[AN: This is a side story from my webcomic 'Metanoia', but it can stand alone.]


Watch the Carpet

"How did it go?"

"I'm not dead or arrested. How do you think it went?" Star flung his duffel down on the entry floor and kicked it into the closet, knowing how much it would annoy Milo to hear it scraping on the polished hardwood. He began the careful process of taking off his jacket without using his left hand.

Milo, of course, noticed. The blond man turned his desk chair and leaned back to see better, revealing the screen of his computer: accounting software, it looked like. Always counting his gold. Star thought it dragonish of him. After a moment's hard stare, Milo came over to see what was the matter.

The crime boss was dressed impeccably, as always -- a made-to-fit shirt of cream linen, today, with the sleeves rolled up, and the heather trousers of a hand-tailored suit -- but he didn't pause before taking Star's left hand and prying it open. He ignored Star's sharp hiss of pain, and the blood that began dripping anew at this movement. He spread the fingers farther, turning the drip to a trickle, and with his fingernails picked a fragment of glass out.

"Do you mind?" Star said sharply. He was tired. He wanted a long shower, a bacon cheeseburger, and fifteen hours of sleep, in that order. He wasn't going to get it, though. They had dinner reservations at some snotty French place that would probably call two ounces of salmon and half a carrot a meal.

"Bathroom," Milo commanded. "Watch the carpet."

"Watch it yourself." Star deliberately waved his hand in the direction of the priceless cream-and-teal oriental rug Milo was so protective of, but didn't go so far as to actually drip over it. Instead he skirted around its edge, leaving red spatters on the bare floor all along the side of the living room and down the hall to the bathroom.

He turned the cold tap on full-blast and stuck his lacerated hand under it. When Milo finally caught up -- having stopped to clean up Star's drippings -- he leaned his hip against the counter with a sigh of fond exasperation. "This is the fourth time you've bled all over my apartment. I begin to think you do it deliberately, to satisfy some sense of drama."

"It'd stopped bleeding until you grabbed it," Star reminded. He reached for a thick cream-colored bath towel, but Milo stopped him and pressed a wad of paper towels into his hand instead.

"Really," Milo admonished.

"Well, what am I supposed to do? You get bitchy if I cancel on you."

"And this isn't a cancellation? I'm not taking you out all wincing and covered in bandages."

"It's not that bad. Hands just bleed a lot. Couple bandaids should do it." He dug for these items in the medicine cabinet as he talked.

Milo moved around behind him, working to take off the shoulder rig he wore over his hoodie, ignoring his grumble at having to quit what he was doing to pull his arms through the straps. "And is that the only injury you're sporting? Or will your guts fall out when I unzip this?"

"Fuckin' -- quit it, Milo! Leave the damn hoodie on."

"You're making a mess of that." Milo snatched the box of bandaids from Star's hand. He got a tube of antiseptic out of the cabinet and hopped up to sit on the counter, Star's hand resting on his knee, dripping indelible bloodstains on pants that had probably cost five hundred bucks. As he began patiently cleaning, disinfecting, and bandaging the small cuts -- more of them than Star had thought there were -- he said resignedly, "There isn't time for you to bathe, shave, and change before dinner. You are certainly not going to Papillon with tar on your cheek and leaves in your hair, dressed like some bridge-dwelling alcoholic."

That sounded like their date was cancelled. Star made no attempt to hide his relief. "Whatever. I'll grab some Mickey D's on the way home or something."

"Where's 'home' this week?"

"Haven't picked one. I'm paid through the week at -- shit, I forget the name, you know that motel on Snelling by the tracks? But some bitch with fucking fifty-seven kids and nine crackhead boyfriends just moved in down the hall, and it's like, countdown to police raid."

"I don't know how you can live in those places." Milo stuck the final bandage down, pulling it tight enough to hurt, and at last there was no more bleeding. He kept hold of Star's hand and caught his eyes, his own gaze all violet sincerity. "Move in with me. I'll keep asking until you do."

