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How We Chase our Shadows

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4:08 AM

The body on the mattress shifted quietly, a pair of arms wound around another warm figure beside him. Under the sheets were two bodies tangled together, that nobody else would know where the other started and the other ended.

The sun hadn't risen yet, but Stell woke up anyway. The phantom pain in his eye sometimes does that to him. The scars on his skin, hidden only by the sheets, they sometimes throbbed with it. His fingers absently traced the mark, vertical across his right eye. It's small, raised, and jagged. It makes his entire demeanor seemingly more dangerous than any normal person would.

Without it, people would just assume that he was the silly, soft-hearted man teaching at a local school. Those people would be wrong.

This scar was meant to tell people his truth;  what he was, and what sins he buried.

It reminded him sometimes too, in case he forgot even as he now holds a book and not a gun; even as he now smelled like stale chalk and not gunpowder. 

He blew a soft breath, fanning over the fluffy mess of black hair settled under his chin. 

Pau was a light sleeper. They both were. It came with the job. It's rare to see him passed out and dead to the world, so it's quite precious to Stell to find out that his musings did not stir his better half yet. 

Pau looked like an entirely different person with his cheek squished against Stell's chest, slightly open-mouthed, and eyelashes touching Stell's skin. Pau's picture of innocence was only slightly tainted by the similar scar on his left eye. With Stell's placed on the right, it made for interesting reactions from people whenever they see them together. Stell would lovingly dub it as "soulmate mark" at any given moment, though.

Like instinct, his fingers gravitated towards Pau's closed eye, just above the raised patch of skin. He knew, memorized it really, what weapon caused this and what angle it struck. He knew it was precisely done that the wound would have bled and damaged the eye for life, but it wasn't to blind the man. He knew this just as well: the mark on his own eye was not out of hate - far from it.


"Mm.. 'ga?" The man finally stirred beside him. His voice was gravel and sand mixed together. Stell adored it anyway, especially when he's the one who made that beautiful voice scream until it was hoarse some blissful hours ago.

Stell's hand around the older man's waist tightened, the fingers tracing the dip of his back gently. He hummed as his own calloused fingers drew circles on the other's skin, hearing Pau sigh contentedly in return. One dark chocolate-hued eye peeked to meet his mindless stare. The other eye was still partially closed, not because of the scar but because it's ass'oclock in the morning and Pau was not a 4AM person in his natural habitat.

"What's wrong?"

Stell's lips curved into a smile, a thing that he had done a million times in his life before, except now it's a thing he did genuinely. "Nothing, 'ga. Just woke up.." He shrugged his bare shoulder, but Pau was already bracing himself on his elbow, worry etched on his face. He looked ridiculously adorable in his furrowed thick brows, floofy hair, and a pout with a side of drool.

Stell loved it anyway, and he leaned to the fingers tracing his scar. "..Sakit?"

"Mm, di na masyado. Makati nalang, 'onti." Stell caught the fingers with his own, pressing kisses to each delicate tip and nuzzling to the heat of his palm. He smiled into it, the phantom pain leaving as Pau's warmth chased them away.

Pau made a sound that's probably an agreement, but he laid back down. This time he arranged himself to be the bigger spoon, all the while keeping his hand the side of Stell's face. Stell helped and covered their bareness with the blanket once their positions settled. The arm around Pau's waist remained. 

Stell knew that the other man had fallen asleep again just by feeling the other's heart beat against his ear. That's alright, Stell thinks with a smile. At least, he also felt the soft kiss on the crown of his head and the balm of warmth that never left his scar.

This was far cry from the life that they lead not so long ago. This was the kind of fantasy they only imagined but never really believed in. Until now, Stell struggled with living in this reality where he could smile without having to wear it like a mask.  It was a reality that they both paid with blood and sight, but it was theirs.

This moment, 4 AM in the morning,  was theirs. 

Not so long ago, this same time held an entirely different moment. It was their start, to be exact. Stell let its memories flow back into his mind, knowing it will be some time before he can sleep again.


The wind blew erratically, screaming as a torrentful of wind cascaded down on them. The weather was unforgiving as lightning flashed in some distance. In this alley, they faced each other, one pinning the other to the cold, wet ground. Fingers wrapped coldly around necks, the other on the hilt of a blade. One of their eyes were closed, dripping and spilling blood to the mud where they still struggled in each other's death grip. 

"S- Stell.. Stell, put i- down-" 

The man with the name shook his head firmly, his eyes stinging from the cold and rain and bitter tears, "Kung hindi ako, Pau, sila papatay sa'yo- nng- yoko, ayoko-!"

"Pare-r'has lang tayo.." Pau's hold loosened that it outbalanced Stell right into the other man's chest. The rain was loud and his heart was pounding against his ears, but he could hear the younger whimper into his blood-soaked shirt. 

