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WARNING: If you haven't read the warning on the index page, go back and read it. If you don't, and you don't like what you find here, don't come crying to me.

Title: Follow Me Down

Author: Eleanor K.

Fandom: Trigun

Pairing: Midvalley/Wolfwood

Rating: NC-17

Posted:  24 August, 2003

Spoilers: for Paradise

Email: emungere@gmail.com

Disclaimer: Wolfwood, Midvalley, and Trigun belong to Mr. Nightow and not in any way to me. I'm not worthy. Title stolen from Janis Joplin's version of 'Careless Love.'

Warnings: m/m sex and a fair bit of violence.

Notes: Thanks to Chrissy for the spiffy beta and Brenda for helpful commentary.

..___..


It was my last set of the night. My eyes blurred as I squinted against the glare of the stage lights. Mellow drunks drooped over tables in the hotel bar, their faces turned to their drinks, hardly registering my presence. My hands ached, and not just from playing.

My day had been spent scrubbing floors, sinks, and bathtubs. You would not believe the filth some people feel free to leave behind in a hotel room. I was used to going around with permanent bruises on my knees, but after two months, I was starting to think my former profession had been an easier way of getting them.

So I was on stage, playing, feeling sorry for myself.

That's when I saw him.

Hard to miss a guy with a cross big enough to nail himself to.

He crossed the floor like a shadow, dressed all in black, moving among the other customers like they weren't even there. Like he was the only real thing in that room.

He took a table near the front and leaned his cross against a chair. And watched me.

I reached the end of what should have been my last song of the night and kept playing. He kept watching. He was young, younger than me. Early twenties at the most. He wore sunglasses, and in the gloom of the bar they should have looked like an affectation, but they didn't. They only made me want to see his eyes.

Three songs past my usual set, Fris noticed something was up and raised an eyebrow at me. I flicked my eyes toward the stranger and saw her blink as she took him in.

She disappeared from my field of vision for a second, but then she was back again, sitting down next to him.

Fris knew what I used to do for money, and she knew that I still did it sometimes. She didn't usually pimp for me, though. Not that I was complaining. I needed the money, and more than that, I needed to know more about this guy.

Fris nodded to me, and I wrapped up the song. Took my bow to scattered applause. Noted that my stranger with the cross wasn't clapping. Just watching me steadily with hidden eyes. Backstage, I took the time to wash my face and get Sylvia into her case, and then went out to the bar.

I sat next to him in the chair Fris vacated when she saw me coming. I wondered how delicate I was going to have to be. The mere mention of money or anything like it will scare some guys off. They want illusion. Whether it's of love, lust, romance, or seduction, it doesn't matter. It's all just illusion, and you have to maintain that or they'll start to hate you. Or themselves, which comes to the same thing. No more money.

I'd learned to be careful of new ones and to be as subtle as I was capable of being, which, plenty of people had told me, wasn't real damn subtle. But I tried.

"Hi. Haven't seen you here before. Just get into town?" I smiled at him, trying to look friendly. Trying to keep things light until I felt him out a little.

"Yes. The young lady told me you are for sale. True?"

My smile faltered at that, but I recovered. Okay, so this one wasn't into illusion.

"Yeah, it's true. Are you interested?"

"How much?"

A little blow to my ego, there. He could have at least admitted he was interested before asking how much. Oh, well.

"Seventy-five an hour."

"How much for the whole night?" he asked. His expression didn't change.

I thought fast. No one asked for the whole night, not out here in the boonies, and not even in the cities since I got too old to interest most of them. Hell, I didn't even really want to spend the whole night with this guy, no matter how hot he was. I needed some sleep after all that scrubbing.

"Five hundred." That had to be out of his range.

"Done. Come on." He stood up, shouldered his cross, and walked away.

I caught up with him at the bottom of the stairs and stopped him.

"Hey, no offense, mister, but let's see the money first, okay?"

Long, level look from behind dark glass. "Okay."

