Unwanted Guardian

Chapter Twelve

October 12

He was awake long before the alarm could begin its infernal bleating – but then, he frequently was.

A trickle of breath escaped through his nostrils as Yami peered with unseeing irises at the ceiling of his bedroom, still rendered an insipid shade of grey by the early morning light. Sleep had not been coming easily these past nights, if it visited him at all. Most nights, he whittled away the restless hours with meditation, reading. On nights when he found himself feeling particularly brazen, he probed gently into the depths of his own mind, groping around the edges of his gift, familiarizing himself with the feel of it, that great nebulous mass residing within his core... The heart of the thing that saturated his every strand of DNA with the supernatural.

It was during one of these nights that he'd first taken notice of it, that disconcerting presence stretched tight and thin beneath the Manor's murky grey aura. Something had changed, but he couldn't quite put his finger on what. He'd thought, at first, that it might be nothing more than residual tension from the previous month, turbulent as it had been – but as the days dragged onwards, the less certain he became. Life had not quite seen fit to return to what one might describe as "normal" for the tenants of Bloodstar Manor; even so, the suffocating vice Rori's actions had cinched around the Manor's throat had loosened palpably. Yami no longer feared for each breath he drew in the silence; the outbursts of violence and drama had receded into obscurity. And yet…

The tiniest of creases wrinkled his brow as Yami frowned up at his ceiling. Something was not right – nor was it entirely wrong. However, there was a distinct sensation of uneasiness that had settled into his core, dense and peculiar, ebbing from his thoughts like a frail mist before the first morning's light while tickling incessantly at the furthest outskirts of his awareness. There were times when it vanished from his awareness completely, but these periods were growing increasingly fewer, and their frequency sparse.

Another strained breath leaked into the hush, shattered by the bleating of his alarm. Yami rolled in his sheets, an arm extending itself out to deftly silence the digital clock perched atop a small bedside table positioned nearby. He could still hear the phantom of it wailing in the back of his mind, regardless of the leaden mantle of quiet that had fallen with the same haste with which his alarm had banished it. It was an eerie mirror of his feelings, the memory of that alarm – around him the world was silent, and yet, there were echoes, the faintest imprints of something…

Something… Yami frowned, peering down at his blankets, dissecting them with his gaze in the early morning darkness as though they held all of the answers. "What is it," he mumbled to himself, his stolid voice both intrusive and foreign in the unsettling hush. His mind groped about the core of his being, trying in vain to acquaint itself with the weight or the origin of the tension settled in his chest like so many pounds of cold iron chain. And yet it continued to elude him.

He was ripped from his thoughts by the muffled bang of a door out in the corridor, the temperamental bellowing of Artemis's name softened only by distance and the barrier of his own, rather blessedly solid door. One of the girls marched past his room, the thick staccato of her steps fuelled by early morning anger, punctuating them helpfully against ancient hardwood flooring. Faith started hammering her fist on the German's door further down the hall, demanding in a tone not at all ladylike that she vacate the premises immediately so that the Irishwoman might wring her tiny neck. An insipid smile touched at a corner of his pale lips as he peered over at the doorway, weight propped on his elbows and inky red hair in all manners of disarray.

"Sweet are the uses of adversity," he murmured, glancing back at the Siamese squinting into wakefulness with a wry grin quirking at the outskirts of his mouth. "Eh, Mana?"

Silver-blue eyes slitted themselves in mute disagreement. Yami reached over and thoughtfully stroked the underside of her chin with the crook of his finger, the grin on his lips wilting into something softer, something pensive, as the cat leaned her jaw into his touch and rumbled placidly from his attention.

As the chaos that defined every morning in Bloodstar Manor blossomed into its habitual cacophony – full of foreign curses and an argument bristling with the involvement of erasable marker and clowns – Yami lent himself one last moment to consider the sensation that had plagued him throughout the night. Whatever it was, it didn't feel malevolent – and surely, if it was, Rori would have been the first to take notice of it, infuriatingly single-minded though he could be – but, still… The disturbance troubled him. It didn't feel like the spirits, faint and sullenly discontent, that had been chained in the Manor's brick and mortar through their guardian's own doing. It felt… different, somehow. Transitional. Almost as though it were only the first step of an intricate dance, and one considerably larger than it seemed at first glance.

As Mana rolled her head back into his blankets, deeming the last stroke of his fingers sufficient until later notice, Yami couldn't help but wonder if there was more to be expected of them further down the line, and eventually he decided – quite unhappily – that there was very little he could do about it but listen, and wait.

-x-

"Jason, you're going to be late if you don't hurry!"

"Yeah, yeah..." Mumbling the response with the same disregard as usual around the foamy bristles of his toothbrush, Jason returned half-lidded and insomnia-bruised eyes to his reflection in the mirror. A pale froth had begun to accumulate around the corners of his mouth as he scrubbed vigorously at his teeth, his hair still damp and matted to some sections of his head while it had become dishevelled in others, sticking up in erratic tufts and unruly spikes. For the first time in thirty days, there wasn't a single bruise to be seen on his countenance, and there was no avoiding the way his gaze idly reacquainted itself with the unblemished image of his own face. Clean-shaven and accentuated by lean, but healthy contours, Jason supposed he might have been considered attractive by some. He'd never been entirely certain one way or the other, whether his looks were what drew people to him, or his unnatural musical abilities, and his reputation for being a defiant, troublemaking anarchist.

A mild shit-disturber, maybe... As for anarchy, he just liked the aesthetics of the symbol that represented it. Calling him an actual anarchist was a bit far-fetched; after all, granted, the world wasn't perfect, but he was wise enough at least to realize that without some official implementation of order, everything would just go to hell.

That having been said... Life was short, and rules were made to be broken – which was precisely why today would be the first day, after one full month of stealthily eluding suspension dates, that he rejoined his peers in the classroom. Not that he was particularly looking forward to it.

A deep, shuddering breath dragged itself in through his nostrils before huffing back out, leaving Jason slouched and blinking sluggishly at his reflection as he brushed his teeth.

One month. One month had passed since that week of utter hell in September, when Rori had revealed the true nature of the libidinous monster that prowled in the depths of his being.

Hard to believe it's only been a month... It always felt like it had been so much longer than that – but then again, maybe that was just wishful thinking. Jason didn't allow himself to dwell on it; he hadn't since that night in Luke's basement, after he'd fled from the house in terror. The morning after, of course, when Luke and Skye had reluctantly left him at the gates, Rori had been there waiting for him, hidden among the trees until his friends had pulled away, and Luke's rebuilt Camaro had vanished within the embrace of the fog.

He was a Grim Reaper amidst the brume, tall and clad in layers of black as dark as pitch, blacker than the void left by a dead star. He hadn't bothered to style his hair, slicking it back against his head in a way that hadn't been in fashion since the 1930's or earlier; instead, it had been left loose, with blood-red locks falling over his forehead, framing his pale, unearthly eyes with ragged-edged drapes of carmine. The vampire was a striking sight to behold, lingering there on the side of the road with swells of mist roiling at his feet, licking at the hem of his overcoat, with the early morning fog rendering him but an ashen spectre of a presence.

Jason hadn't even realized that a spare coat had been slung over the vampire's arm before it was suddenly extended towards him by a perfectly sculpted white hand.

"It's rather chill this morning. You'll catch your death of cold, dressed like that."

Jason was still wearing the thin white button-down of his uniform, and he'd noticed previously that morning how the brisk temperatures sank straight through it. He could have unlocked the gates, asked Luke if he'd mind dropping him off at the door – but he wanted to walk. He wanted silence and solitude and the mist creeping between the trees so he could think.

Mismatched eyes lingered on the proffered jacket, pensively wandering over its leather bulk as it dangled from Rori's hand, before he tentatively reached out and took it."Thank you." He braved a fleeting glance at the immortal's joyless celadon eyes, but nothing more.

It hadn't been a comfortable silence – not by a long shot – but when Jason began the walk down the Manor's long, paved drive, Rori had quietly fallen into step behind him. Not beside him, or directly in line with his back – he'd remained a few paces behind, drifting along in his wake at a delicate angle over his right shoulder. It had been a submissive, deferential stance, and somehow, he'd known Rori's gaze had been elsewhere. Not on him, boring into the back of his head, stroking down his spine, or lasciviously appreciating his ass and the muscular length of his legs. He hadn't felt even the tiniest glimmer of that strange, unidentifiable sensation one experiences in their core when they feel unseen eyes on them. They'd merely walked, in silence.

