by Torino Koji
Once you’re dead, you’re set for life.
Matthieu keeps a cat because it’s easier than keeping a roommate, if slightly less helpful when it comes time for bills. She’s a grouchy cat he’s had since she was a kitten, with an annoying tendency to sit behind his desk chair and demand attention, and a squeaky frog-noise of a voice. He doesn’t care much for her, but it makes him feel slightly less crazy, when he talks to her; crazy people talk to their tea kettles and the television. By talking to the cat he’s—well, not entirely sane, but definitely not crazy.
The look she’s giving him, as he winds his scarf around his neck and coughs until his eyes water, says otherwise. He can swear she’s saying, “If you go out there, if you get drunk or don’t come back in the morning, so help me, Matt, I am going to climb down that fire escape and wring your neck.”
His cat sounds an awful lot like his mother.
“I’ll be back,” he promises the cat, who rolls on his floor a little and makes her froggy noise at him. He pulls his coat on and stares at her. Maybe he is a little crazy. “Seriously. I’ll be back.”
The doorknob is cold under his hand despite the gloves. He coughs again and wonders if he’s catching a cold. His cat bolts suddenly, faster than he’s ever seen her go, frog-voice squeaking back at him and her bell jingling as she tears down the hall.
“Shit. Shit!” He goes after her, half-hunched and coughing again, croaking like he’d just chain-smoked three packs or inhaled pepper or something equally stupid: “Heidi! Heidi, you stupid bitch, get back here!”
Around the corner, at the top of the stairs, there sits a young man. Matthieu’s cat is standing a few feet from the kid, hissing and spitting in a manner Matthieu hasn’t seen since he was seven and his mother owned four cats, including this one. The kid seems unaffected by the cat’s anger. It takes a second before Matthieu can grab her, coat curled over his gloved hands to protect the thin knit from her claws. The kid is staring out the window, at the snow outside.
“Are,” Matthieu coughs, shifts his cat, “are you alright?”
The kid is still for a moment, then nods. It’s a jerky movement. The back of his neck is stiff-looking and pale. A junkie of some sort, but not any sort of junkie Matthieu’s ever seen. Matthieu stares at the back of his neck for a second, until the kid begins to turn. Before he fully turns to Matthieu, he’s standing.
Matthieu drops his cat, and stares; the cat tears back the direction she came from, yowling like a banshee. The kid stares at Matthieu for a moment, taking a cautious step toward him.
After a second of stunned immobility, Matthieu takes a quick step back and brings his hands up. “Look, sorry,” he rushes. His words sound shrill and slurred. “I didn’t mean to disturb you.” He coughs wetly into his scarf, then smiles, taking another step away from the kid. “I’m, uh, I’m gonna go now. Have a nice night, alright?”
The kid makes a pitiful little noise, but Matthieu doesn’t stop to see if he’s wearing an expression to match.
Amaya is the girl who brings him groceries every week. She’s a Neo of the original sort—Turned, she likes to say, not born-and-bred. When she first started bringing in groceries, he didn’t know she was a Neo. She confessed to it on her third visit, in a show of almost telling anger she snapped something that he never remembers, when he tries to.
She’s the one he asks about the kid on the stairs, when she brings him his groceries. For a second, she stares at him like he’s crazy—or maybe like she doesn’t understand the words that are coming out of his mouth.
“It’s not like we have a national convention or something, Parker,” she growls when he keeps insisting how familiar the kid must be to her. She crosses her arms over her chest and gets that telltale twitch most Neo get right before a Fit. He backs off and thanks her for the groceries.
As she’s grabbing her coat, she interrupts herself from saying he should talk to his super about the heat to ask, “Why didn’t you just talk to the kid, Parker?” He shrugs, and she keeps going with her normal speech about how he’s always sick because he’s, namely, a shut-in and, on top of that, living in an iceberg. She keeps talking as he shuts the door on her mixed Spanglish rambling.
As he unloads the groceries—mostly dried goods and other nonperishables, but he has real half-and-half to go with the coffee she brought him—he can’t stop thinking about the kid. There was something about him, Matthieu thinks, that wasn’t quite right. Something that has nothing to do with Neoism: the look he wore before Matthieu retreated, the way he moved like he was trying to retain what he could of his humanity.
He had beautiful eyes.
Matthieu stares at the sink when that thought crosses his mind and just stands there for a moment. Did he? It isn’t often that Matthieu notices anyone’s eyes—and weren’t the kid’s just the same as Amaya’s? They were both Neo, after all.
Something in the fridge is going bad. On the counter, Matthieu’s cat purrs noisily and bats at a dust mote. The sun is out, but it looks just as cold as it’s been for the last two and a half days. As he stares at the tree growing out of the sidewalk across the street, he tells himself he needs to write home to Illinois.
He wonders when the world will end.
Of all the things Matthieu hates, he hates waking up with cold toes the most. As he hauls himself out of bed and into the bathroom, he tells himself that today he’ll go talk to the super. And he’ll go out and get a dog, so he’ll have something sleeping on his feet instead of the side of his head.
The water heater is out as well, apparently. Matthieu shaves dry and swears to himself in the silence of the apartment. The metal of his glasses is cold against his nose and temples.
His cat winds around his legs as he walks into the kitchenette, croaking up at him and sitting patiently beside her bowl as he digs out a can of tuna that Amaya always brings, assuming he will eat it. It gives a sickly wet plop, but the cat attacks it anyway. Yawning and scratching his head—he tells himself that after he talks to the super he needs to cut his hair—he strides to the door.
