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ghost of you

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Día de los Muertos was special out in the Dust.

Partly because it appealed to the offbeat people who lived in the Dust—all the killjoys and zonerunners and motor babies, the sane and the not, the people who'd escaped Bat City and those who'd made their home in the desert long before the Bombs had fallen.

Partly because it was another excuse to celebrate, and the one thing that people loved to do was to throw a party.

Día de los Muertos was a celebration of Life, and Death, a time when the veil between worlds thinned and unexplained things happened, even in this broken and dusty future. It was a combination of carnival and festival and art show, concert and party and wake.

It was a time to mourn those who had fallen and those who had been left behind, a time to celebrate those who were still standing, still fighting, still living. It was the biggest celebration out in the Zones and one that the Killjoys never missed.

Poison and his boys dressed up for the occasion. They had a stash of makeup and Ghoul was surprisingly talented at transforming their faces into skulls with flowers and spiderwebs and bats and other flourishes. Poison spent more time than strictly necessary admiring the marigold on his cheek in the cracked mirror.

Jet and Kobra had traded motor parts for the clothes, old fashioned trousers and jackets, black as night, buttoned up and formal. Jet had found a top hat and carefully placed it on his head. They examined each other and added some final, incidental touches, splashes of color to relieve the black—Poison slid a yellow plastic rose behind Ghoul's ear, Jet threaded a sky-blue scarf through Kobra's belt loops.

Poison looked at his boys and had to smile. They were a perfectly beautiful fuck you to BL/ind, to Death and the eternal Darkness.

There were many abandoned cemeteries to choose from in the Zones but the one they ended up going to year after year was Forest Lawn; it was not only the biggest cemetery in the Dust, but it had been the most well-known before the Bombs, a necropolis to the excesses of the rich and famous. It was the final resting place of movie stars and musicians, talent agents, directors, producers and their hangers-on. Poison figured if there was anyone who knew how to party, it would have been the old Hollywood crowd.

It was a bit of a drive, out on the border between Zones 3 and 4, but they kept themselves entertained by telling ghost stories about other Días. Like the time Ghoul had been sure he'd seen Atomic Jumper, even though Ghoul knew that Jumper was dead; he'd killed the BL/ind turncoat himself.

"Guilty conscience," Jet singsonged.

"Fuck that," Ghoul growled. "Asswipe almost got you and Kobra killed. I don't feel any guilt about smoking that fucker."

Jet just smiled and bumped shoulders with him until Ghoul grinned back.

Poison had never seen a ghost at a Día, but plenty of other people had. He wasn't sure he believed in an afterlife, but if there was one, he hoped it was one hell of a celebration.

They got to Forest Lawn just as dusk settled, stealing away the light of day. In the purple-dark sky, there was the faint sparkle of stars that was echoed by the seemingly endless number of candles, lanterns, glowstiks and genny-powered strings of lights that flickered across the landscape, set atop stone monuments, crypts and gravestones, carried in skeletal hands, adorning the walls of tents and temporary shelters.

There was definitely a carnival atmosphere; in the first few minutes they saw stilt-walkers and fire-eaters, jugglers and musicians, most with their faces painted with representations of skulls. There were cloth and canvas tents set up, some selling goods and services, some just a place to rest or make deals.

It was life at its loudest and Poison couldn't stop a smile from stealing across his face.

In its heyday, Forest Lawn had been true to its name, green rolling hills and trees. Since the Bombs, it had been claimed by the Dust, brown and dry. The majority of the statuary and headstones were intact, the trees still standing, but the lush grass was long gone. It should have been desolate and lifeless, but the people who came to celebrate the Día each brought a tiny spark and together they combined to shine brightly, pushing back the darkness.

They spent some c's on candles and found a headstone to call their own. Ghoul set up the candles while Kobra lit them and Jet pulled out the bottle of half-decent alk they'd gotten just for the occasion.

Ghoul picked up the bottle and held it up. "To friends and family, to those we've lost and to those we've found. The old and the new, the young and the old, crash queens and motor babies. Here's to all of us who live to fight another day." He took a swig of the alk, barely grimacing at the taste.