"I... wanted to apologize, for the way I treated you the other day. I..." There was a pause, a hollow that allowed the silence to flood in and swell between them on that quiet, isolated ribbon of asphalt. "I was being thoughtless and inconsiderate, perhaps, but I'd never any intention of inflicting harm upon you, regardless of your decision." Another pause crept into the mists, but before it was offered the opportunity to expand into something void of thoughts, speech, or awareness, the vampire's voice drifted through the atmosphere with the same soft, unassuming sincerity as the first leaf felled by autumn's touch. "I've no intention of harming you ever again."

Jason couldn't truly acknowledge that claim; he neither hummed his assent or rumbled with skepticism. The words were born in a place far from his thoughts, and slipped from his throat on their own. "And Julian?"

"I would sooner consign myself to the very pits and bowels of Hell before I allow anyone, even myself, to commit such wanton violence against him." The feral edge of the Englishman's words faded, ebbing to a worn velvet rub as he implored, "If you can trust me with absolutely nothing else, trust that at least he is safe in my hands."

Jason nodded, seeing nothing of the road ahead of him, and left it at that.

The foamy bristles of his toothbrush slowed to a crawl against his teeth as Jason stared down into the basin of his thoughts, scrutinizing his recollection of that hazy morning when something imperceptible had shifted in the fabric of his life. He hadn't even stopped to think about it, then, but now... A quizzical furrow crinkled his brow.

Huh.

Since that morning, life had more or less regained its commonplace, if somewhat twisted distortion of normalcy. He'd shrugged off the concern his housemates would occasionally express for him; he'd thrown himself back into his music with a vengeance, and the banter he'd engaged in with his friends regained its usual vivacity. He'd stopped thinking about what Rori had done to him, and the way they'd just barely managed to resolve the situation, if one could even consider what they'd come to a resolution. As for Derek and Josh's little collaborative effort to take him down a peg on the societal ladder of significance and self-importance...? It had been a cheap shot on Derek's behalf, and pure bullshit from Josh. Once Jason had managed to get his feet back under him, he'd let Josh know it, too, with some very concise, colourful language that the other guitarist wouldn't soon forget.

Giving his molars one last concentrated scrub, Jason bent and spat the froth into the sink, pausing at the sight of the pale reddish hue tinting the runny leftovers of his toothpaste. Mm...? Curiously frowning, he peered down at his brush. The bristles had been left a bit bloody, too. Huh. Guess I musta been scrubbin' too hard... After baring his teeth at the mirror to inspect his gums – slightly inflamed, more so in some areas than others – he gave a lazy internal shrug. Eh. A little gingivitis never killed anyone. All it meant was that he'd have to step it up on the mouthwash for a while.

So, sure, maybe the spotlight he'd decided to flick back on had been illuminating everything with a forced radiance that was, perhaps, just a touch too bright, but it was the only way he'd ever be able to regain some sense of normalcy after everything that had happened. To be honest, he'd missed life. He'd missed living, as vexing as it could often be. An entire month of suffering through unending angst and drama was twenty-eight days too goddamn many; all he'd wanted after the initial catatonia had worn off was for things to go back to the way they'd used to be.

Some things had responded to those efforts, while others had just scoffed at them before sneering and walking away.

One day at a time. That had been his mantra since that week in September. Live in the moment. Don't think about the past, or the future – just the now, because the now was the only thing that mattered, and the only thing he might ever have.

Rinsing off his toothbrush before plunking it back into its cup, Jason bent his mouth under the tap, swished the water around in his cheeks, and spat it back into the sink. The dial gave a tiny squeak of protest in the echoing confines of his bathroom as he shut the water off, ancient piping groaning deep within the Manor's walls, but he didn't even notice. Swiping the last lingering traces of toothpaste and water from his lips, he tossed the hand towel back onto the counter and slapped off the light as he sauntered into his bedroom.

After what had happened to his previous mattress, Rori and Julian had offered him a new bed – a proper bed, Julian had amended, complete with an accompanying bed frame – but Jason had graciously turned the offer down. He'd still gotten a new mattress out of it, considering the last one had been completely ruined, but it had been plunked down on top of his box spring and hadn't moved since. He plucked his jacket off the back of his computer chair, hefted his schoolbag onto a shoulder, and breezed out of his comfortably cluttered bedroom like the events of the month prior had never even happened.

And as far as Jason cared to acknowledge, they hadn't; because unlike everyone else on the goddamn planet, he didn't have the kind of time where he could afford to just sit around and mope over something that he couldn't have possibly prevented. It wasn't the first time Rori had taken him against his will, and Jason was more than certain that it wouldn't be the last, either, regardless of what Rori had told him, so really... What was the point? As long as it never reached that level of violence ever again, Jason would find some way to cope. He always did – even if it was wreaking havoc on his sense of sexuality and self-worth.

Now if only the undead bastard would stop treating him like he'd suddenly contracted the Bubonic Plague, things would finally be back to normal. If Rori would just knock it off with pussyfooting around him as though Jason were a ticking time bomb waiting to go off – and one armed with innumerable steel stakes, at that – he would finally be able to move on with his life.

Plodding lazily down the western corridor towards the kitchen, his stomach entirely too keen on the notion of appropriating some breakfast before being shipped off to suffer at the Academy for the day, Jason only distantly took note of the trickle of similarly-clothed bodies migrating to the Great Hall, chatting and joking amongst themselves. Artemis caught sight of him, trilling a melodramatic, "It lives...!" straight out of Frankenstein while the others greeted him with various lackadaisical derivatives of the phrase, "good morning". Yami, of course – occupied with meticulously cleaning the lenses of his "prescription" sunglasses with a soft fabric wipe – cast him little more than a peevish, perfunctory ruby glance before he put his glasses on and stalked away.

Whoa-ho, Porcupine-head's feeling extra prickly today. He was going to have to take advantage of that on the ride in. Yami hadn't been responding to his jibes, lately, and his frosty indifference to even the most inflammatory of comments was starting to get on Jason's nerves. After all, Yami wasn't one to suffer fools without remark – that the dhampir was, andwithout even so much as a peep or a dark, dagger-sharp glare, both alarmed and annoyed him. It wasn't normal – it had to stop.

"Nice hair," Faith idly noted, thin brows lifted into a wry arch over nacreous lids.

"Bite me," he grumbled in retaliation. He didn't even realize that he'd inattentively tried to tame the errant pikes left over from his shower until after his fingers had raked themselves through his hair, but he did notice that no one even tried to comment on the fact that while they might choose to abstain, Rori would no doubt be more than delighted to take him up on the offer.

Instead, Faith slanted her mouth, rolled her eyes, and dismissed him with little more than a shake of her head as she sauntered away to ready for departure. It was another one of the ways in which things had, as of yet, refused to return to normal, and for something so undeniably aggravating, life just wasn't the same without it.

While he would be hard-pressed to admit that he took even an iota of pleasure from being incessantly needled about the vampire, in many ways, he was growing increasingly tempted to tell them to just come out and say it already. He didn't particularly enjoy being harassed with innuendos in regards to the exact nature of his relationship with Rori, but the complete lack of it was just... weird, and unpleasant, strictly because it reminded him precisely why they were doing such a marvellous job in refraining from their usual comments in the first place.

After all, Rori had raped, mutilated, and nearly killed him, and even after an entire month – even while Jason was struggling so desperately to return things to the way they were – the others weren't quite as ready to forget.

Can't help but wish they were, he sighed, slipping through the kitchen door. 'Cause, man... I am so ready to be done with this shit already. "Mornin' Ju," he mumbled, dumping his bag by the island as he honed in on the toaster like a food-seeking missile. The blonde glanced over his shoulder at him, his lithe form still garbed in a plaid housecoat that he hadn't bothered to tie shut.

"Ah, good morning, Jason," the Englishman archly returned, swivelling on a heel to lean back against the counter, his crossed arms a twined band of blue, black and green tartan across the chest of the white v-neck he wore underneath. "I was beginning to seriously wonder whether or not I might have to pry you out of your room by force. Perhaps even with some heavy machinery."