Instead of the paper, he finds the kid from the stairs, sitting at the threshold and staring up at him with too-bright blue eyes from a gaunt, junkie face.
Matthieu hits the floor ass-first and scrambles back, staring at the kid. Now, out of the artificial light of the stairwell and in the artificial light of his apartment, he can see the kid’s hair is the sort of strange chrome color old people’s hair gets, except near some of the tips—he was a redhead, at some point.
Across the room, Matthieu’s cat hisses and spits like she’s been mortally offended. The kid peers around the doorjamb and stares at the cat for a second.
He hisses right back, his face transforming into one of those hideous things they show children in small rural towns to put the fear of the Neo into them. Matthieu flinches away; his cat bolts back into his bedroom. The kid looks back at him, and stares expectantly.
“Uh,” Matthieu stumbles. “Hi?”
“I’m sorry about the other day—night.” The kid’s voice is as unnatural as his eyes, a strange croak from deep in his chest. Matthieu remembers trying to impersonate a similar noise for Amaya once; she laughed and said she sounded like that for a week when she Turned.
This kid doesn’t look that fresh.
He rises with the sort of jerky movement you expect from bad film. Matthieu rushes to his feet, then sways for a second as the blood rushes to his head. There’s a cold hand on his elbow, and when his vision clears, the kid’s unnatural eyes are too close for Matthieu’s comfort.
“It, it’s fine,” Matthieu assures. “Really. No harm done.”
“I scared you,” the kid croaks. “I understand but—still. I’m sorry.”
“Uh, yeah.” The kid is still touching his elbow. Matthieu has no idea what to do. “Have you had breakfast yet?”
But Matthieu isn’t hungry any more. He pulls out the loaf of bread, cutting off a thick chunk for the kid, who stands stiffly near the counter. The door is still open. After handing over the bread to the kid—plain; he doesn’t have any butter or spread or anything—Matthieu hurries to the door, peering out into the hall like the propriety police are going to come down on him in a horde.
It is an essentially no-Neo building, after all.
He pours himself coffee and stares at the kid as he picks at the bread. It takes him a second to build up the courage to ask, “So, so what’s your name?”
“Sean,” the kid croaks. It sounds less dry now. Maybe it happens when they don’t talk to people very much. “Sean McCormick. And you’re—”
“Matthieu Parker,” is the quick introduction, with an offered hand and everything. The kid—Sean—laughs a little and pops a piece of bread in his mouth.
“I know,” he says behind his hand. His eyes don’t seem to focus on anything. He slouches like he isn’t entirely sure how to hold himself upright. “Sorry. That sounds creepy. I mean, I saw you come back in. And I checked the call-up.”
“Oh. Right.” Matthieu’s throat feels as dry as Sean’s still sounds. He coughs thickly into his elbow, and tries to come up with an excuse to get the kid out of his apartment.
“I just … wanted to say I’m sorry. About scaring you.” Sean reaches over the counter and touches Matthieu’s hand.
Then he catches the coffee mug Matthieu drops when their hands touch, placing it on the counter as if it burns his skin. He stares at his hands, then jerks them both back to his sides, standing in that eerie, too-controlled way he uses for everything else.
Matthieu doesn’t see him to the door because he doesn’t think he can walk.
The first dream isn’t about Sean, but Sean is there, even if Matthieu never sees him. There are other Neo there, too. A national convention. Everybody is staring at him and Sean like they don’t belong. Sean keeps touching his back and shoulders and arm. Everything is silent.
The second dream is just Sean—lanky and taller than him and gaunt like a corpse, pale everywhere. His eyes are warm, more natural; his skin isn’t. Matthieu doesn’t remember much of that dream—hands and breath and names murmured—but wakes with messed sheets and his cat staring at him on his other pillow like he made a whole hell of a lot of noise.
He remembers, as he showers and wonders if laundromats pick stuff up, the feel of Sean’s hand on his elbow and hand, and the way his eyes looked under the fluorescents in the kitchen. As he strips the bed, contemplating braving the world for a whole new set of sheets (They’re getting all worn out, anyway), he thinks of Sean’s laugh: how gravelly and deep it was, and how he caught Sean’s smile before he hid it behind his hand.
He wonders what the hell is wrong with him.
The day it happens is a Tuesday. Matthieu remembers because Tuesday is garbage day, and the super didn’t come up to collect his, so he went down to the street to put it in the dumpster.
When he returns to his apartment, Sean is there, having a staring contest with the cat. He isn’t dressed in the drab, worn clothing he had on both their previous encounters. Now it’s loose brown jeans, a black shirt, strange scarf-like belt, and a long overcoat that—were he standing—would hit his knees. It sticks out strangely in the back, and a little to one side.
Matthieu feels underdressed in the sweatpants he wore to bed. He starts toward the bedroom when Sean speaks.
“You’re awfully trusting for a shut-in.” His voice isn’t as low and dry, but it still resonates. Now, though, it’s a resonance that sparks a fire low in Matthieu’s belly. He stops, tries not to shiver, and smiles over his shoulder. Sean has lost the staring contest, and is now studiously ignoring how Matthieu’s cat is trying to rip his fingers off.
“What’s the worst that could happen? You eat my brain? I think I can deal with it.” Matthieu takes a second to tell himself that Sean is not staring at the curve of his back, then coughs wetly and hurries into the bedroom.
He slumps against the wall and groans. Didn’t he get over being fluttery around strange men when he was seventeen? What happened in eleven years that brought his hormones back? Maybe it’s just living the safe, reclusive lifestyle he chose when he moved to California—introducing an anomaly just … fucked him up.
