"Abduction and Affection"

~ Chapter Ten ~
By: Saadia Mirage
e-mail:

Author's note:

As for the lack of updates lately… Don't even say it. I know I am a slacker. I've complained about having a full-time job over the summer and now I'll complain about being a full time student. Excuses excuses … I am very sad that I have been forced to neglect my dear story lately. I repeat: I'm not dead (and neither is this story). ^__^;;

As for story notes… Despite how I started and planned things, these next few chapters are becoming very Volks-centric. He just sorta took over, especially in all the dialogue (and there is lots of it this chapter). Ah well. Everyone seems to like him the most anyways. ^_^; That, and I suddenly am becoming more and more attached to Ridley, who was originally quite a throw-away character… I'm not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing yet…

Ah, and something weird happened. Grant developed this kinda twisted version of an Oedipus complex. I hope I don't freak people out. ^_^;;

Chapter ten: "Of Love, Vulnerability, and Witty Conversation"

It seemed much too cold all of the sudden.

He stared around in the darkness, wondering where he was and how he got there. This place… It seemed familiar somehow.

Tension was tangible in the air, as if something were waiting, crouched in that darkness, for him to arrive. He saw something move in the shadows suddenly becoming a form.

He saw himself, a mere child, huddled against the rough walls of the hidden crawlspace under the stairs of his childhood home. He was small and helpless and shaking with some unidentified emotion. He watched as the boy that was once himself gazed fearfully at something through the meager boards separating him from the darkness.

His breath caught, but he could not move. Then he heard the voice.

"Tell us where it is…" Someone asked, deep voice threatening and cruel.

"I don't know." Another voice answered, strong and confident, but concealed in that cold blackness. He knew it at once.

There was a sound of something flying through the air and a dull collision, harsh crack of wood upon flesh.

He felt as if the blow had hit him in his own head, not the one belonging to the disembodied voice of his father.

"Uggh…"

"Tell us where it is, Islander!" The harsh voice became more demanding, icy and cold as death.

"I… don't know." Came the other voice again. "And if I did… I wouldn't tell you."

There was another crack.

"Is that so…? Well, maybe we can give you something to make you talk…"

Suddenly something silver flashed in the dark and fear engulfed him like a white-hot flame. Sharp and unforgiving and deadly. He felt the rope around his wrists and the needle sinking into his father's neck.

He wanted to scream, scream and claw at the pain, the fire, but he couldn't move, couldn't speak.

The pain was so sharp and deep, poisoning his blood, slowly killing him…

The needle stabbed again.

"TALK!"

But he couldn't. He was pressed against the wall, his face forced so hard against the bricks it stung, someone's hands all over him, tearing at him, fear tasting like black dirt in his mouth, silent screams filling his head. Hungry eyes and hungry hands and hate and tears… Washing over him like flames. His father screamed, and he heard his mother cry out in equal agony.

Tearing, ripping, shredding… Taking and taking and taking…

The fire burned down everything. His parent's blood. His own dripping down his legs. A demon, cruel and insistent, ripping him in two.

Finally, he screamed, and his throat burned with the taste of it.

He sat up with a violent start, nearly knocking into his partner, who had been leaning over him.

"Grant!" Volks said, gripping his shoulders tightly. "Grant… Are you okay…?"

He was looking though him, shaking.

Volks grabbed his chin, making him look directly at him. "You were dreaming."

Grant's eyes focused on him, recognition finally settling in. He nearly collapsed into his arms, burying his face into the crook of his neck, trying very hard not to have a mental breakdown. He felt gentle fingers in his hair and running soothingly across his back.

It was pitch black all around them, the darkness of the midnight settled around their campsite. Farrah was asleep on a pallet a few feet away from them. The horses watched them silently, ears flickering. The thicket around them was the same as it had been before. Reality.

"Nightmare?" Volks asked softly.

"Ah… Y-yeah… The same one…" Grant said slowly, his throat feeling raw. Had he screamed in his sleep? He was still shaking. "The same one it always is."

He felt a kiss on the top of his head, warm and supportive. "It was just a dream. Everything is okay now."

A sob escaped, and he tightened his grip around the smaller body.

"I'm here now. None of that can hurt you anymore…" Volks reassured, voice soft and heartbreakingly honest.

Grant really hated crying. But he couldn't help it. "But it does… It still hurts…" He whimpered.

Volks hands stopped their soothing motions and came to rest on his shoulders again. He pushed him back so he could look him in the eyes. "Not if you don't let it. We're strong enough, together, right?" He said resolutely.

Grant coughed slightly, a choked sob. Then he managed a smile. "…Sometimes I think you have enough strength for the both of us, Kitten."

"I'm strong for you."

He hugged him, and again a slow silence settled for a moment.

"I'm… I'm sorry I woke you up." Grant said finally, face still buried in his partner's shoulder.

Volks sighed. "Shut up and go back to sleep." He said softly, a smile in his words.

"… Yeah."

