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The Wonder Twins

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With his part in the mission done, Shatterstar wandered off. Cable and Domino had the situation well in hand but they needed to interrogate their opponent, which required discussion on topics he cared nothing about. Tabitha, Theresa and Roberto were several feet away, laughing at some joke that neither he nor Caliban, who was watching them raptly, were included in. He didn't know where Julio was.

The lab was large, spanning several rooms, and the ambient temperature was almost unbearably hot. Humid, the air was thick with the rich scent of lavish vegetation that hid something far more sinister. He caught notes of it from time to time, the unique smell of disease and decay. He found it familiar.

Still, it was intriguing, and he took off one of his gloves – his left one – and tucked it into his pocket. Curious, he touched a finger to a large, red plant with soft, almost fuzzy leaves. He was not overly familiar with Earth's flora, but he'd never quite seen anything like this before. It was oddly beautiful.

With time to murder, he browsed through the garden, which it clearly was, and only touched when he was absolutely sure he would not lose his hand for it. His right hand remained on a sword, diligent.

He was staring at a plant that was definitely staring back when Julio ambled up to him.

"Holy shit, dude," he said, gesturing over his shoulder with his thumb, "I think a plant just tried to kill me. I was taking a piss and then suddenly I had a bunch of goo on my hands and not the good kind. And then that gooey shit dissolved my gloves. I think I came this fucking close to losing my dick."

Shatterstar tilted his head. The plant, likewise, did the same. "I believe you. This place is dangerous."

Julio whistled. "Shit, amigo, if you say it's dangerous then I definitely would have lost my junk." He moved so he was standing directly beside Shatterstar, his arms crossed, staring at the same plant. The plant did not acknowledge Julio's presence in any perceptible way. "Uh, is that thing watching you?"

"Hunting me," Shatterstar replied idly, eyes fixed on the plant's pistil. "It will not be successful."

Julio made a pained face. "This is definitely extremely weird, but still not the weirdest thing I've ever seen, which makes me question my own life choices. How does someone get to this point? Where you could be making, like, wicked botanical gardens but instead breed a legion of people-eating plants?"

"We all make choices and live with the consequences."

"Yeah, I guess," Julio said. "My family is proof of that. I probably should have been a villain."

"You are far too kindhearted for that," Shatterstar replied, briefly looking over at him.

Julio made a face again. "Ugh, no, I'm not," he said, flustered. "Why would you say that?"

"I do not tell lies," Shatterstar said, blank and flat. He pretended not to notice how Julio's gaze flickered towards him, an impenetrable look in his eyes. He gave Shatterstar these looks all the time now, each one more mystifying than the last. What? Shatterstar always wanted to demand, but yet he never did.

"Listen, dude..." Julio started then stopped. He recoiled visibly.

The murderous plant had lurched suddenly, spitting up a tangle of vibrant green. The mass landed on Julio's skin, twisting around his wrist. Instinctively, Shatterstar reached for him, but the mass around Julio's arm shot out, latching onto his own flesh. The sudden shock of pain was... not insubstantial.

"Fekt," Shatterstar swore, pulled forward against his will. He slammed into Julio's body.

In the chaos that followed, the light around him dimmed and the sounds reduced to whispers. He could feel Julio's hand against his, their skin touching. He could not keep his eyes open. Inside, he felt only immense anger – at the plant, at himself for letting his concentration lapse, at Julio for distracting him.

This is agony, he thought, and everything finally, mercifully, went black.

Shatterstar woke up in the medi-lab at the Institute, overhead lights blinding him. It was familiar in the worst way – he had spent weeks in here recuperating after he was shot, after he almost died – and he was already looking for the exits. He could not do that again. The boredom had almost driven him mad.

Dr. McCoy was there, staring at X-Rays on a monitor, humming to himself.

"Back again, Shatterstar," he said without turning around, "and with another mystery to solve."

"It is not intentional," he replied, aware of the weight on his left arm. He turned his head and saw Julio beside him, still unconscious but breathing steadily. The mass had twisted around their wrists, keeping them joined like a pair of handcuffs. It wasn't solid – he could see skin beneath – but it had weight to it.

He suddenly felt trapped. He tried to ignore the sensation. It was deeply uncomfortable.

"It's quite intriguing, I must say," Dr. McCoy said. "I've never seen anything remotely like it."

"Can it be removed?"

"That is the eternal question, is it not?" Dr. McCoy got up and came around the bed, stroking his chin thoughtfully. Previously, Shatterstar had developed a deep aversion to seeing the gesture, and it was no better now, months removed from his last encounter with it. "Are you in pain? How does it feel?"

"Heavy, but no discomfort, not anymore. Upon first contact, the pain was... noticeable."

Dr. McCoy's eyebrow lifted. "More noticeable than a gunshot wound to the stomach?"


"Curiouser and curiouser, my stoic young friend. You certainly make my job interesting."

"I apologize," he said gravely. He still felt a strong compulsion to address him as Lord. He had done it once in the throes of his last injury, fighting some secondary infection. Dr. McCoy had simply chuckled merrily and told him Dr. McCoy – or Hank – would be perfectly fine. He could not call him Hank.

The fact he was speaking to him at all felt surreal. This Legend, personally tending to him in a brightly lit medi-lab. It was absurd. He wondered when it would begin to feel normal. He worried it never would.

Julio woke with a start, startling Shatterstar out of his doze. He pulled away, taking Shatterstar's arm with him, then turned to glare at the obstacle. Shatterstar watched with fascination as Julio cycled through his emotions – confusion, annoyance, understanding – then waited for Julio to speak first.

He swore emphatically in Spanish, words Shatterstar hadn't heard before, then tugged at his hand again. This time, Shatterstar was expecting it and used his superior strength to stop him. A shock of pain screamed up his arm. Julio, similarly, flinched, gritting his teeth. "What the hell, Star?" he spit out.

Shatterstar shrugged. He had already spent hours asking himself the same thing. If Julio had woken up when he did, they could have faced it together, but Shatterstar had done it all alone. "It is a mystery."

"What does that mean exactly?"

Shatterstar shrugged again. "Dr. McCoy does not know, and the X-Rays are inconclusive."

Julio's eyes moved from their joined wrists to Shatterstar's face then back again to their arms. His mouth twisted up in a thoughtful expression. "And he can't just... I don't know... cut this shit off us?"

"The matter is organic and it clearly wants to be there, which is why you must stop pulling on it," Shatterstar added, staring pointedly at Julio. Julio gave him a withering look but nodded. "He suspects removing it without more information to guide his decision would have... unfortunate side effects."

"What sort of unfortunate side effects are we talking about?"

"It is difficult to say. Dr. McCoy will be returning shortly to perform more tests. They will not be pleasant."

"Well, fuck," Julio said, and Shatterstar nodded. That had been his initial reaction as well.

Less elegantly that he would have preferred, they manoeuvred themselves into a sitting position. Shatterstar moved onto Julio's bed and sat beside him, their shoulders almost touching. Julio flexed his fingers several times, testing his range of motion like Shatterstar had. It could have been much worse.

It was, in a strange way, almost beautiful. A twist of vines that covered them both from the padded parts of their palms to three inches above the wrist. As long as they did not resist their unwanted joining, he didn't feel anything except the low-grade heat from Julio's skin and the slight scratchiness of the mass.

"Good thing neither of us has sleeves on our uniforms," he said, scratching a fingernail over an area where his skin rubbed the vine-like item. "I broke my arm when I was a kid," he added abruptly, still scratching. "I thought I was gonna gnaw it off with how itchy it was. It also smelled fucking awful."

Shatterstar didn't say anything. Julio did this from time to time, revealing facts about himself from his past. Shatterstar always found them interesting. As he learned more, the bigger picture became clearer. Not fully formed – because it was Julio and he often hid things – but continually getting more distinct.

"Shitty luck though," he said, "getting both our dominant hands. I can't do crap with my left hand."

Shatterstar shook his head, an almost imperceptible motion. "I'm ambidextrous."

Julio glanced at where they were joined. "You do all your favourite things with your left hand," he said, swinging his feet slightly, shifting his gaze there. "How are you gonna change the channel on TV?"

Shatterstar tried to imagine flipping through the entertainment offerings right-handed and realized he couldn't. He could doubtlessly learn, but the muscle memory was decidedly left-handed. He frowned.

"I'm sure you'll be fine," Julio assured him quickly, noticing his expression. It wasn't that Shatterstar didn't know he did certain things left-handed, but he had never considered his actions in the way that Julio had framed them. It also surprised him that Julio had noticed. It means nothing, he told himself sternly. Julio continued, "you probably do a bunch of shit I don't know about with your right hand."

"I'm sure I do," Shatterstar replied, but he couldn't think of anything he enjoyed with his right hand.

"Which hand do you use to, you know..." – Julio made an obscene gesture with his fist – "right or left?" Shatterstar didn't say anything, and Julio frowned deeply. "Still? But we had that talk and everything..."

Dr. McCoy picked that moment to return to the room, saving Shatterstar from continuing the conversation. Julio lit up when he saw him. They were, he remembered, old friends. They spoke like it as well – easy, comfortable, referencing things Shatterstar had no knowledge of. Julio had a whole life lived beyond him, full of experiences and relationships Shatterstar didn't have. He almost felt envious.

He wanted that with Julio. He wanted the long history and the inner jokes. It was all he wanted.

Dr. McCoy excused himself from the room again, citing a forgotten instrument, and they were alone.

"Left," Shatterstar said, quietly, and Julio looked at him, eyes wide with surprise. Shatterstar could tell he wanted to say something – this was, after all, one of Julio's favourite subjects – but Dr. McCoy returned. Julio glanced at him from time to time, but mercifully he did not bring up the topic again.

Dr. McCoy made an attempt to take a sample from the plant matter. Shatterstar heard screaming in stereo. For a moment he was back in the arena, deafened by the crowd, and then he realized it was Julio he was hearing. Seconds later, he realized it was him, too. His body felt out of his control, and the bed slid out from under them, sending them to the floor. They lay there for a long time, in utter agony.

In time, the pain receded. Other X-Men appeared – Cyclops, Wolverine, Storm – and Shatterstar found himself twisting away from them, struggling to force his mind and body to calm themselves. Beside him, Julio vomited into a waste bin, skin slick with perspiration. Shatterstar felt his own stomach turn.

"My deepest apologies," Dr. McCoy said gravely, no hint of humour in his voice.

They were helped back to the bed by Cyclops, a gesture that Shatterstar found extremely disconcerting. As he and Julio recovered, Dr. McCoy talked with the others, gesturing expressively. Julio was still gripping the garbage can, looking miserable, and Shatterstar felt pity for him, perhaps even sympathy.

He still felt terrible. His ears were ringing. The lights shone too bright.

"That was awful," Julio said. Shatterstar felt a strong compulsion to pat him on the back, but he could not manage it without contorting his body and looking ridiculous. "Is this some sort of Alien thing?" he asked, speaking to the X-Men present. "If something's gonna burst out of my chest, I wanna know."

"I would also like to know," Shatterstar added.

Dr. McCoy paused. "It is improbable," he said finally, "but not impossible."

"Fucking wonderful," Julio said, shaking his head. He retched again then moaned pitifully.

Shatterstar looked away, giving Julio his privacy, while the X-Men continued to speak to each other. Eventually Wolverine, Storm and Cyclops left. On the way out, Cyclops clapped Julio on the shoulder and uttered a quiet, "hang in there, Rictor." Julio nodded, hunched over his waste-bin, still sweating.

Dr. McCoy rolled his chair over to them. "The good news is I do not believe you are in immediate danger," he said, "but the bad news is you gentlemen may be stuck together until I find a better solution. I have colleagues who may be able to help. I know at least three reputable parasitologists."

Julio tilted his head. "Para-whats?"

"A scientist who specializes in parasites," Shatterstar said. He'd seen a documentary about them once.

Dr. McCoy released them with the promise that neither of them would disturb, as he called it, their new friend. He suspected it might be sentient, at least on some level, from how they responded whenever anyone tampered with it, but there was no telepath available to confirm his hypothesis. Julio, predictably, was not pleased with this turn of events. Shatterstar, for once, actually agreed with him.

"Great," Julio muttered. "Just what this day needs. Telepaths."

"Do I sense sarcasm, Mr. Richter?" Dr. McCoy asked, typing something into their file.

"No, never," he said, leaning forward and trying to catch a glimpse of whatever was on the screen. "Hey, Hank, how long do you think we're going to be stuck like this? Like... hours? Or days? Or what?"

"Unfortunately, it's all just guesswork from here. Your new friend has not yet been forthcoming."

Julio exhaled sharply. "Ugh," he said with feeling, "that really sucks."

"Do you plan on complaining for the entire time we are linked?" Shatterstar asked later, once Dr. McCoy had left them alone. Even with their freedom, they had yet to exit the room. Julio was reluctant.

"Oh, fuck off," Julio grumbled. "This isn't your idea of fun either. I don't care how much more mature about it you're acting. I know this pisses you off, too." He peered up at Shatterstar, who refused to confirm any of his claims. Julio sighed deeply. "The worst thing is we look like complete idiots."

"You tell me I look like an idiot all the time," Shatterstar pointed out.

"Only when you try to go out in public wearing spandex shorts and suspenders."

"I did that once," Shatterstar protested, and he hadn't understood at the time why Julio chased him down and dragged him inside, especially considering James was already waiting in the jeep. He got it now.

"And we look like we're holding hands," Julio muttered, staring at his feet.