Jet nodded and took the alk, echoing Ghoul's gesture. "To the ones we've loved, the ones we'll never forget, the ones that shine brightly in our hearts." He took a swallow before handing the bottle to Kobra.

"To our mothers and fathers, our sisters and brothers, and our children; to all those who came before and all those who will follow." The words were solemn and sober, and Kobra's eyes were shadowed as he took a drink.

Poison took the bottle back and killed it. "How wrong we were to think that immortality meant never dying." He reached out and grabbed Kobra's arm and pulled him into a hug, holding out his other arm for Ghoul and Jet. He had his boys and that's all he needed.

They sat around talking for a while, sharing stories. Ghoul was eventually lured away by some killjoys with the promise of alk and mechanical parts and things that went boom. Kobra left in search of food, claiming that he was wasting away. Poison snorted, because Kobra was always hungry. And Jet was approached by the hot diesel darling he'd had the worse crush on for months.

Poison blew a kiss at him as she dragged him away and he laughed loudly as Jet flipped him off, blushing.

He ended up wandering around for a bit. He traded a bit of intel for a pretty bracelet decorated with grinning skull beads. It felt right when he tied it to his wrist and it made him smile, so he counted it as a fair trade.

Twice-Ghosted Amy tracked him down and they made arrangements for a work party to get some generators to the old hospital in Zone 4. It was the least damaged hospital in that Zone and the most likely to have useful equipment to scavenge. There were a couple of groups that maintained mobile clinics that managed to stay one step ahead of the Drac patrols; they could always use more working medical equipment.

Poison bought himself some food at a stall, fried noodles, spicy and hot. He sat on a stool at the make-shift counter and drank a cold brew to kill the burn of the food, watching the tide of people surge and recede. In the distance he could hear a fiddle playing something sweetly sad, and Poison let himself remember some of his lost souls. Sometimes, when he was alone, he wondered if it was worth it, letting people in. Most times, they asked too much, wanting more than he could give. And when they left, it hurt.

He had a sudden image of Gerard, shaggy-haired and sweaty, up on stage screaming to the audience, giving everything he had. There was something strangely open about Gerard in spite of everything that had happened in his life. Addiction and BL/ind hadn't managed to break him. Living out in the Zones hadn't tarnished him, either.

It was going to hurt so fucking much when this thing they had crashed and burned. Poison wondered if he'd survive it.

"Fuck this," he muttered to himself. The last thing he wanted to do was sit around feeling sorry for himself when there was so much to see and do.

He bought himself another brew and started exploring, the alk making him feel loose and relaxed. He let himself be goaded into trying his hand at the ring toss, laughing and rueful as the hard plastic rings bounced off the narrow necks of the glass bottles.

Poison had better luck at the shooting gallery, taking down the tin ducks with a degree of precision that drew an admiring crowd. He grinned as side bets were placed on how far he could get. Throwing some of his own c's down, he picked up the pellet gun and took aim at the array of empty BL/ind-labeled cans.

He lived by his gun, after all.

When he left the booth, much to the disappointment of his drunken audience, he had a double handful of crumpled c's in his pockets and some useful intel about the Drac patrols on Route Tranquility.

He ignored the catcalls from the peepshow, but was lured in by Mistress Zahina and her promise of a glimpse into his future. He sat in a low, rickety chair while she held his hand between both of hers, eyes closed, brow furrowed.

Poison didn't believe in magic, in fate, but in the dimness of the tent, a breeze ruffled across his skin and he felt something stir. She opened her eyes, and they were black and bottomless.

"You like to flirt with danger," she said.

He'd been expecting a fake accent, a dramatic voice. She had neither, but it didn't matter, because there was something about the way she spoke that was compelling.

He shrugged, because she wasn't wrong.

She traced over the lines on his palm, lightly enough that it was almost ticklish. "What a tangled life line you have. You've touched so many people, helped so many. A good man, a good heart."

Poison tried to jerk away, because he wasn't expecting that, but she held tight to his hand. "Must be confusing me with someone else, lady. I don't help no one but myself. And only if there's enough c's on offer."