He fell back onto the pillow. Volks lay down beside him, gently laying an arm over his middle. Grant returned the embrace whole-heartedly.

~~~~ (the past) ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Today, the sun felt very good on his back. Volks sighed happily, unable to keep the smile off his face. It had been much too long since he felt this good.

The weather was absolutely perfect. The sun was shining gently through the fluffy clouds that meandered through the sky languidly in the light breeze. The sky was a beautiful, brilliant blue and the grass was cool and crisp and green.

For once the air wasn't dusty, but clean and fresh instead, smelling of the trees and the river.

Grant was seated beside him in the grass with a fishing pole leant up against the crook of his knee. They were sitting together on an overhang of the river.  It was not too long after lunch, but having a few extra hours to rest while the horses were re-shoed in town, they had taken up a bit of fishing.

Volks couldn't help smiling. Simple things seemed to be bringing him a surprising amount of happiness today. The water was nearly still in the eddy underneath them, perfect for fishing, the breeze was just cool enough, and they had all ready caught half their dinner. Not to mention the fact that Grant's elbow was resting on his thigh.

He felt a little silly about being excited about something such as that, but for some reason, he couldn't seem to help himself. Today was the best day.

Volks ventured a sidelong look at his… friend… Or whatever he was supposed to classify Grant as in relation to him now, after the small chances had been taken and rewarded the night before.

He supposed he should probably ask, but was far too embarrassed by his own ignorance about this sort of thing. He didn't understand why he had never heard about such a type of relationship. He didn't understand why he had never felt this way before…

He stared out over the river thoughtfully.

Last night had been… Interesting, to say the least. Grant had held him for a long time after that kiss. He had reciprocated, of course. He would have liked to stay that way the entire night. To be in his arms like that… It had made him nervous at first - that close physical contact. Now he understood why Grant had reacted the way he did when he had hugged him that time before. To be so close… Feeling all that newness… It was strangely exciting somehow.

When the night had grew late and they parted to bed separately, he nearly ached for that closeness again. He stayed up for long afterwards, mind wandering, and finally having to resort to flipping through one of his textbooks to put him to sleep.

He sighed, wondering if he would have the same problem tonight.

"You all right?" Grant asked from his side.

"Oh," Volks started, "Oh, I'm fine. I was just thinking."

"About what?" Grant asked, grinning teasingly.

Volks blushed. "Uhm… Well… I was just wondering…"

"What? Whatever it is, don't be afraid to ask me." Grant assured.

He hesitated, then gathered his thoughts and asked the question that was itching in the back of his mind. "Well… I was wondering. I know you … like me. But… Do you like women? At all?"

Grant blinked and frowned slightly. "Women?" He muttered, "Well, I guess they're all right. But I'm not interested in them romantically if that's what you're asking…"

"Really?" Volks asked, eyes wide. "Not… Not at all?"

"Nope. Never have been and never will be."

"Wow…"

"You've really never heard of a person being like that before?"

Volks shook his head slowly.

"Huh… Well, what about you?"

Volks tilted his head and blinked.

"I mean," Grant continued, "How do you feel about women?"

Volks blushed a bit. "Oh… Well, I guess… I don't dislike them… I mean… I suppose I… Like them."

Grant turned his head and looked over the water. "That's okay, you know."

"… What is?"

"Being attracted to both."

Volks digested this slowly. "… Really?"

Grant nodded. "Sure. Different people have different tastes. Including who they're attracted to."

"… I see."

They were quiet for a moment.

Volks broke the silence with another nervous question. "So… There are other people … that are like this?"

"Of course. All kinds of people. Haven't you ever been in the city?" Grant asked, grinning again. "They have places they gather sometimes. They're mostly secret, but you must have at least heard of them…"

Volks blushed again. "Actually… No. I've never even been in a big city."

Grant's eyes widened. "Really? Not ever?"

Volks shook his head. "The first time I've ever been more than a day's ride away from my hometown was only a few weeks ago."

"Woah." Grant mumbled in response.

He had known Volks had been sheltered, but he didn't realize to what degree. He wondered idly to himself if he had bit off more than he could chew in getting involved with someone so inexperienced. He didn't know how to handle such a sensitive situation. He never had to think about it before. It was a bit unnerving. But… It was also rather tempting. To be able to protect someone so vulnerable, so innocent… It was a righteous cause. He wasn't thinking of the fact that this was also chance to play out every man's secret fantasy – To teach a sweet young virgin all about the depths of pleasure… At least, he was trying not to think about it.

Volks smiled up at him. "I'm pathetic, aren't I?"

Grant couldn't keep the grin off his face. "Not so much." He said lightly, laying an arm casually over the blonde's shoulders.

Volks started a bit at the affectionate gesture.

"As much as I like traveling and seeing the world…" Grant began conversationally, "I think I'd like to eventually find a nice little house somewhere. Something to call my own, you know? Maybe even a number with a white picket fence and all that. I guess my farm upbringing still influences me, eh?"

Volks smiled a little. "Perhaps. You don't seem… Traditional… In other ways."

Grant laughed at that. "I guess not!"

He pulled him in a little closer, so his head could rest on his shoulder. Volks slowly accepted the attention and allowed himself to lean up against his side.

Again, no words were needed for a while. The sun felt good and the river sloshed by.

"Grant…?" Volks asked softly, looking out over the water.

"Hrmm?" He mumbled in response.

"Will you tell me about all the places you've been?"

Grant nodded, eager to please. "Sure… Where should I start? The wetlands up north, the white beaches on the east coast, the Crater deserts of the west, the merchant villages down river…? I can go on."

Volks thought for a moment. "Ah… Have you been to the capitol city?"

"Of course! Well, not in a while, but I've been there plenty of times before."

Volks leaned forward, eyes wide with interest. "What's it like there?"

"It's a huge. Towers everywhere, so tall you could break your neck tryin' to see the tops. Flags everywhere and soldiers always marching someplace. The streets are really wide and always filled with lots and lots of people. Everyone in the bazaar is always shouting at somebody to buy their stuff. You gotta watch out for the carriages and wagons, because they'll nearly run you over. There's always lots of rich ladies and guys in suits in the central part of the city, looking down their noses at you. Hrm… What else…? Ah, there are lots of bars. Even some for 'men only,' if you get my meaning. Although I never met any real good company around there. They're either real trashy or plain snobs around there… But it's nice to have a place to be yourself and not worry about people judging you all over the place, in that aspect at least…"

Volks frowned a little, but nodded. "So…" He mumbled thoughtfully, "Being like… We are… Some people don't like it?"

Grant sighed, feeling slightly uncomfortable. "People will always find something wrong with you," He explained, "And if it happens to be that your romantic tastes happen to be different than the norm, well… They just find another reason to hate."

Volks nose wrinkled with his expression. "I… I see."

Grant squeezed his shoulder. "I used to be real hung up about it." He admitted, "It's hard when people go around telling you that feelings you can't control are wrong. They said I was wrong, evil even, because I liked guys instead of girls. I wanted for a long time to just change and be 'normal'… I pretended. But I couldn't do it for the rest of my life. I couldn't stand it. Millie taught me that you can't change what the heart feels. She made me see that I can and should be happy with the way I am… She took me in, after I left the orphanage and ran into… some trouble. She saved my life really, twice over. Taught me so much… And I'm glad for it. Or else I wouldn't be like this with you now…"

Volks, who had been gazing at him in fascination, smiled shyly and looked away, shifting a bit in his awkwardness. "Y-yeah…"

A comfortable, thoughtful silence descended and Grant watched the boy beside him out of the corner of his eye.

The wind kept blowing his hair into Volks' face and he had to tuck it back behind his ear. It would only stay tucked for about ten seconds before it was tossed about again and his hand came back up again to temporarily tame it.

Grant found himself staring, inexplicably amused.

The wind picked up again. There it went again, back into his eyes. There came the hand. There it went behind the ear.

The funny thing was that it didn't even seem to annoy the boy. He seemed to be doing it on reflex, barely aware of his own actions. 

Volks glanced up at him, feeling the weight of his gaze. Grant smiled at him. Volks blinked, then returned it shyly. "What?" He said softly.

Grant shook his head, grinning. "Nothing. Just thinking how cute you are."

He looked rather shocked at first, then blushed profusely, turning away. "I… I'm not cute." He mumbled.

"What are you talking about?" Grant laughed, "Sure you are. You're very cute."

Volks just shook his head, clearly trying to hide his smile and blush, both growing more noticeable by the minute.

"You are!" Grant said, squeezing him and leaning in. Volks looked up at him right in time to get a kiss misplaced into his eye.

"Oh!" He yelped.

Grant backed up, holding up his hands. "Oh, damn! Are you all right?"

Volks started laughing, rubbing his eye lightly. "I'm fine. You just surprised me."

Grant sat up straight again."…Sorry."

Volks sighed, nervous laughter still bubbling. "It… It's all right. I guess I'm no good at accepting compliments."

"Or kisses." Grant added.

Volks looked affronted for a second, before realizing he was joking. He sat back and gave him a shy smile. "Well… I didn't punch you, did I?"

"Not yet," Grant said, grinning hugely. "But then again, the day ain't over yet!"

Volks nearly choked on his laughter.

Grant put his arm around him again. "Mind if I try again?"

"Uh… Sure." Volks mumbled, feeling his face get hot again.

Grant leaned in. He stopped right as they were nose to nose. "All right," He said matter-of-factly. "This is the part where you hold still."

Volks snorted. "Do you want to be punched?"

"No, sir. I'll shut up now."

And he did. By closing his lips over his.

It was about then that a fish decided to bite, effectively yanking Grant's fishing pole from his lap and popping the end of the stick right into his chin.

Volks jumped back. "Oh my gosh! Are you okay?!"

"Shit! Woah!" Grant yelled, scrambling for the pole as it was nearly pulled off the ledge.

Volks grabbed him around the middle to prevent him from falling into the river. He pulled Grant back up to sitting position, two broken pieces of a fishing pole in one hand and a struggling trout in the other.

Volks opened the fish-basket and Grant tossed it in before it could slip away.

They sat back staring at each other, panting heavily. Then they both burst out laughing.

"Oh… Oh my. Are you all right, Grant?" Volks managed, putting a hand on his shoulder.

Grant shifted his jaw, testing. "Nothing's broken."

Volks took his face in his hands, leaning his face up so he could see. "You're not bleeding."

"That's always good." Grant said, leaning down. "Has anybody ever told you that kissing you is dangerous?"

"I think you're the one who's dangerous." Volks retorted.

"Or perhaps we're just a dangerous combination?"

"Perhaps." Volks agreed.