Retreating from the fridge with a small jar of apple jelly, Jason cast a bewildered look back over his shoulder only to see the blonde pinning him with an unimpressed stare. Ee... Something in him withered under that scowl, like a kid who'd just been caught with his hand in the cookie jar, and nothing but crumbs and pure guilt left on his face. As things were, he faltered for a minute, sending the Englishman a weak flicker of a grin as his hands, always with a mind of their own, cranked the lid open, twisted it shut, and nervously twiddled his fingers on the rim. "Uh, yeah, about that..."

"You know, they have alarms on those clocks for a reason."

Jason flicked up an informative finger. "Interestingly enough, they also have snooze buttons, probably to counteract the purpose of the alarm. I mean, they must've put it there for a reason, right?" He shot Julian a toothy half-moon grin that made the Englishman's stance loosen a little as he rolled his amber eyes. When the blonde merely shared another flat, matronly look with him, however, Jason unceremoniously let the joke drop and offered him a helpless shrug as he slid the jelly onto the counter and went for the peanut butter next. "Hey, I'm an insomniac, okay? Not like it's my fault I get fuck-all-"

"Language, Jason."

"Sorry – zero hours of sleep at night." He tugged open the cutlery drawer to retrieve a knife and spoon, then nudged it shut again with a knuckle. "Trust me, if it was humanly possible for me to get up at the ass-crack of dawn like everyone else in the world, I would, but I kinda like getting more than a few minutes of sleep per night, so..." Speechlessly gesturing for a moment, Jason gave the blonde another blameless shrug and turned back to drag the bread bag towards himself. "Punctuality gets demoted to the back-burners. What can I say? I like my sleep."

Judging by the wry hum Julian offered in return, Jason was pretty willing to bet he wasn't all that pleased with his answer. He just busied himself with dropping a couple slices of bread in the toaster, and tried to ignore the way something in his gut began to curdle.

"So I hear from your teachers. They tell me you've been sleeping through class again – when you bother to show up."

Wh- Head dropping forward, brows furrowed into a pained look of impending doom, Jason stifled the low, dreading groan he could feel building in his throat and peered up at the cupboards from under his brows in agony. Ah, shit. Here we go...

"Jason," Julian began, then huffed out an irritated breath.

He didn't even need to turn around to know that the blonde was rubbing at the fine crease between his brows with the pads of his doubt willing himself to be patient with his troublemaking teenage ward, to at least try to understand his side of the story, regardless of the fact that there was no viable reason to understand. Sometimes Jason slacked off for no other reason than because he was lazy, and couldn't be bothered to pay his education the attention it probably deserved.

"I've been contacted three times in as many weeks only for them to inform me that you've been either all but ignoring your studies, or sleeping through class – and that's when you are present and accounted for. But then they go on to tell me that you haven't bothered doing virtually any of your homework, and that you are on the very cusp of failing almost all of your classes when we're not even a month and a half into the school year, yet. And on top of all of this," Julian continued with an expansive gesture, "you didn't even show up for half of the periods during which you were to be suspended! For fighting!"

"They would've put me in a tiny little white brick room," Jason protested, mocking up a misshapen cube with his hands even while one was occupied with a butter knife, "that smells like ass and B.O., with nothing but a desk so I could stare at the wall all day!" His voice indignantly hitched itself up an octave in complaint, "I would've gone outta my frickin' mind! Can you really blame me for skipping out on that?" His hands hung, pleading, in the air for a moment before they dropped to his sides. "I would've been left a little jibbling puddle of musey-goo from the insanity alone an-"

"My dear," the Englishman cut in with an unusually sharp edge to his voice, snuffing the words in Jason's throat, "you don't know the first goddamn thing about insanity, and you should pray that it stays that way. It's not a fucking joke and I'd rather you refrain from treating it as such."

Whoa... Where in the hell'd that come from? Warily holding up the bared palms of his hands, butter knife pinned under his thumb, to ward off the alarming display of Julian's temper, shoulders hunched themselves and Jason uttered a brief, guileless, "Sorry. Didn't mean to hit a nerve." Wide, mismatched eyes remained locked on the Englishman until the black fury had drained from beneath his countenance, and Julian's shoulders wilted, lids flashing shut as he took a breath and kneaded at the bridge of his nose under his glasses. Jeezus, he can be scary when he wants to be... That's the first time I've ever heard him pull two swears at one time – much less at one of us.

"No, no, it's all right," Julian mumbled, taking another shuddering breath as he dragged a hand down the lower half of his countenance. "I should be the one apologizing. That was uncalled for." He glanced up with suddenly tired eyes as the toast popped up behind Jason, and a wan smile touched at the outskirts of his lips. "I've been..." The words trailed off with a sigh. "Feeling somewhat aggravated lately. Unjustly so, which means it's probably my..." A silence pregnant with meaning hovered over the kitchen, and Julian's resigned gaze slid down to pool on the tile floor, brows briefly jumping on his forehead. "Well."

Another weak grin flickered across the blonde's mouth as Jason slowly spread a layer of peanut butter on his toast, watching him with – all things considered – perhaps an exaggerated closeness. Then again, he was giving the upper section of the fridge a rather dirty look – and not just the fridge, either. Julian's tawny irises were moving, almost as though they were tracking something that they weren't particularly fond of. Maybe there was a bug in the kitchen.

Jason shot a hasty, discreet glance about his surroundings. Nothing out of the ordinary. Wouldn't be the first time I was the last one to spot a fly...

"Schizophrenia. You know." Julian said in a noncommittal mumble. "Normally when this kind of thing flares up, I'd just..." But then Julian trailed off again, his expression all but radiating self-consciousness as he seemed to realize what he was saying and gently twisted his hands at his waist in abashment. "Forgive me, I must be making you terribly uncomfortable." Julian morosely added, "It's just been one of those kinds of mornings, that's all."

"Uh..." Jason blankly stared at the man for a moment, warmth radiating from the slice of toast held captive by the tips of his fingers. "Sure. I guess everyone has them sooner or later." Minus the certifiably crazy part, o'course, but...

An awkward moment of silence filled the gap between them, with Julian lost quietly in his thoughts while Jason set his first slice of toast on the counter and absently retrieved the second. It wasn't very often that Julian even deigned to publically acknowledge the fact that he was schizophrenic, much less discuss it amongst the other tenants; the fact that he had, so abruptly... Maybe it was just because Jason had recently roused himself from another night of minimal sleep, but he couldn't think of a single thing to say in the uneasy hush that followed afterwards.

As he scooped out a spoonful of jelly to smear over his toast, he cast the blonde another vigilant glance, only to see him distractedly rubbing at some of his fingers with an expression of forlorn, deep-seated isolation on his countenance. It was the kind of look he would've expected to see from the kid forever lurking on the outskirts of the playground, the one who wanted to join the games of his peers while knowing, every second of the day, that he couldn't, because he was different from them for reasons he couldn't help, or understand.

Shunned. Forgotten. Trapped outside the globe of happy normalcy, capable only of pressing himself against the glass, and looking in with yearning.

Yeah, know what that's like. It's not fun.

For that reason alone, he wanted to say something to comfort Julian, to make him feel a little bit less like his schizophrenia inherently made him an outcast. And, hell, even if it did, the Manor was quite possibly the one place in the world where it was the norm to be different, where the outcasts and the deviants had created a family all their own – the one place in the world where they truly belonged.

Absently smoothing out one last glob of pale amber jelly with the back of his spoon, Jason swallowed back his gauche discomfort, wet his lips, and glanced up at Julian again – who was, he noticed, giving an empty patch of air a more hateful, disgusted look he'd ever thought possible from someone of such a mild disposition. Even though the glare wasn't directed at Jason personally, the sheer heat of the loathing behind it cowed him immediately, cinching a knot of apprehension tight in his throat.

He's just having a bad day, he reassured himself. Not like he's gonna try to take your head off if you look at him wrong. He's not like that... Never mind the fact that he already had ripped Jason a new one for not taking his schooling seriously enough – but then again, that was entirely within Julian's character. He was Mr. Mom, after all. That he'd momentarily lost his patience over something like that while simultaneously wrestling with his own problems wasn't really all that surprising; and Jason, when it got right down to it, had partially brought it upon himself...