Mistress Zahina ignored him. "Your heart line tells me you don't share yourself easily, but when you do, you go all in." She tapped at a spot. "You've fallen in love before, but there's someone very special in your life now. Someone you care for very deeply, even though you don't want to admit it."

He thought of Gerard, and fuck, that stung, because yeah, he was in over his head. He laughed, bitter and mocking. "Mistress Zahina, I've been out in the Zones too long to believe in love anymore."

It was like she wasn't even listening to him. "Eventually, you'll both pull your heads out of your asses and see what's right in front of you, but in the meantime, expect more fights and fireworks." She grinned, and the years dropped away from her face. "You like the fireworks."

Poison couldn't help but grin back. "Sugar, you have no idea."

She scoffed. "Idiot." She traced a line that ended abruptly, and she fell silent. "Your life line. It's short, cut off."

He shivered, the hair on the back of his neck prickling. "Yeah, well. 'Live fast, die young, leave a pretty corpse' is the motto of most Zonerunners, right?" It's not like he thought he had any chance at longevity out in the Zones—he had too many enemies, the bounty on his head was too high, and Korse was fucking determined to put him down like a dog.

"Too short," she muttered.

"Hey, as long as I go out kicking, I'm not going to complain. Flipping off BL/ind, still wearing my mask." He'd always been terrified that his death would be meaningless, killed in a low level raid or worse, dying from a bad batch of pills or alk. Or the ultimate failure: succumbing to old age, grown frail and brittle, dependent and useless.

"No, you definitely don't have to worry about that. Your death will reverberate through the Zones, your name a rallying cry. The world will shift on its axis, and you'll be remembered for a long, long time. Immortality, of a sort." She pressed a kiss to the center of his hand and curled his fingers around it, a strangely reverent act.

He closed his eyes and sighed.

"In the meantime," she said, her voice filled with laughter, "you and your boy are gonna raise hell and have good times. And your Killjoys will fight the good fight until the very end."

"Can't ask for more than that," Poison said, and really, he couldn't.

Mistress Zahina's predictions left him feeling restless, so he wandered for a while. Forest Lawn had been a unique cemetery for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that it was also partly a history museum, with statues of important people and replicas of once-famous buildings.

Poison hadn't stuck around in Bat City long enough to get much of an education through the BL/ind mandated and mostly censored schools, so he was a little hazy about who all these self-important old men were supposed to be.

It didn't matter in the end. BL/ind had rewritten history, and people were too busy trying to survive to worry about people long dead and mostly forgotten. So he made up stories in his head about the statues and the giant mosaic that decorated a wall, and read the inscriptions that hadn't been destroyed.

He followed the sound of a lone guitar, strumming softly, into a tucked-away corner of the cemetery, a clearing filled with gravel walkways and strange-looking plants. There were little lanterns scattered on the ground, nothing more than candles inside paper bags, weighed down with dirt. They threw off a glow which flickered and cast strange shadows.

Further ahead there was a man dressed in black, his back to Poison. Poison could see the neck of his guitar, watched his hand move down the frets, pulling a melancholy tune out of his instrument. The music teased at the edge of Poison's memory, somehow familiar, but he couldn't identify it.

As he drew closer, the man turned around abruptly, maniacal grin on his face. Poison's hand automatically went to his holster, but then he saw past the skull facepaint, "Gerard? What the fuck? You cut your hair!"

Gerard's shaggy dark hair was gone; he'd cropped it short and bleached it bone-white, a stark contrast to what he was wearing. His clothes reminded Poison of old military uniforms, a heavy jacket with silver horizontal striping, big fancy buttons, formal trousers, polished boots. They were well-kept but obviously old. In spite of Gerard's penchant for drama, it was an outfit that Poison had never seen him wear before.

Gerard slanted a glance at him, his grin shifting to sly, and he picked out a series of notes on his guitar. "The veil between worlds is thin tonight, Party Poison."

"What the hell are you talking about?" Poison shook his head. He thought that maybe Gerard was high, but his hazel eyes were clear even in the candlelight, and his movements were too sure and steady.

