His memories were already fading. They were always stark in the first moments after waking - every scent (iron, flesh, sweat), every sound (screams, cracking, thudding) and every sight (horrified eyes, bodies, the full moon). Then, nothing. He'd get up, still dizzy from the change, still disoriented, remembering that yes, he was human. As he remembered his humanity, his memories turned to haze. It was like trying to recall a movie he'd seen years ago. Normally, this bothered Marius - they were his memories. He didn't have much that was his.
This time, he was glad to forget.
He burned his clothes, hopped onto the next Greyhound and out of the city he'd lived in the past year - longer than he'd stayed anywhere in over a decade. As the scenery blurred away, Marius couldn't say he was surprised to lose this place too.
Late afternoon, the bus pulled into town. The sun stung against Marius' skin, and he felt the distinct sort of griminess that one tended towards after spending too many hours on a bus. The truth was, he hadn't even traveled far that day. He'd been running for two weeks, but it'd been a week since he'd last felt like someone was tailing him. His paranoia and his funds were drying up. While he still felt like there was blood clinging to his skin, trapped under his nails, he more keenly felt the rumble of his stomach.
He needed to figure out what the hell he was going to do now that he'd literally killed his last career. Not that dealing drugs offered many opportunities for advancement. It was lucky that he got out after only murdering one man.
All Marius wanted to do was find a motel room and take a long shower. He could afford a night, maybe two, depending on how cheap of a room he could find. But then he'd be out on the streets again. Shit. He'd forgotten how to do this. Had gotten used to the easy stability of having a place to call 'his.' Had gotten comfortable and complacent and stupidly hopeful. Of course, he'd fucked it up.
But he'd wasted enough time kicking himself. There were two more weeks until the full moon. He needed to plan at least that far. For tonight he could find a bed to warm. It would be a good way to find both shelter and information.
The downside to this idea, Marius realized, once he found a bar with a neon rainbow hanging over the counter top, was that he'd just spent five hours napping on a bus and looked like he might have spent a week napping on a bus. His nice mint button-up was rumpled, complexion grey, and long blond hair tied back in a greasy ponytail. He supposed it he could pass it off as 'artsy.' Still. Normally he had better to work with.
But Marius did always have a thing for playing the odds. And if he was playing against a night outside, he just needed to pick a good target. Someone a little desperate, maybe? Marius still had his sharp green eyes, elegant features and nimble fingers. It was enough that someone lonely might be too flattered by the attention to look too closely.
Besides, it didn't seem like he had much competition. There were as many empty tables as patrons. A couple or two on may have been on a date, a small group of friends were laughing, but the rest of the sparse crowd looked like lonely singles, too shy or awkward to do more than stare at their drinks.
Most were older, tired looking men. Not always the worst targets, but potentially too smart for games. In this bar, likely to find Marius' lack of dick a problem. There were a few women who might be interested, if he told his least favorite lie - or if he managed to guess who here was bi. But this wasn't the place women came when they wanted to be hit on by men.
And then he saw a young man. Alone, his drink mostly full. Floppy brown hair tanned yet freckled skin, fit. Also, he was staring out into space. Newly out, maybe? He didn't look like he knew what he was doing here. Possibly inexperienced. Marius could be a good experience if the boy would let him be.
There was only a moment of hesitation before Marius strode over. At the corner of the table, Marius placed his hand, then dragged it towards the boy.
The boy didn't even notice Marius. He kept staring out into space, gaze half way on Marius, half way on Mars. Marius didn't frown, but he wanted to. The least this boy could do was pay attention when Marius was attempting to seduce him.
"Hello," Marius said, voice tighter than he intended.
The boy jumped, "Oh!" He turned his head Marius' way, looking at Marius' chest rather than Marius' face. Marius looked down, and yeah, flat. "Sorry, uh, didn't notice you," the boy said.
Obviously. "It's no problem. I just was wondering if you could use some company."
There was a furrow to the boy's brows, then a faint blush. Cute. Marius supposed he could forgive the inattentiveness. The boy then shrugged a shoulder, "I think there's some seats here."
"I think so," Marius smiled. "I'm Marius, by the way." He slid into a seat across the boy. The boy's gaze didn't follow him. Would it be too forward to reach over and help the boy figure out where he was supposed to be looking? Probably.
"Uh, Ralphie. It's... You're hitting on me, right?"
If the boy - Ralphie - was going to reject him, he might as well say so directly. Marius arched a brow, "Am I, now?"
The blush on Ralphie's cheeks deepened. "I uh... Look. I... I'm..." He rubbed the back of his neck.
Marius sighed. "If you're not interested--"
"Oh! No! That's..." Ralphie cringed. "I meant. Look. Uh. I'm blind. That's what I wanted to say actually. In case that's a problem or something."
Marius blinked. Well. No, that wasn't a problem. He supposed it could be a problem for some people, but... That did explain a few... And then he heard Ralphie chuckling. It was a bitter sounding thing - not surprised. Just the beginnings of the 'it's alright, I understand' speech that Marius was all too used to giving. So, before Ralphie could continue further, Marius shook his head. Then, realizing that Ralphie couldn't see, he added, "It's not a problem. I was just... surprised." He tried to keep his tone neutral.
"Yeah?" Ralphie said, not really asking.
Marius sighed. "Perhaps I'm less than sure of how I'm expected to respond."
Marius was tempted to start babbling, defend himself somehow. Except, that would be the wrong response. Maybe he would have had better luck with the old men. Well. He was here now. Inertia, if nothing else, meant he might as well see this through to its natural conclusion. So, instead, he brushed his hand against Ralphie's wrist. "I suppose I can't rely on my face to win me favors, then?"
Ralphie's mouth opened slightly, brows furrowing. He didn't pull away, nor lean in. Another moment passed, before Ralphie said, "Nope, don't think you can." Marius recognized the hopeful mistrust in Ralphie's tone.
"Unfortunate, I've been told I'm quite the looker."
And finally, the boy gave Marius something of a smile, "Guess you're gonna have to get craftier, huh?"
"I have a thought or two," Marius said, standing up. He walked over to Ralphie's side and lightly touched Ralphie's head, more suggesting Ralphie turn his way than forcing it. And when Ralphie was facing him, Marius brushed a thumb over Ralphie's lips. "I bet I could win you over with a kiss."
Ralphie's apartment was only a block from the bar. It was a small place, neat and undecorated. The furniture was plain and inexpensive looking, but nothing seemed battered or beaten up. Not that Marius was paying too much attention to Ralphie's skills in interior decorating. He had his fingers laced through Ralphie's, his chin on the boy's shoulder. "Bed? Couch?" he asked, enjoying the way Ralphie's breath caught at the question. "Right here works too," Marius added.