"Uh..." Tactfully clearing his throat in the silence of the kitchen, Jason dumped his utensils in the sink and carefully settled one half of his sandwich atop the other, aligning the rims of the crust with his fingertips. "Is there, uh," he glanced up from fingering the toasted edge of the crust, "anything I could maybe do to help?" Dark brows jumped as one with the inquisition, and lifted his lower lids with them.

Julian didn't even seem to hear him. He was still tracking that empty space around the kitchen, his tawny eyes stalking it about like he would have greatly enjoyed stabbing it in its metaphorical face – repeatedly, and with a great deal of relish – when his lip began curling into the slightest nuance of a snarl. And the appearance of that kind of expression on Julian's gentle, androgynous countenance...? Frankly, it made his balls seriously consider relocating to warmer climes.

Jesus, whatever he's seeing, he really does not like it.

Against his better judgement, against all the instincts telling him to just leave the Englishman be and scamper out of the kitchen while he could, Jason scrounged together some extra courage and raised his voice into the hush again. "Uh, Julian?"

With the same dramatic haste as if he had switched masks, the look was gone, and those honey-brown eyes were wide and guileless when they whipped back towards Jason's face. "I'm sorry?"

Oh, god, he really hadn't heard it. Jason didn't know if he had the guts to ask him a second time. He felt awkward enough for doing it once; the notion of doing it twice made him feel distinctly... gay, all of a sudden.

"Ah..." Of course, his brain flat-lined when he needed it most, and it took a moment longer before he managed to clear the dust from between his ears with a brief shake of his head. "Never mind, it's nothing. Anyways, uh," a finger lifted to distractedly itch behind his stretched ear lobe, "I should probably get going, so, uh... Good talk." Stuffing the corner of his sandwich into his mouth, Jason flashed the Englishman one more grin before managing a hasty, "Shee ya ah'ter skuhl."

Mentally berating himself every step of the way, he hurried across the kitchen, snatched up his bag from where he'd left it, slouched carelessly at the foot of the island, and fled to the door.

-x-

Faltering when he opened the kitchen door only to find the muse all but charging towards it, Rori experienced one terrifying moment where his mind had utterly abandoned him to the notion of everything he'd been denying himself. The fact that Jason had a toasted sandwich stuffed in his mouth didn't deter his thoughts in the least, either, and that the muse had frozen awkwardly in front of him, eyes wide and naked in surprise, served merely to exacerbate his desires to...

"Hello, dear one."

A startled breath was thrust from the muse's chest as his back collided with the wall, wrists pinned above his head by a manacle of white flesh and ancient bone. Gods, the way he could hear his heart pounding so sweetly in his chest, positively racing with nerve and surprise... It could have been a substitute for the finest of aphrodisiacs. Old eyes that had merely been sharpened by the passing of time all but devoured the sight of the pulse throbbing lewdly beneath the hot, contoured surface of the boy's throat, and the way the black voids of his pupils yawned open within pools of platinum and deep earthen brown titillated him on a level both primeval and intoxicating.

But then Jason looked away – no hostility, or hatred, just anxiety – and hurried onwards.

Ripped prematurely from his fantasies, Rori reacted to the movement through mechanical instinct alone, pivoting sideways in the doorway and lifting an arm while the muse snuck under it, past him – the warm aroma of toasted bread and peanut butter wafting against him in the musician's wake – and jogged to the front door, where the others were already trickling outside.

Even though Jason had already hurried past, however, his scent still lingered behind, all poignant deodorant and peanut butter on toast and citrusy shampoo and the sweet, heady musk of his body, teasing Rori's senses. It was virtually impossible not to drink the fragrance in with all the reverence of one truly and completely obsessed; he didn't even bother trying to hide the way his eyes rolled up under lids fluttering with bliss as he savoured one pull after another through flared nostrils.

Christ. Never mind the sugary sweet undertones of the jelly – the boy's natural aroma was the olfactory apotheosis of pristine, uncensored desire. Even the most paltry whiff of it would have been enough to reduce his organs to a gelatinous molten wreck; to have gotten the closest and most concentrated sampling of it he'd experienced in a month was almost enough to induce a full-body shudder of pleasure, as well as something of a rather more... tumescent nature.

It was sad, in a way. He'd spent the whole of the prior evening luxuriating in debauchery, indulging himself with ornate knots of human bodies – all of them breathless and moaning, all of them feverish with pleasure – and yet even now, Jason's scent had roused a powerful, intoxicating heat in him.

He would have given anything in the world to be able to make Jason his own just then. To seize his narrow wrists and pin them to the wall – or better yet, to the sheets of his bed. To bask in the lewd, carnal warmth between his thighs and consume every titillating jut of bone, every sinfully erotic curve of muscle. He would have sacrificed any organ he possessed to feel that lean, athletic body arching against him, to clutch at Jason until his fingertips dimpled his delectably smooth caramel skin to the point of disappearing inside of him.

Christ, he would have willingly offered his heart to a priest on a platter if it meant he could have the boy writhing beneath him, so he could rut like a goddamned stag in heat until their throats were raw and bleeding and their flesh dripping with sweat, every fibre trembling at the mere concept of further exertion...What he would have forsaken just to see dark, moist tendrils of hair clinging to Jason's forehead while he crumbled beneath the weight of euphoria.

"Rori, you're doing it again."

Tearing himself with a great deal of difficulty from the fading remnants of Jason's scent, Rori sent his fair-haired lover a hazy, questioning glance – he was still wearing a tartan flannel bathrobe and more socially-acceptable nightclothes than his norm, Rori absently noticed. The norm, of course, being nothing, and a concept that was made incalculably more enticing by his current state of awareness.

Before he risked lapsing into thoroughly indulged, yet clearly insatiable fantasies for a second time, Rori sucked in an abrupt breath – Merciful God, that smell, it could have made him come from want alone – and painstakingly forced himself to focus on his beloved's face. "Beg your pardon?" Even then, however, he couldn't seem to rid his mind of the final image that had crossed it before Julian reclaimed his attention.

A fine sheen of sweat glistening on golden-brown flesh, countenance lax, intoxicated with pleasure, locks of damp hair adhering to the muse's brow, making the steel band of his piercing stand out like a diamond fixed in soft, supple leather...

Julian mimicked Rori's previous gesture back to him, drawing in a deep breath through his nose and melting against the counter as his irises rolled upwards beneath wildly fluttering lids. A second later and the impression had vanished, leaving behind nothing but a tired, cranky stare and eloquently raised brows.

Under any other circumstances, he might have found the expression on his beloved's face amusing; now, after only recently having resurfaced from within the libidinous depths of his fantasies, he felt the mildest ribbon of indignation tarnish his composure. He couldn't have made such a ridiculous expression… "Oh, come, surely it wasn't that obvious."

"It was. Very much so, in fact," the blonde succinctly returned. "You're lucky he doesn't have eyes in the back of his head, otherwise I think I can say with a fair amount of certainty that he would have been more than a touch alarmed for the well-being of his backside." Without waiting for a reply, his lover wearily rubbed at his eyes and turned around to return his attention to the book on the countertop. "Have you just come home, then?" The blonde absently queried, drooping to lean his elbows on the counter while he leafed through his recipe book.

Any other morning, Rori would have interpreted his lover's shameless display of one of his more pleasing assets as a blatant invitation, but the complete lack of humour – or a teasing backwards glance – struck him as innately and intrinsically wrong. He sniffed back one last brief taste of Jason's scent – but, gods, it made him randy – crossed the kitchen, and ran his hands up the length of his lover's sides with a devilish purr rumbling deep in his throat, thumbs skimming along the lean muscles in his lover's back. Julian may have been clothed, but Rori's mind stripped him utterly bare in his thoughts, tracing over each sinuous dip of muscle and bone with infallible accuracy, relishing every delicate swell and valley. While, mentally, he doted indulgently upon the infallible recollection of what Julian would look like if he were naked just then, Rori sidled up against his rear and gently tugged him upright, pressing a reverent kiss to his neck.

"I did," he murmured, leaving a worshipful trail of kisses up the length of his lover's throat. And though he tried his very hardest to ignore the gentle, molten pulse rousing itself in his groin, he failed miserably. "Although 'twould seem I was much more needed here." Despite the situation, a tiny, prurient grin quirked at the outskirts of the lips he skimmed against Julian's ear, "You're in a temper, my love."