"The luminarias lead the way, but the journey is not yours to take." Gerard pointed to the lanterns, and out of the corner of his eye, Poison saw that they formed a crooked path leading into a shadowy area between some trees. When he turned his head to look, the path disappeared, clearly a trick of the light and his eyes.

Gerard laughed and strummed his guitar, humming along with the song he played. "Not tonight, anyway," he sing-songed. He danced around Poison, bumped shoulder and hip, and spun in a little circle.

Gerard was almost ethereal this evening, mysterious and fey. Part of it was the change in his appearance; his shorter hair made his eyes seem huge, and the skull makeup emphasized just how delicate his features were. The rest was— Poison didn't know. He had no idea if it was the carnival atmosphere of the Día celebrations or maybe there'd been something in the food he'd eaten, or the brews he'd drunk—

In the end, it didn't matter, because he couldn't keep his hand from curling around Gerard's neck and pulling him close, the guitar twanging between them as he pressed their lips together. It was electrifying, like it was their first kiss all over again. Poison's fingers crept into Gerard's short hair and tugged, pulling a soft moan from him.

And yeah, there was his Gerard, the one that he couldn't get enough of. Poison kissed him again, and again, exploring Gerard's mouth with his tongue, nipping at his bottom lip, savoring the way Gerard was breathless and trembling between his hands.

When he pulled away, Gerard looked a little lost, and it made Poison smile. "Hey, pretty," he whispered.

Gerard touched his lips, like the feel of their kisses lingered against his skin. "Hey," he whispered back, before twisting away with discordant rattle of guitar strings. "It's almost time," he said, and like that, the mood shifted back to playful. He strummed a fanfare on the guitar, fast and loud.

"Time for what?" There was a sudden burst of laughter from behind, and Poison was distracted, spinning around, fingers brushing against his gun. It was just a trio of 'runners, obviously enjoying themselves and looking for a little privacy, arms wrapped around each other's waists as they staggered down the gravel pathway. Poison let himself relax, and when he turned back, Gerard was gone.

"Gerard?" A breeze ruffled gently through Poison's hair before growing stronger, rattling the paper lanterns and extinguishing the candles, all at once. "Gerard?"

"Whoa, did you see that?" one of the 'runners whispered loudly. "The dead are restless tonight."

The other two shushed their companion before heading back to the more well-traveled paths of the cemetery, leaving Poison alone in the clearing, wondering where the fuck Gerard had gotten off to. It was like he disappeared into thin air.

Poison had seen a lot of weird things in his years out in the Zones, things he couldn't explain. He searched the edges of the clearing, the small stand of trees, but Gerard was gone. "The fuck?" he mumbled to himself, because it made no sense.

It was almost a week after Día de los Muertos when he ran into Gerard, and it was a shock to find Gerard's hair impossibly long and dark again.

"Is that a wig?" Poison accused, yanking on a hank of hair.

"Ow, motherfucker, what the hell—" Gerard shoved him away, rubbing at his scalp. "You're fucking crazy."

The situation was crazy. "Where were you for Día?"

Gerard was quiet for a long time. He wrapped his arms around himself. "There's a little cemetery right outside of Bat City, some of our family's there." His words started to tumble out, like he already knew what Poison was going to say. "I know it's too close to the city and it's fucking dangerous, but it's where we always go, because it's ours." He took a quick breath. "It's where my grandma is, and Frank's granddad, and Ray's family, too, and—"

Poison pressed a finger to Gerard's mouth; it was the easiest way to shut him up other than kissing him. "You didn't go to Forest Hills?"

Frowning, Gerard cocked his head. "Where's that?"

"Place northwest of Bat City."

Gerard shook his head. "Why the fuck would I? I got no one there." He narrowed his eyes. "What's this about, anyway?"

Poison thought about Mistress Zahina, and remembered how otherworldly Gerard—maybe not this Gerard—had been. Día de los Muertos. He laughed softly at himself and leaned in to steal a kiss, pulling Gerard into his arms and holding tight. "Ghost stories, sugar. That's all."