I was getting ready to go to bed one night, my shirt halfway off, when I heard a knock on the door. I froze, staring into the canopy of my shirt, before lowering my arms and letting it slip back down. It was almost ten at night. Who would be at my door at this hour?
Hell, unexpected guests at any hour was suspicious. The last time that'd happened had been on my birthday when I'd been dragged into all this bullshit. I tucked my gun down the back of my pants before answering the door.
Zion. Relief flooded through me and I fought just to keep myself from hugging him. He looked far too tense for that to be a good idea. He didn't look angry now, though. Not exactly scared, either, but the way he was hunched in on himself made me worry that he'd run off if I tried to touch him.
"Hey," I said for lack of anything better to say.
"Hey," he said back. "Um, I came to say sorry."
I didn't want his apologies, I wanted him to give me a chance to explain, but my throat seemed to have closed up so I stepped aside to let him in instead.
Zion cast his eyes around my apartment as he stepped inside and wandered into the middle of the room. He turned back to face me and let out a long sigh. "Look, I don't really have any right to be angry at you for working for those people. They were trying to catch me, yeah, but they had some pretty good reasons. I was dangerous, we both know that. I don't mean I'm going to hand myself in or anything because I have things under control now, but... yeah, I had no right to act the way I did and I'm sorry."
I made a sound of frustration because I really just wanted to hug him. "If what you think was going on was actually going on I wouldn't blame you for being angry. But it isn't and you didn't even ask me, so that's what I want an apology for. For not just fucking trusting me not to betray you like that. Okay?"
Slowly, Zion nodded.
"Okay. First of all, I didn't just go and apply at the local douchebag club. I didn't really have much choice in whether or not I worked for them." I decided not to tell Zion that McCartnnon had used him as leverage over me. "Secondly, the organisation itself isn't actually evil, just the guy who runs it, and we have plans to deal with him. He's the one who was after you, and it wasn't because he wanted to save the world from your dangerous self. He has a bunch of half blood kids locked up in cells, some of them as young as six, and I doubt most of them ever hurt anyone. So I get why you were angry, but next time before you get yourself all worked up about something please consider just giving me the benefit of the doubt and asking me about it first."
For a long moment Zion was silent, just staring at me in shock as he absorbed what I'd told him. "Okay," he said eventually.
I nodded. "Good."
We stood and looked at each other for a while after that, neither of us quite sure what we were supposed to do next. I couldn't get over how much Zion had grown. Before he'd left I'd thought of him as a kid, but that word no longer fit him. He was no longer cute, he was handsome, and the singlet he wore showed muscles I was fairly sure he hadn't had before he left.
"Uh, can I hug you?" I asked eventually. "I feel like I should hug you..."
"Oh, sure." Zion stepped forward and wrapped his arms around me. Somehow, it felt different to how I had expected. I hadn't honestly thought his body wouldn't have changed over the years he was gone — it visibly had — but the solid muscularity of him still came as a surprise.
That wasn't bad, though. If I was honest, it was just what I needed. I could hug Mikey any time I wanted, but that wasn't quite the same. Though Mikey had comforted me plenty of times, I'd always maintained the role of his protector, the one who made sure everything was okay. I'd had a similar dynamic with Zion, but I got the feeling we weren't going to go back to that. It wasn't just his physical strength or the fact that he was ever so slightly taller than me now, it was also in the way he held himself, the way he spoke. He didn't need me anymore, and I was okay with that.
"Are you okay?" he asked quietly after a while, and I realised I'd just kind of been... clinging to him, for kind of a long time.
I let out a huff of breath pretending to be a laugh against his neck and began to pull away. "Sorry, rough few weeks."
"No, I just..." Zion sighed, dragged me a few steps over to my mattress, and pulled me down onto it with him. We ended up with his arm around me and my head on his chest. It was weird, being the one being held. Was this how Mikey felt when we lay like this, small and protected and all warm inside?
I remembered my gun when it started digging into my back and wriggled around to pry it free. Zion's eyes followed my hand as I set my gun down next to the mattress, but he made no comment.