"I'm not-"

But the sharp words were cut off as Rori touched a smirking kiss to his jaw and sang, "You're in a temper..." under his breath.

The blonde clearly bit back his first response and planted his hands on the countertop, a hip cocking and unintentionally nudging an ass left pleasantly taut from dancing back into Rori's pelvis. Hate as he did to admit it, even after spending the entire night revelling in licentiousness to satiate his rapacious appetite, he was still starving, and that one little gesture merely reminded him how famished he really was. It was entirely possible that the only thing preventing him from rubbing himself up against his lover's delicious derriere – and all the gods in existence knew that wasn't the least of the contact he found himself hungering for – was the weakly resounding awareness that his characteristically placid lover had been left in a foul mood by something.

Well, 'twas only right that he try to placate him, then. And what on God's green earth was more placating than a much-needed tumble in the bed sheets?

Wandering hands that had previously contented themselves with stroking over Julian's fine body snuck their fingertips under the hem of his t-shirt, creeping up over the elastic waist of his pyjama pants and teasingly kissing at the warm, naked silken skin of his stomach. While he boldly slithered a set of fingers beneath the waistband of Julian's pants – naughty boy, he wasn't wearing anything underneath them, either – Rori nuzzled aside the tail of languid blonde waves, and bit the back of his neck with the same mild aggression Julian so enjoyed during lovemaking.

The response was almost instantaneous – although, not quite what he'd expected.

A soft moan escaped from the blonde's throat, low and sultry, as his head lolled forward; a scant second later, however, and Julian's head had rolled back upright, one of his shoulders hunching as though to cringe away from his mouth.

Rori faltered, almost offended by the gesture.

He released him, the tiniest nuances of a frown creeping into his expression as he laced his arms around Julian's waist and tilted his head over the troubled Englishman's shoulder. "Oh come now, what's the matter?"

If Rori's genitalia had a mind of their own – and one couldn't help but wonder, sometimes – they were beginning to entertain the rather unwelcome notion that this situation was not one that would be resolved through the act of being sheathed in his lover's ass. They began to ache in retaliation, clamouring with all the obstinacy of a particularly spoiled child that they deserved to be touched.

The blonde never looked at him, but even so, Rori could clearly see the tension beneath his countenance, darkness clouding his eyes in a way that had always made him appear far older than his brief twenty-seven years. "I'll thank you not to speak to me like a child, Rori."

A single inky brow flew up into an arch. Reconsidering his approach, the vampire touched a more thoughtful kiss to his lover's neck, absently stroking a hand down his throat before it slid with a reverential care over the slope of his shoulder. He fought to subdue the notion of how much more perfect the gesture could have been if his lover were nude as his fingers smoothed themselves over the curve of his shoulder; he urged himself to focus, to think above the petty wants of his lust on something infinitely more significant.

Nuzzling against the bound locks of Julian's hair, Rori took belated notice of the emptiness of the kitchen, completely barren of the tiny presence that would so often respond to their more intimate moments with innocent protest. "And where is our little cherub, hmm? I've not seen her this morning."

Tersely working his jaw, Julian took another slow breath and peered down with critical eyes at his cookbook. "She's been in the kennels all morning, keeping your prize bitch company."

Were it not for the fact that the more salacious portion of his character had already begun reacting to his lover's words, part of Rori's mind might have cautioned him against spinning the blonde about and trying anything more promiscuous than he already had.

Instead, he responded to Julian's expression of edgy surprise with a lewd smirk, and melted against his lean body, hands restively massaging his lover's hips beneath his robe. "Oh, but if she were doing that," he purred, hands gradually descending from exquisitely formed hips, "she would be here, keeping an eye on this." Fingers clenched into the fleshy swell of his lover's ass, and the more salacious portion of Rori's character delighted in the way that Julian started with a soft, sharp intake of breath, muscles cinching tight under his hands.

Unfortunately, that also meant the predominantly logical section of his thoughts wound up being ignored entirely when it realized that Julian was neither blushing coquettishly or wearing a coy, flirtatious smile in response.

Instead, just before Rori leaned in to lavish more kisses upon his beloved's throat, it noticed that Julian was looking rather vexed with him.

And a moment later, when Julian planted a hand on his chest and pushed him back, the logical portion of Rori's mind found that it could no longer be disregarded, because Julian was meeting his gaze now, and he did not look amused by Rori's antics in the least. Which meant the likelihood of engaging in any and all activities either preceding or including sex was, as of now, effectively reduced to zero.

Not like that had ever stopped him before.

"Did you just refer to me as your prize bitch, Mr. O'Connor?"

"I did," he soundly agreed with a smile. The words came pouring forth regardless of Julian's previous tone, purred with a lascivious grin as he closed the gap between them, and hovered near enough to his lover's face to smell the bitter tang of the coffee on his breath. A microscopic red flag flicked up, waving itself frantically at the very absolute back of his mind; Rori was too busy optically ravishing the Englishman to care. "So, shall you spank me now, or spank me later?" Waggling his brows for the final touch, the fires of play found themselves dampened only minutely by the way the muscles in his lover's jaw clenched as he tilted his face aside in objection.

"Must you get so close," the blonde protested with a grimace, slender hands latching around Rori's own in an attempt to prise them loose from where they had been casually stroking and kneading the pleasantly toned body of his ass.

"Mm-hmm." With a broad smirk ruling over Rori's lips, he remained where he was, fully appreciating his lover's back end as he dipped to dole out a more oral sign of appreciation along the length of his throat.

"Rori, really, I haven't even had my morning wash yet-"

"Excellent, neither have I," he purred against his beloved's skin. "So why don't we have a little wash together and see if we can do something to lighten this heavy mood of yours, hmm?" Opening his mouth around part of Julian's neck and allowing his teeth to roughly graze his flesh as they slid shut, he couldn't help but utter a husky laugh, deep in his throat, when his lover objected by squirming in his arms and wrestling in futility with the hands exploring his buttocks with increasingly invasive strokes. "Or perhaps," he ventured in a low, wanton voice, submerged in the banquet of Julian's scents with every second longer he hovered against his neck, "we should retreat to the West Wing for a spell, hmm? Strap you onto that machine you so adore, or maybe visit the Velvet Room, and whittle away the morning with some, as the children would say, fan-fucking-tabulous fornication. After all," Rori mused in a drawl, bathing himself in the utterly human warmth radiating from cream-coloured flesh, "washed or not, I don't think you realize how good you'd look in your bindings right now-"

That was when Julian thrust himself back, and slapped him. Not one of those playful, reprimanding taps; not a prissy and undignified swat. No, it hadn't even been one of those appallingly brisk slaps to the face one might receive for being particularly grabby.

No, this had been a very real, very powerful open-handed blow, and one dealt by an arm that had lashed out with all the speed, violence and accuracy of an infuriated viper.

Too stunned to do anything but concede when the blonde shoved away his hands, Rori merely gawped into space while the sting from Julian's palm needled through his cheek.

"Would you stop, already?" The blonde hissed.

Rori hadn't even realized that Julian had stalked out of his reach until he tore his eyes away from the void into which they'd been staring, only to find his lover glowering at him from the other side of the kitchen. Silence settled for a moment; seemingly disembodied fingers lifted themselves as though to brush his cheek, but he never felt them skim even so much as his jaw.

God's precious blood – Julian had just slapped him.

As wide celadon irises crept up to peruse his lover's expression, dark, conflicted eyes ripped themselves away and plummeted to stare resolutely at the kitchen floor. There was a storm raging inside of him, Rori could see that much, but... Devil take me. He really slapped me...

With the leftovers of his libido doused, Rori fought to stifle a pang of disbelief, disappointment and annoyance, and choked back the strained breath that yearned to set itself free. "Not in the mood, then," he tersely uttered. A mechanical grin flashed across his countenance. "All right. So are you going to tell me what this is all about, Julian?"

The other Englishman chafed at his lids, pausing only for an instant before vigorously shaking out his hands.

"Or shall I resort to picking subjects written on tiny slips of paper out of a hat?"

