The door swung open
We sauntered into the poorly lit store,
and looked around lazily.
We stole every bit of candy they had inside.
-Mountain Goats, "The Recognition Scene"
Karl watched with bright, almost feverish eyes as I selected what I would eat for dinner. Moving through the food line, he barely paused to take notice of what he was dumping on his plate, while I carefully steered clear of the chicken and gravy and picked out the pieces of broccoli which looked like they'd retained the most nutrients after being blasted in the steamer. The mashed potatoes were instant and therefore useless, but they filled me up so I spent a few seconds struggling with the serving spoon, trying to the get the fake potatoes to come off. I grabbed a roll with butter and a fruit cup, then headed for a table, Karl right at my heels. He sat down across from me and watched me unfold my napkin and take a few sips of water. I watched him too, though with a bit more subtlety.
He hadn't been sleeping at all lately and it showed. He usually looked a little strung out, but for the last few days, he'd gotten kind of gray, his eyes looking larger and bluer than usual. His eyelids were nearly translucent and beneath them, he had smudges like bruises. Rorty prescribed him sleeping meds, but as far as I knew, he didn't take them, not unless he got really desperate and the other inmates started complaining that he was keeping them up as well.
He tapped his utensil against his plate and watched me spread a liberal amount of butter over the roll. Meticulously distributing the rest of it on my broccoli followed with a heavy dusting of pepper, I watched him grow more and more twitchy. I was about to put the first floret into my mouth when he reached across the table, quick as a snake, and got his fingers around my throat, jerking me back in my seat. His breath quickened as his eyes slid sideways to see where I had the skewered broccoli and my spork pressed to the side of neck. His left eye twitched and his fingers squeezed experimentally, loosening almost immediately as I smeared buttered, mushy vegetable along the length of his jugular. He gave me a crooked smile, hiding the side of his mouth with the broken teeth and let go. Then he took a shuddering breath.
"Would you like to tell me how your conversation with Duo went or do I have to try and scare it out of you?"
"I'd love to tell you."
"Would you also please remove your fucking spork and broccoli from my throat?" He made both of these requests in his most polite tone.
"Sure," I answered, lowering my utensil and then pushing the food off it on the side of my plate. I looked up at him and could see that he was about ready to lunge again, doubtless frustrated that I was taking so long. "Little tense, Karl?" He raised an eyebrow as though to say, 'what does it look like, dipshit?' "Have you been spitting out the medicine Rorty prescribed for you again?"
He had the decency to look a little sheepish, though he muttered, "You know I never swallow those things." He curled the long fingers of one hand around his water glass. "And if you don't tell me what happened with your friend, I can't guarantee I won't try to throttle you again."
I ate a few bites of potato and reminded myself that, while I considered Karl my friend, he was a lot smarter than me and with a considerably more flexible sense of morality, he didn't win any 'most trustworthy' awards. He made me uncomfortable about as often as not. I met his tired gaze and he grinned.
"Sorry--I wasn't raised to be patient."
"No, you were raised to keep your hands clean and be important to the world."
He feigned a wounded expression and then showed me his slightly sweating palms. "My hands were never clean. Now, is your friend going to help us or not?"
I took a bite of roll and waited to speak until I had chewed and swallowed. "Of course he'll help us. But I can't let him do anything that would endanger him, his job, or our friends." I looked down at my food and waited.
Karl's grin was short-lived. "So... he's not going to help us, then."
Not looking up, I smushed potatoes through the grooves in the spork. "I just said he was."
"Not if you keep him from snooping in the places we can't go and reading what we can't read and speaking with the people we can't get near."
I shook my head at my dinner and then met his gaze. "Karl, if the insidious plot to execute the remaining leaders from the war is really as insidious as you seem to think it is, then Duo's as good as dead if he talks to the wrong person or is found in the wrong place."
"But he can at least run if he gets caught. He's got all of Earth and space... we've got nowhere to go! We can do nothing here but wait to find the next body."
I shrugged and didn't back down. "I won't let him take such a risk on our hunch that two men's deaths, two years apart, are connected. I want to figure it out as much as you, but I can't ask him to..." I caught abrupt movement over Karl's shoulder and lost my train of thought when I paused to see what it was. Then I took three large bites of potatoes, knowing it would be the last food I'd get until breakfast. "Dinner's over, Karl," I said, speaking with my mouth full. Etiquette was not the primary concern now.