"We should share whatever information we've gathered," I said as I settled in next to him again. "We hardly knew anything when you left, and I definitely know a lot more now. I don't know how much you've figured out."
"Okay, if you like," Zion said, his chest vibrating against my ear as he spoke. His voice was deeper now. "I know there are things like that guy I fought, fucked up things that bleed black and can do some pretty crazy shit. I guess that's what my father was. There are some that look like animals, too. I don't really know what any of them are, just that every one of them I've ever encountered takes pleasure in some really awful stuff. That's about all I know."
"They're called demons, though that's just a word," I told him. "Nobody really knows what they are or where they came from, but they are evil in the truest sense."
Zion ran his hand over my hair, then quickly pulled it away like he had caught himself doing something he shouldn't. "That's probably good, since I've been killing them."
"Huh," I said, and then after a moment when I remembered the thing I'd seen on the news, "Oh. Were you the one doing the thing that ended up on the news? In the next town over. They found black liquid all over the apartments of people who were assholes and murderers after hearing fighting. No bodies."
"Heh," Zion said, and his chest jumped slightly at the exhale. "Probably. I don't have a TV — or, you know, a house to put it in — but yeah, sounds about right. Do you have any idea how hard it is to dispose of a body without getting caught?" He paused. "Sorry, I'm being creepy. Suffice it to say I've found an outlet for my violent instincts. I'm not a danger to anything human anymore."
"That's good," I said. "Sounds like you're better at demon hunting than me. Not that it's my job to go after the humanoid ones. That one you saved me from was the first one I'd ever seen, actually. Thanks for saving me, by the way, and sorry for the inappropriate boner. Unless I've discovered I have a really weird fetish, I'm guessing it drugged me somehow."
Zion laughed and his chest rumbled. "Yeah, I figured it was something like that. And sorry for the mouth to your thigh, that probably didn't help."
It was my turn to laugh. "Well, you had a good reason. A bit of warning next time would be good, though."
"There's going to be a 'next time' I have my mouth on your thigh? That should be interesting."
I really didn't know what to say to that, so I didn't say anything. The stretch of silence that followed quickly felt awkward.
"Well, that was inappropriate," he said eventually. "Sorry, I haven't dealt with people much for a while, and anyone I have done anything approximating relax with has shared my sexuality. Which I guess brings up something else I wanted to say: I'm sorry I kissed you before I left. That was selfish and out of line."
Bringing that up when we were holding each other like lovers just made things more awkward, but okay, I supposed we could talk about that. "That's okay, it was kind of an emotional situation. Things happen."
"No, that makes it sound like some kind of accident. It wasn't. I had a crush on you and I just thought well, I was going away, I probably wouldn't see you again. No consequences, right? And then I spent the next two weeks hating myself for it and telling myself you probably hated me too. So... yeah. It was a shitty thing to do, especially after you'd been so accepting of me."
It hadn't even occurred to me to feel mad about it or like he'd taken advantage of me. Would I have, if I'd known it wasn't quite as much of a spur of the moment thing as I'd thought it was? Probably not. He was fifteen and going through a lot at the time. I hadn't even really disliked it, which had been weird and not something I'd ever really examined. I'd been too busy being upset about my friend leaving and worrying about whether or not he was okay.
"Jude?" Zion said, and I realised I hadn't responded.
"Oh, sorry, I was thinking. I was never mad at you. I had plenty of things that mattered more to worry about at the time."
"Yeah, I figured later on that you'd probably forgive me. Though I gotta say, I still expected you to be a little pissed off."
Perhaps I should have been, but I wasn't sure why. Because he'd done it without my permission, or because I was supposed to be weird about it because he was gay and I was... Well, I didn't even know what I was if I were honest. And I didn't care. It didn't matter.
Instead of sharing my thoughts, I said, "I burnt most of my rage out before I met you, and I save the rest for people who deserve it. I'm probably pretty much impenetrable now. I work with a lot of assholes."
"I thought you said only the guy who runs the place was an asshole."
"Oh, no, he's just the only one who's evil. Well, probably not in the demonic sense because he's only half like you, but damn close enough. The rest are just the normal kind of assholes. The kind I sort of like even if they are complete frothing dipshits. Actually, that's mostly just Wiley..."
