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All The Myriad Ways

Chapter Text

Sometimes, Mark looks back and thinks about his life and his choices, and where they've lead him.

Namely, the narrow, creaky, shitty-motel bed to which he is currently pinned by an angry asian alien, in what started as the fight they've been building up to since Nine introduced himself

(So this is the asshole, huh?)

and which has now taken on an entirely different layer of tension.

"Dude," he says, as he tries and fails not to stare into Nine's dark eyes (which, thankfully, he doesn't seem to notice, probably because he is staring at Mark's mouth). "I think this might be kinda gay."

Nine scoffs. "Psh, nah," he says, and then he kisses him (and tastes like the cigarettes he's tried a few times before), and again, and again, and lingers. "Okay," Nine mumbles, breath ghosting over Mark's jaw. "Okay, maybe just a little," and then words are lost in teeth and tongues and fighting for dominance.

And if there's one thing Mark is thankful for about life on the run, it's that he's learned to always keep the door locked.

Chapter Text

"Who are the candles for, Mom?" pipes the voice of her daughter, Sammy.

Maren glances down at her, strokes her soft, dark hair as she wonders how to explain what she'd thought her little one already knew. "They're... for everyone we lost, during the--"

Sammy cuts her off, impatient. "No, I know what they're for," she says, in a tone that reminds Maren achingly of her father's. "Who are yours for, and Dad's?"

John says nothing, simply sits on the grassy knoll and holds the two of them as tiny lights flicker from distant hilltops. He holds a candle carefully in each hand, as Maren does, and watches the flames dance.

Maren hesitates, and then decides it can't do any harm. "They're for our cepâns, Katarina and Henri. And... for other people who are--were--are--special to us." It's an effort to say their names, but they deserve to be remembered as much as anyone. "Sarah," she says, her voice catching, "and--and Sam."

John's arms tighten almost imperceptibly, and he lets out a shuddering breath. He says nothing, still.

Sammy looks from one candle to the other, to the other, to the other, thoughtfully, and touches each of them in turn.

"Katarina and Henri," she says, her voice as strong as ever. "Sarah," she says, in clear-eyed and bright and unbroken honor of the dead, "and Sam."

Chapter Text

"If you didn't bring any hot dogs I'll take a chunk out of your arm, I swear to god."

Nine is sprawled across the inner roof of their car, kicking his legs against what should be his headrest in a lazy rhythm that fray's Five's nerves.

Five, to his credit, doesn't look up from the roadmap. "I brought plenty of hot dogs," he says distractedly, trying to split his attention between the map, the road, and that damned relentless bup bup bup sound. "And I'd like to see you try."

Seconds pass in silence.

"Fine," says Nine, and his upside-down grin is the only warning Fve gets before he drops off the roof and bites the inside of his elbow, hard.

"Jesus christ!" he yelps, and it's lucky they're on a wide empty interstate in the middle of nowhere because now the car is fishtailing out of control.

He manages to wrestle it back into driving a straight line again, and swears long and loud, finishing with "God dammit, Nine, we could've just fucking died!"

He glares at Nine in the rearview mirror, and then catches his breath when Nine meets his gaze and soothes the bite with his tongue.

"Sorry, babe," Nine says, and his attempt at a purr would be completely ridiculous if he wasn't licking tiny pinpricks of Five's blood from his teeth. "Let me make it up to you?"

They eventually make it to the campsite alive and in one piece, thoroughly disheveled and an hour late; and when Five goes to crack open the cooler, the first thing he notices is that he forgot to pack hot dogs.

Chapter Text

Sometimes, the spirit of the lake was not lonely.

She could count those times on one hand. On, in fact, three fingers.

The spirit of earth and laughing wild things had filled up her days with joy; and the little child who had once fallen into her waters and emerged again with her swift guidance, whose solemn eyes had made the lake-spirit wonder whether she was not touched by some spirit, herself.

But the earth-spirit had been driven away by the roar and chop and burn of mankind, perhaps even killed, and the child had left when others of her kind had come to take her away.

The lake-spirit had been lonely ever since, surrounded by the steel and cement and endless rushing feet of the ones who had made her so.

Until, that is, the day that raindrops whispered across her shifting skin, and carried with them a whisper that said, you are not alone.

Desperate with hope, the lake-spirit lifted her mists to the sky, asking after the one who spoke to her; and the storm-spirit spoke back, and told her of strength and majesty and open skies.

The humans huddled in their homes before the storm, and the rain went on for days as the lake-spirit spoke, and listened, and was no so lonely. But the clouds could not stay forever, and the storm-spirit went away, on wings of warm wind.

Follow me, murmured the last of the raindrops as they mingled with the lake. Come away, and follow me. And the lake-spirit was afraid, for the world (so she'd heard) was big, big, big; but she delved beneath the earth (wondered if the earth-spirit was there, still, wondered but could not look back), and found the rivers, and followed them to sea.

And the rains came for her, the thundered roared with joy, the wind danced with wild delight; and as the waves of the new spirit of the sea rolled and hissed and crashed in harmony with the storm, she knew that loneliness would never touch her again.

Chapter Text

Cody was supposed to be the soft one.

Stanley was supposed to be the survivor, the animal, the protector; Cody was supposed to be his anchor to mercy, to morality, to sanity.

"He was infected, I didn’t have a choice," says Cody, blood spattered across his face and hands, and Stanley wonders what is going to keep him human now.

Chapter Text

Of course they’d end up in the same roadside diner as a rowdy team of high-schoolers celebrating their latest football victory. Of course.

Adam had a grinding headache from the six hours he’d just spent driving in the glare of high summer without sunglasses; the triumphant whoops and bellows made him flinch and press his sweating glass of soda to one temple.

He was less worried about the pain, though, than he was about Maggie. Her Legacies had started to manifest in the last few weeks, but otherworldly powers didn’t mix well with a girl who was shy and high-strung and always, always afraid. Her control was jittery at best, dangerous at worst, and they’d had a few near misses with flying objects.