Ignoring him, Shatterstar flexed his fingers. If there was one small mercy in this entire situation, it was that their hands were both facing inwards, in a natural position. Even with their disparate heights, it was comfortable, though Julio did have less of his palm exposed. The back of Julio's hand was very soft.

Besides, they had shaken hands on multiple occasions, each time initiated by Julio, so he wasn't sure what Julio was complaining about, other than Shatterstar suspected Julio found enjoyment in it.

"And everyone is going to make so much fun of us," Julio added morosely.

Looking down at Julio and the rueful twist of his mouth, Shatterstar felt a sensation of fondness curl warmly under his skin. Yes, Shatterstar decided. Julio definitely took immense pleasure in complaining.

"How are you gonna get out of uniform?" Tabitha asked eventually, once she and Roberto had stopped laughing. Julio had been deeply reluctant to enter the recreation room, but Shatterstar was stronger. There was never any point in delaying the inevitable. "And can I call you guys the Wonder Twins?"

"No," Julio said flatly.

Tabitha shrugged, chewing voraciously on her bubblegum. "Sorry, can't hear you, Wonder Twin Two."

Julio made a face. "Why am I number two?"

"The obvious reason," Tabitha replied, blowing a bubble then popping it with her teeth.

Julio bristled.

"I'd be more worried about the other stuff," Roberto chimed in, ignoring Tabitha and Julio as they continued to bicker with each other. Shatterstar was similarly ignoring them, except the tension from Julio's body was affecting the feeling in his own arm. "Like the bathroom stuff for one thing..."

Tabitha whistled. "Oh, shit. Literally. That's gonna be awk-ward." She overly enunciated each syllable.

"Fuck you both. I honestly can't do this right now," Julio said, shaking his head. "Pendejos."

As they left the room – Shatterstar allowed Julio to pull him off the couch and through the doorway – Tabitha and Roberto's laughter followed them. Shatterstar knew he was in the enviable position. Unlike Julio, he barely knew anyone outside of X-Force, and the encounters he'd had with other mutants had... rarely been without incident. Julio, on the other hand, had a long history with several of the X-Men.

"What if this" – Julio held up their joined arms – "lasts a long time? Or... Madre de Dios... forever?"

"You are getting ahead of yourself," Shatterstar said. "For the time being, we simply deal with it."

"I'm not eating or drinking until this thing is off us," Julio vowed, ignoring him. "I fucking refuse."

"That is a terrible idea," Shatterstar told him sternly, especially since he thought Julio might be serious.

By evening, the thing was still on their arm. In the absence of anything better to describe it, thing worked. Julio spit out the word angrily, but Shatterstar was much more sanguine. It could be much worse. He could be attached to someone who wasn't Julio, who was at least a known entity. If this had to happen – and Shatterstar believed in destiny as much as the next person – then this was the best way.

It was unfortunate that Julio didn't feel the same way.

Hopefully, with time, he would see the positives and stop acting so resentful about the situation.

"I'm fucking starving," Julio announced, finally, a little before ten o'clock. He had lasted three hours longer than Shatterstar thought he would, which was a testament to his innate stubbornness.

Shatterstar, who had been re-learning how to watch the TV right-handed, glanced at him. "Then eat."

"Eating and drinking sound like a great idea until you consider the fucking inevitable conclusion."

"We may be stuck together for some time," Shatterstar said. "Are we not best friends?"

"Of course we fucking are," Julio replied with vehemence then sagged again. Shatterstar knew he was uncomfortable, physically. He normally sprawled on his back, legs resting wherever they felt the most comfortable. Shatterstar, on the other hand, preferred to watch television sitting up. "But there's a limit to what best friends should do together. I don't need you seeing me, you know..." he trailed off.

"Being human?" Shatterstar suggested. "My body is the same as yours. What you do, I will also do."

Julio considered that for a while, head tilted back on the couch, his stomach rumbling so loudly that Shatterstar could clearly hear it. It was simply a matter of waiting it out. Eventually, Shatterstar knew, Julio would see reason and do what needed to be done. It was best just to let him talk himself into it.

"Are you hungry?" Julio asked, lifting his head to peer at him.

"Extremely," Shatterstar assured him.

"Okay, fine," Julio said. "Let's move this freakshow to the kitchen."

They walked slowly through the halls, still getting used to how each other moved. Julio's stride was shorter, not just because his legs were shorter. Julio was rarely in a hurry to get anywhere, arriving at his destination when he wanted to and not a second sooner. Shatterstar, conversely, walked with purpose, quicker, with more intention in his steps. His legs were also quite a bit longer. He hated to be late, and Julio hated to be early. Shatterstar dreaded the first time they had to be somewhere punctually.

"I was just gonna do an omelette or something. You want one?"

Shatterstar nodded. He liked it when Julio cooked for him.

Julio put Shatterstar on refrigerator duty, and they were able to create enough space between them that it was almost like they weren't imprisoned at the wrists. Waiting for the pan to heat up, Julio yawned.

"I hope they found somewhere for us to sleep," he commented idly, smacking himself on the cheeks. He yawned again, then blinked a few times, as he feared he would fall asleep where he stood.

"I assume they will," Shatterstar said, though he could not be certain. The Xavier Institute for Higher Learning was run on nothing less than chaos most of the time. He and Julio had survived many months living in a complex called Murderworld, and it was still calmer and less deadly than the X-Mansion.

Julio shrugged. "Yeah, who knows with this place," he said, agreeing with Shatterstar even though he had not voiced his true concerns out loud. He often did that, hearing the truth beneath his words. But not all of them, Shatterstar thought, looking over at Julio. He watched as Julio struggled with an egg.

"Do you need help?" he asked politely.

Julio scowled. "This is harder than it looks, doing it one-handed. I hope you like eggshells."

"I don't particularly," Shatterstar told him, "but I doubt I could do better."

Julio laughed. "You know what? I'll take it. That's probably the best compliment I'll ever get from you."

Shatterstar smiled faintly. Julio tried to break an egg and failed, crushing the shell with his hand and swearing at himself. "Use your other hand," Shatterstar told him, holding his own arm out. "It is ridiculous if we insist on doing everything one-handed when it's not necessary. Unless it is too heavy?"

"It is weirdly heavy, isn't it?" Julio said, walking them over to the sink to wash his hand. He exhaled. "Okay, let's try this again." He grabbed another egg then used both hands this time. The egg cracked into the pan easily. "If I get too grabby, just lemme know. Or if you need two hands for anything."

"I will inform you," Shatterstar assured him.

Julio continued cooking, primarily relying on his left hand, but occasionally, he needed his right, and Shatterstar moved with him easily. When it looked like it was almost ready, Shatterstar reached for two plates and fished around in a drawer for two forks. Julio split the omelette in two with the spatula.

"Hope it's okay," he said, sliding each half onto a plate.

"I have no doubt it will be delicious. You are very talented when it comes to egg products."

"Now you're just fucking with me, but thanks. I like cooking," Julio said, grinning, and Shatterstar smiled again. That was the first grin he had earned in hours. It was true – no one else made omelettes for him – but Julio had been in such a foul mood all day that Shatterstar felt a strong compulsion to try to make things better. He was the worst one for the task, but Julio was unfortunately stuck with him.

In this case, quite literally. Shatterstar looked at Julio again. So far, it really wasn't too bad at all.

They cleaned up then headed upstairs to their rooms, which were side-by-side. Each one had a square of yellow paper stuck to the door with the same number written on it. "Guess we're being moved," Julio remarked. "Okay, let's grab our shit and go. I'm about to pass out on my feet. You'd have to drag me."

"I would carry you," Shatterstar told him.

"You're the best, Star," Julio said, flicking his right index finger against Shatterstar's left one.

Shatterstar grabbed what he needed – a single pair of athletic shorts – then walked with Julio to his room. He waited while Julio sifted through the pile of clothes on his floor, sniffing at various items, until he found a pair of sweatpants that suited his needs. On their way to their new living quarters, they passed by one of the bathrooms. Julio stared longingly at the door.

Shatterstar, without asking, steered them inside. He placed his shorts down on one of the sinks; Julio did the same with his pants. They stared at each other for a moment and then Shatterstar reached up and twisted his hand in the collar of his own uniform. He pulled on it, and the fabric tore easily.

"I guess that answers Tabby's question," Julio said, averting his gaze.

"My uniform is, unfortunately, one continuous piece. I had no other options, even if it is wasteful."

"I'm sure nobody's going to be charging you for wrecking it. I don't know how else I'd even get my shirt off," Julio confessed, hooking his fingers into the neckline of his top and stretching the fabric experimentally. Unlike everyone else, he didn't wear purple. "And I've always wanted to Hulk-out."

Shatterstar watched as Julio ripped off the top half of his uniform. Due to his average-level strength, he had to pull harder. His pectoral muscles flexed with the effort, dark hair dusting the skin there. With some effort, Julio managed to tear the fabric off his chest. He let it drop into a ball in the sink.

"A little less fun when you're not the Hulk," Julio said sheepishly, "but not bad."

Shatterstar nodded. It would have been easier if he had been the one to rip the clothes off him.

That thought did something weird to a spot low in his belly. He ignored the sensation.

"Okay," Julio said, removing his belt with a tug and tossing it over his ruined shit. "Let's just get this over with. Human bodies, blah blah blah, piss, shit, whatever else, perfectly normal, blah blah blah."

"That is all true," Shatterstar agreed.

Once Julio set his mind to something, he just did it. Shatterstar looked politely away as he urinated, then took his own turn. If Julio had dreaded this part the most, Shatterstar dreaded the next. They walked to their new room, typically reserved for X-Men in a romantic relationship with each other.

There was a double bed, positioned between two windows, with fresh linen.

After they stripped out of the remainder of their uniforms – neither of them had put on underwear after removing their protective undergarments – and changed into their sleeping apparel, Julio asked, "Any preference which way we sleep?"

"I must be on my back," Shatterstar blurted out. Immediately, he felt himself heat with embarrassment, so he added, more calmly, as if it did not matter, "I must be able to see the door clearly, at all times."

Julio glanced at him then nodded. "Yeah, no problem. I'm basically a whatever-position-I'm-in sleeper."

Suddenly exhausted, Shatterstar sat on the bed and slid under the covers, Julio moving easily beside him as he got settled. The mattress was comfortable, softer than the twin bed he normally slept on. He looked at the door, making sure nothing obstructed his vision. "Good night, Julio," Shatterstar said.

"Night, Star," Julio said. "Maybe this thing will fall off while we sleep."

"Maybe," Shatterstar agreed, but he doubted it would be that easy.

In the morning, they were still attached. Shatterstar was not surprised. He had slept, in his estimation, no more than an hour and a half spread over eight. Every time Julio moved, or made a sound, or breathed in any way other than the way he always breathed, Shatterstar would snap awake, instantly on edge.

At one point, Julio had rolled towards him, onto his own arm. His free hand came to rest on Shatterstar's stomach, a noticeable weight against his skin. Once Julio did that, Shatterstar finally experienced his first period of uninterrupted sleep, but the sun had already risen fully by then.

Julio woke up shortly after he did, moaning pitifully into the pillow.

"My arm is asleep," he murmured, moving away and onto his back. He flexed his fingers several times while yawning largely, then fell back asleep, face tilted in Shatterstar's direction, mouth lax and open.

Shatterstar laid there, staring at the ceiling, exhausted but wide awake. From time to time, Julio mumbled, but none of it made any sense. He was a noisy, physically restless sleeper. Shatterstar hoped he could get used to it with time. He wanted to. Just in case... for whatever reason. If it was needed.

Like when he had learned Spanish for Julio. That had proved useful. That had made Julio like him more.

It was long past the time Shatterstar typically slept until. As Shatterstar waited impatiently for Julio to wake up, an unnameable but steady panic began to rise in him. Just when he thought he might have to rouse Julio himself, Julio blinked awake. He looked briefly at Shatterstar then sighed, lifting his free hand and sweeping it over his lips. Some of Shatterstar's hair had inexplicably ended up in his mouth.

"So much hair, dude," Julio murmured, a hint of a smile on his face, eyes barely open.

"I apologize," Shatterstar replied, even though Julio was clearly not angry about it.

"Have you been up for long?" Julio asked, voice rough with sleep. His hair was a tangled mess, but Shatterstar, having gone to bed without braiding his hair, was in no position to judge his unruliness. He definitely fared worse, but he still felt reluctant to use his left arm, even though Julio had said he could.


"Shit, just wake me up next time then," Julio said with a scowl. He made no move to actually get up, but now that Julio was conscious, Shatterstar felt his earlier anxiety begin to ease. He still didn't want to stay in bed all day, but he didn't mind waiting until Julio was ready... if the delay remained reasonable.

A minute passed, and then another, and then a third one. "What are we waiting for?" he asked finally.

Julio sighed. "Morning wood," he said, staring at Shatterstar liked he should have known that, and perhaps, Shatterstar was willing to admit, he should have, but he was extremely tired from Julio keeping him awake all night. "Or, let me guess, you never wake up with your dick at full mast?"

"I do," Shatterstar replied. "Often," he added, "but if I flex certain muscles, it goes away quickly."

Julio made a skeptical face. "Which muscles exactly?"

"Legs or arms, in my experience."

"You're not bullshitting me?"

"Why would I, on this particular topic?" Shatterstar asked, and Julio shrugged slightly. "It works," he muttered, looking away from Julio, feeling weirdly hot. He stared at the ceiling, aware of Julio moving beside him, his right hand curling into a fist, pressing against the thing around them. It didn't hurt.