"Basker and O'Malley on your six. They brought friends." His back went rigid, though he didn't turn around to see whether I was right or not. The dull roar of the mess hall began to quiet as the Romefellar bullies made their way through the tables.
"They still coming this way?" he asked, following my lead and shoveling as much food down his throat as ten seconds allowed. I nodded and he groaned around a mouthful of chicken. He washed it down with a gulp of water and then stood up from the bench, scrubbing the back of his hand across his mouth. He turned to face them as they drew near.
"Did you do something to warrant what's about to happen?" I asked, standing up from the table as well.
"Oh, maybe. I guess. I don't know." He wasn't listening. He was watching O'Malley take the offensive with Basker and one of their buddies flanking him. O'Malley was tall, wiry and mean with bright orange hair and a bunch of freckles that made him appear younger and nicer than he really was. Basker was the better fighter of the pair, but O'Malley always took the lead because, for some reason, he was always angrier.
"Try not to--" Then they broke over him like a wave, in the process, shoving our table back into the wall. I just barely managed to scramble up onto the bench, avoiding seriously bruised shins or maybe a broken kneecap. The knot of men caught him and dragged him toward the middle of the mess hall, holding him by his clothes and his hair so he couldn't get his feet under him. His chin was already bleeding, most likely from where he'd hit the floor the first time before they picked him up.
Basker and O'Malley were both irritatingly typical Romefellar thugs. They and the crowd they ran with were smart, but not too smart, strong but not very organized and vicious enough to make up for both of those shortcomings. They hadn't been high-ranking officers during the wars but they'd been devout followers, and they still held nothing but disgust for those who remained loyal to Treize even now, even here. They knew Karl held onto all that Treize stood for, they knew he was a little weird, and they knew that physically, he was no match for them.
Karl's relationship with Basker and O'Malley was not difficult to understand; it bordered on cliche. But that didn't make their fights any less brutal or the stitches and bruises any less painful. I could recite from a psychology textbook exactly why these men went after Karl and others like him. I could explain the exact combination of lost individuality, independence, and masculinity mixed with a mean streak that put their anger and frustration over the edge often enough to give them the label "bullies." They were only attempting to reassert their will in a place bent on making them docile. However, knowing it and having it be true didn't help Karl in the least, so I did what I always did in these situations--climbed over the table and waded into the middle of everything. This tendency would be one of the reasons the Romefellar bullies sometimes came after me.
More trouble for more fights really wasn't what I needed on my record this late in my sentence. But I knew that Karl wasn't in any kind of shape for a real fight, so it had to end before he was seriously injured. There were times when his basic training, coupled with a brain that could see five to eight steps ahead in every strategy, was enough to hold off the worst of their vindictive anger. Today was not one of those days.
They had formed a ring with Karl and O'Malley at the center, and they let me through without much trouble. I recognized several of the men the Romefellar bullies had brought along. They recognized me too, probably from the many fights they'd been dragged into by their leaders. They watched me warily as I tried to assess how best to peel O'Malley off my friend. I saw Karl's knees buckle as he doubled over around a fist in his gut. He disappeared then, blocked by Basker and the other guy whose name I couldn't recall at the moment.
"Bergsen!" I called. I didn't use his first name at times like these. "Bergsen, get up!"
An angry voice from behind told me to help him up myself before shoving me hard between the shoulder blades. Suddenly, the reason they'd let me through so easily became clear. I stumbled forward and nearly tripped over Karl where he held himself on shaking hands and knees. I twisted around and landed beside him instead, ready to spring, and not at all liking how tall everyone looked from down on the floor.
"Enjoying the show?" he bit out, his mouth bloody and his body unwilling to fight for him. I saw a kick aimed for his ribs and managed to grab him out of the way, jerking him backward onto his heels. They were shouting at us, yelling at me to get out of the way, though I didn't think they had any intention of letting me go without a struggle. They yelled at him to get up and fight them on his own.
"Actually, the view from down here isn't so great," I replied.
He laughed, an hysterical edge to his voice. I hooked my arms under his and started dragging him to his feet before another shove, this time with a heavy foot, sent us both sprawling. I landed on top of him and quickly slid off, feeling his wiry muscles coil for a strike that could just as easily have me as its target. I backed up against someone's legs and got to my feet just as he lashed out, taking out two men at the knees. They were on the ground before they could even shout their surprise. I kept my eyes on Karl's flailing limbs as both O'Malley and Basker tackled him again, so I didn't notice until he'd grabbed my arm that Onur was right beside me. By reflex, I jerked my elbow out of his grip and tilted my chin toward the blur of pale limbs and hair.