"You're kind of terrible, you know that?" Ralphie said, not sounding particularly offended. "Bed." He led the way, after leaning his cane against the shoe rack.
The bedroom, like the living room, was undecorated.
Marius stroked a thumb against Ralphie's cheek. He had to tilt his head up to get a good view - Ralphie must have had half a foot on Marius, at least. Then there was a press of lips against Marius'. It was soft, almost chaste. But Marius deepened it, pressing close against Ralphie. He led the boy backwards, lightly pushing him towards the edge of the bed.
"Sit," Marius said when the kiss broke.
Ralphie didn't hesitate, sitting down, head tilted up towards Marius, lips parted.
Leaning over, Marius whispered, "I'm thinking of sucking you off. You want that?" He had a hand on Ralphie's chest, tugging at the collar of Ralphie's t-shirt.
Ralphie nodded. Quiet. It was a response, but not the one Marius wanted.
"Hmm?" Marius hummed, stroking the skin just around Ralphie's collar.
Licking his lips, Ralphie breathed out, "Yeah, I want that."
Marius smiled, pressing a kiss just below Ralphie's ear. He trailed a hand down the curve of Ralphie's chest and another hand down Ralphie's side. One of Ralphie's hands settled on Marius' neck and fingers tugged at Marius' hair.
Kneeling down, Marius settled himself between Ralphie's thighs, kissing the top of one. Ralphie let out a small sound - not quite a moan. Marius pressed another kiss there and placed his hands at the side of Ralphie's thighs, just stroking them up and down. Then Ralphie was whimpering, his fingers curling in Marius' hair.
"Marius..." Ralphie whined.
"Tease," Ralphie said and Marius laughed. That didn't sound like a complaint.
He finally took pity on the boy, undoing his belt, his zipper. Ralphie's dick strained against his boxers. When Marius brushed his hand over it, Ralphie groaned.
He took the moment to get Ralphie's jeans down, then stroked up Ralphie's abs, pushing the t-shirt up. Ralphie helped, shrugging off the shirt. He was toned, athletic looking and Marius was far from complaining about the view. Nor did he mind still being clothed. There were some conversations that were best left unhad.
Finally, Marius took Ralphie's dick into his mouth. The salty taste and musky scent were familiar. Marius had been on his knees more times than he could count.
But Marius didn't let his thoughts drift. Instead, he focused on the soft gasps Ralphie was making. Quiet, restrained. Marius wondered if he could change that. Wondered if there was anything the restraint held back.
And then there was Ralphie's hand, once more running through Marius' hair. Marius braced himself to be pushed further down onto Ralphie's cock - it wouldn't be the first time. But instead, Ralphie gently tugged off Marius' hair tie. Such a random, silly thing to do that Marius found himself pausing, blinking up at Ralphie.
In that pause, the hand stroking Marius' hair stilled. "...Sorry," Ralphie said, voice a little airless.
There was an unfamiliar curl in Marius' stomach. He pulled back just enough to say, "Nothing to be sorry for." Letting his head rest briefly against Ralphie's thigh, he added, "I know I have excellent hair."
After blinking once, twice, Ralphie let out a quiet laugh. "You're kinda weird, you know that?"
"Perhaps," Marius said before taking Ralphie in again.
It wasn't long before Ralphie was coming, gasping out Marius' name as he did. Marius swallowed and sucked until Ralphie was done, flopped back in the bed, breath coming out in small puffs. Marius kissed Ralphie's knee before sliding himself up. There were freckles on Ralphie's shoulders and white marks - scars - almost everywhere else. Odd. Dangerous, maybe? Ralphie didn't seem it, but Marius certainly didn't look as deadly as he was.
He sat down at the edge of the bed, not yet decided what his next move would be. But Ralphie's hand found his and lightly pulled Marius to him. So, Marius lay down, letting his head rest against Ralphie's shoulder. It was warm.
"Hey," Marius said.
"Hi," Ralphie returned, wrapping an arm around Marius. He tugged at the sleeve of Marius' shirt. "You're still dressed."
"I am." Marius pressed a kiss to Ralphie's temple. "And you aren't."
Sighing, Ralphie rolled over to face Marius. His brows were furrowed, but rather than saying anything, he kissed Marius' cheek.
In the morning, Marius woke up only when Ralphie started to shift. He was comfortably curled around the boy, still fully clothed and warm under the blanket. The sun was not out yet. There'd been no alarm. Marius had thought only serial killers got up this early. Maybe Ralphie was one. ...Nah.
Not wanting to get up, Marius buried his face into Ralphie's shoulder.
Ralphie sighed, running a hand through the tangles of Marius' hair. "I needa get up. You can keep sleeping if you want."
Marius definitely did want, but that was risky. He still needed a place to stay tomorrow night and he would prefer a shy, sweet boy to whatever potential options he could scrounge up. He could attempt to sleep until Ralphie left. Stay, under the pretense that he wanted to say goodbye. That was assuming Ralphie didn't kick him out before leaving. And that game had its risks - namely, it involved more strongarming than Marius would prefer.
Marius kissed Ralphie's shoulder before mumbling, "I'm up..."
"Uh-huh," Ralphie said, slipping out from under Marius. Marius sat up, as Ralphie began getting dressed. It was a shame to watch that body get covered.
Shaking his head, in a failed attempt to shake off the morning haze, Marius got up. The bed creaked. As he stood awkwardly in the middle of the room, he kept going over different ways he could guarantee himself another night here, another night to regroup and figure out how the fuck he was going to survive.
Just make it to the next day. That was the first thing. Always the thing. But. But...
"Hey, uh... you're not from around here, right?" Ralphie said.
Marius had to pause to blink. "That obvious?"
Ralphie shrugged in response.
"I'm just trying to figure out a few things." Here it came.
Ralphie paused after pulling on a t-shirt. "If you need a place to crash... you can stay here."
That... Oh. Huh? That was too easy, too kind. Suspicious, even. Ralphie didn't seem desperate for a fuck. Maybe he was lonely? Too nice for his own good? A serial killer? It was impossible to guess in the moment and if Marius stayed silent for too long, then Ralphie could retract his offer. "Are you sure?" Marius asked, trying not to sound too willing to take advantage of Ralphie's kindness.
"Wouldn't have offered if I wasn't."
Well, okay. Okay. Marius would have to be careful, but wasn't that always the case? "Thank you," he said, stuffing his hands into his pockets. He kept standing as Ralphie continued getting dressed. "I make pretty good pancakes," Marius added, feeling the need to fill the silence more than anything else.
Ralphie paused again and then nodded. "I think I got flour..."
Out of habit, he checked the moon. It was halfway to full again. Instinctually, Marius knew this. Instinctually, he knew he'd somehow managed to spend a week sleeping on the couch of a virtual stranger, but the logic of it seemed out of place. Impossible. And yet, here he was. And he needed to figure out what he was going to be doing a week from now. He'd been too complacent last time, let himself get too sure that he'd be able to be somewhere safe before he changed. Let himself piss off the wrong people.