"Huh," Julio said, sounding surprised. "You're just full of surprises, aren't you?"

"No, I'm not," Shatterstar replied mulishly.

"Shit, you're in such a bad mood," Julio said. "Maybe you should have slept longer, amigo."

Shatterstar closed his eyes and took a deep breath. It was going to be a very long day.

The day did not improve. Shatterstar felt like he was in a fog. Normally, he could function on very little sleep, but he felt drained. He always felt tired now, ever since his injury at the airport. Everything that had followed – the long recovery, the erratic feelings, the Benjamin Russell incident – had taken more and more out of him. This thing attaching him to Julio was just one more way to sap his energy.

But it was not all bad.

Their new room came with a private bathroom where they could at least partially close the door on each other. It was not comfortable, their arms stretched out and the door pressed on their upper arms, but it solved the issue of privacy. Julio seemed pleased with the discovery. Shatterstar was neutral about it.

"This would have been nice to know about last night," Julio grumbled, washing his hands.

"We were not in any frame of mind to expect it as a possibility," Shatterstar told him wisely.

Neither of them showered. While Julio shaved his face, Shatterstar brushed his hair. He resisted the temptation to tend to Julio's hair at the same time, unsure if the intrusion would be unwelcome. They cleaned their teeth, and then Julio combed wet fingers through his tangles, attempting to tame them.

They returned to their rooms and got dressed. They both chose to wear jeans, but the issue of shirts remained an issue. Even though he found it vaguely unprofessional in this setting, Shatterstar had no problem going without, but Julio was determined to attempt a tank top. He would not listen to reason.

Shatterstar had his doubts, but Julio was the most resourceful person he had ever met, so he was soon proven wrong. Julio took one of his shirts – a white ribbed tank top, yellowed with age – and ripped the seam on one side. He contorted himself into the hole he had created then quickly straightened out.

"Not the most stylish thing I've ever worn, but," he shrugged, "it works. Still determined to go topless?"

Shatterstar sighed. "I was never determined," he said. "I was resigned."

Julio snorted, grinning as Shatterstar dragged him next door. Julio watched, amused, as Shatterstar sifted through his drawer for a suitable tank top to destroy in an attempt at modesty. "Sure, keep telling yourself that, amigo. I didn't know you even owned any shirts for the entire first week I knew you."

"We were in Arizona," Shatterstar protested. "It was hot."

"Hey," Julio said, laughing, "whatever you say. I believe you."

Shatterstar ignored him, though it occurred to him only when he was struggling to fit through the hole he'd torn that Julio had been teasing him. He tried not to be angry at himself for not noticing, but things had been... different since Julio had returned from Mexico. Or long before that, if he was being honest.

Nothing felt right anymore. Shatterstar didn't know why. He was just so tired.

"The wonder twins finally make an appearance," Tabitha said as they entered the dining hall. She, Roberto and Theresa were seated around one of the tables, the evidence of their meals almost gone. "Really digging the fashion choices," she added with a grin. "The ripped tank look is totally in."

"Glad it meets your approval," Julio replied, putting down his tray as he took a seat.

"Does it hurt?" Theresa asked, looking at the thing around their wrists.

"It only hurts if it's disturbed," Shatterstar said when Julio did not answer. "And then it is... excruciating." Shatterstar paused, looking at Julio, who had his head down. "It is the worst pain I have ever experienced. Normally, I can ignore discomfort, but whatever this thing is, whenever someone tampers with it... I have no frame of context for what it feels like." He paused again. "But it is terrible."

Roberto whistled. "That's fucking rough, guys."

"Great, now I feel like an asshole," Tabitha said, bumping Julio on the shoulder. "Thanks, Shatty."

"You're welcome," he replied.

"And no one knows how to remove it?" Theresa asked, still examining the vine-like entity with interest.

"Nope," Julio said with an easy nonchalance that even Shatterstar could tell was fake. "It's a mystery. We're just kinda stuck like this until someone figures out what's going on. I'm assuming Cable's doing his job and interrogating the shit out of that evil botanist dude, but they haven't told us shit."

"Uh," Tabitha said, "that guy died. Shortly after you guys wandered off, the plants went wild, and some extremely poisonous-looking thing attached itself to the guy's face. I think you two might be fucked."

"I'm sure it'll be okay," Theresa cut in, glaring at Tabitha, who shrugged. "It looks like a plant, doesn't it? And all plants wither, if not properly tended to. They need food and water, like every living thing."

"Unless they're the food and water," Roberto pointed out.

Julio shook his head. "Wow, thanks guys. You're somehow making this ten times worse. Fuck."

"It will be fine," Shatterstar said. "Dr. McCoy is working on the matter, and he is more than capable."

"Could we stop talking about this?" Julio grumbled. "I'm trying to enjoy this terrible oatmeal here."

Roberto and Tabitha immediately started talking about a movie they'd watched on television the previous night. Julio continued glowering into his oatmeal. Shatterstar, who had not been particularly hungry, finished his banana then waited for Julio. Theresa caught his gaze from across the table.

Are you holding up okay? she mouthed, tipping her head slightly in Julio's direction.

Yes, fine, he mouthed back without moving at all, trying not to draw attention to the exchange, but he could tell by the slight pause in his eating that Julio had noticed anyway. But Julio acknowledged nothing, just continued to chew beside him, miserable. Shatterstar remained still, though, just in case.

Theresa made a sympathetic face, eyes kind, and he almost felt himself smile.

After, they all headed to the recreation room to watch TV. Shatterstar dozed with his head tucked to his chest, arms crossed. The control of the television had been forfeited to Theresa, who could be trusted, and the background noise of the show and the chatter of his teammates almost put him to sleep.

Then he felt a nudge at his brain.

We need you and Rictor down here for another scan, Nathan told him.

Understood, he thought back. To Julio, he said, "we are being summoned to the medi-lab."

They headed to the basement. The walk felt easier, like they were getting used to each other. Shatterstar was still exhausted, but the few moments of rest had bought him another hour or two of awareness. Perhaps he could ask for a sleeping aid, except he did not want to admit to Julio how poorly he'd slept.

"Odds this is good news?" Julio asked, looking up at him.

"Small to none," Shatterstar replied grimly.

Dr. McCoy, Nathan and Jean Grey were waiting for them in the lab. They took their places on the examination table. Julio was tense. His closed-off posture, obvious to anyone who viewed him, was something Shatterstar physically felt. For once, Shatterstar could understand his reluctance. His head felt jumbled, messy with an ongoing confusion of feelings. He wanted that to remain a private pain.

"If I may?" Jean Grey asked, her hand hovering over the thing around their wrists. Julio nodded, so Shatterstar did as well. Very gently, she laid her palm over the vine-like entity and closed her eyes. Shatterstar waited for any sign of discomfort, but none came. Julio stared straight ahead, steely-eyed.

Time slowed to a creep. Shatterstar realized he was holding his breath and let it go, slow and controlled.

Eventually, Jean Grey opened her eyes. "There is something," she said, "but it's very... strange."

"Strange in what way?" Dr. McCoy asked, sounding instantly intrigued.

Jean Grey shook her head, smiling faintly. "You're the scientist, Hank, not me. It does feel parasitic like you said it might. If it can communicate, it has no way of doing that. Not through lack of ability, but more like... it simply doesn't want to. That's what I felt. A strong, single-minded focus on its task."

"Which is?" Nathan asked, arms crossed, staring at his and Julio's arms.

Jean Grey shrugged slightly. "It wouldn't say. I got the sense if I pushed the matter, it would react."

"And we have already witnessed how it defends itself," Dr. McCoy said, turning back to his computer and typing in the new information. "If you gentlemen are not yet tired of my ministrations, I would like to perform one last scan. A telepathic one of our two patients to ensure the parasite remains isolated."

Julio rolled his eyes. "Whatever."

"I also consent," Shatterstar added gravely, even though it was the last thing he wanted.

Jean Grey immediately moved to Julio, who relaxed slightly, and Nathan stepped in front of him. Shatterstar looked up at him and tried not to flinch when Nathan gentled pressed his fingers to both sides of Shatterstar's head. The soft flesh of one hand counterbalanced the smooth metal of the other.

Besides him, Jean Grey did the same, smiling at Julio comfortingly.

Shatterstar closed his eyes, feeling Nathan's probing around his mind. He could not tell what he was looking at or how much he could see. He assured himself that Nathan probably knew everything already, simply from proximity and the way brains could leak emotion when they were in turmoil.

Eventually, Jean Grey said, "I don't sense any external influence from the parasite."

"Me neither," Nathan said gruffly, removing his hands from Shatterstar's face.

He immediately opened his eyes just in time to see Jean smile kindly at Julio, who smiled back.

Dr. McCoy clapped his hands together. "Then my patients are free to go, at least for today. If anything changes or it penetrates your skin, you will both grace me with your presence immediately. Understood?" They nodded dutifully. "Then I will return my undivided attention to this mystery."

Shatterstar could tell Julio was eager to leave the medi-lab. Shatterstar felt the same.

"Everything will be fine," Jean Grey told them as they stood up. "You're in good hands."

"But this doesn't get you out of the training session tomorrow," Nathan added, looking pointedly at them. Julio sighed deeply, but he didn't say anything caustic in response, though Shatterstar suspected that he deeply wanted to. They headed towards the door and, with a farewell, went outside for a walk.

They strolled through the school grounds for almost fifteen minutes, silent. It felt good to be outside, in the fresh air and the warm sun, and they very much did look like they were holding hands, though he had the good sense not to mention that to Julio. He allowed Julio to be the one who guided them.

It was a bad habit. He knew that it was. Nathan had once had a talk with him, about not letting Julio's wishes override his own desires in any given situation, but it was simply easier to let Julio take the lead in such matters. Julio had a multitude of life experiences, across several countries, both on his own and with larger teams. Shatterstar, on the other hand, had only ever known X-Force and Mojoworld.

When it came to battle and sheer quantity of information in his head, Shatterstar could be confident that he knew best, but more and more he found that for everything else, for the human side of the equation, Julio was the expert. Shatterstar knew enough not to follow him unfailingly, but at least he was a starting point.

Before, Shatterstar had merely felt lost, out of step with everything, isolated by his own experiences.

Now... well, everything could be much worse. He was still alive. At least he had feelings at all.

Julio stopped suddenly. "You okay to sit for a while?" he asked, looking at up at him.

Shatterstar nodded.

They laid down on the grass, on their backs, looking up at the clouds. Julio toed his running shoes off then somehow got out of his socks without using either hand. Legs bent, he pressed the soles of his feet against the grass. Shatterstar removed his own shoes, attempting to follow Julio's actions. In time, though it was not particularly graceful, he too was barefoot. The earth felt cool underneath his heels.

"On one hand," Julio said, eyes fixed on the sky, "I'm glad I'm not slowly having my mind taken over by this fucking thing. On the other hand, none of that made me particularly optimistic about the future."

"This will not last forever," Shatterstar assured him. "It is only the second day."

Julio exhaled. "Yeah, I guess. Patience is a virtue, right?"

"So I have been told," Shatterstar replied.

Julio snorted softly. "Yeah, I'm pretty shit at it, too." He smiled suddenly, turning his head to look at Shatterstar, and Shatterstar felt a peculiar twist of heat in his belly. Julio's smile, rarely this honest, had been one of the first mannerisms that Shatterstar had tried to mimic. "It's kinda funny, though."

"What is?" Shatterstar asked, forcing his gaze away from Julio's mouth.

"That you're the optimist in this situation. You used to be grim as fuck, dude. What happened?"

"People change," he replied with a slight lift of his shoulders, another act he had learned from Julio.

Julio's smile softened into an expression that Shatterstar could not name. It looked like it might be concern, and Shatterstar braced himself for whatever Julio said next. "Are you okay with everything?" he asked. "Like, everything that happened with that Benjamin Russell guy and Mojo and, like, dying?"

Shatterstar felt himself nodding, partially in relief that Julio hadn't asked about anything else. "What other choice do I have than to be okay with it all? It happened. I don't understand it, and perhaps I never will, but many things have happened to me that I do not understand. This is no different."

"You died, Star," Julio said, voice barely above a whisper.

"I feel remarkably alive for a dead man."

"You know what I mean," Julio replied with a scowl.

"I do not know what to tell you, Julio."

"You don't have to tell me anything," Julio said, sounding frustrated, and Shatterstar realized he had missed a nuance in the conversation. Nothing new, but always a disappointment. "I'm telling you that I saw you die, and it fucked me up, and I'm happy that you're still here. I want to make sure you are, too."

"Of course I am," Shatterstar replied. "Why would you think otherwise?"

"Because you're different," Julio said, looking away from him finally. Shatterstar was surprised it had taken that long. "Because you're not... you've just changed a lot. Even before the new body. You're... I used to be able to read you pretty well, amigo, and now... I just don't know. Things feel off between us."

"You were gone for several months," Shatterstar pointed out, with a surprising bite to his words.

"Never mind then," Julio said, his right arm moving perceptibly as if he wanted to cross his arms and remembered, at the last moment, that he could not. Shatterstar felt equally exposed by the conversation. "Sorry if I made things weird," he added, frowning deeply, and Shatterstar felt his odd tension ease.

"Everything has been weird," Shatterstar admitted. "You have not made it worse."

Julio snorted. "Well, I guess that's better than nothing."

"Yes," Shatterstar agreed.

