IN THE LINE OF FIRE

by Zack (ザックス)
illustrated by 2013

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/175365.html)

“You’ve been made.”

illustrated by 2013

Will swallowed, fighting down the urge to meet Cosmo’s eyes — knowing they’d be mocking and elusive in a way they’d never been in reality.

“Don’t you recognize him, partner?” Cosmo continued, walking in slow circles around the dealer. “We busted him once, years ago. Remember?”

Will ran a shaking hand over his eyes, rubbing hard enough to see stars. Cosmo was gone when he opened them again, but the dealer was giving him the evil eye.

“What the fuck,” he growled, pulling his gun and aiming it at Will.

“Whoa,” Moreno exclaimed, “what’re you doing?!”

“You brought the heat on me, Moreno!”

Will zoned out as Moreno started reeling off evasive lies, no doubt prepared and rehearsed since the very beginning. He was good like that; Will could appreciate it now that he was no longer trying to take down the middleman.

The dealer chuckled crudely, though he didn’t lower the gun. “You’re right that he doesn’t look like a cop,” he said, “but that’s no guarantee.”

Will was starting to feel stressed. He needed the drugs, and he needed them now. He had no doubt Moreno would launch into another persuading speech — not for concern over Will, of course, but rather the desire to keep his best customer breathing for a little while longer — but he couldn’t stand waiting any longer.

He stepped forward, the barrel of the gun pressing into his chest in a familiar sensation. “Either give me the Lethe,” Will hissed, “or shoot me. Just make up your mind already.”

“Tsk tsk, you’re gonna get yourself killed.”

Will gritted his teeth, refusing to acknowledge the remark. He could see Cosmo in the corner of his eye, standing diagonally in front of him — close to the gun in a way that made Will’s stomach turn.

Cosmo leaned sideways, head resting atop the gun so that his green eyes met Will’s. “Or is that what you’re trying to do?” he asked, voice sad and quiet in a way that was just too lifelike to bear.

Will tried to shove Cosmo away, letting out a guttural scream as his hands just met air. “Get away from me,” he yelled, but didn’t feel comforted in the least when Cosmo faded away.

“Shit, man,” the dealer breathed, backing away. “The fuck’s wrong with you?”

Moreno stepped between them, ever the cool intermediary. “As you can see, Mr. Gamble isn’t… ah, well. I can only hope this has helped dispel your doubts.”

“Hell yeah,” he muttered, nervously fingering the gun as he lowered it. “Let’s do this.”

Will dug through the pockets of his trench coat until his shaking fingers connected with the flask he kept there for emergencies. It’d been a long time since alcohol had helped, but he needed something — anything — to tide him over.

He let the lukewarm liquid wash down his throat as Moreno closed the deal, trading crumpled wads of cash for a bag of Lethe — and a couple of complimentary syringes, clearly meant as consolatory gesture.

The dealer took off down the alley, Moreno watching his departure intently. Apparently satisfied that their business associate was out of hearing range, he rounded on Will.

“Don’t start,” Will preempted him. “I just want my stuff, all right?”

“I’m doing you a favor here, old friend. A ‘thanks’ would be nice.”

“Funny,” Will scoffed, “I thought you did it for the money. No need to pay you a commission anymore then, I take it.”

Moreno’s lips became a thin, white line. “Do you know what would happen to me if anyone got wind of the truth? Me helping a cop!”

Ex-cop,” Will snarled.

“I doubt that’ll matter much to the circles I run in. I’m risking my neck for your sake — a commission I could get from any gutter junkie; I don’t need to put my life on the line.”

There was something akin to pity in Moreno’s eyes. It made Will want to punch his teeth in. Instead, he snatched the bag and walked away.

Focusing on the way the puddles of rainwater splashed around his boots when he stepped in them, Will tried his best to not think about anything. He just needed to make his way back to his apartment, and then he’d get his fix. That was all that truly mattered now.

That was all he had now.

Rounding a corner, he stumbled over a trashcan. The garbage spilled onto the pavement, a disgusting mix of potato peels and used diapers. He stared at the mess for a while, absently pitying the poor bastard who’d have to clean it up.

A sudden clattering to his right made his head snap up, hand automatically reaching for the gun he no longer carried. Several trashcans had been tipped over on the other side of the alley, the culprit clearly being the distinctly human shadow that stumbled out from behind them.

“Thirty-nine?” The whisper was weak, but doubtlessly male.

“What?” Will replied, squinting into the darkness.

A hiccupping sob came from the shadow, before it broke into a mad dash and launched itself at Will. Next thing he knew, a boy was clinging desperately to him — a naked boy.

“I thought you had been harvested,” he said, smiling through the tears. His arms briefly tightened around Will’s waist, before going limp.

Will barely managed to catch him before he slid to the ground. Crouching down and bringing the boy into his lap, Will studied him. Aside from some bruising, cuts and scrapes — worst of which were his feet — the young man didn’t seem to be hurt. But there was always the risk of internal injuries, which meant he should be brought to a hospital.

Will hesitated. Even unconscious, the boy looked restless and scared. All things considered, he’d been hiding in an alley in the middle of the night — no one would do that for shits and giggles. He’d quite possibly been beat up (perhaps sexually assaulted too, judging by the lack of clothes), and whoever had done so was probably searching for him. Bringing a John Doe to the hospital always garnered a certain amount of attention, which meant that the person he was running from could very well turn up claiming to be his relative. Will knew from experience that the hospital would relinquish the kid without much fuss, overcrowded as they were these days.

And there was something off about the boy, that further convinced Will to not bring him in. Black scribbles were all over his torso, in the form of circles and dotted lines — the most prominent being the mark right above the kid’s heart. That, coupled with the diagonal scar on his hip that extended from his back and down to his stomach, had Will getting the impression that the scribbles were meant to be incision guidelines. It was eerie as hell, to say the least.

Mind made up, Will maneuvered out of his coat while making sure not to let the boy drop to the cold pavement. Getting the unresponsive body into the coat was a challenge, but soon enough he was carrying the kid towards his apartment.

—-

The vidphone flickered to life, revealing the harried face of Sheila Morgan. She squinted at the screen, pink nightgown making for an awful contrast with her red hair.

“Who the hell…” she began, before her eyes widened. “William!”

“Hey, Sheila.” Will sent her a lopsided smile. “Long time no see.”

“No kidding,” she muttered, “I almost didn’t recognize you. Shit, what happened to you?”

It wasn’t a question — she knew damn well what had happened to him — and Will calmly sidestepped the subject. “Look, I’m sorry to call you out of the blue like this, especially at this time of day, but I need your help.”

Sheila broke into a smile. “You’ve finally come to your senses! I’m so glad, and I know Cosmo would’ve been really proud too. Just let me make some calls and I’ll get you into a clinic right away — or I can help you through it, if you’d rather—”

“Stop.” It took every ounce of Will’s willpower to not disconnect the call. “It’s not about me. There’s a kid here, who needs medical attention.”

She frowned, clearly torn between disappointment and concern for a potential patient. “I’m sure you can find your way to the hospital, if that’s all this is about,” she began.

“No, I would’ve done that already if I could. You’re the only doctor I know, and I…” Will hesitated, about to say ‘I trust you’ but thinking better of it. It’d be a lot easier for the both of them if things were kept on an impersonal level. “Please, Sheila.”

“…Okay. I’ll be there in ten.”

The screen went black. He watched it for a while, images from old calls superimposing themselves over the darkness.

“Stop it,” he whispered, begging his mind to stop torturing him. Unable to tear his eyes away, his hand went for his coat pocket and the Lethe he knew to be there. But as his seeking hand only gripped air, reality returned. The kid was still wearing it, lying bunched up in the over-sized coat on the couch, somehow looking more vulnerable than when he’d been naked.

He was very pale, but looked strangely healthy otherwise. His body was in remarkably good shape; hardly the look of someone who needed a heart transplant — if that indeed was what the scribbles signified.

Will reached out to touch the boy’s forehead, wanting to check his temperature. The skin was soft and cool beneath his palm. Relieved that he at least hadn’t caught pneumonia, Will let his hand travel down the boy’s cheek to linger on his throat. His pulse was strong and rhythmic.

About to pull back, Will froze when the boy leaned into his touch. It was like a stray dog seeking warmth, and he couldn’t bring himself to break the contact. He stayed put until someone knocked on the door.

“Sorry,” Will mumbled as he withdrew his hand, feeling guilty as the boy’s face returned to looking pained and restless.

He hurried to the door, not wanting to make Sheila wait. She gave him a forced smile as he opened the door, entering the apartment and immediately looking around for her patient.

“He’s on the couch,” Will said, answering her unvoiced question.

Nodding tersely, Sheila began pulling out medical equipment from her bag as she walked over to the couch. Will followed her, and watched as she began examining the young man.

She was in the middle of studying the X-ray results on her portable unit, when she looked up and met his eyes. “Should I ask you to go boil some water?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Huh?”

Sheila laughed, shaking her head. “Sorry, that was mean of me. It’s sweet of you to stand watch over him and be so vigilant.” She hesitated, before quietly adding, “It’s good to see you acting like yourself again, Will.”

Clenching his hands, Will ignored her remark. “How is the boy?” he asked instead.

Sheila sighed.

“What, that bad?”

“No, it’s not that… I…” she waved her hand, dismissing the subject. “He seems to be just fine, actually. The only matter of concern is his feet, but I’ve cleaned and bandaged them so the risk for infection should be fairly slim. Still, you’ll need to keep an eye open.”

“What happened to his feet, anyway?”

“Mm, that’s one of the strange things about this one…” Sheila tapped her pursed lips with her forefinger. “He looks to be in his late teens, but there are a lot of little things that just don’t correspond to that age. Like his feet, for example — I think they became this way by running around on the streets without any shoes. But the soles of someone his age should be callused enough to not come out looking as if he’d been walking on glass.”

Will shrugged. “Maybe he did step on some glass. There’s broken bottles all over the city, you know.”

“I don’t think so,” she said. “There are no clean cuts to imply something that sharp; it’s all evenly scraped up.”

“Okay…” Will drawled, mind turning to come up with an explanation. That old familiar feeling of adrenaline brought on by a mystery, a case to solve, was making itself known again. He was surprised to find that he’d missed it. “What if he’s been ill all his life? That’d explain the scar, and the soft skin — if you’re bedridden you don’t have tough soles.”

“That’d work, yes, if he was sick. But he’s actually in good condition, healthy inside and out. The scar you mentioned is from having one of his kidneys removed — either for donation purposes or illness. There’s evidence in favor of both, and I can’t say for sure under these conditions.”

“Got it. Then what about those marks? Those are incision guidelines, aren’t they?”

“I wish I knew. They sure look like they are, but nobody would have several surgeries done at once like this. Besides, it’s not as if he needs a lung transplant and so on. It’s really strange.”

Will nodded. “I thought so too.”

Sheila gave the unconscious boy one last look, before turning away. “There’s really not much else I can do for him. I haven’t heard anything about a runaway patient either, but I can look into it if you’d like.”

“No, I think it’s better if we keep this to ourselves — at least until we know more. Hopefully I can get some answers outta him when he wakes up.”

“Fine. Just don’t…”

“Don’t what?”

“No, forget it.” Sheila gave him a small smile, and headed for the door. “Keep me posted,” she said, and then she was gone.

“Thanks,” Will mumbled. He went to grab a chair, placing it by the couch. The Lethe beckoned, but he grit his teeth and sat down to wait. His mind needed to be clear when the boy woke up — so he had no choice but to endure the cold sweat, the creeping shadows, and the whispers that were growing stronger by the minute.

He was at the end of his rope by the time the boy stirred. Breathing a sigh of relief, Will focused himself and looked on as a pair of impossibly blue eyes fluttered open.

“Hey,” Will said, and immediately regretted it when the boy flinched. He sat up abruptly, looking around with evident fear. He relaxed when his eyes stopped on Will, before suddenly stiffening. It didn’t seem as if he liked what he saw.

“Thirty-nine…?”

“Sorry kiddo, I really don’t know what that means.”

“But you… I t-thought…” he faltered, tears welling up in his eyes.

“Whoa,” Will started, but didn’t get a chance to say anything else. The boy shot up from the couch, trench coat falling unheeded to the floor, and ran.

Will raced after him by reflex, almost tripping over the boy when he slipped — bandages on parquet floor apparently not making for a good foothold. Will grabbed hold of him as he tried to crawl away, wheezing hysterically.

A flailing foot connected with Will’s jaw, the bandage on it seeped through with fresh blood. Ignoring the shooting pain, Will tightened his hold. “Calm down,” he said, trying to keep his voice as soothing as possible. “I’m not gonna hurt you. You’re safe here.”

The boy kept thrashing.

“Stop, please. You’re only hurting yourself. I’ll let you go as soon as you’re still, I swear. Okay?”

