Virulent nightmares have plagued John for years. At first, although disturbing, they were mostly impersonal. It was easy to forget the nameless face of an ostensible killer or victim of some tragedy. But as time passed, his mind began to reach into places he had thought safe, and soon he was captive witness to horrors involving real people--the people around him, the people he loved--and that was what had begun to shadow his waking thoughts and set him increasingly on edge as the days went by.
He often broke awake screaming, haunted by the vestiges of chilling nightmares for sometimes hours, sometimes days. There were times it was more difficult to shake off the lingering terror and dread, and on those days, John often resorted to vigorous exercise or some other exhaustive activity in hopes of simply being too tired to dream. It never worked, but he didn't know what else to do, so he kept trying.
John never spoke to anyone about it, of course. Everyone else had their own problems, and he had been touting the lackadaisical and carefree reputation long enough that no one would even begin to suspect that he was struggling with a growing, harrowing problem. The nightmares routinely consumed him by night, leaving him listless and often irritable; but no matter how drained he had been lately, he continued to write it off as just some bad dreams, and he couldn't imagine bothering anyone over something so silly.
Still, he couldn't always pretend he was unaffected. There were more days than not now that John sequestered himself in his home--although he did his best to respond to messages sent by his friends. He didn't want them to worry about the occasional disappearing act, even if the occasional slowly evolved into the habitual. It was just that he didn't want them to see the bruises under his eyes left by sinister dreams--to see that maybe he'd become a tad thinner and spacier and even despondent.
It was hard to always put on a face, even harder to maintain some semblance of normalcy, when he was consistently too tired to do much more than sustain himself on most days. John wouldn't peg himself as depressed, per se, but he sure would have loved a good night's sleep.
A lucky reprieve graced him for about a week, during which John found himself more wary than worn, but he wasn't going to complain about uninterrupted rest. And with uncanny timing, he received a message from Dave, who spontaneously had decided that tonight he and Dirk were to marathon ironically terrible films over pizza, and he wanted John to join them.
Against his better judgment, he went.
They began the night with some Jackie Chan movie of all things, throughout which Dave offered his formal and most impassioned critiques in between bites of his sausage-no-homo pizza. John was content to leave him to it and take advantage of pleasant company. By the start of the fifth movie, some Michael Bay film he'd forgotten the name of, his belly was full and his eyes were heavy. Curled up on the floor against the side of the sofa, only partially aware of Dave's ramblings somewhere above him and a quiet comment from Dirk here and there, he let himself drift off to sleep.
His dreams were not kind to him.
Shackled by some unseen force, he hung over what he quickly recognized to be an execution. Mutilated bodies lined a charred field, and the stench of fiery sulfur and decomposing corpses made his stomach and sensibilities revolt. Against a dark and angry crimson sky, a guillotine towered, the blood-stained blade ominously suspended mere inches from his face.
A figure started across the scene, a tall thing cloaked in tattered garments, barely humanoid with a face of seemingly melted flesh and hollow sockets, colorless and still somehow dark; yet for all of its gangly, sickly state, it carried with it a profound dread that knotted itself like an icy fist in his stomach. Wordlessly, it turned and looked at him, and he instantly retched.
It was the face of death.
He strained against his invisible restraints until his muscles screamed and his skin broke, but to no avail. Time reeled relentlessly ahead--the monstrosity was outside of time, he somehow knew--and his heart thundered in his chest and in his ears so violently that he thought it might burst out of him. He fought to speak, to screech a warning to those below him as death drew near, ready to subject them to a cruel finality, but his voice had inexplicably vanished.
Suddenly he was crucified, a helpless onlooker, some perverted symbolism senselessly ramrodded onto the field. Like a parody of Christ, he dangled there, inaudibly pleading for mercy for them, for himself, for things to stop being so warped and wrong and--
The blade wailed as it fell, and the first head rolled. Frozen in terror, Rose's severed head gazed at him, her mouth parted to utter a cry that had never come. Beside her head came Dave's next, his wine-colored eyes condemning, betrayed. In twisted agony, more dislodged heads joined the pile until they were a collection, a ghastly jury that still demanded of him beyond the grave.
You did this to us, they beleaguered him in restless whispers. Their words crawled across his skin and into his every orifice, turned him inside out, left him writhing and sobbing and spent. It burned, everything burned--his body, his mind, his soundless voice, the sky and the ground and the world--it all burned. And still the voices came, chanting, derisive, judging, like an infernal mantra meant to drown him and send him straight to hell.
John, the Saviour.
John, the Blasphemer.
John, the Hypocrite.
JOHN, THE GUILTY.
JOHN, THE HEIR.
JOHN, HE WHO WATCHED, LET OUR BLOOD BE ON HIS HANDS--
Gasping and frantic, John lurched awake and scrambled about on the floor. His breaths came out heavy and labored, and he shuddered into a ball, willing himself to calm. Count to thirty. Three in, seven out. Say the alphabet backwards. Use some combination of letters or numbers to stop freaking out. Breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth. Try something. Try anything. Do the thing.