And some hits, he thought with amusement, glancing at the bruise on the side of Ivan’s face. His brother—it felt oddly not-odd to think of him that way, after six months on the road together—was rarely anything other than stone-faced. Now, though, surrounded by the cheerful, deafening machismo of a crowd of teenage boys, he seemed… not happy, really, but not angry for once. Wistful, maybe. Probably reminded him of his asshole friends, such as they were, from combat training.

Sitting next to Ivan, pressed into the side of the booth closest to the wall, Maggie didn’t look wistful at all. She looked pale and anxious, too small for the empty space of the seat around her, like she hoped the worn red booth cushions would fold up and hide her from view. Her glass kept scooting around on the table in tiny, spastic movements, turning the water rings it left behind into trails.

They needed to get out of here, Adam knew, right now. It would be, to say the least, bad if Maggie lost it here. But he was so fucking tired, and his head hurt so fucking much, and it was so hard to even think about getting back in the damn car.

One of the footballers bumped his hip into their table as he went by, apparently on purpose. “Ayyy,” he said, grinning at Maggie from under his douchey crewcut as he leaned too far over the table in her direction.

The glass jerked wildly, once, twice, slopping water down the side.

Deer, meet headlights. Panic, meet Maggie. Diner, meet disaster.

Definitely time to go, thought Adam.

As he started to signal so to the other two, however, Ivan sat up straighter in his booth and scooted toward Maggie. His expression was stony, and his glare and intimidating size were all it took to send Crouchecut backing away, hands in the air.

Adam glanced quickly at Maggie, even more worried now. Surely some dumbass jock couldn’t be more intimidating than Ivan; he might be two or three years younger than any of them, but he’d charged her once with knife in hand, back at her London apartment, before they’d pretty much kidnapped him.

But she seemed strangely comforted by the presence of a sullen stone wall of a boy, so huge that he blocked out the light and hid her in soft, encompassing shadow. The hunted look slowly receded from her face, replaced by something like gratefulness. The glass finally went still, and she eventually calmed down enough to eat some of the fries from the edge of Ivan’s plate (amazingly, he let her, even though he normally put away food like a garbage disposal).

Watching the two of them, head throbbing to the hoots and cheers of the football team, Adam wondered if maybe those six months on the road had made a difference after all.

Chapter Text

"Gotcha, bitch," pants Nine above him, grinning wide, knee planted in his solar plexus.

Kiss him, comes the thought, and Five balks.

Say again?

Kiss him.

But he doesn’t, because that would just be stupid.

Instead, he suckerpunches him in the face, sending him flying through a nearby plywood wall.

The fight continues, and he forgets all about the inexplicable, ridiculous urge.

———————

"I will eat this hot dog dick right now, god dammit, see if I don’t!"

"Oh my god," says Maren, pinching the bridge of her nose as Nine waves the aforementioned hot dog in the air, shouting his challenge to anyone who will listen.

Five is inclined to agree with her. Say what you want about Nine, but he’s definitely not insecure.

Ella is giggling, avoiding Marina’s frantic attempts to cover her eyes. Time has done a lot to heal both of them. Everyone, really, but them in particular.

"Down the hatch!" yells Nine, and proceeds to down the hot dog in the least sexy way Five has ever seen in his life.

Kiss him, comes the thought again, unbidden. It surprises him even more than the last time, because he honestly wasn’t expecting it to happen a second time.

Okay, what the hell, he thinks back at the voice in his head, trying not to laugh at the gross noises Nine is making. Him?

Yes.

He can’t help snorting when Ella dares Nine to eat the remaining hot dogs in the package.

No, he thinks, watching in disgusted awe as Nine starts in on the second one.

———————

"That was completely fucking rad, admit it! Oh shit, is my leg broken?"

"That was the stupidest thing you could have possibly done, Nine," says Ella, propping his arm around her shoulder to support him. "What if we hadn’t been here?"

"Wouldn’t have been here if you weren’t," says Nine cheerfully, sounding a little too elated for someone who’d just snapped his shin in half.

Five, supporting his other side, fights the urge to drop him just to teach him a lesson. For all his carefree attitude, he’d come this close to getting his stupid ass killed. As it was they were stuck out in the mountains, miles from the nearest portal, with no healers in sight.

He tells himself that the anger and fear he feels are for Ella, for the awful death she’d have had to see if things had gone worse, and since it’s half-true he manages to convince himself the rest of the way with relative ease.

Kiss him, comes the thought, again.

You couldn’t have picked a better time? he thinks irritably, almost tripping over a rock. Besides, how the hell would I do that when I’m carrying him?

The voice is silent for the rest of the long trip home, but it needles at him just the same.

———————

"Do you ever miss your cêpan?"

Five glances at him through the darkness of the room, from across Ella’s sleeping bag. The nightmares come less often, these days, but he’ll be damned if he leaves her alone when they do.

Obviously (annoyingly), Nine feels the same.

“What?”

Nine is sitting cross-legged, staring at his hands where they lie palms-up on his knees. “Do you? What was his name, Rey?”

Five is speechless, with shock and confusion and anger that Nine would dare to stick his fingers in a wound like that (they don’t talk about their cêpans, no one does).

Before he can say anything, Nine looks up at him. It’s hard to tell in the gloom, but his eyes shine a little too brightly at the corners; as Five watches, he thinks he sees a couple tears roll down his face.

"Because I miss mine," Nine says, voice quavering a little. "Fuck do I."

A moment of silence; and then, quiet and hoarse, “Yeah. Same here.”

Kiss him, whispers the thought once more.

Staring at Nine—stupid motherfucker Nine, ornery piece of shit Nine—crying in the dark, he feels something crack inside. Fuck it. Fine, you win.

He leans across the distance over Ella, takes hold of Nine’s forearms, and kisses him before his brain can get a word in edgewise. Nine stiffens, surprised, and Five braces himself to be pushed away—for what comes after that, shit, shit, shit—

—but it doesn’t happen. Instead, it takes all of ten (endless, heart-pounding) seconds for Nine to recover, and kiss him back with a ferocity that catches him completely off-guard.

Huh, he thinks, dazedly. How about that.

In her sleeping bag, eyes closed, Ella grins.