"A-ayoko na, Pau. Kailangan ba talaga ganito?!"  Stell's voice was a growl by the end of it, fist pressed unto the other's rib shakily. 

In that moment, as he stared up at the angry skies, Pau breathed in heavily. Stell smelled like strawberries and gunpowder; home and death at the same time. He worked his bruised throat to echo the words, "Ta-tatakas ako.. Sama ka ba?"

The answer came in a flinch and a sob, "P-pwede ba?"

His lips thinned into a smile, not that Stell would notice. Pau's arms wound around the younger's shaking figure. It's hard to imagine that this crybaby was someone with an overflowing red in his hands. Together, they could make a river of blood with their sins. They could spite the heavens by attempting to hold someone dear with their filthy hands. Pau knew this and yet he glared defiantly at the stormy skies with his remaining good eye, holding the other man close to his heart. 

"Subukan natin." The older sat them up together. Both their minds knew it was suicide, but if it was the only way to go then so be it. They'd rather have blood of their own people on their hands rather than have each other's.

"P-Pau?"

"Mm?"

"..See you?"

"..See you."



".. 'Ga?" Pau's groggy voice cut through his musings again, and then he sensed it. 


"May tao sa baba."

They both scrambled out of bed as quiet as they could, picking their clothes as they tiptoed into the living room. Pau went into the living room, while Stell squinted into their CCTV feed, trying to gauge who in their right mind could be on their doorstep at 4AM in the morning. None of their neighbors came to mind since their building was mostly occupied by elders. Stell suddenly got the chills thinking it has only been a year since their last encounter with any of their pasts.. and they had been very careful!

Two figures came to view, one seemingly supporting the other with an arm around the shoulder. Stell recognized the face instantly, though. He ran to the living room just as Pau cocked the gun out from one of their hiding spaces. He rushed to open the door before Pau could respond, "Stell, what the f-"

"Josh?!" Stell exclaimed.

"Josh? What?-"

"Anong ginagawa mo dito at sino yan!? Napano kayo?!"


The can of beer fizzled against the silence that roamed the apartment. "Talk." Stell said, sitting on the opposite chair of their dining table. That left their kitchen pretty much occupied. 

".. Naalala ko, mas magaling ka pang server kesa dito, V." Josh smiled, taking the cold can with his fingers, but not quite opening it yet. Stell shook his head anyway, taking his share from Pau who opened it for him. He gulped some of it down before saying, "Patay na si V. Alam kong hindi ka pumunta dito at nagdala ng kaibigan para makipagkwentuhan ng nakaraan, Josh."

Josh sighed. He remembered this, V- Stell now, who could snap from his cheerful persona to this stern, steel-cold man. It's probably for the best. He just brought a luggage of trouble to their doorstep, and now he planned on unpacking it in front of them.

"Them" being former mercenaries whose names were feared and respected in the underworld. Josh was sure that he's in the safest place right now, but he knew one wrong word and he might as well walked himself and Ken into a den of lions-

Ken. Yes, he needed to do this for him. ".. I need that favor." Josh said in finality, looking straight at the two of them. 

If he wasn't so keen in observing, Josh would have missed the way their expressions changed. It's ridiculous that they're in sync even with their moods and tells. An eyebrow raised, a twitch in the jaw, the look and the twin sighs.

"Sabihin mo muna kung bakit." Pau finally spoke. He's the quieter one between the two, always had been. Josh leaned back in his chair, looking absently at the can of beer dewing on his palm.

"Kilala niyo si Magus?"

The two looked at each other, "Kapatid ni Yani. Bakit? Last time I checked, wala namang gulo sa pagitan ng mga Deux at Jokers ah?"

"Oo, siya. Siya target niyo. Si Magus ang nag-iisang kapatid ni Yani, pero alam ng lahat na siya ang utak sa likod ng Deux kahit nakababata siya. May nakapagsabi sa'kin na maliit at sakitin si Magus kaya bantay-sarado siya ng Kuya niya.. Kaya ko sa inyo to sinasabi kasi may mga bali-balitang nakikipag ugnayan na ang mga Deux sa kabila. May mga plano silang pamunuan ang sa sekta natin sa pagsapi sa kalaban-"

"Matagal na yang gulo sa sekta niyo, ano naman kung nakaisip ng magandang ideya ang mga Deux? E kasalanan na ng ibang grupo na hindi sila nakaisip nun." Stell emphasized the word "niyo" as if to calmly tell Josh that whatever is happening in the underworld, him and Pau had nothing to do with it anymore. They burnt their leashes a long time ago, and paid for it too.