"You'll be asking a long time." The grin Star gave him was not without affection. An argument so well-worn had a kind of comfort in it.

"You're staying the night at least."

"Is that an order?"

Milo knew better than to rise to that bait. He stroked Star's bandaged fingers, making Star twitch a little at the slight pain. "It surely hasn't escaped your notice that it's traditional to celebrate this day by pretending to be perfect lovers over champagne and unsatisfying food. Subsequent meek and rather disappointing sex is optional."

"Leggo." Star pulled his hand away and started undressing so he could wash. "What day? It's not your birthday." A thought occurred to him as he dropped his hoodie on the floor. "Unless you were bullshitting me that one time."

Now Milo was confused as well, though it didn't seem to bother him, as he was watching this bargain-basement strip show with a wicked half-smile. "What on earth are you talking about?"

"That shit about 'two Scorpios shouldn't date, we're bound to kill each other sooner or later' --"

"Oh. Yes. I was bullshitting you. I'm a Leo."

"It's February." Star paused in the process of getting his shirt off. "Wait. Holy shit. Valentine's --?" He threw his sweaty, blood-speckled t-shirt in the towel hamper. "You're a fucking lunatic."

Milo laughed, delighted. "It was going to be so perfect, too. You don't know how it's turned me on to think of you blushing scarlet and glaring daggers at me as you realize why the restaurant is so full, while the other diners stare at the Openly Gay Couple drinking up all the best champagne. I had a bet with myself whether you'd walk out on me or tie me up and thrash me." In a less gloating tone, he added, "Where's your other sock?"

"In my coat pocket." Star kicked his pants into a corner and knelt on the edge of the bathtub to fiddle with the overcomplicated shower controls.

"And... why is your other sock in your coat pocket?"

"Cuz I put it over my hand to soak up the blood, duh. Like I'm going to leave DNA evidence all over for the ballistics people to find once they figure out where the shot came from."

"My dearest viper, my lovely beast, I really must ask you not to kill people when we have dinner plans. It makes a mess of the schedule."

"Tough." Star began to draw the shower curtain, but Milo came over and twitched it back. He closed the drain and pressed an ornate bottle into Star's hand, giving him a smug smile and a solid smack on his bare ass. Star bent an eyebrow at him. "Bubble bath? You nutcase."

"Trust me," Milo smiled, and kissed the corner of his eye.

"When pigs fly," Star said, but he climbed into the bath.

He half expected Milo to start getting raunchy with him then, but the blond man left and closed the bathroom door. He apparently really wanted Star to take a bubble bath.

Weird.

But then, that was part of Milo's appeal, wasn't it? He could be counted on to do the unexpected. They'd been together nearly a year now, but Star still couldn't even begin to predict him. Well... except in bed. They had certain... protocols established, there.

He sprawled in the tub, bandaged hand dangling over the side, and watched the tap thunder and steam. After a few moments he shrugged and poured some of the bubble goop in. Thick fruit-scented foam immediately billowed up. "I'm going to smell like a popsicle," he muttered, more amused than annoyed.

As the hot water began to relax his knotted muscles, Star thought about what Milo had planned to do. A romantic dinner on Valentine's Day? No doubt there was a box of Godiva truffles around the apartment somewhere, too, and a big fat bunch of flowers -- Milo didn't go by half-measures. And if he meant to do the whole shebang, he'd probably intended lovers' talk as well, beautiful lies about how he couldn't live without Star and would do anything for him --

Star sighed and poked a particularly large bubble to make it pop. He supposed the most surprising thing Milo could do would be to stop surprising him. He wondered what it would be like to be content, sure of someone. Something like... like tonight, only all the time. Without the power trips, the viciously quiet fights, the endless game of cat-and-mouse.

"Boring," he told himself, and decided that the reason his chest hurt was because he'd leaned too hard against the edge of the roof while climbing up to get into position.