Taut as a bowstring, the boy stilled. The only thing moving was his heaving chest, though it was clear he was ready to explode again — if need be.

“Good,” Will said, squeezing the kid’s forearm encouragingly. “I’m gonna let you go now, but don’t get up. Let’s just sit on the floor and talk a bit. Nod if you understand.”

He nodded.

Slowly, Will released him. He remained completely still, and Will scooted back a bit — giving the boy some breathing space; not wanting to crowd him and risk a relapse.

“My name is Will,” he said slowly. “What’s yours?”

“…Zero.”

That didn’t seem like a very good name to Will, but he didn’t press the issue. “Hello, Zero, nice to meet you.” He kept his voice steady and gentle, just as he’d once been taught to do when dealing with people in shock.

Zero’s eyes darted up, looking at Will before returning to stare at the floor. “Are you going to take me back?”

He frowned. “Take you back where?”

No answer.

Will tried to hold on to his fading patience. It’d been too damn long since he’d done this; where he once would’ve been patient and coaxing, he now felt like simply shaking the kid and bodily forcing him to answer.

There,” Zero said, voice small. “I don’t know the name. Don’t know where I am now either.”

Frustration dissipated, Will tried to get the boy to meet his eyes. “Hey,” he said, “you’re in my home. And I won’t take you anywhere you don’t want to go.”

Raising his head, Zero met his eyes. “Really?”

“Yeah, really.”

A tiny smile flittered over Zero’s lips, dimmed by distrust and uncertainty. Will didn’t blame him, but vowed to himself that he’d do whatever it took to earn the boy’s trust. And to make him smile for real.

“Aren’t you cold?” he asked, deftly sidestepping the questions he really wanted to ask.

“Not really.”

“I’ll go find you something to wear anyway,” Will chuckled, amused by Zero’s obvious lack of modesty. He didn’t seem bothered in the least by his nudity, legs spread and displaying everything he had.

Zero got a haunted look in his eyes when Will stood up, his body instantly tensing up again. Understanding, Will held out his hand. “If you think your feet can handle it, you can come with me.”

The hand that clasped his was wary, but it still felt like a small victory. The feeling grew as Zero didn’t let go; keeping a firm grip while Will led him to the bedroom.

He opened the closet under Zero’s watchful gaze, and rifled through the garments therein. There was little doubt that his own clothes would be too big for the boy. Hesitating, his fingers lingered over the faded blue jeans that had once belonged to Cosmo.

The set of clothes weren’t anything special, originally placed there for spur-of-the-moment sleepovers: late nights when his partner was just too beat to drive home, too riled up to be alone, or — during their rare days off — too drunk to do anything but pass out on Will’s couch.

There’d been a set of Will’s clothes in Cosmo’s home, too. But they were gone now, just like everything else that had ever belonged to his best friend.

A slight tug on his arm snapped him out of his reverie. Zero was looking at him in a way that seemed to imply that he was the one who elicited concern. It was damn near laughable, but Will found himself unable to so much as crack a smile.

Grabbing Cosmo’s old things, he thrust them at Zero with more force than necessary. The boy released his hand in order to grab hold of the load, and Will felt a strange mix of relief and regret at the loss of contact.

“Would you like to take a shower first?”

Zero was looking at the clothes with what appeared to be awe, and it took a couple of seconds before he reacted to the question. “Where?” he asked, eyes narrowing in obvious suspicion.

“Uh, in the bathroom.”

“Here?”

“Yes,” Will enunciated slowly, “here.”

“They’re not in there, right?” The hands gripping the clothes tightened, knuckles turning white.

“They?”

Zero didn’t answer, but his body was quickly stiffening up — readying itself for flight.

“There’s nobody in my bathroom.”

“…Really?”

“Really.”

“Okay,” he said finally.

“It’s that door over there,” Will said, pointing. “Turn on the water and let it heat up while I go get some plastic bags.”

Zero gave him a blank stare.

“For your feet,” he clarified. “Y’know, so the bandages don’t get wet?”

Zero nodded slowly, the look of someone who didn’t understand at all — but who complied anyway, in a misguided attempt to avoid conflict. Will had seen it during his days as a cop, more times than he could count. Sighing, he left the boy and went to the kitchen.

He had found the plastic bags and was looking for rubber bands by the time he heard the spray of water. Will smiled, pleased that the kid had managed to make do on his own. Finally locating the rubber bands, he grabbed a handful and then went to the bathroom.

Zero stood like a ramrod in the middle of the bathroom, though he seemed to minutely relax when Will entered. The clothes had been placed in the sink.

“Sit down a sec,” Will said, flipping down the toilet lid for him.

Zero did as asked, wide-eyed.

Kneeling, Will took hold of one foot and carefully slipped it into a plastic bag. After tying it off with a rubber band, he repeated the process on the second foot.

“There,” he said, getting to his feet. “All done. You can hop in the shower now.”

Zero stood up and wobbled across the bathroom. He seemed hesitant about entering the shower cabin, but stepped in nonetheless.

Sliding the doors closed behind him, Will tried to offer a reassuring smile. “You’ll be fine on your own, right?” He continued without waiting for an answer, “Shampoo’s there, and the soap’s right under it. There are plenty of towels on the rack — I’ll put one on the floor so you don’t slip when you step out. Call me if you need help.”

He hurriedly put the towel on the floor, feeling Zero’s eyes boring into his back. Without returning the gaze he left the bathroom and pulled the door shut behind him. His hands were shaking again, and a killer headache was rearing its ugly head. Back leaning against the door, Will closed his eyes.

“Sure brings back memories, huh?”

Eyes snapping open, Will sought out the owner of the voice. Cosmo sat on his bed, one leg dangling over the edge. He had a lopsided smile on his face, teeth glistening white and sharp.

“Remember when I got shot in the leg? You made me sleep over here ’cause you wanted to keep an eye on me. I had to take a shower, and you couldn’t find big enough plastic bags for me.”

“…I remember.”

Cosmo grinned, getting up from the bed and sauntering over. “So then you tried to cover my entire thigh in plastic wrap.”

Chuckling quietly, Will nodded. “But you kept wailing, saying it was too tight and clingy. As if that wasn’t the whole point.”

“But you still listened,” Cosmo smiled, coming to rest against the door next to Will. “You turned the town upside down, until you found a store still open. I can still see that proud grin on your face, as you came back, toting those huge bags like some kind of demented prize.”

“And I can’t forget the way you looked either, with one leg — and half your hip — covered in a black garbage bag.”

Cosmo’s head tipped back, releasing a peal of laughter. “Fastened with duct tape, no less!”

Forgetting himself, Will leaned sideways — intending to thump their heads together and to give Cosmo a playful shove. But no warm body connected with his, making him lose his balance.

Stumbling, Will sucked in a breath. “Oh fuck,” he whispered, “fuckfuckfuck–”

“Hey, Will…” Green eyes that had been so bright and sparkling now seemed as dark as a swamp, eager to suck him down.

“Don’t! No more, oh please, just stop it. I can’t take this anymore.” The words fell from his lips without conscious thought, his entire mind focused on finding the Lethe. He ran to the living room, where the coat still lay discarded. Dropping to the floor and heedlessly banging his knees in the process, he tore through the pockets until he found what he was looking for.

Cosmo talked to him as he prepared the drug, but Will ignored the actual words. His voice was loud and upset, and it was bad enough just having to hear that. The sooner he got the Lethe in his system, the sooner he could filter that out too. He needed the oblivion that the drug brought, needed it desperately.

The needle broke his skin easily.

Heaving himself up on the couch, Will blinked at the ceiling before turning his head and focusing on Cosmo. He was fading fast now, voice and visage both. Not really meaning to, Will extended a hand towards him. But Cosmo just slowly shook his head before disappearing completely.

His hand dropped, hitting the floor with a sharp thud. Closing his eyes, Will let the empty darkness take him away.

—-

Sunlight greeted his sensitive eyes when he awoke. Screwing his eyes shut again, he tried to bring up his hands to shield them. But one of his hands didn’t obey the command, and with a groan he cracked open an eye — squinting against the light as he tried to determine the problem.

Zero was sitting curled up on the floor next to the couch, holding Will’s hand in both of his. His head was propped up against one drawn-up knee, a small puddle of drool making the fabric of the jeans darker in that spot.

Will cleared his throat, feeling oddly warmed by the scene in front of him. Not knowing what to say, he instead reached out to muss the blond strands. The soft hair tangled around his fingers, and Zero stirred. Blue eyes opened, blinking drowsily up at him.

“Mm, Thirty-nine,” he mumbled, tilting his head towards Will — once again reminding him of a dog, now silently begging to get scratched behind the ears.

“I think it’s time you tell me who this Thirty-nine is,” Will said calmly, relieved when Zero didn’t flinch away.

He just angled his head up, meeting Will’s eyes. “Thirty-nine used to do that too.”

“Oh? Did you use to live with him?”

“For as long as I can remember.”

“Your brother, then?”

Zero frowned. “Brother?”

“Yeah, you know, same parents.”

“I don’t know those words.”

Will’s hand stilled briefly, confused but not wanting to let it show. Zero was opening up; answering his questions without panicking or withdrawing. He’d just have to file this latest strangeness into the growing mystery that was Zero, and press on.

Resuming the petting, Will rephrased the question. “Did anyone else live with you and Thirty-nine?”

Zero stiffened slightly. “They were there, always. But it was just the two of us most of the time.”

The unknown ‘them’, again. Zero’s behavior last time he’d been questioned about their identity still in fresh memory, Will didn’t push the issue. “You were hiding in that alley, right? Was it them you were running away from?”

“Yes.”

“And you thought I was Thirty-nine, that’s why you came out. You keep mistaking me for him… Do we look alike?”

Zero tilted his head, studying Will so intently that it made his skin crawl. “This is different,” he finally said, lifting a hand to stroke along Will’s stubbled jaw. “And you have little lines in your face.”

“Okay okay,” Will laughed, swatting Zero’s hand away. “I’m older, I get it.”

“You’re the same otherwise.”

“Brown hair and brown eyes, you mean.” He had hoped for a distinguishing description; something that’d enable him to find Zero’s friend. Knowing that Thirty-nine was as nondescript as he himself was wouldn’t be of much help.

“No,” Zero persisted, “I mean that you’re the same.”

Will frowned. “Same build too? Is that what you mean?”

Zero got to his feet, gesturing at Will with obvious frustration. “You’re the same. I don’t know how to say it any other way.”

Following suit, Will sat up — stilling briefly as the post-Lethe dizziness overwhelmed him, before getting off the couch. “Relax. I understand,” he lied.

He clapped Zero on the shoulder as he moved past him, heading for the kitchen. “I don’t know about you, but I’m hungry.”

Zero didn’t answer, but the soft footfalls following his told him everything he needed to know.

“So, what would you like? I…” Will hesitated as he opened the fridge, taking in the sorry state it was in, “…don’t actually have much to choose from, as it turns out.”

Zero’s head popped up in front of him, obscuring his line of vision — something he was only grateful for, as it spared him from seeing the mess.

“What’s that?” he asked, pointing at a half-eaten hamburger.

“Something that’s going in the trash, that’s what,” Will muttered.

“Why?”

“A little tip: if it’s green, don’t eat it.” He reached around Zero, grabbing the moldy burger and tossing it in the garbage bin.

Zero nodded, wide-eyed.

Picking up a piece of ham, Will sniffed it. “I think this is fine. And there should be some bread in the freezer. Sandwiches okay with you? I’ll go get some better stuff for us later.”

He nodded again.

“Great.” He handed the ham to Zero, who received it with something akin to reverence — mouth shaped into a little circle and everything.

Will shook his head. “I don’t know what’s with you, kiddo, but I can tell that life sure won’t be boring with you around.”

Zero gave him a tentative smile. “I like being with you too,” he said.

At a loss for words, and somehow not feeling so amused anymore, Will turned away and began digging through the freezer. The bread was soon found, and he tore open the bag with more force than strictly necessary.

“You can slice up the ham while I defrost this,” Will said, wanting to divert Zero’s attention. “The knives are in the top drawer, and there’s a cutting board somewhere too.”

He watched as Zero picked out a knife before turning his attention to the microwave. Throwing the bread in and pushing some numbers by random, Will let his mind wander. He couldn’t let the kid get fond of him. But, at the same time, he wanted to solve the mystery — and he couldn’t do that without a certain degree of friendliness. Besides, Zero was far from unlikeable… Hell, he was dangerously endearing.

Clenching his jaw, Will looked over his shoulder. Zero had sliced up some of the ham, but now stood still. Frowning, Will stepped closer before stopping dead in his tracks.

Bright red coated Zero’s fingers, trickling onto the floor. The hand was thrust away from his body, and he seemed completely focused on the hem of his shirt — rubbing it between the fingers of his other hand.

“Shit, what the fuck happened?!” Will surged forward, making a grab for the wounded hand.