"Kung matutuloy ang plano ng mga Deux, gulo to, V-Stell. Oo madumi tayo, pero mas madumi maglaro ang kabila. Ewan ko sa inyo pero may natitira pa naman kaming dignidad bago kami lumuhod sa mga dayuhang mas masahol pa kay satanas kung maglaro!"

"Josh, naiintindihan naman namin. Pero labas na kami dyan. Andami namang nasa sekta niyo, diosko. Ba't sa'min ka pa lumapit? Si Mav? Si Chrod?" Stell asked in return.

"Yup, they're both good. Even better, since the last time nakita ko sila, di naman sila half-blind kagaya ko. Or ni Stell. Hello, Josh. Mukha ba 'tong display?" Pau continued with a hint of sass, raising his eyebrow where the scar laid.

Josh snorted, shaking his head. He knew Pau could be blind as a bat and still wipe the floor with him. Stell didn't even need his sight to know eleven ways to kill a person with a paper clip. "Isang linggo na, hindi pa din sila mahanap. Yung iba din. May ibang nahanap pero wala na, may bakas pa na kabila ang may gawa. Gumalaw na ang ibang grupo, pero wala din. Kanina, nakipagmeeting na ang ibang mga representatives. Umuwi silang ulo nalang-"

"Then why not just let it be?" 

Josh looked to Pau's direction with as much fury he could muster, "Nababaliw ka ba?"

The man shook his head, "Hindi kita kilalang may pakialam sa pulitika ng mga sekta, Josh. Wag na tayong maglokohan dito. Sino yung kasama mo? Walang tattoo. Sibilyan. "

"Personal to sa'yo, no?" Stell continued. It's scary how they work together to interrogate the life out of anyone. Josh sighed inwardly. He knew his cover was useless against this two. Points for trying, though. 

"Si Ken.. Kasintahan ni Magus. Sibilyan. Isa siya sa mga koneksyong natitira kay Magus. Buti nga at una ko siyang nakuha. Pwede natin siyang gamitin-"

"Ken? Oooooh, familiar."

"V!"

"Stell, sabi ko, Stell." The man reminded him, tipping his can innocently at Josh who was steadily redenning at the ears.

"So ex mo naman pala. Kaya mo ba pinahuhunting si Magus kasi gusto mong solohin bebe mo? Now that's how I know you." Pau teased with a smirk.

" Gano kasama ba tingin niyo sa'kin, ha?" Josh retorted.

Stell pretended to think, "Una, spy ka Josh. Hindi lang basta bastang anino, add ko lang. Kahit magkagulo pa buong sekta o buong mundo pa, easy lang sa'yo magpalit ng loyalties. Op!- di ko sinabing masama yon! Pangalawa, selfish ka-"

"Ay, wao. Awit kayo."

Pau continued shamelessly, smiling all the way. "Selfish ka. And you have trust issues a mile longer than both of us combined. Pangatlo, may plano ka. Alam ko meron. Pero Josh, kung gusto mo kaming tumulong, dapat alam mo munang ayaw na ayaw naming maging pyesa mo lang. Ayos ba? We gave you that favor as a friend who's dear to us, the least you could do is honor it."

" 'Ga, I'm sure kaibigan pa din naman natin si Josh.." 

The silence stretched awkwardly until a sigh broke it, "… Fine, binilin sakin si Ken ni Magus."

"Ooookay, what."

Josh leaned forward, looking at both of them with no pretenses. He might as well strip the remaining dignity he had to ask this but, whatever right? "Stell, Paulo. Hinihingi ko sa inyo bilang kaibigan." 


An unlit cigarette sat on his lips. Paulo hadn't smoked ever since they turned on a new leaf, but it didn't mean the urges fully left him. It's in these moments that it's the hardest to ignore said urges. Not only that, his hands shook with it.  He's afraid to acknowledge that it wasn't out of fear, but thrill.

He blood in his veins thrummed, hungry with malice that his alter ego had. 011 was a cold-blooded man who bathed in the blood of his enemies with a smile. Paulo was the quiet one, always bottled up somewhere inside, unheard and almost forgotten except for the rare moments when he was needed.

Paulo was the person who came out of the flames that burned his past, including his moniker. And yet now, Paulo's hands shook in the familiar call singing in his veins.

A hand coverex his own out of nowhere. Strawberry scent filled his nose then. Stell came behind him, an arm around his middle and his face fitting into the space between his shoulder and neck. "Natatakot ako, 'Ga."

Paulo admired Stell for openly admitting his fears while he himself wallowed with unlit nicotine. Stell had always been stronger than him in thst sense while Paulo only cowered. 

".. Pero alam ko kung tutuloy tayo, andyan ka naman para hilahin ako pabalik, di'ba?"

