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“When was the last time you competed?”

Elliott adjusted himself-  one of Hound’s tubes had been poking him in the cheek- and laid his head back onto their chest. “God, I don’t remember. When we were together, down in the caverns with the gas, maybe? That sounds right, at least.”

Mentioning that day was enough to tighten Elliott’s throat. He remembered the fear at being stuck down in that hellhole, the acrid stench and how the ground had gone mushy from the dissolving corpses of the other competitors. The games hadn’t been at the front of his mind since he’d been with Hound, and while living with them he’d shoved dealing with those memories onto the backburner. There were other, more pressing issues than worrying about scheduling interviews or arranging sponsorships, like gauging what mood Hound was in or remembering the list of rules. 

He had no media connection to anything related to the Games in the cabin, so he was cut off from the usual gossip magazines and blaring headlines about the ring’s newest champion. It was peaceful, if not occasionally boring. It was a strange thing, to miss tabloids and cheesy talk shows, but he’d be lying if he said he didn’t, at least a little. It was nice to feel important, and he’d always loved talking with his fans when he got the chance. He imagined the media frenzy that would fire up if he returned, and missed the heat from metaphorical spotlights shining down at him. He’d been a natural performer from day one and the ring was where he felt most at home, though he knew that if he were to return, he’d likely be a bit rusty. 

Bloodhound lifted their arm to let him press closer. They were always cold, and he’d become their new favorite source of heat when they didn’t want to go outside and grab more wood for the fireplace. It was miserable out, with branches lashing the cabin windows as the rain poured from the sky. There were lit candles around them, but Hound had confessed to being too tired to brave going outside in the storm to the woodshed. Their hands would grow stiff if they got too cold, so they kept them on Elliott’s chest so they could at least keep mobility in their fingers. Hound wasn’t the most comfortable person to lay on, what with all the glass and dangerously sharp hip bones, but he was okay with them leeching off his heat if it kept them happy. He was always happy himself if he could be useful, even if it was in such a small way.

From sex toy to space heater… I guess that’s an upgrade? 

They’d slowly decided they were okay with letting him exist slightly closer to them. Elliott didn’t foresee any spooning in their near future, but sometimes their guiding touch on his lower back was more comforting than eerie, and an arm wrapped around his shoulder as they sat together didn’t make him feel too uneasy. Elliott was surprised with how much he enjoyed it. Before, if they were touching him, it meant they wanted his body or he’d committed some form of transgression. Now, they just touched him, with seemingly no reason behind it. He’d noticed it had begun after he’d stayed with them through the flare-up of whatever pain they had, but he was still too scared to mention it. His shoulder ached when he thought about it, so he decided against it and just enjoyed their softer side when they were comfortable enough to show it to him. 

 “Mm, yes I remember that,” said Hound with a smirk, “A rather unpleasant day. Well, for one of us, at least.”

Elliott snorted. “Yeah, you could say that.”

He watched them move a finger down his stomach, until it pressed gently over the spot where the ugly scar sat on his torso. It took a high level of focus to keep himself from tensing up as they traced the outline of it. Flinching wasn’t allowed, but it was one of the things he struggled with the most. “I also remember touching you, more intimately than I’d ever touched you before.”

Elliott swallowed, careful to restrain his tongue. Intimate wasn’t the word he’d use for someone poking at his intestines, but he wasn’t about to argue with them when they seemed so relaxed. He wondered sometimes what exactly went on in Hound’s head, or if they just somehow remembered certain incidents differently than he did. He didn’t trust his memory most days, but sometimes he would still question theirs. It was easier not to, but his natural curiosity still got the better of him sometimes. 

“You were so warm,” they mused, wrapping their arms tightly around him. They had him trapped as they lazily rested their cheek on his head. “Seeing you writhing on the ground like that, I admit restraining myself was hard.”

“I deserved the punishment for disobeying you,” he replied quietly, retreating into their embrace. Whether he was saying it genuinely or just telling Hound what they wanted to hear, he wasn’t sure. Elliott was a good showman, but he was often a lousy liar to both himself and others. He could echo what Hound said if it kept him safe for another day, but it still didn’t sit quite right. There was a part that still raged at their treatment of him, though he felt it growing dimmer by the day. He didn’t mind being rid of the voice. It made day-to-day life easier, and he could still enjoy the moments when their humanity showed through. He’d see them milling about the cabin with their nose in a book and wonder how they could read and walk without crashing into a wall, instead of obsessing over his situation. They’d even let him joke around a bit when they let him speak. He didn’t have to overthink or try and lie to himself as much anymore. When they’d fucked him next to the beast’s carcass, he hadn’t bothered trying to lie to himself at all. There was no denying what he’d asked of them, not with the wound above his heart still healing. 

“Ehwaz, it is a rune that means loyalty. Trust, a mutual partnership.”

That was what they’d carved into him when he’d begged for it. Elliott hadn’t known if what they had qualified as a partnership, much less a mutual one, but clearly Hound had given it some thought. Trust had seemed even less likely, until he’d really thought about it. Hound had shown him things they’d never showed other people. Their body, most of their face, even. Their biggest mystery, and he knew more about them than anyone else. They spoke to him. They let him help when they couldn’t even sit up on their own, and they’d let him support them when their knees were being pesky and sore. Hound trusted him. Albeit in their own, strange, way, but it was a kind of trust nonetheless. They could have just hidden in their room and he would have waited outside until they beckoned him, but they hadn’t. They could have kept themself covered at all times and blindfolded him so he wouldn’t know anything, but they didn’t. In the ring they’d let him live, and saved him in the caves. They trusted him, so he could at least be loyal to them and not question every little thing they did. They were terrifying and consumed every bit of him, but the rune reminded him there was more to Hound than just threats and punishment. Something else that he wanted to experience, even if it was risky. 