Zero shrank back. “I-I didn’t mean to,” he stuttered. “Is it ruined?”

“What? Come on, let me look at your hand.”

Zero flinched away again. “I didn’t mean to ruin it, I really-”

His head bent down, staring at the shirt again. Following his gaze, Will saw a bloodstain on it. “Oh hell, don’t tell me…”

Taking a deep breath, Will crouched down in order to meet Zero’s eyes. Looking up at the boy, he smiled. “Hey. I don’t care about the shirt. The only important thing here is you. Please let me look at your hand, okay?”

Zero’s eyebrows raised. “You’re not mad?”

“No, not at all. I promise.” He slowly stood back up, reaching out to grab Zero’s hand in the process. This time, the boy allowed it.

Hissing, Will took in the damage. “Let’s wash this up. Don’t be scared; finger cuts tend to bleed a lot. So let’s clean it, and get a better look at the actual cut.”

“But it’s nothing,” Zero argued, though he obediently followed as Will led him to the sink.

“Nothing? Do you have a high pain threshold or something? Hold still now, this is gonna sting,” he instructed before he turned on the tap.

Zero didn’t even blink. “It’s nothing,” he repeated. “It’s a normal level of pain.”

Will didn’t like the sound of that. Filing the new information away for later examination, he squinted at the cleaned hand. The cut went across several fingers, but wasn’t too deep. “I don’t think this needs stitches,” he said.

Zero went completely still.

Raising his head, Will took in the naked fear in his eyes. “What’s wrong?”

“…Don’t take me to them.”

“‘Them’ again, huh? I know you can’t explain who they are, but what makes you think I’ve changed my mind? I said I wouldn’t take you anywhere you didn’t wanna go, and I damn well meant it.”

“But, you said…” Zero’s eyes flickered nervously. “Stitches is something they do.”

“Wait… they’re doctors?!”

Answer not forthcoming, Will went for a different angle. “The long scar on your side, was that something they did to you?”

Zero nodded.

“Were you sick?”

“No,” he said, hesitating a bit before adding, “but that hurt. Thirty-nine had to help me with everything for a while.”

Head spinning, Will motioned for Zero to sit down on one of the kitchen chairs. “I’ll be right back, wait here. Just gonna go get some band-aids,” he mumbled. As he made his way to the bathroom and began digging through the cabinets, his mind replayed an old case. He’d been a rookie at the time, and hadn’t actually been involved in solving it, but he still remembered it clear as day.

Organ theft. It’d been a rumor first: whispers on the streets. Then bodies had begun showing up, in various states of distress — some with clean and precise cuts, others who looked like they’d been butchered. A tip from a thug with a conscience had led them to a drug runner, who’d apparently thought it a clever idea to do some moonlighting in the health trade. It’d been a vile affair, from start to finish.

And now it might be happening all over again. On an even greater scale, to boot. It’d explain so much about Zero, everything from his name to his awkwardness. But, on the other hand, that’d have to mean that it was a huge endeavor; no one-man operation here, no. A systematical removal of organs, and keeping people against their will for God only knew how long. Psychological stress could’ve made Zero repress his past, normal life — but something told Will that wasn’t the case. The boy didn’t seem truly damaged; he was upbeat and easy-going, unless you pushed his buttons (which was only understandable). Of course, that might only be because he resembled Zero’s friend.

“Ah shit,” Will groaned, realizing that the first thing Zero had said to him now made perfect sense. Thirty-nine had been harvested, he’d said. If Will’s hunch about the organ theft was correct, that probably meant Thirty-nine was dead. Did Zero understand that? Crushing the located band-aid box in his hand, Will hurried back to the kitchen.

“Here we go,” he said, with all the forced cheer he could muster.

He covered Zero’s fingers in band-aids, got the bread out of the microwave, and finished slicing the ham.

Carefully thinking about how to best determine if his suspicion was correct, Will started preparing a sandwich for Zero. He was still sitting by the table, eyes curiously following Will’s every move.

“So,” he drawled, “what kind of food do you like, anyway? I don’t wanna pick up something you hate.” Will was stalling, and he knew it — but pushing the subject just didn’t feel like a good idea at the time. Better to let them both relax a bit, before getting back to the issue at hand.

“I don’t really know,” Zero said, sounding uncertain.

“Don’t really have any favorites, then?” Will handed him the sandwich. “But sandwiches are okay? To be honest, that’s always somewhat been the extent of my culinary expertise.”

Zero hesitated, before biting into the proffered meal. His eyes widened as he chewed, clearly enjoying the food — driving the point home further by taking another bite before answering Will. “This is so good,” he exclaimed, “I like sandwiches the best, for sure!”

“Zero…” Will swallowed, trying to rid himself of the sudden lump in his throat. “What did they give you to eat?”

Zero frowned, clutching the sandwich to his chest. “It depended,” he finally said. “Most of the time it was special drinks and pills. But the days before they wanted to use you, it was only food through a needle.”

Will was about to ask if he meant IVs, when Zero continued talking. His voice was quieter now, words falling from his lips in a rush. “So when they came with that needle and the bag with clear liquid, you always knew. Sometimes people came back — like I did,” his fingers dug into his side, as if he was trying to pry open the old scar — “but most of the time they didn’t. Like Thirty-nine; he never came back. I waited, but he…”

The sandwich had turned to mush in Zero’s tightening hand, now a shaking fist. Will reached out, gently taking hold of it and unclenching the fingers.

Returning to reality, Zero blinked a couple of times before looking down. His face twisted in disappointment when seeing the pathetic remains of his meal. “My sandwich,” he whimpered.

Something inside of Will twisted painfully. “I’ll make you another one,” he forced out.

“Really?” Zero’s face lit up, smile contrasting with the wet gleam in his eyes.

Forgoing words, Will squeezed his hand in reply.

—-

As much as he hated to admit it, Will knew that he had to go to the police station. If Zero truly was a runaway from some large-scale ring of organ thieves, he needed to act fast. The lives of the other victims were on the line, and time was of the essence.

He hadn’t been to the station since Cosmo’s death.

His eyes strayed to Zero, sitting glued in front of the TV. The kid would be fine while he was gone, so no worries there at least. Will resisted the urge to tell him to scoot back a bit, not wanting to hamper the joy of another new experience.

Concentrating on himself instead, Will grimaced. He’d have to clean up before going in, that much was certain. Nobody would believe his story if he burst through the doors looking like a hobo. Hell, they probably wouldn’t take him seriously no matter how much he preened before showing up.

Not that he could blame them. Far from it; he’d gladly spare them from ever having to lay eyes on him again. Unfortunately, he had no choice. Zero’s appearance was forcing his hand, and if it meant saving lives… it’d be worth it.

Mind made up, he headed to the bathroom for a shower of his own.

“Where are you going?”

Will looked over his shoulder. Zero had gotten to his feet, TV apparently forgotten. He looked anxious.

“I have to run an errand, so I need to clean up first. Oh, and I’ll pick up something to eat on the way back,” he added, hoping the mention of food would ease the boy’s worry.

“Can I come with you?”

Scenes of what could be flashed through his head: Zero coming with him to the station, and seeing the contempt on everyone’s faces. Finding out that the man he was beginning to trust — perhaps even see as a safe harbor — was completely unworthy. Disappointment and hatred clouding those bright eyes, as he got as far away from Will as possible. And someone would be there in the shadows; wearing Cosmo’s visage but with a mocking sneer twisting it beyond recognition, laughing at him for secretly hoping that Zero might be his chance to atone.

“Will…?”

The voice ripped him from the nightmarish vision. Zero had taken a couple steps closer, arm raised and look in his eyes that Will didn’t care to interpret.

“No,” he rasped, rubbing a trembling hand over his eyes. “You can’t come with me. It’s… it’s far, and your feet—”

“That’s not what I meant.”

A couple of cool fingers snaked around Will’s wrist, gently pulling his hand away from his face. His fingers were wet — he had to have been rubbing his eyes too hard, surely.

“I meant the bathroom,” Zero clarified. “Can I be with you while you get ready?”

“Oh.” Will swallowed, fighting the urge to grip Zero’s hand as if it were a lifeline. “Y-yeah, I… I guess.”

Zero smiled, relief evident in his entire being. He definitely wore his heart on his sleeve, and Will wasn’t sure if he should be grateful for that or not.

“By the way,” Will chuckled as Zero more or less led him to the bathroom, “I got another tip for ya.”

Eager blue eyes looked up at him as they entered the bathroom. “Yes?”

“Well, you probably shouldn’t ask anyone else — especially other men — if you can hang out with them while they shower.”

Zero frowned. “But why would I ask anyone else?”

In the middle of taking off his clothes, Will stumbled as his foot got caught in the pant leg. “Huh?”

Zero caught hold of his elbow, steadying him. “I don’t want to be around anyone else when they shower. Just you,” he said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.

“Right,” Will drawled, carefully pushing Zero towards the toilet. “I’m glad this didn’t turn out as awkward as I feared,” he added, muttering under his breath.

Zero didn’t seem to hear the sarcastic comment, instead zoning in on Will’s back as he got into the shower. “What happened there?

“The scar, you mean?” Will replied, stepping headlong into the spray of the cold water.

“Yes.”

He grimaced. Not only was it an embarrassing story, but there was also an aspect to it that Zero simply might not understand. And he sure as hell wasn’t up for explaining it to the boy.

“Will?”

“All right all right, hold your horses. It’s just a souvenir from when I was a cop.”

Zero looked as if he’d just been presented with an impossible math equation. “What should I hold?” he asked.

Will groaned. “Forget it, I’ll explain some other time.”

“Oh. Okay,” he said, head dejectedly tilting down.

Inwardly cursing, Will forcefully began shampooing his hair. “Do you know what a cop is? The police?”

Zero peeked up from under his bangs. “Um, I heard them say that word a lot — but I never found out what it meant.”

“Hn. Well, basically, cops are supposed to make sure bad things doesn’t happen; to protect and save people.”

Zero was frowning, clearly having a hard time grasping the concept. Will pressed on nonetheless, “Like, what happened to you and Thirty-nine… I’m not a cop anymore, but I still want to help. That’s my errand, actually; going to the police station, so that the ones who are behind this will be caught and won’t ever be able to hurt anyone ever again.”

Zero looked stunned. “You… you’ll save us?”

I can’t do anything, that time is long past, but others will. So don’t worry, you’re safe — and hopefully the others will be too, soon.”

Silence. After washing the last remnants of soap and shampoo from his face, Will opened his eyes again. Zero had buried his face in his hands, and his shoulders shook.

“Hey hey, what’s wrong?”

“I don’t know what to say,” Zero hiccupped. “I’m so happy, but—” the subsequent words were drowned in sobs, but the ones Will were able to pick up on — ‘Thirty-nine’, ‘too late’, ‘if’ — told him all he needed to know.

Only pausing to wrap a towel around his waist, Will hurried out of the shower. Squatting, he gripped Zero’s shoulder in an attempt to offer the boy some comfort — hating how inept and utterly helpless he felt. “It wasn’t your fault,” he whispered.

Zero lowered his hands, revealing a face wet with tears and snot. “If I had run sooner—”

“Shh, I’m sure you didn’t exactly have lots of opportunities for escape. You couldn’t help it, you hear me?”

“I… I got away when they took me to be harvested. I was so scared — they put me on the table and I just pissed myself. They got angry because they had to clean it up first, so when they were busy with that I jumped off and ran,” he spoke in rapid stream of words, as if he desperately needed to explain.

“Aw shit,” Will murmured. His hand left Zero’s shoulder to wipe away the wetness on the boy’s face. “Zero, listen. It truly wasn’t your fault. I promise you that, okay?”

Zero finally met his gaze. A split second later, he threw himself into Will’s arms — who, unprepared, toppled over. Feeling completely out of his element, he simply held on and let the boy mourn.

—-

The station hadn’t changed much in Will’s absence. He had changed though; a fact made obvious by the way his heart was racing painfully in his chest, and the taste of bile in his mouth. It was a struggle simply to walk up to the desk sergeant.

“Hello, Kate,” he greeted, before taking the real plunge; “Is the Lieutenant available?”

She stared wordlessly at him for a good minute. “Do… do you have an appointment?”

“Oh, you know I don’t.” Will forced a smirk, trying to be charmingly cheeky — something that had always worked for Cosmo, whenever he’d needed a favor from her.

Kate averted her eyes, clearly uncomfortable. “I don’t know if I can let you see him. I mean, you’re a civilian now — if you need to report a crime, then—”

“I wouldn’t ask to see him if it wasn’t necessary,” Will cut her off, not wanting to get a lecture about police procedures. It wasn’t as if he’d forgotten them, dammit.

She tapped her fingernails on the desk, a nervous tic that he recognized with a feeling of triumph. She’d always done that after Cosmo’s wheedling had broken down her original refusal to comply with whatever he’d asked of her. “I hope that’s true,” she finally said, “or it’s my head. Go on ahead — I trust you remember the way.”