Like a rush of fresh air into his lungs, Stell brought oxygen to Paulo's constricted airways. His muscles loosened, the words calming and chasing the shadows gripping his heart. "Oo naman. Always."

Paulo felt a pair of soft lips meet the skin of his neck, Stell's warm breath leaving goosebumps across it. "We still have time. School?"

School. Yes, their new 'base of operations' so to say. In this new reality they carved together, Stell was the sunshine-personified, charming teacher with a bunch of rowdy third years as advisory. Meanwhile, Paulo was the stern but softie advisor of the fourth year students. 


They had to get ready for Intramurals, though. It's going to be a long day. Much better than thinking about Josh's offer though. Speaking of which, the man had taken up their remaining space in the guest room with the new guy. Ken, his name was. 

"Magluluto na muna ako. Madami pa naman tayo." Stell made no move to pull away, but eventually they would. They had lots of things to do as the sun rose from their balcony. Paulo hummed, "You do the cooking, I do the cleaning." 

Stell giggled into his ear, "One of these days 'Ga, mahuhugot din kita sa Tiktok. See you?"


"Mmm, try mo lang." Paulo turned from the hold and placed a tender kiss on the other's lips, "See you."


When they pulled away, the distance became an uncertainty- something temporary. They could both be at each ends of the world, but they knew they would eventually revolve closer and closer until they're melded into one again. 


"Admit it, Sir Stell, panalo kami." 

"Manigas ka muna dyan, Sir Paulo!" Stell felt confident this year, because why not? They had actual good players who probably should be out there playing Palarong Pambansa or something. These kids? They might just be a year below the seniors, but they've been giving the seniors a pretty hard time leading with a big gap. 

The other students in his class cheered, laughing at their antics. Bypassing their intimidating appearance, they actually were quite fond of their advisers. They're fun to be with, and they actually were patient when it comes to class. The seniors might  find their Sir Paulo a bit scarier when he's in a no-nonsese mood, but otherwise he was a good teacher. It was also no secret that the two faculties were bestfriends of sorts. They certainly were close even though they're competitive and often tease each other unabashedly. The two applied at the same time, and got accepted at the same time so their camaraderie wasn't surprsing. They even bore similar scars on their eyes! To the students though, they saw it as a chance to "ship" them together. Why not? They bickered like an old married couple, for one.


The teachers were mostly fond of the two newbies. Stell was charming, cheerful and talkative. He got close with everybody pretty quickly, including the cleaning personnel. Paulo on the other hand, he had his silly moments especially out of the classroom. He's generous and thoughtful, but was quickly known for being quite strict and scary. That said, seeing them interact daily was all sorts of interesting. After a while of panic, the teachers learned that the two would never come to blows even if they looked like it. They just loved to be be each other's annoyance, probably.

"Kuya sir, foul po 'yun oh! Hinawakan ang bola! Kuya sir!!!" The younger grunts in frustration, short of whining. Paulo smirked from the other side of the bench, "Kelan ka pa naging referee, Sir Stell?"

"Ngayon lang! Nireview ko kagabi, bakit ba?!"

"All that and still, malilibre mo pa rin ako."

"In your dreams, Sir Paulo!"

"Jed, anong pinakamahal sa canteen ngayon?" Paulo asked one of his students. It was already tradition for both their classes to be treated by their teachers with food after the last game during the intramurals. Although, it was the first time they betted about who's going to pay. Their charges found it was fun to just watch two adults bicker about it. "Sabihin mo kay Miss Olive papareserve tayo mga 40 people. Go, go."



The seniors won, but only by a half-shot. It could've been a tie had the last free throw went in. Still, the adviser of the junior class didn't stop gloating about the point difference. "Next year, for sure."


"Oh, for sure." The older man snickered beside him. Under the table, their knees bumped. They would chalk it up as the lack of space, but to both of them it was reassurance. That next year, they would still get to do these kinds of silly things with their students. It wasn't a what if. It was a certainty.

"-ir Paulo, buti maaga mong nasabi sa'kin. Ididisplay ko na sana to sa mga estudyante oh!" Miss Olive came out from the kitchen, holding four boxes stacked in twos. The children, although sweaty and smelly like all teenagers are especially after a full day of games, practically squealed.

"MayGAD, Miss Olive??? Cake??"

The old woman chuckled, "Yes naman! May strawberry shortcake pa dyan, ginawa ko."

"Thank you, Miss Olive! Si Sir Stell po bahala sa lahat." Paulo michievously reminded the other's losing streak. The older woman just shook his head with a laugh, "Noted. Oh eto na, kumuha nalang kayo ng drinks sa counter."

"May strawberry nga!!!" Stell screamed.