~~~~ (the present) ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~



Shortly after the sun had risen over the horizon, Farrah found herself in the saddle once again. She was riding with Volks today and Grant was riding a few yards ahead of them, scanning the road warily. They had gotten out of the forest quickly and settled again onto the back roads. Grant had a feeling that they were going to be ambushed or something. Not that he had told her so. She assumed as much by watching the way he kept riding up ahead and then falling back behind them in turn. It made Farrah very, very nervous.

Not to mention how the events of the previous day and night had affected her. She had been wide-awake when Volks had been consoling Grant. After that, she didn't get much sleep. She was too afraid of what nightmares might come to her.

So she had woken up very sore and entirely un-refreshed.

And - it really pissed her off that she knew she had a black eye. Neither of them had said anything to her about it. She hadn't even looked in a mirror. She could just feel it. The tightness around the bridge of her nose and the itchy swelling under her eye spoke volumes. That bastard

She touched her cheek gingerly, grimacing. She put her hands back onto the pommel and sighed.

"Volks…?" She began slowly, wanting to start a conversation. She really did hate riding in silence.

"Yes?" He answered behind her.

She fished for a topic for a moment and then settled on her own physical dilemma. Perhaps he knew he knew something that could help…?

"Have you ever had a black eye?" She asked, skeptically.

He sat up a little straighter. "… Actually, yes. I did. Not… Too long ago." He said.

"Really? What happened?" She asked curiously, the actual intention of her question diverted. "Did a horse kick you or something?"

He hesitated for a moment. "Uh… No… Actually, I was… punched."

"Somebody punched you??" Farrah asked incredulously. Why on earth would anyone punch poor, sweet little Volks? "Who?"

"Grant." He said simply.

The amusement in his voice when he said that horrified her nearly as much as the statement itself.

"GRANT punched you in the eye?!"

He actually laughed. "Yes, yes he did. I had nearly forgotten about it."

She gaped. "But… But why?"

"Because I punched him."

Farrah nearly fell of the horse. "You? You punched him first?"

He laughed again. "Yeah."

"Why?!"

"Because… he kissed me."

She sat in stunned silence for a few seconds. "… Okay, mind giving me the whole story now before I get even more confused?"

"Oh, I'm sorry…" He laughed. "It was a very strange situation… But please do not assume the worst. That was the first and only injury that we have ever given each other. Or plan on giving each other."

"I would hope so!"

"It was before we had… Gotten together. I was… A bit naive. And Grant was a bit forward. I was startled and I kind of lashed out. He was upset and he reciprocated the blow. It was a split-second fight, really rather accidental. It was very bad… But we later realized our mistakes. And we made up."

"Obviously…"

He laughed again and put a hand behind his head in embarrassment. "Oh my… We sure did have some rocky beginnings, didn't we?"

"I suppose so."

"We promised though, to never fight like that again. I mean… We've have our arguments… But never like that. I don't want you to think that he is abusive. Or myself, either"

She frowned a little, considering. "I don't. That's why I was so shocked. Because you two don't seem like that at all."

Volks sighed a little, in relief. "That's good. We would never hurt each other like that."

Farrah stared out over the fields beside the road. Another question itched in the back of her mind.

"Volks?" She asked.

"Yes?"

"… Where did you punch him?"

He blinked for a second, and then broke into a sunny smile. "Right in the mouth."

She tossed her head back and laughed.

"What's so funny back there?" Grant called from up ahead of them.

"Nothing." They answered in unison, breaking back into giggles afterwards.

Grant gave them a long look. "… Great." He sighed. "It's like I'm back in school again."

"Wh-what are you talking about?" Volks asked, failing horribly at keeping a straight face.

Grant shook his head and turned back to the road. "Just don't start passing notes back there."

That remark only succeeded in making them crack up a new.

"Hey! Quiet down! Are you trying to get us caught?"

"S-sorry…" Volks managed, reining in his laughter.

Farrah stifled a snort. "Yeah. Sorry."

"Grant, relax a little please." Volks said, taking a few deep breaths himself. "We're on the back roads. The soldiers won't find us way out here."

"I'm not worried about the soldiers. I'm worried about Ridley."

"Ridley?" Farrah asked,  "The scary redhead? But he was tied up back at Millie's Place last time we saw him. Surely he's been taken up by the local sheriff by now."

Grant frowned. "Myria doesn't have a sheriff anymore. He was recruited into the army years ago. Because the city is dying out, they never bothered to replace him."

Volks blinked. "… Oh my. That is… rather worrisome." He coughed nervously. "Well. Surely your Alexander will be able to take care of him." He said, patting Farrah on the shoulder.

She could only frown and nod skeptically.
*****

Alexander glanced blearily out the window at the soft hues of the rising sun.

'… Morning.'

He was sitting stock-still in his uncomfortable wooden chair in Millie's kitchen, as he had been for hours. His sword lay sheathed across his knees, one hand twisted around the hilt. A bowl full of cigarette butts sat beside his chair on the floor, his empty silver case laid open next to it. His last smoke dangled forlornly from his lips, stubby and mostly ash. He hadn't slept at all the entire night. He had stayed up and watched over the unconscious man tied to the chair in front of him.

Ridley hadn't moved an inch since the chair had broken over his head the night before. The only sign that he was even alive was his steady, sleepy breathing.

Alexander's neck hurt from sitting up so stiffly for so long. His stomach grumbled. He hadn't eaten since lunch the day before. And it was taking a great deal of effort to keep his head from lolling and his eyes from shutting too long.

Grumbling, he flicked the tail of ash off his cigarette and took one last long puff before laying it to rest with its comrades. If those girls didn't get back soon he was sure he was going to die of a combination of starvation and exhaustion. That, and he was now out of cigarettes. This did not bode well.  

He had asked the triplets hours ago to take his horse and find some law enforcement to put Ridley in jail, or at least take him off his hands. He hadn't heard from them since. When Millie, who had left not too long ago to buy shotgun bullets, had told him about the lack of a lockup in the town, he had nearly had hysterics. Yet, he had told her not to worry about him and go about her business… But she seemed to be taking her good, sweet time about it though.

He wanted to do the right thing. He was not about to up and leave a group of defenseless women with a dangerous… whatever Ridley was. But… He was starting to wonder if it would have saved him any time to simply drag Ridley back to the Centralio Enforcers himself.

He sighed heavily and allowed himself to slump a little. It wasn't like Ridley could get free even if he was awake. He was completely bound. Surely it would be okay if he rested his eyes a bit…

The door behind him swung open suddenly, slamming against the wall.

He nearly jumped out of his seat.

Ridley jerked and awoke.