“Thank you, Kate. I really appreciate it.”

Making his way to the Lieutenant’s office felt like he was running the gauntlet. Some people looked at him with blank curiosity; rookies who didn’t know him, wondering why he was freely walking around the station. Others stared in shock, probably not having expected to ever see him again. And yet others whispered between themselves — Will thought he saw their lips form the word ‘murderer’.

After what felt like an eternity, he reached the office. He knocked, and waited for the door to open while feeling stares burning holes into his back.

An annoyed “What?” drifted through the door before it even opened. The graying head of Lieutenant Ray Davidson popped out, only to instantly freeze. “Well, I’ll be damned…”

“Can I talk to you?”

“Sure, come on in.”

Will stepped into the office, feeling like he’d been transported back in time. Taking a deep breath, he took the bulls by the horns — lest Davidson start talking about the past — “I’m here because I’ve found a young man. And I think he’s been the victim of something pretty nasty.”

Davidson eased into his chair. “You know the drill,” he said calmly. “Bring the guy in and we’ll take his statement.”

“Lieutenant, I think he’s on the run from somebody who kidnaps people in order to steal their organs. And it’s a large ring, from what I can gather.”

“I see.” Davidson nodded slowly before continuing. “It pains me to say this, but drugs can make people imagine all sorts of things.”

“He’s not a junkie!” Will snapped.

“I didn’t say he was.”

It took Will a couple of seconds to get it. And when it finally sunk in, he wasn’t sure how to react. Anger and sarcasm, or shame and regret? In the end, no words came at all. So he just sat there, conflicting emotions warring inside of him, with the overarching need for Lethe making anything he could’ve said to his defense a moot point.

“Now see here, Gamble…” Davidson trailed off, before sighing heavily. “You were a good cop. You both were. But when Morgan—”

“I’m not here to talk about Cosmo,” Will cut him off. “Look, if you can’t take my word for it, ask Sheila. She saw the boy too, and though she might not have come to the same conclusion as I have, she can at least attest to the boy’s condition.”

He raised an eyebrow. “You mean Sheila as in Morgan’s sister?”

“Yeah. I can’t blame you for not believing me, but you can be certain that Sheila wouldn’t lie just to cover my ass — she, more than anyone else, has reason to hate me. You damn well know that.”

The Lieutenant wasn’t as easy to read as Kate. Will watched him intently, but it was like trying to decipher a brick wall. At long last, Davidson yielded. “Okay. I’ll look into it. If it seems like you’re on to something, you’ll have to bring the guy in. I get that you’d rather not, but…”

“I know, that’s fine.” He’d deal with that hurdle when it came; for now, there was no need to even bring it up with Zero. “Thanks, Lieutenant.” Will gave him a nod, eager to get the hell away — he couldn’t stand being there a minute longer than absolutely necessary.

“Wait.” Davidson hesitated, before continuing, “I hate admitting to mixing personal feelings with work, but the only reason I’m agreeing to investigate your story is because I owe it to you. I think ’bout you often, kid, you and Morgan. I feel like I failed you both.”

Heat buzzed to Will’s head, while his insides went icy cold.

“It wasn’t your fault. Anyone who says otherwise doesn’t know what the fuck they’re talking about. I think that the only one who truly blames you, is you.”

“Yeah,” Will snorted, “it’s not like I pulled the trigger or anything.”

“Wait just a—”

“No, you wait! Cosmo was the best man I ever knew, and I robbed the world of him. Me. I did it. Call me a murderer, a junkie, a pathetic excuse for a human being — I’m all of those things, and I deserve to hear it. But don’t you dare tell me it wasn’t my fault. I blew his brains out, for God’s sake!”

Everything was spinning out of control. He had promised himself things wouldn’t turn out like this; had promised himself that they’d only talk about Zero, and nothing else. Yet here he was, screaming himself hoarse while desperately trying to ignore the shadows that were closing in on him.

“Sir? Is everything okay…?”

Will spun around, seeking out the owner of the voice. An unfamiliar youth had opened the door, a frown marring his features. He looked like he wanted to pull his gun on the raving lunatic that was so clearly hostile towards the Lieutenant.

“Who the hell asked you to come in?” Davidson roared. Will almost felt sorry for the poor bastard.

Taking advantage of the intrusion, Will hurried out the door. “Give me a call when you’ve looked into the case,” he yelled over his shoulder.

He more or less ran out of the station and stumbled along the road, mind in chaos. The buildings seemed even higher than usual; it felt like they would cave in on him any second. The heavy smog — that he thought he’d gotten used to ages ago — now made it difficult to breathe.

Taking a sharp turn to get away from it all, he hurried into an alley. It was dark and deserted, and blessedly silent. He leaned against the damp wall, and tried to get his bearing back. Davidson would look into the case, and that was all that mattered. He’d lost it for a moment back there, but it made no difference in the long run. The Lieutenant already thought he was nuts, anyway.

“You a cop, man? Saw you take off from the station like a bat out of hell. Dumb of you to go wandering around places like this.”

Will looked up. Two men were ambling towards him, eyes glinting. He recognized the insignia on their clothes as one of the most prominent — and violent — gangs in the area.

Any other day he would’ve denied it and told the truth. But now, with the sudden thrill of adrenaline pumping through his body, Will just smirked. “So what if I am?”

The first punch thrown was easily ducked. Surging up from his quick crouch, Will used the momentum by bringing up his knee and letting it meet the surprisingly soft stomach of his adversary. The guy went down with a powerful exhale of air, clutching his midsection. Perhaps he’d managed to rupture something. The thought just made him grin wider.

The second guy came at him with arms flailing and curses spewing from his mouth. Will drew his arm back, and then let his fist fly true. The guy silenced immediately, staggering back with his hands covering his mouth — laughably trying to keep his teeth in his mouth. Will stepped forward, slamming into the guy while hooking a leg behind his knees. He tripped backwards, falling to the ground with a satisfying thunk.

The first one was finally getting back on his feet, but seemed to have lost the will to fight. “You’re no goddamn cop,” he wheezed. He started taking off, before belatedly remembering to grab and drag along his friend.

Will stared after them for a long while, heart pounding victoriously in his ears. He felt like himself again.

“No, you don’t. That’s not you, not you at all.”

Doing his best to ignore Cosmo’s voice, Will hurried out of the alley.

—-

“Will!” Zero’s eager voice assaulted his ears the moment he opened the door. Mere seconds later, the boy engulfed him in a tight hug.

“Whoa. Did something happen?”

“No, I’m just happy you’re back.”

Swallowing, Will slowly raised his arms. They were shaking badly, but were nonetheless able to settle around Zero — returning the embrace so freely given.

“It’s… it’s good to be back,” he croaked.

Zero seemed content to stay like that forever, but Will was growing increasingly unhinged. It felt so good to be held like this — to be wanted, needed, trusted — that all he wanted was to hold on and forget everything else. Zero’s warmth was comforting, and felt dangerously close to absolution.

He stepped back, breaking the hold. “I-I forgot to shop,” he said, desperate for a change in subject.

Zero’s face fell. “Does that mean you have to leave again?”

Fighting the urge to pull him back in for another hug, Will shook his head. “We can just order pizza or something, if you prefer.”

“Pizza?”

“Never had that either, huh? I think you’d like it though.”

Zero nodded eagerly. “Okay!”

Smiling, Will went over to the phone. As he reached out to punch in the number (that he still knew by heart, thanks to many dinners shared with Cosmo — neither of them big on cooking), his hand was grabbed.

“What happened?”

Looking down in surprise, Will grimaced at the sight of his bloody knuckles. He’d forgotten all about that; the dull ache hardly even registering.

“I just ran into some guys on the way home. One of them attacked my fist with his teeth,” Will joked, trying to shrug it off.

“Someone bit you?!” Zero looked horrified.

Will burst out laughing. “Oh, Zero,” he managed between guffaws, “don’t you ever change.”

Frowning, Zero pulled him towards the kitchen. Still chuckling, Will let himself be dragged along. He watched, with a rising mix of amusement and affection, as Zero mimicked his actions earlier that day — washing the hand, and then meticulously covering it in band-aids.

“Thank you,” Will said. Not being able to resist, he reached out to ruffle Zero’s hair.

Zero answered with a sunny smile.

“So,” he mumbled, drawing away with regret, “how about those pizzas?”

—-

Will knew he was dreaming.

Knew it because he could remember arguing with Zero about the sleeping arrangements — the kid may have been relatively meek, but he sure could be stubborn when he wanted to. Will had meant to take the couch and leave the bed for Zero, but that met with total resistance. Zero apparently felt the bed was big enough for two, and could see no reason whatsoever why they shouldn’t share it. In the end, Will had given in. Mainly because he had a hunch that, were he to take the couch, he’d once again wake up with Zero on the floor next to him.

But most of all, Will knew he was dreaming because the scene in front of him was one he’d seen a hundred times before.

Still, the familiarity did nothing to ease the terror. Once, in the very beginning, Will had thought that time would deaden the pain. Instead, the wound had stayed open; raw and festering.

And now, here he was again. On the rooftop, with the wind howling in his ears. In front of him, close but yet so far away (too far, too far), was Cosmo. The perp (never even knew his fucking name) had his arm around Cosmo’s neck, while his free hand pointed a gun at Cosmo’s temple with frightening steadiness.

“Drop your gun or I’ll kill him!”

“Easy now, don’t do anything you’ll regret.” (What a stupid fucking thing to say. But even in the dreams he could always feel the sheer fear gripping him, constricting his throat and making it difficult to get any words out at all.)

“Drop it!” The yell was coupled with a hard yank, making Cosmo choke.

“Okay, okay, just please—”

“Don’t,” Cosmo wheezed (he never did know when to shut up). “He’ll kill us both if you do!”

“Son of a bitch, I’ll—”

“Easy, calm down,” Will begged.

“Take the shot, Will!”

Their three voices mingled into a cacophony of panic, each one trying to shout louder than the others. Will’s entire body shook, and he didn’t know if the tears escaping from his eyes came from the harsh wind or the fear clawing at his heart.

Cosmo was right; the perp would kill them both if he surrendered his gun. Even if there’d been the slightest doubt about that, time was running out. The perp was agitated and growing stressed, and Will could see his finger starting to squeeze the trigger.

There was no choice. Will had to shoot, and he couldn’t play it safe by aiming at the heart — it had to be a perfect no-reflex shot straight at the apricot, just like their sniper colleagues used to brag about.

For one second, the world stilled and slowed down as he met Cosmo’s eyes. The words were unspoken, but Will could hear them anyway: ‘I trust you.’

And Will pulled the trigger, even though the part of him that knew it to be a dream was screaming. Screaming to not make the wrong choice again, desperately wanting to change the outcome just once.

Cosmo fell, wrenched from the perp’s hold by the impact of the bullet.

The perp fled the scene. Will, frozen in place, made no attempt to stop him as he ran past. After what felt like an eternity the gun slipped from his numb fingers, hitting the concrete roof with a clatter that broke the spell.

Will wanted to wake up. But he was stuck here, trapped, forced to repeat his actions over and over and over again. There was no need to be walking forward to kneel by Cosmo’s side, because the sight had been burned into his retinas a long time ago.

He didn’t want to see it. God, he couldn’t take having to live through it again — the mess of blood and fragmented bone, the way Cosmo’s entire body twitched as he struggled to simply breathe, and the look on his face

He couldn’t do it, please, anything but that—

The sudden stinging pain on his face had no place in the dream. It tore him from it, replacing the scene in front of him with the blessedly real appearance of his bedroom.

Zero was sitting crouched over him, arm still lifted in an aborted movement. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled, letting his arm fall. “I called your name, but you wouldn’t wake up. I didn’t want to hurt you, but—”

“No,” Will interrupted, “don’t apologize. I… thanks.” It was always difficult to fully separate himself from that dream. His hands were still shaking, and he felt like throwing up. Had Zero waited a while longer with slapping him, he would’ve emerged from the dream feeling like his hands were still drenched in blood and-

“Will?”

“Y-yeah. Sorry.” He did his best avoid meeting Zero’s worried gaze. It was a dangerous thing, offering the possibility of comfort — something he didn’t have the right to take from the boy. Nor was it something he deserved.

Slowly, Zero reached out. He moved a couple of fingers over Will’s cheek, stroking gently.

“It’s just sweat,” Will lied. “Don’t-”

“Who’s Cosmo?”

Will stiffened.

No answer forthcoming, Zero continued. “You kept calling out for Cosmo, and you were crying. I know it’ll hurt to talk about it, just like it hurt when I told you about Thirty-nine. But I — I felt better afterward, and if I could do the same for you, I…”

Will lifted his eyes. Zero looked nervous, and so painfully hopeful. It wasn’t fair to the kid, to string him along like this. He deserved to know the truth.

