Hadrian kicked a rock. Charlie watched it roll several feet and then come to a stop. A buzzard circled over them, its shadow sliding across the ground like a ghost, and Charlie looked up, shielding his eyes against the sun. "Something must be dead," he said, his gaze trailing after the bird.
There was a sigh beside Charlie, and he looked back over at Hadrian. Hadrian had his arms crossed, his chin tucked down, and he was completely still.
"They're scavengers," Charlie said, "On the food chain."
Hadrian said it in a way that made it clear that Charlie's buzzard facts were, in fact, not interesting. Charlie shrugged, and dropped to the ground, crossing his legs. He leaned back on his palms, but the ground was hot and covered with pebbles, so he hunched forward instead. He was so fucking sick of the desert.
Hadrian's shadow crossed over him. "What are you doing?"
"Sitting," Charlie replied, flicking a fingernail. He looked up. "Or are Charges not allowed to sit?"
His smirk faded at the look in Hadrian's eyes. So, what, they weren't being snarky with each other anymore? Hadrian was staring down at him with furrowed eyebrows and a small frown. He looked like he wanted to ask Charlie something, his lips were parted, but then his eyes darted away and he stepped back.
Charlie's mouth dropped as his eyes followed Hadrian's retreat. "What?" he asked, completely unnerved by the way Hadrian was acting.
Shifting on his feet, Hadrian spent a second just ... not looking at Charlie, but then he stiffened his jaw, and he came forward to sit down. He nodded off into the distance, where two dots were moving along the road. "What's this about?"
"This?" Charlie asked, "You mean—"
Charlie considered Reg and Vespasian, who were out on the road, jogging. That morning, right at the crack of dawn, Reg had been overcome with some sort of driving force to exercise. Maybe it was getting his hearing back, or maybe it was because he had been locked in a trunk for hours. Either way, he had ordered Hadrian to drive off course down a cracked, abandoned country road so he could run.
" —Vespasian." Charlie noticed it too. Reg had oh-so nonchalantly asked Vespasian if he wanted to join on the jog. And then he ordered Charlie to stay under Hadrian's watch.
"Yeah," Hadrian replied.
"They must be friends now," Charlie said with a crooked smile. He expected a laugh, or a snort in return, but instead Hadrian's eyes met his, and Charlie's breath shortened. Hadrian looked worried. Worried was not an expression Charlie wanted to see on Hadrian. It was a bad look on the sanest person in the group. "I'm kidding," he said, "Like they could ever be friends."
Something in Hadrian's eyes flashed. "You know, you got to me," he replied. "When you asked Vespasian if he ever thought about owning someone. You meant for me to hear that." He leaned towards Charlie, his gaze hard. "And I did. I heard it loud and clear."
Charlie looked away. He shirked off his leather jacket and ruffled his hair, trying to get some air on his scalp. The heat was settling, casting a thick, choking blanket over the rusty orange landscape.
He could feel Hadrian's eyes on him, sharp and burning, hotter than the arid desert they were mired in. Hadrian wanted Charlie to say something, but Charlie didn't know what. "I wasn't trying to get to you," Charlie said finally, bringing his knees up to his chest, and resting his chin on his arms.
"I was just messing around," Charlie snapped, and then shut his eyes. "Shit. Man, if you read that much into it, then maybe you should be worried."
He didn't owe Hadrian anything. Charlie wasn't responsible for telling Hadrian about the look in Vespasian's eyes when he stared at Hadrian, or the way he kept a hand on Hadrian most of the time— on his shoulder, at the small of his back. Hadrian should know better, and if he didn't have survival instincts, well it sure as hell wasn't Charlie's problem.
But Hadrian was being kinda quiet. Charlie risked a peek, and frowned. Hadrian was still staring at him. "Should I be worried?" Hadrian said, his voice tight.
"Just as much as the rest of us," Charlie replied, his eyes narrowed. "Just because you were big shit in Necropolis won't stop that brute— "
Charlie stopped, licking his chapped lips. "You know him better than I do," he said finally.
There was a slight sag to Hadrian's entire demeanor; his compact, lithe body drooping. He looked out at the distance with green eyes. "I guess," he said, and Charlie could have sworn he sounded lost. Charlie had the urge to reach over and pat Hadrian's back.
"You can handle him," Charlie said, and finally there was a smile.
"I guess," Hadrian repeated, his voice soft. His smile turned rueful. "I was just horny, you know? And he seemed too stupid to care one way or the other."
Picking at the dirt, Charlie shrugged noncommittally. Hadrian was only being so open with him because Reg was acting the way he was. It wasn't like Hadrian actually trusted Charlie, and he definitely didn't see him as an equal. The less Charlie said, the better. He didn't want anything to come back to haunt him.
