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Feel me in your bones

Chapter Text

Erron dropped his cigarette, grinding it into the gravel road with the heel of his boot. He looked up at the sky, taking in the vast blue yonder, appreciating the sight of large white clouds that moved along lazily. He leaned up against the door of the buick, watching the cigarette smoke dissipate.

 

They had been in earthrealm for two days now, the memory of their meeting with the special forces now fading in Erron's mind. He had expected them to leave after the day, Kotal's desire to stay longer and “explore” earthrealm had blindsided him. Cassie Cage and Jacqui Briggs quick to encourage the idea with a strange zeal, suggesting places to visit and sights to see. “How about you girls just show him around, I'll stay here” he had proposed, honestly not interested in the idea.

They shared a glance, Jacqui stifling a laugh “Maybe some other time, you two need to bro-out”

“What the hell does that even mean?”

The next day they were provided an abundance of items; maps, a road atlas covered in sticky notes referencing areas of interest, a falsified drivers license for Erron and a suitcase each stuffed with clothing. “Uh, we got you covered Erron, size wise” Cassie rested her hands on her hips “Cowboy chic right?” Erron rolled his eyes.

“Kotal, your stuff might be a bit, well let's just say we'd need a tailor"

“I'll make due Cassandra” he smiled up at her from behind a tattered map he was examining. Jacqui handed keys to Erron “The car is a bit testy, just try to bring it back in one piece” He sighed, behind his mask a scowl was steadily forming. “Roadtrip tunes, we picked out some bangers” Cassie tossed a cd case to him “Isn't it just John Denver's Country roads on repeat, Cass?"

"Shhh" nudging Jacqui with an elbow, she fought back a laugh "you guys have fun, don't forget to send a postcard!"

 

And now here they were, in the middle of nowhere stopped in an empty side road. Kotal insistent that Erron was driving in the wrong direction. He had been quick to retrieve a map from the glove box, before reconsidering and hastily exiting the car and striding a few feet into the grass.

He caught sight of Kotal through the cars side mirror, quickly looking away. An urge to stretch his legs moved him, combined with the discomfort of the car's exterior pressing heat into his back. He crossed the narrow road and found a trampled path through the knee high grass and weeds. He looked behind him, Kotal surely wouldn't mind if he left for a few minutes...

The path meandered down, tall grass eventually giving way to hard packed earth. An indented furrow in it continued the trail, leading up to a scant grouping of trees and vegetation, their green leaves shuddering in the light breeze. He grinned to himself when he came to a dip in the path leading down to a small embankment, water lapping gently at it's shore. It was a modest sized swimming hole, not too deep, Erron able to make out the rocky bottom from where he stood. The water shimmered green, reflecting the color of the trees surrounding it, he closed his eyes and took in a deep breath. His nose was filled with the smell of grass and wet earth, the buzzing of insects and the occasional bird call providing a pleasant melody.

He promptly undressed, folding his clothes and setting them down at the base of a nearby tree, placing his hat and boots beside them. The thought of returning to the car did not pass his mind, simply content to focus on this little slice of heaven.

Tentatively he dropped down from the shallow embankment, his breath catching in his chest and his muscles tensing at the cool touch of the water. He dunked his head under, embracing the sensation of shocked nerves, now starting to relax and ease into the water's caress. He resurfaced with a gasp, wiping his face and brushing back his wet hair. Kicking himself back he floated, arms and legs outstretched. He focused on the clouds again, following them as they drifted past, their forms billowing and stretching.

The energy around him changed in a moment, feeling his skin tingle slightly, he frowned, trying to place the sensation.

“Erron” A deep voice broke through his contemplation.

“Holy shit” he lost his balance, sinking down beneath the water before finding his footing and righting himself. He tried to rub the water from his eyes, catching a warped sight of a figure standing at the embankment.

“Damn it Kotal, what in - I thought you were going to look at the map” he fumbled over the words, brushing the hair out of his eyes.

“I did” Kotal gazed around at his surroundings, face pensive “You took the incorrect off ramp, Erron”

Erron frowned, “Shit, did ya see how to get back?”

“I believe it would be best if I drove, your navigation skills are not as sharp as I had expected” he turned his gaze down to look at Erron, raising his eyebrows in mock surprise.

“Nah, I've got it handled...” he felt his cheeks flush red “by the by, you've got your fly down” Erron regretted the words as soon as they left his mouth, watching Kotal's arms come uncrossed and his hands reach down to unbutton his jeans. Kotal kicked off the sandals he was wearing, pulling his jeans and briefs down. Erron's eyes shot back up to the sky as Kotal continued, shucking off his button down and then his white tee. A familiar twinge of excitement shot through his stomach, his skin tingling all over again. He thought he had pushed these feelings down, when they first made themselves known two months ago.

“Kotal, we've got to get goin' if we want to make good time” he bit at his upper lip, his voice an unwelcome interval higher, he cleared his throat “I don't like driving when it's dark”

“You did not seem to be concerned about the time when I found you...” Kotal entered the water, displacing it in front of him as he closed the distance between them.

Erron grunted, placing a hand over his crotch, now treading towards the embankment “Yeah, well, I thought you'd take longer with the map” he lied.

“Is that so?” Kotal chuckled, rubbing at his chin, his gaze downcast below the too clear water. “I never pictured you as a modest person, Erron”

Erron feigned laughter, his face growing hotter by the second “enjoying the water or are you just having fun ribbing me?”

“Both” he sent a spray of water at Erron with with a broad sweep of his arm.

“Oh, that's nice” Erron grimaced, the cool water stinging his face. He returned the favor, hiding his smile with a scowl when Kotal dodged the splash.

They spent the next half hour in the water, Erron settled near the small shore, enjoying the sensation of small waves breaking around his chest, Kotal swimming on his back and absentmindedly humming a soft tune. He exited the water first, casting a look down at Erron “Are you happy to be back?”

“Huh?” Erron stared into the water, looking at his legs, distorted by the light and liquid. “Sure, I reckon you could say that” A sharp snap of a waistband was his cue to turn around and make his way out, Kotal stood before him, back turned, he stopped dressing himself, evidently content with just the briefs and made his way back up the path. “Goddamn it, Erron” he grumbled under his breath, slipping on his boxer shorts with some difficulty, the fabric eager to soak up the droplets on his skin, sticking uncomfortably. He shoved his arms into his sleeves of his button down, leaving it open. Draping his pants over his shoulder he grabbed the rest of his belongings, stopping to cast a look over his shoulder before trudging up the path.

A sense of disquiet formed in him, realizing that he was truly dreading the next few days. They had grown close over the years, learned about one another and had come to enjoy each others company. He'd be quick to admit that Kotal was one of the few, if not the only person whom he trusted most. But now in the light of spending time with him here - in a more intimate setting, combined with the feelings he couldn't seem to successfully push away, it sent his head spinning.

He settled himself into the car, arching his back at the contact of hot leather against him, tossing his clothes to the back seat where they joined Kotal's.  He turned to look at his co-pilot, reclined in his seat, bronze skin still covered in water droplets. Erron tracked one as it slipped down a pec and rolled over his stomach “All set?” drawing his attention back to the road, he turned the car on, fingers reaching for the radio dial. “Yes, drive back out onto the main road, I'll direct you from there”

“You got it” twisting the keys already in the ignition, he stepped on the gas pedal. The car lunged forward, tossing up gravel and dust as they set back out to their destination.

 

 

“Damn” he tossed the empty thermos into the back seat “all out of coffee”. Kotal clicked his tongue in acknowledgment, his eyes focused on the terrain that passed by them. With Kotal's direction they had easily found their way back to the highway, now sitting in a comfortable silence as neither had cared for the small selection of radio stations that had warbled through the car's old speakers.

“Erron” he started, turning his gaze onto the speedometer “your driving speed is... unnecessary”

“No it's not” Erron tightened his grip on the steering wheel, pressing his foot gently onto the brake peddle to ease down a notch “we've got.. what, three hundred miles to go?”

“Correct” Kotal leaned back down, draping an arm over his eyes.

“Ah damn it, are you fuckin-” more pressure on the brake, dropping their speed considerably as he pulled off onto the shoulder, red and blue lights flashing in the rear view mirror. Kotal scoffed, raising his arm and resting it behind his head, shooting a look of discontent at Erron. Face searing and stomach sinking, he thrust open the center console, grabbing the sheets of paper inside “Can ya hand me my wallet? It's in the glove-box”

Kotal dug through the glovebox, quickly removing his driver's license from the wallet, pressing it hard into Erron's open hand.

He took a deep breath before rolling down the window, watching the officer walk towards them in the rear-view mirror. “Good afternoon gentlemen” the man leaned his head down, pushing up the brim of his hat as he looked them over “you mind turning off the car for me?” Erron reached out for the keys, unexpectedly making contact with Kotal's hand, he pulled back. Kotal turned the keys and pulled them out of the ignition, clenching them in a fist as he stared at Erron.

“License and registration, Sir” the officer's eyes darted between Erron and Kotal, one eyebrow raised slightly. Erron handed over the documents, settling his hands back on the steering wheel. “Hold tight, I'll be back in a minute” Erron nodded, he couldn't help but think they must look peculiar, both sitting in the car barely clothed. He ran a hand nervously through his hair, the silence that permeated the air now tense.

The man returned after a short time, a wide grin on his face. “Alright fellas, here's your registration and your license” Erron promptly took the items back, shuffling them in his hands “So here's the deal, we clocked you at near a hundred” he paused to wipe away the sweat forming at his forehead “you can't exceed eighty-five here in the state-”

Kotal let out a heavy sigh.

“Right, I wasn't thinking about the speed, Officer-” he glanced at the stitched name above a chest pocket “Tohen”

The man nodded, his eyes drifting over to Kotal before directing himself to Erron once more “Right, well seeing as your record's spotless... consider this a warning, Mr. Black”

“Watch that speed, oh and uh... your boyfriend has to buckle up” he patted the roof of the car “you two take care now, drive safe” he turned heel as Erron sat agape. “Hold up, he is not my-“ he belted out the words, only stopping when he heard Kotal's deep rumbling laughter “goddamn it” he mumbled to himself, rubbing his face with both hands.

He threw open the door, pants in hand. Roughly he pulled them on, looking up to catch sight of the patrol car pull into the road and drive past him.

Sitting back down in the car he kept his eyes on the road before him, watching the black form shrink into the distance. Kotal leaned forward, thrusting the keys into the ignition and turning, the car sputtering back into life. “Surely we are making good time now, Erron?” a small smile formed on his lips as he sat back, reclining his seat further.

Erron turned to Kotal, feeling the heat in his face leave and seep into his neck. He flashed him a forced grin “Get that damn belt on”

Kotal burst into laughter again, his shoulders bouncing up and down as the sound rumbled out of his chest. Erron joined in, unable to stop himself, now ignoring the uncomfortable heat in his neck and focusing on the pleasant warmth growing in his stomach.

“As you wish” Kotal sighed, readjusting his seat upright and drawing the belt across his chest.

“Lord almighty...” shaking his head Erron punched the throttle , a loud bang erupting from the exhaust as they accelerated down the highway.

Chapter Text

The sky was a hazy blue, streaked bright yellow and orange, clouds seemingly ablaze. High peaks that rose from the desert glowed red in the setting sunlight, dark shadows playing along cracks and dips.

“Bastard had a damn death wish, I swear it” Erron fiddled with the stereo dial, faint static the only noise it provided “Pissed as a skunk, he comes right at me, says I'm lookin' at him funny. A man of the law-” he scoffed “Not worth much in a town like that, handing out those stars to any prick with a mean streak”

“Shameful, to entrust such power on baseless individuals” Kotal lowered his voice “What did you do to the man, Erron? I can only assume you did not yield.”

“Of course not, I could see it in his damn eyes, he was set on spillin' blood that night, so I obliged him - he went for his iron and I put one between those beady eyes of his” he groaned, trying to fight back a yawn “oh he managed to clear leather - shot one off and it ended up in the ceiling, I still have the casing...”

“Do you? A sentimental keepsake?”

“Ah ha, sure. Y'see there's always a faster gun, Kotal. Well, almost always, ain't a soul quicker than yours truly”

“Your humility is immeasurable...” Kotal chuckled, his eyes fixed on the sun, watching it sink steadily past the horizon

“I'm just stating facts – you know it's the truth.” Erron yawned, fighting to keep his eyes open, his movements more automatic and numb than voluntary. He growled low in his throat and slapped at his cheek, trying to stay alert.

“Erron, pull over at the next rest area”

“We're almost there, I'm fine”

Kotal placed a hand on Erron's shoulder, gripping it tightly “I won't let you drive any longer.”

“What? Ya fixin' to drive? Nah, I got it covered” his eyelids dropped, sleep threatening to spill into his body “I mean yer decent but c'mon” he recalled seeing the man sitting in the driver's seat as he loaded up the car, watched with curiosity as he quickly familiarized himself with it. A loud droning sound entered the cabin as the car drove over the outside lane, Erron jarringly pulled the steering wheel left, over-correcting.

“I am fully capable, even more so than you, in your current condition” Kotal's voice was firm, his decision on the matter set.

“You're lucky this ain't a stick shift...” he considered their options “okay, okay” Erron mumbled. Without thinking he drew his hand over and patted Kotal's “I'll pull over” another yawn left him “at the next rest area.”

He kept driving and Kotal kept his hand on his shoulder. It steadied him slightly, the strong grip on him. Opening his eyes wide he caught sight of the dimly lit rest area, overflowing with long-haul trailers. He groaned as he stepped out of the car, stretching his back, and shutting his eyes as the cool night air flowed over him. “You know what exit to take?” he walked past Kotal, and settled into the passenger seat. “I do” the response came from outside the car, Kotal dressing himself, the night air cooler than what he was used to.

“Good, that's good” Erron whispered to himself, closing the door and feeling the leftover body-heat from Kotal envelop him. He was drifting now, a feeling of comfort passing through the rough haze of fatigue.

The car shifted slightly as Kotal sat, quick to adjust the seat and make room for his legs. He turned to look at Erron, now fast asleep beside him. Kotal reached over for the passenger seat belt, taking care to avoid waking the man, and quietly fastened it.

 

A soft jostling of his shoulder woke Erron, slightly startled he blinked away the sleep and cast a look outside. They were parked in front of a small motel, the neon lights of it's roadside sign casting the parking lot into an alternating yellow and pink glow. He roughly shut the door behind him as he exited the car, taking in his surroundings, the sky now a pitch black, all he could hear was the far off noise of highway traffic and the intermittent bark of a lone dog.

“Thanks for waking me” he joined Kotal at the stairs leading up to rooms on the second floor.

“It would not have been kind to leave you in the car” Kotal's eyes were fixated on the vast expanse of space above them, lost in thought.

“Well I appreciate that you feel that way.”

“I did consider it though...” he turned to look at Erron, his face once more stoic and unreadable.

 

Erron leaned back and huffed, taking in the sight of the man before him. It was a sight that left him feeling confused, as the warmth quickly burst into his stomach again. He stood there before him, arms crossed, in the hazy glow of neon light those luminous blue eyes seemed to bore further into Erron, the features of the man's face coming into sharp relief with each flicker of light. Erron couldn't help but chuckle at the state of his clothing, the button up that he couldn't button, fabric straining tight at the seems, and his jeans that were several inches too short in length. It was strange seeing him like this, devoid of his usual garb.

“Are you well?” Kotal questioned.

“Yeah, peachy” he turned his palm up “my keys?”

Kotal smacked his hand lightly, walking past him and up the stairs “One room was all they had”

 

The door wouldn't budge, Kotal forcibly thrusting the key into the lock and pressing down hard on the handle. “Here, let me give it a go” Erron jostled the key, wiggling it slightly and leaned up against the door, it creaked open with a light pull on the handle. He shot a wink at Kotal and tossed him the keys. Entering the room he ran a hand along the wall, finding the light switch and flicking it, the light was small, only half illuminating the room. It was enough to see the state of the room, old furnishings, and yellow nicotine stained walls. Kotal followed, shutting the door behind him and locking it.

Erron stood alongside one of the small beds, clumsily he undid his belt and set it on the nighstand. He kicked off his boots before tossing himself onto the bed, sighing he rolled his shoulders into the hard mattress and closed his eyes. Kotal stood near the door, watching Erron silently, he flicked off the lights and strode towards the free bed.

Erron opened his eyes, his sight quickly adjusting to the semidarkness of the room. A thin curtain covering the sole window did a poor job of keeping out the light from the neon sign. He turned his head slightly, catching Kotal undress before he settled himself onto the bed, it creaked loudly as he laid down. “Do you smell that Erron?”

“Hmmm?” he took in a sharp inhale, immediately wishing he hadn't “sakes alive, I bet someone met their end in here” the unmistakable scent of rot, looking up at the ceiling he noticed a large dark splotch emanating from the center of it.

“I wouldn't be surprised if that was the case.” Kotal replied, his voice dark.

Erron snorted, crossing his legs, and further relaxing into the bed “thank you, for driving.”

“I was not going to let your stubbornness kill us...”

“I'm not stubborn-”

“Rest, you need it”

Stifling a yawn with his hand “Fine, g'night, Kotal”

“Goodnight, Erron” he replied softly.

The tone of voice surprised him, his heart beat faster in his chest as he rolled over onto his side, silently cursing himself.

The room was silent, save for the tired drone of an air-conditioning unit giving its all. Erron sighed, focusing on the warmth growing in his body, he felt at ease, content. Soon the room was filled with the sound of Kotal's deep slow breathing, already asleep in his bed. Erron focused on it, screwing his eyes shut and imagining the man's chest rise and fall with each breath.

Sunlight streamed into the room, dust particles illuminated in the air, glinting sharply. Erron propped himself up on the stiff bed, his head swirling with the memory of a strange dream he had. Exhaling roughly he pushed the thoughts away, the sour sting of tiredness still present in his body.

He turned his head, finding the bed beside his empty. Grumbling to himself he made his way out of the room. Outside the air was warming steadily. Walking down the stairs, his eyes narrowed in slight pain as he tried to work out a crick in his neck. He was greeted by the sight of Kotal holding two Styrofoam cups of coffee. Erron took one, sitting back onto the hood of the car he sipped at it, reeling when the taste hit him “Christ, was this poured out of an old boot?”

Kotal cocked his head and raised a brow, joining Erron as he leaned up against the car door “Not to your liking?” he lifted the cup to his lips, a grimace quickly spreading on his face.

“Shitty huh?” laughing Erron poured out the dark liquid onto the ground. “Hmm, I was hoping to fill your thermos...” Kotal frowned, taking the empty cup, tossing it along with his into a nearby trashcan.