"Mister!" Gia cried, hurrying into the room, followed closely by her two sisters.

"What, what? Did you find a sheriff?" Alexander asked hopefully, standing up and smoothing out his coat.

"Well… No…" Tia admitted softly. "But we did find two army officers in the forest."

"Ah! Wonderful! Where are they then?" He asked looking past them back through the door into the common room.

No one appeared.

"Uh… They were kind of… Unconscious." Mia supplied, laughing nervously.

"That seems to be becoming a trend around here." Ridley grumbled.

Alexander and the girls started and twisted around to look at him. No one had realized he had come to. Ridley just glowered at them from under his currently very messy red bangs.

They all just stared at each other for a moment.

"Mister… What are we going to do?" Tia whispered anxiously, as if Ridley couldn't hear her from his distance of three feet away.

"What I recommend you do," Ridley sneered, twisting in his ropes, "Is untie me. Now."

Alexander snorted. "I don't think so. Not after how you –"

"How I what, lovely? Tried to do my job??" Ridley shot, "I was hired to capture Grant O'Riley for that slut of a sister of yours. If you got in the way of that, it's your own fault."

Alexander frowned. "You… You were using excessive force. You could've hurt innocents!"

Ridley laughed, then groaned, slumping over again in apparent pain.

Alexander stood still, hesitating about whether or not to assist. "Are… Are you all right there?"

"Shit! My head… Talk about excessive force…" He looked up accusingly at the triplets. "Which one of you whores hit me with the lead pipe?!"

They cringed.

Alexander frowned again, glancing back at them. "I was the one who hit you." He lied. "And it was with a chair, not a pipe. Please refrain from using such language."

Ridley laughed again at that, then squinted and hissed in pain. "Shiiit… Oh man… Am I bleeding? I think you split my skull…"

It had never really occurred to Alexander that it was possible that the man was seriously injured… Millie had hit him awfully hard…

He approached him cautiously, coming around behind the back of the chair and awkwardly trying to assess the damage through all Ridley's hair and his bandanna. "Hold still. Let me check your injury..."

Ridley looked up at him and grinned. "You're so thoughtful, lovely. And here I was wondering if you tried to take advantage of me while I was unconscious. I never should have doubted you --You are such a gentleman."

The girls giggled a little and Alexander blushed furiously.

"I thought you said you weren't –" Gia began.

"I'm NOT." Alexander insisted.

"He's in denial." Ridley said slyly, winking at him.

Alexander, flustered, turned away. "You're obviously fine if you can make jokes in such bad taste." He huffed.

Suddenly his own sword was at his throat and the girls had jumped back at Ridley's sudden movement. The ropes that had previously bound him lay loose in the chair.

Ridley tilted the blade, forcing Alexander to lean back into him. "How about coming with me, eh? Sound like fun?" He purred into his ear.

"Wha-what? How did you..?" Alexander choked, leaning away from the blade and only succeeding in leaning further into Ridley's grip.

Ridley grinned against his neck. "You may be a gentleman, and cute one, but you ain't no knotsman. I was out of those ropes nearly the second I woke up."

Alexander gulped. He realized about then how stupid it was of him to let down his guard in embarrassment. If only he had kept his hand on his sword…

The triplets looked likely to try something drastic.

Ridley grinned at them. "Now, now girls. Don't be scared. We'll be on our way shortly, won't we lovely? No need to worry about us…" Ridley assured, half-dragging the stumbling Alexander with him towards the door.

They looked unsure.

"He's right. Just let him go." Alexander advised. "You girls stay here and wait for Millie…".

"That's right. Don't try anything cute and no one gets hurt." Ridley agreed cheerfully. "How about one of you gets my sword? Yeah, and you in the pink, go bring around the horse."

They hurried off to do as he said, the third held the door open for them. Ridley dragged his hostage out of the kitchen and through the main room and out onto the street where Gia had Alexander's pretty thoroughbred waiting. Tia handed off the pyrosword to Ridley as he pushed Alexander off the steps and clambered onto the saddle, still gripping Alexander's arm.

"Come on, dear, up you go." He said sweetly.

Alexander balked. "Look, you can leave, but there is no need to take me—"

"Don't be silly. I'll be lonely without you."

Alexander was ready to beg. "Please…"

Ridley just grinned and tugged on his sleeve. "You have no sense of adventure!"

"At least I have a sense of propriety…"