The town itself had offered little in the way of hiding places. It was a small college town surrounded by acres of forest. There were a few old, crumbling historical buildings, but the university seemed to eat up everything else. Not horrible, but Marius preferred to weather his changes further away from potentially drunk kids.
So here he was, out late, wandering in the woods. The trees were near barren now, with only a few brown leaves still clinging on. The rest of the leaves were on the ground, soft and damp in the foggy haze. Soon enough, it would be snowing. Few people with sense would want to come out here. If he hiked deep enough in, he could probably find a cave or somewhere else the wolf would be content to stay put. Far enough in that if someone heard a wild animal howling, they'd run away.
Even Marius felt a little insane wandering the woods. And he could, theoretically, turn into a wolf if he needed to defend himself. Though, in practice, Marius avoided changing until the full moon forced him. He hated the way instinct took control of him. Hated the hours he lost.
A whooshing wind blew past Marius. He shuddered, feeling the ice in his veins. As he stood there, trying to will himself to move again, he noticed that the smell of smoke now lingered in the air. Some poor soul out camping, probably.
Marius ignored it and kept walking, glad that even in human form his night vision was supernaturally good. In fact, all his senses were. It kept him from tripping over fallen branches or getting too turned around.
It also alerted him to footsteps, just ahead, heading his way. And voices, low and gruff. It sounded almost like an argument. He had an idea of where it was coming from, but not a clear enough one to avoid who ever this was without turning back. Did he even need to avoid anyone? He could just pass them by... unless they were belligerent. And then-
Before Marius could continue hesitating, a voice called, "Hey! Kid!"
Marius turned. There was a pair of people dressed in flannel - a tall man, broad shouldered and stone faced. The woman was near the man's height, her face had the same deeply tanned skin and freckles as his. They looked surprisingly familiar, but Marius had been in town long enough to start recognizing strangers.
"It's a little late for you to be out alone," the woman said, folding her arms.
Marius could smell the smoke on their clothes and a bit of musk, like they hadn't bathed in a few days. Camping, maybe? Homeless? Neither explained the suspicious looks they were giving him.
"Just a little lost..." Marius lied, rubbing the back of his neck. "Phone died. Do you know how to get back to town?"
They exchanged looks and relaxed slightly. That wasn't a good sign. They'd given him a test. He'd passed for now, but almost no one saw his skinny ass and thought 'dangerous.' The fact that they were even wary of him in the first place was... odd.
"We can take you to the creek. If you follow it, you'll be back in town," the man said.
"And careful," the woman added, "There's a bit of a wild animal problem. Best avoid coming back here again."
That was halfway to a threat. Marius felt cold. It was possible he was just projecting. Could just be paranoid. These people could just be a very strange form of animal control. But.
He hadn't encountered hunters often. Only twice. The first time before he was bitten. He remembered seeing them around and not quite understanding who the strangers in town were. Remembered dead bodies in the forest. Remembered... a lot he preferred to forget.
The second time, he'd known what they were. Had been warned and when the wolf who had warned him had turned up dead, Marius disappeared.
Marius was sure that he was the only wolf in town right now.
He needed to get out of the woods. Maybe needed to get out of town and run. But, if they were on his tail, if they were after him already... Fuck.
When he got back, it was past midnight. Ralphie should have been asleep - he didn't normally wait up for Marius. At least, as normal as one could consider normal for their short acquaintanceship. There were no lights on, but Ralphie never turned them on so maybe Marius shouldn't have assumed Ralphie was asleep.
As Marius took off his boots, he heard Ralphie's soft voice say, "Marius...?"
He didn't jump, exactly, but he did squeak. "...Ralphie? You're up?"
"Couldn't sleep," Ralphie said. Marius turned his head and saw Ralphie sitting on the couch. One earbud was in his ear and another dangled freely. Ralphie's brows furrowed. Marius could almost hear the questions at the tip of Ralphie's tongue. Where did you go? What do you do? Who are you?
No. He couldn't let Ralphie ask any of that. He needed Ralphie right now - not just for a roof over his head, but for a cover. It was easy to pick off a lone wolf with no allies, harder to kill someone when they had someone who might worry about where they went.
"Need some help with that?" Marius asked, crossing the room over to Ralphie.
He kneeled down by Ralphie's knees, resting his head against Ralphie's leg. "I think I might be able to take your mind off of whatever's bothering you."
Ralphie didn't move away, nor flinch. He stayed silent, unmoving. Marius was tempted to turn around, lower Ralphie's zipper and give Ralphie something he'd have to respond to. But that wouldn't be a good idea. He needed Ralphie to want him, not to be so uncomfortable that he pushed Marius away.
Then there was a hand on Marius' shoulder. "What If you're bothering me?" Ralphie said and it sounded more like a genuine question than an accusation had any right to.
Marius could taste bile at the back of his throat. "Am I bothering you?"
There was another too long moment of silence before Ralphie finally said, "Nah, not really," he didn't move his hand, "Just..."
And if it weren't for Ralphie's hand there, Marius might have taken off and ran that instant. Because, no, he didn't want to have this conversation. He preferred to be places where he could pretend that nothing he did was odd or out of the ordinary. Preferred to treat each transaction as ignorable. But he couldn't think of a good deflection. "I have been here a while..."
"Yeah, that..." Ralphie said. "Are you going to stick around longer?"
Was that a trick question? Marius couldn't tell. "Isn't that your prerogative? This is your home." If Ralphie kicked Marius out right now, there'd be nothing Marius could do about it.
Sighing, Ralphie lifted his hand. A tightness in Marius' chest unwound. "I'm not gonna kick you out."
Marius wanted to demand why, ask how Ralphie could even begin to make such promises, to know the strings attached to all this. What was Ralphie even getting out of keeping him around? It made no sense, but then, it didn't need to. He couldn't afford to waste time second guessing his luck. If he did, then he'd waste whatever good will he'd earned.
So, instead, Marius decided he needed to secure his luck. "Then, I suppose I ought to thank you," he ran a hand up Ralphie's thigh. Ralphie's breath caught. "Would you like me to?"
"You don't gotta," Ralphie said, though Marius could already see Ralphie growing hard.
"Hmmm... I know. But I do want to," he said as he gave Ralphie's zipper a tug. And then there was Ralphie's hand, on Marius' cheek, trailing down under his chin.
Ralphie lifted his face up, and Marius couldn't ignore Ralphie's face any longer. There would have been eye contact, if Ralphie's eyes could focus on anything. "Are you gonna do all the work again?" Ralphie asked. "'Cause I think I want a chance to return the favor."
Marius laughed, hollow. "Do you?"
