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Lamb

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The water from the pump on their naked skin was cold enough to punch some energy back into their nerves. But the colour on Dan's cheeks, the glimmer in his eyes, is too high and obviously flush rather than health. He's no weak kid, but the last few months of living in the ruined, burnt-out terrain of bushland provided for them by the Victorian police has been enough to break the strongest body.

So Steve's glad it's over, that the pair of them are now sitting the their underclothes in the parlour of the Cook homestead, a room that seems to be twice as big as the whole Kelly selection and yet somehow presses in around Steve and knocks the breath out of him. They can see, out the single wide window, Ned sitting on the verandah with the mistress of the property and eating a piece of pie.

"You can tell he's smitten," Dan comments, waving a hand towards the unlikely couple. "Look, she's leaning over to whisper something and he's smelling her hair. And he can't stop with the kissing, neither."

They've got food too, real food. A king's meal, it looks to Steve's hungry eyes, a thick slice of lamb and potatoes and bread and butter and beer. It's the kind of food they've stayed awake dreaming about, and nothing has ever tasted so good.

After Steve has eaten enough that he can think of something else than eating, he sees that his is the only plate of the two being polished clean. Dan's poking at the tender meat with his fork, like a choosy child on their third helping. He sees Steve looking and the high colour on his cheeks rises further.

"Don't reckon I could keep it down, me stomach's knotted something fierce," he mutters, as if ashamed by the admission. "Need a day or two of civilisation and clean clothes and skin first."

Steve's brow furrows with worry, because it's one of those vicious cycles, isn't it, that Dan won't be able to eat until he's stronger and he won't get stronger without food in him.

"Dan..." Steve says and Dan forces a smile, saying

"I'm fine, Steve"

which is a lie, oh how it's a lie, and Steve can feel his heart go uneven for a beat or two with the fear of losing Dan. So Steve pushes the sleeve of his worn-to-naught undershirt up past his elbow, picking up Dan's still-clean dinner knife before he can give himself time to think about it, and cuts a wide gash on the soft underside of his upper forearm.

"Jesus," he whistles out through gritted teeth at the sting of it, then holds his arm out to Dan. "Here. I know you can keep this in you, and tomorrow you can try the lamb and potatoes again, when you're feeling righter."

Dan's eyes are wide with surprise and he swallows dryly, gazed fixed on the sluggish red line rising up out of the cut. Then Dan wraps his hands carefully, so carefully, so the fingers don't dig into Steve's skin and hurt him, around Steve's wrist and elbow, and lowers his lips to the blood.

The fever-colouring on Dan's face is there in his mouth, too, hot like candle wax against Steve's still-chilled skin. Dan suckles, drinking slowly, even though Steve can feel the tension and restraint in every tiny movement that Dan makes.

"S'all right," Steve mutters. "I'm not made of china, you crazy bugger."

Steve can feel Dan's amused smile against the pain-heightened skin. Then Dan's teeth press down bluntly, levering the wound wider by opening his jaw. Then he sucks and oh, if Steve's life hadn't already gone through madness and out the other side he'd fear for his sanity now. And where did Dan's tongue, rough and thorough as a cat's, come from? Lapping at Steve's arm, fire-warm and slick, in time with Steve's quickened pulse.

"Jesus, Dan," Steve hisses, his other hand seeking out one of Dan's, prying it from where it holds Steve's arm and clasping it. Dan squeezes his fingers and Steve can imagine the exact tone of voice Dan would use to ask the question if his mouth wasn't otherwise occupied.

"'Course it's all right, y'fool," Steve answers, squeezing Dan's hand in reply. Dan hums low in his throat and it's like a purr or a soft growl, this scruffy cub worrying at its dinner.

Steve's feeling a bit light-headed, but that'll pass soon enough. Especially in a minute once he's eaten Dan's share of lamb and potatoes. It seems like a great stroke of luck that Dan hasn't eaten the food and after a moment Steve recognises this thought for the addled, circular logic it is and lets go of Dan's hand. Dan pulls his head away from Steve's arm as soon as he feels the movement, cupping the elbow as carefully as if he's dressing the wounds of someone delicate and presses one of the Cooks' fine linen napkins over the cut.

Steve takes the other napkin and wipes Dan's mouth clean, wipes away the perspiration on his forehead. The lips are chapped and split under the vestigial redness, and Dan's eyes are dark, the pupils open like a night-blooming flower.

"Thanks," Dan says softly, and Steve doesn't answer except by clasping Dan's hand again. They're gonna be all right again now, things will go back to as close to ordinary as they ever get anymore. The worst, surely, is behind them.

Steve presses his lips to Dan's temple and then smiles against the skin. "Your hair smells like shite, Dan Kelly," he says.