"The guy I called to come and get you?"
"Yeah. But he's training me and I have to admit it seems to be working, so... whatever. Just wears me down a bit." I yawned and then forced myself to pull myself out from under Zion's arm and sit up. "Okay, I need to get moving again before I fall asleep. I'm guessing wherever you're staying doesn't have running water, so you can use my shower while I heat you up some food. You should probably also borrow some of my clothes. Yours look a bit tatty, and I think we're about the same size."
Zion sat up too and looked down at himself as though he had only just noticed how thin his pants had worn in the knees, the part of his shirt that was coming unhemmed, and the smears of dirt scattered over his clothing. "I don't suggest lending me your clothes. These aren't even that old, I'm just much more durable than clothing tends to be."
I crawled off my mattress and stood before giving him a hand up. "When I said I'd lend them to you, I pretty much just meant give them to you." He opened his mouth and looked like he was about to decline, so I hurried on before he could speak. "I'm going to get new ones anyway. This new job, everyone has better clothes than me. I feel like I stick out."
He gave me a slightly forced smile. "Sounds good, then."
I went over to my dresser and rummaged through it to find those of my old work clothes that were in the best condition. I probably hadn't been as rough on my clothes as Zion was, but trailbreaking was still pretty aggressive work. I tossed the clothes to Zion.
He caught them one handed with the kind of effortless grace that reminded me what exactly he was. "Thanks."
I went into the kitchen to reheat some food for him. I hoped he liked pasta. He hadn't been a fussy eater at all before he left, and I doubted having lived two years in what sounded like less than ideal conditions would have changed that.
I had just finished with the food when Zion strolled out of the bathroom. The shirt I'd given him was tucked into the band of his pants and he was drying his hair with a towel.
For a moment I just stared because wow, Zion had really filled out. I'd noticed that before, but it hadn't really been clear just how much. When he'd been fifteen he'd still had that layer of softness that came with youth. That was gone now. Zion was all muscle.
Then I realised he'd noticed me staring, and I said the first thing that came to mind to break the tension. "Somehow you appear to have grown up to look like an underwear model."
Wait, crap, no. That didn't break the tension at all.
Zion looked down at himself and then grinned at me. "I'm wearing jeans. Wouldn't I be a jeans model?"
My eyes ran over the jeans he was wearing. I'd bought them for ten dollars and it showed, even with Zion flattering them more than I ever had. "Nobody would model those jeans."
"So you decided to imagine me in my underwear instead?"
I turned back into the kitchen just as an excuse not to have to look at him anymore. "Put your shirt on and come and eat your food."
I heard him laugh quietly. "Yessir."
His footsteps towards me followed the sound of the towel hitting the bathroom floor, having been thrown in roughly the right direction. I only looked at him when he stopped next to me so that I could hand him the bowl of pasta.
"I was just kidding, I know you weren't..." Zion trailed off, and then changed track. "You've filled out too. Is that from demon hunting training?"
I headed back towards my mattress and Zion followed behind me. "Maintained by that, I guess. I was trailbreaking before that. Swinging an axe all day tends to build a bit of muscle."
After that, we fell into an awkward silence. Zion had the food to occupy himself with, but I was left staring at the floor and not really knowing what to do or say. Was discussing the muscularity of each others' bodies normal guy talk? I kind of suspected not. I might have found some way to blame the direction the conversation had veered in on his sexuality, but I'd been the one to steer it there.
The books on demons were the only things close at hand and they seemed like a relevant topic of conversation too, so I reached for one. "Wiley got these for me. They're about demons and stuff like that. You can read them if you like. Well, while you're here. Wiley's going to test me on the stuff in them, so I kind of need to keep them with me. Maybe he could get you some of your own or maybe you could take these ones after I've been tested on them, though."
I realised I was rambling and shut up.
Zion kindly pretended not to notice my awkwardness. "I would like to read them. I don't know much so yeah, considering half my genes come from a demon and I hunt them as a hobby it would probably be good to know more."