“You did deserve it, but I admit, you have come far since then, Kær. I am willing to give you another chance in the ring as I have missed it greatly. However, there is a complication.”

Elliott didn’t bother trying to stop himself from gawking. He was tempted to ask them to repeat themself, but a part of him was scared that he had misheard them. Even if he hadn’t, he wasn’t sure if they were serious, or if they were just dangling something interesting in front of him and expecting him to slip up. He wouldn’t have put it above Hound to dash his hopes like that, or to tack it onto the bottom of a hefty price tag. They’d put him in some scenario that was impossible to accomplish, and even if he could somehow achieve it, they’d just make up some small clause that he was supposed to somehow know. Hound was a master at invoking the fine print, but the problem was that they never let him read it before they forced him to sign. Their strongest ability was to make the choice they presented him as undesirable as they possibly could, and they’d love either choice so no matter what option he picked, they would never actually lose out on anything. Usually it was between something that badly hurt a specific part of his body, or his entire body as a whole. 

 Still... Elliott weighed the two outcomes, and decided that if Hound wasn’t being sneaky about something, the possibility that they were telling the truth was well worth the risk. Everyone else he’d see in the Games would be trying to put a bullet between his eyes- Hound was technically in that category as far as he knew- , but he’d actually be around people, other living, breathing people who he could actually talk to, and the idea was borderline fantastical. It got his blood racing just imagining it. He was trying not to vibrate in place from excitement, still scared they were just yanking his chain to see the last remnants of hope fade from his eyes. They hadn’t been as awful recently, but he felt justified in being at least a little suspicious.

 He tried to reign in his building elation and answered them to the best of his ability. “Oh?”

“We would need a third person, and I unfortunately do not know of another who I am comfortable fighting alongside. I do not want to fight with an amateur and risk our safety, if at all possible. I will not risk either of our lives winding up in the hands of an idiot.”

A light went off in his head. Possibly another absolutely crazy idea, but seeing as how the last one had gone over swimmingly, he was feeling up to giving it a shot. If there was anyone he trusted to have at his back, it was Anita. 

 “I might know someone,” he said cautiously, preparing for Hound to smash the idea into pieces.

“Who?”

“Do you know who Bangalore is?”

“Yes, the IMC soldier.”

“We’re friends,” said Elliott, anticipation beginning to bubble in his chest, “She’s an amazing fighter. Anita’s a total beast in the ring. Best shooter out of like, anyone I’ve ever met.

 “A-aside from you, of course” he added sheepishly, sinking back down. 

“She’s quite an aggressive fighter, no? We would be at risk of being unbalanced.” 

Elliott waved it off with a dismissive hand. “Nah, the two of us have pulled our asses out of some pretty tight spaces and we’re pretty much all about the offense. I trust her to watch my back. She’s super reliable, and besides, I definitely owe her a drink.”

Hound was quiet for a moment, drumming their fingers on his chest as they considered it. “She has appeared to be quite capable. I will allow you to call her and ask, on one condition.”

“Yes?” he asked, eagerly.

“She cannot know about us. She cannot know about anything that the two of us have been doing. Even if she asks outright, you are forbidden from telling her. Is that understood?”

Elliott nodded. He felt giddy at the possibility of speaking to his friend again. It’d been so long since he’d seen Anita, or just anyone else other than Hound and their bird, though most days he could do without the raven and its beady eyes. “I need you to say it, Elliott. So I know you understand that this is serious. Under no circumstances can you tell her anything. If she asks me, I will simply tell her that I know nothing. So, do you understand?”

“Yes, I understand.”

They nodded, and got up off the couch. Elliott sat with his hands in his lap until they returned. Hound didn’t need to go into the gory details of what would happen if he slipped up. He glanced nervously towards the hall, and shivered thinking of being thrown back into the black abyss of the basement. He was okay with not spilling his guts to Anita right off the bat. It would create too many problems, and he knew wasn’t keen on spending the rest of his short life tied up in the dark.

The floor creaked behind him and an ancient looking phone plopped onto the couch next to him. He picked it up and punched in the number, praying as it rung that he’d gotten it right. She’d done her best to burn it into his brain, insisting he could call if he ever needed help. His breath hitched as the phone crackled and someone picked up on the other end.

“William’s residence.”

She sounded exhausted, but it was her! It was the middle of the night and she was probably already pissed at being woken up, but by God she’d actually answered!

“Anita!” he exclaimed, unable to control his enthusiasm, “Anita! It’s El-”

“Where the fuck have you been Witt!?”

He winced as she bellowed into the phone. She had the infuriated voice of a drill sergeant who’d had their coffee pissed in, but her anger couldn’t put a dent into the glee despite the long, angry strings of insults that poured from the phone speaker. She was still ranting into the phone when he interrupted. “Look, I know I have a lot to explain, but-”

“You’re goddamn right you do!”

“But,” he soldiered on, “I have a question for you.”

“What the hell kinda nerve do you have going? I should be the one asking questions, not you. Oh, and speaking of questions, where the fuck are you?”

“Family emergency,” he quickly fibbed, hoping it sounded real, “Look, it was something serious and I don’t want to discuss over the phone.”   

Anita grumbled under her breath. She understood wanting to keep family matters private, or at least that’s what he was banking on. “Fine. Spit it out then.”