Ralphie frowned. "Hey, stand up for a second?" And Marius didn't know what to do with that except stand. Ralphie then took his hand and lightly tugged him onto the couch. Marius blinked.
"Dunno what's up tonight," Ralphie said. "And you don't have to tell me unless you wanna, but uh, look... I'm not gonna kick you out. You're okay here."
And then, Marius couldn't stop himself from blurting out, "Why?" He cringed, because, no he wasn't supposed to ask that. He was supposed to be convincing Ralphie that he was making the right choice. Except, now it was out and there was no taking it back.
There was a too long moment before Ralphie finally said, "Because you seem like you need someone to not be an ass to you... and... well... the company's not bad either." No one was that generous. Marius wasn't sure he could really believe it. And yet, what explanation could Ralphie give that Marius would believe? There was no good reason to keep Marius around. Marius was worth dog shit on a good day. But if Ralphie had wanted to hurt him, he could have done so already. Ugh. Marius felt like he was missing some detail, but he was too exhausted to think.
"I suppose I am excellent company," he said before resting his head against Ralphie's shoulder.
The clock tower was a tall, boarded up old building. It was just past nine p.m., but the clock showed 11:47 with rusted arrows. The face was bare, only edges of broken glass hanging off of it. If the tower entrance had been covered by a board or door at some point, no evidence remained. Marius made something of a face before walking in. But this had been the best he'd been able to find for tonight. Thanks to the hunters, the woods were off limits, and this seemed to be the most abandoned place in town.
The stairs creaked as he made his way up, but he could deal with that for now. It was better, even. Instinct would keep the wolf from wanting to bound down. Or, Marius hoped it would. For all he'd been doing this for a decade, Marius had figured out very little.
The most he'd learned was five years ago when he'd met one other packless wolf. He'd run into a few packs too, but they'd all turned their noses up at him, as if he smelled wrong. Maybe he did. They had smelt funny.
At the top of the tower, Marius curled up. He wanted to be drawing, but after the first few shifts, he'd learned that bringing his notebooks meant they would end up shredded in strips. All he could safely bring was himself. Even his clothes were left neatly folded on the bottom floor. He was sitting in a pair of boxers and a loose t-shirt, under a pile of ratty blankets.
His thoughts drifted back to Ralphie, who he'd told he'd be gone for the night. ("No, I can't explain," Marius had said.) And he hated the frown on Ralphie's face when he said it. He hated that he was starting to give a shit about what Ralphie thought. He also hated that Ralphie seemed to just let him do whatever. No demand for payment, even.
Marius needed some way around this. He needed to get out as soon as he was able too. Before he got too attached. Or before Ralphie found his corpse strung up.
That one wolf, Marius didn't even remember his name anymore, had been a drifter too. But old, wrinkled and tired seeming. Been doing the running thing too long, he'd told Marius. He'd warned Marius about the hunters, told Marius that he should run, not that the old wolf was planning on running himself. ("I'm too tired, boy.")
But Marius hadn't left. He'd gotten almost comfortable in that town and didn't want to leave the one person who seemed willing to give him explanations.
A week later he found the old wolf's corpse in the alleyway, stabbed. The only thing that seemed different from a regular homeless man being stabbed was that the knife had been silver. Marius found that out after he tried to touch it and his fingers started to burn. He knew he shouldn't have, knew leaving his finger prints could be dangerous, knew...
He'd left town after that and hadn't looked back.
Now, he felt tangled up and stuck. There was the feeling of doom, of impossibility, like he'd hit a wall. A year in one place, he'd managed, but that had only been a year. And if the longest he could sustain anything was a year, would he too end up so tired he just let himself be hunted down?
Before he could dwell longer, he felt the tingle on his arms. It was small at first, just a warming sensation. But he knew what was coming. He slipped out of the blankets and stripped.
The next part of the change was the smells. Suddenly it wasn't just a musty scent, but dust and wood and mold. The dark shapes in the unlit room became clearer, he could make out the writing on the wall. And down below, Marius could hear the sound of footsteps on creaking stairs.
There was no time to process. The pain came. Bones breaking and reforming. Skin ripping, muscles tearing. He coughed and gasped, unable to scream or howl. It never got easier. Just blazing pain.
And then, for a moment, everything went white. Blank. Marius was smell, sound, sight. Was his senses, but his mind was distant. Thoughts came fragmented. Broken. He felt broken. He rose from the ground, paws shaking and began to pace.
There was the creaking again and a clacking following it. A smell. Marius knew that smell. How? Why?
Impossible to pin. He bounded forward and then stairs. Long way down. Falling. No, he backed up.
Not good. Window. He looked out. The ground was far down. The creaking was growing louder.
"Marius?" a voice called. Familiar. Ralphie? What? How? When? Why?
Marius howled in response.
"Shit..." said Ralphie's voice. Yeah, shit was right. He wasn't supposed to be here. Alone. Marius was supposed to be alone.
Then there was a new smell. New sounds. Softer footsteps. No clack. But more footsteps. Who? Dangerous? Would they hurt Ralphie?
"...Maxwell, what are you doing here?" one of the voices said. The hunter woman. What?
"Not your business," Ralphie responded, voice sterner, deeper than Marius remembered it being.
"It is. We traced the werewolf here and you... in your state are a liability. Leave."
"So, 'cause I'm blind, I gotta listen to you? Don't think it works that way. We don't hunt together."
"You don't hunt at all," another voice - the hunter man - said.
There was more creaking. Marius couldn't see. He wanted to bound down, bite their faces. Ralphie was upset. He should protect Ralphie. Protect himself. Kill them before they killed him. Killed Ralphie, the only person who'd been kind to him in years.
There was a sigh. "I was trying to hunt. There's nothing here," Ralphie said.
"How would you even know that?" the woman asked.
"Been up there. Would I be alive if there was some werewolf up there?"
Silence. Then, "Then there's no issue with us taking a look."
"...Guess if you wanna waste your time."
Get them. Instincts said get them. Kill them. Danger. Danger. Creaking footsteps. Then crash. "Ack!" more crashing. Sliding. Tumbling. Cursing. Screaming.
"The fuck, Maxwell!?"
"We could have died."
"Are you an idiot?"
"I tripped. What do you want from me?" Ralphie's voice was tight.
"You shouldn't have even been here in the first place."
There was a huff, then a grunt. "Fuck, Janis, I think my leg's twisted." It was the hunter man.
"Fuck," the hunter woman said. "This is your fault, Maxwell."
"Sorry," said Ralphie, not sounding particularly sorry. "Need help?"
"What could you even do? Stay out of this. Dan, can you stand?"
"If you help me up, think so..."
Shuffling. Creaking. Then the woman said, "If someone dies tonight, their head's on you Maxwell. Quit the ego and stay out of this."
