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Preston's wife had been executed almost a month ago.

Various elements of Preston's daily routine had been undeniably altered by her absence, his efficiency temporarily reduced. He adjusted.

Duty came first. Self-assessment came second. He was preoccupied by his own responsibility to understand how he could have missed the signs, how a cleric of his rank could have been living alongside a sense offender in ignorance.

He had the bed to himself. This was simply a fact. It took time for him to realize there was another disrupted routine he'd need to compensate for.

Marriage was convenient, structured. A straightforward framework by which to track population: two parents, two children. Easy to regulate, easy to control, assignments made and accepted.

But management of bodily urges and reproduction weren't intrinsically linked. Married couples dealt with both because it made sense to do so, but no meaningful strictures existed to enforce that practice. It wasn't necessary, after all. Logic was enough.

Preston was no longer married. He had two children already. Unless a request was officially lodged that he produce another—to compensate for sterility or other difficulties that had not been discovered earlier in an assigned couple, perhaps—there was no reason for him to marry again.

Which meant another avenue for sexual relief would be required.

 

 

He mentioned it to Partridge only in pursuit of an example he could follow.

Partridge wasn't married, and never had been. Preston didn't know why, and hadn't asked. It wasn't relevant to their partnership.

It only mattered to Preston now because it meant that presumably Partridge had made other arrangements for his body's needs, and might know how Preston should approach doing the same.

Partridge looked at him. "My next-door neighbor," he said.

That made sense. Conveniently located; neither of them had to go out of their way for it.

But it wouldn't work for Preston. The existence of his children meant that he had retained the same quarters in dedicated family housing, even though he was no longer married. There was no one for whom he was more convenient than their spouse: at least a room away at the absolute minimum, versus the same bed.

And then Partridge added, "But he's received a spousal assignment. Next week, he'll be married, and moved to new housing."

"You'll have to find someone else," Preston observed.

He meant it solely in the context of his original decision to open this discussion; he was about to ask Partridge to share how he intended to go about it, what methods he might use to achieve another arrangement of comparable efficiency without expending unnecessary effort.

But then Partridge looked at him and said, "Someone else who's looking—like you."

Preston considered it. It was reasonable of Partridge to have thought of it; they were both looking, or about to be, and that did suggest an obvious solution. They didn't live in the same building, which reduced the efficiency of a hypothetical arrangement between them somewhat. On the other hand, as partners, they shared a duty schedule, so their off-duty hours were already perfectly aligned. They also saw each other every day, which meant that coordinating their sexual needs would require no additional effort. They would be able to communicate directly without prior arrangements of any kind.

"All right," Preston said aloud.

Partridge inclined his head, satisfied; and then the car began to slow, and it was time for their work to begin.

 

 

The first time went well.

Partridge was practical, easy to accommodate. Preston had always appreciated that about him; it was part of what made him such an effective partner.

They used Partridge's quarters, since he had no children and therefore there was no need to take care to avoid accidental exposure or interruption. They didn't remove their clothing. There was no reason to, when it was too early for Partridge to be intending to retire to bed and Preston needed to be clothed in order to leave for his own quarters when they were finished.

They undid their jackets, for the sake of accessibility, and removed their gloves to avoid soiling the material. Then they unfastened their uniform slacks, and reached for each other.

Partridge wasn't difficult to stimulate. There was an additional element of convenience Preston hadn't anticipated; both of them already knew how to manipulate a penis in a sexual context. Partridge's was larger than Preston's own, thicker, but Preston could still close his hand around it, and was still readily able to incite reaction.

Preston reached orgasm first, which was unsurprising. His own prior arrangement with Viviana had been terminated by her arrest and execution, now five weeks ago, while Partridge's arrangement with his neighbor had only just been brought to a close. Partridge had been fulfilled more recently.

The physical pleasure was intense. Preston was unable to continue stimulating Partridge while it was occurring. "I'm sorry," he said, when he was able.

Partridge excused his inefficiency with a nod, and released him; Preston reapplied himself until Partridge, too, had achieved sexual satisfaction.

"That went well," Preston said when it was over, wiping his hand clean.

"Yes," Partridge agreed. "I believe this arrangement will meet my needs."