He counted out five one hundred double-dollar bills into my hand and walked up the stairs. I stood staring at the money until a low whistle beside me made me jump.

"Hot damn, Midvalley. That's some serious cash," Fris said.

"Yeah... Serious."

I'd never had that much money in my hand at one time before. I blinked at it, but it failed to be any less there. Or any less money.

Fris shook my shoulder. "You'd better get up there. I don't think he's the kind of guy who likes to be kept waiting."

"Probably not." But I kept staring at the money. Five *hundred* double-dollars. It was enough to...do almost anything. I pushed the money into Fris' hand. "Give it to Mrs. Owens, okay? Tell her... Tell her I won it gambling or something."

"Are you sure? All of it?"

But I wasn't listening. I was taking the stairs two at time to avoid thinking about what I could do with that much money. Mrs. Owens had given me a job when she didn't have to, and as much as I hated the cleaning, the cooking, the unending workload, I owed her.

Whoring wasn't the life for me any more. Once or twice a month, maybe, but I couldn't do it full time any more. Just...couldn't. And it was thanks to Mrs. Owens that I didn't have to, that I had a place to play and an audience to play to, even a sloshed and indifferent one.

With that much money she could get the roof fixed, repair the stairs, and do whatever else needed doing. There was always something. The place was a money pit.

And I could leave without feeling guilty.

Upstairs, I was faced with an empty hall. I had no idea what room he was staying in. One of the doors opened.

"In here." He disappeared inside, leaving the door open.

When I walked in, he was lying on the bed. Not unusual for my clients, except that all his clothes were still on, including shoes and sunglasses. Well, I could fix that. Sunglasses first. I closed the door and sat on the edge of the bed.

His hand closed around my wrist as I reached for his glasses.

"No," he said. It was a very definite no, and it was underscored with hints about what might happen if I didn't listen to it.

I took my hand back quickly. "Okay, okay. Sorry. So... What do you want?"

"Play."

"What?"

"Play." He nodded to my sax case.

I'd meant to put it somewhere safe, but I was still clutching the handle without even feeling it. I wondered if we'd gotten our wires crossed somehow. I wondered exactly what line Fris had given him. A private show? Well, if that was all he wanted...

I fiddled with Sylvia, fingers fumbling over movements they'd performed thousands of times before. I tried not to look nervous, and I think I failed. He just watched me.

I played jazzed-up versions of old songs. 'Crow on the Cradle' and 'Mirror Lake' and 'Careless Love'. I played songs I learned years ago without learning their words or their titles. After a while, I forgot myself and played some things I'd written, things no one but me had ever heard before. He watched me, and I forgot to be tired.

I don't know how long it was before he stopped me.

"That's enough for now." He pointed to the twin bed next to his. "Get some rest."

"If that's all you wanted, I can go back to my room..." I trailed off, somehow knowing that wasn't going to be allowed.

"No. You'll stay here." Again, the long, elegant finger pointing to the bed.

It should have been easier to argue with him. He was just a kid, after all. It should at least have been possible.

I laid Sylvia in her case and slipped my shoes off. I left everything else on and put Sylvia's case between the bed and the wall where it would be safe. That was my first clue that he was making me nervous.

He was too young by half. Most of the guys who were interested in me were at least ten years older than I was, usually more. He was young and he was hot enough that guys would pay him, not the other way around. And he had too damn much money. And he just wanted me to play? I'm not that good. I was never that good. Nothing was adding up, and I lay on the bed trying to keep an eye on him while pretending to sleep.

I kept thinking about a friend of mine from May City, who worked the same street corner as me. A rich guy in a flashy car picked him up one night. I remember his grin as he waved goodbye to me out the window. They found his head two days later. As far as I know, they never found the rest of him.

"What's wrong?"

I started, and heard the bed springs squeak under me. "Nothing. Nothing's wrong."

"You're not asleep."

"Neither are you." It came out sounding defensive, and I hadn't meant it to. "I don't know what I'm doing here. You're paying me five hundred bucks just to sleep?"