Chapter Text

Ella was scared to let them go, sometimes, even after they started dating.

Especially after they started dating.

She didn’t have to let them go, of course, not completely. Her telepathy had grown stronger with practice (and, she suspected, with the gentle guidance of Lorien); in a moment of panic all she had to do was reach out, and one or the other or both would be there.

But she couldn’t do that to them, or herself. She couldn’t live in their heads and fill their every waking hour—and then some—with her moments of sudden fear, and she couldn’t keep giving into it or it would swallow her whole.

She told herself this, not understanding that it had her in its mouth already, and she was walking down its tongue.

———————

"Ella? Where you at, kiddo?"

She felt Nine before she heard him; his mind was crisscrossed spikes and wire and tightropes that he ran full-tilt over, laughing into the abyss. She’d learned to turn off her telepathy when she wanted quiet, for the most part, but she could never quite rid herself of the ghostly flash of images that came attached to other people.

Feet jogging down the hall, but not across the floor. “Ella? You okay?”

She must have fallen asleep in the lazy afternoon sun, and screamed or cried or just lashed out with her mind. It didn’t feel like she’d been screaming, though; her face was dry, and her throat wasn’t hoarse.

It hadn’t been fear that woke her, anyway. Not the kind that jerked you awake at night, made you think you were going to die. She’d just felt… lonely, in a kind of dull, throbbing way that was like walking barefoot through snow; freezing-sharp at first, and then with a slow, increasing numbness that set off alarm-bells in her head.

Nine’s head poked around one side of the doorframe, upside-down. “Ella?” he asked. It wasn’t worry in his voice, exactly. This wasn’t anything at all out of the ordinary. He was checking in to see if she wanted comfort this time, or to be left alone.

It felt so good to have that—someone she could ask for help who she didn’t have to worry about worrying—but guilt still picked away at her for making him drop everything and come running, for being so used to it that she even did it in her sleep.

"I’m fine, Nine," she said sleepily. "Just napping."

"Aight," he said, "give me a call if you need anything."

Then he was gone.

———————

"You’re thinking about it again."

It wasn’t a question. Five’s distant, unfocused stare at the sheath on his arm would have told her, even if the bloody images spewing from his mind hadn’t.

Waves crashed against the beach, gentle in the fading light of early evening.

"Yeah," he said absently. "A little."

In his mind, she saw lunge, stab, blood, no, ice, what have i done. The memories looping through his head had taken on another layer of nightmare, now that the person he’d intended to kill meant something to him as well as the one he’d killed by accident.

He sat rigid and miserable and still, his face a mask, the same way he’d been sitting for the last half-hour before that. She wasn’t the only one who cried for help even when she couldn’t use words to do it; she just wished he could reach further for it, the way she could, when he needed it.

She reached out to lay her hand on his wrist, gently pulling it to the side. His gaze stayed fixed on the spot where it had been.

"Don’t," she said. "Talk about it. Write about it. Draw it on paper and rip it up. But don’t just think about it, because it won’t do anything but eat you from the inside out."

He didn’t respond right away, but some of the stiffness faded, and his eyes slowly focused back on the here-and-now. He didn’t pull his arm away, and she left her hand where it was.

Around them, the light faded.

———————

"It’s okay," she heard from behind the door to the training room as she passed by.

"Fuck you, it’s not okay!"

She stopped, and listened.

She felt Five behind the door, like water through underground caves, hidden and twisting back on itself in strange, illogical ways, full of mischievous eddies and strong undercurrents and yawning dark eyeless things that grew away from the sun.

She felt Nine, heard his ugly, hacking sobs, and knew that somewhere he had fallen off of his tightrope.

"I killed him!" he spat, hoarse with grief. "They strung him up and fucked up all his shit and cut his fingers off and I killed him!”

Five’s voice, so quiet that she had to listen for it more with her mind than her ears. “You’re not the only one,” he said. “It’s okay, Nine. It’s done. You just kept him from hurting anymore.”

"Fuck you," hiccuped Nine, voice raw. He sounded muffled, now, like his face was pressed into Five’s shoulder. "Fuck you."

"It’s okay," said Five, again. "I know."

Nine had never told her that story. Even during their mental conversations, he’d always kept the memory tucked carefully away from her. She suspected he’d never been able to scream at her with all the hurt he’d had to dig up to talk about it, and never would be.

The room was quiet, and Ella moved away, unheard, unseen, and deeply grateful for Five.

———————

When she saw them on the roof, holding hands and watching the sun rise, she almost went back inside.

This is not your moment, she told herself. They never, ever hold hands like this, not where anyone else can see them. Don’t ruin it.

At the thought, the loneliness yawned open again under her, colder and bleaker than ever before, so sudden and desperate that they both turned like they’d heard a gunshot.

Dammit, she thought, stomach twisting. But they didn’t jump away from each other, or radiate resentment at her intrusion.

"Hey," said Five, waving awkwardly with his unoccupied hand. He twisted in his seat on the edge of the roof in a way that would be dangerous for someone who couldn’t fly.

Ella waved back, timidly, but didn’t move. Her feet wanted to move forward, to come and join them, but she stayed where she was, unsure of her welcome.

"Are you gonna watch the sunrise or not?" asked Nine, craning his long skinny neck over one shoulder. "If so, get over here. It looks like it’ll be pretty bitchin’, and Five’ll cry like a little girl if he misses it."

Five glared at him, and Ella’s hesitation broke and fell away. “I take offense to that remark,” she said, striding across the roof to squeeze in between them.

"Noted and ignored," said Nine, cheerfully. One arm wrapped around her shoulders, crossing Five’s where it did the same. "Look, there it goes!"

Ella kicked her feet in thin air as she watched dawn break, embraced by the two people she trusted most in the world.

She didn’t worry about falling. She knew they’d catch her if she did.

Chapter Text

Of all the things he was starting to find himself noticing about Maggie, what never ceased to faintly surprise him was her hair.

"Can you move your arm for a second?" she’d ask, peering up at him from behind those glasses (he’d never seen them up close before; treatments and enhancements had abounded in Ashwood, for those few who needed them).