Elliott punched the air, happy she’d dropped it without too much of a struggle. He could barely keep it together as he explained. “Another legend got in contact with me and wants to compete, but we need a third so I thought ‘what the hell’ and offered your name. I know that’s probably really uncool and I haven’t gone in a long time so I can’t guarantee I’ll be in tip-top shape, but I trust you more than anyone. So c’mon, what do you say? Let’s get this band back together!”

“Let me get this straight,” she said, and he could hear her teeth grinding as she spoke, “You stand me up, then disappear for over a month with absolutely no trace of where you went. You don’t tell text me, leave me a note, and then you have the balls to call me out of fuckin’ nowhere, in the middle of the night, and ask me to join in the next round of the Games with you?”

“Yup, that’s about it.”

“You’re a real piece of work, y’know that right?”

“Yup. So is that a yes?”

A slightly defeated sigh. “Who’s the other joker?”

“Bloodhound.”

“Bloodhound? The hell are they doing talking to you?”

“Hey!” he exclaimed, slightly offended at her shocked tone, “Tons of people talk to me!”

“Mhm. And how many of them get paid to do that?”

“Anita,” he groaned, “Yes or no.”

Elliott gnawed at his lower lip nervously. Her silence was unbearable.

“Fine. On one condition.”

Elliott rolled his eyes. He was already tired of hearing that. “Yes?”

“Your ass is coming to the range with me, and I’m gonna make you run drills until your damned arms fall off. Bloodhound better be there too. I ain’t fighting with anyone until I’ve seen them in action. And I better not hear you whining about it either.”

“Done!” he declared, forgetting to ask Hound first. Anita was the queen of training exercises, but he welcomed it. 

“Hm, you’re awful excited. That’s a first.”

“When do you want to meet us?”

“Tomorrow afternoon. Be there before 1, or you’re gonna be sweeping up all the brass afterwards.”

“Lemme ask if that works.”

He leaned back and pulled the phone away from his ear. “Tomorrow work?”

Hound nodded. 

“Hound says yes,” he beamed.

“Wait, are they with you right now?”

“Uhm, no.” 

“Mhm. G’night, Elliott.”

The phone clicked as she hung up. Hound leaned on the back of the couch, before thinking better of it and standing as they rubbed their wrist. The bruising had disappeared, but it still bothered them sometimes if they put too much weight on it. “So what did I just agree to?”

Elliott paled, a small flash of panic racing across his chest. He started to stammer an apology, but stopped himself when he saw that they were smirking. They were just messing with him. He hoped. 

“Anita wants us to meet her at a gun range before we compete so she can see us in action. She’s dragged me there before, so I can get us there pretty easily. It’s an hour away from my apartment but there’s usually no one there so we can keep a low profile.”

“Yes, I am not looking forward to the media buzzing in my ear again.”

“C’mon, they’re not so bad. They only bother you so much because you ignore them.”

What little of Hound’s forehead that he could see crinkled, which he’d started assuming meant they were raising their eyebrow. “You can do the talking then. Maybe it will get it out of your system.”

They’d given him permission to speak earlier, but they hadn’t expressly given him permission to ask questions. If he had pressing questions, he had to raise his hand and wait until they acknowledged it. He’d learned the importance of nitpicking what they said, since it had earned him a string of bruises across his ass when he’d asked something out of turn. Hound kept a rattan cane for days when they were feeling especially nasty. He’d had the bottoms of his feet beaten until the skin had split, which he ranked very high on his list of experiences he never wanted to relive. It was a special kind of humiliating, since they’d stripped him naked and spread his legs apart so they could get in the occasional whack on his thighs. Even worse, Hound had marched him across the forest afterwards, going nowhere in particular until he’d been in complete agony. Eventually they’d picked him up and carried him home to clean out the wounds, but not until he’d collapsed in the dirt and stopped being able to crawl. 

Hound always thought it was amusing when he awkwardly raised his hand. He could see the faintest hint of a smile tugging at the corner of their mouth. “Yes, Elliott?”

He lowered his hand back down into his lap. “So, how exactly are we gonna get there?”

“Same way I brought you here.”

“Wait, does that mean…?”

“Yes,” they nodded, “I am going to have to knock you out. I cannot let you see where our little home is. I am sure you understand.”

Elliott wanted to bristle at that, or panic, or have any other normal response to being told that they were going to put him under, but their tone implied that even if he didn’t, his opinion on the subject really didn’t matter anyway. And obviously, risking angering them was not an option. Not when he was so close to seeing the outside world again. He deflated slightly. “Yeah, makes sense.”

“Good. Now, go get some sleep.”

_____

 

“Just up ahead, behind that clump of trees there.” 

Elliott pointed at a spot where the road curved sharply up ahead. Most of the path there was gravel or severely cracked pavement, and Hound’s vehicle bounced through a maze of potholes and trenches. Seeing them drive was odd, in a way. They walked absolutely everywhere, but they hadn’t been up for a thirteen hour hike through fields and dense bush. Anita had managed to find one of the few ranges left that wasn’t a hologram training simulation. The land it was on must have been worth a fortune, but the owners were gun geeks like she was and adamantly refused to develop any of it so purists could train the old fashioned way. Elliott liked to bug her about it, but he couldn’t really say much since she could still shoot circles around him any day of the week. 

Hound pulled through the gates and parked in the shade of the trees. They were wearing their full getup, complete with their assortment of knives hidden in various nooks and crannies all around their body. How they were going to avoid sweating to death was a mystery to Elliott, since the cloth was a thick cotton, and he’d watched Hound strap themself into most of their braces before they’d left.   