Then the footsteps echoed away. He could hear breathing and a low whimper. Ralphie was hurt. Marius could smell the blood. Go down. Help. But stairs. Falling. Marius started to pace. And pace.
When Marius woke, he was on top of a pile of blankets. It wasn't the day that woke him, but a hand on his shoulder, shaking him. The sky was barely red. He looked up, seeing Ralphie's face. "Too early," he grumbled. Ralphie normally didn't try waking him up. And normally, Ralphie was up before sunrise. What was--
"Marius, you know where you are?"
"Huh?" Marius blinked. Blinked some more. Wood paneled walls. Crates. Broken glass window. He bolted up. Oh, shit, he was still in the clock tower. And Ralphie was in the clock tower. Ralphie was... The memories were so hazy. Vague. But he remembered the crashing, the hunters, Ralphie talking to them. Ralphie had kept the hunters away. He shook his head, trying to make sense of it, trying to find something to say. All he could come up with was, "You're here."
Ralphie sighed, then after inhaling, sat down next to Marius. "Followed you last night."
"Saved your ass, yeah. Or... did you... Can you..."
"I remember." Marius winced. "Some of it." He looked down at the floor, then back up at Ralphie. There was a deep blue bruise forming at the side of Ralphie's face. "Why?"
Ralphie shrugged. "Because I don't think you deserve to die."
"You... you're a hunter?"
And then Ralphie stuck out his tongue and wrinkled his nose. The expression looked too childish for the conversation. "Was one when I could see."
Marius blinked, unsure of what else to say here.
After a moment of silence, Ralphie added, "It was kind of a family thing. The two charming people who tried to kill you last night are my cousins. Or distant cousins or something. Dunno for sure."
"...Okay," Marius said, because he wasn't sure what else he could say here, "Okay."
Ralphie huffed, "Let's get you home."
"You know what I am and you want to get me home?"
Ralphie frowned. "I'm not going to kill you."
Marius blinked. "No. No, that wasn't what I was asking."
Sighing, Ralphie rubbed the back of his neck. "I thought... I mean... I kinda figured you out a bit before this, you know? Got a warning about a werewolf. Put things together. It's... Look, I don't care."
Marius knew he shouldn't question. Shouldn't demand explanation. Better not to, because he had someone willing to get injured defending him. But apparently the easy route wasn't appealing at the moment. Apparently, Marius had the gall to want more, to want a bit of dignity. "If you know what I am, and knew what I am, and... I'm not particularly doing anything for you, then why? What do you want from me?" He didn't mean to let frustration creep into his voice. There was no real reason to be angry with Ralphie. Ralphie had been nothing but kind to him. And yet, Marius felt furious. Maybe at himself, maybe at Ralphie, but right now he couldn't begin to answer that question.
There was a moment of silence as Ralphie blinked, mouth half open. Then, he shook his head. "I... I don't want anything from you."
Marius should have felt guilty. He didn't. "What am I - a charity project to make you feel better about yourself?" What did it matter if that was the case? Marius had taken advantage of that before.
And there was that deepening furrow on Ralphie's brows. That expression that said to Marius that he'd both hit the nail on the head and that Ralphie hadn't even realized what he'd been doing. Now, well, Ralphie could second guess himself. And... And apparently, self-respect only went so far.
"You know what, doesn't matter," Marius said, standing up. He glanced around the room to see if he managed not to shred his boxers. And there they were, in all their four-leaf clover glory. He put them on while Ralphie sat quietly.
"Let's just go," Marius added. "My clothes are downstairs."
Ralphie's frown had deepened, and so had that crease in his brow. Reaching out, Marius put a hand on Ralphie's shoulder. "It's fine."
"Is it?" Ralphie stood up. "Because I sure wouldn't fucking want to be someone's pity project."
There was some irony, now wasn't there? "Yeah... well... I also don't want to sleep on the sidewalk. So, we can figure shit out when we're back."
Ralphie laughed, humorless. "Alright, let's get back. I need aspirin, anyway."
The way back was quiet, neither of them saying a word. Marius wanted to ask how Ralphie managed to tail him, wanted a lot of other shit too. But all his head kept returning to was the wolf who wouldn't run. To being worn down and giving up. Because, what was the point, really?
Marius wasn't going anywhere. And he was so fucking sick of begging people to take pity on him to have any chance of survival. The idea of dying seemed so much more dignified, for whatever the bit of dignity Marius had left was worth.
He almost stopped following Ralphie at some point, almost. But just as he was about to say, you know what, never mind, they were back at Ralphie's apartment.
Inside Marius stood in the doorway while Ralphie made his way over to the kitchen. And then, Marius sank to the ground, pulled his knees to his chest and exhaled. He was so damn tired.
When Ralphie was back in the living room, he asked, "Marius, where are you?"
Turning to where Marius sat, Ralphie said, "You ready to figure shit out?"
Walking over, Ralphie reached out, until his hand brushed against Marius hair. He trailed it down, to Marius' shoulder, then elbow and lightly gave it a tug. Looking up, Marius gave Ralphie a dirty look. It did nothing. And while he supposed he could stubbornly mope, he doubted Ralphie would let him. So, he stood and let Ralphie lead him to the couch.
But, once on the couch, Marius resumed his posture of being curled into a ball of misery. Ralphie sat down next to him and leaned back into the couch. There was that expectant, 'whenever you're ready' look on Ralphie's face that made Marius want to do anything but have a discussion. Instead, Marius chose to stare out the window, to a small, leafless tree. The dramatic part of him felt a bit like that tree. Did Marius even have the luxury to be dramatic?
"You know I'm fucked at this point, right?"
Ralphie didn't answer.
"Next full moon and I'm screwed."
Still no answer.
"Might as well--"
"Marius. Stop." There was an edge of irritation to Ralphie's voice.
Marius snorted. "What? Are you going to protect me?" He turned to Ralphie. "You want to play hero?"
Ralphie's lips were pulled into a thin line, Marius could see the tension in his shoulders and Marius was half way to bursting into laughter. It was so fucking satisfying not trying to say what he thought someone else wanted to hear for once. So-
Ralphie let out a sharp breath. "Do you want to die?"
"That a threat?"
Slamming a hand over his face, Ralphie groaned. "No. No I...Okay, maybe I do want to play hero. Maybe that's my goddamn motive. So what?"
"There are better charity projects out there if you want to feel like a hero. Less bloody."
Ralphie shook his head. "You don't get it, do you?"
"What? Are you convinced you're in love with me or-"
"No." Ralphie turned all the way to Marius. "For... Look. Former hunter. I... Jesus Christ. Sob story. Blood on my hands. Whatever." He threw up his hands.