"This is about you never keeping your bloody hands to yourself!" The Hatter spat. "About forever coming in with the grabbing and the touching and not having a single thought free to entertain anything other than the notion of your own fucking prick and-" Choking off the words at the absolute last minute, the blonde spun and in a rare, alarming display of temper, slammed the heel of his palm into the pantry door.

A mere nanosecond after that, and Rori was there, Julian's slender wrist caught fast in his grip, hand cradled in his own, and striking him as alarmingly fragile all of a sudden when the blonde instinctively tried to wrench it away.

"Don't," the Hatter gasped, fawn-brown eyes wide and glassy with a sheen of alarm as he struggled in vain to pull his hand from Rori's grasp. "Don't, please..."

"Gods, what's gotten into you?" Rori shot the delicate hand trapped in his own a fleeting glance, brows furrowed deeply in consternation, before he peered at his lover's face with alarm. "I can understand if I was being an ass, but sweet mother of Christ, Julian-"

"It's nothing," Julian blurted in a panic, a desperate grin flashing across his countenance. "It's nothing, I'm just..." With his entire face suddenly locked up, chest heaving for breath, and his head bowed, the blonde clenched his eyes shut and clutched at his forehead; his left hand was writhing in Rori's grip, occasionally tugging against his fingers as though to free itself. Rori held on, gently pressing kisses to pale, rigid knuckles in an attempt to soothe him.

The only difference was made evident in the high, strangled whine that trickled out from somewhere deep within Julian's throat, wrenching Rori's heart in his chest with images of a trapped and wounded animal, waiting to die.

Oh, god. Something was wrong, all right. This wasn't just Julian in a foul mood – even at his absolute worst, he'd never seen the mild-mannered Englishman resort to anything more severe, or agonized, than a few curt and wisely chosen words. Perhaps the sardonic flattening of his gaze, or a cynical arch of his brow. But in rapid succession he'd both verbally and physically lashed out at his surroundings, even going so far as to strike not just the pantry door, but Rori himself.

And... Christ, he'd never done that. Outside of the West Wing – outside their bondage and discipline/dominance and submission sessions – Julian wasn't violent, period. He saved his true wrath for wintry glances and sharp, insidious tones. He never...

Except...

Oh, god.

I'm an idiot. A blind and single-minded- Stifling the unending stream of incensed curses that yearned to set themselves free, he pressed another kiss to his beloved's hands. "I'm not going to hurt you, love." The delicate fingers in his grasp were trembling, left rigid and contorted as Julian's narrow wrist tugged itself against his hold.

He knew exactly what this was now – the irritability, Julian's sudden, uncharacteristic displays of violence and aggression… He's schizophrenic, you addlepated fool! Must he actively spell it out for you when he's on the verge of a relapse!? He's agitated and you should have realized that the second he-

"I'm not angry with you and I'm not going to hurt you, I promise..." Murmuring sweet assurances and consolations, he made no move to gather the blonde into his arms so that he might feel safe, protected from the things his sick mind had thrust upon him. He made no move to restrain him, or lead him from the room.

Rori merely waited, tolerating his lover's quaking and writhing and tiny, choked breaths because he had no other choice, and no other alternative made available to him. But his hands never released that fragile extremity, flexing and convulsing in his grip, and his lips never left Julian's fingers, kissing rigid knuckles and whispering tender words of potential comfort against his skin.

"Rori...?" At great length, the trembling Englishman managed a few choked, and audibly frightened words, fingers clawing in the mussed locks of his hair as he gulped back a sob. "I-I think I need my shot..."

Rori gave little more than the briefest of nods in acknowledgement, but just as he moved to scoop his lover up into his arms, he paused, brushing his knuckles against a pale cheek to draw his attention. It almost broke his heart to see how those honey-brown orbs were wandering, tracking things only Julian could see as they moved about the kitchen.

"Look at me, my love. Ignore everything else, just look at me," he gently urged, smoothing his palm against the blonde's cheek. "I need you to focus on me, love. They're not real – you know they're not."

Brilliant, lovely, and tragically bloodshot brown irises mechanically dragged themselves away from their most recent subject of interest, forcibly inching away from something over Rori's shoulder to meet his gaze with the devoted intensity of one truly terrified by that which they had no control over.

Rori held his gaze, hating the devoted concentration he saw in Julian's eyes – the sheer intensity of the focus it took for him to cling to something real. "Have you already taken your morning dose of Olanzapine?" Gods… He should have been here. He'd left the pill out for him, as he usually did – but he should have been here to ensure that Julian had actually ingested it…

His exquisite, tormented soul-eater managed a stiff nod, those haunted eyes locked, unwaveringly, to his countenance.

"Good," Rori murmured, willing an encouraging smile to his lips as he brushed his thumb under a fluttering fringe of his beloved's lashes. "Good," he breathed again. "I'm going to pick you up, and carry you upstairs to our bedroom, all right? I'll administer your injection there, and then, if you need or want to sleep, you can do so in comfort. Is that acceptable?"

Another silent, tremulous nod. Wide eyes flashed over Rori's shoulder again, but with his hands firmly framing his lover's face, he lured Julian's attention back to him.

"Keep looking at me, love. Don't stop looking at me, all right?" Remaining perfectly aware of precisely where his love's gaze settled, Rori delicately scooped him up like one might a small child, and part of his heart tore itself messily in two when lean arms looped themselves around his neck, tightening like a noose as Julian buried his face into the dark crook there, uncaring of the way Rori could feel his glasses jostling and bending against his throat. "How long have you been like this?" He asked softly, mindfully easing them through the swinging door of the kitchen and apologizing in a murmur when the blonde's bare feet grazed the frame and plucked forth a wince from the delicate creature in his arms.

"I-I don't know. I've been feeling restless lately but when I got up this morning I was just annoyed with everything, and th-then things started getting worse and I just... I-I couldn't... I snapped at Jason over the tiniest of comments and then things just got worse-"

Gingerly hushing into tousled golden waves, Rori climbed the stairs not with the haste he so desired, but the same slow, ponderous steps of a mortal. The absolute last thing Julian needed right now was any kind of display of abnormality. One stair, then the other, and still so many more to go before they would even reach the second floor, never mind the retrieval of the key to the medicine cabinet in which he'd stored Julian's drugs, or the preparation of an injection saved for just these kinds of situations...

"On a scale of one to ten?"

Hot, tremulous breaths blossomed against his neck, leaving humid patches of warmth smouldering against his flesh. "Six..." A pitiful, wet sniffle, "Six and maybe a half."

Rori resisted his immediate impulse to softly hiss at the number. It was the worst bout of agitation that Julian had experienced in well over a year, and what had he been doing in the meantime? Frittering the night away with drinking and fucking and trying his absolute hardest not to obsess over the note his sire had left on his doorstep one month prior. And to make matters worse, he'd utterly ignored each and every warning sign Julian could have possibly offered him upon his return home, all because he'd been wanting an early-morning romp in the sheets.

There were absolutely no words to describe how utterly and completely disgusted he felt with himself.

The arms around his neck tightened, the muscles in his legs cinched up, and the Englishman's face was feverish as he tucked it into the crook of his shoulder and pleaded, "Please, please don't take me to the hospital, Rori, they'll lock me up if I set foot in there again. They don't think I'm safe, they don't trust me to be good but you know I have been. I've been taking my medicine, I've been clean for two and a half years and I hardly ever drink-"

"I know, my love," he reassuringly murmured, thrusting aside every last ounce of his frustration with himself to focus on the task at hand. "I know. And there are no words for how unspeakably proud you've made me."

The voice that crept out of Julian's throat was small, timid – it was the voice of a child, inching out of the body of a man fully grown. "And you still love me, even though I'm a junkie and a crackhead…?"

"Were, my love," he softly corrected him. "You were those things. You are no longer, and I know you will never be again."

"But I can't just quit being schizophrenic..." He sounded heartbroken over the notion, that his greatest flaw was one that he would never be able to rid himself of, and one that they both knew could never be eradicated in its entirety.

"Perhaps not, but you can rest assured that I still love you. I love all of you, Julian," Rori tenderly added. "Precisely as you are."

Fingers nervously worried at the fabric of his shirt, skittering against his shoulders, as Julian sniffled back a wet, miserable-sounding breath. "You've never regretted it?"