It wasn't working. He was too terrified, a trembling and weeping boy again, lost and desperate and alone.
Except he wasn't alone.
He was at Dave and Dirk's house, because he had fallen asleep while they were watching movies. Dave must have retreated back into his bedroom, because when John glanced over to the couch, only Dirk was there, propped up attentively against the armrest.
There was no convincing Dirk that everything was fine, not when his tongue was like ash in his mouth and his heart was in his throat and his blood was like a searing fire beneath his skin. John tried anyways, to say he just needed a minute, to laugh it off a moment later about how maybe the movies were worse than he thought (even if they weren't horror movies) but the words wouldn't come. He could barely breathe, fear thick in his chest, and John could only stare vacantly in Dirk's direction as he was caught in the onset of hyperventilation.
Dirk was off the couch in an instant, crouched low and by John's side with an unexpected gentleness. Having kept his nightmares a secret, John had never experienced the comfort of arms around him, hands rubbing his back, soothing murmurs washing over him; but slowly, surely, it all worked. Dirk's voice and touch served as a balm, and gradually John found himself breathing evenly and considerably less jumpy than before.
They sat in silence then on the floor, John loosely cradled in Dirk's arms, until the voices of the damned were faded and the images of the beheaded had blurred away out of the scope of reality.
John wasn't sure how long they had been sitting like this, but it had been long enough for his eyes to adjust in the dim light. A slant of moonlight highlighted a patch of carpet off to the side, and somewhere, one of Dave's clocks ticked dutifully. If he listened closely enough, he could even hear the distant buzzing of the refrigerator from the kitchen. What he couldn't see or hear was Dirk.
What was he supposed to say? How was he supposed to explain acting like a spooked animal in the middle of the floor? What was it, two--three--in the morning? It was like he was a little kid again, waking up in the middle of the night because of a bad dream. No one did this. This was embarrassing. As if it wasn't bad enough that he did this at home, he had to do it here, in front of someone else, too.
"Nightmares, huh," he heard Dirk say.
Well, there was no point in lying about it.
"I get 'em too."
Somehow, that took John by surprise. Not that Dirk didn't seem the type to partake in some heavy brooding, but the guy seemed largely untouchable, always a closed book. Now he was being offered a page out of that book, and John wasn't sure if it was from the beginning, end, or somewhere in the middle, never mind what language it was in.
"Oh," he stated dumbly.
He wasn't exactly ready for a conversation yet, and to his relief, Dirk didn't press for one. But for some reason, the words came unbidden, as if enticed by the knowledge and presence of someone else who understood.
Shifting slightly, John closed his eyes and let the words escape him like refugees in the night.
"They were--it was everyone, on some charred field, lined up to be executed. This thing was there, and I just knew it was wrong. It…" A weighty sigh fell from him. "It killed them all. Rose, Jade, you, Dave, Roxy--everyone--and you all blamed me for it. I wanted to help, but I couldn't. I was trapped. Always trapped."
He swallowed down a lump in his throat and sighed again, this time through his nose, his voice small as he said, "I just wish I could think about something else right now. Anything else. Let myself forget."
Dirk remained quiet, patiently listening still, and it hit John then how warm and nice and safe it felt to be curled up against Dirk, how pitiful and touch starved he'd become. And while he had always been closer to Dave, there had never been any question that John found Dirk attractive. Even if everyone else had pegged him as straight--what was that stupid song? The heart wants what it wants? That seemed fair enough, especially now.
Impulsively, John rearranged himself on Dirk, bracing himself against the other man's chest, angled up to peer in at the shades that always seemed to be there.
"Hey, can I try something?"
If Dirk was bothered by the sudden change in positions, he didn't comment on it, though he did seem a bit uncertain about the request. Even so, there was no hostility in his voice.
"Uh, go for it, dude."
Maybe it was a stupid idea. John was no stranger to stupid ideas. And he knew he probably looked awful--sleepless, with bloodshot and swollen eyes--but he desperately wanted to rid himself of the terror that even now lurked in the back of his mind, waiting. So he focused on Dirk, on the way the moonlight outlined his hair and his jaw, on the subtle dip of his throat and how that led up to his chin and lips, and he--
And for good measure, he sneezed again. Right in Dirk's face.
It wasn't really fine. But it did, in a small way, lighten the mood (and ruin it at the same time.)
John leaned back and detached himself, collecting his legs into his arms. Already he missed the warmth around him, the hands on his back, the rhythmic pulse of a heartbeat in his ear; but there was no way in hell he was going to say any of that. Instead, he did what he did best: bottle all of that garbage up and redirect things elsewhere.
"I guess I should try to go back to sleep."
And just like that, it was over. Dirk gave him a farewell salute and disappeared into his own room down the hallway, and John was left alone again in the living room.