Marius eyed Ralphie, trying to decide if it mattered. He didn't need Ralphie's entire sob story to guess the broad strokes. Did it make it better that Ralphie was acting out of guilt rather than out of pity? If Marius wanted to survive, he knew he couldn't do this on his own. Even if he ran off now, when he was pretty sure the hunters couldn't follow, how long would he last? And wasn't that the entire problem here? He was so sick of just surviving. So sick of running away. So sick of feeling helpless.
Swallowing, Marius said, "I just... want some control for once."
Ralphie dropped his hands. He blinked and fell back against the couch. "Yeah, I get that."
Did he now? Marius looked at Ralphie's eyes, always unfocused. Vaguely recalled the condescending tones of the hunters when they spoke to Ralphie. Remembered the too familiar defensiveness Ralphie threw at him when they'd met. And, yeah, okay, maybe Ralphie did understand a thing or two there.
"Even if I get them off my tail, I don't know what I'm doing next."
There was a moment of silence before Ralphie said, "What if I let you stick around here while you figured it out?"
Marius was about to open his mouth to protest when Ralphie added, "Look, don't say no yet. There's this corny thing about learning to accept help before you can do shit on your own. Had my therapist bash it into my head. Still think it sounds like bull half the time, but..."
"You think I need the help?"
"I think you deserve someone actually giving a shit about you, for once."
Marius wanted to demand what Ralphie even knew about what Marius needed or deserved. But, then, maybe Ralphie wasn't the only one with a too obvious sob story. "I need to figure out the hunter problem first, anyhow."
"Alright. Let's figure something out."
There was no moon out this time. Frost had begun to cover the trees at night. The days were becoming too short. It wasn't actual winter, but close. Marius couldn't help but wonder where he'd be during the dead of it. Couldn't help but feel like this was a symbolic gesture to stroke his own ego.
"Think this is gonna work?"
The idea was simple enough. Convince the hunters that the wolf they were chasing had killed Marius and fled. Ralphie knew what the hunters would check, knew what sorts of tracks to leave. Marius faking dead was harder, but if they played this right the hunters wouldn't look too closely. Maybe. How strongly did they suspect Marius of being the wolf? Neither he nor Ralphie had been able to figure out how the hunters traced Marius to the clocktower.
There were glaring problems with their plan, but short of killing the hunters, there was little else they could think of.
"You sure you don't just want to wait them out?" Ralphie had asked, after they'd run through their list of potential plans. But Marius knew it was only a matter of time. Ralphie couldn't protect him once he shifted and the hunters wanted him dead. Marius wasn't even sure if they'd stop themselves from killing him in his human form. Not like they thought of him as a person. Running was the only option where Marius had a chance of survival and for better or worse, he was done with that.
So the latex injuries were on. They made sure his neck looked shredded. Marius had found a few ways to make the pulse in his wrists stop for a bit. And he could hold his breath. They'd been outside long enough that his skin would be cold to the touch. It was dark.
If the hunters didn't look too closely, it might be convincing.
Once Marius was on the ground, about to be bathed in blood for the second time in less than two months, Ralphie kneeled down and touched his cheek. "Ready?"
"Of course," Marius responded, trying to ignore the way his heart beat too fast.
The blood itself felt cold, heavy, sticky. It reeked. The butcher had gotten a blowjob and the remainder of Marius' savings for it. If this worked, it'd be worth it. If it didn't, he'd be too dead to care.
"Be back soon," Ralphie whispered. He would lure the hunters to them now.
The grass and leaves bit into Marius' skin. He was trying not to shiver. It was too cold. Could he catch hypothermia? Marius wasn't sure. He knew that even in his human form, he was more durable than most. But, how far that extended Marius wasn't sure.
Then there were footsteps. Three sets. Marius shut his eyes. His breathing was slow and even. Quiet.
There was a sniffling, hiccupping sound. Ralphie. "It... it killed him."
A snort. The hunter woman. "That would be your fault."
"Don't be cruel," the man said.
"He needs to hear this. If he doesn't get over his own ego, then more people are going to die."
There was silence. Marius wanted to open his eyes and look, but he knew better. Then approaching footsteps.
"What are you doing?" Ralphie asked. Marius' que to hide his pulse.
"Examining the body - if he's not dead then he becomes a threat."
"You think I wouldn't check!" Ralphie demanded.
"We think you need to learn that you can't actually be useful anymore," the woman said.
And then there were fingers on Marius' wrist. Quiet. "No pulse," the man said.
"Hmm..." said the woman.
More silence. Then Marius heard something click.
"What are you doing now?" Ralphie said.
"Shooting him - to be sure," the woman said, passionless.
Fuck. He was fucked. Fuck. Fuck. Marius felt his heart speed up, felt bile crawling up his throat and then. Then there was a crash. Ralphie slamming into her. "Run!" Ralphie yelled.
When Marius opened his eyes, he saw Ralphie on the ground, wrestling the woman for her gun. The man stood to the side, gun also raised, but not shooting. Marius didn't think. He didn't have time to. He got to his feet and started to run. A gunshot whizzed by him but missed. Fuck. Fuck. Ralphie. Would they kill him?
Hunters didn't kill humans, did they? Ralphie's death wouldn't be as easy to cover up as Marius'. No. This couldn't happen. No. They wouldn't kill him. He'd be fine.
Marius kept running, until he couldn't breathe anymore, until his legs gave in. He crashed against a tree, not fully sure where he was. Had he run deeper into the forest? Or was he close to town? Did it matter. He was covered in blood and it was freezing outside, and he had nowhere he could go. He was going to die, wasn't he?
Sinking to the ground, Marius pulled his knees to him. Fuck, he was so, so damn tired. And it would be so easy to just let himself die now.
Ralphie had saved his ass. Risked his own safety to protect Marius. Again. Marius had to make sure Ralphie was still alive. Had to figure out where Ralphie went and if they really took him. If they killed him. Marius owed him that much. And if Ralphie was dead...
So, Marius had to survive the night. He could take off the latex. It was late and dark. There was a chance no one would notice him. Standing, he looked around. All he could see were trees. How did one navigate the forest again?
In the distance, he heard rushing water. Right. Find the river. Follow it.
It was near sunrise when Marius made it back to town. He couldn't quite stop shivering and needed to shower, get changed. Ralphie's key was still in his pocket. He couldn't stay there, not anymore. But if he was lucky, he could grab some shit. If he was lucky, there wouldn't be a trap waiting for him there.
When he opened the door, the place looked the same. Same couch, with Ralphie's quilt still spread messily across. Their empty coffee cups sitting on the coffee table. A faint light was coming through the blinds. Quiet. Peaceful. Familiar in a way Marius wasn't sure it should have been. He'd gotten too used to the place. But there wasn't time to analyze that. Nor was there time to feel crushed about the fact that Ralphie hadn't miraculously turned up safely here.