The jeans he chooses are loose because he’s not entirely sure he can control his own body at this point. And, though a certain part of him laughs at his strangely stylish choice, he grabs the double-layered shirt because he can justify it as the only clean one.
Sean is in the kitchen when he comes back out.
“Making yourself at home?”
“You need to leave,” Sean says, staring into his refrigerator and poking around. His coat is still hanging funny. The cat is now attacking his ankles—was he wearing such heavy-looking boots the last two times he’d shown up?
“Leave?” Matthieu parrots. Sean comes out of the ‘fridge with a Tupperware that looks about as old as the apartment. “And go where?”
“Out of North America, preferably.” Sean chucks the ‘ware into the sink and crosses his arms over his chest. He stares at the counter, and speaks without really moving his mouth. “The Neo population is smaller in Australia, so you’d probably want to go there—”
“Wait, what?” Matthieu waves his arms needlessly. “Why?”
“Coup.” Of course, Matthieu knows the word. But hearing it spoken seems a little surreal for a moment. Then Matthieu is laughing.
“A coup. Like, a military coup of En-America. By the Neo.” Sean nods. Matthieu laughs harder, gasping out, “I thought you guys didn’t have national conventions.”
Sean is quiet a second, then says contemplatively, “We don’t. But most have cellphones.” Matthieu abruptly stops laughing, because it occurs to him that Sean is dead serious.
The cat has run away.
When Sean appears on Matthieu’s doorstep, looking deceptively like your average person—save being pale and jittery—Matthieu knows he looks like shit. He can’t explain the distress of losing the stupid cat, except that she was really all he had left.
“I—scones.” He holds up a white bag, and Matthieu laughs wetly, letting him into the apartment. A peace offering for breaking into the place last time. It’s better than nothing.
They sit and eat the pastries in silence—they aren’t scones, Matthieu is sad to discover, but he supposes it’s the thought that counts. Sean doesn’t seem to have any problems with the silence, but it wracks on Matthieu’s senses after the first five minutes. He’s used to his cat moving around the apartment, her bell jingling quietly. He’s used to something—it was always better than the emptiness of the apartment.
He’d forgotten how big and quiet apartments are.
“You should leave,” Sean says, quiet, as though Matthieu said his thoughts aloud; maybe he did. Stranger things have happened. He smiles a little, shaking his head.
“Where would I go?”
“And what about you?”
Sean looks taken aback by that, blinking rapidly. Matthieu shifts on the couch, unnerved by the flurry of Sean’s lashes. After a second, Sean laughs, saying in a deadpan monotone, “I’m going to do what I can to stop them.”
“Do—what—you’re an idiot.” Sean blinks, leaning back into the cushions some. Matthieu flails a hand uselessly, before letting it flop back to his lap. “That’s just dumb.”
“Why? I can do a little bit.”
“Well, well that’s, I mean. You’ll die.”
The silence is wired then, thick. When Matthieu looks over, Sean has this look on his face that Matthieu can’t even begin to decipher—it is half inhuman, a twist to the muscles making it seem unnatural. Eventually, all Matthieu can do is look away, grab the bag that had the pastries and flee for the kitchen.
Sean’s voice floats from the counter. “What’s wrong with that?”
Matthieu stares at him: the bland expression, the honest eyes. His stomach drops. “But that’s just stupid. Dying isn’t going to fix anything.”
“The fewer there are,” Sean says in that same voice he used to announce the coup, “the better.”
“That’s very medieval of you,” Matthieu mutters, crumpling the bag in his hands, staring at his toes. Sean’s breathing sounds loud in the quiet of the apartment. Finally, the crumpled bag drops to the top of the garbage. Looking over his shoulder, he catches Sean’s eyes. “Aren’t we living in the 21st century now?”
He’s given a month—Sean says it’s all the time he can afford to waste on packing or anything like that. Matthieu entertains ideas, mostly brief, of saying screw all that to the Neo kid and sitting in his apartment until the coup comes. Except that any time Sean comes by, dressed in such strange, ratty clothes under the very nice long coat, he wears such an earnest expression—and Matthieu’s sure that if Sean didn’t want him safe, he wouldn’t have said anything after that very first encounter in the stairwell.
He uses all of three weeks of the month he’s given.
Amaya stopped coming to bring groceries; Matthieu assumes she abandoned her job to help with the coup and accepts that he needs to face the world for groceries, at least, or else he’ll starve or go crazy or something. It seems the perfect horror set-up, and, at times, he likes to amuse himself by guessing which fellow human being will be the next to go when the coup comes.
He’s bringing his laundry back to his house when he sees them, a group of larger Neo men around a young woman with brightly colored, spiked hair. They are jeering and dragging her off. Matthieu momentarily contemplates ducking his head and scurrying back to his apartment—until she looks up, pleading mismatched eyes wide and terrified. When one of the Neo turns to see what she’s looking at, Matthieu brings his laundry bag up and hits him in the head.
They forget about the girl.
It’s still four blocks to his apartment building, and the Neo are fast. He makes it all of twenty feet before they’re on him—pulling hair and snarling obscene pseudo-words at him, kicking his legs out at the knee and spilling his laundry. One of them brings a foot down onto his hand; another hits him with something. Someone grabs and holds back his arms with a foot in the middle of his back.
He doesn’t want to die like this.
The report of a gun is shocking and loud in the afternoon over their jeering. Something wet and sticky hits Matthieu in the face, and then he’s staring at the sidewalk and still twitching body of one of the Neo. As he scrambles back, forgetting his clothing and thinking only of protecting himself, there is another gunshot; then, the sound of pounding feet.