He huddled up on the sofa facing the back, but despite his claim of returning to sleep, John couldn't bring himself to even shut his eyes long enough to do much more than blink. The threat of reentering another scene of carnage was too great.
At least, for once, he did have something else to think about; and it was all John thought about, from the time he laid on the sofa, to when Dave popped out for breakfast, to when he let himself out afterwards to go home.
In fact, it was all he thought about for several days, until the nightmares settled in worse than before, and it was weeks before John found any relief again or dared show his face outside of his house.
No matter what anyone said about John, or what John said about himself, there was no way that Dirk would ever completely buy the all-jokes-and-laughs front. And that's what it was: a front. A stage presence. Dirk knew, because not only did he commit to the same vein of masquerade on a typical day, but now he also had seen what John was really like behind the mask and theatrics.
Life had been cruel to all of them, and everyone had immersed themselves in their own coping mechanisms, but there was a certain… thoroughness in the way John had always kept to himself about things. Out of everyone, John had been the hardest to read because of how consistently and effectively he concealed how he was feeling or what he was thinking. It wasn't like the guy didn't ever have a bad day or a negative emotion, but neither did he ever discuss anything personal beyond surface level; and without a baseline to work with, it was impossible to tell what was on his mind. In a way, it was like dealing with a mirror, except in John's case, he wasn't on the inside. Or at least, he wasn't anymore.
Three weeks ago, when Dave had insisted that they watch his cringefest of movies, and John had come over, was the first time Dirk had ever been backstage at John Egbert's "funhouse," and if he had to be honest, it wasn't very fun. That wasn't to say it had bothered him to be made aware of it; rather, it had been jarring to walk into a closet full of skeletons that just as easily could have been his. In fact, he had his own stash of skeletons, a collection he had never found appropriate to broadcast to anyone--until John came along with his.
There was something to be said for the way John had unraveled on his living room floor that night. It had been like encountering a beast in the woods, an untamed creature of the wild, snared in some jagged construct, lost in the throes of a hunter's hand. John's eyes, stormy and intense and so, so blue, had fastened on him, and he had understood at once what he was witnessing.
He'd had nightmares of his own for as long as he could remember, long before John or Dave or anyone else had come along. Those breathless moments of sharp hysteria--he'd recognize it for what it was anywhere. It was always the same, the merciless panic, and he'd almost automatically moved in to offer John support, even knowing that he wouldn't be asked. A hushed tone and gentle touch did wonders in the wake of those seemingly indelible assaults.
What he hadn't counted on was how readily John would accept his involvement, or how endearing he had managed to be in doing so. Dirk had never been one to favor propriety over necessity, and he was fairly sure that there weren't any clear cut regulations about how to behave when comforting someone who had just suffered a terrifying nightmare, but fawning over John probably violated some rule somewhere. The way John had pressed into him in search of comfort--the way he had fit just right in his lap--the way every tremor and gasp had come through--it all had gone straight to his groin. And when John had later made eye contact, it had been good that they were in the dark, because his face and everything else had been glowing hot; and had John not sneezed in that moment, things might have gone a lot differently.
That thought right there, officer. Gun it down.
There was no doubt he was going to hell, he just hadn't expected it to be over something like this. Hadn't expected to find John, shattered in his arms, alarmingly and unforgettably beautiful. Not that John wasn't easy on the eyes on the average day--far from it. But that had been his first real look at him, up close and personal, so close he could have taken him by the arms and--
God damn it.
But as unruly as his imagination had been, there had been no danger of making a fool of himself about it around John. Things were back to normal--that is, John was back to random pranks and his feigned silliness, as well as an assortment of healthy activities that allowed him to either humiliate or impress his friends on any given day. In fact, John seemed more active than before--what with a deluge of races, wrestling matches, staring contests, extra devious pranks, and even various games of (admittedly actually-adrenaline-pumping) games of chicken--or had he always been that way, and Dirk had just begun to notice?
Then again, it wasn't as if he had never taken the time to notice John before. But now he was searching for something, reading between the lines, and while he didn't want to force himself to see something that wasn't there, something did seem somehow off about John.
It wasn't until everyone had gathered for a barbeque at Jade's house, that Dirk began to feel really concerned. There, seated at one of three tables, with Roxy and Dave (who had just excused himself to refill his plate and drink) John asked a question that set off a red flag.
"So, since we're god tiers and all, we don't get sick anymore, right? But can we get drunk?"
There were no good reasons for that question. John wasn't a party animal, and he had no history of being predisposed to alcoholism. Whenever someone like John brought up the possibility of being drunk, it typically revolved around some form of escapism.
"Yeah, sure can," Roxy winked, but before she could elaborate, Dirk cut in.
"Why are you asking?"
"Oh, you know." Screw the dismissive facade. Yeah, he knew. That was part of the problem. And John knew that he knew. "I heard it can help you sleep, and I was just thinking about it and got to wondering!"
"Well, it does depend how much you can hold," Roxy added thoughtfully. "Have you ever drank before, John?"