Ridley laughed and hefted his sword. "So witty, dear. Now get up here before I cut you're pretty little head off.

~~~~ (the past) ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Grant sighed and leaned back in his chair, feeling full. Volks, across from him, took a deep gulp from his mug and set it aside before sliding forward onto the table with his elbows and resting his head on his folded arms. They were having dinner in a small tavern just outside of the small city of Rannad. It was warm inside, but not uncomfortably so. In fact, it was quite cozy. Somewhere off in another corner someone played something slow and soft on the guitar, but it was not a sad song – just a sweet, gentle melody. People sat around them at other tables, chatting amiably to one another and eating their dinners and drinking their cheap wine. The tables were thick and the chairs were cushioned and Grant wished he could just fall asleep right there. He leaned back a little more, just as much as he could without falling over, and stretched out his legs.

Underneath the table, their feet brushed up against each other. Volks looked over at him questioningly. Grant gave him a small smile and nudged the bottom of his shoe with the toe of his boot. Volks blushed and buried his face in his sleeves in embarrassment. Grant would have felt discouraged if he had not felt a returning brush of a foot over his laces a few moments later.

The last two days had been pleasantly nerve-wracking for the both of them. After their first mutual kiss, their companionable interaction had slowly become more affectionate. They had both been tiptoeing around each other, carefully measuring each other's boundaries, not to mention their own. Grant had been taking chances, carefully and gently. Slowly he had been rewarded with tentative kisses, simple presses of sweet, soft lips against his own.

…Not even any tongue.

It was very… Strange for him.

He'd never gone this slowly with anyone. It had never been a necessity before to consider the feelings or inexperience of the other party. But this… This hesitation, this gentleness and nervous energy… It felt good. Was this how it was supposed to be? Slow and subtle, building into something more? In all his past relationships, they had skipped all the precedents and jumped straight to the sex. That was how it had always been and that was how he assumed it was ever going to be. He thought that's all it could be for someone of his… tastes.

But this… What was this? He'd never felt such strange contentment in a relationship, and he had never expected himself to enjoy such simple things like a little kiss as much as he did… Wanting more, yes, but being perfectly okay with the pace they had.

And now they had reached the appointed destination for their parting. How could they just leave this… This beginning… How could they just leave something like that, buzzing with potential?

And as much as he wanted to, Grant knew he could not ask Volks to stay with him. He couldn't be that selfish, not when all Volks' dreams lay out before him. Just a few hours ride north lay the school that he had been yearning for since his childhood. He had such a bright and promising future there. Grant couldn't ask him to give that up. Volks didn't belong in a life on the road. He didn't belong by his side. It hurt very much to admit that, even just to himself. It was very odd for him. It hurt… Too much.

He almost wished he had never kissed him, never met him… Anything that could make the pain of parting any less…

"Are you okay?"

Grant's head snapped up from where his chin had been nearly touching his chest and looked at the boy across from him. Volks stared back at him, soft face painted with concern. "You looked so serious for a moment there…"

Grant blinked at him for a second, then plastered on a smile. "Oh, I'm fine. Don't worry about me," He said. "How about  you? You got enough to eat?"

Volks gave him a calculating look then relaxed and nodded. "Oh yes. I had plenty…"

"You want anything else to drink?"

Volks shook his head. "No thanks…"

"Yeah, me neither." Grant said with a sigh. "I guess I'll go pay…" He started to stand up, but Volks grabbed his hand.

"Wait…" He said. "Why don't you let me pay this time…? You know, to repay you…"

Grant blinked again. "… No, don't worry about it. It was… Y'know…  My treat."

"But… You always pay…" Volks said slowly.

Grant grinned. "Don't worry about it. Besides, this is our last meal together… You need to save your money for school."

Volks blinked at him, tilting his head slightly. "… What do you mean 'last meal together'…?" He asked softly.

Grant stared down at him, stunned. Surely Volks knew where they were.  He has asked just yesterday how much further it was to this town. Surely he couldn't have missed the huge sign by the town gate… He was only half-blind, not entirely.

"Well uh…" Grant struggled, "This is the town where I drop off my package and go east… And you… Go… To school?" Grant finished, suddenly questioning his knowledge of their original plan.

Volks stared at him for a moment with large eyes. Then he smiled, disarmingly. "Oh. Well, I've decided I don't want to go to school quite yet."

Grant sat back down in his seat hard and balked. "Wh… What?!"

"I've decided that I would rather stay with you." Volks explained calmly.

Grant was still in disbelief. He pinched himself under the table and it hurt. Well, this wasn't a dream…

"But… What… Why?! You can't do that! You… Your school!" He managed to stutter.

Volks pouted slightly, looking hurt. "You… don't want me with you…?" He asked.

Grant shook his head vigorously. "No, no! That's not it at all!" He said lamely. "But… Volks, you can't just give up on your dream because of me! I mean, as much as I'd like to have you with me… I couldn't… I couldn't let you do that."

Volks stared at him in surprise for a moment then a slow, obliging smile spread across his face. "Grant..." He said gently, "Just because I've decided not to go to school now doesn't mean I won't go ever."

Grant just stared at him.

"I mean… I've been thinking about it a lot… And… I realized, when you were talking about all the towns and places you've been… All the things that you have seen… The huge cities, the forests, the deserted plains, the ocean… I want to see those things too. I'm still… Young… And I don't want to have to settle down so immediately, going to school for years, worrying over finding a job… I don't know if I'm quite ready for that yet… Not when there is so much that I haven't seen… Haven't experienced…"

"But…" Grant said hopelessly, "But… I didn't mean to… To make you change all your plans…"

Suddenly the smile on Volks' face fell a little. "But… If you don't want me… If I'll just be a nuisance…" He looked away, feeling ashamed. "I shouldn't have assumed. I shouldn't have made these decisions without even asking you…"

Grant sat up straight. "Hey, hey!" He said leaning over the table and grabbing his forearm. "I never said I didn't want you! I mean, uh… You won't be a nuisance. I mean… Maybe some adjustments are in order, but… I would be happy to have you come with me if that's… If that's what you really want."

Volks gazed up at him, blushing. "It… it is." He said softly.

"…Yeah? You're really sure?" Grant asked once more, quirking an eyebrow. "I'm not always the best camp partner you know. I take too long getting ready and I have to have everything my way and all we'll have to eat is same crap everyday for weeks because I'm so cheap. I've heard that I talk in my sleep too. And snore. And I'm a terrible morning person."

Volks smiled widely, not dissuaded in the least. "I am. Very sure." He said.

Grant grinned sheepishly. "Well…" He laughed, leaning forward. "Good. It was… Gonna be hard to see you go." He admitted.

Volks laughed lightly and tentatively put his other hand on top of Grant's hand, still resting on his arm. "I'll try my best to work hard… And earn my keep."

"Yeah, I know you will."

A gentle, warm silence followed. Grant took his new partner's hands in his and Volks stared down at them warily at first, glancing around to see if anyone else noticed. No one did, or they didn't care. He allowed himself another smile, a happy blush lighting his face.

"Are you sure you want this?" Grant asked, one more time. "I don't want you to… Regret anything…"

Volks looked into his eyes. Grant nearly melted at the trust and admiration in that gaze.

"I've made up my mind. Don't try to talk me out of it. I…" Volks said resolutely, then let his voice soften, "I want to stay by your side. Besides, I have a promise to keep to someone."

Grant blinked, looking a little confused.

Volks just smiled a little wider, squeezing his hands gently in his. "Maybe I'll tell you about it someday."

Grant raised an eyebrow, but grinned. "Maybe you will."


~~~~ (the present) ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"And… Then I decided I was going to put off going to school for a while." Volks explained as he sat down against the trunk of the tree. Farrah took a seat across from him, carefully folding her legs under her. She was wearing her skirt again, which had been thoroughly washed, but still bared pale remnants of her earlier battle with the grass. She was beginning to care less. Volks was wearing his ragged black t-shirt and slacks again, having lost his cloak and scarf temporarily, as Grant had donned them as an impromptu disguise to go into town and buy food and supplies.

"Wow…" Farrah said, taking off her jacket, "When do you think you'll go back? To school I mean."

He rubbed his eyes a little and ran a hand through his hair, tucking his bangs behind his ear and out of the way of his good eye. "Oh, I'm not sure, really. We've been saving a little… We were going to try for next revolution. But, well… Now I'm not sure if we'll have the money. Not after all that we lost in Gostompa."

"So… you guys really were broke?" She asked, "When Grant tricked me?"

He sighed and frowned. "Yes. Grant lost nearly all our savings to Olgah. He was tricked himself, yes… But… I was so mad at him…"

She nodded slowly.

He sighed again. "Well… Maybe we can pay you back. Someday."

She smiled a little. "Don't worry about it."

"… Are you sure?" He said, raising an eyebrow skeptically.  "I mean, it would take a while, but we could--"

She shook her head. "No, really. It's okay. Water under the bridge and all that."

He blinked, head titled. "… Bridge? But we haven't … been over a bridge…"

She stifled a giggle. "It's an expression. It means to just forget about it. Like – let bygones be bygones. You know?"

He didn't know, but he just smiled and nodded politely. "Thank you."

"Right." She said, with a little laugh. She leaned back and fell in the grass on her back and looked up at the clear blue sky. He leaned back against the tree, long legs splayed out in front of him, spread carelessly. He closed his eyes and tilted his head back to warm his face in the afternoon sun.

He watched him casually out of the corner of her eye. It was odd. The more she got to know him and talk to him, the less and less child-like he seemed to be. Sure, he had joined in with her teasing of Grant, but that had only been at her cajoling. He was actually quite mature in attitude, probably more so than anyone she knew of her own age. More so than Grant, and even herself. It was mostly his quiet acceptance and calm attitude throughout all this that made him seem this way. He had basically been mothering both of them since the start of their little adventure, eagerly taking it upon himself to provide attention, affection, or a cool head depending upon the situation.

And it wasn't just his attitude that made her start to wonder about him. Grant had said he was older than he looked…

And… The more Farrah looked, the more she realized how wrong her first assessment of him had been. He was no skinny, petulant little boy. He was small, yes, but not quite petite, not with those legs. He wasn't bony either, but filled-out nicely, something that was well hidden when he wore his usual ensemble. She was almost tempted to ask why he wore such clothes, and so many layers of them… He really had nothing to be ashamed about. He did not have the broad-shoulders or barrel-chest masculinity that Grant exuded, no, but he did possess a slimmer, more fluid variant of it. Not a little boy at all, but a very handsome and nicely put together young man. With a very pleasant personality to boot.