"Yes. Just stay here and sleep. It's easy money. I don't see why you're complaining."

Neither did I, suddenly. If he was a freak, well, there was always that chance, wasn't there? No matter how careful you are, there's always that chance. It was one reason I got off the street. But it was easy money. And someone would hear if I yelled. The walls were as thin as cardboard.

"I'd feel better if you'd take those glasses off."

Damn. I'd been thinking that practically since he walked into the bar, but I hadn't meant to actually say it. That's what too little sleep and too much music will do to you, I guess.

I saw him smile in the half-light of the three moons. "If you think the eyes are the windows to the soul, you'd just be disappointed in mine."

He crossed his arms over his chest and settled further down against the pillows.

It was dark, and I was exhausted. My eyelids weighed a ton. I watched shadows crawl across the walls between blinks that lasted longer and longer until my eyes stayed shut. The last thing I heard before I slept was him humming something under his breath. I thought the tune was 'Careless Love.'

***

After breakfast the next morning, Fris cornered me.

"So?" Fris asked.

"So what?"

"So how was he?"

"Has he checked out already?" His cross had still been in his room when I left, but... Suddenly it seemed important to know whether I'd see him again or not.

"Nope. He went out this morning, but he's paid up for the week, and you're trying to change the subject. Was he good?"

I raised my eyebrows. "Good at what?"

"Come *on*, Midvalley."

I didn't want to tell her. All we'd done was sleep, and I didn't want her to know even that. Didn't want her to know anything about him, and I couldn't have explained why.

"You want me to kiss and tell? That's not very professional."

Fris grinned. "And heaven knows, you *are* a professional," she drawled.

I rolled my eyes at her. "Trying to hurt my feelings now?"

Her face turned suddenly serious. "Listen, Midvalley, you don't think he's...one of them, do you?"

I rolled my eyes. By 'one of them,' she meant one of the Yarol Gang, this town's current bogeymen. They were just another motorcyle gang, maybe more violent than most, but by the way the people in town were talking, you'd think they were devils from the depths of hell and set to show up on our doorsteps any day now.

"Fris, the Yarol Gang travels together. On motorcycles. Don't be dumb."

"Well, you don't have to be mean. Everyone keeps saying--"

"Yeah, I know. Everyone's been saying they'll show up here for months, but they're still two counties away. The feds will catch them any day now. You worry too much."

"Fine, I worry too much." She grinned. "So tell me about your new boyfriend instead."

Someone rang the bell at the front desk. I was saved from the rest of that conversation, but as I checked in our newest guests, I was thinking about what Fris had said.

Paid up for the week. Would he want to see me again that night? Did I want to see him that night?

***

I was still thinking about it while I was on stage that night, trying to avoid playing love songs.

He was back at the table he'd occupied the night before, dark glasses in place, still watching me. My fingers started on 'Careless Love' before I could stop them, and I saw him smile.

After that set I went down to sit with him. Fris delivered drinks and a knowing look, but I ignored her. And sat, silent, not knowing what to say.

I'd forgotten to ask Fris exactly what she said to him last night, so I didn't even know whether he realized I'd been expecting to do more than play a few tunes for that five hundred. Maybe I shouldn't even have come to sit with him. He'd got his money's worth and that was that; there was no reason he should want my company now. Nobody, no matter how rich and eccentric, pays that kind of money two nights in a row for a show they can get for free just by sitting in a bar.

"Are you free tonight?"

"Depends on what for." I leaned forward, propping my elbows on the table, smiling at him.

"Let me put it another way." He smiled, but there was no warmth to it. "Are you for sale tonight?"

That's when I found I still had my own illusions. One night sleeping in the same room with him, and I didn't want it to be about money. But it was. Of course it was, and I shouldn't have expected anything different.

"Same price as before," he added.

"For what? A few songs? You've been here two nights, you've already heard pretty much my whole repertoire, and I'm not even that good. What do you want?"