It was satisfying to hear. If one of them hadn't found the attempt fulfilling, that would have necessitated additional effort. "Then we'll continue," Preston said, and he refastened his slacks, pulled his gloves back on, and left, buttoning his jacket as he went.

 

 


 

 

In retrospect, Preston should have noticed something was wrong much earlier than he had. He'd had no point of reference against which to measure Viviana; he'd never before been exposed to a sense offender over the long term, never witnessed a gradual decline in dosage that allowed daily personal habits to remain in large part unaffected. It hadn't been familiar to him the way the quirks of the fully-committed sense offender were familiar to him. In that context, his failure to identify and report her promptly had been an understandable if still inexcusable mistake.

There was no such explanation for his failure with Partridge.

He did notice. But he didn't attribute what he noticed to the correct cause, not until it was already too late.

They'd been assisting each other in addressing their sexual needs for months, the first time Preston found himself distracted by Partridge. It took him almost half of the session to articulate to himself exactly what it was that had caught his attention, what it was that was making it difficult for him to concentrate.

It wasn't anything about Partridge's face. Preston had far too much experience as a cleric to neglect to observe even the slightest hint of a facial expression suggestive of real emotion; they were all taught the difference between a socially appropriate smile or frown, intended as a communicative gesture of satisfaction or dissent, and the reflexive, helpless reaction of the sense offender to meaningless stimuli. Preston had always excelled at that particular exercise.

Partridge was looking at him blankly, blandly. There was nothing amiss there. But—Partridge was looking at him. Partridge kept looking at him. Preston had always glanced at Partridge occasionally in order to make brief assessments: whether his grip on Partridge's penis was too tight or too loose, whether Partridge was physically comfortable, whether Partridge was approaching orgasm and if so how rapidly it might be expected to occur. And it had always been the case that once in a while their eyes met. A coincidence of timing, nothing more, that their assessments of each other had happened to overlap.

But now Preston looked at Partridge, and every time, Partridge was looking back. Every time. Preston was puzzled; had Partridge observed something about Preston that concerned him? If he had, why didn't he say so?

He assessed Partridge more carefully, attention drawn away from their steady mutual stimulation. Nothing else was amiss, he decided. Partridge was stroking him at the same rate as always, with a grip of approximately the same tension as usual. Partridge's stance hadn't changed.

And then Preston became aware that Partridge was touching him. Not his penis, which was obviously expected, but his hip.

Preston's free hand was at his side. They always left their free hands at their sides, except on the rare occasion when it was necessary to brace themselves temporarily against the wall to maintain balance.

But Preston could discern nothing intrinsically alarming in the touch itself. Sense offenders often breached normal boundaries to seek intimacy they considered meaningful; but Partridge's hand was on the outside of Preston's slacks, and wasn't in contact with Preston's skin. It wasn't an area conducive to achieving orgasm with maximum efficiency, but that didn't necessarily make it a purposeless touch. Perhaps Preston had moved in a way that had suggested to Partridge that a steadying grip was called for. That was perfectly reasonable.

Preston realized he was standing there hypothesizing explanations instead of achieving sexual satisfaction. He looked at Partridge; Partridge was still watching him.

Enough, Preston thought. Partridge didn't seem to have noticed his behavior was interfering with Preston's focus. Clearly it was necessary to inform him.

"You're looking at me," he said aloud. "It's distracting."

"Apologies," Partridge said, and rubbed his hand along the length of Preston's penis a little harder, as if in recompense. "I had difficulty sleeping last night; I believe my mattress needs to be replaced. My attention has been drifting as a result."

An explanation for both his relentless gaze and the touch of his hand—perhaps it was himself he sought to steady by it, not Preston.

Acceptable, Preston evaluated.

They'd met early today; their duty shift would occur this afternoon, and would stretch into the evening. "You should remove yourself from our shift if you think your concentration while on duty will be affected," Preston said, and then orgasmed in Partridge's hand.

Partridge made a small strange sound in the back of his throat. A cough, Preston assumed. Preston's eyes had closed with the intensity of his satisfaction; he opened them again, when he could, and looked at Partridge.

There were creases, little fanning lines, at the outer corners of Partridge's eyes. Preston didn't know what made them seem briefly prominent, noticeable. Partridge's mouth was pressed into an unsmiling line, exactly as it should be.