Maybe the tubes are some kind of coolant… 

He was relieved to see that they were wearing the braces. He couldn’t stop himself from worrying about them, despite their insistence that they were perfectly fine. He also didn’t want to be there if they collapsed or had an episode in front of Anita. Internally, he’d questioned whether or not it was a good idea for them to compete again considering how much they’d leaned into him after the hunt, but Hound still seemed determined to avoid wearing most of them whenever they could. Recently they’d started wearing their wrist brace nearly every day, but he could never predict what other ones they’d have on unless they specifically mentioned that it was aching. Some days it was a hip and knee brace, and another it would be nearly all of them. They had silver ring splints on several of their finger joints too, which Elliott had seen before. His mother wore some to help with her arthritis, but he had an inkling that wasn’t what Hound suffered from. Arthritis didn’t dislocate someone’s shoulder just by putting weight on them.  

Elliott stretched as he got out of the car, happy to feel the sun on his face and have a distraction from his obsessive worrying. It was fairly cloudy, but it had been so long since he’d been awake during the day that he’d forgotten how nice the warmth of it could be. His mom used to joke that he was a lizard since he could spend hours basking in it, until his skin deepened further to a warm bronze, or he grew bored of sitting still. Hound looked like they hadn’t seen the sun in a millenia, but considering their schedule it was a possibility. For a moment he picture Hound with tanned circles around their eyes from the glass, and he couldn’t restrain a small fit of giggles.

“Did I miss something, Kær?”

He straightened back up and turned to the car. “No, it’s nothing important. I, uhm, I-I’m just remembering something funny that happened last time Anita and I were here, that’s all.”

They made a noise acknowledging his statement, before turning back and digging out a case from the backseat. Elliott hadn’t noticed it before, but from the shape of it, it was safe to assume it was some kind of rifle. Hound had let him call Anita to ask what they needed to bring, but she’d insisted on bringing most of her own stuff since she knew how it worked and they were direct copies of the guns they found in the ring. Hound had their own longbow which she’d permitted them to bring since she only had one. Elliott knew he’d be on bullet duty to start, loading spare magazines and hauling buckets of ammo down the hill to the rifle bay. 

He’d just loaded his arms up when Anita’s Jeep pulled into the lot beside Hound’s. She was wearing a pair of aviators, and as she stepped out he could see she’d shown up in full kit too, down to the smoke canisters that rattled on her plate carrier. Her rig was covered in pouches, and a small trauma kit sat behind her hip holster. She was even wearing side armor, something a lot of legends didn’t bother with since the ceramic plates added a good amount of weight. Anita was strong enough that she could still run like hell even with a Mastiff strapped to her back, so a couple armored plates weren’t going to slow her down. 

He wanted to race over and wrap her up in a hug, but she took one look at Elliott and immediately frowned. “Where’s your gear?”

“Well hello to you too, dear friend that I haven’t seen in a long time and who I greatly missed.”

Anita pulled down her shades to scowl at him. Her glare could have withered the grass they were standing on. 

“You didn’t say to bring it!” he huffed defensively. 

She pushed the glasses back up and jabbed a finger at Hound, who was leaning against their car, silently observing like they always did. It felt strange to get reamed out by someone else for a change. “They knew to come prepared.”

“Well… maybe I forgot!”

Even through the tint of the sunglasses, he could see her roll her eyes. “What do I always tell you, Elliott?”

He sighed. “Training’s no good if you don’t train right.”

“Correct. Well, it’s a good thing I’m smarter than you and I prepared for this.”

“Hey!”

She ignored his protests of indignation and picked up a bag that sat in the passenger seat. Anita chucked it at him one-handed, and he scrambled to catch it before it collided with the ground. He dropped a bucket of ammunition, but he managed to grab it and look inside. His holo-tec gear and bright yellow jumpsuit peeked back at him, and he smiled ear to ear. It felt strange that seeing his gear would make him so excited, but it was something familiar that he knew well, and it was a comfort he was happy to have. “Good thing I let myself into your apartment and grabbed it before I came here.”

“Wait, you did what ?”

Anita shrugged. “I broke in awhile ago to make sure you hadn’t died from a stroke or something. I hadn’t heard from you in a week and well, you leave a key under your doormat, so it wasn’t exactly challenge. I just forgot to put the key back.”

“Anita!”

“Relax Witt, I didn’t see anything too incriminating.”

He squinted at her, but despite his annoyance at his space being invaded, he was touched in a way that she cared so much to check in on him like that. He made a mental note to find a better hiding place for his things, and slung the bag over his shoulder. “I’ll get dressed then. You two should go get set up without me.”

He’d almost forgotten that Bloodhound was even with them, since they hadn’t made a peep since she’d arrived. Anita tossed them a case and they walked off, leaving Elliott alone. It was a bit of a hike to the range from the parking area, so he’d have some privacy. He’d gotten dressed in front of Anita in the past since they’d use the same locker rooms when she dragged him to competitions, but he knew she’d ask about the host of new scars on his body and he didn’t want to raise any suspicions. His scarf couldn’t cover the bite mark, but she hadn’t asked about it last time they’d hung out, so the only things really visible were the patches at the corners of his mouth where his beard wouldn’t grow in as thick anymore. He’d attempted to let his facial hair grow in a little longer than usual to try and hide it, but Hound had demanded he shave when it got too prickly. 

Elliott stuffed his clothes into the bag and worked on flattening the foam ear plugs Anita had graciously left for him. He couldn’t hear them firing yet, but he also didn’t want to get caught off guard if they started unloading before he got there. It was a fifteen minute walk to the bays, but the sound still carried and he didn’t want to end up with tinnitus. Elliott set off down the trail, jamming the earplugs in as he walked. 

