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The man entered the room humming some just-familiar song, a steaming cup of what could either be coffee or hot chocolate in his left hand. Tall, that was a good word for the first impression, for the first once over. And then... Pretty in a rugged sort of way. He had dirty blonde hair in a short ponytail, most of it escaping to frame a chin dotted with stubble. Gilbert noted everything: the red flannel, the worn down jeans, the work boots that didn't look worked in. Most importantly, the eyes: lavender, shadowed by light bags. They held a light, a warmth, and Gilbert distrusted it immediately. He distrusted him completely.

    "Good morning." The man said, his voice deeper than expected but also softer. As if the speaker were making an effort.

    No, no, not today; Gilbert had been here far too long to play these games. "And who are you?"

    "I'm Matthew—"

    Unimportant. "Why did they send you?"

    Then there was a pause, not a hesitation, but a deliberate action, a silence that existed to prove that it could, that the speaker controlled the information, that if he gave it, it would be a gift.

    "They sent me," Matthew finally responded, "because I get things done."

    He smiled softly, to himself, setting down his mug on the onlyt table in the room, the one just out of Gilbert's reach in the chains.

    "Others have said that." Gilbert's teeth grit.

    "Oh, yes." Matthew sounded almost distracted. He wasn't even looking at Gilbert. "I'm sure. I've heard about you, Gil." He glanced up. "Can I call you Gil?"

    Gilbert knew that whatever he answered his desires would be ignored, and there was no point in suffering a defeat that small. So he shrugged. "I don't care what you call me. You're no different than anyone else."

    Now Matthew was watching him, staring at him. "Do you like that I've heard of you, Gil? Does that please you? I've read your profile. It should please you a great deal."

    "You'd have to mean something to me, " Gilbert snapped, pretending there was no truth to the newcomers words. As if he hadn't been pleased. As if he hadn't cared at all.

    "Tell me something, Gil." Matthew broke eye contact. He began to search the room, strolling almost, searching the corners around the raised platform as though Gilbert might have hidden something. 

    Gilbert waited for the rest of the sentence, eyes narrowed, picking apart the way that Matthew moved, the delicate way he ran his fingers over the brick walls. Each movement felt like something out of a dance, specifically choreographed, a show. For whose benefit? There was nothing else in the room besides the metal table, the instruments it contained, and the raised circular platform which Gilbert was held on. As if satisfied in proving this, Matthew came to a stop again after rounding the whole room, exactly where he'd started. He picked up the mug, coffee, Gilbert had surmised from the smell, and took a long sip. 

    “Tell me where the others failed.” He leaned on the table, the tools that Gilbert had become intimately familiar with clinking slightly. 

    Was that some kind of joke? Gilbert scoffed. “You're about to find out.” Despite the shackles, despite the wounds they'd worn into his ankles and his wrists, he meant that sentiment with all his heart. 

    And Matthew smiled like he got that subtext, like it was a joke between them. “No need for that, trial and error; I already have an answer.”

    “You're already wasting my time like the rest of them,” Gilbert said. Mind games pissed him off. 

    “A waste of time?” Matthew laughed. “In this place? They really haven't done anything to you if you still think your ‘time’ is worth anything.” 

    No response. Gilbert noticed that he had a scar over his lip and calluses on his hands. What could that be from? If he was like the others, Gilbert had a guess, and so far, they had all been alike in their goals. 

    “I know you're not shy, Gil. That's alright.” Another long drink of coffee. Matthew walked up to the platform, just out of Gilbert's range, and they both knew it. They both knew the exact distance his lunge would take him so that his broken fingers nails would brush Matthew's cheek. 

    “I'll tell you where the others went wrong, even though you already know,” Matthew continued. “They tortured you.” 

    Gilbert barked a short, sharp laugh. “No shit. That's all you've got? That's what this place does !”

    Matthew held up one finger, tick-tock tick-tock. “Torture doesn't work on you. I can't believe it took so many others for us to come to that conclusion: it's really obvious. Even upon entering I could see it.” 

    He was right, and it set Gilbert further on guard. Where the hell is he going with this? If they stop fucking torturing me what's left? Are they finally going to man the fuck up and kill me? 

    “You like pain, don't you, Gil?” Matthew gave up something then, the slightest slip of the mask that Gilbert had been trying to place. And a very very cold feeling blossomed in his stomach. “You like what you can touch, what touches you. You can bear anything physical.”

    “So then why don't you people just—”

    “Kill you?” Matthew shook his head. “No. We don't lose to foot soldiers here, Gil.”

    He stepped back from the platform and walked back to the table, downing his coffee before setting down the empty mug. Gilbert held his peace; this newcomer was too close to what was true for him to risk speaking. To risk confirming anything. 

    “You're not going to survive just long enough to be a martyr,” Matthew said, leveling his eyes with Gilbert's. “And you're not going to get a heroic death marked by the courage you showed under pressure. If that was your hope, abandon it now.”

    Not on your life, asshole. A lot of big talk for someone who hasn't done a damn thing to back it up. Gilbert wasn't shaken by this; he had no reason to be. He would be fine. He'd survived everything else. He was fine. 

    “Would you like,” Matthew tapped the mug, “some coffee, Gil?”

    And Gilbert spit at his feet. Matthew was unperturbed. “I'll bring you some. I bet you're the kind of man who drinks coffee black, just to prove you can. Maybe I'll add cinnamon. I think you'd like that.” 

    You don't know the first damned thing about me,” Gilbert hadn't been offered anything until this point, but he was ready to refuse. 

    Matthew smiled. “Oh, Gil. That's where you're wrong.” 


    The young man tasted blood, hot blood melting the snow around where he had fallen, and he laughed a wild laugh, red spittle flying from his lips. Above him, Ivan Braginski looked down, a fist slowly unclenching. Why, he thought, did it have to be this way? Why, he thought, did he stay here, taming this thing that they had raised. 

    “Calm down,”Ivan said to no avail. One day, he hoped, this man would listen. That was not today. The man below him caught Ivan's leg with his own, bringing him down into the snow. Ivan felt his anger spike, and he lashed out towards the sound of the laughter until the hands deflecting fists gave way to the feeling of a jawbone. The head snapping back did nothing for that incessant laughter, the man underneath him scoring a few of his own hits, significantly against Ivan's ribs. 

    “Stop!” Ivan shouted, using his legs to pin those of his opponent. For a moment, he thought it worked, and the man below him went still, tense, but still. Before he could draw a sigh of relief, however, he met those blue eyes, dead blue eyes, flat blue eyes. “Liste—”

    Too late. The young man had already attempted another lunge, nails scoring across Ivan's face, a maniacal grin splitting his face. Again, Ivan saw red. He growled, low in the back of his throat, and took the other man by the neck. 

    “I told you to calm down!” With each word Ivan's grip tightened, punctuating the sentiment by slamming him into the frozen earth. After a few minutes of struggle, the man's attacks slowed, then finally he began to go limp, pawing weakly at the hands around his windpipe. With a force of will that Ivan did not possess even a year ago, he rent himself free of the chokehold. 

    First a coughing, then a whimper, the man's blue eyes had sparked somewhere near oblivion, and they regarded Ivan now in light. With a very tired sigh, Ivan cupped a hand behind the man's head. He gently bent down to touch those cold, chapped lips. And he tasted blood.