She’d be sitting too close again, of course—no matter how far away she sat down, she always ended up practically curled against his side, barely any space between them—and her blue-green eyes would reflect the sunlight so brightly it almost hurt to look at, and of course, of course he’d do what she asked, even though his sworn mission had been to see her dead.

But two years had made them comfortable, or at the very least made her comfortable with him, and he hadn’t thought about the mission in a long, long time.

"When the hell is Adam getting back?" he said crossly, this time, as Maggie opened the door of their stolen sedan and climbed into the seat next to him. Her hair was frizzy and wild this morning, and she had a book tucked under one arm as usual; no matter how many times Adam told her not to, she’d always find some way to get hold of a new one from whatever town they were passing through as soon as she was done with the old one. What she did with them afterward, he didn’t know, but with few exceptions they were always gone by the time the sedan rolled on.

"Dunno," she said. "He said he’d be out a while, didn’t he?" She sat about a foot away, curling her legs up into the seat, but he knew the distance would be gone in no time.

"He’d better get his ass in gear," Ivan muttered. "It’s boring just sitting here."

She didn’t argue, mainly because he was right. The reddish desert of Albuquerque was beautiful in its own way, but it didn’t hold much to interest an onlooker.

Instead, she leaned back in the seat and cracked her book. “I could read you something,” she said, only half teasing. He was perfectly capable of reading for himself—at least, he’d gotten much better at it since living on the road with a rabid bookworm—but she did it better, and they both knew it.

And he liked the sound of her voice, he tried not to admit to himself, and the mesmerized look on her face as she fell into the world between the pages, and the way the sun turned her curly red hair into a messy halo.

"Sure, whatever," he said out loud. "What is it today? Please tell me it’s not fucking Les Miserábles again," he added fervently.

She laughed, part Scottish lilt and part squeak. “I’ll have you know that book’s a classic. And I got some Robert Frost poems, which I like quite a lot, so hush.”

"It went on forever,” he mumbled under his breath, but quieted to let her read.

Human poems were weird. And usually they didn’t make any sense, and Ivan didn’t enjoy things that didn’t make sense, because they made him feel as stupid as he knew he was. But Maggie never made him feel stupid for not understanding right away, and she was always willing to explain, even if he still didn’t get it by the time she was done.

He didn’t feel like struggling to understand this time, though; so he lost himself in the sound of the words, and the sound of Maggie’s voice, and the heat of the sun filtering through the windows.

By the time she paused in her reading, his eyelids were starting to droop. He felt warmer than he had before, and when he glanced down Maggie was in his personal bubble again, looking thoughtfully back up at him.

She seemed nervous all of a sudden. Why was that? Had she seen someone following them or someth—

She took a quick, mousy breath, as if sucking up all her courage, and kissed him on the cheek. She had a long way to go to accomplish this, with their respective sizes, and he felt her hair tickle against his jaw as she fell back into place, her heart beating against his arm like a hummingbird.

There was a long moment of silence in which neither of them seemed quite sure what to do. She was staring at him, eyes big, face blotchy with a blush, and things were different now, but that was okay.

"Okay," he said, because he was no Robert Frost and he couldn’t think of a righter word. "Okay."

She understood, thank god, and smiled so wide her freckled cheeks dimpled, and lifted his arm over her head and around her shoulders (with some effort; it was a big arm).

Her hair never ceased to surprise him, but it wasn’t the only thing about her that did.

He tucked her further into the crook between arm and side, and let the combined warmth of sun and garde lull him to sleep.

Chapter Text

"This has got to be the worst uniform I’ve ever seen," says Cody.

Stanley sticks his head around the closet door. “What’s the matter with it? It looks awesome!”

"It looks like a BDSM outfit," Cody replies flatly, laying the black leather jacket back on his boyfriend’s bed with some distaste.

Stanley blinks. “So?”

"So we’re working in a fucking coffee shop!" says Cody. "Why the hell do we need black leather jackets?"

Stanley saunters out of the closet, grinning and smoothing his own jacket down his sides. “You’re just mad ‘cause you don’t look as sexy in it,” he says, flopping down on the edge of the bed next to Cody.

Cody glares at him. “You look like a fucking idiot.”

"In fact," says Stanley, as if he hadn’t spoken, "I think you’d look a lot sexier without it." He leans close, arms snaking around Cody’s waist.

The stupid pickup line makes Cody flush to the roots of his hair. “That doesn’t even work,” he mutters, “I’m not wearing it now, you dumb f—”

He is promptly cut off by Stanley’s mouth.

They don’t talk about much for a while after that.

Chapter Text

She should have known when she heard the noise the elevator made as it stopped. It was the grinding, rattling groan of an ancient half-dead thing, just waiting to give up the ghost.

But the stairs went past the apartments of people she’d rather stay as far away from as possible, and the nice-looking girl with the basket of cookies was already stepping onto the rickety elevator; so on she went as well.

The other girl smiled shyly at her as she entered. Her hair was long and dark, fading to a caramel shade at the edges, and she fiddled at the hem of her prim, blue-and-white blouse with the hand that wasn’t holding the basket.

"Hi," said Maren, awkwardly, flashing a quick smile back as she settled into her corner of the elevator.

The elevator dinged, and started to rise; and, about three seconds after it started moving, it jerked and ground to a halt.

Maren grimaced, rubbing the back of her head where she’d bumped it against the wall, and sighed. “Shit.”

They stood there in silence for several minutes before the other girl spoke up. “So who are you visiting?” A Spanish accent tugged at the edges of her words, lifting up the t’s and r’s like the high point of a check mark.

That sealed it in her mind: they were going to be here for a while. She sat crosslegged on the floor, leaning back against the wall. Might as well get comfortable.

"A friend," she said. And then, because just leaving it at that felt a little curt, she added, "Well. Ex-boyfriend. But John’s still a friend."

The girl seemed to take her sitting down as an invitation—which she supposed it was, come to think of it—and sat next to her. “You must be good friends, then,” she said, setting the basket between them.

Maren smiled. “Yeah, I guess so. What about you?”