"But," Julio continued, glancing at him again, expression serious, "if you wanted to talk about anything, like, your feelings or whatever, I would listen. I'm still your best friend, right? And you're mine, right?"

"If I wanted to talk, you would be the one I would talk to. I give you my word."

Julio nodded, still looking at him like he wanted to say more, but Shatterstar didn't want to talk. Not now, possibly not ever. So he hadn't lied to Julio exactly. The word if had exonerated him, but it still felt vaguely dishonest. He ignored those conflicted feelings and the sudden weight in his own belly and how trapped he felt at that moment, attached to Julio by the wrist, unable to escape from him.

Maybe someone else on the team would have been better. Maybe Julio being the one he was attached to wasn't a relief at all. Shatterstar just didn't know anymore. It had all become so fekting confusing.

He tried not to think about it. It was not worth dwelling on. Nothing ever was.

Though he was utterly exhausted, Shatterstar slept even more poorly than he had the night before. He willed Julio to roll towards him again, desperate for any sort of relief, but Julio stayed on his back, blankets tucked under his chin. In the dark, Shatterstar looked at him, at the dark lashes against his cheeks, at the line of his mouth, at his hair, almost black in the shadows, fanned out over his pillow.

That had been a shock. Shatterstar had wanted nothing more than the familiar comfort of his old – his only, his best – friend, and had instead been faced with a man in a suit and an unfamiliar haircut.

Now that he'd gotten used to it, Julio just looked like Julio again, but it had been a shock during an already stressful time. Julio had never mentioned why he had cut it, and Shatterstar had never asked.

But he wanted to. He wanted to know why Julio had done it. Why he had needed to.

Eventually, Shatterstar drifted off into a fitful doze, only to be woken by the shriek of an alarm far sooner than he would have wanted. Blearily, he glanced at the clock – mercifully a digital readout instead of a mechanical one – and confirmed that he had slept for less than an hour. He felt terrible.

"Fuck," Julio moaned, rubbing the heel of his free hand over his eyes, "this is too damn early."

"Yes," Shatterstar agreed, ignoring Julio's look of surprise. "But it must be done."

Inelegantly, they rolled out of bed and changed into their tank tops and workout shorts. Typically, they were expected to report in uniform, but Shatterstar's was still in tatters. It would be unreasonable of Nathan to demand they follow the dress code in this instance, so he decided to risk it and only bring his swords.

Again, they did not shower.

In the kitchen, Julio had a coffee and buttered toast. Shatterstar settled for another banana and a muffin.

Shatterstar had never had coffee, but he feared he was approaching the point where he might need one. For once, he arrived at a training session like Julio often did: as a man off to his own execution. They were the first to arrive, and Julio dragged him to a corner where they could sit and wait for the others.

Shatterstar laid his swords on the ground, against the wall, out of the way.

Tabitha sauntered into the room. "Still attached, huh?" she asked.

"Obviously," Julio replied.

Tabitha sat down on the floor across from them, crossing her legs. "Do they know what it is yet?"

"Probably a parasite," Julio said, glancing down at the twisted thing around their wrists. "It hasn't, like, burrowed into our skin or whatever, gracias a Dios, but it's got, like, some telepathic thing going on."

"Ew. That sucks, guys. Has anyone tried talking to it? Like, with their minds?"

"Yeah. It blocked Jean Grey, so we're pretty much fucked there. It's probably not going to go all Alien on us and burst out of our chests though, so that's a positive." Julio looked down at it again, making a face, then shrugged. "I don't fucking know," he said. "It's weird. Even if it looks kinda awesome."

"It is pretty cool," Tabitha agreed. "I wonder if it'll flower or anything. That'd be peak fashion."

They continued talking, but Shatterstar tuned them out. He tipped his head back against the wall. He had never been tired like this before, even after being shot in the stomach. But his body was no longer his own. He kept forgetting that. Perhaps this was his new normal. That was horrifying to consider.

Eventually, Theresa, Roberto and Caliban appeared, followed by Nathan and Domino. He and Julio lurched to their feet, ignoring the amused looks of their teammates. Domino outlined a new drill she wanted them to learn. Normally, Shatterstar would have enjoyed the lesson, but when Nathan told him and Julio to go to the observation deck of the danger room, he gladly picked up his swords and went.

"Why did he even make us show up for this?" Julio asked when they were both seated upstairs.

"I honestly do not know," Shatterstar admitted.

"I'm tempted to go back to sleep, but he'd probably quiz us after."

"Probably," Shatterstar agreed, leaning over the console to watch as the training session began. It was all he could do to keep his eyes open. While he doubted there truly would be a test, the part of himself that compulsively followed orders warred with the rest of him that was deeply and truly exhausted.

Julio looked at him intently for a long, excruciating moment. "Are you feeling all right, amigo?"

"Of course," Shatterstar said and pretended he did not notice how Julio continued to stare at him.

Shatterstar made it through the training session, but the rest of the day dragged on. They went down to the medi-lab for another X-Ray and ultrasound. The others got ready to go into town for an evening at the mall. Normally he would have attended – if only because he felt compelled to participate in anything he determined to be a team-building exercise – but he and Julio decided to stay behind.

"Just use an image inducer," Roberto said when he and Julio both excused themselves politely.

"We're still gonna look like we're holding hands," Julio replied, shaking his head. "No fucking way."

Tabitha rolled her eyes. "Whatevs. You want anything from the mall? Like... I dunno... cinnabons?"

They both consented to cinnamon buns while also continuing to brush off not only invitations to join them but apologies from Theresa, who had planned the outing long before their current predicament. Eventually, everyone else left, and then it was just him and Julio again, and it was blissfully quiet.

"So what do you wanna do?" Julio asked finally, after a moment of extended silence.

There was a long list of things that Shatterstar wanted to do, namely sleep and take a shower and possibly feel sorry for himself, but he felt his shoulders shrugging. "Whatever you want to do."

"I just wanna have a chill night. Grab some snacks, watch a movie. That okay with you?"

Shatterstar nodded.

He followed Julio down to the kitchen, their hands hanging heavy between them. The thing looked far too delicate to hold such weight, but he could not deny what he felt. He was grateful that Julio had confirmed the feeling. Too often recently, his mind had betrayed him. He could no longer trust it.

"Hey, catch," Julio said, tossing him a bag of chips.

Shatterstar caught it with his right hand then waited as Julio rooted around in the cupboards, looking for more. He found a large chocolate bar filled with caramel, a bag of red licorice and, surprisingly, a box of Pulparindo candy bars. Looking pleased with his discovery, Julio ripped one open and bit into it.

"Here, try this," Julio said, shoving it at him. Shatterstar flinched back, having fallen for this gimmick before, and Julio sighed at him. He took another large bite. "Come on, dude, trust me. It's good."

"I can smell it from here," Shatterstar replied, shaking his head.

"It's not even that hot. It's more sweet and salty than hot."

"Fine," Shatterstar said, resigned, and let Julio put it between his teeth. He bit off a reasonable piece – small enough that he would not suffer too long from its effects but big enough that Julio would not make fun of him – and chewed thoughtfully. It was surprisingly gritty, and the heat began to build slowly in the back of his throat, but the taste was pleasant enough. He swallowed the entire mouthful.

"You like it?"

"Delicious," Shatterstar assured him, annoyed with his own enhanced senses when he coughed.

Julio laughed, eyes creased at the corners. "You're a good guy, Star," he said, grinning brightly at him, the most luminous smile Shatterstar had ever seen. "Don't let anyone ever tell you otherwise. Okay?"

Shatterstar nodded. He inexplicably felt like crying. It was the heat of the candy, he told himself, his mouth still burning, or the bone-deep exhaustion, or the feelings rattling around in him, wild and uncontrollable. He had missed Julio so much in those months that he was gone. His uemeur had ached.

It still ached if he was being honest about it. He had Julio back again, but it still ached unrelentingly.

He wondered when it would stop. He worried that it never would.

They were well into Predator 2 when the others returned bearing the cinnamon buns. He and Julio had eaten too much already, but he liked the sticky sweetness, and the sugar gave him a burst of energy that was sorely needed. They stayed for the rest of the movie, not speaking often enough to annoy him.

Shatterstar was keenly aware of Julio beside him, slouched into the cushions, flexing his fingers.

It really did look like they were holding hands. It surprised him every time he noticed it.

Theresa gave him a sympathetic look, kind and understanding. He still wasn't sure if he had given her the wrong impression... or the right one. She had clearly recognized something in him, even when he himself couldn't identify it, and Shatterstar was astute enough to understand she had feelings for James.

He still didn't know what he felt about Julio. Not in words that he could express.

It was all very complicated. For the most part, he tried not to think about it.

The movie ended, and the group dispersed. He and Julio went up to their room and changed into their nightclothes. They each used the washroom, stretched between the half-closed door, then climbed into bed. Shatterstar found the prospect of hours of sleeplessness and boredom exhausting, but perhaps, he thought, he had finally deprived his body of enough rest that it'd finally submit to the current situation.

Two hours later, he knew he hadn't.

He stared at the ceiling for a long time, listening to Julio mutter in his sleep. He occasionally woke with a start and blinked wildly into the darkness before quickly drifting off again. From time to time, beneath the covers, Julio rubbed his feet together. Once, he rolled over, and Shatterstar held his breath, but Julio's arm stayed against his own chest, hand balled into a fist under his chin. He rolled back again.

Shatterstar looked to the door, which he knew was locked, and then looked back at Julio.

Out of options, Shatterstar turned onto his side and laid there for a long time, getting used to it.

Julio muttered something about otters and party hats then drifted into a soft, melodic snore.

Shatterstar put his hand on Julio's arm, above where the vine joined them. Julio quieted but did not wake. Shatterstar closed his eyes, hoping Julio would forgive him, but he could not continue running himself ragged, and he simply did not know how to ask for this. If he was allowed to ask for this.

He was just so tired.

When he woke up, it was well into the morning. During the night, Julio had rolled towards him, and now they were pressed together, with one of Julio's thighs between his legs. They were both erect, groin to groin, and Julio had somehow shifted onto Shatterstar's pillow. It felt... good. It felt really nice.

Julio blinked awake seconds after he did, too quickly for Shatterstar to fix the situation. Their eyes met, mere inches between them, and for a moment, time hung between them, unmoving. Shatterstar held his breath, like a deer caught in a light source, and then Julio moved away from him with a shaky laugh.

"Sorry, dude," he said, scrubbing a hand through his hair.

"It was my fault," Shatterstar assured him, the truth spilling from his mouth unbidden. "Last night, I touched your arm while you slept. I deeply apologize for the trespass. Please forgive me, Julio."

"Why?" Julio asked.

"Because I did not ask for permission," Shatterstar replied.

Julio shook his head. "No, I mean... is there a specific reason you needed to touch my arm?"

"I thought it would help," Shatterstar said, eyes fixed on the ceiling. He would have preferred they stayed like that, shoulder to shoulder, not looking at each other, but Julio rose to a sitting position. Shatterstar, uncomfortable with the sudden disparity, also sat up. His hair fell around his shoulders.

Julio pressed his lips together. "Have you slept at all since we, you know, became the wonder twins?"

"Not much," Shatterstar admitted with great reluctance. "I am not... I do not sleep well around others, even those who would do me no harm. And then you..." He paused, and Julio raised an eyebrow at him. "You are almost as expressive in sleep as you are in wakefulness. It has been... difficult."

Julio snorted. "That's an incredibly polite way of saying that, especially coming from you."

"I should have asked for permission," Shatterstar repeated.

"I don't really care if you touched my arm while I slept. If it helps... then, yeah, of course. For as long as this lasts, for as long as you need it... if it helps you sleep, dude, anything. This stupid thing sucks, even if you won't admit it, and I don't want it to be even suckier. You don't need to torture yourself."

Julio said it so kindly that Shatterstar somehow felt worse, but he nodded anyway.

"It doesn't have to be weird," Julio added. "It's only weird if we make it weird."

Shatterstar thought about how it had felt to wake with Julio's thigh firm between his legs and how his erection had pressed against Shatterstar's equally hard penis. His cock was still hard, obscured by the blankets. Julio, likewise, was still aroused. "Then we do not make it weird," Shatterstar said carefully.

"Right," Julio said. He grinned suddenly. "Though your muscle thing isn't really working this morning."

"No," Shatterstar agreed.

"It's been a long few days," Julio admitted with a sheepish laugh. "I need a couple minutes."

Shatterstar nodded again. He tilted his head, using his free hand to sweep his hair over his shoulder, off his neck. Julio glanced at him, eyes drawn by his movement, looking up at him through the dark fan of his eyelashes. He smiled, a little crooked, and Shatterstar instinctively smiled back, mirroring him.

In the luminous light of morning, he was struck by how beautiful Julio was. He would never call him that to his face – Julio was sensitive about certain topics, and Shatterstar suspected this would be one of them – but when he was smiling, or scowling, or somewhere in between, he really was quite beautiful.

Julio looked away suddenly, breathing heightened, then frowned deeply. "Dude," he said, "look."

Shatterstar followed the line of Julio's gaze, obediently lifting his left hand when Julio pulled at it. A single narrow leaf dangled from the vine, green like the colour of peas, which he had yet to develop a taste for.

"Fekt," Shatterstar said with a vehemence that surprised him, and Julio nodded in agreement.

The moment ruined, they got dressed – clean pants but the same torn tank tops. They headed down to the basement where Dr. McCoy was sitting at a computer, composing an email. He looked up as they entered the medi-lab, the thing an impossible weight between them. His eyebrows lifted, delighted.