He took a quick in and out of the shower, stuffed his bloodied clothes into a dark garbage bag and changed into something warm. If he left town now, he might outrun the hunters. They were likely waiting for him to come back for Ralphie. Or, at least, if they assumed he had some humanity left in him. Marius wasn't sure they would think so highly of him.
Marius wasn't even sure he deserved to be thought so highly of. The night before he'd been certain he'd chase them down and save Ralphie. Now, with the sun creeping out and safety calling to him, he was questioning himself. It would be easy to fall back into his old habits. Let Ralphie take the fall. It wasn't like he could even do much. And besides, Ralphie had a better chance of surviving this than Marius had.
And so what if he owed Ralphie? So fucking what. He... He... He couldn't even make himself believe that much.
Marius sat down on the floor of the apartment, curled his knees to him. For the first time in years, he started to cry. He wasn't going to be able to talk himself out of trying to save Ralphie. And that probably meant his life. And here he'd always thought it better to live a coward than to die bravely.
Maybe if he called the police...
No. He didn't trust them. He spent the past decade avoiding cops, learned the kind of shit they'd pull in the name of justice. There was no guarantee they'd even listen. What could he even say? "These two weirdos kidnapped my friend?"
But, what could Marius do on his own?
Chase them down - he suspected they were still camped in the same place he'd last run into them. If he got there, found Ralphie... then... then if they survived, they'd have to figure shit out.
Marius had been right - they were camping out near where he'd first met them. He could smell their smoke, smell them even. If he stayed quiet, he could observe. They might be expecting him, but Marius could wait. Besides, his senses were better than theirs. And Ralphie had told him about the sorts of traps hunters set.
He took a perch in a bush, far enough that they likely wouldn't be able to hear him if he shifted, but close enough that he could make out bits and pieces of their conversation. Not that it was hard. They were furious at each other, sniping. It seemed like they might have been arguing for hours.
There was their fire, lit and bright. Their sleeping bags spread out, their tents set up. He could see a small pile of opened cans. Ralphie wasn't in sight, but if he was at the camp, they'd probably hid him. One of the tents, Marius bet.
All right, lure them away.
They wanted a werewolf. Without looking closely, a wolf and a werewolf looked the same. There were wolves inside these woods, and if Marius shifted, he could maybe find some help.
But that involved being able to control himself while shifted. At best, he retained some presence of mind, but at worst he might simply attack the hunters. But he did have more control without the moon out, driving his other side mad.
Was it a gamble worth taking?
There were other ways to frighten the hunters away. Maybe. If he brought the police here now, the hunters might convince them to take a closer look at him. And they might not even have Ralphie here. Wasting both an opportunity and putting the cops' eyes too close on him. He couldn't risk arrest. Two weeks and he'd be shifting again.
Kids wouldn't scare the hunters.
If he had more time, he could come up with something better. But he didn't want to risk letting Ralphie die.
So. Okay. He needed to get somewhere far enough to shift.
It turned out the sort of cave Marius had been looking for wasn't too much farther from the camp than Marius had been. Of fucking course they'd pick near here to guard. It was the most obvious place for a wolf to hide. But Marius didn't have time to lament the way he'd almost walked into a trap.
He stripped off his clothes, folding them into a neat pile. The air bit into his flesh and he felt a little light in the head. Maybe hunger - he hadn't eaten since the previous night. Or, more likely it was fear. He didn't want to shift.
But he was out of options and time.
Deep breath in. Out. Search inside. He felt the clawing there, the rage, the energy. The need to fight the world. Everything inside himself he feared. And then he pulled at it, forcing it to the surface.
Bones cracked, flesh tore and moments later, Marius was a wolf.
Hunger. Anger. He wanted to kill them. No. No. Focus. Find another wolf. He howled. Ran. Leaves and sticks under his feet. And there was a howl in response: 'What do you want.'
'Help,' he howled. 'Danger. Friend - pack in danger.'
More howls. 'We don't want danger.'
No. Of course not. He shouldn't ask them to die for him.
He let out a low howl. Pained. Apologetic. Desperate. Afraid.
The responses that followed were apathetic. He hadn't earned this. Had to fight his own battle here. So, okay. Kick up a commotion. Loose them. Double back. They must have heard the howls.
Marius ran towards the camp. Howling. Smelled the hunters. Smelled their adrenaline. Heard the click of the gun. Ran close then away. Howling. They chased, footsteps loud, crashing. But they wouldn't be able to keep up long.
Traps. He spotted them now. Obvious rope. Obvious lures.
Gunshots whizzed by.
And as he ran further, he heard the hunters fall behind. Knew he lost them when the last bullet flew in the wrong direction.
Marius ran back to the tents, heart pounding. He had to beat the hunters before they got there. Had to get Ralphie out before the got there. Closer. Closer. He smelled Ralphie. Smelled blood too. They hurt him. He...
He had to get Ralphie. Not them. No time.
In the tent, Ralphie lay. Arms tied behind, mouth stuffed with cloth. He was breathing. Alive. But bruised. Shirt soaked in blood. Not pig's blood. Marius went up to him, rubbed his nose against Ralphie's face. Ralphie stirred but didn't open his eyes. Marius let out a low whimper, but still Ralphie stayed down.
He couldn't drag him out, not in this form. In human form, maybe, but did he have time to change back? And he was more vulnerable then.
He bit at the ropes on Ralphie's hands. Didn't take much. They came off. And then he was licking Ralphie's face, desperate. He couldn't hear the hunters yet, but he doubted they were far behind. Wake up. Please wake up.
Marius pawed the cloth from Ralphie's mouth, nudged and then, then finally he heard the boy moan.
Ralphie sat up, feeling around.
Marius let out a soft, rumbling noise. Not quite a growl.
Ralphie inhaled, sharp. And then Marius put his head against Ralphie's hand. Would Ralphie recognize him in this form?
"Wha...?" Ralphie sat up and Marius nuzzled him. Come on. Figure this out. Marius bit into Ralphie's shirt and started to tug. Get up. Run. Out.
Ralphie started to move, wincing. But he stood. No words. Fine. Marius tugged at his pants leg now. This way.
Ralphie took off. First clumsy steps, stumbling. But he got out. And started running. It was slow. Not just human slow. And there was no grace to it, no coordination. Ralphie's cane wasn't in sight. Could Ralphie even run with it?
Then, Ralphie was headed straight for a tree. Marius let out a bark and tugged Ralphie away. Not that way.
Turning, Ralphie followed Marius' tug. Okay. This could work. They ran, together, Marius pulling Ralphie, guiding him as best he could.
He didn't know where he could take the boy, didn't have a plan beyond get away. But it didn't matter at the moment. He couldn't smell the hunters, nor hear them. They could go back to the cave. Marius could turn back, get dressed.
No. Too close to the hunters.
Circle around, then. Wide breadth, back towards town.