The range was a pretty typical setup. Three different bays for various distances, each consisting of a grassy field and a berm at the end of each one. There was a covered cement pad to protect shooters from the sun, and a light to indicate whether or not it was safe to step out onto the grass. They seemed to be alone, as there were no other cars in the lot or shots sounding from any of the bays. When he finally got to the first of the rifle bays, they were setting up various targets in the grass, taping paper targets to wooden stands and moving the steel plates to wherever Anita dictated they go. It was hard to imagine Hound listening to anybody, but their public persona was one of quiet respect and he doubted they’d shift too far from that around a stranger. He was surprised to hear them speaking as he grew closer. 

“... am quite impressed with this place.”

“I never liked those VR training sims. My parents taught my brothers and I how to shoot the old fashioned way. Nothing like the smell of real gunpowder, eh?”

“I dislike them too. The arena is real, so why train in someplace that is not?”

“Couldn’t have said it better myself.”

They both turned as Elliott walked up, fiddling with the straps on his arms. “Well, looks like you two are getting along famously.”

Hound finished pulling barrels together to form a makeshift cover and wiped their gloved hands on their tunic. “She knows her weapons well.”

Anita tacked up a final target and set the stapler on the ground. “And they’re not too shabby when it comes to their handling and maneuvers. With us combined, we might just be able to whip you into shape in time for the next game.”

 Elliott didn’t like the glint in her eyes. He sent up a silent prayer that she would be merciful, and turned his attention to the arsenal arranged in neat rows on the table next to him. Anita had several of the guns that were standard issue in the arena. It was part of her “train smart” program, since it was useless to train with personal weapons that they were forbidden from bringing in. He picked up the R301 and examined it, surprised at how heavy it felt in his hands. 

“Elliott,” called a stern voice from behind him, “What are you forgetting to do?”

“Oh shit.”

Elliott dropped the magazine and pulled back the slide, peering down the barrel to check for any stray bullets. The first time he’d been out with Anita, she’d whacked him upside the head when he’d forgotten to check, so he appreciated her leniency this time around. “There you go.”

Anita picked up her own gun and examined it, meticulously inspecting every inch of it before giving a satisfied nod and turning back, careful to keep the gun pointed down range. He’d also made the mistake of turning around with the gun pointed at the floor, and he’d wound up face-down in the dirt with her pinning his elbow against his back after she’d disarmed him. He knew he deserved that one, but it still hadn’t been fun. In the ring, muzzle control wasn’t on the forefront of some competitors minds but they’d both seen enough compilation videos of teammates accidentally shooting each other in the foot that neither was eager for their names to be added to the list. “We’re doing sprints to start off. Remember those?”

Elliott groaned. He did remember, and his thighs had started to ache just thinking about them. 

____

“It’s a trigger not your dick, quit yanking on it so much.”

Bloodhound made a muffled noise under their mask, and Elliott glowered when he realized they’d snorted back a laugh. “What do you know about dicks?”

It was a weak retort, but it was the best he had.

“Look, if you really want to turn this into a dick measuring contest that’s fine by me, but,” Anita swung her gun up and took the shot, bullet hitting the center of the target nearly identical to a hole she’d made earlier. She smiled down at him and laughed, “We both know I’ll win.”

This time Bloodhound coughed, badly failing their second attempt to cover up their laughter.

“Y’know you’re not helping!”

“I am not trying to help. This is rather entertaining without my input.”

Elliott squinted at them. “You’re supposed to be on my side.”

“She’s right though. It is a contest you would definitely lose.”

Watching the two shoot side by side, Elliott couldn’t help but feel like an amateur. Anita had years of military training to back her up, and Bloodhound probably had years of hunting and living alone to hone their skills. Elliott was by no means a layman, but he hadn’t had any recent practice and he’d definitely grown rusty. He’d lost weight living with Hound since their diet was the cleanest he’d ever seen and he walked with them everywhere, but he hadn’t had to sprint besides the incident in the woods. His accuracy held together fairly well which he was pleased with, but his precision needed a bit of work so Anita had set him aside for awhile with a pistol until he could reign it back in. 

Meanwhile, her and Hound had darted around the courses after they’d flown through the basics, yelling out various calls and instructions to each other from across the bay. While he rested, it was fascinating to watch them both in an element they were clearly comfortable in. Hound could move like quicksilver and was unrivaled when it came to long distance. It was amazing just how smoothly they could move, and how they could snap back into a perfect stance before he could blink. Anita’s consistency was better than Hound’s, and her mid-close shots hit exactly where they needed to almost every time. She was also the most aggressive of the three. He’d seen her run through her own airstrike to cut down anyone left standing, not giving an inch of any ground they gained. Elliott was the close combat expert of the three. He could move quietly within Anita’s smoke cloud and send out his decoys when he needed draw someone out. He couldn’t see through it, but the decoys helped him pinpoint their location or be aggressive if they needed to push. They’d done several demos for Hound and had easily fallen back into their own routine, including the usual mockery when one of them slipped up. 

 Elliott unloaded his pistol and walked over to where the duo was sitting after they finished a run of the course. A wingman sat on Bloodhound’s hip. “What’s up?”

“Bloodhound wants to try something with my smoke launcher.”

“I can see through it, and I have a way to let both of you do the same.”

They tapped their mask, gesturing to a button located just behind the lenses. They pushed it, and a red arc of light raced across the grass in front of them. “If I use this in the ring, I can see our enemies no matter how they are concealed, for a brief moment. The committee will allow me to adjust it so you may see them as I do. This way, Anita’s smoke will not end up being a hazard to us.”