It's in these moments that Paulo had a hard time keeping up with their cover. The way Stell's expression brightened up the whole room, the way his eyes sparkled in delight and the way his excitement showed his adorable whisker smile- it's hard not to pounce and kiss him right there.

He shifted in his seat and then cleared his throat, "Alright, kids. Settle down. Oo, ikaw din Sir Stell. Paabot nalang ng kutsilyo."

The two eventually settled their herd of forty children, making sure everyone gets a piece. Stell happily hummed around his fork, gushing about the sweet treat. Paulo tried, really tried not to stare too much. Instead, he pinched the inside of the other's thigh. Stell looked instantly to his side, confused and annoyed. Paulo rolled his eyes and went back to his cake. The conversation between the students was loud, but it was nothing new to them. It's even nice that they're talking with each other amiably as new friends. 


"Sir, nanalo kami sa game. Pwede na po ba wag na muna mag summative test sa Monday?" 

"Oo nga sir! Pleaaaaase!"

Paulo pretended to think, "Sir, Stell magmomove ka ba ng sayo?"

"Syempre hindi~"

"There you go. Nope." He popped the last syllable while maintaining a poker face, much to the students' frustration. "SIR NAMAAAAAAN!"


 

They never leave the school at the same time; they just see each other at home whenever that is. It was part of their routine. Now, it just happened that Paulo was the first to come home. He's already at the stove, while Josh and Ken became his assistants of sorts.

Stell chuckled at seeing this, knocking on the door frame. "I'm home!"

"Welcome home, 'Ga. Pakitulungan nalang si Ken mukhang masasalvage pa niya yata ang mga patatas."


Ken almost jumped at the newcomer. He hardly knew the two guys who were apparently Josh's friends and who kindly took them in. They just officially met earlier in the morning as Paulo treated his wounds. They seemed nice, but there's something to them that made his hairs stand inexplicably. Case in point, they just pop out of nowhere without him hearing their footsteps.

Stell was practically the second person who almost induced his heart-attack. The other one was at the stove, stirring innocently at the pot.

Ken heared Stell chuckle and join him in the table. "Ganito kasi 'yan.." he showed the younger, injecting his teacher persona seamlessly, "Teka nga, ba't ka hindi nagpapahinga?! Kamusta mga sugat mo, okay na ba?"

Josh piped in from the other side, peeling his carrots. "Hindi pa. Matigas lang ulo niyan."

"Oh. Good. Hindi na tayo magwoworry sa concussion-"

"'Ga! " Stell admonished, pinching the older man by the side.

Ken just threw Josh a look, confused and awkward. Josh shrugged back, going back to peeling his carrots. Ken honestly felt like he went through a rollercoaster ever since Friday. First, Jah broke up with him. Then, he got kidnapped and beaten almost to death. Then, he woke up to a familiar face- JOSH, out of all people- in a strangers' home. 

Apparently, the three were long time friends. Ken honestly couldn't remember the time when Josh mentioned the couple before when they were together, but then again it's Josh's constant secrecy and deflecting questions that broke them up. Well, that and Ken's trust issues with people in general.


What was going on? Josh tried to fill him with the details earlier, but again, he was vague and didn't really help. Josh thought he's someone who'd rather be lied to than be hurt with truth. Well that's stupid, he thought. He can take care of himself just fine!

His train of thoughts eventually made one of the potatoes squirm out of his hold.  The two were still bickering in front of the stove, so Ken was understandably baffled when Stell caught the potato from behind him before he turned to Ken. He smiled cheekily, handing back the poor thing to the younger, "Catch!"


 

Josh didn't ask again after their first conversation, but both Stell and Pau knew that he's itching to ask. He also promised to give him time, but they knew every time spent without them answering is time wasted. Ken was getting anxious, too, on top of looking for his boyfriend.

Pau had his head on Stell's bare chest. It's his favorite place to nap on, and Stell loved it anyway since he could cuddle the other in the closest way possible. "We need to decide." Stell murmured, carding his fingers through Pau's locks of hair. 

The older man hummed, sending pleasant vibrations along Stell's bare skin. "We do owe him a favor."

"A favor na pwede nating pagbayaran dalawa. I can't lose you, Paulo." Stell said firmly, rubbing along the back of the other's neck, just behind his ears. 

"You won't. We just get in and then get the kid out." Pau continued.

"Sa teritoryo ng mga Deux? Sa daming nagtangka, di na ako magtatakang andami ng traps sa bakod nila."

"Well.. " Pau shifted so he can kiss the dip of Stell's collarbone. The action alone made Stell's eyes flutter close. "We won't know until magcommit tayo." 


When those eyes blinked open again, they're dark and hazy, looking straight at the other. "Fine. Pero last na talaga 'to."