He didn't think about the man he'd just killed. That habit was too deep. But he did think about a lot of other things he usually pushed aside, while he soaked in the bubbles. Like why he didn't move in here. There was a spare room. He could always leave his most important stuff, the guitars and working guns, in rental storage. If he decided to walk out, he could afford to leave a few clothes and books and crap like that. This was sure a lot nicer than any motel shower. It'd be cheaper too, even if he could convince Milo to let him pay half the rent. That'd be, what, fifteen hundred a month? And he could cook in a real kitchen instead of living on fast food and pbj's, which would be a treat, as long as he didn't let himself get roped into doing it all the time. And --

And he could see Milo every day, every night, until familiarity bred contempt. He could get more and more comfortable until the sense of being a pampered housepet started to become his identity.

"Nope," he said decisively, and slashed his hand through the bubbles to make them fly into the air.

He drained the bath and had a shower to wash his hair and rinse off the bubbles. When he came out of the bathroom, one towel around his waist and another over his head, the fruity steam mingled oddly with a strong smell of fried meat and onions. He followed it down the hall. Milo turned as he came into the living room, standing up from messing with the television -- blocking the screen with his body, as if it held a surprise.

"Watch the carpet!" he commanded.

Star wrapped his hair up more securely in its towel. "Something smells good." Then he did a double-take. Milo was wearing faded blue jeans and one of Star's multitude of ratty oatmeal-colored sweaters. His hair was pulled back in an uncharacteristically sloppy ponytail.

Star gawked. This wasn't the first time Milo had dressed like this, but the experience was rare enough that it was still like meeting him all over again. Milo's beauty, which he had learned almost to ignore, struck him like a branding iron to the heart. "Holy shit, Milo. What are you up to?"

"Romantic date. Go get dressed. Comfortably," Milo added with a quirk of a smile.

Bemused, Star complied. When he returned in cargo pants and a long-sleeved t-shirt that was going out at the elbows, brushing out his hair, Milo stuck his arm out of the kitchen to point at the couch. He joined Star there a moment later, carrying a tray which he set on the coffee table. Two bacon cheeseburgers, two piles of fried potatoes, and two bottles of porter.

Star's jaw dropped. He stared from the food to Milo and back again, and when he finally cranked his mouth shut he couldn't say a word.

"I had them sent up from Connelly's. You think I haven't noticed you prefer Irish pub food to all other nourishment? I can never guess how much you'll drink, so I ordered a case of the beer."

"I... yeah. I recognized the potatoes. No one else does 'em like that."

"It gets better," Milo promised, picking up the remote. "I was about to knock on the bathroom door. The game starts in five minutes."

"Game?"

"Hockey. Right?"

"Right," Star echoed in a stunned tone, and Milo turned the TV on.

They ate burgers, drank beer, and watched the game. When the burgers were gone -- Milo fastidiously cleaning up with a linen napkin, Star wiping his hands on his knees -- there was another surprise. Milo squirmed into a more comfortable position at the end of the couch and pulled Star against him. He reclined there with Star sprawled half across his lap, arm draped around him, exactly as if they were quite accustomed to... cuddling?

It's just another headfuck, Star told himself. He's just playing a game on you. Just when you start to like it, it'll be over. But still... it was so very, very nice. And convincing, damn it -- Milo even joined him in commenting on the game, making gloating little noises of mock sympathy when someone got clotheslined or slammed into the wall.

When the game was over, Star made an attempt to keep the mood going, though he knew it was doomed. "You gotta give the man some credit," he said, referring to one of the topics of their commentary. "That puck woulda benched me."

"He had adequate padding. Though he was the exception in that regard. It seems hockey players get skinnier every year." To Star's astonishment, Milo was playing along. He didn't push Star off him, didn't do anything but put the remote on the table and rest that hand lightly on Star's wrist, idly stroking the coppery hairs there.

"Less violent too. I bled more tonight than both teams put together."

"More's the pity." His hand moved to the fresh band-aids Star had put on after his shower had loosened the previous batch. "How did you manage to do that to your hand, anyway?"