"Did you bring friends because I think we need them today." He nodded, a scowl dragging down the corners of his mouth.
"This is utterly irresponsible on Karl's part."
"They started it."
"Ah. Just as those men on the courts yesterday started that fight by looking at you the wrong way."
I leveled a glare at my roommate. "They weren't just looking. Trust me. And can you deliver this daily lecture later?"
He rumbled a growl that I heard over the dull roar of the mess hall and then shoved me forward back into the fight. Basker caught my eye and pushed one of his lackies at me, but I grabbed the kid's arm in my left, pulling him directly in front of me, and knocked him down with my right, stepping over him to get to his leader. I kept my fists open, swatting away Basker's heavy punch and thumping him in the chest with the heel of my palm. He staggered back, and before he could regroup, I grabbed hold of Karl's collar and tried prying him away from O'Malley. Both of them were a mess, so it wasn't clear who was winning. I knelt down beside him just as a few of Onur's White Fang buddies and a pair of well-known Treize loyalists materialized around us, forming a solid barrier of muscle and surly attitude to keep everyone away from us at the center of the brawl.
"Come on, Bergsen," I called, tugging a bit harder to get him out of O'Malley's grip, abruptly leaning out of the way as he whipped around, a bony elbow aimed at my nose. His eyes were wild and furious, the left now rimmed in the beginnings of a bruise as well as smudges of exhaustion. He grinned his broken grin, teeth turned pink with blood. "Come on," I said again. "Guards are headed over to break this up. We need to move." Karl finally twitched a shrug and with Onur keeping O'Malley down--weighing probably twice as much as him--the two of us scrambled away, the pair of Treize loyalists at our backs.
"But I was winning, Chang," he said, breathless. "I don't win very often."
"You wouldn't have stayed winning if we waited any longer," I grumbled. "Get up; they're coming."
Whistles cut through the air, ringing in my ears as they got closer. One of the downfalls of using an old correctional facility with a big open mess hall was that officer control, if not present at the start of the fight, was difficult to add into the mix. Meal times were supervised, but not on the ground. The fights that didn't stay small really got going by the time the law moved in to break them up. And since there were so many of us, the guilty parties involved were sometimes difficult to single out, a fact we took thorough advantage of at times like this.
We stayed low, watching the crowd divide as the guards pushed their way through. The men split the same way every time, clearly marking out who had fought whom in the wars. Trouble was, I'd never aligned myself with any of them and very few of them ever allowed me to stand with them anyway. If none of my friends were involved in the fight, I was usually left out in the cold.
But today Onur fought his way over to us, grabbing my arm as he passed, hauling me upright. I barely had time to get a hold of Karl, one arm slung around his middle, before we were both dragged back in amongst other former White Fang. Karl and I stayed down, pressed close together by the other men standing around us.
"Clean yourself up quick," I murmured. "You're a mess." Karl didn't need shit from frustrated guards in addition to the pounding from his usual bullies. He used his white undershirt to scrub at the blood on his face, managing to smear away a fair portion of it, so that his skin was mostly just stained the color of rust. With his other hand, he straightened his mussed hair. I touched the blotchy red skin under his eye and he jumped. I knew he was ready to snap again, and for some reason, probably having to do with the enjoyable adrenalin rush I was still riding, I left my fingers there even after the flinch. "That'll be a nice bruise by morning," I said.
Karl gave a lopsided grin and then twitched away from me. "Does it look like I got it while winning a fight or having my ass handed to me?"
I shrugged. "Tough call. I'll be sure to spread it around that you had the upper hand when we broke it up."
He arched an eyebrow. "Spreading rumors involves talking to people and we both know you don't do that."
Another shrug. "I'll tell Onur and he'll help you out."
Hearing his name, my roommate hissed down at us to shut up and stay still. A moment later, one of the guards who loved to lecture launched into one of his speeches about individual and group responsibility. We all needed to take charge of our own actions and think about the consequences and yet we also had to look out for each other and form bonds that would prevent such things from--and so on. I wasn't sure what kinds of positive bonds were being formed in this place, but I knew which ones were being preserved. White Fang's solid ranks stood around us, more than a little hostile to our presence at their feet. Romefellar stood glaring on the other side with pockets of old Alliance, OZ, and colony rebels strewn about. Mariemaia's army formed the perimeter, pretending they weren't interested in any of the proceedings.
