everybody move back!" He shouted, first in English then in shitty French, but was ignored. He could count ten mutants, and more than fifty humans, in the melee. He sighed then sent a shockwave up through the middle of the group, creating a wall of dirt.
"Get the fuck back!"
Julio understood the momentary insanity created by adrenaline, but he was still pissed when half the group, mutant and human, jumped on him, deciding he was the enemy. He hit the ground hard, hands splayed out behind him to help break his fall.
"Get back," he tried again, ignored again, then let his power run down his arms, into the earth. The ground starting shaking wildly, scattering people like bowling pins. He glanced around quickly, looking for backup, but he couldn't see any of his team.
With enough space created to stand, he did. Face to face with a very large and very ugly mutant, his reflexes still shot from all the euphoria dancing through his blood, he didn't have time to react. Rock, he thought wildly, taking a punch to the stomach.
His powers didn't actually work very well on rock.
Julio hit the wall of a nearby building, the earth rising up to catch him. Maybe he was useless against rock, but rocks needed earth to stand on. Wobbly but determined, he pressed his hands together, just to be hit again, and something broke that time. He heard it more than he felt it, a deafening snap that rang in his ears like a gunshot. It was either this fucker or him, and Julio had his money on the obvious. His legs obviously agreed.
He hit the ground hard, and there it was, that familiar pain in his side, but a million times worse than it had been. "Shit," he gasped, wheezing, trying to roll out of the way of the foot hovering over him. It was useless. His head was fuzzy, and his chest burned, and how was he supposed to beg for his life when he couldn't even breathe?
A blast of light distracted him momentarily, and if he didn't know any better, he would say that energy signature had been 'Star's. He couldn't see anything beyond the light, just starbursts of blackness and a fuzzy space where Paris had been. He could hear things, vaguely, but they were fading fast, like he was underwater and being screamed at.
And he still couldn't breathe.
He closed his eyes.
"Julio! Julio," 'Star was saying, and Julio opened his eyes. They were moving, he realised, feeling the wind brush against his skin. Where were they going? He let his eyelids drift down again, turning his face against 'Star's chest, his rapidly beating heart.
He remembered nothing after that.
The first time he opened his eyes, there was a tube up his nose, even more coming out of his arm, and M was holding a sponge, which was dripping on him. He jumped then nearly puked from the wave of pain that followed, curling his toes in the sheets.
"Julio," M said, visibly relieved, and thankfully put that sponge down. She laid her hands on the side of his neck, keeping his head still and his eyes focussed on her face.
"Feel bad," he mumbled, "and there's … tube … up nose."
"Don't worry, I took pictures."
"M," he gasped, lifting a hand to her wrist, curling his finger into skin.
"You were hurt," she said simply. "Pretty fucking badly, you idiot, you made me worry. I won't bother explaining it to you in medical terms. You won't understand. But your ribs were broken, and punctured one of your lungs, and then you went into shock."
"I bet it does. You shouldn't even be awake. Stop talking to me."
He nodded, and agreed, and drifted off again.
The second time he opened his eyes, M was still there, flipping through a fashion magazine, visibly annoyed by the content. He felt marginally better. Not great, but well enough to tackle complete sentences if he got moisture into his throat. "Water," he croaked.
M took a jug off the table, poured him a glass then helped him drink it. He wasn't good at being nursed, and M was even worse at nursing, so most of it dribbled down his chin into an icy cold puddle on his chest. "I got them to take that tube out of your nose."
"No problem. I already emailed all the pictures to everyone you knew."
He smiled, knowing better than to laugh. "How long?"
"A few days. You heal quickly, you lucky mutant, you. It'd be better if you had a healing factor, but we can't all be blessed." M patted his wrist lightly, a strange look on her face, like she was thinking about crying. He widened his eyes, and she said, "Relax."
"Don't cry," he warned her.
"Never where you could see," she promised.
Looking away, he noticed one of the bags attached to his arm was a morphine drip. Dios, he thought. If he was in this much pain doped up on painkillers, he didn't want to think about how badly it really hurt, or how much damage he had actually taken.
"'Star went back, huh? To Madripoor," he said, changing the subject. As much fun as it was to talk about his brush with death, he didn't fell like dwelling. When M didn't answer, he rolled his head across the pillow and stared at her. "I knew he would."
"He said you'd understand."
"So that's it? You have this whirlwind romance where you're happier and more comfortable than I've ever seen you, and then he goes back, and that's the end of it?"
"Not the end," Julio said quietly, gesturing for more water, and M stood up again, helping him. They were learning. They only dribbled a little this time. He let his head fall back to the pillow, and sighed. "'Star's got some big shit to work through right now."
Julio smiled. "Why are you so pissed off? You don't even like him."
"You like him. I can't say I agree with your taste in men, but … god, Julio, you're just going to let him go? I have my pilot's license. We can go right now and get him back," M said seriously, tugging on his arm, the one with all the IV's in it. He didn't budge, and she sighed deeply, shaking her head. "You're … wasting all of this time."
"My future's all mapped out for me." He shrugged lightly then winced. Strenuous activity was going to be limited to breathing, drinking and talking for a bit. "I can wait."
"The future could be wrong!"
"Hasn't failed me yet. He'll be back the minute he can, and I'll be waiting."
M made a quiet noise of disgust, and while Julio could sympathise, the one thing he had, the one bit of knowledge that would help him sleep at night, was that he knew 'Star would live for another twenty years. He knew it, believed it, even if Monet didn't.
A sudden thought struck him. "I guess this means 'Star saved my life, huh?"
"Yes, he did. We lost track of you, and if he hadn't … you came very close to dying, you idiot."
"Good thing 'Star was here, then." The thought continued to niggle at him, persistent and unforgiving, and he began to smile as a profound sense of understanding came over him. "If he had still been in Madripoor, it would have been my funeral."
M nodded sharply then lifted up her hips, fishing a piece of paper out of her jeans and handing it over to him. "He asked me to give you this when you were feeling better."
Julio eyed the paper suspiciously then took it, unfolding it slowly.
It read: "I told you so."
Julio blinked at it, read it again, and then, despite the blinding pain it caused him, laughed, and laughed, and laughed some more.