"Here to visit a friend too," said the girl. "Hector Ricardo. Have you met him?"

Maren shook her head.

"He’s a good friend, too. Today’s his birthday." She hefted the basket of cookies, dropped it again. "Want some of these? He’ll eat all of them by himself if I let him. I would have gotten a smaller one, but the others in the store were even bigger."

Maren hesistated a moment, and then shrugged. “Sure. Thanks.”

She reached for a cookie at the same time that the girl did—probably to hand it to her, she seemed that ridiculously polite—and their hands brushed. She half-expected the girl to jump, or jerk her hand away, but she didn’t. In fact, her brown eyes sparkled, and her smile widened a little.

"My name’s Marina, by the way," said the girl, and Maren tried not to stare, because that would be rude and then she’d have to explain that it was just an amazing coincidence to run into a girl whose name was two letters away from her own, and who also happened to be able to make her chest squeeze tighter with a smile. "What’s yours?"

"Maren Elizabeth," she replied, after a moment, and took a bite of her cookie. "Nice to meet you."

Chapter Text

Adam was starting to regret convincing Rex to run with him in the three-legged race.

———————

"Why should I?" he’d said when Adam had asked him, his face set in a scowl. It was understandable that he might not be enthusiastic about the games, considering.

"Come on, it’s the Unity Festival," he’d said in response. "It’ll be fun. And we need to build bridges with the humans and the garde. It’s only been a few years, I know, but we can do it, and the Unity Festival is important."

"The Unity Festival is bullshit," said Rex, not bothering to look at him. And then, "Whatever. If it’ll get you to stop nagging."

"Good enough for me," said Adam.

———————

"Ready!"

Adam braced himself, trying for the hundredth time to try and find his balance with one of Rex’s tree-trunk legs tied to his.

"Set!"

He felt Rex tense. A bead of sweat ran down his face; maybe it hadn’t been such a good idea to partner up with a trained soldier bred for combat. He just hoped he’d be patient enough to stay at Adam’s pace.

"Go!"

He wasn’t. Immediately Adam was thrown off-balance, flailing his limbs and hopping along behind. At least they were doing better than some, he thought, glancing over to where John was dragging Sam across the green, apparently without realizing it despite his best friend’s yelling to stop; Five and Nine, for their part, had started fighting within ten yards of the starting line.

"Rex, I’m gonna fall!" he called, and amazingly enough, Rex heard.

Unfortunately, he had a different solution in mind.

Adam squawked when Rex picked him up in a crushing bear hug and started to run as fast as possible; his free leg kicked in thin air, which got its revenge by almost deafening him with the wind.

"That’s not fair, you son of a bitch!" he heard Nine yell somewhere far behind, followed by a yelp and what sounded like Five elbowing him in the face.

They were winning, Adam saw dazedly. The only other team that was anywhere near them were Six and Marina, moving like a well-oiled machine.

Go go go! he caught himself thinking, in spite of the fact that his leg felt half yanked out of its socket and he would very much prefer that Rex stopped going as soon as humanly possible.

With a roar, Rex put on a final burst of speed, crossing the finish line moments before Six and Marina. He dealt with his forward momentum quite efficiently, which is to say he pitched forward and tackled Adam to the ground with a whoomph of displaced air.

"Get the hell off me," Adam wheezed. He’d find time to be proud when his organs had a chance to shift back to their normal places, he was sure.

"Dude!" yelled Rex, way too close to his ear; when he pulled back to look down at Adam, his dark eyes shone. "Unity Festival is awesome!”

Chapter Text

All in all, he’d gotten off lucky with just a broken arm.

"Adam?" A deep, rough-edged voice, laced with panic. "Are you okay, man? Shit! Adam!"

He tried to focus through the pain and shock. In the distance, he saw the retreating headlights of the car that had struck him a glancing blow.

"Asshole," he murmured.

"Adam!" barked the voice again, loud enough and close enough to snap him out of it a little. He looked up into a pale blur against the night sky, which slowly resolved itself into Rex’s face. “Where are you hurt?”

"Arm," he said, and sweet jesus, did it ever. "I think it’s broken."

"Shit," repeated Rex, although he sounded relieved that it wasn’t worse. Adam would have been inclined to agree, except that a broken arm was just not something he could bring himself to be relieved over.

Rex was saying something again. “Listen, I’m gonna splint your arm. It’ll hurt like hell, but it’ll help. Alright?”

"Alright," he replied, not really paying attention.

Rex’s face disappeared from his vision, and the enveloping warmth he’d felt quickly began to fade. A stab of worry pierced his stomach—going blind and going cold were both very bad signs—until it occurred to him that Rex had gone to get a splint, and before that had been cradling him like a broken doll.

Well, I'm not dying at least, he thought distantly.

Eventually, Rex returned. “Hey there,” Adam croaked, as Rex kneeled next to him. “Do you think we can get that guy’s license plate, or—”

And then, without warning, the splinting started. He screamed until his voice sputtered and choked, and then started hitting weakly at Rex’s shoulder with his good arm.

"Shut up, you baby," said Rex, tying off the splint, but the gruff words didn’t quite match the tone. "Come on, I’ll see if I can hitch us a ride."

He slid his arms carefully under Adam’s knees and shoulders, hoisting him up in one motion. Adam felt himself shaking, but the warmth of Rex’s bulk helped even though his arm still hurt like a bitch.

"You’re a shitty doctor," he said, gritting his teeth against the pain. And, "Thanks."

Rex made a vague noise in reply and started off down the roadside, Adam hanging limply from his arms. They made a single black shape against the whispering backdrop of silver fields, and the moon lit their way as they faded into the night.

Chapter Text

"Teach me the sword," said the lady Hart, and Ser Elizabeth began to fall in love.

At the time, however, she only recognized it as a faint discomfort, a sudden lost balance in the world. “Tell me you jest,” she replied. “You could not lift my sword, for one.”

Lady Hart raised an eyebrow. “They are not so heavy as that. I have yet to see even a new squire struggle to hold up his weapon.” She absently stroked her hair; its long, straight golden-softness contrasted sharply with Ser Elizabeth’s, wild and dark as a raven’s wing.