He felt his cheeks burn slightly, his hand drawing back up to his neck “Ah, don't worry about that”

They entered the car, Erron taking his place as driver once more. Kotal shifted in his seat, turning to face Erron “How are you feeling?”

The engine rumbled, Erron tossing his arm over the back of Kotal's seat, trying to avoid eye contact as he twisted to look out the rear window “Oh I'm feeling as spry as a spring chicken”

He turned the wheel and eased them out of the parking spot, he shifted the car back into drive and pulled into the pothole filled road. “What about you, how'd you sleep?”

Kotal rolled down his window, letting the air seep in as they picked up speed “Fine, though my rest was... unsatisfactory” he rubbed at his temples, leaning his head back.

“Damn, I could've sworn I heard you snorin'”

“Did I keep you from sleeping?”

“I'm just pulling your leg, Kotal” Erron chuckled to himself “Breakfast yeah?”

Chapter Text

Strolling to the diner he let out a whistle, "I swear, I'm so hungry my belly button's suckin' on my backbone..." he shaded his face, the stainless steel exterior of the diner reflecting sunlight into his eyes. He reached for the door and motioned to Kotal, a bell chimed weakly as they entered. The diner was small, cozy even, the smell of coffee and bacon hanging in the air, the atmosphere alive with conversation. Erron considered the counter, changing his mind once he turned to look at Kotal, trying and failing at making room for the people bustling past them in the narrow walkway. "Over here" he eyed an empty booth. "Nice huh?" Erron sat, looking around the diner then fixing his sight out the window.


"Charming..."


“Well look at what the wind blew in!” an older women approached them, her voice warm and tinted with a slight accent “how are we doin' so far?”


“We're good, just need some fuel in our tanks” Erron grinned up at her.


She handed them menus, and returned Erron's grin with her own “what we drinkin' sweetheart?”


“Kotal?” he turned through the menu, already certain of what he wanted regardless “Some coffee? Juice?” admittedly one of the things he missed most about earthrealm was it’s food.


“Both...” Kotal responded, albeit distractedly, his eyes glued to the menu.


“Same here... can I get your name young lady?”


“Aw hush you” she laughed, swatting Erron gently on the shoulder “It's Bridgette, I'll be right back with your drinks”

 

He drew his attention back to the menu and hummed softly, drumming his fingers on the table. “One of everything? Pancakes are damn good, get yerself a nice stack of em', some syrup and a thick pad of butter...”


“It would be foolish of me to not take your recommendation” Kotal looked up at him, regarding him thoughtfully for a moment “Your face...”


“Come again?” Erron instinctively drew a hand up to his cheek and frowned. It had been a long spell since he'd been without his mask for a good length of time, accustomed to taking it off only out of necessity. His lower face usually protected from the burning visage of Outworld's sun. He sighed, self-consciously running his hand over to his lips and chin, touching his scars.


Kotal leaned forward, placing his elbows on the table, hands clasped together “it's tone has evened out, since you've been without your mask”

“Huh, yeah, figured I'd stick out like a sore thumb if I wore it...” he shrugged.


Kotal nodded “I appreciate your reasoning” his eyes trailed over the scars on Erron's face “I quite prefer being able to see the whole of your face.”


Erron's stomach flipped, a smile breaking out on his face. He turned away, keen to grab the attention of their waitress, relieved to find Bridgette walking towards them.


“Hun's, got your drinks right here” she set them down, steaming mugs of coffee and cold orange juice. “Y'all ready to order?”

 

“Goddamn I'm as full as a tick...” Erron groaned, taking down the final dregs of his coffee, enjoying the mild bitterness masked by cream and sugar. “Whaddya think Kotal?” he chuckled, glancing at the empty plates strewn before them. They had rapidly demolished two stacks of pancakes apiece, complete with eggs and thick strips of bacon.

"Exceptional, one of the most satisfactory meals I've ever experienced..." he ran a piece of pancake through the egg yolk still on his plate "I should offer the cook a position at the palace..."


“Yeah you do that" Erron nodded vehemently "I'm gonna go hit the head, be right back"


Kotal nodded back. After a moment he stood and briskly walked out to the car, searching the backseat for a familiar red thermos, finding it rolled beneath the passenger seat. It's paint flaking away, revealing the dented metal beneath.


“All set?” Erron walked to the booth, straightening his shirt, he caught sight of the thermos on the table “I'll fill that up...”


“It's full. And yes, we are all set” Kotal flashed him a silver card, before putting it inside of frayed wallet and pocketing it.


Erron coughed, keeping his eyes on the table “Thank ya kindly.” He thought for a moment, recalling his first taste of alcohol as a young child “We should buy some booze with that, granted won't be too strong but...”


“Erron, necessary and reasonable expenses only” Kotal narrowed his eyes “All costs incurred will be my responsibility.”


“Shoot, we're in for hog killin' time huh?” Erron groaned, crossing his arms and fixing his eyes onto Kotal's.


Kotal stood, facing Erron he lowered his voice “Do you believe this to be leisurely visit for you? I still expect some semblance of professionalism...”


“Forget I said anything, should be more careful flapping my jaw around you... hand me some sugar and cream will ya?” Professionalism, he glowered, recalling the swimming hole. Kotal took a handful, dropping them into Erron's open hand before striding out of the diner. Staring at the door through which the man exited, he sighed, grabbed the thermos and pocketed the sugars and cream.


“Your to go is ready hun” Bridgette approached him, bag in hand, casting a look at Erron “You alright there?”


“Better now that you're here, thank you Birdie” he winked, taking the bag and setting out. Outside he cast a look around, standing still for a moment, silently wishing he had his mask on. He recalled Kotal's comment on his face, how his stomach flipped and his smile spread. His mask would more easily hide his knee-jerk reactions, he had half a mind to go digging for it right now. He dropped the thought and reluctantly got in the car.


 

He dug through the bag, one hand on the steering wheel, trying to reach the food inside. “Damn it, stay in your lane you godawful...”


“Erron...” Kotal spoke, his face buried in a map once more “You should focus on driving...”


“You should focus on that consarn map” Erron muttered under his breath.


Kotal folded the map and tossed it onto the dashboard. Focusing his attention on Erron he pulled the bag out of his grasp, grabbed the container inside and removed half of a sandwich. Erron raised his shoulders, feeling the dull ache of pain shoot through his neck. “Thanks” he mumbled, taking the sandwich that Kotal was holding out to him.


“Are you feeling well?” Kotal asked.


“Fine and dandy” he took a bite, glaring out the window. They had long since passed through the small town, it's main street of brick faced stores and abandoned buildings giving way to empty desert. They were heading towards once of the circled points on the worn map, a roadside attraction of sorts according to the bright pink sticky note that was affixed near it. All the windows were down, air billowing inside, creating a buffer of noise. Kotal sighed, the sound of crumpling paper as he reopened the map barely registered. “Shall we listen to the music Cassie and Jacqui compiled for us?” 


“Can't, discs in the trunk” Erron responded, his voice muffled by a full mouth “Oh well, what a shame.”


“Turn up ahead” Kotal indicated with a hand, ignoring Erron's response.


“Hold your horses, I'm plumb sure we're supposed to stay on this road...” Erron craned his neck, trying to get a look at the map.


“Erron” Kotal turned to face him, his voice measured “turn up ahead”


“No can do” he scratched at the back of his neck "I was wrong the other day but that only happens once in a blue moon...” Erron insisted.


Kotal's face hardened, his lips pulled taunt “Pull over”


“Nope” he knew he was right. He thought for a moment, feeling Kotal's eyes burn into the side of his head. Kotal spoke again, his voice more exasperated than severe, “Erron...”


“Oh fine, I'll pull over, just to show you how wrong you are...” He pulled onto the shoulder abruptly, dust swirling around the car. He opened the door and marched over to the trunk, setting his hands down and meeting eyes with Kotal through the rear view mirror. He stepped out, map in hand, and met Erron at the trunk. Erron took the map, spreading it out on the car's surface, pulling out worn glasses from his chest pocket. Kotal raised a brow, watching him place the glasses onto the bridge of his nose “What? You've seen me wear these before... right?”


Kotal shook his head and rubbed at his chin with a thumb, “You look educated Erron” he laughed softly.

“I swear...” Erron grumbled, turning his attention to the map. He had taken a look at it the day prior, embarrassed at his mistake and keen to keep it from happening again.
He found their location roughly on the map, confirming that the road they were on was the most straightforward way to the attraction Kotal was set on visiting, he pointed at the map “See? That road you wanted me to turn onto would have been a crapshoot, though I can see what you thinkin'” He crossed his arms, feeling the light breeze tussle his hair. Kotal stared at him. “Go on then, take a look” he removed his glasses and offered them out to Kotal. He held out his hand in refusal and proceeded to fold up the map.

Erron smirked, nodding to himself as he watched Kotal reenter the car. He popped open the trunk, searching for his hat, finding it inside his suitcase. He brushed it off, slicked back his hair with a hand and put it on. Out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of the cd case.


Erron chuckled at the man's silence, turning back into the main road he prodded “Kotal...”


He remained quiet, deliberating for a moment “Erron, I apologize” he paused “forgive my oversight."


Erron patted Kotal's shoulder "I don't know if I can forgive you... I'm gonna need to hear ya say it”


“Say what, exactly?”


“That you were wrong, and I was right” Erron slowed down a pinch, trying to focus on both the road and Kotal, cupping a hand behind his ear “'I'm waitin'”


“I Kotal Kahn was wrong” Kotal sighed “Erron Black, was... surprisingly correct” a wry smile curled his lips.


“Surprisingly?” Erron let out a guffaw “Ah I'll take it, that's the best I'll be able to get outta you” he handed the disc to Kotal “Just a couple songs, don't torture me.”
Kotal took the disc, turning it over in his fingers before inserting it into the cd player “I would never."


Erron stole a quick glance at him, counting the seconds in his head, careful not to linger. At no point in the past did he ever consider he'd be in a situation similar to this, years ago he wouldn't even have thought about speaking out against this man "Kotal Kahn was wrong" he repeated the words, tapping lightly at the steering wheel.


"Do not grow accustomed to that notion” Kotal placed his elbow on the armrest, leaning close to Erron “The occurrence is, as you say - scarce as...” he snapped his fingers “hen's teeth?”


“Yeah, yeah, keep telling yourself that...” Erron replied, catching the amused expression on Kotal's face, appreciating the crinkling at the corners of his eyes, the crease in his cheeks as his smile broadened. Focus on the road - the words echoed through his head. 

Chapter Text

 

Erron picked at the rubber peeling away on the steering wheel, his gaze fixed on the road, occasionally staring out to the empty desert on either side. The familiar landscape filled him with a nervous energy, memories swirling in his head. So close place he never really was able to call home, that itch to move and make something of himself fueling him. He tried to pull himself out of the haze, his mind still intent on bringing forth past sights and sounds.

“Did I ever tell you the tale of the twelve foot skeleton?” he asked softly, shifting in his seat – numbness now running down his thighs.

“Erron, said skeleton seems to grow taller each time you tell it”

“Shit, does it really?”

Kotal took a sip from the thermos, he paused for a moment, running a thumb down the container, flecks of paint falling into his lap “Please, spin your yarn. I am more than content to hear it again...”

Erron smiled to himself “As you might be well aware - the desert ain’t a kind place for most men, been told long ago about what happens to those that find themselves clinging on to their final breathes out in that barren earth. Legend says there’s a being out there, keeper of the desert, comes out when night falls - looking for those that are lost or dying, takes them - hell if I know where - a damn walking skeleton, twelve feet tall, bones glowing white like the moon, holding a lantern in its clutch...” he paused for dramatic effect, catching a side eyed glance at the man beside him “You can’t argue or reason with it, once it’s found you... once that lantern casts its light on you... you’re good as gone.”

“Knew a man who said he saw one of these things, said he had to outwit it... set up his bedroll near a tiny fire he was able to keep alive- hid in a damn prairie dog hole he had dug up, damn near buried himself alive!” he slapped at the steering wheel, fighting back a laugh. “He was able to catch sight of it, roaming around, smelling at the air with no nose, looking around with no eyes...”

Erron chuckled at Kotal’s focused stare out the window, he deepened his voice, slowing his natural cadence “best hope we don’t end up stranded out there come night huh? Car's been holding up... so far.”

Kotal turned to face him, he held a serious frown for a beat, one that faded quickly as he laughed. The sound reverberated through Erron, he could feel it tickle through his skin and press up against his muscles. He grinned back at the man, a rough laugh escaping his chest. They spent the next few hours like this, sharing stories, recounting memories, passing back and forth the old thermos, its sweet liquid quickly dwindling. It felt good to share, to make what he himself had experienced known by another soul, life now being brought into long gone places and people.

Erron inhaled sharply, turning his lips into a disapproving frown at the lightness of a now empty thermos.“Almost there, thirty odd miles” he pointed at a sign that passed by.

 

“This is it? Great.” he furrowed his brow, turning the car slowly into an empty lot off the road. “This is it" he slapped the sun-visor up and reclined into the seat.

The car creaked as Kotal exited “is there a problem?”

“If I had my druthers... I don't know, why did you even wanna come here?”

Kotal leaned forward, pressing his arms against the open window of the car “Are you going to stay in the car?”

“No, might as well go and keep you company.” Erron reached up to touch at his lower lip, nervously running a finger down the scar that culminated at the bottom of his chin.

 

Beside the lot stood a wooden sign indicating the attraction, Mill’s prehistoric gardens, a weathered map providing simple directions. Adhered to it were two metal containers, one stuffed with individual versions of the map, the other a smaller container labeled “donations.” Erron stood by the sign, watching as Kotal searched through the car - he had abruptly turned heel as soon as the exited, claiming he had forgotten something. He looking down at the ground beneath his feet, his boots now covered by a fine layer of dust. Garden, in the damn desert he groaned at the name, working on rolling up his sleeves, hitching them up past his elbows. He undid the first few buttons on his shirt, letting his skin breathe, sweat permeating through the fabric. 

“Find what you were lookin for?”

“I did” Kotal patted at his chest, a slight bulk in the pocket of his shirt. 

 

“Self guided tour, of a god forsaken piece of desert-” Erron kicked away a rock in his path.

“Prehistoric wonders...”

“See those buzzards up there? I think they're here for me.”

“Experience the sights of a bygone era... interesting. Erron, those buzzards wouldn't even consider you as a meal.”

Erron scoffed “Are you sure about that? Look at me, I'd say I'm pretty damn appetizing.” 

“If you insist, according to this map, we should walk this way.” Kotal rolled up the small map, taking a step closer to Erron. He placed a hand on his shoulder, squeezing lightly “very appetizing” he laughed as he walked off, waving a hand for Erron to follow him.


Erron grinned to himself as he stood in place, staring at Kotal for a moment before setting off after him.

 

“Ugly sunuvabitch ain't he?” he chuckled at the sculpture, its exterior sun bleached and crumbling. “Dilophosaurus... three fossils were found here in this area-” Kotal handed the map to Erron and took a step closer to appraise the sculpture “what a ferocious looking creature...”

Erron smiled, he was unexpectedly enjoying this, amused by the poorly sculpted dinosaurs and entertained by Kotal's reaction to each one “Overgrown lizards... glad they ain't around anymore.” he poked a finger into the open maw of the sculpture. “Fuck...” he fumbled with a tooth that chipped away, tossing it behind him.

“Erron, stay there but turn towards me”

“Why- shit. What do you have in your hands?”

“Hmm?”

“What is that-”

“A camera, are you familiar with the technology?”

Erron removed his hat, raking his fingers through his hair. He felt his face and neck grow hot,“I know what a damn camera is Kotal, don't you dare-”

“Move slightly to your left” he motioned to Erron with a hand.

“Who put you up to this? You best tell me, I swear...”

“Hold still, Erron. Cassie showed me how to use this, and she told me there is a customary saying...”

“Just my damn luck, stuck out here with you in-”

“Say – Howdy partner”

“You too? You like pokin' fun at me?”

“I don't understand what you mean...” Kotal's voice trailed off as he turned his back to Erron, walking off towards the parking lot.

 

Erron followed, walking a short distance behind him. “Goddamn sun shining of off your bald head, right in my eyes-”

“Shaved, Erron. I am not bald” he gingerly put the camera into his pocket.

Erron quickened his pace, placing his hat onto Kotal's head, bumping into the man as he abruptly stopped and turned. Kotal's eyes were on him, a fixed gaze that seemed to delve into him. 

“How do I look?” Kotal nudged up the brim of the hat.

Erron's chest swelled “Lookin' sharp, can't say it fits you all too well though” he scratched at the back of his neck “with that melon of yours...”

 

<<>>

 

Kotal reached the car first, turning back to watch Erron, strolling towards the car slowly - taking his time and gazing at the landscape around them. “Ready to head out?”

Kotal nodded, reaching a hand up to remove the hat and rub at his head “unless you desired to stay longer...” Erron leaned up against the trunk of the car, staring off at the mountains that rose up in the distance, he shook his head.

“Wait here-”

Kotal reached through the open car window, grabbing the map laying on the dashboard. He stood by the door for a moment, tapping the map lightly against the car. Inhaling sharply he considered the situation, he had never truly expected for their relationship to grow beyond what it had initially began as, simply that of employer and mercenary. He wondered if he had made a mistake in allowing himself to grow too close to the man, worrying that this might cloud his judgment, blur the lines between what was permissible or not between them. It was far too late to consider removing himself from this as it stood, Erron understood him, in him he had found a person he could easily confide in, a genuine friend – something he had not experienced in ages. But another concern flared in him, noticing that his desire to keep himself at a relative distance emotionally and physically from Erron waned with each day he spent alongside him.

“Erron...” he walked towards the trunk, handing the hat back to him.

“Yeah?” Erron took the hat, thumbing along it's brim before setting it down.

“We should evaluate our route, together”

“Now that's an idea I can get behind” Erron smirked “What happened to you being such an expert map reader?”

“That was disproven-"

“Lord have mercy! Was it really? Damn, I would've loved to have seen that” he grinned as he unfolded the map, trying to smooth out it's creases. 

“Are you done teasing me?”

“Yeah I'm all done” stifling a laugh he pointed at the map “let's take a look...” 

 They deliberated for a moment, agreeing on the proper roads to take. Erron raised a hand to scratch at his chin “Sound good?”

“Perfect”

“Alrighty then, let's hit the trail” he smiled “partner."

Kotal stared at him, focusing on the faint streaks of gold that now peppered his hair, the ruddy red flush in his cheeks and the scars that seemed to stand out more in the softening sunlight. A part of him reminded him of the necessity to maintain a sense of leadership, that boundaries should not be overstepped. It wavered though... he would truly rather let go, relieve himself of his own misgivings and fully embrace he was experiencing now.