"I don't believe that will be necessary," Partridge said mildly.

When Preston brought him off successfully, he swayed a little. His hand moved from Preston's hip to the wall. He stayed there while Preston moved away to clean himself up, breathing hard.

When Preston returned, Partridge had lifted his hand from the wall and covered his face with it.

"Partridge," Preston said.

Partridge looked up, and his exposed face was expressionless.

"Don't be late," Preston said, and left.

 

 

The problem was that Partridge knew him.

Partridge knew him, and knew what he would believe and what he wouldn't. Partridge had trained alongside him; Partridge knew exactly what he would be looking for, and exactly how to cover it up.

Sense offenders often breached normal boundaries to seek intimacy they considered meaningful: Partridge didn't. He simply proposed alternate forms of sexual activity—forms he and his neighbor had tried, he said, and had found exceedingly effective. Less efficient, perhaps, if evaluated strictly in terms of time spent from commencement to orgasm. But variety led to an increase in perceived intensity, and therefore in stress relief and subjective satisfaction, that was proportionately considerable.

The weight of Partridge's gaze grew familiar, and therefore less distracting. Preston was no longer inconvenienced by it, and so it no longer mattered.

And Partridge turned out to be right about the merits of variety. Preston learned to stimulate Partridge orally and also anally, Partridge having demonstrated the efficacy of both on him directly. Anal sex in particular was time-consuming in comparison to simple manual techniques; but when they agreed they could spare the effort for it, Preston was always reminded anew that the sensory experience was worth it.

Partridge responded to it with remarkable intensity. There was something striking about the keenness of it, the heights to which Preston could drive him with sufficient care and attention—it was the novelty of it, Preston decided. They were both in peak physical condition, and Partridge was rarely in disarray, rarely disorderly. The physiological effect penetration had on him, whether he was doing it or having it done to him, was marked: the flush that rose into his skin, the way his breath caught raggedly in his throat, the straining tension of his muscles.

Whoever was penetrated was always taken from behind. No matter which way they did it, Preston could never see his face.

Perhaps if he had, he'd have been able to identify and report Partridge sooner.

Afterward, Partridge often lay where Preston left him, silent, face hidden, breath quick and ragged. It wasn't unusual to require a recovery period in the aftermath of physical exertion. That happened to Preston at times, too. Preston didn't consider it cause for concern.

Once, Partridge stopped him before he left Partridge's quarters.

"Have you ever kissed anyone?" Partridge said.

It was an unusual question, but Preston supposed there was some basis for it. Depictions of kissing, on the mouth or on other parts of the body, weren't uncommon in many of the materials they'd seized over the years. Technically speaking, Preston had "kissed" Partridge, and Partridge Preston, in that they had deliberately applied their mouths to each other's skin. But only to engage in oral sex, and Preston could infer that that wasn't what Partridge had meant in asking.

"No," Preston said. "My wife kissed me once."

Partridge went still where he sat on the edge of the bed. He looked at Preston.

"When they came for her," Preston elaborated. "She broke free, and ran to me, and kissed my mouth. She told me to remember her." He'd been confused at the time—by the situation, the revelation of her offense, but also by that request. His memory was sound. There hadn't been any reason for Viviana to think he'd forget her. If anything, she should have been well aware that her offense would constitute a crucial lesson, and that Preston would revisit it repeatedly in an attempt to understand what he'd overlooked.

Partridge didn't respond. Preston finished fastening his slacks, and shrugged on his uniform jacket.

He was tugging one glove into place when Partridge said, "Strange, isn't it? Hard to understand what could make touching one mouth with another into an emotional experience."

Preston looked at him. His brow was furrowed only slightly, suggestive of nothing more than mild confusion. His eyes were dark; Preston experienced an indefinable sensation of weight contained within the gaze of them.

Partridge stood. He was still naked. He walked over to Preston, and touched Preston's face with his hand, tilting it.

"Partridge," Preston said. He didn't know what Partridge was doing.

"John," Partridge said quietly, and leaned in, and his mouth touched Preston's.

It was an unremarkable sensation. Preston waited it out—perhaps it was at least worth the attempt to grasp what appealed to sense offenders about this action. Presumably that was why Partridge was doing it to him.

Partridge released him, after a moment.