As the guard's speech began to wind down, the men lost interest and started to shuffle around, making their way back to the cell blocks for the two hours of study time before curfew. Karl and I got carefully to our feet and, keeping our heads down, stayed among the ranks of men filing out of the mess hall.
We made it back before Onur, so I followed Karl into his single room, watching from the door as he washed out his mouth and wiped away the rest of the blood from his face. He had one of the few singles in the facility for the simple reason that his roommate would have gotten as little sleep as Karl, making for two half-crazy inmates instead of just one. Most of the time, I think solitude suited Karl fine; most of the time I envied him, wishing that I could do something as simple as take a piss without someone hearing or watching.
Today, however, I wasn't so sure he appreciated the emptiness of his own room. I watched him scrub the blood from his mouth and chin, thinking that, while he did make me nervous by occasionally threatening my physical safety with those long fingers, he was the most interesting person I knew here and I didn't want to lose that because he finally lost it. Eventually he turned to look at me, eyes glancing away as soon as they landed to the walls of his room, to the bed and back to me.
"I'm never gonna get to sleep now, Chang," he muttered. "Not after that. And if I don't sleep tonight, they might make me swallow those pills." He looked away, twitching a little. "Hold my nose and check under my tongue to make sure I really took them. Stick their fingers further into my head and--" He wriggled his fingers absently, voice pitched lower. "Scramble them all around until I don't care about anything and I won't know you, and those Romefellar..." His fingers squeezed into fists. "... fucks can pound the shit out of me and I won't even notice."
"They'll keep killing us off one by one with night-time assassinations or sleeping pills or fucking hypnosis." He looked up at me. "I don't know how else your roommate could buy into this bullshit so thoroughly." His voice was rising steadily, and feeling like a cowardly shit, I glanced over my shoulder to make sure not too many people were paying attention to it--even though his words resonated in my chest with truth. "They've got us so completely, Wufei. They're in our heads more than anywhere else." With those two sentences, he sounded sad and resigned and older than 21.
"You should calm down," I snapped, trying for authoritative. "There's no one in you head besides you. Those pills don't change who you are; they just help you to sleep."
Karl barked a laugh and took an aggressive step towards me. With my back to the door and the sound of my roommate arriving in our cell, I knew I was in no danger, but I couldn't help a small half-step back. "Ah, I see. So, what if they decided that the forms you practice in the mornings and the sparring sessions you have with Yuy are elevating your physical fitness beyond everyone else's and they start mashing up muscle relaxers in your food or they give you Prednisone and your body turns to mush, just so they can control it a little better. Oh, but those pills don't change you, do they? They just make you a little less tense." He took another step forward. "My brain's all I've got, Chang. I don't feed it sedatives."
I threw up a hand to keep him away. "Right, I get it--no sleeping pills. Fine."
He looked down at my hand, his chest a few inches from my palm. "They don't even need to watch us anymore," he muttered. "You ever wonder why they leave us all together in that giant mess hall without more than a few guards on duty behind the cameras way up at the ceiling?" He paused, but I had nothing to say. "Because we break up our own fights. We've got people like Onur to discipline us--we do it ourselves!" He laughed, gesturing toward the yard. "There probably aren't even guards in those towers anymore, if there ever were to begin with!"
His hand darted out, latching around my wrist. Too shocked and far too curious to pull back, I let him drag me forward. He held my wrist up, my arm bent at the elbow and wouldn't let me look away. His narrow chest fluttered up and down with soft ragged breaths, and he twitched damp blond hair from his eyes. I knew what he wanted maybe even before he did.
"We can't always do exactly what they want, can we? Basker and O'Malley are bullies to be different, to feel strong. Why not us?"
"We should be bullies?" The weakness of my voice was disgusting. Two years ago, I would have found a way to strangle it out of me. Two years ago, it probably wouldn't have existed at all.
Karl's eyes searched mine, lit up with the prospect of breaking another rule. "Get a fucking clue, Chang," he said before shoving me hard against the metal bedpost and crushing his mouth over mine. One hand still around my wrist, he tried to get my arm over my head, but I growled against his lips and he left it pressed against the top bunk. He leaned forward into the kiss, keeping about a foot of space between us. It was probably the most awkward thing I'd ever done and as first kisses went, it left much to be desired. He bit and sucked at my lips until I opened them and then shoved his tongue into my mouth, pushing at my shoulder with his other hand, squeezing with dangerous fingers. When his hand started to drift down to the sleeves of my jumpsuit, I fully recognized what was about to happen. Two years of no contact with another person. Actually, most of a lifetime of no contact with another person, since Meiren and I never consummated our marriage--she was only thirteen for fuck sake. Disturbingly erotic dreams and my own hand were the only experience I had in these matters, and that era was about to come to an abrupt end if I let his hand go any further south. Perhaps it should have been someone other than Karl who did it, someone I trusted and really liked--someone female, at least.