“What? Looking at me like-”

“I'm looking behind you Erron, at that dinosaur”

Erron turned, taking a look at a small sculpture that stood beyond the parking lot, it's silhouette barely visible. 

“Very fascinating...” 

“Sure” Erron placed his hat on and patted Kotal roughly on the shoulder “let's get out of here”

 

He kept his eyes on the horizon, taking solace in the warm air that ran over his skin and that intermittent humming from Erron as he drove. He recognized the familiar tunes, songs that Erron often played on his guitar. Kotal took a deep breath, shutting his eyes and allowing his mind to wander. He could hear the soft strums of the guitar and the rise and fall of his voice as he sang-

"You dozin' off over there?"

"No, merely resting my eyes" 

"Gotcha... hey, look at that. Largest selection of liquor in the county. Damn" 

"Largest? Did you see which exit?" Kotal watched the billboard shrink in the side view mirror.

Erron scoffed "Why?" he nudged Kotal's shoulder with a hand "Remember what you said?"

He pulled out the wallet from his back pocket, picking out the only item in it “I don't, do you wish to refresh my memory or should we go?” he held out the card to Erron. A bright grin spread across Erron's face as he took the card, a sight that sent a surge of energy rushing through Kotal. Erron narrowed his eyes, slapping the card against the steering wheel “Kotal...”

“I only implore you to be sensible” he reclined his seat back, catching Erron's gaze as he turned to look at him.

"Sensible... I'm a very sensible man. You got nothing to worry about” he chuckled. Kotal pursed his lips, pushing away a smile - glancing at Erron for a moment before closing his eyes again. 

Chapter Text

“Look at that, that's a dead man right there” Erron flashed Kotal a thumbs up, turning back to look at the victim, a makeshift target dummy, straw bursting out of its chest, the fabric that had been keeping it's form together now torn and shredded. He took a step closer to Kotal, patting him lightly on the shoulder.

“I was aiming for the head...” Kotal lowered the rifle, keeping his sight trained on the target. Erron nodded “Ah, you'll get it. Practice, yeah?” he winked at Kotal “Not that you'll ever be able to hold a candle to my skills...”

Kotal grimaced, a soft huff of air escaping him “Your skills as a teacher are oftentimes questionable...” raising the rifle he takes aim again, readjusting his stance, pressing his cheek firmly against the rear stock. He slapped down the lever, it’s sound cracking out as the spent casing dropped to the ground. Without hesitating he pulled the trigger, air reverberating with the resounding shot-white plume of smoke erupting out of the muzzle. The man’s movement is fluid, making Erron raise a brow.

“Kotal, a month ago you couldn't even hit the side of a barn...” Erron stared off at the target, now devoid of a leg. He raised a hand, shooing away the smoke was being pushed towards his face by the wind. The smell of charcoal faint in the air.

“Perhaps-” Kotal rolled his shoulders, turning heel to face Erron. His attention was redirected to the rifle in his hands, fingers roaming down the wooden stock, slowly tracing the smoothly carved flourishes that adored it.

Erron sucked his teeth, watching Kotal inspect the firearm “You've been looking good-”

His eyes flicked up, meeting Erron's. “Stance wise” Erron rubbed at the back of his neck, breaking eye contact “much better than the last couple of times...”

“I'm certain my accuracy leaves a great deal to be desired.” he offered out the rifle for Erron to take, turning back to look at the dummy-appraising his work.

Erron took the rifle, quickly returning it to it's home; nestled snugly in the leather scabbard slung over his shoulder. “You're fine, do you still want to learn how to clean it? Take it apart and put it back together... any respectable gunslinger should-”

“Do you consider me such?” Kotal interrupted, turning back to face Erron - a smile growing on his face. It brought out a grunt in response from Erron. He sidled up closer to Kotal and tipped his head up slightly “maybe I'm being a touch too generous, you are my boss after all...”

Kotal sighed, eyes narrowing as he placed his hands on his hips.

“I'm teasing, like I said – you're fine.” Erron reassured him, chuckling softly at the larger man's reaction.

 

 

“Damn grounds too hard...” He pulled off the scabbard, setting it down beside him as he sat down, the slight ache of his legs reminding him of how tired he was.

“Erron, as opposed to what-”

“Ahhh, hush... if I don't complain I'll get an ulcer” he grinned, bemused by Kotal's perturbed gaze. Erron focused on removing his mask. He closed his eyes for a moment, letting the warm breeze flow over his face, taking pleasure in the sensation now on his lips and chin. Pocketing the mask he rolled over onto his side, searching out for his hip flask that seemed to be glued into the rear pocket of his trousers. He finally took hold of it and removed the lid, offering it out to Kotal.

Kotal took the flask, pressing it up to his lips and taking a swig of the liquid before handing it back down to Erron. He joined Erron on the ground, sitting down with a long exhale.

Erron tipped back the flask, guzzling down the liquor, embracing the burn as it tore down his throat. Letting out a sigh he set the flask down between them before removing his hat and laying back on the ground. He set the hat on his stomach and turned to look at Kotal, finding him lost in contemplation – his gaze settled before them, at the city rising off in the near distance.

Erron turned his eyes up to the sky. Nakedness - without his mask he'd always felt it. It had become a part of him, a part of his face more so than not. His scarred chin and lips being kept safely away from prying eyes, keeping his mind off of how his scars came to be, how his flesh was torn away – stitched back together with trembling hands. Hiding the memory of it, though it would be carried with him for the rest of his days, carved into his skin – the constant reminder.

Now though... it felt fine. There was still a bit of uncertainty present, a bit of hesitation when his fingers would trail to the buckle, but he'd grown accustomed to it. Comfortable enough to be rid of his mask when he spent time with Kotal, one on one. Kotal, who after all this time had not asked how he had acquired those scars, even though both had been growing content in sharing about their respective lives and experiences. Maybe one day he'd bring it up, share that with him. He could feel it every now and then, Kotal's eyes sweeping over his lips, quickly, thoughtfully. His stomach flipped as he thought about those eyes focusing down before meeting his own. A frown pulled down his lips, confusion at his reaction, at why his mind had projected this image. Pushing it away he sat up, his hat falling into his lap.

“What's on your mind?”

Kotal took in a deep breath “There is a matter I must attend to...”

“Right, right. Busy man, huh?” Erron took the flask again, finishing off the liquid inside.

“May we do this again tomorrow?”

 “Sure" Erron nodded "I've got a shit ton of empty bottles we can use for target practice...”

Kotal stood slowly, a small smile on his face as he continued to stare off at the rising structures before them. He turned, taking a step towards Erron, extending his hand down. Erron took hold, steadying himself and rising to his feet. Kotal's hand was warm, rough... his grasp lingering for a moment before he bent down and retrieved the rifle, offering it out to Erron

“Have a good night, Erron. Sleep well” he nodded at him curtly, turning and walking towards the city.

“Yeah, you too.” Erron replied, shouldering the rifle and placing his hat back on. He trailed his hand down to his jacket pocket, tentatively reaching inside, fingers touching at the leather of his mask. “I'll see ya tomorrow.”

 

Chapter Text

 

They arrived at a vast strip mall, the liquor store tucked into a corner, it's parking lot near empty save for smattering of cars and a group of children that scattered when they caught sight of them. Street lamps flickered on, casting their dull light onto the ground.

"Damn, what a sight. Might be here awhile..." Erron chuckled as they entered the store, shivering slightly at the drop in temperature. He set off towards the nearest shelf, taking in the varied selection. Countless bottles, he considered the options, wondering what Kotal might like. They walked around for a moment, stopping every now and then when something caught Erron's eye, Erron explaining the differences between spirits, describing their taste. It took a short time to gather up the desired drinks, a few bottles of tequila and whiskey, one bottle of rum that Kotal had picked out.

Back outside darkness was steadily falling, waning crescent of the moon coming into sharp relief against a cobalt blue sky. “You showed great restraint...” 

“Would've bought up the whole store if I could...” Erron laughed, pressing the heavy bags up closer to his chest. He felt Kotal’s hand briefly make contact with his shoulder as he passed him. He quickly disregarded it, chalking it up to the regular physical contact that occurred between them, nothing more.

Kotal unlocked the car, opening the passenger side door and waiting for Erron. “What a gentleman-“ he sat carefully, swinging his legs in and setting the bags in his lap.

“Hotel’s on the other side of the city...” he mentioned absentmindedly, pulling out a bottle and staring at its contents.

Kotal concentrated on the car seat, a sharp screech of metal on metal as it locked up on its full extension.

“Whoa there, set on breaking the car?"

"That is not my intent" Kotal insisted as he pushed back into the seat. "There is not much room.." 

“How in the hell did you drive the other night?” Erron tried to fight back a laugh, for Kotal's sake. “Maybe try moving the steering wheel?” He reached over, indicating where to adjust the wheel, bottles clanging together in his lap “Better?”

“Yes, thank you.”

The city streets were busy with traffic, bright headlights and taillights shining intensely. Stop and go, Kotal searching out the street signs, reading them out loud. A broad smile spreading on his face whenever he found the right streets to take. "Damn it, almost dropped these bottles-" Erron groaned as they abruptly stopped at a red light "ease up on that brake, car can't stop on a dime."

"My apologies..." Kotal tensed his hands around the steering wheel "I am still growing accustomed to this."

"Don't apologize, you're doing better than I did my first couple times..." Erron offered, glancing at Kotal's hands, amused by how the steering wheel looked smaller in his grip.

"Am I? Or are you saying that to encourage me..." 

"Both." The light turned green, a honk behind them urging Kotal to drive. "Fuck off, ya prick" Erron muttered under his breath, glancing at the rear view mirror. 

Two more turns and on the left, he was looking forward to putting his feet up and shutting his eyes. Intent on not accidentally staring too long at man beside him, Erron focused on the cars they passed by. It was difficult, each curious facial expression making Erron want to stare, Kotal acting like a kid in a candy shop, the excitement and contemplation on his face so strangely endearing. Erron groaned low in his chest, covering it up with a light cough before offering more words of encouragement, namely in the self deprecation of his own time learning how to drive. It got a few chuckles from Kotal, his grip on the steering wheel relaxing. Erron shook his head, recalling his driving "lessons." Kabal in the passenger seat frantically grabbing at the steering wheel, back seat filled with assholes who either wanted to help or just tagged along to be entertained. And that goddamn stick shift.

"Yet you never resigned in your efforts" The car stopped at the next light, slower now, break pads still whining loudly.

"Ah you know me Kotal, I’m a man of action. Regardless of circumstance or the shit I get myself in... I make things work for me. Life hasn’t been able to throw anything at me I can’t figure out." It was a half truth, one he stood behind all the same. 

Kotal turned to face him, the green glow of the traffic light illuminating his face "I admire that of you, Erron. Your resourcefulness and resiliency is" he paused for a beat, finding the right word "Incomparable." 

The sincerity in his voice had his skin tingling, a feeling of pride taking hold of him. “Easy on the flattery there, Kotal” Erron teased, pushing down the urge to return the compliment. "Green light, you should really keep your eyes on the road." He looked back down to the bottle in his hand, focusing on the small glimmers of light that the liquid reflected. All his life he had resorted to this, as a mind number, as a way to forget, finding in it a way to distance himself from the reality he often found himself fighting against. But right now he would need it as a distraction, something to take his mind off of what he was feeling. Only hoping the alcohol would be strong enough. 

 

 

“Evening, how can I help you two...” a young women sat behind the front desk in the lobby, acknowledging them with a small wave as they approached, staring intently at the computer monitor before her.

Erron removed his hat and ran a hand through his hair "evening, just need two rooms for tonight-”  

She nodded, looking up at him briefly, offering a polite smile "Two rooms-" she started.

“One room, two beds” Kotal interjected, smiling at her, offering up an open hand in Erron's direction.

“One room?” Erron repeated in a hushed tone, feeling a languid heat grow in his stomach. He pulled out the card from his pocket and dropped it Kotal's hand.

“Yes, I have been maintaining a budget in my... melon” he tapped at his temple, redirecting his attention to the woman “this is much more cost effective."

Cost effective, he repeated the words to himself as he pushed through the door, walking back to the car to gather their items-namely the alcohol. The cool air did little to quell the heat in his body. He stood still for a moment, taking in a deep breath, letting it out as slowly as he could, straining his chest. 

 

 

"Well ain't this nice, sure is a step up from that other place..." Erron strolled around the room, his gaze being drawn to the two beds “So... we headin' back to Outworld anytime soon?”

“In a few days" Kotal settled himself down in a seat then began pulling out their bottles of drink from the bags he had intercepted from Erron. Placing them gently on the coffee table.

Erron set his hat down on a nightstand, mulling over Kotal's response. “Days? Are you being straight with me right now?” he walked over to Kotal.

“Yes, Erron. Do you believe me to have such a tenuous hold over my reign, that if I were not present Outworld would devolve into chaos?" Kotal rubbed at his chin, tracking Erron's movement. "I have everything properly cared for” 

“So you were planning this before we got here, huh?" He took a bottle of tequila and sat down across from him, drumming his fingers on glass. A few days, he prickled at the thought, wishing Kotal had given him fair warning. 

Kotal worked on removing his button up “That is true. Making you aware was a consideration, but-”

“But what?” Erron clenched his jaw, hoping Kotal didn't notice as he focused on the shirt, carefully folding it. Kotal's undershirt was tight, too tight. Chewing at the inside of his cheek he studied the man's arms. Taking note of the scars and near faded burns, following the veins that bulged heavily. His grip on the bottle loosened, palms wet. He couldn't deny he'd found the man attractive, long before he was blindsided by what he was feeling now. The sight he'd grown accustomed to over the years -of a damn near naked Kotal- had only served to exacerbate his desires when they made themselves known, though he tried to ignore it all. But now, it felt different. More clothes, more opportunity for his mind to wander, to think about what he wanted to see. He frowned, pushing the thoughts away.

“I believed this would be a pleasant surprise for you." 

“Right, makes sense." he sank further into the seat, kicking off his boots "I love surprises, thanks.” he didn't make any attempt to hide his annoyance, the frustration in himself settling in him once more.

“You are very welcome, shall we?” Kotal picked up a bottle and began gently peeling off the wax seal, either not noticing or disregarding Erron's tone. 

“Didn't think you'd be so keen to drink...”

“An erroneous assumption” he leaned back, raising his brows -a self satisfied smile on his face- he repeated the word, laughing softly to himself.

Erron snorted, the tension in his body lessening “That's terrible, how long have you been sitting on that one for?”

“A short time”

"Don't work though, ain't how you say my name..." Erron put his feet up on the coffee table, cradling the bottle of tequila close to his chest.

"It is close enough, Erron..."

He chuckled, returning Kotal's smile with his own "you are an absolute delight, Kotal" 

“As are you, I'm glad you have provided me with your company, even if it has been begrudgingly..."

"Ah c'mon, that's not true" he raised up his bottle "can't think of a better man I'd like to share a drink with, to your health"

"And to yours"

Erron lifted up the bottle to his lips, pausing as he watched Kotal do the same. Regardless of the fog in his mind his sentiment was honest, no other person he'd rather be stuck with in Earthrealm than him. 

 

Chapter Text

“Do let me know” Kotal paused to tip back his bottle once more “if at any point you wish to return to Outworld-”

“Ah, don't worry.”

“Erron...”

“Ain't gonna lie, imma little irked ya didn't tell me but... cheers.”

Kotal frowned, gaze downcast at the bottle in his hand.

“Go on, that bottle of courage ain't fixin' to drink itself.” He could feel his body start to warm, limbs buzzing. Nothing compared to what he'd usually drink back in Outworld, but the alcohol was having it's desired effect. “There ya go-” he chuckled as Kotal took another swig, stopping when he noticed the stern look in those blue eyes again. It broke quickly, his features softening. Kotal shook his head “We should make these last over the next few days, it would be unwise to drink them all tonight.”

Erron considered his words before muttering in agreement. Didn't want this man to see him in liquor, though he usually didn't change too much when drunk. It had been awhile since he'd last been boozed up, by tolerance and choice. Sleep was usually what'd get him, so many years ago that's what he craved: to forget. He couldn't take any chances now though, end up making a fool of himself in front of this man.

“So, how's that whiskey treatin' ya? Warmin' your gut up?” He took a smaller sip from his bottle.

“The taste is intriguing to say the least and yes... my gut has been sufficiently warmed.”

“That's what I like to hear-”

The time was quickly disregarded, their focus entirely placed on the bottles in hand and eventually the ones on the coffee table. Trading more stories, more laughter. A heaviness was starting to creep into Erron, invisible weights pulling down his eyelids but he trudged on.

“It was all I had to go on, Kotal” tears were building at the corners of his eyes, he blinked them away, feeling them trickle down his face. “Lookin' like a damn child drew it, the hat was a nice touch though...”

Kotal pushed back into the couch, face screwed tight, chest shuddering as he tried to gain his breath.

“Are you alright? C'mon, now...”

Gasping roughly he opened his eyes “I am just imagining the look you must have had on your face.”

“Ah, so that's what's tickling you”

“You are very expressive, Erron” he cleared his throat “When you encountered him, did he resemble the sketch?”

It brought out a raucous belly laugh from Erron “Y'know what? He actually did! Goddamn sunuvabitch looked like a great big yam wearing a toupee. Not sure if it was a toupee though, for all I know it could've been a dead rat he just stuck on his head-"

Kotal sputtered out a harsh cough, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, frowning at the slight spray that ended up on his shirt.

“Easy there, don't waste the booze-”

“I'm sorry, I was not prepared...” he replied, his voice spiking up unexpectedly.

Erron leaned forward, forcing himself to breathe, unable to look Kotal in the eye “Didya just go through puberty? What the hell, didn't know your voice could do that...”

“Neither did I... though I am glad you are finding amusement at my expense.” Kotal spoke lowly, a slight smirk on his face- only doubling Erron's pain.

“Shhh, settle down...” he reached out for the last bottle on the coffee table, his legs not following orders, ending up kneeling on the floor.

Kotal sighed, beating Erron's slow movement for the last whiskey bottle and placing it beside him. He touched at the wetness of his undershirt before removing it and balling it up. "At least save one, we can drink it later on..."

Erron shut his eyes and laid back on the ground, grumbling softly to himself. His face felt like it was burning, the flush of alcohol met with a hit of excitement. 

“Yeah, good idea.”