Pau chuckled, murmuring against the younger's sensitive flesh along his neck where his vein pulsed steadily. "Do we owe anyone else a favor?"

Nothing came to mind. Or really, Stell couldn't think considering he's pleasantly distracted. "N-no.. I don't think so. "

"Good. Now be quiet. May bisita tayo.~"

"Waw ha, sayo pa talaga nanggali-!"



Come morning, they cornered Josh before breakfast and told him a silent affirmation. "But we need all details, Josh. Lapag mo na lahat. Alam kong mahirap sa'yong walang tinatago, pero hihingin namin to sa'yo this time, okay?" Stell told him without accepting any room for argument.


 

They planned for three days. On the fourth,  Paulo and Stell hauled so many weapons from seemingly out of the blue that it made Ken sweat. 

All this time Ken only ever saw the two being so cheesy and sappy, blissful in their domestic life, that he never really recognized them as the same people who owns this much arsenal. Josh caught this expression and patted him on the back, "You'll get used to it." Not long after, Josh left for a bit to do his own groundwork.

The two were methodically checking and cleaning their weapons when Ken was left alone in their flat. It took a while, but finally he got the courage to ask them. Josh never really gave straight answers, so he hoped the two would for whatever reason.

".. narinig ko kayo kahapon. Alam kong.. alam kong ibang tao si Jah.. si Josh. Kayo. May ibang mundo kayong ginagalawan kumpara sa'kin. Pero.. pero gusto kong malaman kung ano yun. Hindi na naman ako bata para hindi niyo sagutin ng diretso eh. Please?" Ken ended up pleading, as Stell and Paulo shared a look. 

"Ayoko lang.. ayoko lang nang ganito. Ni hindi ko man lang alam kung anong klaseng tulong yung tinutukoy niyo. Kung anong gagawin niyo sa kadami naman ng armas na dala niyo-"

"Huy, huy, Ken. Huminga ka nga. Kami kinakabahan para sa'yo eh." Stell softly interrupted the younger's rambling. Both their weapons now laid on the table, Pau tapped on the wood thoughtfully. "You're Josh's ex, right?"

Ken blushed but nods.

"Na boyfriend ngayon ni Ma- ni Jah?"

"Oo."

"Ang swerte mo. May dalawang taong nagmamahal sa'yo para protektahan ka nang ganito." Pau gently told the younger man. His face was relaxed not out of pity but understanding. Ken didn't accept this answer all too easily.

"Hindi ko kailangan ng proteksyon, kung hindi ko man sila makita o mahawakan. Ewan ko, ha? Pero hindi ganito dapat ka one-sided. Nakakainis na ako yung walang alam. Na basta-basta nalang madadawit na walang alam."

Stell sighed, leaning beside Paulo and staring at Ken's slouched and shaking figure opposite them with his one good eye. "Kung meron man silang hindi sinasabi nila sa'yo, iniisip lang nila ang kalagayan mo. Siguro nasa tamang panahon lang yan.. siguro pagkatapos nitong lahat, may tamang oras na para makapag-usap kayong tatlo."

Ken blinked and turned his stare towards them so quickly that it's ridiculous, "Hah? Sinong tatlo? Si Jah lang yung tinutukoy ko."

Pau smiled all too sweetly and patronizing, "Bakit sino ba unang nagsabi ng sila? Alangan naman isali mo pa pet cactus namin sa usapan mo."

Ken went beet red at the slip of words. Josh was right, one could never win in any conversation with these two. They would just rope you around their fingers until it's too late to realize you were talking too much. He groaned, covering his face in frustration.

"Argh. Hindi ko na alam! Di naman kasi pwede!"

Pau chuckled but was quickly admonished with a pinch to the side. Stell, tried to console the poor guy. "Bakit naman di pwede?"

"Nung klaseng tanong yan? Nababaliw ba kayo?"

Stell outright giggled, "Apakadaming nagtatanong din samin ng ganyan. Bakit, di mo ba sila kayang hawakan sabay?"

The silence returned, full-force. Ken stiffened, actually looked like he's thinking for once instead of panicking. They didn't blame him though; it's tough being the civilian in a crowd of... well, non-civilians.

Ken looked to his own hands. With that Pau and Stell left him to his own thoughts, going back to their work while letting the silence reign. This time, it wasn't quite so uncomfortable.

At dawn, they met Josh outside the town. They exchanged vehicles and they gave him the keys to the apartment. "Wag kayo masyado maglikot, may bomba sa apartment namin, sige kayo." Pau smiled. 

"Gago, ba't parang hindi biro yon?!"

"Nagbibiro lang si Pau," Stell quickly reassured the man. "Asahan ko video call mo mamaya! Bye~"


the mission i.