The list of both men and women who could fill the role of 'like and trust' was tiny, fitting on one hand... and not actually including any women. I could have loved Meiran and I should have loved her better when she was alive. But being dead disqualified her from my list, as it did Quatre. Karl wasn't on it either, not really. But he was here and he was willing and eighteen seemed like as good a time as any to put an end to one era and begin another. So, I grabbed for his waist and pulled him flush against me, sucking the breath right out of his mouth at the feeling of another living, breathing, warm body pressed along mine.
"Fuck," he groaned into my mouth, tilting his head to get a better angle, moving his free hand to the side of my neck. He had about an inch on me in height, just enough of an edge so our noses didn't get in the way. I tensed as his fingers wrapped loosely around my throat and I felt him smile. His lips tasted like copper. "We need to hurry," he murmured, turning his back to the door as more of the men passed on their way to their cells.
I grunted an affirmative and he broke the kiss, bending down and lacing his fingers together over his knee. I stepped into his hands and he boosted me up onto the bunk. I shoved myself back across his blanket, kicking off my shoes and untying the sleeves from around my waist. My head hadn't fully gotten itself around what we were doing yet, I didn't think, but my body knew what was required of it. I extended a hand to Karl as he hoisted himself up onto the bed; then I pulled him on top of me, wanting nothing more than to feel skin and a heartbeat against my ribs and breath in my ear. He shrugged out of the jumpsuit sleeves and jerked his bloody t-shirt over his head with one frantic tug. Kneeling with one leg between mine, he reached one hand for the back of my knee, then he slid down, dragging his groin over mine. The breath left my lungs in one sharp gasp and my hips rolled up into his without any conscious thought on my part. The heavy fabric of our uniforms as well as underwear kept him from touching me, but the friction alone made my skin tingle at a thousand different points from the top of my head to the soles of my feet. With the hand that wasn't still hooked beneath my knee, he shoved my t-shirt up to my armpits and pressed his belly and chest flat against mine. His skin was damp with sweat and he winced as a few bruises pulled, but the feel of him, the solid weight of him drove me embarrassingly close to orgasm. I arched my neck back and he bit my collarbone hard enough to leave a mark. He pulled Duo's bandanna out of my hair and shoved it off the bed before I could grab for it. His hips thrusting against mine in a quick jagged rhythm, I knew that he was as close to finishing as me. I pressed my hand to his shoulder, pushing him back so that I could see his face, wanting to know what he looked like when he wasn't smirking or laughing or being his generally creepy self. His eyes were squeezed shut, hair swinging in time with the motion of his hips.
"Karl, open your eyes. Look at me." Translucent lids flicked open, but his eyes were flat and unseeing, his fingers tightening as, suddenly, he curled forward over me, chin tucked nearly to his chest. His gasped-out curse and the knowledge of what he'd just done shoved me past any barrier of control I might have had left, and we nearly cracked skulls when my shoulders came off the mattress. It was surprising how much better this felt with another person involved, I thought dizzily when my head came to rest again on Karl's pillow. We shared several breaths, mouths only inches apart. He kissed me again, clumsily, sleepily.
"Get out," he murmured against my lips, words and action jarringly disparate. "I think I can fall asleep now." He rested his head against my shoulder as he rolled to the side, giving me a nudge with his foot. His hand ran down from my chest to the waist band of my underwear and then he shoved my hip. "Thank you," he muttered.
I blinked at him for the space of a few heartbeats, but his eyes were already closed, his breath slowing into a regular rhythm, so I rolled out off the bunk and dropped to the floor, picking up the bandanna where it lay and tying it over my thoroughly mussed hair. I watched the muscles in his battered face relax into sleep and then pulled the blanket over him, turning to leave when a guard loomed in the doorway.
"He's asleep," I mouthed and the guard, knowing what a rare occurrence that was, nodded and quickly left, probably to alert the rest of the staff to avoid Karl's cell for the night. He was gone quickly enough not to notice the state of my clothes and the blatant "just got off" glaze in my eyes. Onur would definitely notice both, so I spent the next few minutes cleaning up in Karl's sink before returning to my room.
On to part seven. Back to part five.