He tilted his head, and his smile thawed a little. "You, Midvalley. For tonight."

"How the fuck do you know my name?"

Anyone here could have told him, of course. I knew that even as I asked, but it was disturbing all the same.

"The waitress told me. I forgot to ask last night."

"So what's your name? Guess I forgot to ask, too." I'd had no intention of asking last night. You don't ask the johns their names. But they don't ask yours, either.

"I'm not going to tell you."

"But there's no waitress I can ask about you. Not fair."

"No. It's not fair." He took a bundle of cash out and starting counting bills onto the table. When he was done, he stood up. "Five hundred. Coming?"

I whisked it off the table fast. "Keep your voice down. Jeez, you want to get us both killed?"

Heads were turned toward us from all corners of the bar. A voice somewhere in the darkness repeated, "Five *hundred*?"

I pushed the money back into his hand. "I've got one more set to do."

"Is that a yes?"

I sighed. "Yeah, okay? Yes. After this set. You want me to come up to your room?"

"I'll wait. I like listening to you play."

"Fine." I gulped my drink and nearly spat it out again. Gin and tonic, and Fris knew I didn't drink when I was working. Shit, as if I didn't have enough problems without her trying to relax me.

Back on stage with the familiar, near-blinding glare of the lights, I should have been able to ignore him. Instead I fumbled two notes and nearly cut the set short.

When we finally got up to his room, he held out the money again.

"You shouldn't flash that around where people can see it."

"No?"

"Not everyone in that bar is a pillar of the fucking community, you know."

He shrugged, still holding out the money.

I took it. "Fine. Just don't say I didn't warn you. Somebody'll try for it sooner or later."

He smiled his chilly smile. "They can try."

"Whatever. So what are we doing tonight?"

He nodded to the chair. "Play."

I played. 'Stardust' and 'Remember Me' and maybe a dozen others. He seemed to like the old stuff.

"Enough," he said finally.

It was only then I realized my fingers were starting to cramp, and I wondered how long I would have gone on if he hadn't told me to stop.

"Now what?"

"Come here." He laid a hand on the edge of his bed, and I sat down.

He reached up to touch my face, and I felt myself start to relax. This guy was just like everyone else. He just took a little longer to work up to it, that was all. I leaned into the touch and unbuttoned the top button of his shirt. That was as far as I got.

He held my wrist. "No. You just sit still."

I jerked out of his grasp. I'd suddenly had all the weirdness I could take from this guy.

"What do you want from me? You want me to play, fine, I'll play. I get paid for that. You want sex, that's fine, too. I get paid for that. I don't get paid for this--this whatever you're doing here, okay? This isn't the way the game is played."

That was the real problem. The johns, even the weird ones, had simple demands. They knew what they were paying for, and I knew what they expected. This guy kept changing the rules on me.

"This is exactly the way the game is played. Money for power. I pay up, and I get you in return, for one night. To do what I want."

"Not anything you want, I never said that."

No one with half a brain, or half an idea of what anything meant to some people, would say that.

He smiled, a twist of his lips and a glint of humor. "No. Not anything. But letting me touch your face is hardly too much to ask, is it? Easy money, I would call it."

I made no reply. His fingers stroked over my forehead, down my temple, over my cheek, across my lips. Ran through my hair and down my neck. Easy money. It was. It was the easiest fucking money I'd ever made, and I wasn't sure how much more I could take. Sex was one thing. This was...

"Strip for me," he said. "I want to see you."

It was more of a shock than it should have been. Hell, it was what I was there for, right? A perfectly normal request, something I'd done a hundred times before without a problem.

Fris used to call me unblushable. After she found out what I used to do, she used to try and make me squirm, asking me for details and more details, asking me about what I'd done and what I would do. She came up with a lot of stuff I hadn't done and a few things I hadn't even heard of, but I just answered her questions. I wasn't trying to be cool. It just didn't bother me. Sex never bothered me.

But this...

Just undressing in front of him was almost more than I could handle, and I didn't know what made this so different.