Later, he sits in his bathtub wishing he can slough off his skin to remove the hideous grime.
“I, I’m not gonna … turn, am I?”
The water is the same blushing pink as his skin, and steaming, finally lowering to a decent temperature. Sean looks up from his spot on the floor. His hands shake so fast they blur—the adrenaline wearing off, apparently. Matthieu wonders where the shotgun is now.
“Did it break skin?” Sean asks without looking over. His pale skin has an almost normal glow to it—he’s blushing. Matthieu smears away the last of the grime and feels where he got hit in the face.
“I can’t see; doesn’t feel broken.”
Sean slides across the floor like a cat, crouching beside the tub as Matthieu turns to present his cheek. Cold fingers slick over the swollen flesh, and linger longer than necessary. Matthieu can feel Sean shaking and opens his eyes a little to stare blurrily at Sean.
“No,” Sean whispers. “You’ll be okay.” His hand traces Matthieu’s face for a second, before sliding down to his neck, brushing his collarbone, and then disappearing entirely. When Matthieu looks down, he can’t quite differentiate between the tub and Sean’s hand—he guesses, and runs his finger along the water-warmed porcelain until he finds cooler skin.
“I guess,” he begins, playing with Sean’s finger and listening to the rasp of his breathing, “I owe you one.”
“Then leave,” Sean murmurs. Matthieu shakes his head and shuts his eyes—it’s easier than squinting at everything.
“I want to help.”
“You can’t,” Sean assures. His clothes rustle. Their fingers tangle on the edge of the tub, and neither moves to break the contact. “You can’t go this fast, can’t move around like I can. I mean, I know I can’t stop anything. But I can get back at the motherfuckers who did this shit to me.”
“So let me help.”
Sean’s lips are not as cold as his hands.
Sean’s hands stop their obsessive recheck of the window on the eastern side of the room, and he turns like he’s in slow motion, staring across the mostly dark room at Matthieu, standing in the doorway with a case of beer under one arm and a single bottle held out in the other.
“You looked like you could use one.”
After Sean takes the bottle, Matthieu places the case on the desk, sitting in the chair and ripping into the case. His hands won’t stop shaking. The first bottle is easy to get open, the lid twisting into his palm with only a little bit of bite. Matthieu sighs at the first touch of the beer in his mouth—it’s barely cold any more, but tastes amazing.
Sean sits on the bed and watches him, before finally asking, “What’s the occasion? Are you trying to get me into bed?”
Matthieu chokes on his sip, coughs thickly into his elbow, and looks over at Sean incredulously. Sean only stares at the lid of his bottle, tracing the bottle itself in slow, rolling circles along his leg.
“I, I, uh,” Matthieu stutters, wiping spit off his chin and feeling the heat in his face too clearly. After a second, Sean looks up; his eyes are surprisingly warm. Matthieu sighs and runs a hand through his hair, holding it back from his face. “Look. Sean. About … what happened, the other day—”
“You didn’t mean it,” Sean rushes. He looks away, and finally twists the cap off his bottle. The entire bottle gives an ominous creak. “Makes sense. I scare you.”
“I, I didn’t mean—I mean—” Matthieu sighs again, hanging his head and tugging at his hair a little. “Sean. You show up in my apartment building, and then on my doorstep, and then you break into my house. Then you save my life. I’ve had more contact from you in a week than I get from anybody else in, like, two months. I’m not scared of you—”
“Is that why you want to come with me?” Matthieu blinks at the carpet between him and bed, then looks up. Sean is watching him again, bottle lifted to his mouth. He’s turning the bottle in circles again, this time over his lips.
“No,” Matthieu mutters, drawing it out and straightening up a little.
“I don’t understand,” Sean says before Matthieu can continue. Matthieu’s left gaping slightly, beer forgotten in his hand for the moment. Sean powers onward, “Why do this? You’re not going to fuck me, and it’s not helping anything—”
“I needed a beer, okay? I haven’t had one in, like, a year. A while, anyway. Okay? I just needed a beer.”
Sean tilts his head back to take a swallow of beer, and Matthieu’s left staring at his throat. He’s getting fluttery again. After a second, Sean leans the bottle against his knee; it’s half empty.
Sean’s quiet chuckle surprises Matthieu. He looks over at him, cocking a brow slowly.
“I’ve … never had beer before.”
“Really? I mean—jeez, I never thought—how old are you, anyway?”
Sean seems to think about that for a second, chewing on his lower lip and staring into the distance. Matthieu works his way through his beer as Sean sits silently, waiting for him to answer the question.
It isn’t quite the answer he was expecting. “Nineteen. Or, I would be in November.” Matthieu takes in the smooth line of his jaw. He isn’t sure if he was expecting a smaller or larger number.
“And … how long have you, uh—?”
“Been like this?” Sean waves at himself as he says it; Matthieu nods. After a second, Sean smiles ruefully. “Since I was sixteen.”
“Jesus,” Matthieu swears. “You’re just a kid. You should be home, going to the movies and bitchin’ about homework and—”
“I would be,” Sean assures, then tugs at a lock of blue-silver hair and laughs a little. “Except I kinda got screwed for life.”
“It … didn’t get your parents, did it?” Sean blinks, blank for a moment, before his brows knit together earnestly, and Matthieu almost tries to take back the words. But then
Sean shakes his head slowly, mouth going stiff white and turning down with a frown.
“No. They ditched me on a back road after I caught. Protect my sisters and all that.”
Matthieu gapes a second. He doesn’t have anything sufficient to say to that. “I, I’m sorry. That’s terrible.”