"Your new friend has finally offered a clue. I know several botanists," Dr. McCoy assured them.

"Fuck botanists," Julio said emphatically as Dr. McCoy took several pictures of the leaf.

"Not possessing much of a green thumb myself, I often share your sentiment, Mr. Richter, but hopefully these particular botanists will help shed some light upon this mystery." He took another series of photos from a different angle then rolled his chair back. "Thank you, gentlemen, for your prompt reporting."

Julio shrugged. "When the alternative is fuck knows what, what else can we do?"

"You'd be surprised," Dr. McCoy, sparing a glance at Shatterstar.

"I reported my symptoms," Shatterstar replied, ignoring Julio's gleeful expression, "eventually."

Dr. McCoy let them go, and Julio cackled at him all the way upstairs. Shatterstar tried to be annoyed, but he was also happy that he'd given Julio a distraction. And it was easier to be laughed at by Julio than to dwell on the alternative: that this thing had somehow grown a leaf without nourishment.

That they were the food after all.

They wandered outside into the steaming heat of summer and the shining sun. They were both made for warmer climates, one of the few things they had in common. It also removed them from prying eyes that looked at them whenever they walked by, intrigued by the thing around their wrists. Shatterstar had no doubt that every mutant within the walls of the institute already knew what had happened to them.

They sat down in the grass. Julio was still laughing, happy and bright, shaking his head.

"Are you gonna survive?" Julio asked, grinning. "Being called out by one of your idols like that?"

"He is not my idol," Shatterstar replied, making a disagreeable face. Julio cackled again. "And yes, I am fine. I already knew that I removed several years off his life. He told me multiple times how poor a patient I was. I was fine. I was merely bored. And I have never handled boredom particularly well."

"Being shackled to me like this must be a drag," Julio said. "You haven't worked out once."

"Yes, I know." Shatterstar could already feel his body getting slower, his reaction time diminishing. Everyone else thought his level of fitness was entirely natural, but it required some maintenance. "I'm sure it will be fine," he added. "Whenever we are finally free from this, I will simply exercise more."

"We could if you wanted..."

Shatterstar looked at him. "I appreciate the thought, Julio, but our fitness levels are too... disparate."

"Yeah, I would probably die," Julio agreed easily. "But you could go for a run, couldn't you?"

"And drag you behind me? That would definitely result in your death."

"No, we could, I don't know... C-3PO it up. Like in Empire Strikes Back. It can't be that hard."

Shatterstar considered Julio's suggestion. With his superhuman strength, Julio's weight was nothing. He would likely not notice it at all. "We would look like idiots," Shatterstar said carefully, referring to Julio's concerns from four days ago. It was almost hard to believe so much time had already passed.

"I'm kinda getting used to it," Julio admitted. "So if you wanna go for a run or whatever, I'm in."

Shatterstar looked for any sign of reluctance, but Julio looked completely honest in his intentions. He likely would not have made such an absurd offer if he didn't mean it, but Shatterstar was still reluctant.

"Agree before I change my mind," Julio prompted. "And, uh, maybe stick to the perimeter?"

"Very well," Shatterstar said.

They went to the garage to look for items they could use. Julio had always been good at problem-solving with whatever was available, something he referred to as MacGyvering, from an American show that Julio had watched growing up. Shatterstar had never seen it. Shatterstar tossed anything he deemed useful into a pile on the floor as Julio knelt next to the items and began to construct a harness.

In the end, they found a solution that they were both satisfied with.

"This should work," Shatterstar said, examining Julio's harness. He pulled on it, testing its strength.

"I'm a little concerned about my balls," Julio replied, grinning, "but hey, we won't know till we try."

Despite giving Julio ample opportunity to change his mind, he never did. Shatterstar had never felt more ridiculous as he did in the moment when he stood up with Julio strapped behind him in a makeshift human backpack, his left hand still bound to Julio's right one. He hesitated by the door to outside.

"This is such a stupid idea," Julio said, leaning back against him, his hair tickling Shatterstar's neck.

"It was your idea," Shatterstar replied, in full agreement, "for the record."

"But I'm not the one trying to buy time," Julio pointed out gleefully. "Come on, Star, I dare you."

"Daring me has never worked."

"Yes, it has," Julio replied. Shatterstar could feel his grin even if he couldn't see it. "It always works."

Shatterstar sighed deeply, but he opened the door and stepped out into the sun. This is absurd, he thought, bracing himself, but his natural competitiveness overrode his common sense. It would feel good to run. Exercise, in all its varieties, had always calmed him. It had been a while since he felt calm.

So he ran. He ran hard and he ran fast. He could hear Julio's laughter over the rapid beat of his heart, building with each stride he took. Shatterstar felt his own laughter rise within him, violent like a storm, and he eventually started laughing with Julio, unable to resist him. Shatterstar ran until he was sweating and breathless, dizzy with emotion and exertion. Until Julio was howling with laughter, tipped back against him, his hand hot against Shatterstar's. Shatterstar dropped to his knees, head lifted to the sky.

He and Julio worked to unstrap themselves. They rolled onto the grass, panting, almost back in control of their emotions, and then they took one look at each other and broke into uncontrollable laughter again. Julio had streaks of tears running down his cheeks, and he rubbed one hand at them ineffectually.

"That was so ridiculous," Julio gasped, shaking with the effort to temper his laughter.

"It was," Shatterstar agreed. "But it was also good. I feel better. Thank you, Julio."

"Anything for you," Julio said, smiling at him, blinding and bright, and some inexplicable emotion fluttered in Shatterstar's chest. What would Julio do, Shatterstar wondered, eyes drifting to Julio's lips, if he kissed him right then, hidden by trees, where no one could see them? Would he kiss him back?

Or would it ruin the only good thing Shatterstar had ever had in his entire life?

Shatterstar had spent months trying to make these feelings go away, push them down, erase them. He had thankfully been spared from Julio seeing the worst of them, how emotional he had been after Julio had left. He was better now, more in control of himself, but he still wanted to kiss Julio, even after everything. After him leaving, abandoning him, not calling, returning as if nothing had changed when everything had changed. The harder Shatterstar fought to hold onto the man he had been before, the faster those pieces seemed to slide through his fingers. He barely recognized himself anymore.

He still wanted to kiss Julio more than anything, but he didn't. Not then, not ever.

Shatterstar looked away, settling onto his back, staring up at the clouds. He could hear Roberto, Theresa and Tabitha rumbling towards them, laughing at their attempt at a run. Beside him, Julio laid very still, but two of his fingers brushed over the knuckles on Shatterstar's left hand. It was brief, but he felt it.

He didn't know what it meant. He was too scared to ask.

All his earlier joy evaporated, and he was left feeling like he always had before he met Julio.


The rest of the day passed slowly.

That night, without making a large deal about it, Julio rolled towards Shatterstar before either of them had fallen asleep, laying an arm loosely across Shatterstar's hips. "Okay?" he asked in the dark, his eyes open and fixed on Shatterstar's face. Shatterstar nodded. "If I roll away, just do what you need to do."

"I will," Shatterstar promised. "Thank you, Julio."

"De nada, Star," he murmured sleepily, quickly drifting off to sleep.

Shatterstar only woke once in the night, Julio tucked against him, burning hot beneath the covers. His fingers had slid underneath the waistband of Shatterstar's shorts. Carefully, Shatterstar reached down and gently re-positioned Julio's hand, moving it up to his chest, over the staccato beat of his heart.

He lay there for a while, imagining the warmth of Julio's palm still on the bare skin of his lower belly. Shatterstar was fully erect, and he would have felt worse if he couldn't feel Julio's cock pressed against his hip, thick and hot. At least we are in this together, he thought grimly, glowering at the ceiling.

In the morning, there was another leaf.

"Maybe it doesn't mean anything bad," Theresa said later as they hung out by the pool. Normally, Shatterstar would have swum laps while the others lounged around, chatting and sunbathing, but he wasn't in the mood to ask for a repeat of yesterday. He was just grateful to finally be able to sit in water.

"Were you in the same evil botanist's lair that I was? Because one of those plants tried to castrate me."

Roberto whistled lowly. "So what you're saying is it could have been way worse?"

"Yeah, I guess that's what I'm saying," Julio said. "This is still majorly fucked up, though."

Tabitha, who had uncharacteristically not said anything to this point, finally spoke. "So this is, like, actually serious?" she asked, sitting up from where she'd been sunbathing on her stomach, flipping through a fashion magazine. She leaned forwards. "Like... could you guys actually die from this thing?"

"We don't know, Tabs. Maybe? I'm trying not to think about the worst-case scenario here."

"There is no point in worrying about something we cannot control," Shatterstar added. "Dr. McCoy is working on it, and so far Julio and I both feel fine. Speculation on an unknown will not help anyone."

"Shatty's right," Theresa said. "You cannot waste your time on what-ifs. It'll make you sick."

They continued to talk, but Shatterstar tuned them out. He'd said his piece. While it wasn't precisely the truth as he felt it, it had been voiced for them, not for himself. This was just one more thing to deal with, one more thing to brush off and push aside. He had no control over any of it. He was at the thing's mercy.

Shatterstar took a deep breath and let himself sink beneath the surface of the water, where it was quiet. He stayed down there until his lungs burned. Julio bumped his foot, and Shatterstar resurfaced with a gasp, shaking the water away from his face. The scene had changed in the minutes he was down there.

"'Berto's convinced he can get pizza delivered directly to the pool if he calls the right person."

Roberto covered the mouthpiece of his large cellular phone. "Watch the master work, pendejo."

Julio rolled his eyes, but thirty minutes later, two pizzas showed up, delivered by Domino.

"Very funny, da Costa," Domino said, dropping the pizzas down on one of the recliners. "You might have noticed you ordered three. Consider that my payment and not four hours in the danger room."

Domino stalked off, muttering profanities. Once she was out of earshot, the others broke into laughter.

Julio whistled with clear admiration. "The cajones on you, dude. I bow to the master."

"You're forgiven," Roberto said magnanimously.

Shatterstar and Julio climbed out of the pool, each grabbing a towel to dry off. They sat on one of the recliners as Tabitha and Theresa shared the other. Roberto sat in a deck chair that he'd pulled over, presiding over them and his ill-gotten pizza. Of all the foods on earth that Shatterstar had tried, pizza was what he liked the most. It brought him a sort of comfort, like Julio's candy bars had given him.

They stayed outside until it was dark and the bugs started biting. They had finished all the pizza.

"Julio," Shatterstar said as they walked back to their room. "I need to take a shower."

Julio exhaled slightly like he'd been waiting for Shatterstar ask. "Yeah," was all he said.

Their room had a small but functional shower stall, with a sliding glass door. There were several reasons why Shatterstar thought it wouldn't work well. They would likely flood the floor. It wouldn't be comfortable at all. There was no place to sit. "Should we use the facilities in the basement?" he asked.

"Sure," Julio said, not looking at him. "That makes more sense than waiting for the other to be done."

They gathered their supplies then headed downstairs. Saturday nights were typically quiet, but two of the X-Men teams had been called away on business, so it almost felt like they were the only two people left in the X-Mansion. It was factually untrue, but Shatterstar would enjoy the peace while it lasted.

Shatterstar's skin smelled like chlorine, and his hair felt limp and greasy. His beard – or what there was of it, which was far less than Julio was able to grow – needed to be removed and the rest of him tended to. He was used to a certain calibre of personal grooming. He still didn't understand Julio's hesitation.

Julio had never been particularly shy about his body. He had no reason to be. It was beautiful.

The changing room was, as predicted, empty.

They undressed in silence. Shatterstar untied his hair, combing his fingers through it, a multitude of tangles catching on his knuckles. "One moment," he murmured, noting Julio's restless impatience, then tried to brush out the worst of the knots. With a single appendage, it was actually painful, so Julio let him have use of their shared one. Keeping his fingers wrapped around his hair, up against his skull, he began at the bottom and worked his way up, over and over until the brush moved without resistance.

Julio watched him through all of this, his expression impenetrable.

Once satisfied, Shatterstar walked them to the showers. He turned one on, bracing for the sudden shock of cold before the hot caught up, and Julio turned on the one beside it. With his eyes closed, Shatterstar stepped under the stream, rinsing the smell of the pool off before wetting his hair. It sagged with the weight of the water, brushing over his lower back. He should cut it, he thought, like Julio had cut his.

He opened his eyes, and Julio quickly glanced away. Shatterstar suspected he had been watching him.

"You can look at me," Shatterstar said, voice oddly rough. "I was created to be looked at. I don't mind."

"I mind," Julio muttered, fumbling blindly with the shampoo dispenser on the wall. He scrubbed the soap into his hair, working it into a lather one-handed. "Why would I want to look at you, anyway?"

"Earth media has lead me to believe every male compares penis size," Shatterstar replied blandly.

Julio barked a sharp sound of laughter, which Shatterstar had been hoping for. "You got me beat there, amigo," Julio said, glancing back at him, brief. "Unless you're a shower and not a grower, like, at all."

"I am both," Shatterstar replied. Julio laughed again before he ducked under the stream, rinsing off the shampoo. Shatterstar fixed his eyes on the back of Julio's exposed neck then let his gaze sweep down, over his broad back and rounded buttocks, to his sparsely-haired thighs and thicker calves, all the way to his bare feet. Though he could tell that Julio was aware of his gaze, Julio did not acknowledge it.