It’d kill him to lose Zero’s faith, and lose it he would, but it’d be better this way. Better to do it now, before things got out of hand. It’d save them both a lot of heartache down the road.

Will lifted his hand, ruffling Zero’s soft curls one last time. He’d never be allowed to do it again, so he’d steal this final chance before it was too late. Zero leaned into the touch, still trusting.

Will began to pull away. “Cosmo was my best friend. I killed him.”

Calmly, Zero caught the retreating hand and tried to place it atop his head again. Will resisted the pull, responding to it by violently snatching his hand away. “Didn’t you hear me?” he demanded. “I killed him.”

“But it was an accident, right? You didn’t mean to do it.” Zero’s voice was utterly calm, and the only thing marring those clear eyes were sadness — no distrust, no disappointment, no hatred… nothing.

“You…” Will swallowed, desperately trying to quell the treacherous hope that was starting to form in his chest. “What difference does it make?” he snapped. “Whether I meant to do it or not, Cosmo is dead. Dead! Do you even know what that means?”

Zero shrunk back, hurt in his eyes. “I know what it means,” he said, voice small.

Will bit his tongue until he tasted blood. He couldn’t allow himself to apologize, because he knew that Zero would forgive him without reservations. It was better to drive the kid away, even if it meant being cruel.

“…Was he anything like me?”

Will frowned, taken aback by the question. He’d expected Zero to drop the subject, if not shy away from him completely. “Wha… what has that to do with anything?”

“Was he at all like me?!” Zero repeated, almost frantic.

“Yes, in some ways,” Will finally said.

Instantly, Zero’s entire body relaxed. A beaming smile spread across his face. “Then I know he doesn’t blame you. ‘Cause I wouldn’t have.”

Mind reeling, Will couldn’t even bring himself to speak as Zero lay back down. He moved in close to Will’s side, throwing one arm across his stomach in a clumsy attempt at a hug.

No more dreams came that night.

—-

“D’you mind easing up on your hold, Zero? You’re squeezing the life outta my hand.”

Zero let out a grunt and eased up a fraction. A couple of seconds later the hold was back in full force.

Will sighed. What had seemed like a sound idea was now beginning to look downright stupid. He’d wanted to kill two birds with one stone: buy some things for Zero, and have the boy look around. Without any actual leads, Davidson would be fumbling in the dark. He had faith that the lieutenant would be able to get to the bottom of the case anyway, but it’d be a big help if Zero recognized a building or something during their outing — not to mention it’d speed things up, for the well-being of everyone involved.

Contrary to his plan, the only thing he seemed to be accomplishing was scaring Zero.

“Remember what I told you,” he said as he began walking, tugging on Zero’s hand to get him to follow. “If anything looks familiar to you, anything at all, tell me. Okay?”

“Okay.”

“Good. Now, let’s see if we can’t find you some decent shoes.”

“There’s nothing wrong with these,” Zero mumbled. There was a slight pout on his face, and Will was unable to suppress a smile.

“They’re my shoes,” he laughed, “and they’re a couple of sizes too big for you.”

Zero didn’t respond, but he seemed to be relaxing with each passing step. Will squeezed his hand in encouragement, and was in turn rewarded with a bright smile.

“Let’s try this place,” Will said. “I think they sell clothes too.”

Zero nodded, following Will’s lead without protest as he was led into the store.

If Will expected to have his hand released as Zero looked through the clothes, he was dead wrong. Zero kept a firm grip on it as he rifled through a stack of sweaters.

“This one!” Zero exclaimed as he pulled one out from the bottom of the stack.

Will raised an eyebrow as he looked at the brown, mangy sweater. “You sure? It’s kinda… dull. Don’t you wanna get something a bit more colorful?”

Zero looked offended. “No, I want this one. It’s the same color as your eyes.”

The little old lady next to them turned her head. She gave Will a scathing look of disapproval before she stomped away.

Will covered his face in his free hand. “Zero,” he groaned.

“Yes?” The damn brat had the gall to sound completely clueless and innocent.

“It’s fine if you wanna be a sweet talker, but please — please! — learn to not say that sort of thing to the wrong people.”

Zero tilted his head slightly to the side, a shy smile curling his lips. “But I didn’t say it to the wrong person. I said it to you.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake…!”

Zero only smiled wider. “Your face is getting red,” he said.

“L-let’s go find some damn shoes.”

As he dragged Zero along in search of the shoe section, they walked by the same lady again. This time, she glared at Zero as well.

Feeling angry, Will couldn’t resist messing with her. “Tell you what,” he said to Zero, making sure to speak loud enough for her to hear, “if you’re a good boy and pick a pair of shoes quickly, I promise I’ll corrupt that youthful body of yours even more.”

The innuendo went straight over Zero’s head, just as he’d expected, but the lady looked like she was gonna faint. Will smirked.

—-

Of course, she might not have reacted as strongly had she known Will was talking about fast food. Pizzas had been tasted — and loved — which meant it was now time for hamburgers.

It wasn’t as big a hit as the other junk he’d offered Zero, judging from the way he was currently picking apart his hamburger. He carefully removed the salad and the cucumber slices, before putting the remaining parts back together.

“You don’t like these?” Will asked, reaching across the table to snag one of the cucumber slices. Zero stared, gaping, as he popped it into his mouth. “What?”

“That’s green!”

“Uh,” Will drawled, “yes…?”

“You told me not to eat green food!”

Will promptly choked on the cucumber.

“See,” Zero said, sounding worried, “you shouldn’t have eaten it. Will you be okay?”

“P-probably not,” Will muttered, coughing. “I mean, yes,” he quickly amended, as Zero looked ready to jump up from their table and do something utterly embarrassing.

“Oh.” Zero relaxed. “I’m glad.”

Will, in turn, relaxed as Zero finally bit into the burger. If there was one thing that calmed the kid down, it was food.

Zero was stuffing fries into his mouth with alarming speed when his eyes suddenly widened. “There!” he bellowed — or at least that was what Will thought he said; it was bit difficult to tell when his mouth was filled with food.

Will looked over his shoulder. The booth behind only held one middle-aged man, and he certainly looked harmless enough.

“What about him?” he whispered, turning back to Zero.

“No, not the guy! Look at his newspaper.”

Will did as told, and saw that the front of the newspaper had a photo of a skyscraper. He was squinting at it, trying to read the accompanying article, when the newspaper was lowered.

“Uhm,” the man said, “would you like this…? I’m done with it, I guess.”

“Ah, thanks,” Will mumbled, feeling like an ass. That was quickly becoming the norm for when he was out in public with Zero, it seemed.

“That building,” Zero said, jabbing the newspaper for extra emphasis. “I think that’s the building we were in! Or maybe it was right next to it, or something. I do recognize it though, for sure.”

Will absently wiped away the salt and ketchup smear left behind by Zero’s fingers. “Fleischer Industries,” he read. “Seems to be some huge company… and would you look at that, one of the things they’re involved in is the manufacture of medical equipment.”

“That’s good, right?”

Will put down the newspaper and grinned at Zero. “Yeah, I think you got us a perfect lead. Let’s finish up our dinner and head back so that I can call Davidson.”

“Who?”

“Oh, Davidson’s my old boss. He was the guy I went to see at the police station. You’ll probably meet him, depending on how this all turns out.”

Will felt relieved when Zero didn’t protest. He simply nodded, solemn and calm, before shoving the last bite of food into his mouth. “I’m ready,” he said, “let’s go home.”

It was just a word, Will knew that, but still… “Mm,” he grunted, extending a hand for Zero to hold.

—-

“I’ve got a lead for you,” Will said as soon as the call connected, not bothering with any preamble.

“That makes one of us,” Davidson responded, equally in favor of dispensing with formalities. “I spent the day looking into your case, and came up with jack shit.”

“That might actually make sense. See, I took the kid out today — and he recognized the building of some big company. Fleischer Industries, it’s called, and it’s apparently into medical research among other things.”

Davidson’s perpetual frown deepened. “Fleischer Industries,” he repeated.

“…What about it?”

“Gamble, who’s the chief of police?”

Will was starting to get frustrated. “The hell has that got to do with anything?”

“Just answer me.”

“Fine,” he growled. “Thomas Burke.”

Davidson pinched the bridge of his nose. “No, it’s not. The mayor appointed someone else, a few months after you quit the force. I’m somewhat amazed you weren’t aware; it was quite the talk of the town, since the new chief is more of a young elite than an experienced cop.”

“All right,” Will grit out, “so what?”

“Chief Nagendra Fleischer has proved himself an able man, however.”

“Wait, what?!”

Davidson sighed. “The head of Fleischer Industries is the chief’s father. I’m sure you see the problem here.”

“Well, fuck,” Will mumbled.

“My sentiment exactly.”

“But you know just as well as I do that positions of power doesn’t-”

“Doesn’t equal people abiding by the law. I know, Gamble, I know. But what would you have me do? Can you even be sure that your protégé is right about this?”

Will dragged a hand through his hair. “He wouldn’t lie to me, I know that much. I guess that doesn’t mean he’s right about Fleischer Industries, though.”

Davidson pursed his lips. “Then again, something about that guy has always rubbed me the wrong way. I trust my intuition, and — despite what you might think of yourself — I trust yours too. See if you can get something a bit more solid from your stray, and I’ll see what I can do on my end. I’ll obviously have to do it on the down-low, but that’s all I can offer at the moment.”

Will was speechless. “Lieutenant, I…”

Davidson smiled slightly. “Don’t mention it, kid. I’m just happy to see you back in the game. Talk to you later.”

The call was disconnected before Will could reply.

“Back in the game, huh…” he mumbled to himself. Davidson was wrong about that. From the very start, this whole affair hadn’t had anything to do with him being a former cop. Will knew himself better than that — he’d latched onto Zero’s case not out of virtue or a sense of justice; no, he’d done it for entirely selfish reasons.

Zero wasn’t Cosmo. Still, he’d seen the kid as a second chance. An opportunity to make up for what he’d done, to set things right.

And that wasn’t fair. Not to Cosmo, and sure as hell not to Zero.

Will slowly walked towards the living room. He stopped at the door opening, leaning against the jamb to look at Zero. He was watching TV, completely engrossed. His blond curls fell softly across his forehead, almost reaching his eyes.

“You’re still lying to yourself.”

The whisper was all softness, yet it cut like a knife. Will stood still, forcing himself to not take his eyes off Zero. Somewhere behind him, Cosmo chuckled.

“See? It’s not about me. I don’t think it was ever about me. You like him, Will.”

“I—”

“Shh,” Cosmo urged, and Will could almost feel the exhale of air against the back of his neck. “You don’t like him because he reminds you of me, regardless whether or not we share certain traits. And you don’t like him because he’s your ticket to salvation or some shit. No, partner, you just like him.”

Will whirled around, desperate to make Cosmo shut up. But there was nothing behind him, not even the afterimage of a pair of twinkling green eyes.

“Is something wrong?”

Will fought to get his breathing under control. “Nothing’s wrong,” he panted. “You should get ready for bed.”

He didn’t turn back around until he was certain Zero had left the room. The TV was still turned on, and he stared at it without truly seeing until the sound of footsteps brought him back to reality.

Zero had changed into the pajamas they’d bought earlier that day, and was vigorously brushing his teeth. In his other hand, he held Will’s toothbrush — ready to be used, with toothpaste applied and everything.

He held it out for Will to take, smiling as he did so. The curved lips caused some froth to escape his mouth, and Zero let out a muffled yelp before rushing back to the bathroom — head tilted back, clearly trying to avoid dripping all over the floor.

“Oh shit,” Will groaned. He was trying very hard to not examine the things Cosmo had said, and forcibly turned his attention to the toothbrush in his hand. He hadn’t planned on going to bed, actually. He’d just wanted to get rid of Zero; get him to fall asleep so that Will could take the couch instead of being forced into sharing the bed again.

Well, so much for that idea. Resigned to his fate, Will headed to the kitchen sink to brush his teeth — he’d be damned if he would share the bathroom with Zero.

By the time he’d finished and entered the bedroom, Zero stood next to the bed. He looked oddly nervous, but determined at the same time.

The remnants of his police instinct took one look at the scene, and yelled at Will to get the hell outta Dodge. But he stayed put, swallowing down the irrational feeling of dread. “What’s the matter?”

Zero walked forward, moving right into Will’s personal space. This was nothing new, so he didn’t particularly react — but that changed when Zero suddenly surged up, standing on his tiptoes in order to press his lips to Will’s.

Will stood frozen, mind reeling.

Zero finally pulled back, smiling warmly. “Goodnight,” he said, and got into bed as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred.

Will stared at him snuggling down under the blanket until he finally rediscovered the ability to speak. “What was that?” he forced out.

Zero looked up, frowning. “It was a goodnight kiss,” he said, as if that explained everything.

“I know what it was!” Will screeched. “Why the fuck would you do that?!”

Zero paled. “B-but… isn’t it something you’re supposed to do?”