"Well, you'd probably want to start with something easy. Like, don't go straight for the vodka, okay--you might want to just try a beer."
At that point, Dirk excused himself under the pretense of needing the bathroom. He wasn't going to listen to Roxy educate John on how to get wasted every night, even if she didn't understand that was most likely what John had in mind.
He didn't know why that notion irritated him so much, but it did, and he fervently hoped that John wasn't going to irresponsibly crash and burn trying to drink, drug, or otherwise desensitize himself, when none of that truly solved anything. Dirk had seen enough to guarantee the fruitlessness of such endeavors.
Dirk had also seen enough to know John would rather martyr himself in secrecy than ask for help. And if that night on the floor with John had been any indication of how severe things could be, he had a feeling that, should John pick up any alcohol, it wasn't going to be the light stuff.
Under an oppressive, timeless sun, birds eclipsed the sky. Like a congested mobile over a crib, they circled, a raucous cluttering of wings and feathers, dark and sickly. At first, they seemed vultures, but as they gradually bled out, their bodies diving to the land below, their forms manifested more clearly as crows, beady eyes needling, preying, and everywhere.
He's one of them, a black-beaked demon with the wind warm against his face and belly. Blended in with the others, he hovered circuitously, his eyes a roving pair over the landscape.
The earth is ransacked by drought, cracked and dull and lifeless. Where there should have been trees are bodies erected on massive stakes, gruesome displays of limp, lifelike rag dolls; and where there should have been water, there is only blood, stagnating and odious and blackened by corruption.
In the heart of the murder, he drifted along, implicitly aware that should he separate from the rest, they would immediately recognize him for what he was: an outsider. His avian form is borrowed--possessed--he's a stowaway in a vessel that doesn't belong to him, and the consequences if they discover him would be steeper than he could afford.
Adrenaline was frigid within him as they sailed, a pack of ravenous scavengers scouring a devastated expanse. Time, a myth on this plain, stretched indifferently into an unyielding abyss, until at last, they encountered a body strewn about on a dusty, barren strip of ground.
Like arrows, they plunged, an airborne torrent of whetted beaks and streamlined feathers, their cries grating and triumphant and malicious at a sighted target. As he nosedived with them, the features of a man--a corpse, afflicted with blight and cavernous wounds all overflowing with writhing, fattened maggots--gradually presented itself with more clarity. For each second he descended, he was increasingly consumed by some unignorable premonition--a chilling dread--and, the moment they were upon the cadaver, a cacophony of rapacious, rampaging desecrators, he knew it to be him.
They are all around him, on him, in him; a helpless victim beneath an onslaught of a savage frenzy, all he can do is scream.
A strangled shriek escaped him as John flailed out of bed and collapsed onto the floor. Soaked with sweat, his clothes clung to him, suffocated him, and he grappled with them fitfully for several moments before he realized them for what they were.
He was utterly exhausted, unable to stomach the thought of suffering one more nightmare, one more invasive, hellish dream. It had to end, this… indescribable torment. He had to escape this relentless predator, this persistent plague that continued to weary him until now he felt altogether unsafe and unhinged.
Skin still prickled by the ghosts of innumerable probing beaks, John pulled himself to his feet and shuffled intently into his kitchen. Stashed in the back of a cupboard, neatly embellished with a golden label, was some brand of vodka. Roxy had warned him about this, about recklessly guzzling "the strong stuff" when he was wholly inexperienced and naive to the effects, but all John had heard was that this was the stuff that could properly render him effectively comatose, which was exactly what he wanted right now.
Still, he wasn't totally careless. John knew better than to pour the entire thing down his throat like some thirsty animal. He sipped at it slowly, determinedly, both affronted and gratified by the searing burn it carried. When the neck of the bottle emptied and the alcohol, pearlescent in the faint light of the moon, sloshed against the glass, John decided that it was time to call it quits.
Through mostly hearsay, he was familiar with the sensation of being drunk, but it was an altogether novel experience to feel it for himself. His limbs were unusually leaden and his blood was unnaturally loud, deafening, in his ears. Gravity danced with him as he, suddenly inflicted with the grace and balance of a newborn, staggered clumsily back to his room.
It didn't feel right, the way the room swam and how his heart pounded in his chest. His body had become strangely unresponsive, sluggish, and John decided he didn't want to ride this out alone.
With great effort, he fumbled his phone into his hands and scrolled through his meager selection of contacts. Jake, Jade, Jane--their names were a blur to him as he thumbed through until he reached the tail end of the list. Dave, yes, that was who he could trust to see him through this muddled haze. Dave, a good bro, who he had pointedly avoided for months now aside from their one recent movie night. Whatever.
EB: heey dude i k ow it's likje, the niddle og the night but.
EB: i'd reeaaslly aporecuate it if you coukfd come ocre for a whipe.
EB: excuuse the shutty tyoing, i fell really wjejrd. hehe.
Well. Chances were, even if Dave would be awake to read his messages, they would be virtually nonsensical garbage.