"Not once," Rori replied, the serenity of his answer nothing if not perfectly sincere. "And I don't think I ever will. You are the light of my life, Julian. My sun and stars and moon and everything in between. You give me purpose. I'd have the mental capacity of the world's most simplistic breed of amoeba to lament that kind of gift."

A hot tremulous breath fluttered out against the flesh of his neck, caught somewhere between a chuckle and a sob as the voice so unlike Julian's own trickled out of him in a moan. "I don't deserve this, Rori... I don't deserve any of this… I've been a horrible person, I don't deserve this kind of kindness-"

"We don't deserve a lot of things," he gently murmured, peering down at the tousled golden waves at his lover's crown with all of the love in the world and more. A delicate smile pulled at the outskirts of his lips as he tilted his mouth to his beloved's brow. "But that doesn't change the fact that we've still got them, now does it? And for better or worse, I'm going to continue inflicting myself upon you because I, for one," he confessed in a secretive murmur, "believe that you deserve all of this and more – and whatever would I do with myself without you, hmm? I dare not even begin to fathom it. The notion of my own incompetence rampaging unchecked… I must admit, it rather frightens me. Not to mention, the lack of you in my bed…" He willed a look of melodramatic and melancholy dread onto his countenance that would have made Shakespeare proud. "My loins weep at the very proposition of it."

A weak, choked little chuckle escaped from Julian's suddenly delicate body as Rori carried him up the last of the stairs, swallowed whole by a rare hush that began to swell within the Manor's confines. It was strange, in its own way. Three years ago, that silence would have felt cold, secluding... It would have left him feeling inherently alone in an empty, monochrome world, wandering through a wasteland of greys and blacks while specks of snow-white ash drifted down from the sky. But now, even with the house emptied of the majority of its tenants, the softness of the atmosphere left behind was anything but lonesome. Quiet, perhaps, yes – but not abandoned. Not lonesome. Just serene. Tranquil, in spite of the turbulent emotions radiating from the mad, vulnerable creature cradled in his arms.

"Please don't take me back to the hospital..." The words were strangled, tiny – so infinitesimal and frail in their faintness that Rori almost found himself questioning whether or not Julian had really uttered them. But then he realized that his lover was trembling, just the most delicate of quivers made evident by the tautness of the arms around his neck, and suddenly those words became real. "He'll kill me if I go back..."

The weight on his heart tripled, dragging it down into a pit of despair and a longing to free Julian from something over which he had no control. Pressing a long, anguished kiss to his lover's hair, he murmured, "You're not going anywhere, my love," and reached out with his mind to ease the bedroom door open. "And I promise that no one, in either this world or the next, will ever lay their hands on you again."

Rori didn't understand the meaning of those words, then – he didn't understand who this malevolent "he" might be, whether "he" was even real, or merely a product of Julian's schizophrenia – but that didn't prevent him from pouring the entirety of his being and more into that oath. In the depths of his illness, it was something Julian needed to hear... And with the memory of an ashen conversation in the morning mist lingering like a ghost in the back of his mind, it was something Rori needed desperately to promise.

Even if I can do absolutely nothing else, he whispered, I will do everything within my power to protect you, my love.

"... for you are, and will forever be, the very pulse of my heart."

-x-

Christ, he'd only arrived at the Academy fifteen minutes ago, and already he was loathing the necessity of his being here.

Jason slouched into the classroom with a vapid and irate breath, the backpack slung over his shoulder weighing down on him as though he'd filled it first with a layer of bricks, then a gallon or more of quickly solidifying concrete. The car ride in had been bad enough; every last word of conversation had been oh so "thoughtfully" censored, out of concern for the obviously traumatized flower the other tenants had been travelling with. Yami hadn't responded to his baiting. Artemis had been curled up against the window, presumably napping with her enormous headphones blocking out all the audio from her surroundings. Yue had been cramming for a chemistry exam, and Faith and Kali had been talking about everything but the subjects involving Rori, or anything else that had happened in the past month.

It had been nothing if not the most infuriatingly genteel thing he'd ever had to sit through. Not to mention boring... If he'd had to spend a second longer in the confines of the vehicle ferrying them off to school, he would have either lapsed into a coma, or mutilated something. He could have been mauling the leather upholstery with his teeth before suddenly dropping off into a vegetative state induced by sheer boredom. Anything could have happened, as long as it wasn't, God forbid, normal.

Now, all he wanted to do was go back home, crawl into the warm, comfortable nest of his blankets, and sleep for the next ten or fifteen years. Maybe then the rest of the Manor would realize that he was actually prepared to get on with life. As things were at the moment, he was too pissed off to want to be anywhere except in bed, or playing a very actively violent video game – or watching porn, because good porn distracted the wandering teenage mind like nothing else could.

But, no. Instead, he was stuck here, in a drafty old building full of stuffy teachers, snotty students, and no porn to speak of, save for the educationally morbid and illustrated diagrams found in biology textbooks – which, let's face it, wouldn't have turned on even the horniest of horny teenagers, unless they weren't entirely right in the head to start with.

Or their surname happened to be O'Connor. First name: Rori.

Even then, he had to wonder. Not that the task of envisioning that overgrown leech vigorously jacking off over an open biology book was particularly pleasant. Really, it was more disturbing than anything – mostly because he could actually...

Augh. 'Kay, Brain, let's not go there right this moment, if you wouldn't mind? 'Cause... Shit. Just... He choked down a shudder, as well as its accompanying gag, and fought to erase the grimace from his countenance. Ew. No.

Unleashing a shameless yawn into the subdued atmosphere of the classroom even as he made a mental note never to leave his Bio homework out where the vampire might find it, Jason shuffled over to his usual seat, unceremoniously dumped his bag onto the floor, and collapsed into his chair. Only the most minute sense of self-preservation slowed his head's descent before his forehead could crack itself open against the desk's momentarily clean surface. He landed with less of a bone-shattering thwack, and more of a gentle, if irate, tunk.

He didn't want to be here. He'd managed to survive the multiple suspensions through cunning and sheer evasion, but this... This was practically Chinese water torture in comparison. There was no escaping it, now that he was here. He might as well have paid someone to tie him to a bottomless chair, so the faculty could take turns beating him with an unwashed knee sock full of pennies and diamonds Casino Royale style.

And to top it all off – as if Life wasn't already being enough of a petulant bitch with a grudge – his first class of the morning was History, with none other than Albert C. Fargus, a curmudgeonly old man with venom to spare in anything and everything involving one student in particular... and that lucky student just so happened to be Jason. The only thing that could have possibly made this situation any worse was the presence of a small and hysterically screeching child, because small and shrieking children, by the very nature of their existence, made everything worse, regardless of the situation's gravity.

"Man, this is bullshit. Bull, with extra emphasis piled on the shit."

My thoughts exactly. When the bassist's exasperated voice broke through the haze of dread, irritation, and self-pity clouding his awareness, Jason welcomed his friend's arrival with a low, droning hum. "Nice to see you too, Rand."

"How is yo' pasty white ass even still enrolled here, man!? I get one more suspension an' I'm done, but you get a different suspension, like, every week, and I still hafta stare at the back of your... God dammit!"

Jason airily extended a single finger without lifting his head from the desk. "Actually, last I checked, my ass was still a pleasantly warm caramel-y kind of colour, but thanks for noticing that I'm alive and well."

There was a moment of silence, and even though Jason remained with his forehead planted firmly against the unyielding faux-wood surface, he could tell the bassist was hovering at his side, glaring down at him with the kind of displeasure that came with foul mornings and sarcastic friends. "Smart-ass," Randy finally grumbled, before moodily dropping his bag on the floor and claiming the next desk over.

When the chair's feet rasped against the flooring, then rasped a little more violently with the weight of a settling body that still had momentum to spare, Jason lifted his head long enough to pillow his temple against the back of his forearm and peered across at his friend. "Shitty morning?"

The bassist's dark face was locked in a scowl as he glowered down at the desk's scarred countenance. "Try shitty life. Deidre – my girl," Randy elaborated, glancing over at him with a weary, long-suffering expression. "A couple weeks ago we got into a fight over something I don't even remember. She's not talking to me," the bassist irately ticked off the options on his fingers, "not answering my calls, not responding to my texts, ignoring my emails, and to top it all off, she's acting like I don't even fuckin' exist."