Nor did he ask him to stop. Shatterstar waited for him to say something, but he never did.

Not even when Shatterstar looked at his penis. Smaller than his own, but not to the degree that Julio had implied. Circumcised, which Shatterstar was not, with a tidy smattering of pubic hair on his belly and lower. It was not the first time he had seen Julio naked – they often worked in close quarters, and he'd seen most of the team without their clothes on – but this time felt different. He truly was beautiful.

He was also partially erect, like Shatterstar was. Their bodies were exactly the same.

Deciding that Julio had endured enough scrutiny, Shatterstar returned to his own shower. He lathered his hair with shampoo, rinsed, then added a healthy amount of conditioner. While his hair soaked, he soaped his entire body then picked up the razor he had brought in. He began to shave himself, starting with his face and working his way down. When required, he added more strawberry-scented soap.

"Shit," Julio breathed, eyes wide. "Do you shave everything?"

"Yes. Why?"

"No reason. More power to you. I just thought it was some Mojoworld thing, like, with your people."

"My people are all genetically engineered," Shatterstar replied, rinsing the razor then resuming his shave. "For whatever reason, it was decided that I would be modelled after humans. Hairy ones. It did not look as good on camera, evidently, even though the hair I do possess is almost imperceptible."

"And you just haven't stopped?"

"The habits instilled in me there have been particularly hard to break," Shatterstar admitted.

"You're getting there," Julio told him. "I see it, dude, every day. And I'm really fucking proud of you."

"Thank you, Julio," he said. He had already known that, but it was kind of him to say it out loud.

Julio nodded, the faint hint of a smile on his lips. His dark eyes stayed on Shatterstar for the rest of his shower, most often on his face but occasionally, his gaze strayed. Look at me, Shatterstar thought, careful not to return the stare and startle him. He let Julio have this moment entirely for himself.

Or as alone as either one of them could be, bound by the wrists, only inches of space between them.

Look at me, Shatterstar thought again, desperate, then rinsed his hair one last time, eyes pinched shut.

They were quiet as they returned to their room and prepared for bed. Shatterstar felt better, not just cleaner but physically grounded in a way that he hadn't been for days. He hoped Julio felt the same. It was so difficult to tell. Julio had closed himself off again the minute they had left the shower area.

The thing around their wrists felt heavier than usual. He flexed his fingers.

"I'm getting pretty sick of this thing," Julio said, glancing at their hands.

Shatterstar opened the door to their room and stepped inside. "You will be rid of me someday."

"You know that's not it, right? That it's you?" Julio lifted his head to look at him, and Shatterstar looked back, hoping his expression was as blank as he intended it to be. He had hoped, but he hadn't known, not for sure. "You're the best friend I've ever had, Star, but a guy needs his space, you know?"

His old, hurt feelings surfaced again, but he quickly tempered them down. He was annoyed at himself for being unable to move past that scene at the airport. Begging Julio to stay, him leaving anyway. In the end, he hadn't needed him. Theresa had proved herself to be friend enough to bear his burdens when required. It hadn't been the same, not liked he wanted, but it had been a close enough approximation.

It should have been enough to satisfy him, and yet his mind continued to dwell on things he could not change.

This wasn't like him. This wasn't how he lived his life.

Julio climbed into bed first, shuffling across the mattress, and Shatterstar followed him, settling onto his back. He waited for Julio to roll over, but he stayed where he was, awake. "Do you think we're gonna die?" Julio asked, turning his head to look at Shatterstar. He seemed troubled, almost afraid.

"I don't know," Shatterstar admitted, meeting his gaze in the dark, "but it has never been my habit to speculate about the future. I think about the next day, and when that is too difficult, the next hour, and when even that is too much, the next minute. And if that is still too overwhelming, I think of nothing."

"Is that how you got through it?" Julio asked softly. "On Mojoworld?"

"Yes," he said. "And I focussed what I could control. My skill as a fighter, my own will to survive."

Julio considered that, turning away to stare at the ceiling. He had his left hand curled over his chest. Shatterstar waited for him to speak again as the silence stretched further and further. "I'm so fucking stressed out over this," Julio confessed finally, after many long minutes. "It's literally all I think about."

"Then you must calm yourself," Shatterstar said wisely. "What do you normally do to relax?"

"What do you think I do?"

Shatterstar paused for a moment and then the answer hit him. "Masturbate?" he ventured cautiously.

Julio snorted. "You didn't actually have to answer that. It was a rhetorical question."

"You can," he heard himself say, distant, like it was coming from another man. "If you want to."

"It'd be weird," Julio replied, making a face. "I'm right-handed. And, like, I'd have an audience."

"It is only weird if we make it weird." Shatterstar looked away from him. His heart was beating rapidly in his chest, and he willed himself to stop talking, but he couldn't. He didn't want to. For once in his life, he wanted to be normal about human sexuality. "We have already agreed not to make it weird."

"Just because we both say something doesn't mean it's true."

Julio had a point. Shatterstar conceded it. "I understand," he said. "I apologize for the suggestion."

Julio didn't say anything, but he didn't roll over, and he didn't fall asleep. Was he hard? Shatterstar wondered, his own cock full in his shorts, the tip damp against his skin. It was a natural function of their bodies. It had taken Shatterstar a while to accept that, but now that he had he found pleasure in it.

Not often, but sometimes. When he felt restless or unable to sleep or heart-sick about Julio.

"Shit," Julio said suddenly, pressing the heel of his left hand to his forehead. He groaned. "I'm going to. Is that okay? I just... I don't think I'm ever going to sleep if I don't. I'll be quick. Just take the edge off."

"Of course it is okay," Shatterstar told him.

The covers rustled as Julio moved his hand away from his face. Shatterstar politely looked away. It felt inevitable, this happening. There was no telling how long they would be attached. One of them would have broken eventually, and it was always going to be Julio first. Julio had never been quiet about his desires, though Shatterstar knew that Julio was still a virgin. Shatterstar was the only one who knew.

After several minutes of pretending he heard nothing, Julio exhaled. "Fuck," he said. "I just can't."

"Why not?" Shatterstar asked before realizing it might be impolite to inquire about his impotence.

"It's so fucking weird," Julio replied, laughing shakily. "I just can't do it with my left hand."

"Does it not feel like a stranger is masturbating you?" Shatterstar asked.

"Did you read that in one of Tabby's shitty magazines?"

"Yes," Shatterstar admitted reluctantly, ignoring Julio's soft snort of derision.

"It definitely doesn't feel like a stranger. It feels like I'm trying to whack it with my left hand." Julio groaned, the sound thick with frustration. "Fuck this," Julio decided, rolling towards him. "I'll just sleep. Maybe in a few days, the blue balls will be bad enough that I'll finally get the fuck over myself."

"You can use your other hand," he suggested, instinctively curling his fingers away from Julio's.

Julio snorted. "Thanks for the offer, but hard pass. I'm not letting that thing anywhere near my dick."

"I could," Shatterstar started then stopped, keenly aware of how close Julio's face was to his. His eyes were wide, almost as dark as the rest of the bedroom. "If you wanted me to. I am ambidextrous."

Julio swallowed. "That would definitely be weird, dude."

"Do you want me to?" Shatterstar asked softly.

After only the slightest moment of hesitation, Julio nodded.

Still facing each other, he reached between them and located Julio's cock, hard beneath the soft fabric of his sleep pants. Julio made a small sound, low in his throat, and his eyelids fluttered closed. Shatterstar stroked him over the cloth, letting the weight of Julio's penis fill his palm, enjoying how it felt. Once he felt Julio was sufficiently readied, he slid his hand under his waistband, touching flesh.

As Shatterstar began to masturbate him, Julio made a face and bit his lower lip. He wanted to kiss Julio while he stroked him – he thought it would make it even better – but he held himself back. Instead, he watched Julio's face – the expressions he made, the turn of his mouth, the way his forehead creased. His breathing heightened. Shatterstar could finally hear the roar of Julio's heart, almost as loud as his own.

Julio's eyes snapped open suddenly, and Shatterstar lost the rhythm he'd been building. "Can I?" Julio asked, his fingers pressing into Shatterstar's hip, above the edge of his shorts where his skin was bare. "I want to," Julio added roughly, like he'd had to force it out, but nothing in his touch seemed unwilling.

"Yes," Shatterstar said, nodding, and then Julio's hand was on his cock, and it felt... incredible. Better than this own hand, way better than anything Shatterstar had felt before. He still wanted to kiss Julio, but he continued to ignore the urge. Instead, he placed his hand back on Julio's penis and stroked him.

Their hands and knees bumped each other as they shifted in the dark, clumsy with lust, but Shatterstar found it just heightened his own pleasure. Eventually, their breathing came in unison, lifting and lifting, until Julio finally came, spilling hot over Shatterstar's fingers. Even as he orgasmed, Julio continued to move his hand over Shatterstar's cock, ungainly but perfect, until Shatterstar finally ejaculated as well.

They didn't speak, but Julio didn't move away from him either.

After a time, they fell asleep like that, legs locked together. Shatterstar felt only happiness.

The next morning, three new leaves had sprouted. Julio looked away from him guiltily, hunched over on himself as he pulled on clean underwear and a pair of well-worn blue jeans. They still didn't speak. The good feelings he had fallen asleep with soon dissipated. They had clearly made the situation worse.

"Has anything changed?" Dr. McCoy asked, examining the new leaves with a magnifying glass.

"Nothing," Julio lied, expression perfectly blank. "Nothing happened."

When Dr. McCoy looked at him for confirmation, Shatterstar nodded. Dr. McCoy took their answers at face value, for which Shatterstar was grateful. There was still no solution to their current problem, but Shatterstar hoped it was getting closer. He did not particularly want to be attached to Julio right then.

They had agreed it would not be weird, but it clearly was, and it was not him who was the cause of it.

"You made me lie to him," Shatterstar said when they were alone again.

"You did that on your own. We all make choices and live with the consequences. Remember?"

Part of Shatterstar demanded to know why Julio was intentionally trying to ruin what they'd shared the night before, but it wasn't like he hadn't known that Julio ignored things instead of facing them, ran away instead of choosing to fight. Which was unfair of him to think, he knew that, but he was angry.

"Are you guys fighting?" Tabitha asked at lunch, peering at them curiously.

"No," Julio replied just as Shatterstar said, "yes." They glared at each other.

"Okay, you seriously need to stop that," Tabitha told them. "Are you guys idiots? Cut it out. Jeez."

By mid-afternoon, Shatterstar was exhausted from being so angry at Julio about everything but especially this one thing, and Julio was no longer taking every opportunity to avoid looking at him. Shatterstar hated being angry with Julio. It was the one thing that he simply could not tolerate.

"I'm sorry, dude," Julio said in Spanish, glancing over at him. "I feel kinda messed up right now."

"Did I ruin everything?" Shatterstar asked, suddenly horrified, a sharp pain blooming in his stomach.

"No," Julio said quickly. "Star, you didn't... you didn't do anything wrong. It's just complicated, okay? I wanted to be cooler about this but then I freaked the fuck out. I didn't mean to make you feel bad, too."

"It is all right," Shatterstar assured him. "I apologize for blaming you for my emotions. They are not your responsibility. They are mine." There was more he wanted to say, but he could not find the words.

Julio nodded. He leaned towards him and tipped his head onto Shatterstar's shoulder. They were out in the open, visible to anyone, but Julio must have known that. Shatterstar bent his own head, pressing his cheek to Julio's hair. "I'm really scared," Julio admitted. "I'm just so fucking scared about all of this."

"I know," Shatterstar replied softly, and then even quieter, "I have similar feelings."

Julio nodded, but he didn't say anything else. They sat there for a long time, bowed into each other.

Amends having been made, the day passed easier. They spent several hours watching TV. They had an enjoyable dinner outside with some of the X-Men, gathered on the patio for a barbecue. Shatterstar only engaged in conversation when he was prompted to by Julio, which was more often than he wanted. It was easier when they were engaged in battle, and he didn't have to think of anything normal to say.

Despite the pleasant, jovial atmosphere, neither he nor Julio fully participated. Shatterstar was keenly aware of the thing around their wrists, with all its sprouting leaves on view for everyone to see. He noticed every flickered look, every tightened mouth. Mercifully, nobody bothered with platitudes.

After dinner, Julio leaned over and asked, in Spanish, "Can we call it an early night? It's Sunday."

"Of course," Shatterstar replied. He knew that Julio called his mother on Sundays.

They returned to the room and sat down on the bed. Julio made no move towards the telephone, but he leaned back, taking Shatterstar with him. They lay there for a while, unspeaking. Julio had his free arm over his eyes. He sighed deeply. "Wanna know what I miss most about Mexico right now?" he asked.


"The drinking age is eighteen," Julio said morosely, moving his arm to the bed. "Hell, it'd be fine if we were in Canada. What is this fucking twenty-one nonsense anyway? Don't they know I'm stuck to my best friend, surrounded by the fucking X-Men, maybe gonna die, and definitely in need of a drink?"

"I'm sure we could locate alcohol that does not require a trip to Canada," Shatterstar said.

"If you're suggesting we ransack Wolverine's room, even I'm not that desperate." Julio looked over at him then cackled when he saw Shatterstar's face. "Relax, dude," he said, grinning, "that was a joke. You'd be the last person I'd ask to help me when it came to stealing booze from an X-Man. You're too honest."

Shatterstar didn't say anything. That wasn't an accurate representation of himself, not anymore.

"I hope she calls soon," Julio said with a groan. "I don't have all fucking night."