"And I’ve yet to see a new squire who did not swing his weapon about like a blind, drunken idiot," said Ser Elizabeth with some dryness. "And injure himself, like as not."

"I need not injure myself if you teach me," said Lady Hart, relentlessly patient. Her manner was kind, sweet, even; but Ser Elizabeth knew from experience that she had her way in the end, and convinced you that it was yours into the bargain.

"You need not learn the sword at all," she said. "You are a sworn and loyal ally of the Nine Knights, the Fourth in particular, and that is all the protection you will ever require."

Yes, whispered a nasty thread in her thoughts, she is dear to the hearts of us all, but only one is dear to her own.

It bothered her, and she knew not why, and so she ignored it.

"Can you keep that oath?" challenged Lady Hart. "Are you certain?"

Of course rose on her tongue, and died behind her teeth. It held the heavy, awful, ringing quality of a question she had been asking herself from the beginning, although she had not known it.

"Nine Knights you may be," continued the lady Hart, "with power to call the rains and shake the world and tear down the gods, if you wished it, but in the end you are only six."

Ser Elizabeth knew she spoke of the five remaining knights who had kept and held high their title of Nine, as well as a Tenth who was no knight but a queen; but she could hear nothing but you are only Six, and her throat and chest and heart and hands tightened with the truth of it.

"Teach me, Maren," murmured Lady Hart, drawing closer, setting the trail that would lead her to one day call her Sarah.

I cannot keep her safe forever, thought Maren; and then, I cannot keep her back.

"As you wish, milady," she said, and bowed her head in what no longer felt a surrender.

Chapter Text

"I’m not tired," says Sam, rather childishly, and stifles a jaw-cracking yawn.

"Bullshit," Six replies. "You’ve been staring at that computer screen for five hours straight."

He blinks and squints blearily at the monitor, as if holding it responsible for the unaccounted-for time. “Huh,” he says. “You’re right. Time to take a coffee break.”

She leans between him and the monitor, blocking his view and forcing him to back up a couple inches. The squeaking of the computer chair’s wheels comes to a halt when she reaches over his shoulder and grabs the back to keep it still. “Time to go to bed.”

Sam’s eyebrows go up, and he leans back in his chair. “Miss Maren, are you trying to seduce me?” he says, with what she thinks might be a sleep-deprived attempt at a seductive smirk.

Then his brain catches up with him, his eyes widen, and his face goes bright red. She can almost hear him choke.

"Uh," he stammers. "Uh."

Scratch that. There’s no ‘almost’ about it.

"I didn’t hear anything," she says, after letting him sweat for a few seconds. There’s a war on; she might as well have some amusement. “Bedtime.”

He’s too tongue-tied to protest when she puts both hands on the chairback and wheels him down the hall, the chair squeeka squeekaing all the way.

Chapter Text

"Yo, Cody! Go long!"

"It’s a baby, Stanley, not a football. Please put aside the urge to follow your parents’ example in raising you, because if you make me fail this project I will kick you in the balls so hard they’ll be giving you heartburn."

Stanley hoists said project up by one leg, ignoring him completely. “A is for Asshole,” he says to the doll, pointing in his home ec partner’s direction. “Case in point.”

Cody rubs a hand across his face, stealing a glance at the teacher in the desperate hope that she isn’t watching. She’s currently occupied with explaining something to one of the other kids, thank god.

And then, because his luck is still shit, Stanley notices him looking.

"Looks like some-bo-dy would rather be doing all this babies shit with Miss Crayton,” he says, wearing his shit-eatingest grin.

"Shut the fuck up!" hisses Cody in one explosive breath, checking to make sure she hasn’t heard. “And she’s a teacher, gross!”

"Son, you have got a lot to learn about being a high-schooler," says Stanley, shaking his head at Cody’s naïvete.

"Whatever, just don’t demonstrate anywhere people can connect it to me," Cody says hastily. "And give me the damn baby before you drop it!"

Stanley obliges. “Looks like Mommy’s pissy again,” he whispers to their ‘son.’ “Be strong for me, little man. I love you.”

He ducks just in time to avoid a high-velocity baby doll to the head.

Chapter Text

"Oh, christ," gasps Stanley, hoarse and ragged and fighting back tears. "Motherfucking shit, Cody, oh god…"

Cody lies across his legs, deathly pale and bleeding sick dark rotting brown from the festering bite that Stanley has only just discovered under his shirt.

"Please don’t let me turn," he says, with effort. "Please don’t."

"You’re not gonna turn, I’m not gonna let you—we’ll get you fixed up, babe, hold on—" Stanley is babbling, knows it, knows there’s nothing he can do, babbles anyway.

"Stanley," wheezes Cody, one hand grabbing weakly at the hunting knife he keeps strapped to his leg, and Stanley realizes exactly what it is he’s asking.

"Oh shit," he says. "Oh no, oh fuck, oh god dammit, don’t ask me that!" The memory of finding the mostly-eaten corpse that was Sandor—having to kill it a second time before it could drag itself across the carpet where they’d watched so many movies together—rises in his mind’s eye like bile. "Jesus fuck, why didn’t you tell me sooner?"

"Wouldn’t have made a difference," Cody coughs. "Please, I’d do… same for you."

He would, and Stanley would want him to; but please not this, not this way, no no no no no—

"Stanley," he says, so quietly that it’s hard to hear him. His eyes are starting to glaze over, and his voice cracks. "Help me, don’t let me please, I’m scared."

Stanley stares down at him through blurry eyes, chest heaving with sobs that won’t form quite right, and sees the helpless fear on Cody’s face, and makes his decision.

"Don’t be scared, babe," he hiccups, pressing their foreheads together, and pulls the knife out of its sheath.

Chapter Text

He’s waiting by her tree again.

He always sits by her tree. Why does he always sit by her tree? The elm is her oldest and dearest friend; it gives her quick passage into the clouds and back when she needs lightning and vapor and sky beneath her feet again, and although she used to worry about the burns she leaves along its trunk, it never seems to mind.