I've stripped for an audience before, and I started to make it like that, make it a tease. I thought that would be easier.

"No. Just take your clothes off. I don't want a performance."

"Yeah, whatever you say," I mumbled under my breath.

After that, I just got it over with as quickly as possible. Kicked off my shoes, let my suit jacket fall to the floor and kicked it away. Only undid a couple of buttons on my shirt and then pulled it over my head. Socks, pants, underwear. I had the dumbest urge to cover myself when I turned to face him. I pushed my hair out of my eyes instead and stared as if I could burn a hole through his sunglasses.

He looked me up and down, then glanced over at Sylvia and back up to me. "Play," he said.

"What, like this?" It just burst out of me. *Obviously* like this. Obviously that was the whole point of getting me undressed.

His eyes traveled from my face to my feet and back up again. "Yes." A thin smile. "Just like that."

In my mind I could already hear his response to my protests. Easy money. And it was. In every logical way, it was.

So I played. I couldn't say what I played. I was on automatic pilot, just moving my fingers on the keys, letting them figure out the tune. So when I missed a note finally, I had no idea where to pick up.

I just stood there, staring at my sax. Thinking, maybe if I ran fast enough, I could get up to my room before anyone saw me.

"I didn't tell you to stop."

No, he hadn't told me to stop. I shook my head and thought about five hundred double-dollars. It didn't seem like nearly enough, but I made my brain start working again. Concentrated fiercely on my playing and felt my fingers starting to cramp up again.

He stopped me a few minutes later, and as I let Sylvia hang from the strap around my neck I realized my hands were shaking. I looked down at the carpet because I couldn't stand to look at him.

"Midvalley."

"What?" It came out as hardly more than a whisper.

"That's all. You can go to sleep now."

It was too much. I stood there for about ten seconds, not thinking anything at all. When I moved, I didn't know what I was planning to do until I had his glasses in my hand.

He tried to snatch them back, but I'd stepped out of reach. He swung his legs down to sit on the edge of the bed and started to get up. He stopped. Shrugged and seemed to slump a little.

I don't know what I'd been expecting. Demon eyes or cat's eyes or no eyes at all. What I saw was a huge shiner that the sunglasses must have only just concealed. Purple near the eye socket and turning green around the edges. But it wasn't the bruise that kept me staring.

He had eyes the color of night just before dawn, when you can feel the day coming, but still see stars. There should have been stars in those eyes.

He looked up at me. "Well?"

"Well what?"

"Are you done? I'd like my glasses back."

"Who did that to you?"

"What do you care?"

I didn't care, or shouldn't, and I didn't know why I'd asked. Without the glasses he looked less sinister and a whole lot younger. I revised my age estimate down from early twenties to late teens. Nineteen at the most. Maybe less. Maybe a lot less.

"How old are you?"

"I'm old enough. Anyone with money is old enough, right? Glasses. Gimmee."

He held out his hand, and I handed the glasses back. He didn't put them on, and I was struck by how much worse it would be to be taking his orders with those eyes watching me.

I picked up my pants, pulled the wad of cash out of my pocket, and handed him that as well. I got my clothes back on and Sylvia packed up in her case. He didn't say a word the whole time, but he caught my arm as I walked past him on the way to the door.

I looked down at his hand on my arm and pulled out of his grasp. Took a step back, toward the door. There was blood under his fingernails. Which he could have gotten defending himself against whoever gave him that black eye, or then again possibly not.

"Stay," he said. For once, it didn't sound like an order.

"Thanks, but I've been jerked around enough. Even five hundred bucks only goes so far."

"How much do you want?"

"What?"

"How much?" He took out his wad of cash again and started peeling off bills. They were all hundreds.

He held my eyes as he counted them out, looking for a cue, but I was too stunned to do anything but stare.

"Another five hundred." He held it out with the money I had given him. "All you have to do is sleep here."

"Why?"

He shrugged and kept holding out the money.