John flung his phone onto the bed and dropped onto it face-first. The mattress was soft and inviting, the gateway to some much-needed sleep--but sleep was exactly what he wanted to avoid, and so he pushed away from the bed with urgency. Or tried. He more slid off of it and onto the floor, where he was struck with the sensible plan that if he slept under the bed, instead of on it, he would be much safer from unwanted dreams. This, of course, hadn't worked on the floor of the Strider living room, but he was in his own room now, so things followed different rules now, obviously.
Curled underneath the bed, John was disappointingly chilly, but at least he was reasonably sheltered, tucked away out of sight and out of reach from the gnarled, dolorous clutches of life and all it had flung at him in the cover of the night. He wasn't a witty prankster for nothing. Few people had probably discovered this failsafe, and he wasn't about to disclose such an invaluable secret. People would get weird ideas about him, and it probably wouldn't work as well anymore, the more it was used. No, this was his secret.
Abruptly overcome by the outright silliness of his mind, John let out a bubbly series of giggles that nearly devolved into humorous snorts, when a peculiar noise interrupted him. A noise that was not made by him. A noise not made by him, in his home, where he was supposedly alone.
At the sound of that familiar voice, John recoiled as far back under the bed as the space would allow. Oh, no, no no no, no one was supposed to see him like this. They'd never let him live it down. They'd realize what a lunatic he had become in the early hours of the morning, what an unsettled vagrant he was in his own home.
Thinking quickly (as well as he could in the quagmire of a drunken stupor) he blurted out, "I'm not here!"
It didn't work.
Fortunately, it was only Dirk, who John enjoyed seeing very much, although he was stumped as to why Dirk had come to visit at this unholy hour and was now on his elbows and knees, peering apprehensively at him.
Wide-eyed and perplexed, he mumbled out, "Why are you here?"
A crease formed between Dirk's brows.
"Because you asked me to come over."
Why couldn't he remember that? Hm. At least, if he was this out of it, he probably wouldn't remember whatever nightmare came to conclude his inevitable moments of unconsciousness. Maybe the vodka wasn't so bad after all. He could see the appeal, why Roxy had practically lived drunk for a while; it was a convenient way to disengage and zone out.
One other benefit of this mental roller coaster he was experiencing was that John wasn't sure how real anything was. It was like a more subdued nightmare--a simple bad dream, perhaps--and he was under the impression that, even if all of this was in any way real, it was probably just that: a dream. Or some escaped fantasy because of some repression or other psychoanalytical term Rose loved to shove in his face. That seemed about right, though. He'd had a comforting experience with Dirk that one night after The Crucifix dream, as he had dubbed it; so of course he wanted to see Dirk again when everything felt so skewed and not right.
Dirk was kind, and gentle, and handsome, and safe, and he was reaching in with those wonderfully warm hands of his and--HEY.
In a sputtering protest, John clawed at the floor as Dirk took hold of him by the legs and dragged him out from under the bed.
"Hey, I was just fine there!" He insisted, words slurring together. "I was SAFE!"
"Dude, stop struggling."
Nowhere was safe. But at least he could pretend like this, with his feeble consciousness anchored by Dirk's touch, that even if only for a while, the nightmares wouldn't come. Come to think of it, maybe it was safer with Dirk. He was solid and comfortable, and now in his arms, John thought that he'd enjoy staying there forever.
"I'm going to put you on your bed now."
No! NO! The bed was the last place he wanted to be! But his body betrayed him, the wretched thing, as it sighed in fatigue as Dirk lowered him onto the mattress. It was softer and warmer than the floor, and John entertained the idea of letting himself float away into a more hopefully peaceful slumber.
No. Not happening. He knew better. But if he was going to be shepherded into his bed like this, then he was entitled to some company. Everyone else had partners, light-hearted little sleepovers, from time to time. Why couldn't he? Even if it was only some vodka-induced daydream, he deserved some self-indulgence now and then like anyone else, especially after hoarding away so much inner turmoil and grief.
Unabashedly, he seized Dirk by the shirt and yanked the other man into bed beside him. The presence of another actual human being, sturdy and warm and so nice, was irresistible. Dirk was the perfect snuggle buddy, firm but gentle, and John exploited the man's patience as he let his hands travel across Dirk's chest. The more he could feel, the more content he became to siddle close and bury his face in anywhere it would fit, which happened to be Dirk's neck.
It was like smelling the summer sands by the sea. A hint of salt, the flighty notes of the ocean and the sun rounding in rich undertones. John wanted to lose himself in that smell, to let himself be carried away by its freely shifting waves.
He curled his fingers into Dirk's shirt, let his fingers dig into his sides, and pressed in as close as he could be, never once questioning why Dirk was so still or whether he even had permission for this sort of thing.
At last, Dirk did speak, his voice a low rumble in his chest.
"What're you, uh… doing?"
"You're my snuggle buddy," he mumbled, as if that would explain anything.