“Who told you that?” For a horrible moment, he was convinced that Cosmo had somehow gotten to Zero.

“I saw it on TV,” Zero whispered, misery evident in his entire being.

Will moaned, feeling utterly deflated.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize it was wrong.”

“It’s not wrong, but…” Will sighed. “See, you should only kiss the one you love. So until you find that person — someone you care for more than anything else — you should save your kisses. Do you understand?” That was a laughably old-fashioned way of putting it, Will knew that, but it was the best way to explain it to Zero. Had he said it in a more lenient manner, the kid probably would’ve persisted in wanting to kiss anyone he even remotely liked.

Zero was silent before finally responding. “I understand, but…”

“But what?”

Zero raised his head. His blue eyes were clear, and utterly steadfast. “But you are that person.”

Somewhere, in the back of Will’s mind, he thought he could hear Cosmo laughing. Slowly, he turned around and left the bedroom. He only paused to put on his shoes and grab his coat before leaving the apartment altogether.

He walked aimlessly through the streets for a while. Part of him wanted to find Moreno and get some Lethe. It had to wait, though — when everything was over and done with, and Zero was long gone from his life, he’d do so. Now, however, he had a job to do.

It began to drizzle when he arrived at Fleischer Industries. He squinted through the rain, regarding the building. It was imposing, to say the least. No wonder it had stuck in Zero’s mind, if he was indeed right about this.

“Well,” he muttered to himself, “here’s to another night spent in an alley.”

“At least you’re not lying in the gutter this time.”

For once, Will was too exhausted to be provoked by Cosmo’s presence. “I wasn’t talking about that,” he snorted. “I meant back in the day. We had our fair share of stakeouts in places like this, didn’t we?”

“True, true.” Cosmo walked into his line of vision, dry despite the falling rain. “Remember when we had that rookie tag along?”

“Anderson, you mean?”

“Yeah, that was his name. He was scared of rats.”

Will laughed. “I remember that. I felt sorry for the poor guy, but you kept saying you heard the patter of little feet — just to creep him out.”

Cosmo joined in the laughter. He threw his head back, as if enjoying the feel of raindrops on his face. He looked like a man who was living life to the fullest; finding pleasure in even the most mundane things.

It was suddenly difficult to breathe, and his eyes were stinging in a way that had nothing to do with dirty rainwater. “Cosmo,” he gasped, fighting to not sob outright. “I’m so damned sorry.”

Cosmo’s grin faded, and he slowly turned his head down to meet Will’s eyes. He opened his mouth to speak, but whatever he’d meant to say was lost forever as another voice broke through the silence.

“Can I help you, sir?”

Will forced himself to focus on the owner of the voice, knowing Cosmo would disappear the moment he took his eyes off him. It was a guard, wearing a uniform with the logo of Fleischer Industries emblazoned on it.

“You’ve been staring at my building for quite some time now, sir.” Despite the respectful words, the tone of his voice held nothing but contempt.

“I wasn’t aware that was a crime,” Will said, doing his best to push aside personal turmoil in favor of professionalism. Having such a diligent guard was extremely suspicious, and speaking to the guy like this was a perfect opportunity to investigate.

“Of course it’s not a crime.”

“Then what are you being so worried about?” Will made a show of looking over the guard’s shoulder. “Fleischer Industries, huh? Is it a bank or something?”

“We’re a simple research lab; nothing that ought to hold any interest for the likes of you.”

“Researching what?” he asked, ignoring the obvious jab.

The guard’s face darkened. “I think you’d do best to get out of here. Immediately.”

“Now wait a—”

“Please do not force me to resort to violence, sir.”

Will resisted the urge to smile. He’d gotten enough feedback from the guard to know that something was indeed fishy at Fleischer Industries. It didn’t make sense for a company involved in research and the manufacturing of medical equipment to have such a zealous guard, not unless something was going on behind the scenes.

He executed a clumsy salute to the guard, and briskly walked away. It’d be dawn soon, and he was eager to give Davidson a call.

The first rays of sunlight had started to illuminate the streets by the time Will reached his apartment. He bounded up the stairs, filled with the hollow energy that all-nighters always brought out in him.

He hadn’t so much as taken two steps into his apartment before he almost fell flat on his face. Stumbling, he looked down. Zero was sitting curled up by the door — though he was now hurriedly getting to his feet.

“I’m sorry,” he said, voice hoarse. “Please forgive me. I will never do that again, never! So please, don’t hate me…”

Will stared at Zero. Not only was it painfully obvious that he’d been crying, but here he was, promising that he’d never kiss anyone again. It was all wrong, and Will couldn’t stand it. He reached out, and pulled Zero close.

The body in his arms shuddered. “I’m sorry, please don’t leave,” he kept repeating.

And perhaps Will just wanted him to stop talking, or maybe the lack of sleep had affected his judgment. Whatever the reason, he gently cupped Zero’s chin and tilted his head up for a kiss.

This time it was Zero’s turn to freeze. Will began to pull back, before thinking better of it. If he wanted to make things right, to show Zero that everything was okay between them, he needed to do a better job than a mere press of lips.

So he leaned down and reclaimed Zero’s mouth. He licked and sucked the boy’s lower lip until he opened up, allowing Will entrance. He let his tongue slip inside; exploring, tasting, completely losing himself in it.

A distinctive hardness against his thigh tore him from the trance. Even worse, he could feel the beginning of hard-on himself. He took a step back, leaving Zero to stand on his own — however unsteadily.

Zero’s eyes were glazed, pupils dilated to the extent that only a small ring of blue remained around them. His slick lips were still slightly open. Will swallowed and forced himself to look away.

“W-what was that?”

“That was a kiss, Zero. A real one,” he added.

“I don’t understand. I thought…”

“I’m sorry. I overreacted, and I shouldn’t have left like that. But I didn’t go because I was mad at you — I was just…” Will trailed off, unable to explain.

“But you kissed me,” Zero said. “Really kissed me. Does that mean you like me too?”

“Nn, listen. I know you think that you… have feelings for me, but Zero — once you meet more people, you’ll understand that I’m not—”

“That’s not what I asked,” Zero persisted.

“Dammit, Zero. I do like you, just not in that way.”

“Then why did you kiss me like that?”

Will was getting backed into a corner, and he damn well knew it. Time for a retreat. “It’s still early,” he said, “you should get some more sleep.”

For a second it looked like Zero was going to press the issue, then he simply nodded. “If you come with me. You look tired as well.”

He was. Weary to the bone, in fact. “All right,” he agreed.

Will let Zero take his hand and lead him to bed. He voiced no protest when the boy persisted in holding his hand, and didn’t free himself from the grip even after Zero had fallen asleep.

—-

He woke up alone. It made no sense to miss Zero’s presence after only having known it for such a short time, but miss it he did. There was a sense of lingering warmth in the hand Zero had held all throughout the night. Will made a fist, eager to dispel the feeling. This was the last thing he needed; absolutely the last.

Dragging himself out of bed was somehow easier than usual. He slowly walked through the apartment, relieved upon finding Zero in the kitchen.

“Hey.”

Zero jumped slightly, and turned around with a sunny smile. “Good morning!” he greeted.

“Yeah, g’morning.”

Zero’s cheeks colored as he averted his eyes. “So, um, is it okay to…?”

“Huh?” It was too damn early for vague comments and riddles.

“Kiss. You should do it in the morning too, right?”

Will wished he’d had the sense to stay in bed. “No,” he muttered.

“Oh.” Zero looked disappointed, before a look of recklessness took over. “Will you be mad if I kiss you?”

He knew what he should say, knew it without a doubt. But he was too damn weak. “I won’t,” was all he managed to say.

Zero rushed forward, more or less attacking his lips in a clumsy imitation of their last kiss. It should’ve been easy to just stand still and ignore it, but somehow his hand found its way to the back of Zero’s head. He buried his fingers in the golden curls, and tried to gentle the boy — guiding him through the kiss.

At least Will had the presence of mind to break the contact before it went to far. “That’s enough,” he said, pushing Zero away.

Zero just nodded, dazed.

“Anyway, uh, I gotta head out for a while. I took a look at that building you recognized last night, and need to tell Davidson about it.” That was sort of a white lie — Will could easily call, instead of going down to the station. But doing that wouldn’t get him away from Zero.

Zero snapped to attention. “No, wait! I made sandwiches for us.”

“You — you did?”

“Yeah! And I didn’t cut myself this time,” Zero said, a note of pride in his voice. As if to prove his claim, he lifted his hand and wiggled his fingers. “See?”

“Good job,” Will managed to say.

The slice of bread he was given had been cut extremely uneven, and the layer of butter was thick enough to stick to his teeth.

It tasted better than anything had in a long, long time.

—-

The station was swamped with people. Will sighed, and resigned himself to waiting in line. To make matters worse, he didn’t recognize the desk sergeant — how the hell was he supposed to explain why he needed to see Davidson?

A couple of frustrating minutes later, Will heard the unmistakable dulcet tones of Davidson’s voice. He looked around, and spotted the lieutenant almost immediately. He was yelling at some poor underling, while sending death glares to everyone in the vicinity.

His eyes finally fell on Will, narrowing as they did so. “Gamble,” he roared, “my office. On the double!”

“On my way, Lieutenant!” Will yelled back. It felt like he’d been transported back in time, and was heading to the office to get an earful — usually over failing to stop some harebrained stunt of Cosmo’s.

But his partner wasn’t by his side as he entered the office, and Davidson was lacking that telltale glint of amusement in his eyes. The façade of the past shattered like so much broken glass.

“Lieutenant?”

“I think you were right. This is big, and if it goes as high up as I’m suspecting…”

“Slow down,” Will urged, “what happened?”

“I pulled some files on Fleischer Industries, and did some digging around. Came up with absolutely nothing. And that irked me, ’cause there’s no way in hell that a company of such magnitude doesn’t have some baggage.”

“Yeah,” Will agreed. “Even if it’s just something small, like a former employee filing a complaint.”

“Exactly. So I dug a bit deeper, even called in an old favor. Then, I got a call.”

Will stiffened. “You’re not saying…”

“I am. Chief Nagendra Fleischer himself called me. He said he wanted to meet up later this week, to discuss certain things. He wouldn’t really elaborate — just kept acting like it was some friendly get-together that our respective positions required of us. I can read between the lines though, and my gut tells me that the timing of his call wasn’t coincidental.”

“Shit,” Will muttered. “I tried to stake out their building last night. Not even ten minutes into it, some guard appears and pretty much strong-arms me outta there. And I know I looked like any other drunk, just hanging out in the alley.”

Davidson snorted. “I suppose this is the part where I tell you off for conducting police work when you’re not actually a part of the force anymore.”

Will shrugged, and sent the lieutenant a crooked smirk. “It is, huh?”

“Morgan really rubbed off on you, didn’t he? I remember how you used to be before you were partnered with him. Strict, quiet, and utterly by the book. I was hoping you’d influence him; that you would calm down that live wire. Guess my plan backfired — but I’m glad it did.”

Will could’ve sworn he felt a feather-light touch on his back, almost as if someone was laying a reassuring hand between his shoulder blades. It felt good. “Yeah,” he told Davidson, “so am I.”

“Then don’t let it go to waste. You still have a job waiting for you.”

“I appreciate that, but… I don’t know.”

Davidson smiled. “I’ll accept that answer for now. It’s a step in the right direction, after all.”

Will grunted.

“So, back to our case. How about you bring your guy in? I’d like to talk to him before going further.”

“Got it. When?”

“Right now. Unless something comes up, this is top priority. I wanna get to the bottom of this, Gamble.”

Will nodded. “You and me both. I’ll be back shortly.”

It was a strange feeling, being able to walk through the station with his head held high. Something had changed, and for once Will didn’t give a damn about not actually deserving it. He’d play cop for now, and then…

Then, he’d just have to see. A formerly unknown part of him wanted to return — but most of him felt nauseous merely thinking about holding a gun again, much less firing it.

He walked back to the apartment in a fog, and felt like someone had punched him in the stomach when he found the door slightly ajar. He’d locked it before leaving, and Zero knew not to open it for anyone. His fingers flexed uselessly, wishing for a weapon of some kind.

Exhaling slowly, he pushed the door open.

The apartment was empty. Zero was nowhere to be found, and there were obvious signs of a struggle — overturned furniture, broken glass, even some specks of blood.

“No…”

With a guttural scream Will grabbed the nearest breakable thing and threw it against the wall as hard as he could. This wasn’t the time to fall apart.

He was halfway to the phone when he realized what a mistake that’d be. If Fleischer was able to keep track of the Lieutenant, there’d be no problem for him to do the same with a down-and-out junkie. He’d know the second Will made the call, and would move on to destroying evidence — Zero included.

Heart in his throat, Will raced down the stairs and began running towards Fleischer Industries. Going on foot would take too long, time Zero didn’t have, so when he spotted a motorcycle rider he didn’t hesitate. He ran into the street, more or less tackling the man off his bike.