"You're right," Preston said. "It's hard to understand."

Partridge looked at him, and said nothing.

Preston left.

 

 


 

 

Then Partridge failed to enter the prosecutorial evidence for ANR 136890.

Partridge had had it in his hands. Preston had seen it. Partridge had put it in his pocket; Partridge had said to Preston, It does? and Partridge's voice had been filled with shades of meaning, of feeling.

That meant Preston had work to do.

 

 

It took time to locate Partridge in the Nether.

He was in what remained of a church. He was reading the material he had failed to turn in, and he was doing it conspicuously, deliberately; he'd clearly noticed Preston's entry well before Preston's shadow fell across his face, and even once it had, he didn't look up.

He read poetry to Preston. It was just words.

Preston intended to turn him in. It was true that there would be no clemency, not for Partridge. Not for a cleric.

Partridge reached for his gun. Preston raised his own.

Preston had always had a gift for understanding sense offenders, the way they thought, the way they acted. And even as he leveled his weapon at Partridge, he understood.

There would be no clemency, once Partridge was in custody. This—this was the only way Partridge could prevent that outcome. He wanted Preston to shoot him.

"Don't," Preston said.

Partridge cocked the gun where it lay across his thighs. He wasn't even holding it, wasn't even aiming it.

Preston thought about Brandt, the rest of the team, waiting outside. He thought about Partridge, how well they'd worked together, how efficient they'd been. He thought about the bed in his quarters, his alone; and he thought about the bed in Partridge's quarters, about Partridge spread out across it, underneath Preston.

He thought about Partridge's mouth, touching his mouth.

Remember me, Viviana had said, and he did.

And then he did something he didn't understand.

He lowered his gun.

Partridge looked at him, and it was the same way Partridge had looked at the poetry as he read it. "Why?" he said softly.

"You know your duty," Preston said evenly. "Turn yourself in."

It wasn't an answer.

Partridge closed the book, and set it down, and stood. "I can't," he said, and his voice was quiet and firm and somehow urgent. It was as if it were the truth, as if he were physically incapable, even though that didn't make any sense. "John—I can't."

He reached for Preston, and Preston didn't move away. Partridge brought their mouths together—kissed him.

A flicker of unexpected sensation fluttered dimly in Preston's chest.

Then Partridge struck him, and everything went black.

 

 

Preston learned later that Partridge had killed over half of the team that had been sent for him.

Irrational. A life was a life. Ending a dozen lives to preserve a system, to preserve peace for all of Libria—that made sense. A dozen lives, a hundred, a thousand. But ending a dozen lives to preserve just one? Unfathomable.

Preston had been left alive, lying on the stone floor of the church. Brandt, too, had survived.

Partridge was gone.

That was irrational, too. The Nether was full of people who didn't take the dose. Partridge should have turned himself in; it would have been better than living like that, better than fury or madness or despair. To be executed justly, righteously, for a crime of which you were guilty was infinitely more worthwhile than being murdered by impulsive fellow animals for no reason at all.

His escape was unfortunate. But it wasn't a disaster. Either he would never be found, or he would be rounded up eventually and eliminated. And there was a limit to how severely Preston could be castigated for failure when it was the very efficacy of clerical training itself—unquestionable, absolute—that had allowed Partridge to accomplish what he had.

Preston was released in short order, head throbbing. It wasn't until after Brandt had dropped him off outside his building and he'd reached his quarters that he realized he had missed his evening interval.

He remembered the flat beep of the alarm on his watch. He had just completed his report, had been authorized to pursue Partridge and had been heading down to meet Brandt. He'd made a note of it, but he hadn't wanted to pause then; it could wait a few minutes, he'd reasoned, until he was in the car with Brandt. He could take his dose then.

But he hadn't.

A few hours. That was all. It didn't constitute an offense. Doses were calculated to last past the appointed time for the next dose, to avoid any possible gap; he must have only just begun to feel it before Partridge had struck him.

He wanted to lie down. His head ached. He thought, for no reason he could determine, of Partridge's hands on him, the specific pressure of Partridge's mouth against his.

He drew a deep breath, and went into the bathroom, and took his dose.

There. It was fine.

He went to bed, and fell asleep, and dreamed.