“Kinda like the digital threat?”

“Precisely.”

 Elliott crossed his arms and considered it. It would make his life a lot easier if he didn’t have to fish out the targets as much. He’d also have more decoys if he needed to make a quick escape or draw fire away from one of them. “Yeah, that does sound like it could save me a lot of trouble.”

“I’ll need to walk back and dig out some more canisters if we want to see them try it. You two keep at it, and I’ll be back in a bit.”

Anita slid off the table and waved as she walked off, disappearing into a line of trees. He watched her go, yawning and rubbing at his eyes. He was tired, and wanted a minute to just sit down and rest. She’d been running them both hard for a couple hours, and the afternoon heat was making him drowsy. Anita would kick his ass if she caught him sleeping, but she didn’t need to know if he took a little catnap before she got back.

“Elliott?”

He’d forgotten he wasn’t alone, but he was too exhausted to open his eyes and pay attention to whatever Hound wanted from him. “Hm?”

 “Knees.”

“Wha-?” he mumbled tiredly. 

Are their knees bugging them again or something? Is that what they’re trying t-

Click-

Instinct took over when he heard the sound and Elliott spun around before he knew exactly what he was doing, coming face-to-face with the barrel of a wingman that Hound now had pointed at his face. It was only inches away from the tip of his nose. He backed up slowly, until he collided with the wall behind him. There was nowhere for him to go, and they were inching closer to him. “H-Hound, what are you doing?”

He hadn’t heard them get up, or draw the gun from their holster. They’d managed to unclip it without making a sound, and their stance told him they weren’t kidding around. They kept it completely level with his nose, unwavering in their gaze. He wasn’t used to seeing them fully geared up anymore, and it wiped away the bits of humanity he normally clung to. It was a reminder that this wasn’t the Hound who clung to him when they were drowsy by the fire. This was the Hound he’d met before they’d taken over his life. 

“Knees,” they commanded, voice cold.

“W-what?” It took him a second for him to realize what they were asking, and when he did, he protested, “But Anita! S-she could come back any second, and if she sees us then-!”

“Are you saying no to me, Elliott?” they asked, taking a bigger step forward, “That is quite interesting, because I do not remember teaching you that word.

“And besides, Kær,” they pushed the barrel into his forehead, “I am not asking.”

Trembling, Elliott slowly slid down the wall, legs giving out beneath him. The clicking had been them cocking the hammer, and he couldn’t do much else besides quiver on the ground. They were hidden in the shadows cast by the wall, and a chill crept up his spine. They pressed the muzzle of the gun against his lips as the smell of gunpowder burned his nostrils. “Open.”

Elliott’s eyes widened, but he forced his mouth open- he knew very well from the last time, what would happen if he didn’t. His teeth clacked against the metal as they pressed the barrel against his tongue. He could taste the carbon residue and gun oil, a bitter, metallic taste that filled his mouth. The wingman was too big to fit entirely in his mouth, but Hound seemed intent on making it. “You should know not to say no to me by now, Elliott.”

Tears welled up in his eyes as Hound gave the gun an extra push. “You keep forcing me to punish you. It would seem as though you actually enjoy it, slut.”

The word hit him like a slap to the face, and they actually laughed at him as he took in the insult. “That is what you are, no? Otherwise, you would have started to obey me without question long ago. But instead, you prefer me to punish you.”

They withdrew the gun from his mouth, and pushed it instead back into forehead. “Go on, admit it.”

 “I-I… I…”

“Say it. Unless, of course, you would prefer me to put another hole in you, although you would probably enjoy even that. I remember the way you screamed when I put my fingers inside you. Your muscles, clenching around them. You loved it so much you could not keep it in. So do not tempt me Elliott, because I would love to hear those beautiful screams again.”

“I’m a slut,” he croaked, “And I like it when you punish me.”

“Only like?”

“I love it,” he corrected, face burning hot, “I’m sorry I keep making you punish me, I just love the way you do it so much.”

Elliott wanted to choke on the words. 

“And what are sluts like you good for?”

“Getting fucked,” he said blankly. He was guessing, but even he was smart enough to understand what they were getting at. 

“Very nice," they purred, "And are you my little slut?" 

"Yes." 

"Go on then, prove to me why you deserve to be mine. And do it quickly, as I would hate for your friend to see." 

Elliott quickly lifted his hands to their waistband, but they shook uncontrollably as he tried to undo their pants. Between the fear of being shot and having never actually done this with them before, his fingers were stiff and wouldn’t grab onto anything. The more he tried, the more frustrated and scared he got. Adrenaline raced through his veins as he pulled, but they kept slipping. He just couldn’t force his hands to close, even when he gave a frustrated cry. 

Crack!

Stars exploded across his vision as something hard connected with his cheekbone. He could hear it smashing against his skull, and the dull thud as his head connected with the dirt below him. He lost control of his body, going limp as a ragdoll as pain exploded through him. It was an intense, throbbing pain that made him gasp. An acute pain radiated from his jaw, but he couldn’t see through the haze that clouded his vision. 

“The longer you take to get it together, the worse this will be for you.”

It sounded like he was underwater, and the voice was taunting him from above. He felt a hand grab him and haul him back up into a sitting position, and something pushing at his lips. Slowly, he blinked away the curtain of red but the rest of his body was still foreign to him, unable to react as Hound pushed inside his mouth. 

“Well?” they said expectantly, “Keep going.”

Still, his body wouldn’t move. He could barely even register what they were doing. Hound groaned in annoyance. “It seems you misunderstand the gravity of this situation.”