Kotal stood “We should rest, it is... surprisingly late.” he glanced at the small alarm clock in the room. “Do you need help?” he walked over to Erron, pushing the coffee table back and out of his way. Erron looked up at him, finding the man's face uncharacteristically flushed.

“Ko-ko” he started, stumbling over his name.

“Koko? Is that a term of endearment for me, Erron?”

“What? You...” he forced a laugh, heart beating faster “you are a real funny guy, y'know that? Regular jokester...”

Kotal reached down, offering his hand out, widening his stance to brace himself

“Alright, hang on...” Erron reached out, clasping his hand tightly onto Kotal's, quickly reconsidering “hold up, you're leaning forward too far...”

“I have you, Erron”

“Like hell you do, you're as steady as a newborn foal.”

Kotal shook his head, waving his free hand for emphasis “I have command of my senses... balance... equilibrium...”

“Good god, stop. Just leave me down here.”


“If that is what you desire...” he released Erron's hand, raising a brow at him before walking off towards the beds “sleep well”

“Hey-” Erron rolled his shoulders into the hard floor. “toss me some pillows... gon' make myself a nest down here...” another deep laugh from Kotal, he quickly appeared beside Erron, staring at him with an amused expression. Pillows, thin blankets, he passed them over to Erron. “Thanks, boss man. Sweet dreams.” he mumbled out, shutting his eyes and barely able to hear Kotal's response. His body was heavy, stomach aching dully, he let out a soft breath; letting it seep out of his body, like the tension and nerves that had left him earlier. His mind untroubled for the time being, he smiled to himself, sleep taking him in an instant.


"Good morning, Erron"

Sunlight poured into the room from the open door, Kotal entering and shutting it softly behind him. Erron had awoken slowly, pain impeding his movement, now hunched over on the coffee table, his head pressed down to it's surface. Trying his best to ignore his shattering migraine he uttered out a mumbled "Mornin'"

"Are you hungry?" Kotal set down the complimentary breakfast he'd sought out "It was all they had left..."

Erron grunted, raising his head up and catching sight of a small cartoon of milk and a cup of prepackaged cereal. "Great. My day just keeps gettin' better." tearing open the carton he focused his eyes onto Kotal's, their blue glow directing his attention away from the aching pain in his body, if only for a moment "how are you doing?"

"I am well" he sat down in the seat across from Erron "Feeling as fit as a fiddle, as you would say"

"Of course you're fine, I'm over here feelin' like I got hit by a train last night" he rubbed at the stubborn crick in his neck. 

"Let me help you..." before Erron could refuse Kotal stood, strong hands quickly pressing into Erron's shoulders, licks of pain shooting through his neck.

He tensed up, taking in a sharp breath "goddamn it, Kotal. Are you tryin' to kill me?" 

Kotal's response was soft, voice thoughtful "you should not have slept on the floor..."

"Hey, I didn't do that willingly, it was either that or get crushed by you-"

"Erron, I had everything under control, your lack of trust in me was honestly wounding."

"Yeah, yeah... I'm sure that kept you up all night" he tried to roll his eyes, shutting them tight in an instant when a sharp pain started hitting him. 

Kotal hummed, his focus entirely on Erron, gripping and kneading at too tense flesh, a slight frown on his face as he concentrated. He found the knot in Erron's neck when he let out a pained cry, kneading at the muscle and tissue with a thumb, bringing out a low guttural sound from Erron, his shoulders going slack. 

"Better?"

Better... the pain in his neck subsided, his shoulders feeling looser, but now there was an uncomfortable tightness in Erron's pants. Shame ripped through his stomach "Yep, thanks." 

Kotal patted him on the back "You should consider bathing, before we resume our... expedition."

"Sayin' I stink?" his voice muffled, face pressed tight against the coffee table again.

"Only slightly..." Kotal sought out the car keys, finding them on a night stand and pocketing them "I will wait for you in the car, we can find something more substantial for you to eat."

He let out a rough moan, raising a hand in acknowledgment. Kotal leaned down and slapped his hand gently "I wasn't askin' for a high five-"

The cool air made his muscles seize up, goosepimples appearing on his skin. He stared at himself in the bathroom mirror; finding himself worse for wear-blood shot eyes and a heavy layer of stubble. He gingerly stepped into the shower he'd left running when he had shucked off his clothes, waves of steam cascading off of the curtain of water. The water hitting his back eased his aching body, steam clearing his head. He stared down, sighing at the sight of his painfully stiff erection, head flushed red and a bead of precum already dripping out of him. He grasped himself -his breathing picking up at the touch- stroking himself slowly, trying to keep his mind empty. Just focusing on the sensation.

He ignored the thoughts that wanted to tumble into his head, panting heavily, stroking himself faster now, running a thumb around the head of his cock, rubbing up and down the slit.Before he could stop himself he found his skin tingling at the recollection of Kotal's hands on him. Anger pooled in him, fighting harder now against the faint muddied thoughts that threatened to fully emerge. He couldn't let himself, out of some form of respect for Kotal. He gritted his teeth and quickened his hand, a heavy weight now sinking in his groin, biting back the name that was now slowly forming on his lips. He came with a low groan, shutting his eyes tightly, and biting his tongue. It felt, strange. A sense of disconnect in him, having achieved a form of release but inside all he felt was a cold exhaustion, feeling at odds with his own mind and body. He cleaned himself, keeping his eyes focused on the water droplets that clung to his eyelashes before streaming down and warping his vision. He could still feel it, the man's name in the back of his throat. 

Chapter Text

“Sit down, make yourself comfortable...” Kotal motioned to the chair across from him, setting down the items he had carried to the courtyard, watching as Erron meandered over to him, one hand in his pocket, with the other he'd occasionally reach out- touching at the leaves of potted plants. Erron sat down with a grunt, gently grasping his hat by the crown and removing it, setting it down off to the side-brim up. He ran a hand through his hair, trying to comb it down.

"So, this is a wagerin' game right?” Erron trailed his fingers over to the buckle of his mask, touching at it lightly before undoing it and placing it beside his hat. 

“Correct, but seeing as I am teaching you how to play there will be no need. Wagering would be unfair... regardless of your penchant for gambling” He ran a hand over the rolled parchment, undoing the coarse rope that held it in place. Unfurling the game mat he touched at worn spots, slight holes where the parchment had become worn down, the marked game area still intact. He frowned, considering the last time he had actually played this, who he had played with. His heart grew heavy, a small part of him regretting bringing this out. They were good memories, memories he was fond of, happy to have lived and experienced them. It was preferable to bring this game to another, then to let it collect dust. Preferable to create new memories to stand along with the old.

“These are your markers-” he held out a small leather pouch to Erron.  He took it, a curious expression on his face as he opened the bag and turned it over in front of him, six small orange painted pebbles tumbling out and clattering onto the table. Kotal followed suit, slowly lining up each one of his blue pebbles in a row. “Your goal is to take each marker from your starting square, to your ending square...” he indicated with a hand. The drawn square spaces, crossing over each other to create an x.

“Here” Erron pressed a fingertip to the square on his left hand side, gingerly tracing across diagonally to it's culminating square “to here?”

“Yes, and I will go in the opposite direction. How far you move each marker is dependent on what you roll.” He presented a wooden cup to Erron, tipping it's contents onto the table and explaining the game further.

“Like dice, luck of the draw, huh.” Erron gazed intently at the game board, gathering up the markers in his hand and rolling them between his fingers."Been told, if ya set your hat brim down, all your luck will run out of it..." 

"You are full of so many curious superstitions."

"Yeah, ya like that one?" 

Kotal nodded “Strategy plays an important role, but this is a game of chance nonetheless...” he gathered up the contents back into the cup, offering it out "I will insist that you begin." Reclining back in his chair he smiled at Erron. He had been looking forward to this, a quite moment of respite at the end of a long day, content to be sharing it with him. He'd found himself seeking out his company more often, fully enjoying the time they spent together when relieved of their duties.

Erron furrowed his brow, drumming his free hand on the table "Gotta roll a one to get on the board?" 

"Roger that." he met Erron's narrowed gaze "Did I use that term correctly?" 

Shaking the cup in his hand he leaned back, appraising Kotal with raised brows "Sure did, but it's kinda weird hearing you talk like that-"

"Don't be so harsh..." He inhaled deeply, taking in the growing aromas of sweet flowering plants, seeking to attract their pollinators as the air around them cooled ever so slightly with the setting sun. The small amount of regret in him steadily diminishing. 

 

 

"Is there a certain way you're shakin' this? I can't believe it... a three. Kotal..."

Kotal sympathized with the man, in honest disbelief he hadn't yet placed a marker on the board. Four of his own markers already gathered up on his end space, steadily moving his fifth. "I assure you there is nothing underhanded about this..." he shook the cup again, trying to dissuade any suspicions Erron might have. He peered into the cup for a moment, glancing at the five marked beans, frowning slightly. 

"Don’t worry, hoss. I trust ya. Seems like it's not my lucky day..." Erron huffed, watching Kotal finish his turn "alright, hand it over... got a good feelin' bout this..." Kotal handed him back the cup. He shook it-eyes focused on board-taking in a deep breath before turning the cup over. Five beans facing down, one facing up with it's marked side visible. Erron's face lit up "did ya see that? Son of a bitch, finally..." he chuckled, picking up a pebble and setting it on the game mat. 

"Well done, may your next roll be as fruitful." 

"Easy, don't jinx me. Damn glad I didn't put anything up to wager..."

"I wouldn't have let you, Erron"

They continued to play, time falling by the wayside, Erron's rolls more friendly towards him. “My father was ruthless. When I was a young man, I would oftentimes attempt to win back whatever I had lost...” Kotal laughed, leaning forward and propping his elbows on the table, watching Erron reach a center square. Erron glanced up, a lopsided grin on his face “did ya ever get anything back?”

“Hmm, I did not. I merely lost more valuables..." 

“And I have a penchant for gambling?"

Kotal snorted, nodding in agreement. He caught Erron's perplexed stare "Yes, Erron?"

"I'm just... picturing you as a young buck-" He shrugged.

"As hard as it is to believe, I was young once..." Kotal smirked, rolling the cup and watching the beans tumble out. He smiled up at Erron, catching his soft groan-he landed his sixth and finally marker on the same square Erron was on, picking up his marker and placing it back on it’s starting point. "And with that I declare victory..." he sighed, forcing his grin away, more happy to have had a chance to teach Erron and spend time with him than to have actually bested him "perhaps the outcome will be in your favor next time-"

Erron leaned back, placing his hands behind his head "Best believe that it will, and next time we're wagerin'." he punctuated his words with wink.

"Already so confident?" 


Grumbling as he got in bed he reached out for a thin blanket, wrapping himself up. It smelled vaguely of cigarette smoke and his own sweat, he thought about washing it soon, same rough and battered blanket he'd take with him whenever he had to set out to fulfill any tasked charges. It would have to wait, tomorrow was poised to be a busy day. He relaxed further, sleep creeping into him. He made a mental list of what he'd have to do over the next few days; buy more feed for his mount, pick up his order of drinks from his favorite bar man, fix the few holes and tears in some garments, wax up his boots. He stifled a yawn with the back of his hand, faint images playing in his mind now, recalling the evening's events. His breathing slowed, warmth building in him as he settled deeper, remembering the brightness in Kotal's eyes as he taught him how to play the game, as he shared about himself. His laugh, so damn warm and full, his smile, his lips. The thickness of them... he imagined pressing his own to them, holding Kotal tightly, wanting to feel the heat of his skin burn into him.

He sat bolt upright in bed, heart pounding in his chest, pulled out of his sleepy haze. He frowned, quickly clambering to his feet and pulling his boots on, he paced around for a moment, running a hand through his hair. He left his room, slamming the door shut behind him. 

In the small kitchen he focused on busying himself, setting a kettle of coffee on the old gas stove. He stared at it, listening to the wet rumblings of the percolator as the water boiled. Counting the seconds in his head. He poured himself a cup, not reaching out for anything to sweeten up the liquid, wanting it to further break him out of his haze with it's bitterness. Bringing it up to his lips as he faltered-maybe he was overthinking this, surely he was tired and what had just run through his head was... he couldn't finish the explanation. He considered the sensation that sparked in him when he was laid out in bed, thinking about Kotal-he quickly knocked it out of his mind, instead focusing on the taste of the coffee in his mouth, on the slight burn as he took it down.

Some air might be good-he glanced at his mount as he stepped outside, eyeing it as it snuffled along the ground inside its fenced paddock. He stayed there in the open doorway for a minute, feeling the warm breeze embrace him, watching the steam flow off of the mug. Another guzzle of coffee, he paced to the far corner of the patio and leaned up against a wooden beam, staring off at the palace. Five minutes by foot, two on his mount. He sighed, watching the darkness of the land shift, clouds roaming over the moon, he wondered what Kotal was doing right now at this moment. Another thought he silently cursed, he turned, making his way back to the door, stumbling over a wooden crate-filled with empty bottles that he'd set aside the night before. Back inside he shut the door behind him then set off towards his room. He sat down at the foot of his bed, staring down at the empty coffee mug in his hands, swirling it gently, watching the black coffee grounds slide around the bottom. He set it on the floor and laid back, placing his hands  on his stomach, watching them rise and fall with each shallow breath. Trailing a hand up to his chest he ran a finger up and down his sternum, touching at the scar in the middle of his chest. He groaned as he vividly recalled the he way his stomach had flipped the week prior when they went shooting “too damn old for this shit, besides he’s...” he tried to talk himself down. This couldn't happen, he wouldn't let it.

Chapter Text

It was late-later than he expected-near noon judging by the position of the sun in the sky. Erron slammed the trunk down with a grunt before hopping into the passenger seat, tossing his hat onto the dashboard “hey.”

“Hey...” Kotal answered from behind the road atlas he was reading, deliberating on the nearest marked points.

“Why didn't ya wake me up earlier?” He leaned forward and fiddled with the knobs on the control panel, a stale breeze now being churned out by the air conditioning system.

“I was unaware you had wished to be awoken earlier.”

“Well, not really. I just thought-never mind. What the hell are you wearing?” In the light of day without sleep in his eyes he finally got a clear look at Kotal, shaking his head in disbelief at the state of him. A tie dye shirt that hung looser on him that what he had been wearing before, along with grey sweatpants. 

“Clothing. Would you prefer I walk around Earthrealm nude?”

“Didn't say that...” Erron sighed, pulling down the sun visor as Kotal cautiously drove them out of the parking lot “that shirt is just... real colorful. Bright.”

“I quiet like it... as did the front desk clerk, Harmony.”

“Ah, getting' on a first name basis with the locals, huh?” he ran a hand through his still damp hair, recalling the young lady at the front desk last night.

“Are you jealous, Erron?” Kotal grinned at him before quickly returning his attention back to the road.

Erron was lost in thought for a moment. He raised both hands to his face, rubbing at the stubble on his cheeks “Was it the same gal from last night?”

“Hmm, no. Harmony recommended a place where we can get you food, and fuel for the car.”

Half listening Erron nodded in acknowledgment, reaching into his back pocket he pulled out his cigarette case, opening it slowly and counting what he had left. Three cigarettes, he counted them a few times, considering how to spread them out over the next days. He was snapped out of his musing by the car lurching forward before gradually gaining speed. Road signs indicated the highway on-ramp, Kotal managing to merge onto the highway without a hitch “nice work, getting' the hang of it, yeah?” Erron leaned back against the headrest, staring at the profile of Kotal's face.

 

“So, ya have to get that lid open” Erron leaned up against the car, watching Kotal follow his instructions. He crossed his arms, taking a quick look around the gas station, eyes drifting from car to car, person to person. “Now just take that cap out, grab your nozzle and put it in the hole...”

Kotal's eyes were narrowed in concentration as he slid the nozzle inside, squeezing his hand around the lever, turning to look at Erron “Is this correct?”

“Ain't no other way, gonna fill it up right?”

“Yes...” Kotal watched the numbers on the pump climb “this is fairly expensive.” 

Erron chuckled, sitting back down in the car “glad I ain't payin' for this.” He leaned out the car window, turning back to look at Kotal, their eyes meeting for a moment before he broke contact, staring off blankly at the car in front of them. A small station wagon that seemed to be falling apart, luggage tied down to the roof, Oregon license plate. He closed his eyes, imaging the greenery, remembering the faces of excited men that claimed they'd make a home there. Opening his eyes he found the car driving off, billowing exhaust as it accelerated. He flicked the tree shaped air freshener hanging from the rear view mirror, watching it sway back and forth, wondering if those men ever got to see what they yearned for. 

Kotal parked the car in front of the gas station's convenience store, pointing at a food truck parked beside in a gravel lot.

"What'd she recommend? I don't even know what they have here...” he closed his eyes, headache now pulsing numbly “Shit, just bring me anything, as long as it's edible...”

He awoke from a shallow nap, feeling the car shift “How'd it go? Ya rustle me up some grub?” Erron sniffed, watching Kotal struggle to get back into the car, offering him out a plastic bag.

“You should, hydrate...” he grumbled out, sitting down with a sigh “I inquired about the edibility of their dishes-”

“Goddamn it, ya didn't, I was just-” Erron stopped, catching the sight of the corners of Kotal's lips quivering. "Didya get anything for yourself?" he pulled out a hefty foil wrapped bundle, peeling it back and taking a bite. "Damn this is good." he mumbled out through a mouthful-scrambled eggs and potatoes smothered in cheese, spice of pork sausage-easily making him ignore his headache. 

"I ate earlier, remember the complimentary breakfast?"

"So when ya said that cereal was all they had left, that was 'cause you cleaned them all out right?"

Kotal opened a bottle of water, handing it out to Erron "There is no way for you to confirm that, Erron..."

He took a swig of the water, frowning at Kotal-fighting back the urge to laugh. "Here, try this." Kotal offered his hand out “Nah, keep your hands on the wheel, go on-take a bite” he leaned over, gingerly guiding the burrito towards Kotal's face "Christ, I said a bite-not eat the whole damn thing..." he played up his disapproval. 

 


 

A short drive, heading towards a few cities clustered together, Erron wrestling with the map, rereading the pink sticky note with more specific directions. An arcade, he glanced at Kotal when they arrived, wondering if he was set to visit every single place marked on the map.  "Fuck, it’s a nightmare in here. Can’t even hear myself think... hey-“ he was thankful it was cool inside, the only upside he could find at the moment. 

“Do you know how to play these machines?” Kotal pressed up against him, grabbing his arm and maneuvering them out of the way of a group bustling past them. His eyes were wide, slight grin on his face as he glanced around.