It stands alone, apart from the other trees, and speaks rarely to anyone but her, and never tells her secrets to another living soul, and she never tells its.

It’s her tree and he’s sitting under it.

She peers from between the trees, hands resting lightly on the mossy trunk of the oak that is murmuring to stay back and away, only trouble comes of their kind.

It is an old tree—no, not simply old; it was ancient when the old trees around it were seeded—and it has been a familiar and trusted presence since before she can remember.

She ignores it all the same, because it is not her tree, and because her tree is the one being sat under by one of the village folk, and because it has happened before, and because she is tired of being forced to hide from her own place and her best friend for hours and hours at a time.

So she vaults over a root that reaches nearly to her knees, paying no heed to the rustling admonishments of the oak, and treads across the soft, thick grass of the moor toward the intruder.

He doesn’t notice her at first, busy as he is with scribbling in a strange, oblong object. He is small and whip-thin, eyes and hair dark brown, muttering softly as he scratches away. A strange, unwieldy pendant dangles around his neck, two thin pieces of black—metal?—wrapping around two roundish pieces of glass and meeting in the middle.

She doesn’t have a very good concept of ‘young’—few of the forest folk do; their lives start like a twist of the tongue, a wisp on the wind, an idea taking shape—but even to her, he looks young. A little anxious, a little angry, a little tired, as though some past hurt has worn grooves into his soul, but determined in spite of it.

Also, he is not very observant.

She is close enough to touch the charred bark of her tree before he realizes she is there, in fact, so she does. Is he bothering you? she asks it silently, and is both relieved and a little annoyed to feel its breezy laughter in return.

I think he’s bothering you more, it whispers, and static pops crossly over her skin.

At this, he finally looks up, and his eyes widen. “Who are—” he says, making as if to jump to his feet; he looks tense, nervous, excited. “Did you come from in there? Are you one of the forest folk?”

She is taken aback by his forwardness. Village folk rarely venture up here except at solstices and season festivals, where they carry out their strange rituals while speaking in hushed tones of the wild forest folk, the fae, who control the air and earth and eat dreams and bring rain or pestilence as it suits them.

They’ve always amused and intrigued and a bit repelled her, if she is honest (which she is, and bluntly so).

And now this one is here, in broad daylight, asking her questions without apparent fear or hesitation. Nerves, maybe; excitement, maybe; but not fear.

It’s… interesting.

"The clouds are where I walk," she says, "but I suppose the forest is my home, yes." She crosses her arms and lowers the angle of her head slightly, which serves not to make her look deferent but to give her gray stare the piercing quality of lightning.

His hands tighten on the rectangle, which she notices is made up of hundreds of sheets, thinner than bark, held together by a coarse leather cover. “My… my dad went in there,” he says, face pale. “Years ago. At least, I think he did. We’ve never found him, but I…”

He stops, stares at a large stone peeking through the grass near his foot. It takes a moment for him to continue. “Anyway. I thought maybe one of you had seen him.” He chuckles, and it’s a strained, fragile sound. “He was obsessed with this place.”

She is silent for a moment. Fathers are another concept she is not entirely clear on, but she can tell that whoever this person was, his disappearance has left scars on this boy that have only grown sour with time.

"I haven’t seen him," she says. "I’m sorry."

The look on the boy’s face—a sudden, bitter crease in his features, a disappointment that he has obviously been waiting and waiting for and has maybe gone through many times already—compels her to add, lamely, “But it’s a big forest.”

He looks up at her.

"Maybe we can find him," she says, and hears her heartbeat in her throat and how the the tree-voices will rise in shock, what is she doing, but she doesn’t care. All she can think of is what it would be like if one day she woke up and the elm tree was gone, and if she knew so in her bones but not in her head, and how it would tear her straight down the middle, not to know.

He looks wary, but considering. “Is it safe?”

"Probably not; but I’ll do what I can, if it’s so important to you."

He scrambles to his feet, and there is relief and gratitude and eagerness on his face. “It is,” he says hastily. “I have to get some things from the village, but I’ll be back this time tomorrow.” He pauses uncertainly. “Will you be here?”

She stares at him for a long moment. “Yes.”

That’s apparently all he needs to hear. He grabs up his things and takes off over the moor, skinny limbs almost tangling together, and shouts a thank-you over his shoulder as he runs for the village.

She watches him go, one hand on the bark of the elm tree.

That was well-met, the tree tells her; and, I promise not to tell.

The rest of the day is passed flittering through the clouds, feeling them tense and darken around her to match her—apprehensive? not quite—mood. When it’s time to meet, she darts impatiently down the familiar pathway to the ground, riding the lightning.

He’s waiting by her tree again.

And that’s all right, she realizes, because she’s going to help him get back his own.

Chapter Text

The first time Nine slaps his ass, John almost decks him.

Granted, it was mostly just startled reflex on his part, but going by Nine’s grin he suspects that he’s about to get a little more premeditated.

"What the hell, dude?" he snaps, turning to face Nine as he backs up a couple steps.

"What?" asks Nine, innocently. "Just a friendly pop on the butt between friends. Is that so weird?"

"That is most definitely weird," confirms John. "Hands off the merchandise."

"Whatever you say, friend," Nine says cheerfully, and gives him another smack on his way out the door.

———————

The sixth or seventh time, he doesn’t really remember, he glares hard at Nine and says flatly, “I have a girlfriend.”

Nine blinks, and then grins at him, walking up a wall to face him upside down. “I’m pretty sure you are the girlfriend, Johnny.”

John’s Lumen flares.

"Okay, fine, live in denial," says Nine, backing away with his hands in the (wrong-way-up) air.

"Fine by me," says John.

"You can afford to do it, with an ass like that," says Nine, and dodges.

———————

Nine’s breath is bubbling, gurgling, and so many of his bones are broken, and he’s got so much internal bleeding, jesus christ, that John is having trouble healing it all fast enough.

"Shit," John mutters, fighting down panic. If Marina were here, she could help, but she’s currently hundreds of miles away. "I swear to god, if you leave me alone out here—"

Nine coughs, manages to speak as his punctured lung heals. “Fuckin’ pikens, man, cut me some slack—”

"—if you leave me alone out here," continues John, "Piken or no piken, I’ll tell Ella about your porn collection."