Sean looks up slowly. “That’s survival.” He downs the rest of his beer, then squints into the bottom of the bottle while Matthieu digs out another and goes to the bed to hand it over. He settles there when Sean takes the bottle.
After a minute, Sean gives him a lead, asking innocuously, “What about you? What was there before being holed up in an apartment?”
“Illinois.” He tips his bottle at Sean then, lifting his eyebrows as he says, “I did lose my folks to it.”
Sean is quiet a second, then asks, “Is that why—?”
“We’ve got our reasons, Sean. For everything we do.”
Sean is quiet then, before slumping against Matthieu’s side, burrowing his face against Matthieu’s neck. Matthieu stiffens for a second, feels his face go hot, lifts a shaking hand to pet Sean’s short, soft hair. After a second, Sean takes large, sighing breaths from Matthieu’s neck, one hand rising and tugging at the curling wisps of hair that drape against Matthieu’s collarbone.
Matthieu takes the bottles and puts them on the side table. When he turns back, Sean’s mouth is there, just as hot as it was in the bathroom, but now it tastes like hops and wheat.
Sean goes still—too still, and that sends Matthieu’s mind reeling a bit—before his hands are sliding everywhere, cold and hot all at once. Matthieu is suddenly blind in the dark as Sean takes off his glasses, but Sean’s fingers scrape his face, his neck, the collar of his shirt.
They reappear at the hem of his shirt when Sean kisses him again, and Matthieu is glad he put the beers aside. He writhes against the comforter as Sean’s fingers trace up from his belt, scraping nails over the line of his stomach.
He knows he isn’t lean and muscled like Sean is, just skinny and awkward, so when Sean takes Matthieu’s shirt off, the first thing he does is wrap his arms around himself until he’s gripping his shoulders, then look away. Sean’s hands touch his neck and chin, turning him back; he can’t see the expression on Sean’s face, but can hear his ragged breathing.
Slowly, Sean pulls away Matthieu’s arms, laying a kiss over the thundering pulse in Matthieu’s neck before slinking down to press a kiss to Matthieu’s chest. For a moment, it’s nothing sexual. Sean is quiet—they both are, except for their breathing and the quiet creak of the bedsprings when either of them shifts.
Sean is naked first, drawing Matthieu’s hands over whipcord muscle under rough skin, the bulge and smooth texture of scars scattering his body, up to his face. Matthieu concentrates on the feel of Sean under his fingertips—how straight his nose is, how prominent the curve of his brow is above his sunken eyes, the bow of his lips.
Sean kisses a burning line from Matthieu’s bellybutton to his chin, sealing his lips and the sounds behind them as he tugs at Matthieu’s belt, movement urgent. Matthieu combs his fingers through Sean’s hair; he twists his fingers up in it and tugs until Sean pulls back.
Somehow, then, they are naked, and Matthieu can’t think of the dread that’s been haunting them for days, or how nervous he is. It’s been at least four years, and Sean is so young. Sean’s hands are not chilly like normal, slipping over Matthieu’s skin and eliciting coarse noises from him. The bed groans beneath them .
Sean’s clumsy, a virgin, and Matthieu closes his eyes and directs him with quiet words and gentle hands in ways he remembers liking when he was younger. Over his voice, over the complaint of the bedsprings, is Sean’s nervous, shivering breath; then the shift of his hard length inside. It isn’t quite the same as Matthieu remembers.
It is better.
Matthieu discovers, as the noise is made, that he strongly dislikes the sound of twisting metal. The shattering glass was bad enough. When he finally looks away from the street and finds Sean offering his bleeding hand from inside the shop, he swallows and climbs in on his own. Sean licks his lips, staring at the broken glass front, then wipes his hand on his jeans.
“C’mon. The good stuff’s kept under the counter.”
“Do you know how illegal this is?” Matthieu hisses, tense and ready for alarms to sound and lights to blare in on them from the street.
Sean moves fluidly, too fast to be anything but a Neo, and is behind the shop counter looking for the keys to the locked gun cases by the time the words have left Matthieu’s mouth.
He comes up empty handed after a few seconds, and lays his hands flat on the glass case. His fist comes down, spider-cracking the glass; a second time, and it shatters inward. Matthieu flinches back reflexively, and blinks when Sean holds something out to him.
“I’m not going to be an article—”
“You owe me, right?” Sean growls. He looks inhuman in the sulfur-light from the street lamp outside. Slowly, hands shaking, Matthieu takes the holster that’s being handed to him. It feels exceptionally heavy in his hands. He doesn’t look up or move when Sean vaults back over the counter—cutting his hands again, no doubt.
Sean’s voice comes again from elsewhere in the shop: “You ever use a gun?”
“I grew up in Illinois,” Matthieu mutters sourly, looking around until he spots Sean staring at a rack of hunting rifles. “BB-guns at rock chucks is the closest I’ve gotten to the heat you’ve got under that coat.”
“Remington 210 for you then,” Sean mutters toward the locked gun rack. He rattles the bolts on it, staring at it as if he might be able to think it open. Matthieu shifts uncomfortably. Sean finally says, “There are bullets and stuff behind the counter. I need you to find me a box that says ‘double-ought buck shot’. And then see if you can find the keys in the back room?”
Matthieu just leaves the room muttering, “We are so gonna get arrested.”
The gun is heavy, and Matthieu finds himself cutting glances to Sean, wondering how he suffers the weight. It’s only after a few minutes of staring at the strain of Sean’s shoulders against the seams of his jacket and watching the heavy gait he has that he remembers that Sean—no matter how much he might resemble a heroin junkie—is strong enough to accommodate the weight of his shotgun.