Charlie looked up. Hadrian's expression had resumed its usual tightness. "We don't want them to be friends."
"Yeah," Charlie replied, exhaling. "I know."
Hadrian was staring at him with hooded eyes. "Distract him, Charlie."
"Yeah," Charlie repeated. He looked out at the distant dots. "Ok."
The next safepoint was an old ranch house on the edge of the desert. What felt like miles of dilapidated fencing stretched out around it, and there was a small water tower standing behind the ranch. A vast mountain range loomed in the background.
Charlie sat in the car for a moment, studying it. The other boys were all out already, stretching their arms and twisting the knots out of their backs. A thud on the roof jolted Charlie, and he looked up to find Reg considering him from behind mirrored aviator sunglasses.
"Your legs not working?"
Breathing out, Charlie shrugged.
"Then get your ass moving," Reg replied as he turned and walked towards the ranch house.
Sighing, Charlie pushed himself out of the car, his feet hitting the cement of the driveway. Once again, things that should have been worn down or destroyed over the 36 years since the sickness seemed relatively well-kept. The house looked horrible, the paint long since faded from whatever color it started as, but the walls looked sound.
Charlie glanced around, taking slow steps so he had enough time to take in the scenery. Behind them, the desert stretched out. It was amazing how abruptly it had stopped, giving away to rocky geography, and finally sparse, dry fields of yellow grass. Only a few more hours down the road, and they may actually see something green for once. Charlie yearned to be somewhere cooler.
Someone shoved him, and he nearly tripped on his feet. "The fuck," he snarled, turning around to find Vespasian standing behind him, carrying most of their supplies. His eyes were flat and expressionless. He stood there, motionless, like a sentinel.
Charlie drew back, his heart thudding. With a curled lip, he turned to take another step, but then stopped. "What's your game?" he asked, without looking at Vespasian.
Charlie's eyes darted from side to side. "Then leave me alone, I didn't do shit to you."
Jerking around, Charlie looked at Vespasian with wide eyes. "Ok?"
"You mean nothing," Vespasian replied, his voice low. He shouldered past Charlie, and disappeared into the house, leaving Charlie alone on the drooping porch.
He found Reg in one of the rooms on the second floor. The idea of staying on a floor any higher than ground level in their day and age seemed like a stupid risk, but Charlie was too tired to question it. If the house collapsed, well … that was just Charlie's luck.
"Uh," Charlie said, shifting at the doorway. "There's actually a lot of rooms— "
He stopped talking by himself, it wasn't even as if Reg interrupted him. He glanced down the hallway, staring wistfully at all the vacant bedrooms. Whoever owned this ranch house must have had a farm family … lots of kids. Hopefully the kids had all been grown and old by the time the sickness hit. Well, then they would have had kids of their own, probably.
"Suit yourself," Reg said, and Charlie was brought back to the present. He hesitated, and then stepped into the room.
"I don't know," he said, "I just thought, you know, with us being locked in that trunk … you might want some alone time."
Dark eyes slid to meet Charlie's. "Is that what you thought?"
There was a distinct thud against Charlie's ribcage, and he swallowed. "Ah, shit," he mumbled, rubbing the back of his neck. "Reg, just tell me what the fuck to do, ok?"
Reg gestured for him to come closer with a curled finger, so Charlie made his feet move forward. Reg was stretched out on the bed, aviators up, pushing his dark hair back. He had his arms thrown carelessly above his head, and a bit of his taut stomach was revealed with the rise of his shirt. Without thinking, Charlie slid a hand against the brown skin, inching dangerously close to the trail of hair moving down towards the waistline of Reg's pants.
Charlie's mouth was dry. Reg was everything that he had ever fantasized about. Well … physically. The rest was a nightmare.
Kneeling to the ground, Charlie rested his chin on the edge of the bed. He kept his arm stretched out, and rubbed Reg's belly with a languid pace, the tips of his fingers trailing along the skin.
"You keep doing that, then you better be prepared for the follow through."
Charlie's hand snapped back, and Reg chuckled. He stretched out, a light groan escaping his lips, and then he flopped an arm over his eyes. With the run that morning, and the way he was acting now, it was almost hard to believe that Reg had been deaf only the day before, that he had suffered a seizure.
"Does Necropolis have doctors?" Charlie asked, turning his head to rest his cheek on his arm.
"There's a hospital in the city."
"Mmm," Charlie replied. There was a hospital. His clan could have used a hospital. From Charlie read about them in books, they contained the all equipment needed to save a person's life. If that was true, and Necropolis had one, it didn't seem so far-fetched they could find out what's wrong with Reg.