“Sorry,” he yelled over his shoulder as he sped off, “go ahead and call the cops!” Maybe, just maybe, Davidson would spot the report and realize what was going on.

Simply staying on the bike was a challenge, and Will desperately needed to focus on thinking of a plan. Charging into the place like a bat out of hell was something Cosmo would’ve come up with, but it was all he could think of. If he did that, though, he should at least have a gun.

But that’d be giving them an excuse, wouldn’t it? Fleischer could have the guards gun him down — Will would be able to take a few of them with him, but that wouldn’t do Zero any good. No, he had to cool down and approach this as diplomatically as possible.

He parked the bike just outside of the skyscraper, in the hopes that it’d be spotted by a patrol car. A couple of guards stood just inside the doors, but they simply inclined their heads towards the reception.

Feeling way out of his depth, Will walked up to the receptionist. She smiled politely, though it never reached her eyes. “Mr. Gamble, I presume?”

If he’d had any remaining doubts about Fleischer Industries being the culprit, that sure would’ve gotten rid of them. “Yes,” he answered.

“Please, feel free to go right up. Your presence is awaited at the top floor.” She pointed one perfectly manicured finger at the elevator.

Having no other choice, Will did as told. His reflection stared back at him from the elevator’s mirrored wall, wild-eyed and unhinged. The ding of the door made him jerk, hand once again going for the gun he no longer carried.

After taking a deep breath Will stepped out. The floor appeared to be used as an enormous office. Everything he saw was sleek perfection, from the black marble floor to the saltwater aquarium that covered the entire side of one wall.

Behind the exquisitely carved wooden desk stood a man. He was looking out over the city, back turned to Will in a grating display of hubris.

“I’m here,” Will hissed. “That’s what you wanted, isn’t it? So now it’s your turn — where is Zero?”

“Hello to you too, William, and welcome.”

Something about his voice made Will’s heart lurch. And, as he turned around to finally face Will, it felt like his heart came to a complete stop.

“Zero…?” The name escaped his mouth before he could stop it. Had he lost it? Gone truly and irrevocably insane?

The man in front of him laughed, and the icy sound helped ground him. It wasn’t Zero — he was older, blond hair slicked back against his head instead of falling in unruly curls, and his eyes contained nothing but cold calculation. Still, it somehow was Zero.

“I’m Nagendra Fleischer. But you’re right: Zero is me, in a manner of speaking.”

“I don’t…”

Fleischer bared his teeth in a twisted version of Zero’s smile. “Relax, William. All in good time.”

“No!” Will yelled. “I want to see him now. I’ll shoot you right here, I swear—”

“Lying isn’t the ideal way of beginning a new relationship. You don’t have a gun, remember?”

“There are other ways to kill you,” Will growled. Anger was overriding his confusion, and he welcomed it.

Fleischer shook his head. “Really now. But as you wish, I’ll take you to go see him. We were going to be heading down anyway.”

Will gave him a wide berth as he walked past, and felt highly uncomfortable having to ride the elevator together — which only seemed to amuse Fleischer.

He used the keypad to input some kind of code, before turning to Will. “So tell me,” he said, “if you had to hazard a guess, what would you say this is all about?”

“I don’t need to guess,” Will snarled, eager to take Fleischer down a peg or two. “You’re kidnapping people, keeping them prisoner in order to steal their organs.”

“That’s it?” Fleischer asked, smirking. “You think I’d risk everything — and I have quite a lot to lose, in case you haven’t noticed — for some paltry organ theft?”

“You telling me you aren’t taking their organs?”

The elevator came to a stop. “Not at all,” Fleischer said as he stepped through the doors, “I am making use of their organs. But that’s the means, not the end.”

A lone guard took one look at Fleischer, and let them pass. They entered a long hallway, with adjacent rooms on the other side of the walls. Through what appeared to be one-way mirrors, Will could see into the rooms — each one held two occupants.

“Are those…?”

“Ah, yes,” Fleischer said. “Those are the subjects. The room at the far end should be of particular interest to you.”

That was all Will needed to hear. He broke into a run, and felt relief coursing through him when he reached the window. Zero was inside, alone and looking scared, but very much alive.

“Zero,” he called, banging on the glass that separated them. “I’m here!”

“Do I really need to explain to you that the glass is soundproof? And shatterproof,” Fleischer added.

“Get him out of there,” Will demanded.

“You ought to hear me out first. I have a proposal for you, and things will be a lot easier if the prototype is left where he is.”

“Prototype? His name is Zero! And I want him to be here, with me. I’m not fucking kidding around, Fleischer.”

“Please, call me Nagendra.”

Seeing red, Will grabbed a fistful of Fleischer’s suit and slammed him against the wall. “I don’t know what your game is, but all I care about right now is getting Zero out of that damn cell. Do you understand me?”

“Suit yourself,” Fleischer said. “If you’d be so kind as to release me…?”

Will did. Fleischer looked utterly bored as he unlocked the door. Zero jumped, and pressed himself against the opposite wall — sheer terror in his eyes.

Will pushed past Fleischer. “Zero, it’s me!”

The words had barely left his lips before Zero was in his arms, hugging him hard enough to make it difficult to breathe.

“If you’re done with the emotional reunion, perhaps you could finally listen to me?”

Will gripped Zero’s shoulders, and calmly maneuvered the boy to stand behind him. The protective action got a derisive sneer from Fleischer, and Will wanted nothing more than to bury his fist in the bastard’s face.

“I’ll make this as short and simple as possible, in the hopes that you’ll be able to understand. That boy cowering behind you? He’s the prototype of a very important experiment. I’m sure you see the resemblance between the two of us, yes?”

“I see it,” Will grit out.

“Well, that’s because he’s my clone.”

Will stared blankly at him. “What did you say?”

“I know it probably sounds ludicrous to you. It’s the truth, however. It’s something I, and my father before me, have been researching.”

“I have a hard time swallowing that,” Will said, “but if it’s the truth — why would you make yourself a career in the law enforcement?”

“Good question! The thing is, it’s actually surprisingly hard to get a hold of good DNA samples. Not only do they need to be undiluted and of high quality, but they also have to come from a good source.”

“What has that to do with being the chief of police?”

“Police officers are good sources, usually healthy in both body and mind. And the health tests they take on a regular basis makes for a perfect supply of DNA. In my position I have access to all of those, and I also have a great deal of influence on the tests — as well as other things.”

“So you’re telling me that all the people you have in here are—”

“Clones of police officers, yes. That’s what I’m saying.”

“But how…?”

Fleischer laughed. “I will spare you the technical details, as I have no doubt that they’d be wasted on you anyway. But, to put it in layman’s terms, we cultivate the subjects in an incubator of sorts — raising them to an appropriate age, and implanting them with necessary knowledge in order to function and communicate on a basic level.”

Will didn’t know what to think. He knew science had made some amazing progress during the last couple of decades, but there were laws set up to supposedly stop things from going too far. This shouldn’t have been able to happen.

“…What of the organs?”

“Do you have no deduction ability whatsoever?” Fleischer snorted. “This is all rather expensive. On the other hand, selling organs are very profitable — especially when they come from such good stock.”

“Okay,” Will slowly said. “Whether this is the truth or simply the deranged ramblings of a madman, why are you telling us this? You can’t honestly think of letting us go. But, if you plan to kill us, I don’t see why you’d go through such lengths to do so.” He carefully reached back to squeeze Zero’s hand, hoping to take off some of the fear his comment had surely caused.

“I’m plan on letting you go, William, while my prototype stays right where he is.”

Will let out a bark of laughter. “You think I’d come all this way and then just leave him? You really are delusional.”

Fleischer only smiled in response to the insult. “I can’t simply kill you, William. Your involvement with lieutenant Davidson puts an effective stop to that solution, however tempting it is. I need you to convince him to drop his investigation — I’ll help you as best as I can, of course, but you’ll have to do the majority of the work when it comes to him. So I need you alive and on my side. But my prototype is entirely expendable. In fact, he needs to go. I can’t have my clone running around outside for all to see, now can I?”

“I’m not leaving without him. If you want him dead, you’ll have to kill me first.”

“Will, no—”

“Be quiet, Zero.”

“I expected you to say as much. Well then, please come with me, I have something to show you,” Fleischer said.

Not knowing what else to do, Will followed with Zero in tow.

Fleischer led them to a separate room. A vertical container stood in the far corner, filled with some kind of greenish liquid. Inside was a man, naked except for the mask that covered his nose and mouth — no doubt supplying air.

Will took one look at him, and dropped Zero’s hand. He staggered forward until he reached the container, reaching up to touch the glass with a shaking hand.

Somewhere behind him, Fleischer spoke. “It’s my gift to you.”

“Cosmo…” Will heard himself say.

“He has yet to be woken,” Fleischer said. He had moved closer, and now stood right beside Will — leaning forward to whisper in his ear. “He’s brand new, William. You can teach him whatever you chose; make him into anyone you want.”

“I…”

“All you have to do is walk out of here and never look back. A simple task, but with such a great reward.”

Will couldn’t think. There was something he should remember, someone who was important to him — but everything blurred together until the only thing he could see was Cosmo. Cosmo, right in front of him. This was his true second chance, wasn’t it? This, and not…

Not Zero.

Gasping, Will turned around. Zero stood right where he’d been left, abandoned and with tears in his eyes. “Zero,” he whispered, taking one step towards the boy.

Fleischer smoothly stepped between them. “Don’t do anything foolish, William. Why give up everything for the sake of this clone? Do you feel obliged to do it because he has shown you affection? If that’s so, allow me to ease your conscience.”

“W-what do you mean?”

“Prototype number zero latched onto you because his roommate was your clone, William. Number thirty-nine came from your DNA.”

Oh. That explained it, then. Was that all he’d been to Zero? A replacement?

As if answering his unvoiced question, Zero lashed out. “No! He’s not Thirty-nine, I know that. He’s…”

Fleischer shook his head. “Lying to save his own skin, how human of him. The decision ought to be easy.”

Zero was sobbing now. “I’m not lying,” he hiccupped. “Will is the only person I’d ever kiss.”

Fleischer looked taken aback, clearly not understanding the seeming non sequitur. But Will understood it.

“Oh, Zero, I’m so sorry,” he whispered.

He moved forward, wanting to hug Zero and beg for forgiveness. He’d been such a goddamned fool…

“That’s far enough.” The sound of a gun being cocked made him freeze in his tracks. He looked back at Fleischer.

“You just had to make this difficult, didn’t you? This is why I told you to leave the prototype in his cell! We could’ve worked this out if you’d just listened to me.”

“Fuck you,” Will spat.

“How mature,” Fleischer muttered. He snapped his fingers, and a guard entered the room — gun drawn. “Take William here to the roof,” he ordered. “I’ll bring the prototype up first.”

“Don’t be scared,” Will said to Zero as he was led away, “I won’t let them hurt you!”

The guard snickered. Will turned to glare at him, only to recognize the zealous guard from the previous night. “Shut up, you asshole.”

The backhand was immediate, and wrenched Will’s head to the side with a painful snap. “That the best you can do?” he taunted.

The guard’s face darkened as he swung his fist. Will stood still, making no attempt to dodge the blow. It propelled him halfway onto the table behind him, which was just what he wanted. He made a grab for the beaker he’d seen there, and slammed it with full force into the guard’s face.

He let out a roar of pain, but silenced when Will followed up the blow — sending the guard to the floor, unconscious.

Will bent down and picked up the gun. His dominant hand had been cut pretty badly by the broken glass, but he’d still be able to fire. He ran out of the room without looking back at the container.

The roof, Fleischer had said. Will smacked his fist into the keypad, mentally urging the elevator to go up faster. He took a deep breath and raised the gun as the doors pinged open.

Fleischer stood close to the edge, Zero a few steps away. It was a clear shot, but Will failed to take it. And then it was too late; Fleischer let out an inarticulate yell and grabbed Zero — yanking the boy in front of him like a shield.

“I guess I underestimated you!”

“Yeah,” Will said, moving closer. “Guess you did.”

“But I do know you well enough to be confident that you won’t fire.”

Will remained silent. He knew that, too.

“Well then,” Fleischer continued, “why don’t you simply leave? The edge of the roof is right over here.”

“You want me to take a dive off the building?”

“Correct. Shooting you would be suspicious, but a suicide should actually prove beneficial to me.”

“Will, don’t!” Zero yelled, but was immediately silenced.

“If I jump, will you let Zero go?”

“You know I can’t do that.”

“Then why should I?” Will rasped.

Fleischer smiled coldly. “Because,” he said, “if you jump, I give you my word that I’ll kill him quickly. But if you continue being difficult, he goes back on the operating table — and don’t fool yourself into believing we’ll waste any anesthetic on him.”

Will nodded slowly, seeking Zero’s gaze. “I guess that’s the best I’m able to do for you, kid. I’m sorry for letting you down.”