"Why do you not call her?"

Julio shook his head. "Doesn't work like that anymore," he said just as the phone started ringing.

Julio sat up and answered it with a quiet bueno. Shatterstar tried not to listen, to give him privacy, but it was almost impossible without something else to distract him. His own thoughts gave him no comfort. Julio's answers were short and curt. Shatterstar thought, if he'd had free use of both arms, one hand would have been in his hair, but he just sat there, a leg drawn up, bowed forward as if he could hide.

It wasn't a pleasant conversation. When he returned, Julio had implied that it had been his choice, that he had left on good terms and was merely tired of chasing chickens. Shatterstar had spent the entire week after thinking that had been a metaphor until Julio had laughed at him and called him a dork.

It was clear, listening to Julio speak to his mother, that Julio had not been entirely honest.

After five tense minutes, the conversation ended. Julio hung up the phone and stared at it, looking deeply troubled. Shatterstar kept his eyes fixed on Julio's face, waiting for him to say something. Not that he had to, but Shatterstar had seen this expression on Julio's face before, so he simply waited.

He did not have to wait long.

"I tried to make peace with them," Julio confessed without looking at him. "Tried to show them the errors of their ways, you know, like a fucking pendejo. As if me spouting nonsense about living better lives – honest lives – was going to change anybody's mind. They're just so fucking stubborn." He laughed roughly, pressing his hand to his mouth. "I come by it honestly, I guess. And mi madre... I don't think she sees anything wrong with it. She just wants me to come home. It's all such a fucking mess."

"I'm sorry," Shatterstar said because he couldn't think of what else to say.

"I don't know what to do," Julio whispered, voice rough. He scrubbed at his eyes.

"You should do what you think is right," Shatterstar said. "Like you always do."

"Yeah," Julio said with a deep shuddering breath, hand over his face, and he didn't say anything else.

Shatterstar sat there with Julio for a long time. He had put his hand on Julio's wrist, above where they were joined, and kept it there. From time to time, Julio looked at it, but he didn't say anything, not yet. Shatterstar wished he could do more, but he hadn't had much practice with offering someone comfort.

He hoped it was enough. He hoped Julio understood how much feeling that one hand held.

"Last night," Julio said after almost half an hour had passed. He stopped there, and Shatterstar waited for him to continue. "Did you do that because you wanted to or because you thought I wanted you to?"

Shatterstar did not have to think about it. He already knew the answer. "Both," he said honestly.

Julio looked at him, frowning deeply. "Just... all of a sudden... you wanted to give me a handjob?"

"It wasn't sudden," Shatterstar told him, taking a peculiar pleasure in the way Julio's eyes widened in surprise. "I would have rather kissed you first," he added boldly, enjoying how Julio's breathing increased, "but I did not want to startle you." Startle was perhaps not the right word, but it worked.

Julio swallowed. "Since when?" he pressed.

"Since the night at Limelight," he confessed, and Julio nodded slightly. It had been a complicated night of conflicting emotions, and though Julio had promised to help him, it had never happened. He didn't blame Julio for that – the events that followed had been chaotic – but things had felt different, after.

"What do you think about when you jerk off?" Julio asked suddenly.

"I am beginning to think... the same thing that you do," Shatterstar said bravely, bracing himself for Julio's reaction, but Julio just laughed a little, rough and raw. He dropped his head, mouth making an array of interesting lines, and Shatterstar wondered if that meant Julio wanted Shatterstar to kiss him.

He put a finger under Julio's chin, lifting his face, and Julio looked up at him, eyes wide and solemn. Anticipation rose between them, and finally, Julio leaned in and pressed his mouth to Shatterstar's. Time hung for a moment, neither of them breathing, and then the hesitation simply melted away. The kiss went from careful to desperate, Julio's free hand twisting into Shatterstar's shirt, reeling him in.

The thing that bound them remained an awkward hindrance, but he tried to ignore its presence. There were things he wanted to do that he couldn't comfortably do, like bury both hands in Julio's thick hair or climb into his lap, but perhaps, someday, when they were separated... if Julio would still let him then.

"Do you wanna...?" Julio asked breathlessly, pulling back, tugging at Shatterstar's tank top. "Again?"

"It made things worse," Shatterstar replied, bowing his head so Julio could ease one strap over it. The fabric pooled around his waist, leaving his chest bare, and Julio's gaze, hot and heady, swept over it.

"I don't care. We don't know why it did that. It could just be doing that. We don't fucking know."

"That is true," Shatterstar agreed, sliding his hand under Julio's tank top, palming his belly. "And I do want to," he added, pressing his mouth to Julio's freely offered neck. "I want to touch your penis again."

Julio chuckled warmly, and then it was a desperate confusion of limbs as they both attempted to undress. The thing continued to be a nuisance, making so many positions too ungainly to consider, so they ended up the same way they had the night before but without any clothes on.

The second time was even better, and the third time – after a period of recovery dedicated to lazy kisses and Julio's hand curled possessively over one of Shatterstar's buttocks – even better than that one.

Bringing Julio to orgasm, stroking his cock and watching how he shivered, was just as thrilling as Julio's hand on him, fingers confident as they moved over the length of his hardened penis.

They were equally frustrated by the thing around their wrists, but he agreed with Julio in that he did not want it anywhere near his genitals. Shatterstar was also deeply reluctant to disturb it in any way.

"This thing is such a cock block," Julio grumbled unhappily, wetting his lips with his tongue.

"It is," Shatterstar agreed, licking where Julio just had. "I would like your penis in my mouth."

Julio groaned. "Fuck," he said, his cock surging in Shatterstar's grip, "I really want that, too."

Shatterstar whispered all the things he wished to do to Julio's body, not sure if all of them were even possible, but Julio pulsed in his hand and came all over his fist, making soft noises in Shatterstar's ear. Rubbing himself off on Julio's belly, Shatterstar supposed it didn't matter if any of them were possible or not.

Nothing mattered, except how Julio felt against him, giving himself fully, honest in his desire. His hand on Shatterstar's back, digging into his skin, pulling him closer. His mouth, kissing Shatterstar's throat. It was overwhelming, sharing this secret part of Julio, seeing how beautiful he was like this, how genuine.

He had never known true peace, but he thought this moment was the closest he had ever come.

He held Julio as he fell asleep. He counted the beats of Julio's heart until he, too, finally drifted off.

When he woke, Julio was pressed against him, head tucked under Shatterstar's chin. He grumbled sleepily when Shatterstar tried to move, so Shatterstar kissed him instead. Julio woke up slowly, rocking against Shatterstar's hip. They made a mess of the bed again. They would have to do laundry.

"How bad is it?" Julio asked after, following Shatterstar's gaze when it dropped to their wrists. The thing, so delicate-looking, was still wrapped around them, but almost all of the leaves except one had fallen off, still stubbornly holding on. It was, from what Shatterstar could tell, the original leaf. "Star?"

"We have to see Dr. McCoy again," he said. "We may have to tell him the truth."

"No fucking way," Julio said sharply, but when he saw how many leaves they had lost, his expression shifted to resignation. "I don't understand this fucking thing," Julio added angrily, tugging on his jeans.

"It is mystifying," Shatterstar agreed.

They headed down to the medi-lab. Dr. McCoy looked up as they entered, waving them over. "Good news about your new friend," he said. "I believe we have been able to identify the species. Lycium barbarum. Also known as, among others, the Chinese wolfberry or the matrimony vine. Our English friends call it the Duke of Argyll's tea tree after one Archibald Campbell, the third Duke of Argyll."

"Wow, fascinating," Julio said as Shatterstar nodded with much more sincerity.

Dr. McCoy smiled. "The foliage was presenting atypically and had the flowers or the berries appeared, the answer would have been more forthcoming. And oh, I see you gentlemen have shed several leaves."

"Yeah," Julio said warily.

"I sense a deep reluctance from you, Mr. Richter," Dr. McCoy said, getting up and closing the door. "As your physician, please be assured that I am bound by the Hippocratic Oath. And the sooner we put together the pieces of this puzzle, the sooner we can put your new friend in the compost bin."

"Tell him," Julio said with a slight glance in Shatterstar's direction.

Shatterstar presented the series of events in a detached, factual way.

"Very interesting," Dr. McCoy said. "We have to assume this vine was bred with ill intentions. Cable and Domino have graciously donated a significant amount of time cataloguing the contents of Dr. Johnson's laboratory. His notebooks were unfortunately destroyed by a particularly acidic cobra plant."

"This guy sounds like an enormous dick," Julio said, slouched in his seat, still hot with embarrassment.

"Not all scientists are ethical," Dr. McCoy agreed. "Perhaps the clue lies in its name."

"Are you saying I have to marry Star?" Julio asked, glancing over at him.

"I would likely need an annulment," Shatterstar added. "I am already married to someone else."

"I doubt it would be anything so pleasant as matrimony," Dr. McCoy told him, a muscle in his cheek twitching. Shatterstar understood that meant he was trying not to laugh at them. "We have established through your nocturnal experiments" – Julio made a face at this statement – "that it is unlikely related to sexual exploration. The truth may lie in truth itself. How better to test an ostensibly happy union than to force each party to show their most genuine selves? You revealed long-held secrets, did you not?"

"Yeah, I guess," Julio said, staring down at his feet.

Shatterstar nodded, a heavy knot in his belly. "If we tell each other the truth, will it let us go?" he asked.

"It is only a theory," Dr. McCoy said, "but at the moment, it is the best I can offer you."

They didn't speak to each other as they left the medi-lab. They didn't speak again for hours.

After dinner they went for a walk. They headed to the edge of the property and then beyond, into the thick woods that surrounded the Xavier estate. Shortly after Murderworld had been destroyed, they had come here as a team. Julio, Roberto and Tabitha had shared a bottle of vodka that Roberto had procured as Shatterstar had sat with Theresa by the creek, listening to the radio, their feet dangling in the water.

It seemed like forever ago. He hadn't even suspected that Julio would quit the team mere days later.

Julio led them to that same creek now. He toed off his shoes and waited for Shatterstar to do the same before sitting down. The water was cool. It, along with the shade provided by the trees, helped cut through the stifling summer heat. Idly, he wondered what the weather was like in Guadalajara.

"Do you wanna start or should I?" Julio asked, sounding reluctant to begin the conversation at all.

Shatterstar agreed with him. He did not want to do this either. "Perhaps if we ask each questions?"

"Sure." Julio looked over at him. "Hit me up then. What do you wanna know?"

"Why did you cut your hair?" Shatterstar heard himself asking before he had even thought about it.

"It was time," Julio said, words coming easy, but then he shook his head sharply. "Fuck. That's not true. A bunch of my cousins – shitty ones, my uncle Carlos's kids – kept calling me maricón. It was like they just fucking knew by looking at me. Like it was just so fucking obvious. So I just... chopped it all off."

"I'm sorry," Shatterstar said.

"Whatever. It'll grow back if I want it to." Julio glanced over at him. "Does it look bad?

"No," Shatterstar replied. "Just different. I simply wanted to know." Shatterstar's stomach tightened uncomfortably, and he realized he had done exactly what Julio had. "When you returned, it upset me," he said, trying again. "I wanted you to be the same, as if nothing had changed, but you were not."

"No," Julio agreed with a sad little smile. "Sorry."

Shatterstar looked away, uncomfortable. "You may ask a question now."

Julio nodded. He stared down at his feet in the water. "Did you and Terry hook up while I was gone?"

"No, but we did become close. We understood each other, and she was kind to me. She knows everything in regards to my feelings for you, so she will likely notice that something has changed. I apologize for that. My feelings remain difficult to control. I know they unsettle you," Shatterstar said.

"Yeah, a little, sometimes," Julio confirmed.

"But I believe you may return some of those feelings," Shatterstar added cautiously, and Julio nodded.

"I quit X-Force because I thought everyone was gonna know. That I'm, shit..." Julio trailed off, pressing his hand to his head. "I'm gay. I didn't want anyone to know, not you, not Cable, not the team. I didn't want to fucking know it. So if you're expecting me to suddenly, like, hold your hand in public or something, I'm not fucking doing it. I'll do... whatever this is, but only if it remains private. Okay?"

"Okay," Shatterstar agreed. He would do anything for Julio. "Are you going to leave X-Force again?"

"Yeah, probably," Julio admitted, roughly scrubbing his hand through his hair. "It's not just Cable's shitty leadership. I don't want to betray my family, but... if I don't step up and do what needs to be done, who will? It's just not my style to stand by and pretend something's not happening, you know?"

Shatterstar nodded. He paused before speaking again. "If you leave again, please let me come with you. It will destroy me if you leave me. I know it is a lot to ask, that it is not your responsibility, but please take me with you." It came out as a watery plea, but Julio just looked at him and put a hand on his arm.

"If I decide to go, you're coming with me," Julio promised him, hesitating only slightly, and then he smiled. "I wanna show you where I'm from. You're gonna love it, dude. Mexico. My mom's gonna have no idea what to make of you, but she's definitely gonna try to feed you, so prepare yourself for that."

"If you are sure," Shatterstar said.

"I'm sure," Julio replied. "I want you to see my home. And I think having a friend there will help."

Shatterstar nodded, eyes downcast, ashamed of his emotional outburst. "Your turn," he said.

"I don't really have anything else," Julio admitted after a moment of deliberation. "You already know I'm a bit of an asshole and that I was, until two nights ago, a giant fucking virgin, almost entirely because of the gay thing. You know more about me and mi familia than anyone else I'm not related to."