"When I was climbing down after the job. I thought I'd be a clever fucker and ditch the fire escape about fifteen feet up. I landed, like you do --" He made a vague gesture to indicate how he'd gone to hands and knees. "Right in the middle of a broken bottle."

"Poor hand." Milo petted it, only half mockingly.

"So then, there I am, I know they heard that shot in fucking Blaine --"

"You had the Barrett?"

"Well, yeah, the range was like, half a mile at least."

"And you had to pick up the glass --"

"Right, and all the dirt I might've bled on --"

"One-handed, with your shoe off --"

"Because I put my sock on my hand. Yep."

"What did you do with the glass?"

"Threw it in the river on my way back to the truck."

"An offering to the river god. May your victims never float up."

"Tch. You know I never throw somebody in the river unless the client wants 'em found."

"I know." Milo stroked Star's hair comfortably, and suddenly the ache in Star's chest hit him again, twice as strong as before.

This was why he always came back when pride and hurt drove him out. Not Milo's theatrical tears and pleadings -- though those were a factor, certainly. Not the fantastic sex, not the money and glitter, not even the sparring of wits that amused them both so much.

It was this acceptance. Milo knew what he was, what he did, and it meant nothing to him. Changed nothing. Star's job was just a job to him. Star's victims weren't men, they were anecdotes. He knew why Star couldn't regret killing, and didn't expect him ever to change. There was nowhere else Star could ever find that kind of ease.

You'll never hear it from me, you bastard, he thought with a melancholy sort of defiance. You'll never, ever hear me say I love you.

But he had a feeling Milo knew anyway.

He twisted until he could see Milo's face. The blond was smiling a little, in his borrowed sweater with his hair wisping untidily around his face, like some Hollywood god playing an ordinary joe. Just as Star was thinking how unnaturally beautiful Milo was, Milo turned the tables as if he could read Star's mind: "You are ridiculously gorgeous, my jewel. I'm not at all sure I can act docile like this much longer."

"I bet you can't." Smirking wickedly, Star wormed his fingers under the hem of Milo's sweater. He felt the skin of Milo's stomach shudder.

Milo sounded calm, though, when he said, "I never could resist a wager. The stakes?"

"If I have you jumping me inside five minutes, watching a game together becomes a regular thing."

"And if I can hold out?"

"...I move in."

Milo took a sharp breath; it was hard to tell whether that was due to Star's offer, or where Star's hand was wandering. "Done." He fumbled at his watch, setting a timer.

With a vulpine grin, Star began seducing him in earnest.

He knew exactly what Milo liked, and he used every trick he knew. He straddled Milo's lap and bent to breathe on his lips, not quite kissing him. He took Milo's hair down, pushing his hands through the heavy silk of it, as he moved his barely-touching lips across Milo's face, brushing his eyelids and cheeks, then sharply biting his ear. He rolled his hips a little, then backed off to catch Milo's hand and suck on the fingers. Milo was breathing hard within thirty seconds, flush-cheeked and staring, but he didn't move.

Star stripped off his own shirt, running his hands down his own body from his arching neck to the line of rusty hair that climbed out of his fly toward his navel. Milo followed his hands with dilated eyes and swallowed hard, but he didn't move.

Star started to worry when Milo passively allowed him to strip off the sweater and trace the cut of muscles across his chest and abdomen. This could backfire. There was a charge building between them, stronger with every touch, and Star feared that he'd jump Milo instead of the other way around. Straddling Milo's lap like this was far too much of a turn-on. He got up and began undressing the rest of the way, pausing to stroke his own skin a few times as he slowly got rid of his pants and then his boxers.

He knelt beside the couch and reached to rake his nails across the denim over Milo's straining fly. The tall man took a sharp breath, then bit back a groan as Star did it again. Star undid the button, but not the zipper; teasingly scratching the fabric again, he took his hands away and reached for his own pants on the floor. He dug out the lube and handful of rubbers he'd put there in the expectation that the evening would take a turn like this. "Know why I have these?"