"Yeah," I said, and then we fell silent again. I tapped the book with my fingertips. "Do you want to stay over? It's kind of late."
"Oh, uh, yeah, that'd be good," Zion said around a mouthful of food, then swallowed and kept talking. "I'm kind of nocturnal, but I could read while you sleep? If that's not going to keep you awake, I mean."
"Should be fine. I don't have a lamp, but I don't think I'll have any trouble sleeping with the light on."
"Oh, no, the light from the window will be enough for me to read by. Just... page turning."
I looked at him for the first time since he'd started eating and gave him an amused smile. "I spent most of my high school years couchsurfing. I think I can sleep through the soft rustle of pages being turned."
Zion finished his last mouthful of food and let the fork clatter back into the bowl. "I forgot about that."
While he went to the kitchen to rinse his bowl out I hesitated over taking my clothes off to sleep or keeping them on. Normally I slept in boxers, but would that be weird now? I could sleep through most conditions but, I decided, I just didn't want to sleep in my jeans. I'd done a lot of that throughout high school and I'd been glad to leave it behind. I wasn't interested in going back to it now.
As I began stripping off my clothes and Zion wandered back over I half expected him to make some comment that set off the awkwardness between us again. He didn't, though, and he didn't stare like an idiot like I had. How did that even make sense? He was the gay one, he should have been the one to find shirtless men distracting. He didn't keep his eyes to himself entirely, though. Every now and then, when he thought I wasn't looking, he'd send little glances my way. Somehow that made me feel better, but I couldn't work out why.
I could find my way to my bed in the dark just fine — I did every night — but tonight Zion made sure I was tucked into bed and ready before going over and turning off the light for me. He picked up one of the books and lay down on top of the covers next to me. I rolled onto my side, shut my eyes, and tried to sleep.
I had expected it to be difficult after all that had happened with Zion over the last hour. I had expected my head to be too full of thoughts. Somehow, though, knowing he was there and listening to the quiet turn of pages as he read lulled me into a more peaceful sleep than I'd managed in weeks.
When I woke up Zion was no longer in the room, and somehow I knew he wasn't just in the bathroom. Either my psychic skills were broader than I'd thought or I was a pessimist who just happened to be right, because when I got up to check I found the bathroom empty.
I had to sit on my bed, take deep breaths, and tell myself that he would most likely come back to visit me again. If he'd been planning to vanish again he would have told me. He probably just didn't want to wake me up before he left
By the time Wiley came to pick me up I was ready to leave. It felt weird, continuing with my normal schedule as though nothing special had happened.
I must have been acting strange somehow, though, because halfway to the base Wiley asked, "What's up?"
For a moment I considered saying 'nothing', keeping Zion's visit to myself, but Wiley was my friend and having secrets from him with everything else we had going on seemed like a bad idea, even if it was none of his business. "Zion came round last night and I explained things to him. We're good now."
"Oh good, maybe you can stop moping now."
"I was genuinely upset, you asshole, and I had good reason to be. Try to imagine being in my position for just a moment. Zi's one of my best friends. Imagine if something like that had happened with Sal."
"It wouldn't, because Sal's not a drama queen," Wiley said, and then abruptly changed the topic. "You should recruit him. He seems to be a good fighter if the number he pulled on that demon is any indication."
"Maybe... I don't think he'd want anything to do with all this after McCartnnon tried to hunt him down. But yeah, maybe after this whole McCartnnon thing is over he might consider it? He's already been hunting demons."
In truth, I would have loved for Zion to come and work with me. I liked the others just fine, but in a way I always felt lesser, like an outcast. None of them had time to really care about me as much more than a commodity, either, or perhaps they simply didn't like me enough. But then, that was probably just their way. Some of them had close relationships like Vance and Mace and Wiley and Sal, but mostly everyone looked after themselves. Hell, even Wiley and Sal didn't exactly have a very open and caring relationship.
In a way I had Mikey for that, but my relationship with him was different from what my relationship with Zion seemed to be turning into. I was Mikey's protector, but with Zion I wasn't sure I needed to be the strong one anymore. Perhaps that was a role we could share.