She sighed. All the good ones really were taken or not interested. Or both in this case. Doubly so with this pair.

"… What's it like?" She asked suddenly, as if her voice was speaking independently from her person.

He opened an eye and quirked his eyebrow at her. "Pardon?"

"What is it like… to be in love?" She asked again, surprised at the sadness her voice suddenly held.

He stared at her for a moment, then smiled obligingly. "… It's a very complicated emotion, I suppose. I don't know if I could do it justice with my shallow knowledge of the language." He said.

"You speak better than I often. Try a little, will you? Indulge my curiosity one more time?"

He smiled again and scratched his head. "Well… Oh my. It's very good, most of the time." He said simply.

"Oh come on. You can do better than that."

"Okay, okay. I'll try. Give me a moment." He said, raising his hands in defense. He sat back against the tree again and closed his eyes, lost in thought again. For a second, she thought he had fallen asleep or forgotten, but then he began to speak again.

"Love… is good. But hard. I read somewhere that 'to love is to break a part of your own heart.' It's a sacrifice of your own selfish thoughts and needs and desires in favor of another's. It's baring your heart and soul to another… It's scary sometimes, really.

It's constantly thinking of that person and wanting to be near them. Wanting to hear their voice, feel their touch… It's all desperation and quenching of a thirst buried deep inside yourself… Filling in a gap in your life… That only this person can fill. It's feeling better about yourself because you are loved and capable of loving…

It takes a lot of trust and courage to be able to give yourself to someone and to accept their love in return. It's stupid and silly and serious and profound. It's forgetting self-doubt and seeing yourself in the light of someone who loves you. It's fulfilling expectations and giving and taking and giving again. It's… very hard. But very, very worth it. There comes a happiness from it… That… is better than anything. Something so good and wonderful… I sometimes wonder if it really exists or if I am just deluding myself… If it's just a dream. Something I wanted so badly I simply made up.

…How can he really feel like that about me? It shouldn't be real…" He trailed off and stared up into the leaves overhead, eyes glassy.

Farrah sat, her heart thumping hard in her chest, envy and longing and loneliness and hope welling up in her all at once.

"It sounds… wonderful." She whispered.

He smiled again, embarrassed. "It is. Hard work, but the results more than make up for it. I think at least. I'm sure everyone has their own philosophies. I was just rambling on, anyway. I'm sorry. I've confused you."

She shook her head. "No, no. It… was beautiful. Thank you."

He blushed. "… You're welcome."

The sound of hoofs on the dirt pathway behind them caught Farrah's attention and she turned and stood. Volks did the same, waving to Grant riding towards them, back with their lunch. "How was the town? Did you run into any trouble?" He called.

Grant shook his head, reigning in Angel beside them and tossing down a small parcel. He tugged the scarf free and shrugged the cape off his shoulders, sighing in relief at the feel of the breeze. He shook his head again, his sweat soaked hair coming free from where it had been plastered to the sides of his face.

"Phew… Nope. No trouble at all. It was kinda weird actually." He said, handing the borrowed clothes back to their owner as Volks passed the food package to Farrah.

"What do you mean?" Volks asked, draping his scarf over his shoulder.

"It was weird," Grant mumbled, dismounting with ease. "The wanted posters were still everywhere… I expected the place to be crawling with soldiers and bounty hunters and the like… But it was nearly empty. Like Myria. It was kinda unsettling."

Volks frowned. "That is rather odd…"

"Well, that's good, right?" Farrah said, crossing her arms. "What were you hoping for? A shoot out?"

"No… But…"Grant rubbed the back of his neck, turning to stare back in the direction of the town."… Maybe. I dunno, though. I got a bad feeling about all this."

"I'm just glad you're back safe." Volks said, hugging him.

Grant blinked, surprised, and then returned the embrace. "Yeah. I was worried about you guys back here. Nobody came by on the road by here did they? No trouble at all?"

"Nothing. Farrah and I were just talking." Volks answered, grinning a little.

"Hrm. That sounds like trouble to me. What exactly were you 'talking' about?"

Volks just tapped him on the nose. "Wouldn't you like to know?"

Grant turned and raised an eyebrow at Farrah. She just smiled widely.

"Why do I get the feeling I'm being plotted against?" Grant mumbled.

Volks laughed. "Don't be silly. Now come on and let's eat. I'm starving."

*****



The day, for Alexander, had been much too long all ready. His head hurt from lack of sleep. His stomach ached from lack of food. His hands shook from nerves and lack of nicotine. When they had stopped after hours of riding to water the horses, he couldn't do much besides stagger out of the saddle and onto the roadside. He slumped against a tree stump, feeling utterly defeated. At this point he was ready to give up, curl up in the grass, and die… Well, not die, but at least sleep for a few years.

"Hrmm," Ridley said, leaning over him and observing. "You look like shit."

Alexander just looked up and scowled at him, eyebrow twitching.

"How about we call it a day then, eh?" The redhead said cheerfully, plopping down beside him.

Alexander looked up at the sky blearily. "But it's only the afternoon…"

Ridley shrugged. "They can't be that far ahead of us. We rode hard today, and they're toting a woman. Besides, we got the Bitch in Black at the crossroads waiting for 'em."

"Ah... That's right. Olgah." Alexander managed to reply, wondering how he could have possibly forgotten about her.

"With the towns deserted like they are now, I bet O'Riley will take some chances on the main roads to get the girl out of his hair sooner and head right into them." Ridley continued, taking a small package from his pocket.

Alexander closed his eyes and leant backwards against the trunk, uncharacteristically feeling apathetic. "Ah…"

He heard the wrinkle and rip of cellophane and then the familiar pop of a paper seal. "Wanna cig?" Ridley offered.

Alexander sat up like a shot.

Ridley was smiling bemusedly, unlit cigarette dangling from his lips. He held out the freshly opened pack in his companion's direction.

"Thank the Goddess!" Alexander cried, reaching for them.

At which point Ridley snatched them away from his reach.

Alexander gave him a vicious glare, in no mood for games.

Ridley just continued to smirk slyly. "What are ya gonna give me in return?"

"Another head wound." He replied, completely serious.

Ridley shook a finger at him, like he was scolding a naughty child. "I don't think so. How about you at least say 'please' like the gentleman you are?"

Alexander fumed for a few seconds, before eventually giving in, currently lacking the energy to enact his threat. "… Please."

Ridley laughed. "Aww… Well, since you asked so nicely…" He snickered, sliding out a single stick and tossing it to him.

Alexander stuffed it in his mouth quickly and set to fishing about in his pockets for his lighter, which he soon realized was missing.

Ridley calmly lit a match and lit his own cigarette with it, puffing contentedly. The tip glowed briefly as he inhaled deeply. He held it for a moment, looking blissful, then exhaled luxuriously in a streaming cloud.

Alexander stared icily at him, and mumbled something.

"I'm sorry, what was that?" Ridley asked, leaning sideways at him, cupping a hand around his ear.

"I said, can I please have a light?"

Ridley smirked again, and lit another match, leaning over and lighting it for him from where it hung from his mouth.

Alexander scowled at him, resenting the gentlemanly gesture being parodied at him. He puffed purposefully and leaned away as soon as possible, inhaling gratefully.