Erron sighed, brushing Kotal’s hand away and putting distance between them. He stared at the lines of arcade game cabinets, flashing lights and the drone of sound effects threatening to restart his headache. “I’ve tried my hand at pinball...” he murmured, turning and expecting to catch Kotal’s gaze only to find the hallway behind him empty. Setting his hands on his hips he paced off, searching around him.

“Here, you get the money-“ Erron stopped, catching sight of Kotal at an atm machine, a young boy beside him, strands of yellow tickets hanging around his shoulders. “And you take it over here...” the boy turned, motioning to Kotal and jogging off towards a nearby machine. “Found yourself a guide?” Erron chuckled as Kotal passed by.

The clattering of change erupted out of the machine, Erron leaning up against it, silently observing the two. “My thanks, use it wisely-“ he scooped up some of the change pouring it into the boys outstretched palm, laughing softly at the boys enthusiasm as he ran off. He retrieved the rest of the coins, placing them into the pockets of his sweatpants, offering out a smaller handful to Erron. "You mentioned pinball?" 

For a few minutes they walked around, Kotal stopping occasionally to watch someone play. It was entertaining enough, watching him intently focus on the screens, asking questions every now and then to the people around them. "Kotal, over here..." Erron drummed at the glass play-field of the machine he'd picked out, drawn by the art on the backboard; a knight astride a horse, lighting bolt in hand. 

“Son of a bitch, get up there...” he watched the silver ball clang around, hitting bumpers and tumbling down. The music coming out of the speakers picked up, lights flashing more rapidly. “Now, there’s a certain way to handle these things... but pretty much ya just gotta keep your eyes on the prize.” The ball circled again, dropping down and heading towards the chute, he caught it on a flipper, keeping it balanced and turned to look at Kotal. Kotal was focused, arms crossed “what is the objective of this game?”

“Each one's different, but the point is to uh... rack up-points. With the ball, ya hit at parts of the machine... see my score up there?” He pointed at the yellow flashing screen, waiting for his score to show up “yeah, I still got it...” he whistled softly, refocusing on the ball. A few more flicks, his score climbing higher before he allowed the ball to run down the chute. "Alright, see if ya can beat that." Erron took a step back, sticking his hand in his pocket and touching at the quarters Kotal had given him. Kotal stepped up to the machine, running his hands over the buttons, pulling back on the ball launch knob. He knelt down, placing four quarters into the coin slot. The machine lit up again, alternating colors and flashing lights "Is this purposefully made to be so distracting?" he asked, pulling back on the knob.

"Well, yeah. Just use those cat like reflexes of yours..."

Erron stood close by, offering hints as he saw fit, letting Kotal figure it out on his own. Kotal leaned down slightly, brow furrowed, tongue pressed up against his upper lip. The intense focus on his face was palpable. Erron's attention was drawn to a young boy that approached, same kid that had helped Kotal earlier. Their audience grew in size, called over by the kid. "Multi ball?" Kotal frowned when a second ball appeared in the launch. "That's good! You can do it..." a girl beside him reached out and pulled back the knob, sending the ball flying. "What the hell..." Erron groaned, taking a step back and watching the small group around Kotal clamor, chants of multi ball as they jostled to get a better view. "Tip it!" Kotal snapped his attention onto Erron, eyes expectant. "Well ya can tip it a bit-" Erron rubbed at his chin, glancing around the room, the last place he'd imagine getting kicked out of, this whole situation in front of him the last thing he'd imagine seeing let alone being a part of. 

It was all that Kotal needed to hear, the man hunkering down, eyes following the silver balls as they fell. He kept one hand on the flipper, other hand grasping onto the metal casing surrounding the playfield-lifting the cabinet and leaning it to one side, rocking it back to the other side as the chants grew louder and his score climbed. He set it back down once the balls managed to pass by his attempts to keep them in play “I beat your score-“ Kotal pointed at the display, Erron quickly glancing at the number before the machine lit up again, music picking up and the display flashing game over.

“That you did, color me surprised...” he offered a smile, watching the man turn and kneel down,placing a hand up- the kids around him eager to oblige him with high fives. There was that fullness in him again, a part of him more comfortable to embrace the warmth that he'd been trying to ignore. 

 

They left the arcade after a few more handfuls of quarters being spent, swiftly getting swarmed when Kotal announced the amount of change he had left. He was quick to empty out his pockets to the kids that gathered around, suggesting Erron do the same. Now in the full parking lot they took a moment, sitting on the trunk of the car. “What I meant was toss the quarters on the ground, they damn near tore us apart."

"On the ground? I interpreted your hand signals differently, it seemed you wanted me to aim at them."

"That’s were your mind was at, not me... Imagine you pelting kids with quarters...” he broke off into a laugh, closing his eyes tightly. “Now that would've been a show” He took another sip of his drink, only sucking up air. His laugh turning into a rough coughing fit.

"And manhandling that damn machine like it owed ya money..." he took the cup Kotal was offering out to him, drowning his cough with a long sip. "What the fuck is this?" 

"One of the children recommended I combine the flavors." 

"This is disgusting, don't... just don't listen to kids, Kotal..."

"When I first tasted this I was alarmed. But it's starting to grow on me-" he took the cup back. "Erron..." 

"What's up?"

"I've been meaning to ask you, about your mask."

"What about it?"

"I..." He set his cup between his thighs, taking a deep breath before leaning back on his hands and turning to look at Erron "I wish to ensure you're comfortable without it. If at any point you desire to retrieve it, please do so. If you wear it I doubt you will stick out more than I already do..."

"I'm comfortable, don't worry 'bout that." he assured him, remembering his reasoning he'd provided to Kotal back at the diner. In his pocket, there was one quarter he managed to save. He pulled it out, holding it between his thumb and forefinger "here-" he nudged Kotal, showing him the quarter and dropping it in his hand when he reached out for it. "A little souvenir."

Chapter Text

A short discussion, Erron sticking to his guns and getting the car keys back from Kotal. He felt well enough to drive, his lingering aches and pains sinking into the background, almost completely forgotten. They drove north on the state route, the scenery around them morphing back into desert, rugged earth-rough mountains in the distance. "There is a town nearby... named Carefree." Kotal lowered the volume of the radio, nose stuck in a map again.

"Carefree? Who in their right mind would name a town that." Erron scoffed, shaking his head and staring out the window. The terrain evened out, fenced land on the right hand side of the road. "Hey, look at them over there..." he pointed out a small herd of horses milling around, stable off in the distance. A sight he hadn't seen in far too long, he slowed down, craning his neck. "Wanna get a closer look?" he would've found a reason to pull over, though his excitement doubled when Kotal caught sight of them and fervently urged him to do so. 

There was enough room to park off the shoulder, Erron shutting off the car in a hurry and hiking off towards the fence. Kotal followed, walking a short distance from the car and joining Erron at the fence post. They stood in silence for a moment, just watching and listening to them. “Let’s see if we can get ‘em to come over.” Leaning onto the fence and cupping his hands, Erron let out a low snort. “Look at her... picked her head right up-“ he pointed at the mare whose attention he'd gotten, it's coat the dark grey of heavy storm clouds, black mane shifting with the gentle wind swirling past them.

“Do you believe she’ll get any closer?” 

“Yeah, she’ll come check us out...” Erron mimicked a nicker, throwing out a few more snorts, the horse steadily moving closer, ears forward. Keen to investigate the strange sounds. Kotal offered out his hand when she approached them, sniffing at him then nudging against his arm. “Oh, she likes you...” Erron chuckled, watching Kotal reach out and scratch at her neck. He glanced over at the two cautiously edging towards the fence, remembering the last time he’d ridden a horse. He could see still him, lanky copper quarter horse- he remembered how he’d snuffle and lick at his head and neck whenever he’d take his hat off. Seeking out salt or showing affection in the only way he knew how. A single long whistle and a chirp and there he’d be, waiting for Erron. They had always drawn him in, as a young man he was able to connect to them more than the people he found himself around. The sense of freedom that burst through him when he was on a horse... he'd thought it possible to chase the sky forever, follow the sun down to it's end. 

He was brought back by Kotal’s voice, soft and pensive. “They’re beautiful creatures, I can see why you hold them in such high regard...”

“Huh?”

“You’ve voiced your complaints about their Outworld counterparts..."

“Honest, I don’t mind ‘em. They’re just... a bit different.” He stretched his arm out, the smallest tentatively approaching him, warm breath blown onto his skin.

Erron thought for a moment before sharing with Kotal. He touched on his past experiences, finding himself being tugged between what he was experiencing now and distant memories. He recalled the way he'd seen people train their mounts, explaining to Kotal what he'd seen men do “I never saw it that way, couldn’t. Back in my day, it was how most folk did it. Breaking ‘em, y’know what that means... breaking their spirit, putting fear into them and forcing them to... give up." Kotal listened to him intently, his gaze drifting between Erron and the horses.

"You’d get these men putting them through the wringer, the ones they claimed to be unbreakable - dangerous and what have you, they were just terrified. Tryin’ to defend themselves.” He could feel the anger in his voice-feel it wavering hot, he cleared his throat, trying to bring it down. Trying not to delve too deep into memories, he refocused himself, patting at the thick muscled neck of the horse in front of him. “Ya gotta listen to the horse, understand it, before it'll listen to you. Let it see you as a brother." He took a deep breath as the horse nipped at his shirt, fuzzy lips searching for a treat. The smell so familiar, a smell he could never forget, sweet and dark - grass and earth, he could stand here for hours, a happy man. "Respect and trust. Without that... there's nothin'."

Kotal stared at him, watching as Erron ran a hand up and down the horse's neck, running his fingers into the mane. 

He thought for a moment before nodding “Their faith in you must be earned...” he trailed his hand up the mare's jaw, fingers tracing the outline of white hair splashed across her face "a relationship to be grown and cherished..." he added softly, seemingly to the horse that still hadn't moved on-content with the attention she was being given by Kotal.

“That's right.” He turned, searching Kotal’s eyes. “It’d be something to see you ride one. Let's hop over, yeah?"

“Erron..."

He responded with a laugh, waving him off “We should get truckin’, bout time to...” 

“Burn a path.”

He placed his hands on on the fence post, pursing his lips before letting the grin break on his face. Recalling times he spent explaining phrases to Kotal, how the man seemed intent on learning about them and making them a part of his vocabulary. A clarity settled in him as he looked into his eyes. Kotal turned back to the grey mare, running his hand under her chin and whispering softly to her. He couldn't pretend this wasn't happening, not anymore. Ignoring it had not served him, what he was feeling set strong and unyielding. “That’s right, let’s burn a path.” the words left his lips tingling, that warmth in him flaring.


The dimming sunlight seemed intent on lulling Erron to sleep. No caffeine to kick him in the rear, he focused on Kotal’s voice as he read from the road atlas. Information about the region they were in, Kotal keeping Erron engaged with conversation. Near two hours of driving. They ended up at a motel and RV park surrounded by desert-nothing around but dry earth and hardy trees-off of the main road in the small town they had reached.

Erron threw himself onto the small bed, trying his best to ignore the stiffness of the mattress and the musty smell of the covers, happy to be out of the car. "Don't lose that camera... they'll charge ya double for it." he stared at the ceiling, Kotal fiddling with the camera near the doorway of the room. Once they'd reached the parking lot he had been eager to get a picture with a saguaro taller than him at the motel entrance.

"I won't lose it..."

"Right, don't misplace it..."

"No, this camera won't leave my sight." sitting on bed opposite from Erron he placed the camera on the nightstand between them. He flipped through the atlas he'd brought along with him, picking out a sticky note and reading it. 

Erron unbuttoned his shirt, just their luck the only room left had no working air conditioning unit. He peeled off the shirt, throwing it at the foot of the bed. "It's too damn hot, Kotal. Maybe I'll stick my head in that refrigerator over there..." he chuckled to himself, eyeing the compact kitchen-merely a sink with a miniature fridge stuffed below it's counter. 

"Are you truly so hot?" Kotal stood, walking over to the small window and prying it open. He turned back, inquisitively staring at Erron before he too removed his shirt. 

Erron rolled over onto his stomach, forcing his face into the pillow "I know it's hot in Outworld... shit - hotter even. But I can't stand the heat sometimes, sweatin' like a whore in church over here..." he closed his eyes, seeing pulsating explosions of light as he squeezed them shut tighter "where we headin' tomorrow?" he felt Kotal's hand on his back, his body tensing in response. 

"That is nearby, I asked the manager in the office... he told me it is a hop, skip and a jump away in distance."

"What?" he turned over, reaching his hand to where Kotal had touched, feeling the sticky note placed on his shoulder blade. He read it before slapping it down on the nightstand. "sounds good to me, don't wake me up too late." he buried his face back into the thin pillow. Waiting for sleep that didn't want to come, he spent his time just thinking about riding, wanting to see the earth melt past him, feel the wind sting his face. He shifted onto his back, the lights were still on, Kotal reading through the atlas over in his bed. 

"Happy Jack..." Kotal mused over the name he'd found. 

Erron turned over onto his side "You're makin' that up..." 

"Greasewood" he sat up and lifted the atlas, pointing to the text. He laid back down on his side, facing Erron "these are curious names."

Kotal provided a few more, Erron's amusement growing. They debated on them, imagining the backstories of what led to their names. "I'll say it again, either someone lost a bet or they just pulled two words out of a hat. Or they were drunk..." Most likely a combination, he smirked, remembering the names of small towns he'd come across so long ago.

"Skull valley, that one is self explanatory, Erron."

"Get out of here, ain't no valley gonna be filled with skulls. That's just to ward off folks from visitin'." he scratched at his chest.

”They may not have necessarily been human in origin..." 

"Yeah, I suppose you're right. Fine, I'll give that one to ya. Y'know, Kotal-if I settled a town... and mind you I just might..."

"Of course, you'd have my support." there was an uptick of laughter as Kotal spoke. 

"Well, thank ya kindly..." tiredness was growing in him, the casual conversation as they laid in bed making it easier for sleep to win him over "I'd call it-" he yawned deeply "fiddlesticks." opening his eyes he found Kotal looking at him with a confused expression. 

"Fiddlesticks?"

"Language, Kotal... gentleman of your standing goin' around and talkin' like that." 

Kotal sighed, he grabbed the pillow he'd been resting his head on and grasped it tightly against his chest, turning over to lay on his stomach "Is that considered an offensive word? I believe you're being dishonest with me..."

"I ain't." Erron stifled a laugh, though it was likely obvious to Kotal, his stomach shaking with the contained huff. "what about you?" he shifted again, pain starting to grow in his lower back "Ya mind donatin' a pillow? Feel like I'm restin' my head on a piece of hardtack..." 

Kotal threw the pillow he was holding-landing it squarely on Erron's chest "Hmm, Pie town."

"Thanks... wait-pie town? Shit, that's worse than mine. That's worse than any of the names you found-" 

"It was the first name that came to mind, granted it's not very creative..." he explained. "They had pies at that diner we visited..."

"Ah, I see. Got pie on your mind. We'll get ya pie, soon enough. You'll love em. Hey... say that again-"

"That again." 

There was a still silence before Erron sat up, a slight grimace on his face before he responded-trying not to laugh, his efforts made more difficult by Kotal's chuckling "stop, I meant say pie town again..." 

Kotal repeated the name, the cadence of his voice as he spoke that nonsense made Erron wheeze. He laid back, hugging his sides, his laughter feeding into itself. He croaked out through his fit "It's just the way ya say it..."

"How else should I say it? I'm unable to change my voice..." Kotal shook his head, a smile on his face as he watched Erron fall apart.  

He regained his breath after a minute "Alright, that's enough... bout time we actually hit the hay, don't ya think?"

"Agreed...” Kotal reached over and flicked off the light switch, the room now flooded in darkness. “Sleep tight.”

“Yeah, you too.” Erron worked on his belt, unbuckling it and pulling off his trousers, lobbing them over to the foot of the bed, hearing the clang of his belt buckle as it landed on the floor. He grabbed the pillow Kotal had tossed him, it was still warm to the touch. He placed it behind his head along with the other two he had. Turning over to face the door he realized it smelled like him, faint scent of sweat and coconut from the bodywash of last night’s hotel. A muffled conversation from outside seeped in through the open window, along with the smell of cigarette smoke. He stared at the door for a few minutes, making out it’s shape in the darkness, focusing on voices from outside. It didn’t take long for Kotal’s deep breathing to drown them out-the man seemed able to fall asleep at the drop of a hat. Closing his eyes he thought of Kotal and the horse that had focused on him, the softness of his voice when he spoke to her. He felt like he was burning, the heat in the room only half to blame.

It would be something to see him on a horse, to saddle up beside him and burn a path. He had half a mind to figure out a way to make that happen.

 

Chapter Text

He found Kotal outside their room, sat down at a bench lost in conversation with other hotel guests. Erron met his eyes, catching Kotal's gaze flick up to his unkempt hair. Combing his hair down he approached them. "Good morning, Erron." Kotal stood, meeting him halfway. "I found a place where we can have breakfast. Mesquite, correct?" he addressed an older man sat on the bench, can of beer balanced on his stomach.

"That's right, pal. If you follow that road down to Point street-you can visit the river too." the man glanced at Erron, saluting him with a hand. "It's very nice this time of year..." the women beside him mentioned softly, ashing her cigarette on a tray between them. 

Erron placed his hat on, giving up on his hair. He nodded at the couple "I'll see ya in the car then..." he reached out and patted Kotal on the shoulder, lingering for a second longer, the heat of Kotal's bare skin against his hand making him pause. He turned quickly, focusing on the blinding glare of the car's windows as he walked to it. The air was hot, smell of dusty earth and faint notes of Creosote bushes filling his nose. He took in a deep breath before entering the car, faint smile growing on his face.

 

"There ya go, Mayor of Pie town..." Erron shook his head, taking down what was left of his coffee. It was a small restaurant, it's size feeling more compact with the amount of people inside, the sound of conversation and clattering plates almost drowning out their voices. Kotal had been immediately drawn to the refrigerated case at the entrance, filled with a variety of pies, quick to decide they needed a whole one for them to share. Only after a lengthy conversation with a hostess-inquiring about the flavors, and asking both her and Erron about which one they would recommend, did he decide on a flavor. Kotal's reaction when he took his first bite was priceless, Erron holding off on chowing down on his own slice-content to listen to Kotal's musings about a damn pie. 

“Hmm?”

“Nothin’, are ya gonna save me a slice? Goin’ whole hog on that-" The pie was perfect; right combination of filling, chock full of apples, crisp browned crust. This food... an endless supply of his favorite Earthrealm staples wouldn't be enough.

Kotal polished off his last slice, downing his coffee “you had mentioned you only wanted two slices, Erron...”