Charlie looked up, but Reg was still covering his face with his arm. Slowly, Charlie climbed onto the bed, careful to leave a few inches between him and Reg. He lowered himself on the mattress, stretching out, and a soft sigh escaped his lips. "I wonder what the kid who used to live in this room was like."
"Like," Charlie continued, "He really liked music, there's a ton of band posters covering the walls." Leaning up on his elbow, Charlie gave the room a once-over. "Some pages torn out of porn mags," he said with a laugh. "I wonder how old he was when the sickness hit."
Ignoring Reg, Charlie ventured on, "Probably still a teenager, like us." He hummed for a moment, and then said, "Well, who knows, maybe he survived." Falling silent, he dropped down, and rested his cheek on his arm.
The room reminded him of his old room … the one he set up in the house he and his mother stayed in for the winter months. There was no shortage of nicknacks and posters to decorate with, and Charlie did. He put up photographs and paintings, turning the entire room into a clutter of things that didn't mean anything anymore. He missed that room.
Following the line of posters, Charlie rolled to his back, his eyes hitting the ceiling. There was a playboy centerfold still tacked up there, thirty-six years after the fall of mankind.
"Do you get like this all the time?" Reg muttered from beside him.
Charlie turned his head. "Like what?"
"Sad, or whatever," Reg replied, "Over old shit. The kid who lived here is a pile of dust, you know?"
That was fucking cold, and Charlie was about to say as much when Reg shifted around, dropping his arm on Charlie's side. Charlie flinched, but thankfully didn't jump away … he was getting better at taming his reactions, but once again he figured he better do damage control. He nudged forward, curling himself against Reg's chest.
A light pat on his ass was his reward. "It's not bad, is it?" Reg said, his voice rumbling in his chest. Charlie had no clue what he meant, but that was pretty par for the course with Reg. He just kept his face pressed against Reg's chest. Reg slid his hand up Charlie's back, Charlie's shirt riding up in its wake.
"What're you plannin', Charlie?"
Charlie kept his breathing steady, maybe focused a little too hard on it. It felt as if Reg had set up another tightrope for him to walk across. "What do you mean?"
Instead of replying immediately, Reg pushed his weight onto Charlie, rolling them until Charlie was on his back, smothered by Reg's chest. Charlie squirmed a little, kicking upwards so at least he could get some air.
"It's just been awhile," Reg said, looking down at Charlie, "Since you've tried to run. Your feet must be itching right about now."
He wasn't wrong, but his taunt sure as hell wasn't going to work on Charlie, especially with how obvious it was. Charlie would have to be an idiot to admit to any kind of misgivings. No, he had learned by now. It didn't matter if it was the truth or a lie, Reg just wanted Charlie docile and completely reliant on him.
Maybe he was feeling insecure again. Charlie turned his head to hide a curled lip, and slowly grazed his fingers up Reg's arm. "You must think I'm a stupid rabbit," he said, "Just gonna run, even if it gets me killed."
"You did it before."
Charlie gripped Reg's arm, looking up at him with hard eyes. He reached up, and wrapped his arm around Reg's back, pulling himself up to nuzzle against Reg's warm neck. "I've wised up," he said, keeping his voice level. Reg was so... solid, his presence over Charlie, being right there, trapping Charlie between his arms... it made it hard to think. Charlie curled his fingers into Reg's shirt, wondering what the hell to say next. He'd had this conversation so many times, but Reg never seemed satisfied with Charlie's answers.
"You want me to run?" Charlie asked suddenly, his lips dragging along Reg's neck. He shut his eyes. Shit. Really? Way to light the fuse, Charlie.
Reg pushed him down, into the mattress, arms wrapping tightly under Charlie. "It would be fun to hunt you down if you did."
Was this... a playful mood? Charlie absent-mindedly twirled a finger in Reg's dark hair, breathing slowly. He encircled Reg in his arms, and then it was them hugging each other, holding on tightly. Charlie was starting to get pretty solid himself, much more so than he used to be. He almost dreaded the prospect, what with Reg's threat hanging open-ended in the air. Charlie couldn't imagine what having sex with Reg would be like, and he couldn't assume anything.
Red didn't seem to be thinking the same thing Charlie was thinking. He was just lying on top of Charlie, holding him close. Charlie wondered if Reg had fallen asleep. Then he wondered if he would be stuck under Reg for the rest of the night. With a sigh, he started to shuffle out from under Reg as best he could, when Reg suddenly crushed Charlie in his arms.
"Reg!" Charlie grunted, trying loosen Reg's hold somewhat, "I can't breath!"