“No, Will…!” Zero tried to squirm out of Fleischer’s hold, struggling violently.

“Hold still,” Fleischer ordered, clearly trying to regain control of his bargaining chip — while at the same time trying to keep him in one piece.

“Get ready, partner.”

Cosmo’s voice filtered through his consciousness, bringing a steadying feeling of calmness and peace with it. Will obeyed without a second though, slowly raising the gun.

“Now.”

Will squeezed the trigger right at the moment Zero wrenched himself free. The bullet embedded itself right between Fleischer’s eyes, and sent him plummeting off the roof.

Zero looked back, gaping, before his head slowly turned to Will. His blue eyes flooded with tears.

“Zero,” Will said, smiling. “Let’s go home.”

—-

The cops were quick to arrive, once Nagendra Fleischer had made his impression on the pavement. Davidson was thankfully with them, making things a bit easier. Will did his best to relay the information and explain what had happened. All throughout leaving his statement, Zero was a faithful shadow beside him.

Davidson seemed to think Zero should remain on the scene, with the rest of the clones. Will dug his heels in — he knew he’d have to let go of Zero sooner rather than later, but for now the kid was coming home with him. End of story.

And Davidson gave in, with the promise that he’d keep Will updated. They even got a ride home, something Zero seemed to appreciate since he promptly fell asleep with his head in Will’s lap.

Will stared out through the window as they drove, absently stroking Zero’s head. He felt different, like a man who’d been given a new lease on life. Now, he had an answer to give Davidson.

“Hey,” he whispered as the car came to a stop. “We’re here, time to wake up.” Will felt bad waking him, but he also knew that his back would be shot to hell if he were to attempt to carry Zero up the stairs.

“Thanks for the ride, buddy,” he said as they got out of the car. Zero was quick to grab his hand, and together they walked up to the apartment.

It was still a complete mess, of course. Will surveyed the damage with a sigh, grimacing at the vase he had shattered. “Careful not to step on the glass,” he warned.

“Sorry,” Zero mumbled, “I’ll clean it up.”

“Dammit, Zero. You know me better than that.”

A tentative smile curved Zero’s lips. “Yeah,” he said shyly, “I do.”

“That’s more like it. Now, do you want me to fix something for us to eat, or…?”

“Nah, I’m just really tired.”

Will nodded. He recognized that feeling; when the adrenaline faded, you just wanted to fall into bed.

“Can I take a shower first, though?” Zero asked. “I smell like that place, and—” he shuddered.

“I get it. I feel like washing off as well, actually.”

Zero brightened. “You’ll come with me then?”

“Mm, sure.”

Zero more or less bounced his way to the bathroom. Will followed, carelessly shedding his clothes on the way.

He was stepping out of his boxers when Zero turned around. Previously nonchalant about nudity, this time his gaze flickered over Will’s body as a slight blush colored his cheeks. “Do you want to shower first?” he more or less squeaked.

“Nope,” Will said, grinning. His casual tone didn’t match his inner turmoil — just what the fuck did he think he was doing?

But deep down, he knew. This was about taking the chance before it was too late.

“The shower is big enough for the both of us, isn’t it?”

“Oh. Okay, sure!” Zero said, blush deepening as he undressed.

He relaxed as he stepped into the shower, leaning into the water and letting it wash everything away. Will enjoyed it too, though he enjoyed watching Zero a lot more.

“Here,” he said, “I’ll wash your hair for you.”

Zero slumped against him, back to Will’s chest, humming slightly.

Will smiled, enjoying their closeness and the peaceful mood. “Feel good?” he asked, moving his hands to massage Zero’s shoulders a bit.

“Mm, the best I’ve ever felt.”

“Glad to hear it. Close your eyes,” he warned, before maneuvering Zero forward to rinse out the shampoo.

After a while, Zero turned around in his arms. “Will,” he said, “that man… Nagendra Fleischer…”

“He’s dead, Zero. He can’t hurt you or anyone else ever again.”

“No, I know that — I just…”

“Hey, look at me,” Will said, gently taking hold of Zero’s chin to tilt his face up. “What is it?”

“Am I going to be like him?”

“Aw, Zero — you’re nothing like him, and you never will be.”

“Promise?” Zero’s bottom lip quivered, though it was obvious he was trying very hard to not burst into tears.

Foregoing words, Will bent down to kiss him. Zero was quick to respond, returning the kiss as he threw his arms around Will’s neck.

He broke the kiss with regret, but he wasn’t about to let Zero’s first time be some quickie in the shower. “Bed,” he grunted.

“You’re coming too, right?”

“Yes — if you want me to, that is.”

Zero nodded, eyes wide and serious. “Of course!”

Will smiled. “Hop to it then.”

Despite the brisk toweling and more or less running to the bed, Zero managed to maintain his erection. Will slowly pushed him onto the bed, moving to straddle him while stroking his dick. He’d meant it to be a purely enticing touch, but Zero arched his back within seconds and came in his hand.

“Will,” he moaned. He looked boneless as he lay sprawling on the bed, a silly grin on his face.

Amused, and oddly pleased, Will lifted his hand to his mouth. Zero’s eyes widened as he watched Will lick off the come. Before he’d finished, Zero was hard again.

“It’s good to be young,” Will chuckled. This time he bypassed Zero’s dick, skirting his fingers up his taut stomach to tease his nipples.

Zero gasped and twisted beneath him. “You… too,” he forced out as he reached down to grip Will’s dick.

“Nn,” Will grunted a he thrust into the hand. Unable to stop himself, he flipped Zero around and spread his legs. “Are you scared?” he asked — mind casting about for something that could be used as a lubricant.

Zero looked over his shoulder, smiling warmly at Will. “No,” he said, “never. I trust you.”

And that trust was what made Will stop. He moved forward instead, kissing a path up Zero’s spine. “Close your legs,” he instructed.

Zero did as told, drawing a shaky breath when he felt Will’s dick between his thighs. After a few thrusts Will roped an arm around his waist, sitting back and lifting Zero into his lap.

He twisted his head to suck on Will’s neck. “I love you,” he whispered between the licks.

“Zero, I…” The rest of his words were swept away by the oncoming climax. Each thrust caused his dick to rub against Zero’s balls, and the feeling of that just sent him over the edge. He barely had the presence of mind to pump his fist up and down Zero’s dick a couple of times, giving him release as well.

They collapsed on the bed together. Sweaty, spent, happy.

—-

An insistent ring woke him. He tried to ignore it, but it just kept going and going — every signal shriller and more annoying than the one before.

With a groan, Will disentangled himself from Zero. It was a mystery how the kid was still asleep. He had every intention to return to the warm bed and his company there, so he didn’t bother getting dressed beyond pulling on a pair of jeans.

“Oh, it’s you,” Will yawned as he saw Davidson’s face on the vidphone screen.

“Slept well?”

“Is that sarcasm I detect? Lemme guess, you had to work through the night.”

Davidson quirked an eyebrow. “So did you, I see.”

“Huh?”

Smirking, Davidson made a vague gesture towards Will’s throat. “Hickeys.”

“It’s not—”

“Don’t,” he said, holding up a palm in a deterring gesture. “I’d rather not know.”

“Right. So, uh…”

“Oh yeah, I’m calling about that stray of yours. There been a lot of discussion about it, but it seems the higher ups have finally agreed on what to do with the clones.”

“Yeah?” Will urged, feeling a surge of nervousness.

“Their existence will be kept a secret from the public — and, should anyone ask you, Nagendra Fleischer passed away due to a most unfortunate accident.”

Will sneered.

“I know, I feel the same way. But that’s how it is. Anyway, each clone will be given a regular citizenship after they’ve been rehabilitated.”

“Sounds pretty good.”

“That means you’re gonna have to let go of him, Gamble.”

“Tell me something I didn’t already know.”

Davidson smiled slightly. “They’ll be taken to a boarding school of sorts, to be taught how to function in society. I don’t know how long they plan on keeping them there or the specific details, but—”

“It’s fine,” Will cut him off.

“I think they should be willing to allow you to visit, since it’s a special case and all.”

“I said it’s fine. It’ll be easier on him if I just stay away.”

Davidson shrugged. “It’s your call. Anyway, there’ll be a bus transport in less than an hour. I know it’s a really short notice and I’m sorry; I just found out myself.”

“It’s fine,” Will repeated, starting to feel like a broken record.

“I’m sure you could drive him out there yourself, later.”

“No. The sooner he becomes a part of the group the better. I don’t want him to be the last guy to arrive, after everyone else have already gotten acquainted.”

“Alright. Again, it’s your call.”

“Yeah,” Will forced out. His throat felt like sandpaper, making it hard to speak. “Well then, if that’s all…”

“Ah, wait! They’re all going to be assigned names, and I thought — maybe he’d like a say in it himself?”

“I’m fairly sure he’d like to keep Zero. And as for the surname… give him mine.”

“You’re quite confident, huh?”

Will frowned. “Not really, I just think I know him pretty well by now. He had a friend who made the number into an actual name, so—”

“No, no. That’s not what I meant — your surname. I noticed that he stuck extremely close to you, and it wasn’t just hero-worship I saw shining outta his eyes. But still, shouldn’t you at least pop the question first?”

Will let out an undignified sputter.

“I’ll talk to you later.” Davidson was laughing as he disconnected the call.

Not seeing any point in delaying the inevitable, Will slowly walked back to the bedroom. Zero was still sleeping, and he sat down on the edge of the bed. He watched him sleep for a while, before reaching out and ruffling the curls.

Blue eyes opened, and a sleepy smile spread over Zero’s face. “Morning,” he mumbled, before reaching up to pull Will down for a slow kiss.

Will tried to enjoy it, he truly did — but knowing it’d probably be their last one hurt. “Zero,” he said, gently pulling back, “listen. I’ve got something important to tell you.”

All traces of sleep gone, Zero sat up with a frown. “What’s wrong? You look sad.”

“No, I…” Will trailed off, before starting anew. “You need to get ready. Someone will come to pick you up soon, and take you to a school with the rest of the people from Fleischer Industries.”

Zero stiffened before suddenly relaxing again. “You’re coming with me, right?”

“No, I can’t. But there’ll be other people there, and when you get to know them everything will be okay — you’ll forget about me, and—”

“I’m not going.”

Things were turning out just as Will had feared. “You have to go,” he forced himself to say, getting up from the bed to pace the room. “They’ll teach you things you need to know.”

“I know enough already! And if I don’t, then I can learn it from you. You’re all I need, Will. So please…”

“Stop it, Zero.”

“No! I won’t leave you, not like this. When they came for me I thought I’d never get to see you again — I thought I’d lost you.”

“That should be my line,” Will whispered, voice quiet enough for Zero not to hear it.

“I didn’t even care that they were going to kill me,” Zero continued. “If I couldn’t be with you, then it just didn’t matter.”

Will had been wrong; this was worse than he’d feared it would be. And it hurt, hurt so fucking bad to not just reach out and take Zero into his arms. Will wanted to beg him to stay, yet here he was, doing his best to push Zero away.

He wasn’t doing a good enough job, though. Swallowing back his feelings, Will picked up a glass and hurled it at the wall. “Shut up, you damn brat!” he yelled.

Zero’s eyes widened slightly, but they were still filled with determination.

“If I wanted to be stuck with a child I would’ve fathered one myself.”

“I’m not a child,” Zero whispered, voice wavering.

“You are, and I want you gone. I only took you in because I had to — and I’ve wanted to get rid of you ever since.”

“Will, I… I don’t believe you.”

“Then you’re even more of a naïve child than I thought,” Will hissed. It felt like the heart that Zero had painstakingly pieced back together was falling apart, crumbling into dust. He would’ve welcomed it, if only that had made it easier to spew the lies he had to say.

Zero was crying now.

“Stop — stop being a baby. Get dressed, they’ll be picking you up any minute now.”

Will turned his back to Zero and walked to the window. He tried to focus on the street and keep an eye out for the bus, but his eyesight was blurry. Cursing at himself, he wiped away the tears. He was doing this for Zero’s sake, and that was the only thing that made it bearable.

It felt like an eternity passed before the bus showed up. A couple of people jumped off, and headed into the building. It was all over, then.

He turned around, intending to yell at Zero to get his ass over to the door. That proved unnecessary though, as he was standing a few steps away from Will. His eyes were red and puffy, but at least he’d stopped sobbing.

He was wearing his brown sweater.

Will fought to gain control. He couldn’t lose it now; he was so close to making it. Once Zero was gone, he’d let himself mourn. But not now.

The knock sounded, prompting Zero to rush forward and throw his arms around Will. Unable to stop himself, Will returned the embrace.

Zero was the one who backed away. He met Will’s eyes, looking like he’d matured several years in mere minutes. “Wait for me, okay?”

“Yeah,” Will answered, not caring that his voice broke. “Come home soon, Zero.”

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