“Well, people can change their minds, leave that last one for me...” he glanced back outside, the bird he’d been watching as they ate hopping onto the ledge of their window. A little dust colored finch, bright yellow crown. Continuing his absentminded sketching he looked down, adding more detail before setting the pen down. 

“More coffee?”

“Yeah, top me off.” He was full, reaching down below the table he adjusted his belt, loosing it a hole. 

They stayed there for a moment longer, too full to move, a light sleepiness running through Erron. Given the opportunity he'd fall asleep right there. He stood, finishing what must have been his fifth cup of coffee. Grabbing his thermos and hat he mentioned to Kotal he'd start the car up and look over the map again. Kotal watched him leave, putting away the last slice of pie in a box before standing up to follow. His gaze was drawn back to the small square napkin on the table, he picked it up-looking it over before folding it once before putting it in his pocket. 

 

“I can’t read that, it’s too damn small-" Erron glowered at the map in his lap, scratching at his head and trying his hardest to follow what Kotal was saying as he pointed at the map. 

“Do you have your glasses on you?”

He patted at his shirt, trying to remember where he put them last “I don’t got em, Koko-“ a heavy weight sank into his stomach, muscles in his chest tensing up. Kotal pressed his elbow against the center console between them, leaning closer to Erron - a smile on his face. “Didn’t mean to say that, got five gallons of coffee my gut... can barely think straight-“ he was silently cursing himself, biting at his tongue.

“There is no need for concern..." Kotal chuckled softly, going quiet in for a second, lost in thought "I will have to come up with a name for you."

“Don’t do it-" Erron tugged at his shirt, a light blue paisley, one that was stuffed into the suitcase he was given-starting to irritate his skin. "Don't you do it." he repeated himself, casting a side eyed stare at Kotal. 

Kotal shrugged, the tanktop he was wearing struggling against his broad shoulders. "From what we have listened to, is there a song you like?" he tapped at the radio console, pressing a button and waiting for the music to start as he stared at the back of the cd case. 

Erron turned over the question in his mind, deciding he'd rely on Kotal's directions to where they were set on going. "Ah, I'll listen to anything. You go ahead, put on whatever you like." endlessly grateful that Cassie and Jacqui hadn't merely complied a list of old country songs, providing a selection that had delighted Kotal-the man having a keen sense for music, even back in Outworld. 

"And the road goes on forever..." Kotal skipped a few tracks, landing on the song he was seeking out "the instrumental's of this song are captivating, I must listen to more of this band."

Erron touched at the radio dial-turning the music up "Yeah, real captivating..." 

 

A hop, skip and a jump away. Down meandering roads, leaving behind the buildings and streets of the town, they ended up surrounded by the high arid desert. A national monument according to Kotal, reading out a faded pamphlet that had been stuck inside the road atlas. Nothing and nobody around them but the ground and the sky, trekking past shrubs and cacti-their goal in mind the rocky face of a mountain.

A two mile hike that was proving to be more difficult than Erron had expected. “Sweet mother of-“ he tried to catch his breath, bending down and placing his hands on his knees. The sun bore down on the earth, warm air rising up from the ground providing lift to dark shadows that passed by. A hawk, circling on the currents-searching. Erron looked up at the sky, shielding his eyes with a hand, watching the hawk lift higher. “Damn shirt’s too starchy...”

Kotal stepped closer towards him, offering him out a water bottle. “Is It?”

“Yeah, go on, touch-“ he tipped back the bottle, guzzling down the liquid that was already warming. “Stiff as a hanged man’s prick...”
Kotal pulled his hand back from Erron’s shoulder, meeting his eyes and slowly shaking his head.

“Terrible... and yes, the shirt is too rigid."

“Sure is, Son of a bitch my nipples-“ he rubbed at his chest, the shirt chafing at his skin, walking towards a slight ridge of earth ahead of them, still on the trail they were following. 

“Are they alright?”

“I’ll let ya know if they fall off...”

Kotal picked up his pace, passing Erron easily with his longer strides. Jumping onto the ridge he looked at the scenery around them, adjusting the bill of the cap he was wearing. “Shall we continue? If you would like to return to the car we can, I wouldn’t want you to overexert yourself...”

“We’ve made it so far, ain’t gonna turn back now. My feet are killin’ me though-“ he climbed on top of the ridge, sitting down beside where Kotal was standing. “These boots aren’t doing too good...” he crossed a leg, looking at the bottom of the boot’s heal, finding the rubber sole peeling off the tip.

Kotal sat down beside him, looking over “Are those your favored pair?”

“Yeah, but they’re on their last leg...” he leaned back and smiled to himself before nudging Kotal “last leg, huh...”

Kotal's chest rose once with the contained laughter, he leaned back-looking up to the sky before laying down fully. "Last leg... please explain." 

"Oh you know full well what I'm gettin' at-"

"Would you be willing to refresh my memory?" he turned to him and smiled, pushing up the bill of his cap to better look at him. 

Erron laid back, not caring to dirty up the shirt. Lifting up his leg he motioned to his foot "Boot's on my foot right? That's connected to my leg." he continued, noticing the smile on Kotal's face broadening. "When somethin's about to give out.. or someone's bound to die... they're on their last leg. You know that one... "

Kotal nodded in agreement. 

"So, yeah." he snorted, rolling his eyes at Kotal's gentle laugh. "It's not that funny..."

"Perhaps not but... I am very fond of the way you explain things, Erron." 

Erron grunted, feeling his heartbeat pick up. "Are we takin’ a break?”

“It would appear so. Only a few minutes...”

A few minutes trickled by swiftly, turning into an hour of the toasting their skin. Erron was the first to awaken, startled out of sleep by a sharp screech overhead. Rolling his stiff joints he couldn't help but huff, face burned by the sun and now further burning with the realization of how sleep had been coming easy to him in the past few days. He'd grown accustomed to being exhausted by a full day or being lulled to sleep by a generous amount of Outworld liquor. All the better to knock him out, stave off the thoughts that would creep into his mind, push away the all too vivid dreams that would leave him waking up in a cold sweat, smelling blood and gunpowder, seeing things he had tried to forget. In the past months since his realizations about what he was feeling for this man... he'd tried to drown them out too-finding them popping up in the dead of night, finding himself momentarily distracted by the usual midnight ruminations that hit him. Even his dreams had taken a different color, a different muse, though he dreaded they'd return to the unavoidable dark sights of a reality replayed by his own mind. But for now he was grateful. Deep sleep, dreamless for the most part.

"Only a few minutes...” rubbing the sleep out of his eyes he turned to stare at the man that was now stirring “enjoy your sunbathin’?”

“Very much...” Kotal stretched, sighing loudly-contentedly “Did you?”

Erron stood, patting the dust off of his ass and hiking up his trousers "Hmph, suppose so. Put a pep in your step, lazy bones..." 

Hopping up Kotal stepped closer to Erron, placing his hands on Erron’s shoulders "The contrary, my bones are energized." he laughed out, squeezing his shoulders before jogging off, following the trail again. 

"course they are..." Erron mumbled through a crooked smile, unbuttoning his shirt a few holes before taking off after him. 

Chapter Text

They trudged further through the rough desert, Erron occasionally stopping to reconsider the choices he’d made to end up there that day, only to be drawn back by Kotal. “Don’t go putting your fingers near him, he looks mighty hungry...” Kotal was knelt down beside a rock, camera in hand and keeping stock still. He’d caught sight of the lizard and spent a few minutes inching closer in an attempt to avoid startling the creature. He took a picture, slowly placing the camera back into a pocket before studying the lizard for a moment longer.

“What is this animal called?” Kotal asked Erron, keeping his eyes on the lizard. With a shrug Erron reached for the pamphlet that Kotal had given to him earlier, he opened it-reading through a few passages “Gila monster...”

Kotal inched even closer, studying the lizard, it’s black body studded with orange scales, it lurched back-mouth open letting out a sharp hiss. “Pissing him off, Kotal... got all your fingers?" with a soft laugh he joined Erron, slapping him on the back.

“All accounted for, what a fascinating creature-“

“You’ve said that about every critter we’ve seen...” Erron tugged at the wet shirt now draped over his shoulders, he’d given up on it after a few minutes, ripping it off and handing it to Kotal when the man asked for it, drenching it in the remaining water from a bottle. Every animal Erron had pointed out had received a moment of attention from Kotal, observing them with an thoughtful gaze. His unbridled interest and fascination with damn near everything about earthrealm made Erron pause-thoroughly enjoying his reactions. “See those holes in the cacti? Plenty of critters make their home in them, owls... wrens...”

“That is very industrious-“ Kotal murmured, turning and staring ahead of them at the winding trail, now heading uphill towards the mountain’s face.

 

“For crying out loud... this trail is getting longer each step we take.” He stuffed the now dry shirt between his belt and his trousers, staring up at Kotal whose back was turned to him- standing like a silent sentinel, taking in the sight of the area they had traversed. “I’m dead, aren’t I?” Erron mumbled lowly to himself, scratching at the red irritated patch of skin across his chest.

“An illusion of the land perhaps, we are almost there. We can rest once we’ve reached the dwelling, unless you would like to take a moment now...”

“No, no, no. I’m fine, just dandy. Let’s go-“

“It is the boots, is it not?”

They continued up, Kotal staying close to Erron. “Most likely, I wouldn’t have worn these if I’d know we’d be doing-this. All thanks to a so called friend, couldn’t be bothered to let me know..."

"Am I familiar with this friend of yours?"

Erron disguised his laugh with groan, shooting Kotal a dismayed look "Honest? You might, seven foot tall... terrible sense of humor-" he wet his lips, the dry air leaving his mouth parched. 

"You must introduce me, it sounds like we would get along." Kotal stopped at the trails terminus, the earth before them flat and open, a wide cave mouth-stone dwelling built against it.

He couldn't help but chuckle "Yeah I'll introduce you... find me a mirror" Erron turned back to look down the trail, dreading the walk back. He took of his hat, letting his head get some more air, ruffling his hair. Kotal watched him, more focused on the man before him than the scenery "I must offer my apologies again..."

Wheeling back around he took a couple of steps to approach Kotal "hush, don't mind my bellyachin'. Just let this be a lesson for ya-" he smiled at Kotal, lifting a brow when he noticed the ghost of a frown on Kotal's face. "Two miles... wasn't too bad. Might have to carry me back to the car-" Just the response he wanted-Kotal closing his eyes tightly and grinning. "If necessary, I will gladly do so." 

 

Two miles, not much but his legs were aching. Blisters on the soles of his feet long since burst, wet socks and raw skin making him grimace. He leaned back against a rock wall, slowly lowering himself onto the ground, patting the area beside him for Kotal to join him. He sat with a grunt, offering out another water bottle to Erron that he had pulled out from a pocket of the cargo shorts that barely fit him. Erron downed it halfway, returning it back to Kotal and pressing his head back against the rock wall, closing his eyes and relaxing his tired legs. "Folks used to live here, huh?" he tried out his voice, opening an eye and staring at Kotal for a second before shutting it again.

"That is true..." Kotal read through the pamphlet again, gaze turning up to stare at the remaining walls of the stone building in front of them "Between thirteen thousand and fourteen thousand... C.E." 

Erron opened his eyes, taking in the view. It was cooler in cave’s shade, cast into muted darkness-past the line of shadow the earth continued to burn. "That's some masonry, still standing..." he glanced at Kotal, finding him focused, hands clasped together and pressed under his chin. 


In and out, his breath slowing, longer pauses between inhalation and exhalation. He could feel it, the aching pain that seemed to bleed out from his chest and run through his limbs, heavy and sour. A home, standing empty. He imagined what daily life must have been like for the people that inhabited it, imagined their voices and laughter, the hands that set up these strong walls, children that may have run past the open area in front of the dwelling. Mouth growing dry he took in a deeper breath, memories pouring before him. "You doing alright, Kotal?"

Erron's voice was soft, like the silence that flowed between them. "I am-" his throat tightened. Into the air like his breaths, a life gone but never forgotten "This home... at one point was full of life, seeing it silent-empty..." he sighed, continuing after a beat "In my realm... where I was born and where I knew family, friends. So much stands empty, like this." Never forgotten, always carried within him, sights he wished he could see again, if only for a moment-being well aware of the reality that would never occur, except in his dreams and memories. He inhaled deeply again, reassured by the memories, feeling them in his body, seeing them in his minds eye. His people, his world, kept safe in his heart, a badge worn proudly on his chest-despite the pain it strengthened him. To remember and strive forward. 

“Kotal, I... listen, I know it’s just a word but.” Erron made to reach out, reconsidering and wringing his hands in his lap. He kept his eyes on Kotal’s “I’m sorry, I truly am.”

Erron’s voice wavered, but he could still hear the sincerity in it, his words truthful in their meaning. He looked back at him, his eyes a calming sight to take in, how he looked at him with a naked trust.

“It’s not the same, I know it’s not but... shit I don’t know. All the people I knew, y’know-from my time... people I cared about-“ he took in a sharp breath before continuing, his gaze dropping for a moment “damn dust, hundred odd years... and here I am.” he shrugged, locking eyes with him again, shoulders slumping “I don’t know, sometimes I let those memories come-though I don’t want em to, ain’t no use... I just know I gotta keep movin’.” his voice was softer, strained-an uncharacteristic affect Kotal rarely heard.

How could it not be similar, even if the circumstances were different, the feeling was there. “Erron.” He had shared with those whose duty it was to know, historians and scribes, setting down the intricacies of a life, of a people, so that they would always be known. With this man, he had shared more of his truth, in a way that soothed him, in a way that gave him satisfaction- because it felt more genuine-intimate.. Together they had shared, showing themselves to the other. He set his hand on Erron’s shoulder, feeling the tensing of muscle. “To relive again, to remember... there is strength to be found in what we have experienced. What we have lived through and what has made us who we are.”

“Without it, there is no future that we can create.” He loosened his grip on Erron’s shoulder, trailing down and settling between his shoulder blades, the slight movement of his breathing pressing into his hand. Erron’s eyes darted away from his. He removed his hand, though he wished to do the opposite.

“Yeah...” the word left Erron’s lips slowly, almost a whisper. He raised a hand, pinching the bridge of his nose before rubbing at the skin below his eyes. They rested in silence, the far off sound of an occasional bird call joining the slight breeze that flowed through the cave. Standing roughly Erron turned to Kotal “We should get going, but if you’d like to stay longer...”

“No, you are correct...”

“Need some help gettin’ up, Kotal?” Erron took a step closer, offering his hand out.

“Ko’atal. And yes, I do need assistance...”
He grabbed onto Erron’s hand, pushing back against the wall with his other and rising to his feet.

“Have I been sayin’ your name wrong all these years?” Erron sounded incredulous, brows raised high, maintaining the hold on Kotal’s hand a second longer after he stood.

Kotal sighed “I have grown accustomed to my usual address, but I thought I would share that with you, my name.” He smiled at Erron “feel free to use whichever you prefer.”

He was staring at Kotal, the most curious expression on his face “Whichever?”

“Yes. Will you require me to carry you back down to the car?”

“You know I was just playin, Ko’atal.” He smiled at him, eyes wide as he seemed to search his face. He turned, walking back to the trail, glancing back at him “I’ll make it down fine, long as you don’t challenge me to a foot race or nothin’...”

The way he said his name, the smile on his face... Kotal followed him, staying back a few paces. His name on Erron’s lips and into the air..

“Can’t believe I’m sayin’ this... but I missed this tin can...” Erron practically threw himself inside once they’d reached the lot, throwing the keys over to Kotal.
He forced his boots off, peeling off his socks and tossing them into the back seat. As they drove out he lowered his window, sticking out his feet and letting the breeze cool his skin.

Kotal glanced at him every now and then, reminding himself to keep his eyes on the road and watch out for the signs that would take them back to town. Grateful that the road was near empty, appreciative of Erron’s trust in him to drive.

“How about a word?” Erron asked, watching the road curve, letting out a long exhale as the car’s brakes groaned.

“Ca ye cualli...” Kotal chuckled under his breath, considering a word, coming upon one that seemed to manifest itself in his mind, vibrant and pointed “mohuelmati... mo-huel-mati” he repeated the word, slowly, enunciating it’s parts. Erron followed, his voice laving over each syllable, the sound filling Kotal with a lazy heat that traveled through his stomach and chest

“Did I say that right?”

“Yes, you did-“ Kotal found himself smiling, a broad grin that he leaned into. “It means... to feel good.”

He turned his head slightly to look at Erron, keeping his hands steady on the steering wheel. He was looking back at him, a deep smile, cheeks dimpling, eyes alight. That fire in Erron’s eyes, he’d always noticed it, how his eyes showed that same fire that burned within. A complex man, one who had opened up so much to him and showed himself as he was. He felt honored to know him, to share the same breath as him.

Striving forward, creating new memories to be cherished-desiring for them to include this man, he assured himself they would.

Chapter Text

The pain was bright in his head, limbs heavy as the adrenaline seeped out of him, chest still wet and warm, the smell of his own blood pungent-suffocating. He pulled up his rucksack, heaving it onto the small table, tearing it open and seeking out thread and needle. Shirt torn across the front-it was easy to pull apart the fabric, letting it fall to the ground. Bandolier gone- he’d pulled it off when someone had gotten close enough to get a tight hold of it. He softly cursed himself, he had woken up less cautious than usual, believing this would be a easy task to take on, comfortable that the past years serving the Kahn had gone without a hitch. An unexpected ambush on track to visit a growing village. Capping off his flask he spilled what was left onto his hands and the wound on his chest, sucking in a deep breath at the sensation of the liquid passing through his skin, nerves screaming.

Looking down he caught sight of blood lazily weeping out of his torn flesh, small layer of fat visible, red and angry tissue being met by the hot air in the tent. Any lower and he’d be picking up his organs from the floor, no doubt trying to stuff them back into himself, like’d he’d seen others do, others who’d met their fate before him. He sucked in a breath, setting to work, needle in hand, thick thread trailing behind. He’d done this enough times, but the positioning of the wound was difficult to get at, chin being pushed down against his collarbone-trying his hardest to get a good view, free hand dragging one torn edge of skin back to it’s better half. He sank the needle in, hooking the other slice of skin, pulling up and looping back and under the thread-tightening, a fresh wave of pain hitting him, blanketing his thoughts, white and burning, nausea rising in the pit of his stomach. His hands were shaking now, he clenched them tight into fists as he tried to keep his eyes open.