And as if he was now licensed for whatever physical contact he fancied, John succumbed to a whim and let his hands slide up along Dirk's side and into his hair. God, his hair was soft. He'd always wanted to thread his fingers through it, to see if it was as coarse as it often appeared; but it melded to his touch like young strands of grass, and John scraped his fingers through like there was nothing more tempting in the world.
Oh, but there was. With his hands occupied at the top, he was face level with Dirk now, so close that he could see the stray freckles scattered around his shades, close enough to feel his breath come out in warm, shallow puffs. John dipped his head there, rubbed his cheek against Dirk's neck and jaw, until he settled on a decision and, with an unexpected dexterity, plucked off the trademark shades and let them fall somewhere against the headboard.
Dirk was open to him then, eyes bare and striking and amber; but it wasn't enough. John wanted more, to be closer. He pressed his lips into Dirk's temple, let his desire lead his mouth down along the curve of his jaw, to the edge of his lips, to--
With some offense, John's lips met with the palm of Dirk's hand. Under any other circumstance, he would have realized the gesture for what it was; but with the influence of alcohol and his own attraction so strong, all he could think was that he wanted more, and he'd do whatever it took to get it. Impishly, he darted out his tongue, and slathered it shamelessly over Dirk's hand.
Like a shot, the hand withdrew, Dirk's face wrinkled in shock.
"What the hell--"
Giggling, John leaned his head in and moved to kiss Dirk again, and frowned when he was met with a turned head.
"Dude, you've got to stop."
"Whhyyy?" Even wasted, he knew how to wield an effective puppy eyed plea.
"Because you're drunk," Dirk sighed. "You're going to seriously regret this when you sober up."
"Haha, no." John crinkled his nose as he smiled and declared, "I've wanted to do this before."
An ambiguous shadow passed over Dirk's face then, but John ignored it. He did settle, though, wedging himself back down against Dirk's torso and around his legs, huddled close enough to breathe in his scent again.
"You're really pretty, Dirk." And with this confession, suddenly half-eased into sleep, John only said, "I'm sleepy, so we'll talk about this later."
And he was gone.
At the first rays of dawn, John's eyes snapped open and he was waylaid by the knowledge of what he had done. Or at least, to some degree, he knew something had happened--he remembered scavenging in the kitchen for vodka, and then everything had become fuzzy afterwards. Which was probably why he was stunned out of his wits to find he was not the sole occupant of his bed.
Sleeping, his breaths feathery and deep, Dirk laid supine beside him. In the faint morning light, he seemed almost delicate somehow, all softened edges and freckles and ease. It was a stark contrast to the inscrutable gravity that usually made him seem securely safeguarded from the public eye. Not that John considered himself much of a public guy these days.
Still, it was unusual to see Dirk without his shades, and the sight of him in his bed--John's bed--well, it rapidly released a dam of panic-stricken questions.
As lightly as he could, terrified of waking his new bed mate, John extricated himself and promptly fled from the room. He beelined straight for the outdoors to clear his head, and barely made it out of the front door before he was practically assaulted by a realized headache. Roxy had warned him about this, too. He should have listened--should have done or not done several things, come to think of it; at the very least he should have known better than to let Dirk in while he was mind-numbingly drunk.
What had transpired between them? What had been said? Had he done something to suggest to Dirk that he wanted him in bed, or had it been more innocuous? A sort of, "Just make sure John is okay and not alone during his first night being drunk"? Had there been anything s-se--
Oh, for fuck's sake. He was an adult.
But he couldn't bring himself to think the thoughts. Therein lied the problem: John was still carefully closeted about his feelings regarding Dirk, and he was nowhere near ready to let them see the light of day, especially when the man in question was anywhere present. Yet here they were, with Dirk in his room, in his bed, and he himself was barely sober.
This could never happen again.
John returned indoors with purpose, moving into the kitchen in search of the infernal vodka bottle. It was not-so-discreetly abandoned by the sink, into which he emptied out every drop of the dangerous stuff and buried the bottle in the trash. To be safe, he rooted through the cupboards and fished out the bottle of cooking wine, and dumped that down the drain too. The vanilla extract he had splurged on recently went straight into the trash, followed by all of the cold medicine and cough syrup on the shelves. Not like he ever caught a conventional illness. Who needed the common cold anymore when you could be insane?
John paused at the rubbing alcohol. Isopropyl alcohol, 80%. This was mostly harmless stuff. He wasn't going to drink this. It was probably safe to leave that under the sink.
He poured out the rubbing alcohol for good measure and tossed that bottle, too.
It struck him that Dirk could wake up and find him in the kitchen, flooding his sink with various alcohols and fluids, aptly looking every part a crazed man. This couldn't happen.
John wrenched off a blue sticky note from the countertop and scrawled onto it:
Gotta pee. Back later.
Ever since inheriting the powers befalling an Heir of Breath, John had always been most comfortable in the sky. Unhesitatingly, he launched himself upwards into the wind's curious embrace, and sought the cover of the clouds.