 

 


 

 

Tread softly

 

 


 

 

He didn't see Partridge again until after.

That was how he thought of it: there was before, and there was after.

And after, there was the dog.

Preston needed to leave it there. He didn't know why he couldn't leave it there. He couldn't leave it there, and he couldn't let it be found, and he killed twenty men in the space of a minute in order to prevent it.

When it was over, he looked at the bodies, and he shook. The dog whined, muffled, from the closed trunk behind him, and he found himself thinking inexplicably that he was glad it hadn't seen that.

He couldn't keep it. He had nowhere to hide it. He had no way to feed it.

He got back into the car, and he drove; and after an hour, he found himself outside the ruined church.

He stared up at it. He felt like a stranger to himself. He'd never—nothing like that had ever happened before. When he drove, it was with purpose. He knew where he was going, and why, and he went there by the shortest possible route. He optimized. It was as though something other than him had seized his hands, and brought him here. He'd just—driven, mindlessly, without intent.

For the dozenth time since "before" had become "after", he reached for his dose. He touched the plastic casing, pressed his gloved fingers against the shape of the injector in his inner pocket.

He wanted to take it. This was the most horrifying thing that had ever happened to him.

He wanted to throw it out the window. This was the best—the most—he'd felt in his entire life.

He put it away, and made himself breathe, and got out of the car.

The dog was still curled up on his jacket. It had heard him moving, touching the trunk, even before he opened it, and its tail was wagging. It looked up at him with its huge dark eyes, trusting.

What was he going to do? What choice did he have? How could he possibly—

"John."

Preston looked up.

It was Partridge.

Preston was seized, held fast, swept away. His lungs no longer functioned; his heart pounded furiously in his chest. He felt ill, suddenly and overwhelmingly, and he had no idea why.

What emotion was this? How did he make it stop? He didn't know. The vicious spike of intermixed sensation driving itself through him seemed impossibly far removed from the pages of affective terminology he'd spent hours memorizing, the numbered photographs of sample facial expressions that matched to them, the litany of key bodily symptoms and action tendencies he'd been drilled on.

His eyes felt hot, and stung. He didn't know what was wrong with them. He squeezed them shut.

"John," Partridge said again, and left the doorway of the church, strode quickly closer; Preston could hear his footsteps, just barely, over the drumming throb of Preston's own pulse in his ears.

Partridge shouldn't have been here. It didn't make sense. For a moment, Preston experienced the irrational thought that he had never left, that he'd been waiting for Preston to come—but no, that was absurd.

He shouldn't have been here. A team might come any day and do a sweep of this area, and he could be caught.

Preston discerned a response within himself that was almost revulsion, at the bloodless clarity of his own mind. It was a perfectly reasonable perspective on the situation. And yet—

And yet, inexplicably, frighteningly, on a level of such wordless intensity Preston couldn't work out how to describe it, it felt wrong. It was fundamentally flawed. He knew why Partridge was here. He understood. Partridge was here because this place was significant, because it meant something to him. Because he liked to read poetry here in the dark; because Preston had almost killed him here but hadn't.

"John." Partridge's hand settled on Preston's shoulder.

It was bare. He wasn't wearing his gloves anymore.

It was warm.

Preston wavered with the strength of simultaneous and conflicting urges: to move out from under it—to lean into it. He was overwhelmed abruptly with memories of sex with Partridge, of Partridge's body, even though Partridge was fully clothed right now and had never specifically sought to touch Preston on the shoulder while they were stimulating each other. It was dizzying, bewildering. He swallowed hard. He didn't want to look at Partridge; he had to look at Partridge.

It was no wonder sense offenders acted so unpredictably, he thought dimly, if this was what feeling things was like all the time.

Partridge had been about to say something. His mouth was still slack, half-open—but his eyebrows had risen in surprise. He wasn't looking at Preston. He was looking at the dog.

The dog made a small, high-pitched, unremarkable noise that nevertheless made Preston's heart feel squeezed strangely in his chest.

Partridge smiled.

Preston stared. He couldn't look away. It was bizarre, obscene.

It transformed Partridge's face completely, changed the shape of his mouth and cheeks. His eyes—the little fanning lines around them. Preston remembered those; he hadn't recognized them for what they were, independent of the rest of the expression.