So Matthieu tries to ignore it and is working so hard at ignoring it that it takes him a second to realize that he can hear somebody screaming.
It is not an Oh shit, I’m getting mugged scream, or even a Help, someone, save me, I’m being raped, call the police, Jesus, fuck, help me sort of scream. It’s the sort of scream you never expect to hear outside of a bad horror flick. It’s a scream like somebody is being torn apart. Slowly.
Matthieu thinks he might be sick. Sean’s face takes on that tight-muscled, twitching quality Matthieu has seen him get over the two months they’ve been trying to get out of California, the face he always thinks should precede a Fit but which normally just precedes Sean punching a wall or leaving the motel.
The shriek goes up again, shorter, more pained, and this time there’s something mangled and barely human along with it. Matthieu can’t keep up with how fast Sean is moving toward where the screaming came from.
He rounds the corner to the report of a gun and is shaking, raising his Remington as he steps into the alley. Sean stands in the dark, legs braced, shoulders heaving.
There’s a woman on the ground. She’s bruised and bloody and her clothes are torn; her eyes are glassy, her mouth wide, her chest heaving for breath. Below the elbow, her arm is gone, and Matthieu can see it lying a foot away from her, can see the glisten of bone and the blood still beating out of it.
He thinks he’s going to be sick again. Instead, he steps toward Sean and the woman, desperately thinking of something to say to placate one or both of them.
As his arm comes up to touch Sean’s shoulder, Sean whirls on the woman. She keens for a half-second before Sean fires his shotgun. In the dark, there is a brief flash from the gunpowder igniting. Matthieu is left with ghostly after-images behind his eyes and the smell of sulfur and blood in his nose.
Now the woman doesn’t have a head either.
Matthieu is sick then. When he’s done heaving the contents of his stomach between the legs of the Neo Sean had initially shot, he stumbles to the end of the alley and finds Sean slamming a fist into the wall.
“What the fuck?” His mouth tastes like vomit and carbonated strawberries, and he spits off to the side. Sean is staring at his feet, grinding his knuckles against the wall. “What the fuck! You save her and then you shoot her? What the fuck is wrong with you!?”
“She—Turning.” Sean’s voice is deep and disgusting to listen to. Matthieu hauls him away from the wall with more strength than he knew he had—only later thinks that he could do that because Sean was just as stunned by his actions as Matthieu was—and shakes him. For a moment, Sean looks like a rag doll.
It isn’t until Matthieu is screaming at him—obscenities and things Matthieu can’t even decipher, a bit of his mother’s Father Language mixed in there, things he didn’t even know he knew how to say—that Sean snaps and flat-out decks him. Matthieu spits out blood from his bitten tongue, sucks on a loosened tooth, watches the colors flying behind his eyelids while the world spins.
When he opens his eyes, Sean is crouching next to his head, staring at him, saying, “I had to.”
“No you didn’t,” Matthieu hisses. The blood-and-vomit taste makes him want to puke again. Sean shakes his head, helps Matthieu sit up and sits behind him on the sidewalk.
“She was Turning,” Sean whispers against the back of his ear. He’s shaking so hard, like when he fought off the guys that attacked Matthieu, and Matthieu has to wonder: would Sean have shot him if he’d had a blood-transfer?
Sean says, very quietly, “I didn’t want her to suffer. Destroy the brain, or make the body too weak to be rebuilt.” Matthieu turns, and he can see the glinting in Sean’s unnatural eyes. “I didn’t want her to be this.”
They stink of gunpowder and grime, and still Sean’s mouth is latched to Matthieu’s, hands desperate to get under his layers of clothing, pulling until the seams protest. Matthieu can’t remember being this hard before—he blames the adrenaline. More than that, he blames Sean and his insidious kisses, the husk of his voice as he mutters complete nonsense.
The hotel bed sinks under their combined weight, groans in a higher pitch than Matthieu’s own noises as Sean slides down his body, and takes his jeans with him. He half-raises, flinches at the first sloppy suck at his cock, then shuts his eyes behind his glasses and just feels. God, to feel like this.
Sean is messy about it—lots of spit and the occasional clumsy brush of canines. Matthieu honestly doesn’t mind, a hand eventually burying in Sean’s hair and tugging, cradling the crown of Sean’s skull with reverent, demanding fingers. Over his own groans, he can hear the quiet sounds Sean makes, and his heavy breaths puffing rapidly out of his nose.
What feels like days or years later—it might have been, Matthieu doesn’t know; time is lost during things like sex—Sean pulls back with spit-slicked, reddened lips, climbing up the bed and pinning Matthieu back with tongue-heavy kisses and more nonsense from his mouth. Matthieu writhes, tugging at every last stitch of Sean’s clothing until it’s all off, thrown somewhere, and all that’s left is the smell of their skin and the grime that’s on it—cuts on Sean’s hands and blood on Matthieu’s face that neither of them can quite figure out; Sean licks it from one cheek, then kisses a burning line down Matthieu’s throat.
“Fuck,” Matthieu whispers in the air, tearing off his glasses and casting them onto the floor. “Fuck, fuck, Sean. Oh, fuck.”
“That’s intelligent,” Sean growls, gnawing the tense muscle at Matthieu’s throat like some perverse vampire, laving the indentations with a wide, hot tongue. Matthieu only swears more, fisting one hand in Sean’s hair while the other grabs at his hip and drags him forward until their cocks bump.