It was better this way, helped him to calm, to feel the air and the condensation around him, and John felt a fleeting moment of relief until he noticed how dark and forboding the clouds were. Well familiar with the patterns of weather woven in the sky, John understood a storm was fast developing. A nasty one. Already the belly of swollen clouds rumbled and flashed with the telltale signs of thunder and, with it, lightning; and while he wasn't afraid of jolting electricity coursing through him, it was just one more inconvenience he'd rather not deal with right now. Besides, with the rain came a certain chill, and that was what truly deterred him from a near fate as a lightning rod.
Aimlessly, he rode the air currents away until he found himself at Jade's house. And while Jade had traditionally made a point to make him feel always welcome to stop in, her door was fascinatingly locked. A quick glance in through the window explained why, and John regretted his newfound knowledge in Jade's taste in ball gags.
His next best bet was the Crocker household, as raw as that often left him. With the face of his not-actual-father imminent around any corner, John had been hesitant to visit more and more these days; but Jane had an endearing and maternal quality that reminded him enough of his Nanna that he was willing to risk opening one wound in favor of nurturing another. But her door remained locked and unanswered as well, and it struck John that not only was he unexpected, but it was unreasonably early for most of his friends, what feeble show of sun there was suggesting that it couldn't be much later than six at best.
On the off chance that Dirk returned home, Dave's place was out of the question. And with her shrewd and inquisitive mind, Rose's house would have been more frustrating than it was worth at the moment. That left him with, for lack of care for detail, everyone else, none of whom he felt comfortable enough to impose upon in his disheveled and troubled state.
Harboring a sense of defeat, John made his way back to his house just as torrential rain began to beat down on him with such force that even he was momentarily stupified by it. But in the end, he settled for sprawling out on the rooftop, impassive to the piercing needles of rain long enough that he lost track of all sense of time or feeling or all else, except for a dire need to pee.
Eventually, more resigned than anything else, he retreated back indoors through the kitchen door, where he nearly tripped over himself in a renewed fright at the sight of Dirk, conscious and upright at his dining table.
Visibly startled, water cascading off of him in sheets, John stood at the door, frozen, breath caught in his throat. At his appearance, Dirk offered him a lone observation, his face as neutral as John had ever seen.
"Yeah. I was outside."
Nothing else was said for several minutes.
As habit would dictate, John bit into his lower lip, otherwise still unmoving and apparently oblivious to the fast-forming lake around him. Like a besotted child, wide-eyed and zeroed in on Dirk, he stood there, dumbstruck, and would have continued to for a long while had Dirk not breached the silence first.
"So. You, uh, up for talking? About last night?"
His eyes must have spoken first. An indecipherable emotion flickered on Dirk's face, and before he could learn what it was or what would come of it, John opened his mouth to speak and instead aboutfaced out of the room.
It wasn't that he was being a coward. No. He just needed to shower and wear dry, clean clothes. That was all. Being clean was an important fact of life, one John was suddenly so invested in that he spent the greater half of an entire hour locked in the bathroom, dry heaving into the tub.
By the time he dressed in a plain shirt and jeans, John was still inconveniently ill-prepared for any discussion about anything with Dirk, especially if the subject was (and it surely would be) about last night.
Last night, when he could vaguely recall bits and pieces of Dirk with him while he had been crammed under the bed. Dirk, smelling like the windswept sea, warm and firm on his hands. Dirk, warning him that he'd regret it--that he'd regret… what?
Shit. What had he been trying to do?
His foot never landed on the step three counts up from the ground, and John yelped as he upended roughly on the floor against the wall, glasses flying off of his face and skidding somewhere across the floor.
From the kitchen, he could hear a chair scuffle against the floor as Dirk called out to him.
"Yes--YES, I'm fine! Don't, uh, don't come over here!"
Against his wishes, Dirk did appear in the doorway, taking in the unfortunate posture John had on display. And although he was upside down, John could tell he was trying not to laugh. Ugh.
With some assistance, John found his feet appropriately under him again, and plopped himself unceremoniously on the bottom step, chin in his hands and elbows on his knees. When Dirk squatted beside him, John let out a long sigh, and averted his gaze into the wall.
A good wall. Sturdy. Wood. Oak? Probably. Just look at those grains. Look at them, John, look at your wood paneling, at your molding along the ceiling, at absolutely anything other than Dirk.
"Hey, you okay?"
Nearly ejecting out of his skin, John snapped his head around so quickly that he was at risk for whiplash, and gave Dirk a startled look.
"I'll take that as a no, especially after the whole drunk phase."
There wasn't much he could say to that. Face heating, John dropped his gaze and he studied his feet. After a beat, he licked his lips, and dared to ask the question that had been bothering him the most.
"About that. Um, what did I do last night? To you, I mean."
From the corner of his eye, he saw Dirk run a hand through his hair as he sighed heavily.