That day, that day Partridge had distracted him: looking at him too long, touching him in new places. Partridge must have been off his Prozium even then. When they'd satisfied each other sexually, had he felt it? Had he derived emotional satisfaction from it? That was even more obscene than the smile on Partridge's face now; Preston felt his skin flush with heat.

"Well, hello," Partridge was saying softly, holding out his hand to allow the dog to sniff along the backs of his knuckles. He paused, and tilted his head. "Is that your uniform jacket?"

"You knew this would happen," Preston said.

It came out sharp, accusing. He felt odd and tense, as though under attack.

But if Partridge still had his gun, it wasn't visible. Partridge looked at him, and there was a gentle, sage understanding in his face that made Preston want to flinch from him.

"No, I didn't," Partridge said, and paused again. "I hoped. It felt ridiculous to think you'd go off your dose—you?" The shape of his mouth changed; it was another smile, but Preston perceived a wryness in it, a shadow of resigned bitterness, though what made it obvious to him was impossible to articulate. "But it had occurred to me that you might come here sooner or later, if you did." He glanced down. "Didn't think you'd bring a dog with you, though. Where'd this fellow come from?"

"A raid," Preston said. "There were others. They were shot," and it was a strange almost-pleasure to see a grimace flicker across Partridge's face—to know that he understood, that if he had been there he'd have felt the same way Preston had. "This one ran, and I caught it. I should have turned it over."

"But you didn't," Partridge murmured.

Preston bit down on the inside of his cheek, and closed his eyes. It was undeniable, and yet still new enough to be shocking, disorienting. The fierce certainty that had kept his hands closed around the dog, unable to surrender it to the disposal team, chased bewilderment and helpless confusion in circles. He couldn't stop thinking that it—it made no sense. He remembered his own incomprehension of Partridge, that Partridge should have killed half a team to preserve himself. And now Preston had mowed down an entire patrol, and not even for his own sake, but for the dog's.

He wasn't even sure it had been a mistake. It didn't feel like one.

It was terrifying.

"I don't know why," he said aloud. "I can't explain it. I risked exposure. My position, my authority. My children—" His throat tightened until it ached. He couldn't make it stop. "There's nowhere I can take it. But I couldn't let them kill it. I was going to leave it, but I couldn't do that either." He stopped, and swallowed. "I don't know why I came here."

"You wanted to," Partridge said.

"I was going to kill you here," Preston said.

Another impulse he'd barely been aware of before the words had tumbled out of his mouth, and couldn't have hoped to control. He shouldn't have said it; there was nothing else he'd wanted to say so badly in his life. His skin prickled as if a chill had passed, though none had. His gut rolled.

"But you didn't," Partridge said. "John—you didn't."

Partridge reached for him. Preston couldn't move, couldn't breathe; he felt as if he had no idea how to back away, as if he'd never moved his legs in his life. Partridge touched the nape of Preston's neck, gripped it, and stepped in close.

Touch was so profound, so unbelievably variable. Preston had been touched, since he'd gone off his dose. Brushed in passing by strangers, handed things by other clerics—struck with distinct, inarguable impact while sparring with Brandt.

None of it had done to him half of what Partridge's hand on him did now.

Partridge had touched him more than anyone else, since—since Viviana. It had meant nothing to Preston at the time. But Partridge had been offending already for weeks, months. Had Preston's hands felt like this to him, when they engaged in sexual stimulation? Preston had wondered not two minutes ago whether Partridge had been deriving emotional satisfaction from those interactions; but now it occurred to him, in a cold sinking lurch, that it might have been the opposite. What must it have been like, to be touched by Preston and feel it so deeply, and know that to Preston being touched in return meant nothing?

Preston thought of Partridge's face, turned away from him. Partridge's muscles, working, straining. The way Partridge had lain there silently afterward, used and then discarded. The way Preston had looked at him and thought nothing of it, cleaned himself with optimal efficiency and left.

Perhaps the real surprise wasn't that Preston hadn't killed Partridge, but that Partridge hadn't killed Preston.

"I understand," Partridge said into his ear, low. "You think I don't understand?"

Preston shook his head, helpless. "How can you? How can you? I don't. I don't understand anything."