Surveillance was a pain, but it's necessary. Josh provided all the details to the last bit, but still they had to dedicate a at least a week to actually see the patterns and schedules at play.

Out of all the missions they had apart, they both agreed this was one of the most migraine-inducing. For one, the Deux manor was huge and had a tight almost unpredictable security. With help from the guys from the other side, they might as well be hiding a nuclear weapon in there or something.

Considering the transactions made by the group as Josh relayed to them, it wouldn't be surprising. 

On day fifteen, Josh got word from around that Yani and the others were planning to leave the city soon. Probably leave the country, too. That meant negotiations have come to an end. Judging from their actions, it seemed that Yani had finally sealed the deal, and the fates of their sect to damnation. Not that either of them cared. To them, it only meant that they had no time left to initiate the plan.

"Josh?" Stell whispered, but his stare was at the window, overlooking the city lights. Josh said something in return to let the other know he's listening. "After this, promise me one thing."

"Yeah?"

"Talk to Ken and Jah." 

Josh sputtered incoherently from his screen, "W-what? 'Kala ko naman, magbibilin ka na. Gago ka, Stell-"

"V." Stell quietly cut the other from descending further into his embarassment. "Ako muna si V ngayon." He shook his head, "Mabait si Stell, malayo sa gagawin namin mamaya."

".. okay. Si one-one, okay lang din ba?" Quickly sobering up, Josh asked for their welfare even when he knew it's unnecessary.

Stell smiled, "Nasa balcony siya, nagsesenti. Sige na, basta mamaya wag ka malalate ha? Pasasabugin talaga namin apartment, sige ka."

"Hoy, akala ko ba joke lang yon!"

The video chat ended as Stell chuckled, before going to fetch his silent lover from getting cold feet for staying outside. "Palangga ko, ang lalim na naman ng iniisip mo."

The younger wrapped his arms around the other, kissing the man's cold cheek and rubbing their palms together. "See? Para ka nang nasa freezer! Tara na sa loob, 'ga!"

Pau snorted, but steered them both away from the balcony to the inside of their tiny hideout.

They didn't talk about how their hearts beat erratically in that moment. They didn't talk about the trembling in their limbs and their desperation when they made love that night. They just let themselves mold into one being, separating just after midnight to orbit as far as they could again.


 

Unlike their usual travel to school routine, they took the same car. They arrived just a few blocks from the manor and they took the silent trek for the rest of the distance.

"Dito na." 011 whispered to his mouthpiece for V and Josh to hear even if V was technically less than a meter away from him.

"Here." V looked to his watch. It's almost time.

"Ready when you are." They both heard from their spy. This prompted the two of them to look at each other. They didn't say much; never do. For a moment they're just Pau and Stell again, facing the new day and a few words. "See you?"

Pau grabbed the other by the hand to smack their lips together. He could feel Stell's tremble from their contact. He smiled shakily for the both of them, "See you."



the mission ii.

It's not their life if it didn't mess up. V would like to think that the amount of their bad luck comes from the amount of bad karma they accumulated over the years of staying in the business. Which, okay, they deserve it. 

Not that he liked it, but V had no choice but to adjust.

He looked to his watch and counted exactly five minutes and twenty-six seconds before their plan got halfway butchered.  

Josh's voice on the intercom sounded calm as he always was, but the underlying urgency and panic was there. Both of them were deep into the enemy territory, relying on things they couldn't see to guide them out of them alive. They relied on Josh keeping the Deux's security systems offline until they got out, for one.

"-up na systems nila. Subukan ko ulit pero..." 

They rounded another corner in one of these seemingly unending halls, trying to find Magus' sanctuary. It's hard on the map, and it's worse in the actual scenario. Even if 011 memorized the whole blueprint, the mansion was still incredibly lethal with its numerous guards and traps. 

They intended to lessen the burden with taking down at least some of the "eyes", but it didn't stick for as much as they wanted. 

His partner got his attention with a tap on the wrist, pointing at the last set of doors down the hallway. "Last one," the older mouthed at him. V nodded and together their footsteps moved in sync, rushing without making a sound.

They only stole one glance, probably it was for luck or farewell. They didn't believe in either, but there's something foreboding creeping from behind the door and they.. they wanted to see each other before facing any of it.


 

"Magus, answer me."

The man stared up to the cold barrel of the gun, defiant and determined. He has the gall to smile and shake his head.

"-V? One? V! Kasama niyo na siya di'ba? V!-" the earpiece crackled with Josh's harried voice.

"Oh, right." V smiled while his partner pressed the tip of the gun to the younger man's forehead. "Justin.. ready to meet them?"

"- V! Anong ginagawa niyo, tumakbo na kayo!"