Skin tingling, hairs standing on end, his gaze brought back to the entrance of the tent,-watching its flap be pulled back, familiar figure making his way in. He approached Erron slowly, eyes drifting up and down, studying him intently. He closed the distance between them, looking down, eyes draw to the wound on Erron’s chest. Canteen in his grasp, he set to cleaning his hands then offered the water to Erron. He took it, tipping his head back and guzzling down what was left, thankful to rid of his parched mouth. Kotal opened his hand, palm
up, waiting. His breathing spiked again, heart beating faster as he nodded and set the remaining needle and thread in Kotal’s hand. Kotal focused on the wound, Erron bringing out his mask from his pants pocket and readjusting it back on. Leaning back on his hands to allow the man to have better access to his chest. His movement was swift, practiced, evident that he likely saw to himself when injured. A deep red wound on the man’s forearm caught his attention, Erron’s face growing hot, the bullet just having grazed his skin, thankful it hadn’t lodged in him and instead stayed true to it’s target.

He grimaced behind his mask, the needle piercing through tender skin, pulled tight together. Closing his eyes he focused on leveling his breathing, feeling Kotal work on him, the man’s rough hand warm on his skin, listening to the occasional snip of the thread as he set each suture. Kotal frowned, gaze flicking up to Erron’s face before refocusing on the few inches left to pull together. He cut away the the thread when he had tied off the last suture, listening to the shallow breathing coming from Erron, eyeing him curiously. Erron opened his eyes, avoiding looking at the man, grumbling out a hoarse word of appreciation.

Silence in the tent, he turned to look at the man-bruises and shallow slashes covering his arms and torso, the skin on his legs heavily scraped. Again Erron’s eyes were drawn to the path his bullet had torn, face burning. Meeting Kotal’s gaze he wondered what the man was thinking, the pale blue orbs of his pupil’s boring into him. He licked his lips, trying out his voice “Kotal Kahn-“

Kotal raised his hand, his gaze softening for a second.

“Wear this with pride... these scars are a piece of us, a sign of our struggles and victories, our flesh the valiant shield of our souls-each mark on it to be revered and honored. Each mark showing that you have earned your survival...”

“We will begin our travel back to the city come dawn. Focus on resting... you did well today.”

Erron shivered, the sweat on his body evaporating, he turned the words over in his head as Kotal left the tent. He sat in silence-the sound of Kotal’s voice still echoing through his ears. Staring out of the tent he saw long shadows drifting on the ground. The sun on it’s course to pass beyond the horizon. He touched at his chest, a dull sting now running through him, he counted the sutures, touching at each one as he breathed in the dry air. Questions ran through his mind, about why Kotal sought him out, what his angle was. He shrugged, as long Kotal paid him he had no need to concern himself with the reasons behind his actions.

Chapter Text

Every curve, no matter how gentle-a faint squeal now joining the chorus of the car's strained sounds. “No, I’m insistin'. That jerky looks like shit, bet it’s made from roadkill.” Erron opened the Styrofoam container that held his slice of pie, watching with narrowed eyes as Kotal attempted to take down a sliver of jerky from a bag he'd purchased at the gas station. 

Kotal glanced at him “That is your slice, I am fine with this...”

“You’ve been working at that for a good while, lookin' like a cow chewing cud...”

With a sigh Kotal set the piece of jerky back into the bag, now staring at the pie-a glimmer of excitement in his gaze.

Erron used the plastic fork to cut a piece and stab it onto the tines, lifting it up carefully. Kotal made to reach out for the fork "No, I'll feed ya, focus on drivin'." he leaned over, forcing down a laugh at Kotal's darting eyes, split between the road and the forkful "Go on, open your pie-hole."

A memory, he let it come, let it fill out and establish itself inside of him. The most beautiful woman he’d ever know, inside and out. He remembered her face clearly, her laugh. Staring at the slice he sighed, poking at a piece of apple with the fork. His chest ached but he recalled Kotal’s words. He could never forget her, always a part of him. Over the years, the years that dragged past him too long sometimes, mockingly reminding him of his reality... he’d avoided getting close to people, seeking shallow pleasures. No point in putting himself in a position to hurt or be hurt, guarding himself. It had worked so far, and yet here he was. Unexpected, unintended, this man already staking a claim in his mind, in his body.

The words passed by his lips before he knew it, her name formed in his mouth-the first time in too many years. "She... she taught me how to cook. She’d always tell me, ain’t nobody gonna feed your bony ass, you do it for yourself...” he chuckled at the memory, there'd always be a plate ready for him but she insisted he do it himself too. “I didn’t think I was half bad, but according to her... you men are all the same, could eat a boiled boot and ask for seconds." he laughed, Kotal joining him through another mouthful of pie. 

“I still remember all those recipes she taught me, every single one.” He faltered, throat tightening and mouth growing dry. For yourself and for those you care about, that’s why I’m teaching you. He could still hear her voice, a voice that would sometimes manifest itself in his dreams, could still hear-more so feel the anger-in her voice. See the frustration in her eyes when she knew what he was doing, found out about all he had done. It was his mistake, thinking he could that from her. She deserved better anyways, that he knew. Thoughts he tried to avoid though they slipped into his head every now and then, of what became of her... if she led the life she wanted, if she ever had children, of who may have been the one that held her tightly at night, kissing her freckled skin. A deep breath, offering out another forkful of pie to Kotal, urging him on with a huff when he noticed the concern on the man's face. 

“You’d have loved her, Ko’atal. She was a firecracker, best believe she could whup my ass” he snorted “she... she would rather go hungry than see someone else go through that, y’know. Type of person who’d really look out for others.”

“From how you’ve described her... how you speak of her, there is no doubt in my mind she was a wonderful person. Thank you, Erron. For sharing with me...”

“What? The pie? Yeah, I gave it all to you. Damn I’m a good friend, ain't I?” Erron closed the empty styrofoam container, tossing it into the backseat.

“It was your pie, why did you not..."

“Don't sweat it, I wasn’t that hungry anyways.” he scratched at his stomach, feeling the dull gnaw of a clamoring appetite, reaching out for the bag of jerky. He was sweating, heart thumping hard in his chest, a heady mixture of sorrow and happiness flowing through him. Scratching at his chest he felt along the edge of the thin scar, feeling his heart thump strongly in his chest. A few more miles, turning onto the main road. “We should hit that bar that’s up from the motel...” Erron had caught sight of it in the morning when they set out, caricature of a colonial soldier holding a mug of beer painted onto it’s side.

“Do we not have a bottle of whiskey in the trunk?"

“I know, but you’ve never visited an Earthrealm bar... what do ya say, a little night cap before we head out of here.” he rolled his shoulders against the car seat and focused on lowering his window, taking in the rush of fresh air that poured in through the open window. He thought of the amber bottle of whiskey in the trunk, carefully wrapped in one of his shirts and tucked away in his suitcase. His plan was to save it, drink it with Kotal on their last day here.


It was dark inside the bar, Erron's eyes taking a moment to adjust-the smell of sweet hopped beer heavy in the air, likely the result of one too many drinks being spilled onto the floor. “Whiskey sour, yeah, two of 'em.” Erron set his hands on the counter, removing them once he felt his skin stick to the wood grain. “Nice, huh?” He shook his head, looking around and catching the gaze of a man sitting beside a torn pool table. 

"Hmm, this is admittedly quite pleasant." He matched Erron’s sarcasm with a smile “I will return in a moment-“ standing he flagged down the bartender, asking about the men’s room.

“Don’t take too long, might come back to an empty glass."

Kotal responded with a wag of his pointer finger before disappearing down a dark hallway at the end of the bar.

Turning on his seat Erron stared at the pool table-considering teaching Kotal how to play. That thought slipped out of his mind, a group of men clambering their way inside and making a beeline for the pool table, greeting the man that had looked them over once Kotal and him had entered. 

“Thank you for safeguarding my drink...”

“Can’t say I wasn’t tempted. Sit down, you do the toast." He reached out for his glass, frowning at the excess amount of droplets wetting his hand. 

“A toast? You are putting me on the spot, Erron.”

Erron pressed a hand down his chest, drying his hand and trying to flatten out some creases, noticing that the shirt's buttons were misaligned-he had chucked it on in a hurry once they had pulled in to the parking lot. “Just spit out whatever...” he insisted, focusing on Kotal's face.

Kotal thought for a moment, running a hand over his head and rubbing at his scalp. Meeting Erron's eyes he smiled “may the sun always shine warm on your back, and may our friendship last a hundred years more...” 

“Cheers to that, Ko’atal." Erron pressed his glass gently against Kotal's. A hundred years more, he mulled the words over in his mind. They drank, Erron groaning at the liquid, heavy on the lemon juice and light on the actual liquor. He pushed his glass aside, Kotal now pulling out the camera from his pocket. A surprising number of images, the quality of them occasionally questionable-Erron watched as Kotal showed him each one. “What do all those button’s do?”

“I am not sure, I only use the ones Cassie showed me... perhaps we can determine their function...”

"No doubt we'd mess something up. Let’s work on that aim of yours instead...”

The dart hit with a thud, right on the edge of the green outer circle of the dartboard's center. “Bullseye... well, almost.” 

“It is practically there. Did you feel that slight breeze? I believe it impacted my aim...” Kotal offered up his explanation with a grin, then swiftly refocused on the target. He stretched his arm, rolling another dart in between his fingers.

“Yeah, I felt it." Erron responded with a chuckle "Gettin’ a bit parched, do ya want another drink?”

The dart was sent flying, landing right next to the one thrown prior. Kotal shook his head "I'm well..." 

“Alright, be right back-no cheatin’”

 

A whiskey neat, no ice to water it down-searching that light honey taste he'd picked up on earlier. 

“Hey, friend. How’s it going?”

Erron frowned, drumming his fingers on the bar's tabletop. "Can I help you?" same person who'd met his eyes sat near the pool table. 

The man leaned back, grinning as steadied himself by grasping onto the bar with a hand, pool cue in the other. “No." he sniffed loudly "You and your friend over there... you guys just coming through? We get a lot of tourists round here.” He motioned around them with a hand. “But your friend...”

Erron prickled, the way this man was enunciating his words, the look in his eyes as he turned to look at Kotal-still throwing darts at the board. None of it was sitting right with him. “What about him?”

“He is not from around these parts, no not at all.” He turned back to Erron, twirling the pool cue in his hand. “Where he from?” Sounding less like an honest question and more of a demand to know.

“Ain’t none of your damn business. You go round stickin' your nose where it don’t belong... you’re bound to end up with a rough time, friend.”

The man let out a raspy cough, a smirk growing on his face “I’m just curious."  he leaned forward, voice low-his breath, reeking of alcohol blown into Erron's face. His words made Erron's stomach churn, anger pouring hot into him. The man motioned with the pool cue and his hand-breaking off into a high pitched laugh. “Well?” Erron grimaced, reaching out for his drink-trying to maintain his composure. He made to move past the man, glancing at Kotal. “Oh it is you...” the man whispered, nodding his head gently, side stepping in front of Erron.

“Hey, Harvey-“

“On my way...”  he flipped the pool cue, pointing it at Erron and nudging it into his chest. Taking a step forward he shoved the cue harder.

A sharp pain against Erron's sternum. He set down his drink and grabbed the tip of the pool cue, free hand instinctively reaching for his hip, touching at nothing. “Fucking son of a bitch... you're not strapped.” The man's eyes grew wide, face flushing a darker red. He had a tight grip on the pool cue, despite his short stature and paunch he was sturdier than he looked. Shouts and laughter erupted as Erron forced the cue down, the man’s hands following the movement, set off balance and forced forward by his own momentum. He caught that face with an upward knee, jolt of pain ripple through leg as bone and teeth refused to yield-dull snap of contact echoing through his ears. The man toppled forward, hands splaying on the grimy floor-the laughter stopping and shouts growing louder.

Erron took a step back, grabbing his drink and tossing it down the hatch-keeping his eyes on the man crumpled up on the floor, moaning lowly and cursing through a swollen mouth. He was right, honey and a soft undertone of spices. “What the hell is your problem?” One of the man’s drinking companions, walking over to them - making a move for Erron. Just one more, Erron's eyes darted across the room again, his target obscured by the man reaching out for him-demanding his attention. More bodies, the small group that had made their way in, brushing past those who were heading for the door, shouts intermingled with the tired hoarse voice of the bartender. “Back up, all of you, take your pal with ya-“ Erron tried out his voice, trembling with the ripple of anger that had coursed through him, steadying himself with a hard swallow-the man on the ground now being helped up. A few feet away from him, the one who'd made to step up against him, his gaze fixed on the ground-face just as flushed, likely just as drunk as his friend on the ground. His shoulders dropped down, posture relaxing.

“My damn tooth, pick it up...”


“I’m not touching it-“

The distance was too small, easily manageable, the man pushing into Erron, his weight pinning him against the bar. Erron shot his arm out, seeking a hold on the man’s neck, momentary grasp slipping as more weight was forced down on him. An arm drawn back and crashing against his chin - pain ripping sharply across his chin and lip, blood flowing hot through his mouth.

“Get the fuck off of him. I told you bastards if this shit happened again...”

He managed to shove back, lowering his shoulder into the man’s chest and pushing him into the space behind him. Not loosing balance, only stepping forward again, eyes fixed on Erron. Two others, gazes hardening as they seemed to share the same thought, closing in between them. More shouts, jeers, hurled curses and spit. The glass on the bar right behind him, rolled over onto it’s side, it was heavy enough-could do necessary damage with enough gumption. He reached back for it, the man in front of him catching his movement and lunging forward, met abruptly by arms wrapping around his rib cage. Balance lost as his feet scrambled beneath him seeking stability, his companions stuttering on their movement, turning heal as he was lifted and thrown forward onto the floor. “Walk-“ the only word spoken to him as Kotal approached him, hands gripping into his shoulders momentarily before Erron nodded and turned, Kotal following behind closely, offering an apology to the bartender.

The air outside was refreshing compared to the stagnated heat inside the bar, sweat starting to evaporate and cool down on Erron’s skin. Adrenaline leaving his body slowly, his lip aching and already swelling. They made their way to the car in silence, a trickle of embarrassment seeping into Erron, one that left quickly as soon as he felt Kotal’s hand on his shoulder-turning him and looking him over. “Your lip...”

“I’m fine, don’t worry... hand the keys over-“

“You are not driving, Erron. Don’t argue with me on the matter...”

He licked at his lower lip, feeling the bulge of blood swollen tissue and the split from where his tooth bit into the flesh. The taste of pennies-he built up some saliva and spat onto the ground. “I won’t argue but...”

“No buts-“ Kotal patted his arm, making his way to the passenger door and opening it.

“Fifty miles. We can make it before nightfall...” he sat, grimacing at the itchiness of the shirt again as he buckled himself up. He stared at the side street, hoping they wouldn’t catch sight of a patrol car rolling in. The wet gurgle of water grabbed his attention, turning to a shirtless Kotal, the man offering out his sodden shirt to him. Erron took it, wiping the drying blood off of his chin and pressing it against his lip “first visit to a bar, and your first bar fight... what a doozy.” He chuckled in spite of himself, turning to Kotal and flashing him a grin.

Kotal sighed deeply, shaking his head though a smile was steadily growing on his face "I do not plan on leaving Earthrealm a delinquent... though I must admit that man truly needed a vibe check.”

Vibe check? What the hell is that?”

“Language I’ve picked up from Cassie and Jacqui...”

“If you start talkin’ like that... best believe I’ll have a goddamn conniption-“

“Erron, calm your tits.“ Kotal turned the engine over, it’s rumble vibrating the dashboard.

“What?” he shouted, disbelief in the words he was hearing “No-you calm your tits. Ko’atal... I swear." he leaned back against his seat and stared at him, throwing the blood stained shirt into the backseat. A long pause, Kotal turning to stare back at him-contemplative.

“They are calm...” a laugh quickly tumbled out of him-growing louder as Erron joined in.

May our friendship last a hundred years more. He could consider it, might be able to put up with him.

Chapter Text

Coming to he felt his face burning, blood pumping fast through his body as he tried to shake the sleep out of him-twisting and stretching beneath the covers. Staring up at the ceiling he tried to catch his breath after it was forced out of him by a deep yawn that nearly popped his jaw. Grogginess started to hit him hard as he stared up, his ears picking up the far off sound of a train passing. It was well past early morning, soft glow of sunlight drenching the room, passing through curtains left slightly open. With a mumbled out curse he rolled over onto his side, looking down at the beige carpet before drifting his eyes up and settling on Kotal. He was sat up in his bed, covers all crumpled up and pushed to the edge, lounging once again with the now dog eared atlas in hand. "Good morning."

Grumbling out a response Erron took inventory of last night, laughter ripping through his gut as he remembered the sight of Kotal bodying a man. “Oh good golly Miss Molly, what the hell happened in that bar...” he shut his eyes and rubbed them roughly with his closed fists. 

Kotal sighed, closing the atlas and setting it down beside him. “That man that approached you... what did he say to you?"

“Nothin’. Just acting like a drunk bozo, flappin’ his jaw... think that guy ya tossed is still tumblin’?”

“I would hope not...”

“Bet he is." Erron heard the creak of bed-springs as Kotal shifted in his bed.  

"Did you have trouble sleeping?"

A few hours of sleep, head stuck in too many thoughts “Huh? Well, I did have a pretty nasty dream... you sayin’ some ridiculous things-"

“That sounds very distressing..."

“Disturbing, more like.”

“Is it now? I find the phrases they use to be quite clever.”

“Clever? Interestin’ choice of words.”

“Language is an art-form, being able to express so much... but for your well-being I will refrain from using what I have learned. I do not wish to offend your sensibilities.”

“Oh no, don’t stop on account of me." he touched at his lip, feeling the slight bulge of a bruise. Pain tingling warm beneath the skin as he applied more pressure.  "Just so ya know I might tune ya out if that’s how you’ll be spittin’. I do that with those kids anyways...”

“Erron...” 

“I gotta keep my sanity somehow, Ko’atal.”

“Very well, thank you for keeping it one hundred with me-" Kotal hummed softly at Erron's low groan. Leaning back he pushed his chest out and stretched. Loud pops that distracted Erron's attention away from the room's ceiling, he turned his head and frowned, watching Kotal twist his neck-another burst of sound.

"That's foul."

Kotal stood from the bed with a light jump, making his way to the briefcases he had set by the door last night. Pausing at the foot of Erron's bed he looked down at him "You are filled with many complaints this morning..." 

Erron pushed the thin covers off of him, shivering at the cool air hitting his skin "think I've earned the right to complain." he sat up, meeting Kotal's gaze. He nodded in response, placing a finger against his chin and observing him thoughtfully "How are you feeling?

"Fine... you know I'm tough as shoe leather. Where we at?" he watched Kotal walk over to the door and pick up his luggage. They'd set out for a city up north, Erron vaguely remembering the name he had seen on the map. 