Why was Partridge being so gentle with him? Surely that was the last thing Partridge wanted, right now. Surely, if anything, he'd rather have struck Preston—struck him, sneered at him, gloated in his face. They'd been partners for years, they'd had sex; and yet the moment Preston had faced incontrovertible proof of Partridge's offense, he'd reported him and followed him here and almost shot him.

Partridge must hate him more than anyone, now.

But Partridge only stood there. His hand tightened fractionally, steadying, on the nape of Preston's neck. And then he said quietly, "Come on. You don't have to go back just yet. Come on."

Preston made himself look up at the church.

He shouldn't. He should leave the dog with Partridge, and go.

"All right," he said.

 

 

The dog didn't mind being lifted out of the trunk and set on the ground, as long as Preston was outside of the car, too—as long as it had been given some reason to believe it wasn't going to be left behind alone. It ran off ahead of them happily, tail high.

It was willing to follow them into the church for a few minutes, but its inspection of the interior was cursory; there was clearly some fascinating scent it was much more interested in following that trailed away out front, because it wasn't long before it trotted out again, determined, sniffing along the flagstones in the dark. Preston could hear the clack and scrape of its nails, growing fainter and then louder and then fainter again, as it wandered this way and that.

The church looked different, Preston thought.

It wasn't true, of course—and yet it was. Everything was the same, just the way he remembered it; but he looked at the piles of fallen, crumbled brick, the way dim light filtered through the empty holes of the windows, and his chest was tight. He thought of what the church must have looked like, whole, and tried to picture the people who must have come here then, the way they looked, the way they acted, the way they felt. So many sense offenders in one room—and yet it had been expected, then.

He walked absently forward, as he looked around. And then he realized with a sudden cold jolt that he'd reached the frontmost of the few remaining half-pews: the place where Partridge had sat, and held Yeats, and looked up at him with knowing eyes even as Preston had raised a gun to his head.

He had felt something then, he knew. His dose had been just late enough that he had looked at Partridge sitting there and he'd felt something; Partridge had stood and touched him, kissed him, and he'd felt something, and he'd had no idea Partridge was about to strike him—he'd been too distracted.

The barest flicker of a shadow, that was all. It had been nothing, the most miniscule fraction, the broadest possible watercolor strokes of an approximation, compared to what he felt now in standing here again.

"John," Partridge said quietly.

"I'd have killed you," Preston said.

He was abruptly filled with something hot, something fierce and full of forward motion. He liked it better; it was easier. He let it turn him on his heels, let it guide his hands—he struck Partridge in the chest, gripped him by the shoulders and shoved him, pressed him a handful of quick strides, until Partridge came up against a crumbling wall, the pillar between two windows.

"I'd have killed you," he said again, more loudly. "I should have killed you. You were nothing to me. You meant nothing to me."

Partridge watched him with those knowing eyes, silent.

"None of it mattered," Preston bit out. "Do you understand that?"

He didn't know what he was going to do before he did it. It was impulse, crude and half-formed, vicious, that sent his hand between Partridge's legs. But he did it, and he thought: yes. Good. Partridge wouldn't like that—Partridge couldn't like that. Whatever he had been thinking, whatever it was that had prevented him from hating Preston, this reminder would wipe it away. He would shove Preston off him, infuriated. He would strike Preston again, and they would both feel it this time—

Partridge made a soft strangled sound in his throat, and his head fell back against the wall. "John," he said again, uneven, half a gasp.

"No," Preston said. "No."

Partridge reached for him and touched his face, blunt broad fingers, warm palm. "I do," he said. "I do understand."

Preston couldn't breathe. He couldn't think. There was something seizing hold of him, something sweeping, flooding, too much of it for his body to contain. There was nowhere he could look at Partridge that didn't make it worse, and yet, paradoxical, he couldn't look away: Partridge's face, Partridge's eyes, the way Partridge was looking back at him.

His hand was still on Partridge, on Partridge's—Partridge's cock. Preston had seen that word in confiscated materials, had never understood how there could be any meaningful preference between terms that all defined the same piece of anatomy; but now it was unbearable to think of being clinical about this. He was a sense offender, forbidden in itself, and he was doing a forbidden thing, and it felt oxymoronically right to use a forbidden word while he did.