Shatterstar lifted his head slightly. He glanced over at Julio. "May I ask another question then?"

"Yeah, sure, knock yourself out."

"Do you love me?" he asked, meeting Julio's surprised gaze. He waited for Julio's answer.

Julio looked at him for a long time before finally shrugging. "I want to be your best friend. I want to fuck you. But I'm worried I don't know how to love anyone. I'm terrified I'm too fucked up for that."

"Me too," Shatterstar said, relieved. "All of those things. I am not sure I am even capable of love."

Julio squeezed his arm but didn't say anything. Shatterstar, for his part, was grateful that Julio had not offered any platitudes. Shatterstar would not have believed them if Julio had tried. He hoped he was capable of it, but he just wasn't sure yet. He needed more time. He suspected Julio needed more time, too.

Silence fell between them again. It was almost comfortable.

"Do you have another question?" Shatterstar finally asked, after a few minutes.

Julio pressed his lips together. "How many people did you kill in the Arena?"

"I stopped counting for my own sanity," Shatterstar admitted. "I was young when I started fighting. I typically fought twice a week, more often for special occasions or if Mojo was concerned about his ratings. If I have kept this part a secret, it is only because I know it makes people uncomfortable."

"Not me," Julio assured him. "I just always wondered. Thanks for telling me, Star."

Shatterstar nodded. He had been worried about Julio's reaction. He just hadn't realized it until then.

"Anything else?" Julio asked. "Some big, terrible secret that I should know whether I want to or not?"

He said it lightly, as if he'd been unburdened, and Shatterstar shook his head. Nothing big, nothing terrible. For the first time in days, Julio looked truly happy. The secrets he had shared... Shatterstar was confident he could help him carry them. Making a large production of looking around first, Shatterstar then pressed his palm to Julio's cheek and leaned in to kiss him. Julio returned the kiss eagerly.

If he held anything back, it was just one small thing that didn't matter. Not anymore.

For the third night in a row, they had sex with each other, using their unbound hands. Shatterstar fell asleep, satisfied and content, and woke up to Julio swearing vehemently in both English and Spanish.

"Are you fucking kidding me?" he shouted. Shatterstar blinked, confused for a moment about this naked man in his bed, yelling. Julio held up their arms, glaring at the newly sprouted leaf curving delicately away from the stem of the thing. "Why the fuck did I tell you all of that for? This is bullshit."

Shatterstar didn't say anything. He should have, but he couldn't force himself to speak.

Julio sighed. "Let's go see Hank," he said, angrily tugging on his jeans. "This fucking day already."

Julio dragged him down to the medi-lab, where Dr. McCoy examined them again. He pinched his nose, lifting his glasses, then rubbed his fingers under his eyes. "While I normally love a good mystery, I must admit your current predicament is trying my patience," he admitted. "Try not to dwell upon it."

"Oh, I'm dwelling," Julio told him. "Fuck."

In the rec room, Julio collapsed onto the couch, bringing Shatterstar with him whether he wanted to go or not. He glared resentfully at their joined arms then mumbled, "sorry, dude," to which Shatterstar nodded. Julio picked up the remote and started flipping through the channels until he found MTV.

"If it comes to it," Julio said, eyes locked on the music video playing, "you can have my arm."

"I don't want your arm," Shatterstar replied, shaking his head, refusing to even consider it.

"You fight with two swords. I don't even need to use my hands for my powers. Did you know that? I'm just a fuck-up who can't avoid shaking down everything without pretending my fingers are two guns." Julio tilted his head back into the cushions, scowling at the ceiling. "They'll just make me a new one."

"I don't want your arm," Shatterstar repeated. "There is a solution that does not involve amputation."

"If you fucking say so," Julio replied, looking miserable, and Shatterstar still couldn't say it, even then.

They skipped lunch and then barely ate dinner. Julio was in a foul mood, sullen and withdrawn, and Shatterstar was concerned he was going to vomit up all his food in the middle of the dining room. The others had been called away on a mission, and Shatterstar was relieved it was just them, alone together.

"I need to go outside," Julio announced suddenly. When Shatterstar nodded, he stood up and dragged them into the cooler evening air. He kicked off his shoes, leaving them behind on the patio, and pulled him down a hill to the base of a large maple tree. "I need to be on my stomach for this. Sorry, amigo."

Shatterstar nodded again.

Julio laid down in the grass, pressing his face to the earth, limbs spread out. Shatterstar didn't know what he was doing, but he felt the anger begin to ease out of Julio's arm. Shatterstar lay there awkwardly, on his belly, exposed to any number of dangers. There was a reason he slept on his back.

But it also made it easier, face hidden by the grass, to finally say something. "I think it's me."

"What?" Julio asked, voice muffled. "What's you?"

"I'm still lying to you," Shatterstar admitted. When Julio tried to sit up, Shatterstar pressed their joined hands firmly to the ground, pinning them there. Julio bristled but stayed where he was. "I cannot stop."

"Why can't you stop?"

"I don't want you to stop being my friend," Shatterstar whispered.

"Is it really that bad?"

"It feels that bad," Shatterstar replied, struggling to control his own breathing. Julio made a soft noise of agreement like he understood, and Shatterstar decided to tell him the truth. "I'm still angry at you. Every day. I keep waiting for it to go away, for it to stop, but it never does. I am always angry at you."

Julio didn't say anything for a long time. When he finally did, he prefaced it with a huff. "I'm such an asshole that I don't know even know what you're mad about," he said with the precise level of self-deprecation that Shatterstar had come to expect. "Are you going to tell me, or do I have to guess?"

"I will tell you." Shatterstar took a deep breath, letting the words form on his tongue. "You left me. At the airport, when I begged you to stay, you left anyway. It is one of the cruellest things anyone has ever done to me. On Mojoworld, I was not a person to them, but here, with X-Force, I am, and you... you never even said you were sorry, Julio. You hurt me, deeply, and you never even apologized to me."

"It was messed up, what I did to you," Julio said roughly.

"It was," Shatterstar replied, aware he was crying and equally aware that he could not stop. He felt like he had then, overwhelmed by his emotions. "I tried not to be angry. I tried to be logical, to understand why you did what you did, but that feeling was always there. I was happy when you came back, but I was afraid if I said anything... if you knew how I felt... that you would no longer want to be my friend. Our friendship is precious to me. I am not sure anyone else has ever even liked me before."

"Terry likes you," Julio told him. "Tabs and 'Berto, too. I'm pretty sure you're Dom's favourite."

"It's not the same," Shatterstar whispered. "It doesn't feel the same."

Julio tried to sit up again and this time he managed it, swearing under his breath as he tried to get them into a more dignified position. Shatterstar went with him because it was easier not to fight it. Julio put his hand on Shatterstar's face and wiped away his tears. "You and me, Star, we're friends for life."

"But what if we're not?" Shatterstar pressed.

Julio smiled, shaking his head. "Friends for life, for better or for worse. Even if all the other shit goes sideways, we'll always be there for each other. So if I piss you off, tell me. And if you do something I don't like, I'll let you know. Even if we break up and end up with other people, still best friends. Okay?"

Shatterstar nodded, eyes still burning with tears. He tried to rapidly blink them away.

"And because I didn't say it before, and you deserve to hear it: I'm sorry I left like that. I knew how you were feeling – I knew how I was feeling – and it scared the shit out of me, and I left knowing that you were gonna suffer for it. That's on me, not you, and I'll try to be better. And you have my word that I won't fucking do that to you again. You're still coming with me the next time I leave."

"I feel like I am out of control, like I have no power over my own mind or body anymore," Shatterstar confessed, all of his secrets tumbling out. "This... the way I am... it is too much to ask of you."

"No, it isn't," Julio said. "I'd tell you if it was, but all of this... it's just you. You're my best friend, Star."

Shatterstar let go of the breath he had been holding. "I wish I was a normal man and not this... thing."

"You're normal enough," Julio assured him. "You're normal enough for me. You always have been. I'm not afraid of you, Star. You know that, right? You've annoyed the shit out of me and pissed me off with your stubbornness and haunted my dreams. But you've also been exactly who I've needed in my life."

With that, the thing finally unfurled and dropped to the grass. They stared at it for a long time, silent.

Eventually, Julio carefully picked the thing up, and they brought it down to Dr. McCoy, who promptly dug a vase out of his cupboard and filled it with water. "All's well that ends well," he told them sagely.

"So that's it?" Julio asked.

"Alas, I do require one more set of scans, both physical and telepathic," Dr. McCoy replied, looking apologetic as Julio sighed, "but it is a mere formality. It appears the truth does indeed set us free."

They endured a final round of examinations. Nathan was unavailable, so it was Jean Grey who put her hands on Shatterstar's face and quickly scanned his mind. She smiled at him kindly, and that was the hardest part. Eventually, she stepped back and said, "it's all clear on my end. I don't sense anything."

"Excellent," Dr. McCoy proclaimed. "Mr. Richter, Shatterstar, you are both free to go."

"Thank fuck," Julio said, jumping up. Shatterstar, less expressive but equally grateful, followed him.

Without speaking, they walked back to the room they had shared and packed up all their things. Shatterstar took the sheets with him, balled up under his left arm, leaving no evidence of their activities behind. Julio watched him with a knowing look in his eyes and his lips twisted faintly with a smirk.

"Just let me drop this shit off real quick," Julio said as they approached their assigned rooms.

Shatterstar nodded. He hadn't known that Julio planned to join him.

Julio unlocked his door and tossed all his stuff haphazardly onto his bed. "Okay, good," he said.

"Good," Shatterstar echoed.

Julio followed him into Shatterstar's room, closing and locking the door behind him. Shatterstar placed his clothing, the bed sheets and his toiletries on the top of his dresser, aware of Julio hovering behind him. Turning around, Shatterstar leaned back against the dresser, his buttocks resting against the edge.

"It's a little weird not being attached to you anymore," Julio said.

"It is," Shatterstar agreed. "But it is likely for the best. We would have begun to annoy each other."

"We don't really need to be handcuffed together to annoy each other, amigo," Julio replied with a grin.

Shatterstar smiled faintly. "Very true. We are quite good at that already."

"Do we need to be handcuffed together for the other stuff?" Julio asked, eyes on Shatterstar's mouth.

Shatterstar wet his lips. "No. If anything, I believe not being attached will improve the... other stuff."

They smiled at each other, and then Julio stepped between his legs and kissed him, both hands burying themselves in Shatterstar's loose hair. His own roamed the expanse of Julio's back, first over his tank top then under it, smoothing over bare skin. Using the dresser for support, he wrapped both legs around Julio's hips, and Julio surged then, cock pressing hard against him, his mouth hotter, his tongue bolder.

After that, it was a confusion of hands at belt buckles and stubborn zippers. They moved to the bed, and Shatterstar envisioned everything he wanted to do to Julio. Sucking him with his mouth. Tasting every inch of his skin. Feeling Julio's penis inside him or – equally as titillating – sliding his penis into Julio's body. There were so many things he wanted to experience with Julio. The possibilities were endless.

He was tempted to try one of these things, but just the touch of their roaming hands, and the slide of their tongues, and the relentless grind of their cocks together was enough to bring them off, rutting on the mattress. Shatterstar came first, pulsing hot onto their bellies, and then Shatterstar kissed Julio through his own orgasm, feeling Julio shake in his arms. They kept kissing after, almost desperate.

He could barely comprehend his need, just that it was immense and powerful and Julio matched it.

Of that, he was entirely sure.

Time passed. For the first week, they slept apart, back in their own rooms, but Shatterstar started sneaking to Julio's room at night, squeezing into his twin bed, on his back, with Julio laid over him. They had sex in other ways, exploring each other, bringing each other pleasure. Julio's cock in his mouth proved to be a powerful feeling, and he took every opportunity to stimulate him orally.

And Julio let him. That was the most unbelievable truth of them all. Julio gave himself over fully, in the privacy of their own rooms, his most honest self. Shatterstar felt his own uemeur respond, and he began to find a kind of peace in Julio's arms. He told him things, real things, about how his life had been, and Julio listened, allowing Shatterstar to speak freely without judging him, without being afraid of him.

It was liberating.

Dr. McCoy updated them on the thing, which Shatterstar had barely spared a single thought for.

"Imagine my delight when it produced a delectable array of bright red berries," he told them over dinner one evening. "I was less delighted when the berries burst and dissolved my writing desk."

"Holy shit," Julio replied, looking horrified, taking the words directly out of Shatterstar's mouth.

They went on a mission and lost another week to Zero Tolerance, kept in sedation alongside Tabitha. Normally, he would have been annoyed that he had missed the fight, but sitting with Julio after turned out to be an unexpected comfort. Tabitha eventually joined them and agreed it had totally sucked.

And then Julio quit X-Force like he had said he would. Shatterstar, without hesitation, also resigned, even though it felt like a betrayal to Cable. But he didn't change his mind or regret his decision, and Cable didn't force him to stay. Not that Shatterstar expected he would, but he hadn't known for sure.

"I'd be a little worried about spending so much one-on-one time with you if I hadn't already had a worst-case-scenario preview. It's good to know, even if my family handcuffs us together, we're still able to work as a team," Julio said with a smile as they packed their bags for their trip to the bus station.

"And best friends," Shatterstar replied.

"And whatever else we are," Julio agreed, sliding his palm over Shatterstar's, folding their fingers together.

"The wonder twins," Shatterstar suggested, and Julio rolled his eyes even as he started laughing.