He leaned back against the stump again and closed his eyes, smoking as slowly as he could and trying to enjoy it at much as possible.

"You're welcome." Ridley chirped, leaning back against the same tree and making sure to lay his arm flat against his.

Alexander just grumbled in reply, too tired to recoil. He'd save his strength for later. He had a feeling it was going to be a longer night than his day.

~~~~ (the past) ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"So are you lads done yet, or what?"

Grant and Volks looked up from where they had been in a rather dream-state, staring at each other over the table, food and drink long since taken away.

A large woman in an apron stood beside their table, arms crossed impatiently.

The tavern had grown quiet, the guitar player long gone, and only one other couple sat at the bar on the other side of the room. Maids and waitresses were cleaning off the empty tables and mopping the floor.

Grant glanced around and out the window. When had it gotten so dark outside?

"Ah, yeah, sorry." He said, apologizing to the matron as he stood up. He fished payment from his pocket and handed to her. "Thanks."

She eyed the coins warily in her palm, then stuffed it down her front pocket. She turned and headed back to the kitchen without a reply.

"I didn't realize it had gotten so late." Volks mumbled, gathering his cloak around his shoulders.

Grant shrugged into his jacket. "Yeah, me neither."

Volks frowned at the night view out the window. "We should've set up camp hours ago. Now it's so dark…"

"Yeah… Damn…" Grant mumbled, scratching his head. "I guess we got kinda distracted, eh?"

Volks bowed his head a little. "Y-yeah."

They walked to the door together and stopped on the stoop outside, staring up at how black the sky had gotten.

"Maybe be we should just stay in town for the night." Grant sighed, feeling his pockets grow even lighter. He had just paid for dinner for two…

"Oh. I didn't think about that." Volks said, turning to blink back at the building and it's upper floors.

"I'll go make sure the horses are taken care of for the night and you go ask for a room, all right?" Grant said, stepping down and onto the dusty street, headed for the stables.

"Okay." Volks answered, waving at him. He waited until Grant had crossed the street and disappearing into the building before stepping back into the tavern.

Grant quickly made sure the stable boy knew of their overnight stay and checked the feed buckets, Angel nosing impatiently at him for attention. He patted the horse distractedly before heading back out into the street again. Despite his nearly empty pockets, he felt strangely excited, a feeling of inexplicable nervousness prickling at the back of his mind. He hefted his knapsack on his shoulder, Volks' suitcase hanging from his other hand.

'Another night alone with him…' He thought. 'A room in a inn… '

Now that they had decided to be 'together'… Would anything change? What was Volks expecting of him? And what did he expect of Volks?

A quick image of could-be events of the night flashed in his imagination.

He shook his head lightly as he stepped up to the entrance of the inn.

So it was a room in an inn… So what? No big deal… None at all. He shouldn't go and get excited about nothing.

He entered the double doors and looked around. Volks wasn't at the desk waiting for him. He strode up to the clerk and set down the bags.

The little man looked up at him expectantly. "Can I help you?"

"Yeah… Did a young man with blond hair come in here a minute ago?" He asked

"Ah yes. He ordered a room for two. He all ready went upstairs. Are… You his companion?" The man replied, raising one eyebrow.

Grant ignored the look, turning to glance up at the stairs instead. "Yeah, that's me. What do I owe ya?"

"The boy all ready paid."

Grant turned back to the man and blinked in surprise. "Oh…"

"It's room 8, just up the stairs and on your left."

Grant nodded his thanks before picking up the luggage again and setting up the stairway, feeling a bit puzzled.

He reached the room and knocked on the door with his boot, since his hands were full.

"Come in." Volks answered, voice muffled.

"It's me. Open the door, huh? I got the bags."

A second later the boy appeared in the doorway, cloak and overclothes shed, dressed only in his shirtsleeves and shorts.

Grant blinked at him again, feeling himself break a sweat.

"Sorry," Volks said, taking his bag from him. "I forgotten you would bring our things back with you."

"No problem…" He managed, stepping inside.

He had seen Volks in this state of undress before plenty of times when they had been camping. Then of course it had been much darker, not illuminated by the several oil lamps that lit up the room like this, and Volks had always been across the campsite instead of such close proximity. But it wasn't like he was anywhere near indecent. He was wearing a loose, white undershirt and mid-thigh length black shorts. It wasn't like it was particularly sexy. Grant wasn't sure why it affected him so.

Volks set his bag down on a chair in the corner, collecting his other clothes from where he had dropped them on the floor earlier and tossing them on top of the suitcase. He kicked his shoes carelessly under the chair and away from the doorway.

Grant tried not to stare.

His legs were so long… And so white…

"I paid for the room." Volks said conversationally, turning back to him and starting him from his gazing.

"Yeah, the guy told me." Grant replied, not missing a beat. "You didn't have to do that."

Volks shrugged, crossing over to the bed and plopping down on it. "I wanted to. Besides, we're partners now, right? Everything fifty-fifty?"

Grant would have conceded some sort of answer to that if his stomach hadn't suddenly done flip-flops.

Volks was sitting on the bed. The bed. A big bed. The only one in the room.

He tried to keep his voice even. "You got a single room?" He asked lightly.

"Oh, right." Volks said, glancing down at the covers. "They didn't have any double rooms open. Some group is passing through or something. This is all that was left."

Grant thought that over. "Oh…"

"Besides, this is fine, right? We can both fit. It's cheaper anyway…"

Grant nodded slowly, turning the situation over in his head. "Yeah, this is… fine."

Volks smiled at him, looking relieved. "Ah, good."

Grant set down his knapsack on the side table and bent down to pull off his boots, his heart racing. It had been a long time since he had even slept in the same bed with someone… But Volks… He wasn't coming onto him, was he? Getting a single room for them… Despite excuses, there were other inns they could have tried… Did Volks maybe actually want this? And if so… did he want to sleep together… or sleep together….?

Mixed messages races through his head as he quietly undressed down to his boxers, folding his clothes neatly and setting them in a stack next to his boots by the foot of the bed. He brushed off his jacket and hung it on the bedpost.

Volks had all ready crawled under the covers and was lying there silently, a book open in front of him. But when Grant looked up from changing, Volks averted his eyes quickly, as if he had been watching instead of reading

Grant felt his pulse quicken. He went around the room, blowing out the lamps one by one, only leaving the one beside Volks lit. He went around the other side of the bed and pulled back the bedding.

Volks looked up at him, expectations unreadable, and shifted over a little to make room.

Grant slid under the blanket, and laid rather uncomfortably flat of his back, looking up at the unexceptional ceiling.

He could feel him breathing beside him, the sheets lifting and falling barely with the tiny movements of his chest.

"Do you have enough room?" He asked softly.

 "… I'm fine." The smaller boy answered, voice a little higher than usual. He picked up his book from where it had been lying open against his chest and dog-earned the page before closing it and setting it on the side table. He turned down the light until just a tiny slip of flame bathed the room in a warm glow, one notch away from dousing it.

"Sleepy all ready?" Grant asked, unsure of how to proceed, much less carry on a conversation.

"Maybe a little. But not really." Volks mumbled. "I just didn't feel like reading anymore."

"Oh."

"Do you want me to turn the light back up?"

"No, it's fine."

A tense, nervous silence filled the room.