“The city of Payson. Driving here was... not an easy feat.”

“Those trucks really do haul ass, huh?" he recalled Kotal white knuckled, gripping the steering wheel tight "From now on, I’ll drive. No ifs ands or buts about it. Why we here?”

“There is a rodeo here in this city, an annual event according to what Jacqui wrote down. Judging by her explanation of what a rodeo is... I believe it should be a sight worth seeing.”

“Huh, yeah. Alright. A rodeo...” he rolled his eyes, not the slightest bit surprised this was something they recommended visiting. 

“And, if you would be willing to accompany me... there is a lake nearby.”

“Ah, knock that off, of course I’ll go with you.”

“You are not tired? I simply do not wish to impose.” Kotal started pulling out clothes from the briefcase, setting them onto his bed.

Throwing himself back against his bed Erron stared at Kotal for a moment, watching him dig through the briefcase. A light haze washing over him, comfort in this quite intimacy. “No point being cooped up in here, why else we in Earthrealm for? Could teach ya how to fish, if that sounds appealin’..."

A pair of jeans tossed over his shoulders, he held out a burgundy Hawaiian shirt, looking over the fabric's pattern. “It does.” 

“We can cook whatever we catch.”

“That is a delightful proposal, it appears as if we have our day planned.”

“Yep, sounds like a dream.” Erron closed his eyes and stretched out further on the bed-listening to the snap of buttons as Kotal got dressed. He thought about the scruff on his face. Itching for a shave. 

 

A short drive from the hotel towards the outskirts of the city, same road they would have to take to head off to the lake. It was a cramped grocery store, Kotal trying his best to avoid knocking anything down, pausing every few feet to let people pass by him. They roamed around the store, after a few minutes Kotal’s arms were steadily overflowing with supplies he claimed that they needed. Erron didn’t mind, happy to suggest more items for Kotal to muse over in his mind before agreeing. “Gummy bears? Been so damn long since I’ve had candy...” he gently set the bag into the crook of Kotal’s elbow.

“There’s gummy worms as well..."

Chucking to himself Erron shook the small container in his hand he had picked out from a refrigerator tucked into a cluttered corner of the store-jostling the contents of dirt and worms. " Think we’ve got enough sweets. Let’s go pay.”

“Well hey, Paul Bunyan! Where’s Babe? You leave her out front?”

Kotal raised his brows, eyes darting to Erron’s “I believe you may have me confused for another-“

"He's just playin’...” he set his hand on Kotal's back, giving him a light pat. 

“Yeah just a little joke.” The clerk shrugged, reaching out for the items they’d set on the counter. He smiled at Kotal and winked, Kotal’s face relaxing as he returned the smile. “You guys heading out to the water?”

“Sure are, gotta teach my friend here how to fish...” lingering on the touch, far too long. Erron stuffed his hand into the pocket of his trousers. 

“Well that's nice of you, where to? Wood's canyon?”

"Willow springs, have you visited?" Kotal responded.

"Yup, I'm jealous..." 

Erron stood quietly, watching the clerk place their supplies into two paper bags, absentmindedly listening to the questions Kotal was asking him. 

"We sell fishing licenses here, if you need them." he scratched at his bearded chin and then made to put on the reading glasses hanging around his neck. 

Scooping up the bags Erron cleared his throat, jumping in before Kotal could answer "no need, we got one."

"I was unaware we had a fishing license..." Kotal took a hefty bag from him as they exited the store.

"We don't need a license to catch fish" he scoffed, searching for the car keys in his pockets "damn clown laws... don't worry about that."


“Amazing... can you believe this view?” Kotal spread his arms out wide, taking in a deep breath of the cool high desert air. The lake was a deep azure, reflecting the cloudless heavens above. Surrounded by a forest of ponderosas that towered high, bird calls and buzzing insects the only sounds around them. The smell of pine trees thick in the air, Erron had to admit just standing here on the shore of this vast lake was nothing less than invigorating. He nodded his head, watching his step as he neared Kotal. The man looked floored, eyes roaming over the landscape, lips slightly parted. 

“So, gotta teach you how to fish...” Erron mentioned softly, licking his peeling lips-rubbing against the scabbed split.

"Of course... I honestly forgot about the fish.”

Erron understood, he chuckled as he kicked off his boots “I know what’s on your mind...”

“The water does look very refreshing...” Kotal placed his hands on his hips “but you had advised me not to, as to not frighten our prey.”

Erron’s chuckle broke off into a snort “Our prey? Ah, it’s fine. We’ll catch 'em either way, trust me.” He picked up his boots, placing them on a flat boulder behind them. He gingerly stepped through the gravel back to the shore line, perplexed Kotal had yet to chuck off his clothing and head right in.

“What, ya fixin’ on asking the fish for permission?” His words broke Kotal out of his musing, the man moving to undress himself, a deep laugh leaving him as he tugged his shirt, the button's pulling apart easily. “Perhaps I will...” he turned to face Erron, unzipping his jean's and winking at him.

“Damn it, you are gonna scare them off...” he looked down at his bare feet, unbuttoning and stepping out of his trousers, a grin spreading on his face-one that he couldn’t stop even if he had wanted to. Quickly doing away with his t shirt and dropping it onto the ground. He touched at the waist band of his boxer shorts, looking up to catch Kotal pulling down his briefs. Unavoidable, goddamn happy Kotal was facing away from him and unable to see his face. Those thick thighs, broad defined back... and his ass. He couldn’t help but stare, taking in the dimples in the small of his back, trailing down to the ample globes of his ass, watching the bounce of them as Kotal set off the shore and into the water.

Shaking his head he trudged in, leaning down slightly and covering his crotch with a forearm, though his problem was solved the instant the water met his skin. “Son of a fucking bitch-“ he growled roughly, grimacing at Kotal up ahead of him.


“Brace yourself, Erron. Very refreshing is it not?” Kotal dipped below the water, coming back up with a shout as he shook the water off of his head.

“Refreshing, I’m in hell...”

“You are only prolonging your pain, come closer to me-“

“Why? Is the water warmer over there?” Like hell he would get any closer.

“I am only insisting you submerge yourself... and I am very lonely over here.” he added with a soft chuckle, rubbing at the stubble on his chin and looking up at the sky.

“The fish can keep ya company...” Erron stared down at the water as he inched closer, watching the dark swirl of sediments as he disturbed the lake bottom.

“Do you recall that man at the shop?”

“The one who called you Paul Bunyan...” Erron sank in deeper, his body shaking as the cold startled his nerves. He hissed under his breath, forcing himself in deeper before he gave up and sank below the water line. He came back up with a gasp, rubbing the water out of his eyes as they started to sting-finding that Kotal had approached him when his eyesight returned to him. “Did ya like that story?” Erron asked, kicking back slightly and swimming out further, his body growing accustomed to the chill and muscles warming with movement.

“Yes I did, Earthrealm folklore is very rich... I am merely missing a large blue ox-"

“I don’t know, can’t really picture you as a lumberjack...”

Kotal waved him off “I am more than capable of felling a tree, but that is beside the point. He mentioned the fish here, what do you believe we’re likely to catch?”

“What’d he say... trout and bass? Whatever we get will be good eats, namely because I’ll be preparing it...” he licked at his lip again, the bruise starting recede.

“I have no doubt it will be good...” leaning back Kotal kicked up, now floating on the waters surface, hands behind his head.

“Don’t you look like a happy camper... you take to the water like a damn duck.”

“When I was a child... I would take advantage of the opportunities in which I had time to myself, seeking out the rivers of my realm. Oftentimes I would simply sit on the banks and watch the river-listen to the creatures in the trees." he inhaled deeply "There is nothing more sacred to me than this-connecting to the forces of our realms.”

Erron watched him quietly, treading water. He tried to picture it, wondering what his childhood must have been like. 

“In Outworld I rarely have the opportunity to indulge... this has proved to be a much needed respite.”

“Yeah, that's good to hear...” he swam closer, still maintaining a distance. 

“Have you been enjoying yourself?”

Erron paused for a moment, taking in his surroundings. An endless blue, the vastness of the lake they were in and the sky above. Can’t lie, been feelin’ happier than a flea in a doghouse...” he smiled at the soft chuckle coming from Kotal-brushing his hair back he took note of the gnawing clamor of his stomach “Don’t know bout you, but I’m starving over here. Unless you’re fixin’ on catching a fish with your hands we should work on headin' back to shore...”

“I could attempt it..." he rolled out of his float, sinking for a moment between the water before swimming closer to Erron. “Would you like to partake in a friendly competition?”

“Let me guess, who can swim back to dry land the fastest? Don’t sound too fair to me. Best save yourself the embarrassment of loosing...” with a smirk he drew his arm back and slapped a wave of a water at Kotal. Easily avoided, sinking down again into the depths of the lake before bobbing back up, a stream of water shot into Erron's face. "You son of a..." he wiped his face, hearing Kotal's rumbling laughter and catching his grin for only a moment before he took off towards the shore "biscuit." He stared off at the wake he was leaving, slight waves pressing against his chest.

"That was dirty, didn't think you'd do something like that..." he panted softly, rubbing away the droplets of water clinging to his face. Focusing on the tree line, wanting to busy himself. "I'll go set up a fire pit, you uh... find a branch. Something sturdy, bout the length of my arm or so-" he avoided Kotal's gaze as he turned back to look at him. "And maybe get your drawers on, might have some folks comin' through here-" walking past Kotal he made his way towards his clothing, grabbing his boxers and pulling them on.

Kotal's laugh picked up again, broken by a low sigh "I highly doubt we will come across other people, Erron..."

"A branch, yeah?" he repeated himself, setting off into the tree's with the paper bag Kotal had left on the ground earlier. 

 

He found Kotal half dressed, briefs and unbuttoned shirt, branch in hand. Somewhere where the water was deeper, Erron leading the way as he sought out the right place. A few feet further from where they had been, an outcropping of rocks that jutted into the lake, deeper than fishing straight from the shore. Small roll of fishing line in hand, package of black hooks and the container of night-crawlers in the other.  He handed the line to Kotal, showing him how to tie it on.  

"Wind it up almost to the tip of the branch, then tie it off." he peeled off the lid of the container, shaking it slightly and catching sight of a thick red worm pushing through the dirt. "Looking good, on the line that we got hanging off, that's where the hook and our bait will go-" he grumbled, digging his fingers through the dirt and chasing after the crawler. 

Kotal tired on the hook, pressing a fingertip gently against it-testing out the point. "You little bastard, got him-" Erron held it up, watching it twist and curl up it's body. He handed it over to Kotal, setting it into his outstretched hand. "Go on then, just stab it through, don’t tell me you’re getting squeamish-" he reached out for the makeshift fishing rod, letting Kotal focus on hooking the bait. A small bead of water, yet to evaporate on his skin. He watched it roll down his chest. With a huff he snapped his gaze away, looking down at the worm now curling itself up on the hook.

"How does this look?"

"Couldn't have done it better myself. You uh, got your finger pricked there..."

"I did not notice..." Kotal mentioned softly, taking the branch from Erron. They sat down at the edge of stone outcropping, legs and line in the water. "And now we wait... ain't the most riveting way to pass the time..." 

"I would disagree, this is wonderful. Thank you for showing me how to do this." 

Erron leaned back on his hands, watching the line for any sign of tension. "Not sure if you'll say that an hour from now if we get no bites but... don't mention it."

Waiting for a bite in silence, Erron closing his eyes and focusing on the sounds around him, keying in on the gentle sound of waves hitting the rocks. Kotal brought up the fishing license again, they argued casually about the reasons for it before they were soon interrupted by a tug on the line, the tip of the branch dipping down slightly. "We got a live one, go on then, haul that sucker up-" 

"Is there a certain method to do so?" Kotal stood abruptly, pulling back on the branch. 

"Nah, keep doing what you're doing..." Erron laid out on his stomach, reaching his hands down and shouting out more words of encouragement to Kotal, excitement running through him as he caught sight a trout's head-red gills and mouth open. He stretched down further as the trout was lifted, sticking his fingers into it's open mouth. Hauling it up "That's a fat one, good enough for the two of us..." he motioned Kotal closer with a wave of his hand, showing him how to remove the hook. 

Hook out, the fish gasping in his hands “We have to... whack him-" Erron stood, holding the trout close against his stomach. 

“This is a beautiful creature...” Kotal reached a hand out, touching at the spotted green skin, running a finger down the soft pink scales on it's side “may I?”

“Yeah, right here’s fine... just a solid whack between his eyes.”

He nodded, murmuring something beneath his breath that Erron didn’t catch. A quick thud against a boulder, the fish spasming for a second before going still in Kotal’s hands. “That’s good, didn’t want him suffering too much...”

Back to where they had done away with their clothing, Kotal carrying the fish as Erron collected their garments. He ran back to the campfire he'd set up, collecting a thin sheath.

Reflecting a glint of light against it's blade, Erron inspected he fillet knife for a moment before squatting down and setting to work. He did away with the trouts head and fins, catching the focused gaze of Kotal watching him. Two fillets, keeping his hand steady as he felt the blade run down the trout's spine. “There we have them, mind washing them out in the lake?”

“I do not mind at all...” Kotal picked them up and walked over to the shoreline, splashing cool water over the bright orange flesh.

 

They set off into the trees surrounding the lake, back to the small campfire Erron had built up earlier and the black cast iron pan he’d left propped up around the circle of rocks surrounding the branches and logs he had collected. He picked up the pan, smiling at the heft of the metal and already imagining the taste of the rainbow they’d caught. Two larger logs, a good space in between them he set the pan on top of them-keeping it balanced above the flames that Kotal quickly started. “Salt, that’s all we need... for now.” As the pan sat above the flames Erron focused on the paper bag they had brought along, picking out a thin bag of herbs and a bottle of olive oil. “Now, we gotta let the flavor of the trout shine. No need to cover it up or nothing like that... go on and cut that lemon-" he pulled out a lemon, tossing it at Kotal. 

Giving time for the pan to heat up, he dressed himself, tossing his shirt back on and pulling on his trousers. He knelt beside the pan, spitting into it, watching the saliva quickly sizzle and evaporate. A generous handful of salt, he felt the rough grain in his hand before covering the pan. “Set em up-“ he clapped his hands and looked up at Kotal as he placed the fillets gently into the pan, skin down.  The smell of cooking flesh eagerly taking to the wind. “Look at that..." 

Kotal sat down beside him, taking in a deep breath and staring into the flames. "My fondness for this place only grows with each day..."

“Eh, Earthrealm's alright...”

The last time he'd done something like this, too long ago. He recounted a time he spent wrestling with the smallest fish he'd ever caught, no real meal to show for and ending up covered in mosquito bites. "Real nasty fuckers, see that? That's from a bite..." he pointed out a scar under his knee.

"How large are these mosquitoes?"

"Oh they're tiny... I'll admit that might've been my fault. Couldn't stop pickin' at it."

Kotal laughed, showing off a scar on the inside of his thigh, courtesy of an animal he described to Erron-reminding him of a boar "It was quite the struggle... but it ended in my favor." he sighed, setting his hand on Erron's back “They are done now, are they not?”

“Real hungry ain’t ya?”

He removed the fillets, placing them onto paper plates and grabbing the small plastic bag filled with the mixture of oil, lemon and herbs. He held it over the plate, letting it pool over the flesh, dripping down onto the crisp edges of skin. Handing the plate over to Kotal he couldn’t stop himself lingering on his face, smiling at him when his eyes darted up from the fillet to meet his. “Haven’t even tried it yet...” he sighed, grabbing his plate and emptying the bag.

“I am appreciating every aspect of this meal”

"Well, when you give it a try, hold your applause. I’m a humble man...” he took a bite, his hunger quelling at the moment the flesh hit his tongue. Moist and tender.

 

“So, what do you think?” he collected Kotal's empty plate, setting it into the paper bag now serving to hold their trash. 

"Erron, you are aware... I am not one to exaggerate. It was excellent." 

“Yeah, I can do more than just point a gun and look pretty...” 

Kotal leaned back, looking up at the tree tops for a moment before lying down "That is true-"

A bright bird call, right above them. Erron mimicked it's pattern with a whistle, he looked back at Kotal and followed suit. 

“Feelin' scruffy... man do I need a shave-” he rubbed at his cheeks, thinking about his straight edge. The rucksack he usually carried with him, things of varying importance chucked into it. He tried to remember what he'd set inside of it the day prior to making their visit to Earthrealm, not having touched it since he threw it into the briefcase. His mask was in there... along with flask that he had emptied their first day here. Maybe his straight edge, if his habit of throwing things inside and forgetting about them held true. 

“You do...”

“Really?” he ran his finger down his chin, feeling out the scar where no hair grew. 

“I was merely agreeing with you..." Kotal's words were softer, slower. He patted at his stomach, eyes closed.

“How do you think I look?”

“There is a word, in my language... tecuani-“

Erron repeated the word “What’s that mean?”

“It is used to describe a wild beast...” Kotal's responded with a slight chuckle, turning around to face him and meeting his eyes. 

“That’s real funny." Erron shook his head, running a hand up to his now dry hair and trying to comb it down "How about... ruggedly handsome, how do you say that?”

Kotal's chuckle dissolved, giving way to burst of laughter.

"Yeah, okay. I see how it is..." 

He sighed, willing the laughter out of him "You cut your hair recently..." 

“Well, it was gettin’ real long.” Erron frowned, his face growing warm and flushed. Shortest he had his hair in ages. 

They rested for a moment, listening to the forest surrounding them. Melodies of bird calls, leaves rustling with the slight wind, threatening to lull Erron to sleep. A decent sized meal, stomach full and heavy. Dozing off was the last thing on his mind though-he stood up and took a step, flinching at the pull of tight tendons in his feet. “We should go before we end up falling asleep-” his stomach flipped at the sensation of Kotal’s hand on his shoulder “Keep still, you have leaves in your hair...” Kotal moved his hand up, brushing away a few small dried leaves sticking against his head.

“Better?”

“Yes." he set his hand against Erron's arm, a light squeeze "chicahuac, not a literal translation but it is close."

Head buzzing, all he could think about was the warmth of Kotal's hand on his skin, the tone of his voice as he spoke those words from his native tongue. Erron rolled his lower lip into his mouth, biting down-distracting himself. "Chicahuac?"

"It means strong, tough..." Kotal gave him another squeeze "Ruggedly handsome-" he smiled, dropping his hand and setting off-collecting their items and making his way out of the trees, pausing once to look over at Erron and urging him on with a sharp whistle-same pattern of the bird song Erron had mimicked. Wetting his lips, he replied with that whistled tune and followed after him.