They made it out of the woods, Ralphie panting. Marius gave a low howl, hoped maybe Ralphie understood. Then there was a hand on his head. "Marius?"
"Think people would take you for a really big dog?"
People did see only what they wanted to see. Marius nodded again. And, keeping near Ralphie's ankles, it seemed no one looked at them too funny as they walked back to Ralphie's place.
Once there, Ralphie collapsed onto the couch, paler than Marius had ever seen him. Marius inhaled, trying to find his human side again. Shifting back was never easy - on full moons impossible. Days like today? Marius hadn't done enough willing shifting to know the pattern.
But, breath through even breath, Marius felt his bones shaking. The change back was as painful as the way forward.
And then Marius was naked, on the ground, not like Ralphie could tell. The experience was fading already, but Marius wasn't sure he wanted to hold on to more than the basic details. He got Ralphie out, they were both away and...
And Ralphie looked too pale. His eyes were squinted shut, brows furrowed. There was a spreading bloodstain across his side. That was not good.
Wobbling up, Marius strode over, nearly bumping the coffee table on his way there. "Ralphie?" How had no one noticed on the streets? Why hadn't they been stopped? No, the answer was obvious. Most people didn't care to deal with anything beyond their own lives. Marius definitely ignored anyone he didn't have business with.
Still. "Ralphie, do you need--"
"The hospital?" Ralphie finished, voice tight. "Maybe."
How and what could be figured out later. Marius grabbed Ralphie's phone. He was about to call an ambulance when Ralphie said, "Use Uber, I don't want to pay for an ambulance. Can hold out a bit."
The app took Marius a bit to figure out - especially since Ralphie's phone wasn't set up in a way Marius was used to. "It'll be here in five," Marius said.
Ralphie nodded, then stood, stumbling over to the coat closet. He got out a thick jacket and a spare cane. "Don't wanna get blood on their seats," he mumbled and then wobbled.
Marius ran up, sliding his arm under Ralphie's shoulder, trying to avoid the injury. "Careful."
"Mhmm." Ralphie fell against Marius. "I think I can press charges."
That... That wasn't a bad idea and maybe Marius would care to entertain it, if it weren't for the fact that he was worried Ralphie would pass out at any moment. "Let's talk about that later."
Ralphie chuckled, "Fine. Help me get this jacket on."
There were stitches and checks for brain damage and internal bleeding. When the doctor was done with Ralphie, there was more than enough evidence that he'd been assaulted. The cops were called, interviews were had. It was enough that Ralphie could sue. Would sue, apparently.
Marius wasn't sure that he could testify in court. The option seemed dangerous - what did the hunters know about him? Could they use that against him?
It was later that night, once they were home. Ralphie was lying on the couch, Marius was on the floor, head leaned back against Ralphie's thigh. His story spilled out then - not just killing his supplier, but the years on the streets, the ugly things he'd done to survive, that he came from a small town in South Carolina, that he'd dreamed of escaping before he was turned, that he was trans. He'd been Catholic at some point, and this felt like a confessional. But there was no penance required of him.
"Thanks," Ralphie said. Then there was silence. Marius had been ready for disgust or anger, but there was nothing but a gentle hand against his hair.
"I... don't know if they have evidence on me."
Ralphie shook his head. "Would kinda be hard to pin anything on you."
"You think?" He didn't mean to sound bitter.
"Kinda, yeah - we... they can't go screaming 'werewolf.' So, kinda hard to explain how some skinny dude mauled a guy. And they wouldn't have tried to gather drug dealing evidence. We... they don't go to cops. If they tried to accuse you of anything, all they'd do is sound like they were trying to deflect blame."
Marius inhaled. It sounded reasonable. It did. Still. "I... I'm kind of fishy. No ID. Search my legal name and you find a missing person."
"But you aren't on trial."
No, but if they didn't go to jail. If--
Marius looked at Ralphie.
"They can't go after you anymore. They try to hurt you? They're number-one suspects. Even if they win... you're gonna be okay."
At first, Marius couldn't say anything. Then, he started to laugh. Softly at first, and then it became a harsh chuckle, then a gasp, then he wasn't quite sure if he was laughing or trying to not drown.
He didn't notice Ralphie's hand on his shoulder at first. But then it was there, running along the line. "Shh, you're gonna be okay," Ralphie said and said again and again and again.
There was wetness on Marius' face, tears. Fuck, what was he crying about even? He couldn't pinpoint it, but he couldn't quite make thoughts work at the moment. Eventually, he flopped back, softly sobbing.
Somewhere there, Ralphie had slid down next to Marius, and put an arm around him. It felt protective, safer than Marius had felt since he'd run off for the first time. Ridiculous, really. Marius didn't need a savior.
But there was the soft press of Ralphie's cheek against his head and maybe Marius could let that not matter for the moment. "You think so?"
Ralphie squeezed Marius closer. "Yeah, I'm pretty dang sure."
There was no sort of promise there, no real reasoning. "Why?"
"...You really want me to try and argue this?"
"Okay. So. They're probably going to jail. And if they don't, they can't touch you for a pretty long time. If you run away, they aren't going to be able to follow you. And, if you stay, I'm gonna make sure they can't touch you."
Marius frowned. If Marius ran. If Marius stayed. "You aren't going to demand I accept your help?"
"You said, if I run."
Ralphie shook his head. "I made you the offer. Told you to think about it, but I'm not going to force you to do anything." There was a pause, then quickly, Ralphie added, "But! Um. Offer stands. As long as you're here, I'll help you get to your feet."
It was a big promise, but this one Marius could believe. Maybe. Marius wasn't sure what he really believed anymore. Barely knew what he wanted other than the vague idea of doing something other than just surviving. "Is this your way of making up for past sins?"
Ralphie inhaled. "Dunno. That's part of it, probably." Then he exhaled. "Part of it's that I really do think you deserve more than the shit you've been dealt. And, well... I kinda do like having you around."
"...You like having me around? Even after everything."
"Honestly? I think I like you better now."
Marius shook his head; it just sounded so ridiculous. "You'll get tired of me eventually. I'm--"
"Hey. Stop. I don't get to decide anything for you, but you don't get to decide shit for me, either. I'm sure I want you around. So. That's that."
Marius looked to the ground, then the walls, the familiar couch, familiar coffee table and then Ralphie's familiar face. No, he didn't know what he wanted. Didn't fully believe Ralphie here. Was certain everything could all come crashing down in an instant. But, underneath all that, for the first time in years, Marius felt something akin to acceptance. Akin to hope.
Ralphie's brows furrowed.
Sighing, Marius said, "Alright, I'll stick around for now."
And then Ralphie smiled. Smiled wide and bright, like Marius had done something good. He squeezed Marius closer. "I'm really glad you are." Maybe Marius could learn to believe that.