And Partridge was hard and getting harder, heavy heat pushing against Preston's palm even through his slacks. Non-uniform: dark blue. Preston had never seen Partridge wearing a color, not that he could recall.

Opening Partridge's trousers was familiar—Preston hadn't been the one doing it, it had been more efficient for Partridge to handle that himself, but Preston had seen it happen a hundred times. Preston stopped when it was done, stopped and yanked his gloves off and let them tumble to the stone floor, and it wasn't because he wanted to keep them clean. It was because he wanted to feel this.

Partridge's cock in his hand was also familiar. And yet at the same time it was filled with overwhelming significance; Preston realized dimly that his hand was shaking. How had Partridge ever borne this? How had Partridge ever done this without giving himself away?

Preston's throat was tight. His eyes were hot. He swallowed hard, and touched Partridge gently, and then sank unsteadily, clumsily, to his knees.

"Wait," Partridge said, breathless. "Wait, John—you don't have to—"

Preston squeezed his eyes shut, and put his mouth on Partridge.

This, too, he had done before. He'd done it easily, without thought, without difficulty. Because it was just one more way to stimulate Partridge to orgasm.

But everything meant something, now. Even his position, kneeling before Partridge, abasing himself—Partridge's cock in his mouth, the way he closed his lips around it, the weight of it on his tongue. He was doing this because he was desperate to do it, because he'd never wanted anything more. Because this frantic silent apology was all he had to offer, without a book of Yeats to give him the words he didn't have.

He tried too hard. It had been a little while; he hadn't done this since Partridge, had been too busy and then too aware of his own altered state to make new arrangements for sexual gratification. He pressed himself on Partridge recklessly, and Partridge's cock filled his mouth and struck the back of his throat and he couldn't breathe—he had to pull back, half a cough seizing its way through his jaw, his eyes tearing up reflexively in the corners.

He could do better. He would do better. He drew in air and wet his lips and tried again, forcing himself as far as he could go—

"John," Partridge gasped, and reached down, sliding his hands into Preston's hair and gripping tight.

Preston intended to keep going. It didn't matter if he choked. He wanted to choke. But Partridge held on—Partridge pulled, hard, a hot ache blooming across Preston's scalp, and Preston had to slow down.

It was almost a struggle, at first, each of them straining in opposite directions, at odds. But the hands in Preston's hair didn't ease, and Preston had to follow them; and slowly it changed, so that Partridge was guiding him instead. Drawing him off almost entirely, only the head of Partridge's cock between his lips, and then pulling him in again more gradually than he wanted to go—making him wait for it, making him work for every inch of Partridge's cock he could fit into his mouth, and Partridge shook and trembled but withdrew again the moment Preston's throat threatened to tighten around him in a cough.

It was hard. It was messy.

It was perfect.

It was over sooner than it should have been. Now that there were goals beyond sexual satisfaction, now that Preston wanted, it felt like deprivation to have Partridge begin to swell further still in his mouth, to have Partridge's thighs shake under his hands and Partridge's taste intensify in a way Preston recognized. Partridge shuddered and for once thrust heedlessly in, and then came in Preston's mouth—for a strange taut second, Preston almost wanted to laugh, thinking of the way he'd so often encouraged exactly that, for the sake of efficiency; reduced cleanup.

"John," Partridge said above him, and tugged him off Partridge's cock again. His lips felt hot and bruised, sore, and they were wet with spit and Partridge. He had a moment to feel the obscene coolness of the night air against them, and then Partridge was lifting him, gripping his shoulders, almost dragging him to his feet. Partridge's eyes were wet, glittering; Partridge kissed him.

It was the same as it had been every other time Partridge had done it: a mouth touching a mouth.

It was revelation—it burned—Preston couldn't get enough. It struck straight to the heart of him, he could hardly bear it; he sucked in a sharp breath against Partridge's lips, and Partridge only drew him in and kissed him harder—opened his mouth on purpose, touched Preston's with his tongue. How did anyone do this? How did anyone survive this?

Preston hung on blindly, and kissed back.

He became aware, after a little while, that Partridge's thumbs were smoothing along his jaw, soothing, gentling. Partridge eased away a little, and said against Preston's cheek, "Shh, John. It'll be all right."

There was no way to be sure it was true. And yet—

And yet Preston couldn't help but believe him.