Reg relaxed, sliding up to rest on his elbows, looking down at Charlie. His expression was completely unreadable, but there were dark circles under his eyes. He was watching Charlie, and his mouth slid into a frown. "You had the chance to run," he muttered, as if he wasn't even talking to Charlie, "I gave you the chance, but you agreed to be mine."
He wasn't talking to Charlie at all. His eyes were glazed over, his grip tightening on Charlie's arms. He was muttering under his breath now, things Charlie couldn't even understand. Charlie's heart raced, and he eyed the door.
"You can't take it back!" Reg suddenly shouted in Charlie's face. Charlie flinched, and then desperately slammed his palms against Reg's chest.
"Let go," he breathed, "Get off me. Get off, Reg."
Charlie's pleading seemed to break through whatever haze Reg was in. He blinked, and then sat back on his haunches, straddling Charlie. After a tense moment, he pressed his palm against his forehead. "I have a headache," he said blankly.
Closing his eyes, Charlie let out one, long shuddering breath, and then opened his eyes again. He sat up, and reached out to rub his thumb gently between Reg's eyebrows. Reg grimaced, and then his face smoothed out and he pressed against Charlie's touch. "It hurts," he said. "I can't stand it."
"I know," Charlie replied, working his thumb gently to Reg's temple. He leaned forward, and left a light kiss on Reg's forehead. "Go to sleep," he murmured.
Reg moved off him, and dropped down on the bed without a sound. His mouth was set in a tight frown. Charlie sat over him, rubbing his shoulder until his eyes drifted shut and his breathing reached a measured pace. The frown didn't disappear, though. It only deepened.
Charlie found Hadrian downstairs, lounging on a dusty armchair, one leg dangling over the side, and flipping through the pages of a faded magazine. Charlie sat on the couch opposite from him, and stared.
"What?" Hadrian said, without looking up from the magazine.
Hadrian snorted bitterly, and jerked his head towards the kitchen. He flipped the page of the magazine a little too violently, ripping it. "You know," he said, looking up at Charlie. "He puts both of our stuff in the same room. He did it at the motel, and he did it here. I didn't really pay attention the first time."
Hadrian turned the page again, the paper crumpling under his fingers. "Are we married or something?" he muttered. His eyes widened. He threw the magazine on the ground, stood up, and strode to Charlie, who barely had time to react before Hadrian was leaning over him, fisting his collar. "What did you do to me?" he hissed, his eyes narrowed.
Wrapping his hand nervously around Hadrian's wrist, Charlie swallowed. "What?"
"I've never been scared of him," Hadrian said, "Now I can't even … I get twitchy if we're in the same room. I have to sleep with him tonight, you know!"
"Hadrian— I," Charlie began to stutter, but then there was a shuffling at the front door. They both froze, their eyes glued to each other. Reg was upstairs. Vespasian was in the kitchen. The shuffling turned to clicking, as the doorknob turned.
"Come on," Hadrian breathed, pulling Charlie with him around the couch. They ducked down just as the door opened.
There were slow footsteps. And whispering. Crazy, frantic whispering. Whoever it was was talking to himself. Charlie sat up a little, peering over the couch. He got one look, and his heart nearly stopped.
"Shit," he whispered, dropping back down.
Hadrian stared at him. "What?"
"Nosher," Charlie said, glancing around for anything they could use as a weapon. Hadrian grabbed his wrist.
"A what?" he asked.
"Nosher," Charlie said insistently. "You know, they eat humans."
The horrified look that came over Hadrian's face would have been amusing if it wasn't so appropriate for the situation. He rallied quickly though, which Charlie found impressive enough, his expression turning serious. "We'll just have to take him on both sides," Hadrian said, "You go around the left side of the couch, and I'll go the right."
Charlie nodded, apprehension hitting his stomach.
Holding up his hand, Hadrian did a silent countdown with his fingers, and then they both stood up. What they saw froze them in their tracks.
Vespasian was advancing silently on the grungy nosher, who was sifting through the supplies they had carried into the house. In a blink of an eye, Vespasian had his hands on the nosher's head, and a sickening crack rang out. Charlie nearly gagged. The nosher dropped to the ground, his head thudding on the floor, twisted in the wrong direction.
"Shit," Charlie said, "Wow..." He glanced over at Hadrian.
Hadrian was pale as death, and he was shaking. His eyes were glued to Vespasian, who was already dragging the nosher's body towards the front door. "Hadrian— " Charlie began to say, but he was cut off when Hadrian suddenly gripped his hand. Charlie looked down, and saw that Hadrian's knuckles had gone white. Sighing, Charlie shook his head, and threaded their fingers.
He squeezed gently, and bit his lip when Hadrian dropped his forehead on Charlie's shoulder and burst out into wracked, panicked sobs.
thanks to roundaboutparker for beta'ing ^^.