They slammed his head back against the wall and pointed the wingman at the dirt by his feet. Before what they were doing could really sink in, Hound squeezed the trigger and fired a shot only inches away from him.

BANG!

 Elliott jumped reflexively, the loud boom of the gun sending another shockwave of pain through his pounding head. “Just in case you thought it was not loaded. The next one is for your leg. You do not need to be able to move for me to fuck your mouth. Now, show me why I should keep such a disobedient slut around.”  

A frightening clarity overcame him as sensation returned to the rest of his body. Elliott lurched forward and grabbed desperately at their thighs. He opened his mouth and took them in as far as he could manage, looking up at them with a pleading look in his eyes. Something in his jaw burned with a brutal ache, but he needed to please them. If he didn’t, God only knew what they were going to do with that gun. He imagined he could feel their fingers worming around under his skin when he paused to think, so he couldn’t let himself stop.

“You can do better than that,” they muttered, pressing the smoking barrel to his temple. 

Elliott went faster, pushing their cock past where it was comfortable and down into his throat. He gagged, but Hound moaned as his throat tensed around them. They were giving him full control for now, but he had a limited amount of time. Anita could be back any second, and Hound would be extremely displeased if she found them out. 

The constant gagging was bringing a flood of saliva into his mouth. It dripped off their cock and down his chin, smearing it around his swollen lips. 

“Oh, such a messy boy,” they cooed, “That’s much better. Come on, show me how much you love this. Thank me for allowing you this privilege.”

His jaw was beginning to tire, and his throat was sore from the constant triggering of his gag reflex, but Elliott knew he had to keep doing something. He pulled back, but kept the head in his mouth. He wrapped a hand around their cock and stroked it, covering what he couldn’t put in his mouth while he circled the head with his tongue. He’d bring his hand up, pulling back as far as he could go, tightening his grip at the top, before following his hand back down and taking them back in. Hound was being louder than they normally were, moaning as their thigh twitched with each pass of his hand.    

 " Ah… Good boy," they whispered, brushing the hair from his eyes. "Your mouth is perfect for this. Oh, you're doing so well."

Their praise made him happy, and he wanted to finish them, but not out of fear. He wanted to prove that he was good, that he was worthy of their attention despite his disobedient ways. He wanted to be good. He needed to be good so they’d give him praise. Their praise meant he was good at something, good for something. If he couldn’t at least do that, then he was worthless. 

“Mm, trying so hard to please me. You look beautiful down on your knees.”

Yes. That’s what he wanted, to please them. It was all he wanted, and even if the price he had to pay was a hefty one, he’d do it gladly. He just wanted them to care, to notice him trying his best. To acknowledge him and his efforts, and nothing else. This was their way of giving him thanks, he realized. By letting him touch them, by giving him control, they were thanking him. His reward was being allowed by their side, and it was more than enough. 

The pain in his jaw was growing with each pass, and he knew he had to do something to give it a break. It was going to become unbearable if he didn’t. Elliott remembered something that he’d had done to him by a previous partner, and hoped Hound would like it as much as he had. It was his only idea, and he hoped his gamble would pay off. 

They took a half step back, and Elliott gasped for air while he had the momentary reprieve. Before they could force themself back into his mouth, Elliott slid further down until their cock was above his head and he could get at the base of it. He kissed where the shaft met the top of their sack and ran his tongue over the spot where they connected. If he tilted his head to the side, he could still work their cock with his hand while also paying special attention to their balls to give his jaw a break. Hound let out a choked moan and leaned into the wall with one hand, keeping themself upright as their legs shook. The wingman was still pressing into the top of his head, but he couldn’t stop from feeling excited. Clearly he’d found a sweet spot, one that he was going to take full advantage of. 

Hound’s breathing was breaking up. They were being noisier than usual, which Elliott didn’t mind at all. A part of him wanted to rip the bottom part of their mask off so he could hear them better, so he could kiss them as they moaned into his mouth. He was overjoyed that they were loving it so much. He’d worship their cock all day if they asked him to, and a part of him hoped that when they got some real time alone, that’s just what they’d do. His place was here, tonguing at their balls while the soft skin of their cock rested against his cheek. He looked up at them from his spot on the ground so they could see how much he appreciated their generosity. 

“Aah, E-Elliott,” they said, voice broken in a way that made his heart race, “I’m…” 

Hound couldn’t finish before they reached their peak. Elliott wrapped his mouth back around them, letting their cum fill his mouth, careful not to waste any. He swallowed as they pulled out, their chest still rising and falling unevenly. They sighed, and he could hear them chuckling softly to themself. They offered him their hand and pulled him to his feet, but wrapped their other arm around his lower back and pulled him close to them. Once he was standing, they pulled off the bottom of their mask and leaned down to kiss him, letting their tongue linger in his mouth to taste the blood that was starting to leak from somewhere inside it.

Wait, why am I bleeding?

He spared a glance to his hand and saw it was covered in strings of bloody saliva. Their cock must have been covered in it too, with the amount of it that he could taste. They hadn’t hit him low enough to split open his lip, and he hadn’t bitten down on his tongue or cheek when he’d fallen to the ground. He found the answer when their tongue brushed up against one of his teeth, which sent a jolt of pain through his jaw. He winced, and he could feel Hound smile into the kiss. They looked down at him, a small smear of scarlet blood marring their pale skin. “Oh Kær, I thought you liked when I made it hurt?”

They were teasing him, but he managed not to flinch when they kissed him again and poked at the tooth. Kissing Bloodhound was always a breath-taking experience, but it was different when it was pain tearing it away from him instead of bliss. It felt dangerous, like he never quite knew what to expect. He could lose himself in it, enjoy the smell of woodsmoke that followed them around and hope they’d wrap him up in their arms. Hound placed another, much softer kiss on his forehead and grinned. “You have earned your keep another day. Now, find somewhere to clean up, you are dripping blood on the ground.”