The shot echoed, and it's just like the old times. This was one of the things they're actually good at: bringing an empire to ashes and someone's world to ruin.


"- anong ginawa niyo?!"


 

aftermath.

Ken opened the door but his eyes were searching for something, someone else. V's skin tingled from the aftermath of adrenaline rush. 011's eyes were too bright and his hands were shaking. They're exhausted from having to outrun death at their heels. They just wanted to discard their own filthy skins and return to their old life. It's right at their doorstep, but Ken was blocking it unintentionally.

Josh pinned them with a stare as the older apprpached them by the door. It's full of anger, and it screamed the question. V just scratched his head, smiling. "Sorry, babayaran ka nalang namin sa earpiece?"

Josh shook his head angrily, flaming at the mouth. Ken looked at all of them, confused. So he didn't know it yet, "That- yung plano- ba't niyo ginawa yun?!-"

"Sabi mo target namin si Magus." 011 interrupted him. The only civilian in the room finally got it, and the way his expression morphed from confusion to grief to wild fury is nothing short of a feat. One cocked his head slightly, unintentionally showing his scar against the ray of light. It's as good as any warning. This close, they all knew who's armed to the teeth. They all knew who's going to win, should any fight ensue.

Ken gritted his teeth so hard, his eyes blurring and his entire frame bristling.

"Bayad na kami, Josh. Umuwi ka na, di ba sabi mo namimiss mo na mag-Tagaytay?"



Like any circle of good friends, Stell and Pau laughed for almost five minutes straight, listening in to Josh's explosive rant. It had devolved from incredibly detailed curses to unintelligible gibberish. Ken laughed with them, but not before dropping a crispy "Fuck you, that wasn't funny." 

A younger voice chimed in with them from the line, giggling. "Sorry na po!" Magus- Justin was impeccaby polite, even back when they first met the boy in his room. The kid practically welcomed them, gave them a knowing smile like he somehow orchestrated all of this.

It didn't sit well with the two of them, being used as some kid's convoluted plan to get out of his older brother's clutches. At least this time though, they didn't have to actually kill some random rich kid. 

Of course, Paulo meant what he said about the target. It's not his fault Josh and Ken were just slow on the uptake. Only a few hours later, Josh called from a burner phone from hus home in Tagaytay, yelling his two cents at his two friends who thought it was good to rip his heart out for not telling him the whole plan.

Paulo thought Josh had terribly low confidence for them. Then again he couldn't blame the (ex)spy. Severe distrust was something that kept them from being normal people, but it kept them alive in the business.

"Pero seryoso," Josh dropped his tone from his hysterics to this serious one now. His voice was calm, but it's closer to the warmth of a friend calling over for some small talk, "I'll return the favor.. Sabihin niyo lang." 


Stell furrowed his eyebrows, shifting so he could rest his chin on Paulo's shoulder as they lazed on their bed. "Ano ba, bayad namin yun sa pabor mo noon." 

After all, it was Josh who helped them to come out of that damned alley years ago, when they decided to point their blades at their masters rather than at each other. Them helping their friend in the same gravity of favor was nothing but equivalent exchange. It was the rule they all continue to live by, even after they finally got out of the shadows.

The older man huffed from his side of the line, "You know what for. Kailangan ko pa ba talaga sabihin?"


Paulo chuckled, "Nope. You're welcome nalang sa pa-intervention namin sa threesome niyo."

"Threeso- what-" the man sputtered indignantly, but the couple just laughed at their friend's continued misery with their teasing. 

"Byeee~" They dropped the call, and then finally put the phone away. Their gaze eventually lead back to each other, this time it wasn't for luck or farewell.

Paulo smiled first, his braces in view. It made his eyes almost disappear with how much it's reduced to slits, and his scar almost got swallowed along with the folds. "Hi, palangga ko?" It's Stell's favorite smile in the world. 

Stell couldn't help but gravitate closer to the man, shuffling until his body was a reassuring weight on top of the other. He leaned down to steal a kiss from those smiling lips, mirroring it with his own. "Hi, 'ga."

It's like nothing was out of place, just like they wanted. They didn't talk about what came to their doorstep some two weeks ago. They didn't talk about having to patch each other up some hours ago in the tub, calming each other's trembles and draining each other's remnants of thrill in their bloodstreams. 

They didn't have to.

They refused to taint this world with memories only V and 011 hold. In this world, they were just Paulo and Stell, the young, helpful couple in a building full of elderly. They're Sir Stell and Sir Paulo, the eccentric teachers of junior and senior highschool students. 

In this space they shared with their mingling breaths they simply were each others "palangga", or so Pau declared as he appointed it as their endearment. It was their most cherished identity, and it was the only reality they'll continue to live from there on.