Sean’s fingers—not gentle, but just as talented as they are on a gun—skitter across his skin, then back up to Matthieu’s mouth, pressing in without question or request, pressing against Matthieu’s tongue. When they leave, they trail wet-hot over Matthieu’s flinching skin, disappearing between his thighs and pressing in.
“Fuck,” Matthieu hisses, eyes squinting shut and hands moving to grip Sean’s shoulders as tight as he can. “Fuck, yeah.”
A second—a third—it’s perfunctory at best, and the first press of Sean’s cock inside him is heralded with a rather unpleasant burn, but he still locks his ankles behind Sean’s neck and groans like a whore. Sean presses a biting kiss to Matthieu’s knee, gripping Matthieu’s hip and rocking steadily.
This is a better high than dealing with the bastards wrecking the world, better adrenaline than anything he’s ever gotten: Sean buried deep inside him, panting and swearing under his breath; fingers leaving bruises along the ridge of Matthieu’s hipbones; the sound of cascading breath and the slap of skin. Matthieu can’t get tired of any of it.
He comes without Sean touching him, and slumps but makes no move to remove himself from his half-bent position, despite the slight pain of Sean’s continued thrusts. After a moment of catching his breath, letting the shivers die off a little, he opens his eyes to find Sean staring at him.
He drags him down for a kiss, tongue-heavy and languid now, and Sean groans into it.
The adrenaline dies off with the smell of sex and sweat and grime.
The night stretches everywhere around them while the road disappears before and behind them like a gleaming asphalt river. It looks like years have gone by since the road has been fixed up, with the paint faded and worn away to leave only the slightly reflective surface of the road, and the dark shadow of the gravel on the shoulder.
Sean’s breathing is short but even, and Matthieu tries to tell himself that he doesn’t feel bad, knowing that Sean stole the car. He stares at his fingers curled around the steering wheel, and out onto the street.
In the passenger seat, Sean makes a soft noise and shifts. He looks his age, maybe younger, when he sleeps, just an innocent kid. Matthieu smiles, looking over at the young Neo for a moment, even daring to take one hand off the wheel to brush his knuckles over the slight indent of Sean’s temple. The kid moans softly in his sleep, tilting his head into the touch.
Watching him, Matthieu wishes everything were different—that Sean never caught Neoism, that it wasn’t for these reasons that they met. Sean, from the look of him, would be starting college in September. He’d have smiled and laughed, meeting someone who he genuinely wanted to have touch him while he slept.
Sean murmurs something garbled and barely English when Matthieu pulls his hand away—some of it sounds Yiddish, but that might just be sleep-talk. Matthieu chuckles to himself and adjusts his glasses as he turns his attention fully back to the road.
The moon breaks from behind a cloud bank, making his knuckles silver-white. In the moonlight, he’s the same color as Sean.
He can’t say what’s ahead of them, but he can say he’s frightened of what he thinks will meet them, wherever they’re going. For the first time in a very long time, he wishes he’d stayed in Illinois; and, more than that, he wishes he had his stupid cat. Sean’s knee bumps the divider between them. He’s boneless in sleep, all long limbs and teenaged gawkiness. Matthieu shakes his head and runs his hand over Sean’s thigh as he slows to take a corner.
Despite the sudden stop, Sean does not wake—not even when Matthieu swears and stares beyond the windshield at the young woman standing in the middle of the lane, looking battered and terrified. Sean sleeps, and Matthieu shakes as he reaches into the back seat and grabs the Remington.
The woman is dark haired and shambles towards him as he opens the car door. Her hands rise slowly, shaking—she’s splashed in blood, muddy; her clothing is torn. Matthieu approaches her cautiously, rifle held tight to his side like Sean told him to hold it without looking like a threat.
“You, you okay, lady?” he asks. She tilts her head slightly, staring ahead with blank eyes, drawing closer to him. His fingers feel tight, gripping so harshly to the stock. With only a few more shambling steps, she comes abreast of him.
Her arm comes up quickly, a heavy bar over his chest.
He doesn’t move as quickly as he would like. She recoils when he rams his elbow into her side. His hands shake as she glowers and sways on the spot, blood dropping to the asphalt in dark rings in the headlights. The Remington is suddenly cold and heavy as he brings it up to his shoulder and braces.
She laughs, cold and bitter and raspy, eyes wide and wild. Blood speckles dark at the corner of her mouth, dribbles from her nose—did he break ribs?
The Remington recoils wildly when he fires, bucking in his hold and shoving him off balance too easily. He falls back, and through the daze of pain and his glasses falling off, he can see her laughing harder, more viciously, moving toward him with the mixed movement of a turning Neo.
He never hears the passenger door open, just feels Sean standing solidly behind him and hears the report of his shotgun. The woman stumbles; the second shot grounds her.
Around them, Matthieu can hear murmured voices and the rustle of movement. His hands shake violently as he grabs for Sean’s long jacket, hauling himself up and staring around, practically blind. Sean’s hand is harsh on his arm, shoving him toward the passenger door.
Matthieu can taste blood in his mouth. He smothers the urge to vomit and brings his arm up to dab at the blood at the corner of his mouth, coughing wetly. The driver’s side door slams shut, and the engine revs urgently into life. Despite the blur of his vision, Matthieu can make out several people standing in the road now, advancing steadily.
“Sean—?” His whole mouth feels thick.
“So, uh,” Sean babbles, throwing the car into drive, “I’ve never driven before.”
The car lurches forward, blazing toward the Neo standing in their way. The first thump makes Matthieu grab the dashboard, able to suddenly see the body that tumbles over the windshield. The ones that follow are dull, crunching; Matthieu curls back in his seat and wishes he was just as deaf as he was blind.