Grant felt as if his entire body were made of lead and unable to breathe or think, much less move. Here was his chance to make a move, but he felt like something was stopping him. He wanted, and yet… It felt like if he tried anything thing now it would only break what fragile bonds they had made earlier… He couldn't even bring himself to roll to onto his side and look at him.

'What the hell is wrong with me?' He thought angrily, still staring up at the ceiling.

"Hey Grant…?" Volks said softly in the dim light.

"Yeah?" He answered, body tense as a taught rubber band.

Volks rolled onto his side, facing him. "How… How long have you known you were different?" He asked timidly.

The tension eased a little. "Well…" He began, "A while, I'd say. Since I started going to school at the orphanage. I was a messed up kid and got teased a lot… Wound up in a lot of fights…"

Volks nodded slowly into his pillow. "I was a bit like that too… But I… Well, I didn't understand. I mean… you were so young and realized you… felt differently?"

"Oh yeah. I had this huge crush on this one guy in my class. He had blond hair, too. Except he was a real jerk, really. Not like you at all…"

Volks laughed lightly, sapping the rest of the anxiety from the room. "So why did you like him then?" He asked, teasingly.

Grant thought a moment. "… Good question. I guess because he stood up for me once. But he was nice only because he wanted something… Everybody's like that, you know… Well, except for you." He said, finally able to turn and face him.

Volks smiled at him, trusting. "You're nice to me without wanting something in return." He replied.

Grant just grinned at that, wondering to himself if that was completely true. He definitely wanted something… But…

"It's just a little odd to me," Volks continued, interrupting his introspection. "Because… Well, I always knew I was different, but… I didn't really understand how… I didn't know. Until I met you."

"Really?" Grant scoffed lightly, "You've never been attracted to a guy until you met me? I mean, I know I'm hot and all but…"

Volks laughed out loud, a beautiful honest laugh. "I don't know really. I suppose I  did always… uhm… appreciate male beauty. I suppose I may have even had a few 'crushes' as you call them on some of the guys back home, but I didn't really see them as such until now, looking back… I guess I just always thought I would be with… with Dazelle. So I didn't really think about other options…"

Grant shrugged, understanding. "I guess it's different for everyone. Some come to terms with it at a young age and some don't let themselves think on it till they're older or an ideal situation presents itself. Nothing's wrong with bein' a late bloomer."

"I see…"

They were silent again for a while, Grant allowing his 'student' to digest this new idea.

"So…" Volks began again, slowly. "… Do I need to start bringing you flowers and things now?"

Grant blinked at him, then swallowing a bout of laughter, said sweetly, "Only if you want to. I've never gotten flowers before."

"Ah…" Volks sighed, "And us… We… Are we courting? Is that right?"

Grant couldn't swallow his laugh quick enough, but composed himself hastily. "Ah.. ha ha… Oh, sure. Courting sounds fine with me."

Volks seemed encouraged by the laughter. "And what should I call you now? My… Uhm... My… uhh…"

"You can call me anything you'd like, Sweetheart."

Volks made a face at that. "Sw-sweetheart?" He mumbled, confused.

Grant laughed again, making it obvious he was joking. "You don't like that? How about Honey-Muffin? Do you like that better? Sweet cakes? Cutie pie?"

"Oh Goddess no." Volks said fervently, looking rather sick at the idea. "Why would you call me something like that?!"

Grant laughed even harder. "It's what people do when they like each other. A pet name. You know, like nicknames. I all ready explained that, right?"

"Well, yes… But you all ready gave me one of those."

"Ah, well these are a little different. Nicknames anyone or friends can call you, but a pet name is only what you call someone you really like. Say, like your boyfriend or girlfriend. So it's special and private."

Volks thought this over. "Weird…"

"I guess it is, a little."

"A lot."

He laughed again. "Well how about this? You can call me Grant, your partner, and I can call you…" He stopped and thought a second.

"… What?" Volks wondered aloud, "Are you conjuring some other nonsense to do with desserts or some such again?"

"Well… Not exactly…" Grant mumbled.

"What is it?" Volks asked seriously, noting the sincerity of Grant's thought.

"Ah… I was just wondering…" He began, hesitantly. "If uhm… You wouldn't mind… If sometimes I called you… Uh…"

"Kitten?" Volks offered.

Grant stared at him in shock.

Volks smiled, realizing his guess had been correct. "I heard you say it once before in your sleep…" He explained. "And… I suppose I can live with that. If you don't mind me asking… Why? Why 'kitten'? It isn't the nickname of a past… partner… of yours, is it?"

"Oh, no. Hell no." Grant responded, quickly. "You'd be the first person I've ever called that. Or any other pet name for that matter."

"Why then?" Volks asked curiously.

Grant frowned a little again, turning back to look up at the ceiling. "… You'll think I'm weird." He mumbled.

"I already think that," Volks teased.

Grant pouted at him in jest, then grew serious again. "It… It was a nickname my father used to call my mother."

Volks looked a bit stunned, but not upset or repulsed.

"You know… Because her name… was Ankita… She was also called Kita for short. And Kitten by my dad." He continued nervously.

Volks contemplated this. "… I remind you of your mother?" He asked softly.

Grant shifted a little. "Ah… Maybe a bit. But it's not that exactly. I don't even know why, really. I guess I just think it fits you really well. I always thought it was a cute thing to call someone, not so stupid like those other things… And… I've always liked cats…" He trailed off, feeling enormously stupid and silly.

Volks just lay there, blushing a little as he thought.

"I've creeped you out, haven't I?" Grant asked after a moment.

"Oh no." Volks replied easily, "I'm more… flattered… than anything."

Grant rolled over to his side again. "Really? So you don't mind?"

"No… It's… fine." Volks replied slowly.

"… All right."

They were silent again for a moment. Hesitantly, but emboldened once again by the positive reaction, Grant reached out and touched his face.

Volks leaned into the caress, eyes going half-closed.

Encouraged, Grant leaned towards him, slowly closing the gap between their bodies. Despite the chasteness of the kiss, a gentle press of lips, it made Grant hot all over. Volks' hand pressed against his chest, not pushing away, fingers cool on his skin. His heart thudded hard and fast under the delicate palm.

He had been in similar situations plenty of times before… Bedded with men and women alike… Why did this make him feel this way? Why was it so different now? Why was he almost… Afraid?

When Volks leaned back and looked into his eyes his throat nearly closed up, his heart skipping beats.

"Thank you." The boy said softly.

"… For what?"

"For being honest. For taking me in. For the kiss."

"Oh…"

Grant wondered if he should've been the one doing the thanking.

Volks moved slowly, gently burying his head under the larger boy's chin, hair tickling his neck lightly. His hand slid from his chest, under his arm, and around his back. Grant returned the embrace, feeling content.

"You're welcome."

He didn't even remember falling asleep.

*****

To be continued…

More authors' notes:

Arrgh. Yeah, sorry no sex yet. We'll see how far they get next chapter, eh? ^_~

 Also sorry nothing much plot-wise got developed here. I wrote a large chunk of dialogue explaining some of the reasons why Myria and the other towns are deserted, but then it went and somehow got ERASED… So I decided I'd just throw it in later and leave you guys hanging on this (which will become an important plot point later). Bwa ha ha.

::dodges rocks thrown at her::

It's just that everybody's talking too much, lately. I'll try to get back to plot soon, I promise.

::Volks chatters on aimlessly about nothing in particular::

::Grant takes plot and tosses it into the river::

HEY! I'm gonna need that later!!

::Volks and Grant proceed to make out::

… Or… That works.

3 ~ Saadia

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