"I should... think it's obvious." Milo sounded breathless, but he still didn't move.

"What, you think you're going to fuck me?" Star climbed onto the couch again, a knee on either side of Milo's thighs again, but didn't sit down; he loomed over Milo, grinning. "I'm going to make you my bitch," Star challenged. "I'm going to make you beg for it, and then I'm going to fuck you so hard you see stars."

Milo's hands curled, clawing into the cushions, and his eyes were alight. Star had judged right: he couldn't resist a power trip.

"I'm going to own you, Milo. Own you like a whore. Make you scream."

The tall man's whole body shuddered, and his nails rasped on the couch cushions. He was about one more dirty threat away from launching himself at Star like an attack dog.

Star leaned in close, purring the words: "And I'm not even going to let you come."

Milo took a sharp breath, tensing -- and his watch beeped.

Star relaxed with a groan. "Aw, shit. I totally had you, too."

The next second, he was flat on his back on the floor, having narrowly missed clipping his head on the coffee table, and Milo was grinding his wrists together with one hand and clutching a fistful of his hair in the other.

"You dirty. Little. Bitch." With a laughing growl, he grabbed the condoms and lube out of Star's fist, then kissed him hard. "You almost had me. But now I have you."

Star looked into his eyes, heart hammering. The familiar combination of fear and safety, pain and pleasure, freed him from himself like nothing else had ever done. He realized what he'd gambled away, what he'd promised, and suddenly it wasn't funny anymore. But his dismay only added a different edge to his arousal, and he let his eyes close as he arched against Milo's delicious weight.

"Make it hurt," he demanded.

"As my love commands," Milo purred gloatingly. Star knew he didn't mean that endearment at all, and that was somehow more beautiful than if he'd believed it.

As promised, Milo did make it hurt, doling out pain in careful doses, almost but never quite too much. He did everything Star had promised to do to him. He took over the power game and he won it easily.

"Tell me how much you want it."

"Oh God Milo just do it, please, please --"

"Tell me you belong to me."

"Yes, I do, I'm yours!"

"What are you, Star?"

"I'm yours -- oh Jesus ow you bastard -- I'm your bitch, I'm your fucking rag doll just -- oh god Milo would you fuck me already?"

"As... my love... commands."

"Oww!"

Star's scream must've been a shade too convincing, because Milo dropped his voice for a moment. "Too much?"

"No, it's good, go, do it."

Pain and pleasure twined together, climbed together, like a thread of gold and a strand of razor wire, until Star lost all sense of time, of self, became nothing but a mote of light flaring in the vast darkness of Milo's possession. Flaring... flickering... and dying, with a scream like ripping metal.

He opened his eyes in time to watch Milo finish, sweat-beaded face slack and pale hair swinging. A quiet groan, then a sigh; Milo wasn't a screamer.

Settling down beside him, Milo wiped off their sticky chests with Star's shirt and tossed it aside. He threw the condom after it. Star gaped at him.

"The... carpet," Star reminded him, aghast.

"Fuck the carpet," Milo said, and kissed him. He tucked his hair behind his ear, smoothed Star's back, and smiled. "You're moving in tomorrow. I can't expect you not to make a mess of the place."

"A deal's a deal," Star conceded.

"I know you don't mean those things I make you say. You're so free, so proud -- and I like that about you. But someday... you really will be mine. All the way mine."

"Tch. You'd dump me a week after that. You like the challenge and you know it."

"Don't be so sure," Milo said seriously. "I love you, Star."

"You're a dirty liar," Star smiled, and rested his head on Milo's shoulder, warmly content, drifting away.

* * *

Half an hour later, when Star was fast asleep, Milo carried him to bed. Then he went back to the living room to try to clean up the carpet. He couldn't bring himself to write it off quite yet after all.

The last thing he did before going to bed himself was reprogram the timer on his watch. He wouldn't put it past Star to start it again to see how long it'd run. He didn't want Star discovering that it had been set for three minutes, not five.