"In summary, you drafted me into the 'Snuggle Buddy' service."
He could have figured that out, judging by their close proximity when he had woken up. That wasn't really a problem. Brows furrowing, John swallowed thickly and spoke before he could change his mind.
"I don't want the summary. I want to know if I… if we had…"
Okay, they probably hadn't engaged in anything too intimate, given that their clothes had both been on. John opted for a more probable angle.
"Did I kiss you?"
Well, that was about as blunt as he could handle.
A tense moment of silence passed before Dirk responded.
"Did I try?"
"Are you mad? About that-that I tried to, um, kiss you."
It is Dirk's turn to be flustered now, which, given his advantageous cover from his shades, mostly amounted to some reddening about his face and cheeks. His face and voice weren't noticeably affected, but the sudden stiffness along his shoulders effectively told John what he needed to know. Still, Dirk's reply was relieving, if slow coming.
Oh. Well, then.
Emboldened by the same impulse as before, John wet his lips again, and could only think to ask one more question.
"Can I... try again?"
Now that the cat was out of the bag, so to speak, it was easier for John to move right over to the heart of the issue. He liked Dirk a lot. He was attracted to the man, drawn to his austerity just as much as his reserved intricacies, felt at ease around his quietude; and there was no doubt that he enjoyed being in Dirk’s arms, feeling the heat in the physical contact, or breathing him in like the very air befitting his own title. That said nothing about the rush that filled him every time he so much as thought of touching Dirk, of kissing him, of seeking out more that he previously thought impossible and forbidden. And now that they had already entered the realm of his feelings, there wasn’t much point in pretending that none of that existed.
Dirk already was privy to his weakest moments, to the mindless and bedraggled states that years of nightmares had worn into him. Now he was witness to his blundering, drunken side; to his more demanding, selfish impulses; and still he hadn’t chosen to withdraw and wall himself off. It was… promising.
Abandonment had probably been the most familiar demon John had faced over the last several weeks, and it was galvanizing to think that he didn’t need to worry about that so much anymore--not with Dirk, at least. Not with the lax lines of his face, with the way his shoulders eased back invitingly, with the permissive utterance that John wanted so badly to hear.
It was all he needed to hear.
John leaned off of the step and into Dirk, hesitating only when he felt Dirk’s breath hot on his lips. He was really going to do this. He was going to kiss Dirk, and this time he wasn’t going to sneeze like a moron.
It wasn’t flashy fireworks, just a simple kiss, but it was freeing and it was good, and John let his mind clear out so he could follow his impulses unhindered this time. Dirk was yielding, letting him set the pace, which only encouraged him to act with more fervor than he might have otherwise. And just when he thought to break away, he felt hands slide goosebumps up along his arms, and then and there, he committed to a real, full-blown make out session.
He fisted his hands into Dirk’s hair and moved in, settling between his legs, kissing him again, and again, until he was breathless and dizzy, burning hot and trembling. With every touch of his lips, he felt Dirk respond in kind, and it quickly became evident that kissing would simply not be enough for him.
A far cry from the skittish John he had been just an hour ago, he was now a more ambitious John, hungrily and brazenly exploring Dirk with his tongue and his hands. He mouthed over the whole of Dirk's jaw, sank his teeth into the slope between his neck and shoulder, dug his fingers into the meat of his arms--delighted himself with every groan and gasp he heard, knowing it was because of him. By chance he shifted just right so that the front of his hips bumped into Dirk's groin, and he hissed at the aching pleasure of it. Judging by the sharp intake of breath from Dirk, it was a mutual feeling, and he worked to replicate it, lifting his hips again in search of more friction.
They were entering dangerous territory. Like the raging squall and the unstable skies, one false move proving catastrophic, they were beginning to navigate the waters of intense hormones. John liked these sort of high-stakes scenarios the best, as well as the thrill of the plunge that always followed suit. Eyes glittering excitedly, he pulled away from Dirk long enough to breathe out three suggestive words.
"Wanna go upstairs?"
Huskier than he expected (which was damned hot), Dirk managed to say, "Yeah," before John grabbed him by the wrists and pulled him up the stairs.
In a magical world, one might have expected that, curled under Dirk's side and under an arm, John wouldn't have been subjected to further nightmares. Ideally, he would have slept through the afternoon absolutely spared of any freakish visions beneath his eyelids. But the nightmares did come, and they came swiftly, hard, and without mercy.
The difference was that, when John heaved for air and bolted into consciousness this time, Dirk was steadfastly present, all hushed tones and calming embrace. And naked. As was John. That did wonders to distract him--worked so well to steal away his attention that John burrowed under the covers and vowed to never come out again, not so long as Dirk was so comfortable and reassuring and sexy.
Of course, he would have to come out eventually, but John was content to savor his new and official Snuggle Buddy for a long while yet. Maybe for a few years. Maybe for life. He just needed to, as ironic as it sounded, catch his breath, and around Dirk, he seemed to be doing that a lot.