Sean’s scent washes over him as he tries to ignore the dread in his stomach—gunpowder and musk and something grimy and unnatural. He doesn’t smell human, Matthieu deduces, and turns to stare at the teen when it finally dawns on him. For some reason, this is more jarring than realizing there’s a Neo sitting in the stairwell of his apartment; more unsettling than leaving California with someone he barely knows.
This is suicide. Pure suicide. He should be back in his apartment, or out of the country, or anywhere but a hotel room in New Mexico.
Sean’s hands are freezing.
“Hold the gun.” He juts his chin insistently in a wordless sign for Matthieu to turn away from him.
“I am holding the gun,” Matthieu hisses, correcting his grip under Sean’s fingers and swallowing the lump in his throat. Sean fits against his back, hard lines and that inhuman smell.
“Close your eyes.”
“I can’t fucking shoot with my eyes closed—”
“You’re half-blind already, just close your eyes.”
Matthieu does as he’s told with a gusty sigh, gripping the gun appropriately and stiffening when he feels Sean move away from him. There is only silence—he can’t hear Sean breathing, or moving, or anything.
At the first sound, he whirls and opens his eyes. Sean has the barrel gripped in one big hand, the end pressed to the middle of his chest. Matthieu can’t really swallow the dread any more.
“Go ahead,” Sean whispers. “Go ahead. Do it. Shoot me. I want you to.”
“Sean—fuck, Sean, don’t do this. Not right now.” Sean pulls on the gun, making Matthieu clutch it tighter, fingers aching in their grip. He’s makes this noise, like a growl, deep in his throat—Matthieu has it figured, after hearing that noise over the past week, that Sean’s face is transformed, sharp lines and inhuman details. “Don’t do this to me.”
“Yeah, fuck you, Parker,” Sean hisses. Matthieu drops the shotgun when Sean lets it go, staring at the floor between them.
He doesn’t hear Sean approach him, but there he is, reeking of all those things he’s always smelled of but that now worry Matthieu, and breathing Matthieu’s air. His hands are freezing, touching Matthieu’s face. When he lifts Matthieu’s face, Matthieu shuts his eyes; he can’t look at him. Not right now. Maybe not anymore.
“Why are you here?”
Because you got me involved in the first place. Because you stormed my apartment for no good reason. Because— “I think I love you.”
“That’s a crappy reason to come with somebody to get killed,” Sean growls, closer now, lips almost touching Matthieu’s. His breath shudders out over Sean’s words. They’re almost touching, even as Sean says, “And you will. Get killed. You can’t even shoot a girl, you can’t shoot me. What’re you gonna do when they come at you?”
“I don’t know.” He’s not entirely sure if he actually says it, but Sean growls, body pressing him back, falling with him onto the bed. There is nothing, save the solid weight of Sean against him, and he closes his eyes. “I don’t know.”
The night passes quickly, and as the sun rises, Sean kisses him and begins to dress. Matthieu watches, wondering if they’re going to die. When it comes time to sling on their arms, Sean digs through his things. Clothing flies everywhere around the room, until finally a slim black-and-silver handgun comes out of over-worn Converse.
Matthieu puts his hand out for the gun but finds the shotgun in his grip instead. Sean tucks the handgun into his belt-holster, smiling sadly.
“Take care of my baby, okay? I want her back without a scratch.”
The shotgun still feels heavy in his hands, hours later, and it seems wrong for Sean’s jacket not to protrude to the back and slightly to the side. His shoulders pull at a worn old brown shirt; his heavy boots peek out from under the too-long legs of his worn jeans.
Even from the distance at which they left the car, Matthieu can hear the Neo inside the warehouse. His stomach knots uncomfortably; his hands feel tacky and cold.
“If I … die—”
“Shut up, Matt,” Sean says. There is nothing in his voice—no worried fright, no tense energy. The words aren’t even a command. He sounds, suddenly, like what he is.
Matthieu grabs Sean’s hand as he begins to walk off, pulling him back and rising to kiss him. He wonders, suddenly, why his eyes feel so tight. Then he drops his hand and squints at Sean’s back as they approach the warehouse.
There are no words now, only the garble of voices and sounds, conversation held at the already too-fast speed of the Neo. It seems, for a moment, that not a single person notices them stepping into the facility.
This time, when Matthieu braces the gun to his shoulder and pulls the trigger, his hands tighten. There is none of that violent pitch, though it jars him hideously. Sean is no longer beside him. It is nothing at all like his dream.
His hands shake with every careful movement he takes, taught in the days it took them to get there, a constant, easy repetition. If asked to retell the encounter, he wouldn’t be able to—after the first three shots, he closes his eyes and simply listens to the rustle of clothing over the sound of gunfire.
Where is Sean?
His hands are numb when his back suddenly meets a wall, and the shotgun clatters to his feet as his eyes open. For a second, his throat goes dry and his mind blank. The world swims around him, hazy and clouded. It’s the dream again, for he can see the Neo staring as if he doesn’t belong, and feel Sean’s hand on his arm.
“It doesn’t have to be like this.” Sean’s voice floats from nowhere and everywhere, and Matt can only stare at the men and women creeping toward them.
“Yeah?” Matt whispers. Sean’s hand is gone.
The handgun digs into his temple, harsh and cold against his skin. He chokes on a coughing sob, staring up at Sean’s unnaturally blue eyes and the gaunt, heroin whore lines of his face. His skin is ashen, his eyes ringed from not sleeping the night before.
“Sorry ’bout all this.”