Elliott’s hand shot to his chin and wiped away a rivulet of bloody drool before it stained his gear. There was a bathroom nearby that he could walk to, hopefully before Anita came back. He turned to leave, but looked back at them and lowered his head. “Thank you.”

“My pleasure.”

___

 

“Oh for fucks sake.”

Elliott rubbed his face as he looked in the mirror. Hound had really done a number on it when they’d pistol-whipped him with the wingman, judging by the massive purple blotches that covered his right eye. He’d have quite the shiner for a few days, and the bruise was going to be a doozy to cover up. Luckily they hadn’t split the skin or cracked his cheekbone, but it was already swelling and hurt like crazy. He opened his mouth and grimaced. It was hard to tell where the bleeding was coming from, but one of his teeth didn’t look right when he stared into the mirror. Curious, Elliott poked at it with his finger. To his surprise, the tooth came loose with a wet, sucking pop and plopped into the sink. It was one of his premolars. 

He cursed and looked back up at the mirror. It was far enough back that if he smiled it wasn’t immediately noticeable, but he’d definitely have to pay to get some work done if Hound ever let him go back to the city. 

“Next I take your teeth. Do not make me ask again.”

Their old warning echoed in his ears. 

At least I know that wasn’t a bluff… 

____

 

“Jesus, what the fuck happened to you?”

For the second time that day, the first words out of Anita’s mouth were not the ones he’d been hoping to hear. She’d come back empty handed from her vehicle and had been chatting with Hound when he came back from the bathroom about how they’d have to do it live unless they could meet up again before the next competition date. She hadn’t sounded pleased about it, but she’d look even less thrilled when she’d seen his face. 

“I uh, slipped and hit my face on the corner of the table.”

Anita looked dumbfounded. “I’m gone fifteen minutes and you nearly take your damn eye out?

“Well it’s not like I did it on purpose!” 

“Well no shit you didn’t do it on purpose! I’m just trying to figure out how the hell you slipped on dry pavement.”

“Did I say slipped? I meant tripped.”

“Elliott, you wear slip-on boots.”

“I never said I tripped on my shoelaces!”

Anita spun around and looked at Bloodhound. “Did you see this idiot fall over?”

“No. I just heard him crying like a baby and walked over to see what happened.” 

“You don’t miss a beat, do you?” said Elliott, exasperated that Hound was still taking jabs at him.

Nei.

“Oh don’t start with the gibberish!” 

“Alright, that’s enough,” Anita stepped in and put a placiating hand on Elliott’s shoulder, “Although I think Hound is justified in making fun of you a bit considering you tripped over your own feet, we have stuff to pack, and you have brass to sweep up.”

“I thought you said if I didn’t complain I wouldn’t have to!”

“Yeah but then you managed to go and do something so stupid you nearly blinded yourself, so I don’t trust you around anything actually dangerous.”

Anita thrust a broom at him, ignoring his grumbling. She started pulling stocks off the guns and making sure they were equipped with their trigger locks before putting them away neatly in their cases. “We getting drinks tonight?”

“Yeah, I believe I owe you one.”

“Oh, you owe me several.”

When he looked up, she cracked a smile and pointed at her eye. “Better find a way to cover that beauty up, otherwise you’re gonna scare all the girls away.” 

He rolled his eyes and scoffed. “Oh please, you can have them.

“Besides,” he puffed up his chest, “I think it makes me look manly.”

“Oh yeah, losing a fight to a table. Real macho, Witt.”

Bloodhound was cleaning off their scope as they interjected. “To be fair to him, it was a very big table.”

“Nobody asked you,” he shot back. 

“Hey now, let them say their piece. You in, Bloodhound?”

“No,” they said, locking up the longbow case, “I do not wish to draw that much attention to myself. Besides, I do not drink. Thank you, though.” 

She shrugged. “Suit yourself.”

Elliott finished sweeping the brass into a bucket and shoved it unceremoniously at Anita. “I am not sorting all of that for you.”

She laughed. “I wouldn’t ask you to. Probably couldn’t tell the difference between a thirty-aught-six and a seven-by-sixty-three even if I spelled it out for you.”

“Nope, and I’m not even going to try.”

“Good because that was a trick question, dumbass.”

“Don’t you have like, other hobbies or something?”

“Eight-o-clock,” she said, slinging a bag over her shoulder, “Don’t be late.”

“Cool your jets, I’ll be there.”

She nodded and waved as she walked off back towards the parking lot, leaving Elliott alone with Hound again. Once she was out of sight, he felt as their hand snaked its way up his arm and onto his shoulder, gripping it firmly. It was too tight to be a casual gesture, and Elliott’s heart started to beat faster. “Sounds like the two of you have some fun things planned. It would be a shame if something came up that got in the way of that.”

The chill was back, settling down into his bones. He wanted to speak, but they put a finger to his lips and shushed him. “Oh no, my dear Elliott. You and I have something we must attend to before I can trust you to go off with your little friend.

“I have something planned for just the two of us. You did not think I would let your little protests just go unanswered, did you?”

Hitting me with the fucking gun wasn’t punishment enough???

He stared ahead as they spoke, trying to contain his disbelief. “You will find out soon enough what it is. But I am glad that I decided to let you come out here. I know you enjoyed yourself as much as I did.”

They chuckled, clapping him on the back. “Come along now, Kær. You do not want to keep me waiting.”