Reason number three hundred and seventy one in regards to why I'm never getting into a relationship, Jason's thoughts dryly mumbled to themselves. He refocused on his friend's scowling countenance. "She doesn't go to school here, does she?"

"Nuh-uh. Probably a good thing, too," the bassist absently brooded into the depths of the churning classroom. "She'd have my goddamn balls on a platter if she saw how I act around Artemis."

Jason arched a wry brow, only distantly recalling how, not so very long ago, it had hurt like a bitch to do so with a torn eyebrow piercing. "Sounds like a fun gal to have around."

"Y'know what? Some days, it's great! Other days? Dude," the bassist warned with a lift of his palms. "Don't even get me fuckin' started. I don't know if it's 'cause some guy screwed her over in the past or whatever, but fuckin' Christ on a pogo-stick... If she could get away with puttin' me on a leash," Randy sniped, "she would. She'd have me on a leash attached to a stake in her back yard. And that leash? Six inches."

Jason grimaced, hissing in a sympathetic breath as he regarded his friend across the aisle – and tried his absolute best not to think about someone else who had an overt penchant for leashes, usually of the leather variety. The patent leather g-string, on the other hand, was little more than an accessory. He couldn't decide which was the lesser evil in regards to the damage it inflicted upon a man's dignity: being attached to a leash while wearing a banana hammock, or being attached to a leash while wearing nothing at all, save for a gag and body harness.

Christ. If that isn't ten different kinds of disturbing, I don't know what is.

"So, uh, speakin' of," he blurted, desperate to derail that particular train of thought before it could arrive to its conclusion, "how's shit been in my absence?" Jason yawned, nuzzling comfortably against his arm as his sealed lids settled themselves. "Old man Fargus still yakkin' his toothless jaws off even though no one's listening, or has he remained content with just polluting our oxygen supply with that toxic nerve gas he calls B.O.?"

Nothing but an awkward silence and the din of background conversation had the decency to reply.

Prying open his lids with vapid curiosity and noticing a moment too late how Randy's large, expressive eyes were trained on something over his shoulder, Jason faltered, his stomach dropping an inch or ten in its cavity before he sat up, cautiously twisted around in his seat, and felt Lady Luck drive her steel-capped stilettos a little further up his rectum.

As Jason's wide-eyed stare wandered up to the old man's withered face, a cruel, reedy mouth twisted itself into a smile. "So nice to see you again, Mr. Riley," the teacher drawled, saccharine insincerity dripping from each and every syllable articulated by tobacco-stained teeth.

Ah, shit.

"Oh..." A feeble grin jerked at the corners of his lips in response. "Hi, Mr. Fargus. Lovely morning, isn't it?"

"Quite, Mr. Riley," the old man returned darkly, faded blue eyes narrowed into predatory slits behind the lenses of browline glasses.

Christ, did he have to stand so close? Resisting his urge to lean back with a grimace of disgust, Jason managed one last feeble glimmer of a grin as mismatched irises peered up at a face that had, apparently, been specially crafted to wear a glower. Much like Rori's had been sculpted to wear his trademark smirk. Other than that, the only thing the two men had in common was an unnerving penchant for annoying the piss out of him. Fargus on a somewhat more... malicious level.

"I hear you've been getting into somewhat more trouble than usual, my boy," Fargus dourly mused, and Jason had to forcibly restrain himself from scowling at the malicious familiarity with which the cantankerous teacher had addressed him. "Normally I would have thought your prolonged absence might mean you've moved on to greener pastures," the grim and utterly humourless smile accompanying his words faded, the corners of the old man's withered lips sagging down his countenance like they'd been injected with lead. "Although, I would expect your continued attendance here is to be credited to those pretentious," a pause, before a word enunciated itself with vile and emphatic precision, "homosexuals you degenerates call your guardians."

Despite the chill of dread that had flooded through him upon Fargus's arrival, Jason felt his vehement dislike for the man swell and overtake each scarce molecule of anxiety to leave nothing but a sweltering blanket of hatred in its wake. There weren't many things that could honestly and truly anger him – Rori aside – but Fargus... Christ. He was special. Jason didn't know what it was, but since day one, he'd felt nothing but unbridled animosity towards the shrivelled old ass. Maybe it was his proclivity for indiscriminate nastiness. Maybe it was the way he made a point of singling Jason out, criticising everything from the lacklustre way he wore his uniform to his indifference towards classroom education, to the simple fact of his existence. But nothing – and Jason meant nothing – angered him more than the way Fargus talked about his "family."

Fuck Rori. He was a pretentious homosexual. And a horny, pedantic, egotistical, hypersexual and poppy-seed-counting freak of nature who always had to get the last word. But Julian...?

With the events of that morning still fresh in his mind – the way Julian had, for a moment, stared down at his hands, looking lost and alone, like the kid condemned to the outskirts of the playground – Jason felt that dislike intensify sevenfold.

"If something happens, though – or if you change your mind," another quick glance, "I'll have my cell phone with me, so if no one answers at home…"

"If something happens, I'll call. I'll be fine, Ju – 's just school."

Like hell he'd let Fargus talk about him like he was some worthless, AIDS-ridden piece of back-alley gutter-trash. Rori may have built the Manor with his own two hands, but Julian was the one who'd crafted it into a home, and no one – absolutely fucking no one – had a right to treat him with anything but the deference he justly deserved.

Only distantly aware of the way the background chatter of the room had muted to a deathly silence, and acutely conscious of the furious heat slowly crawling to a boil beneath the skin of his face, Jason's jaw clenched as he glowered up at the elderly man and pulled a sharp, mechanical smile onto his lips. "You sure you wanna go there right now, old man?"

The smug malevolence of the teacher's expression waned, only to be replaced by furious indignation as a crimson flush erupted beneath aged and spotted flesh. "I realize that you think you're somehow above consequences, Mr. Riley," Fargus snarled, withered lips and the blackened borders of his teeth turning the expression into something even more hideous than it had any reason to be. "But don't you dare think you can threaten me just because those societal parasites-"

"Hey y'know what," Jason announced, grinning with a malicious cheer. "Something just occurred to me." The feet of his chair screeched against the floor as he shoved himself up from his seat and towered over the tiny, vituperative old man who obviously thought he had a right to judge everyone and anyone but himself. "You don't know shit about them, old man," he growled, an accusatory finger aimed, meeting the teacher's glare spark for atomic spark as he shifted one very deliberate step forward. "So how about you shut your filthy fucking mouth-" The hands that had lashed out to shove at the teacher's bony shoulders did so of their own volition, "And leave my family the fuck out of this!"

He didn't even fully realize precisely what it was that he'd done until afterwards, when the old man had staggered back into a nearby desk, jarring it across the floor... When Randy had an arm barred across part of his chest, fingers digging painfully into the meat of his shoulder, incredulously hissing at him under his breath. Jason didn't hear it; he barely even knew Randy was there, so intently every last iota of his being had focussed on the small, bristling old man unsteadily righting himself against the desk. The screech of the legs against the flooring had slashed through the remaining chatter like a knife, and only silence remained as all eyes in the classroom trained themselves on the local degenerate who'd just shoved a small, spiteful old man.

A livid flush had erupted under the wan flesh of his countenance, withered jowls trembling as his lip twitched with barely contained rage. But Jason never faltered. He would have been right there, mere inches away from the vitriolic old man and glaring pure murder at him were it not for his friend's restricting hold on him.

"You..." The old man uttered, his entire body visibly trembling, chest heaving beneath the fingers clawed into it and nostrils flaring for breath. A single gnarled digit separated itself, aimed at him in vicious, speechless accusation. "You..."

Jason could have broken that finger off without thinking a single thing of it, were it not for Randy catching him at the last second with a hissed warning.

That was when the old man slashed an arm out, skeleton thin finger aimed precisely at the open door as spittle flew from his thin lips, his blackened teeth, "Get the hell out of my class, you good-for-nothing degenerate!" The little old man screamed in an apoplectic fury, "I'll see you carted out of this institution in handcuffs if I ever see you step over that threshold again!"

'Kay, that's it, fuck this noise. I'm done.

But Jason had already ripped himself free, plucking his bag up from the floor and leaving his bassist – his friend and, more importantly, his ally – gaping after him in alarm as he blew through the room and slammed the door shut behind him.

-x-

To Be Continued…

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