Nine’s eyes widen. “You wouldn’t.”

"I swear to god."

Nine sighs in defeat, his head falling back as he coughs up some more blood. “As long as I get to slap me some more of that luscious ass before I go.”

John grimaces. “Seriously, dude, what the hell is it with you and my ass? Hold still, the ribs are gonna hurt.”

Nine doesn’t answer; instead, he grits his teeth and weathers the pain.

It’s a while before they’re done and Nine is whole again, by which point they are both exhausted. Nine gets to his feet first, dusting off his pants—rather pointlessly, as they're torn and bloodied and totally ruined—and then clasping John’s hand to pull him upright.

"Look, man," says Nine, palpably awkward. "If you really want me to quit touchin’ your butt—"

His apology is cut off by a yelp when John whacks him in the ass with a blow that has the power of his whole arm behind it.

"Consider us even," he says, and starts jogging off through the wreckage as Nine stares, bewildered, hopeful, and stinging, after him.

Chapter Text

“'M not sick,” Ivan muttered feverishly around the thermometer, even as he struggled to burrow his massive frame into the fuzzy comforter of his bed.

It was freezing in here, jesus christ. Scratch that, it was too hot—no, too cold again—

Maggie waited for the beep, took the thermometer out, and whistled. “You’re running 102,” she said. “I’d say you’re pretty sick. Sit tight, I’m getting more blankets.”

“‘M not sick!” he insisted after her retreating back, belied by the hoarse weakness of his voice.

She returned a moment later with a pile of fuzzy blankets nearly as big as she was. He would have thrown off the garish patchwork of pastel in an instant, if it wasn’t so blessedly warm. And if he’d been able to move.

"Fight with Stanley’s today," he protested weakly as she bundled him firmly into the comforters. "He’ll think I chickened out."

"Too bad," she said evenly. "You can reschedule Fight Club for a day when you’re not a great limp noodle."

"Fight Club?" he asked. "Is that from a book or something?" Who was he kidding? With Maggie, it was always from a book.

She sat on the edge of the bed. “Yeah. It’s this book about a guy who starts this secret illegal fighting ring with his best friend, who’s actually a figment of his imagination. You might like it, actually.” She reached out to feel of his forehead. “Pretty violent.”

"Huh," he murmured, eyes drifting shut as her small, cool, slender fingers moved through his sweaty hair. "Might try it sometime." The shivering was starting to subside, whether from the covers or Maggie’s closeness or both.

She smiled, button nose twitching as she pushed up her glasses. “You should. And the friend steals human fat from cosmetic surgery clinics and makes soap out of it, and hides porn in the movies at the theater where he works.”

He snorted. “Awesome. Makes me want to work in a theater.”

She flicked his ear lightly, grinning. “Hush, you. On second thought, don’t read the book. I don’t want you getting ideas.”

"Too late," he mumbled. It was hard to move at all, much less against the layers of blankets, but he curled around his girlfriend so that his knees nudged her further up the bed.

She took the hint, scooting over and lying on her side, her back to him so that his deep, slowly evening breaths shifted her hair in a steady rhythm.

"I’ll bring it tomorrow," he thought he heard her say, before the warm darkness of sleep washed over him.

Chapter Text

"Gonnagetcha," Stanley chanted, grabbing Cody’s shoulders suddenly for the god-only-knew-how-many-this-made time that night.

"I’ll stick this caramel apple in your hair," Cody warned.

Stanley made a show of holding up his hands, twisting his wiry body away from the offending treat. “Hey hey, no call for that; we’re all bored here.” This last he directed at one of the poorly-hidden hidden cameras meant to catch their reactions. “Seriously. Rush hour in high school hall was scarier than this shit.”

"The snacks are good, though," said Cody absently, distracted by the careful maneuvering it took to bite into the apple without getting caramel all over his face.

Stanley took no such care when he swiped the apple, ignoring the indignant “hey!” that followed, and tore into it with a crunch. He chewed loudly, obnoxiously, not seeming to notice or care about the candy smeared across his cheek. “Damn straight. Was that there the first time we came through?”

Cody halted, his gaze following the pointing finger to a small, dark archway tucked into the corner between the wall and a glass display case of moving mannequins. “…Huh,” he said, after a moment. “Don’t think so.”

Stanley looked at him, dark eyes glinting with mischief, and grinned. “I dare you.”

Cody frowned. “I un-dare me. We’ve already been in here four times tonight, and it’s almost time for the hayride.”

Stanley scoffed. “You can’t just un-dare yourself!”

"Can too," replied Cody, evenly. "We agreed after last time. Remember? Neon-green asses for a month?"

"Bullshit. No way would I have agreed to that. And it wasn’t even a month. More like three weeks." He took another messy bite. "Whatever. I’m going in there and you can’t stop me, and I’m taking your apple."

So saying, he ducked down and waddled into the darkness of the archway, scooting his feet as loudly as possible probably just to be annoying.

Cody glanced around the gloomily-lit hallway, ending with an apologetic look at the hidden camera, and followed him.

———————

"That must be a candied apple in your pocket, because you don’t look very happy to see me," observed Stanley, after they nearly burned down the haunted house.

"I swear to god," Cody muttered, his face a thunderhead, "the next time you ask me to follow you into a goddamn heating duct—”

"Can’t help it," Stanley said airily. "I’m infected with the spirit of adventure."

He looked Cody over properly for the first time since they’d been pulled out of the vent, and noticed with a sudden twinge of worry the angry burns on his elbows. “You okay?”

Cody ducked his head, tried to cross his arms, thought better of it. “Yeah. Hit a hot wall. I’m fine.”

A moment of awkward silence, and then “sorry”; and then Stanley planted a sloppy, sticky, off-angled kiss on the corner of Cody’s mouth, by way of apology.

He responded by ducking his head further, blushing beet-red.

"I’m fine," he repeated, taking Stanley’s hand in one of his, reaching up to touch the intersection of cheek and mouth and caramel with the other. "And you’re buying me another apple."