That much money would let me take a berth on the sand steamer to one of the cities instead of scraping by from town to town. One thousand double-dollars, just to sleep. Maybe it didn't matter why he wanted me to stay.

Finally, I nodded and took the money.

He smiled very slightly and started to put his sunglasses back on. I caught his hand.

"Leave them off." I let go quickly. I hadn't meant to touch him in the first place. "I've seen it, after all. And it can't be easy to sleep with those on."

"I'm not paying you to boss me around."

But he left them off.

Two of the moons were full that night, and the light kept me awake a long time after he fell asleep. I don't know what made me look over there, but when I did, I got out of bed to look closer.

He never made a noise or even moved, but his body was rigid, hands clenched on the sheets. His mouth opened and closed silently. Screaming without sound. Either he was having some kind of fit, or that was one hell of a nightmare.

I was afraid to wake him, but at last I laid a hand on his shoulder. It didn't stay there for long. He jerked away, awake immediately and rolled off the bed. A second later he came up to his knees, pointing a gun at me.

I raised my hands. It seemed like the prudent thing to do. After a few seconds he blinked and lowered the gun.

"You shouldn't have woken me up," he said.

"My mistake," I muttered, turning back to my bed. "Believe me, I won't do it again."

When we were both settled in our beds again, he spoke. His voice was quiet.

"Midvalley?"

"Yeah?"

"My name... It's Nick."

There were a few things I could think of to say to that, most of them sarcastic. I didn't say them.

"Hi, Nick. Nice to meet you."

I looked over and saw him hold out a hand. I took it in my own. We shook hands, and he held on afterward a second longer than most people would.

***

The next morning was grey outside the windows. Sandstorm, the hiss of tiny grains sleeting against the thin wood of the hotel. Sliding down the roof, sounding like water on a hot pan. I lay awake, unmoving, listening to it.

With a bang, the shutters exploded inwards. I sat up fast, but he was already out of bed, gun aimed.

"Little jumpy, aren't you?"

He shot me a sour look. "It keeps me alive," he said.

I shut the window and fastened the shutters in place.

We wouldn't get many customers in the bar today. None at all if this kept up. I made a mental tally of the rooms we had filled. There weren't that many, and the guy in room three was checking out today.

I realized I was trying to think up an excuse to lie around in bed all day. Hard on the heels of that came the realization that it was *this* bed I wanted to stay in, and this room.

I glanced over at Nick.

He was sitting on the edge of his bed rubbing his face with both hands. The gun lay on the bed next to him, almost obscured by a fold of the blanket. It looked bigger than normal to me, but I wasn't used to having guns pointed at me, and that might have had something to do with it. Certainly it looked smaller now than it had last night when I was looking down the barrel.

"You won't survive long if you give yourself a heart attack," I told him.

He sighed. "Is there any coffee?"

"I could go and get some maybe. If you ask nicely."

"A thousand bucks isn't nice enough?"

"You used that up last night. Should charge you extra for almost getting shot. And by the way, what are you? Some kind of hit man or something?"

He stared at me for a second. "You know...most people don't ask me questions like that."

"I am not most people," I said haughtily.

He snorted. "Yeah. What's your next news flash?"

"Next on the news report, I got to get to work. But I'll send Fris up with coffee for you. Want anything else?"

"Don't send Fris. Bring it yourself."

"I'm on cleaning duty this morning. I don't do room service."

"I'm jumpy. I might shoot her. You wouldn't want that."

"Very funny."

He smiled a little. "I'm a good tipper."

"I'll let her know."

"Come on."

"Come on what? What does it matter who brings the goddamn coffee?"

He looked toward the shuttered window. "You won't have much business today if the weather keeps up."

Exactly what I'd been thinking. "Your point?"

"If you have some free time later...I wouldn't mind the company."

I had a sudden picture of the two of us lounging around on rumpled sheets, drinking coffee and eating sandwiches. Talking. Maybe doing more than talking.

Dammit, shape up, Midvalley. He's not the first cute guy you've ever seen.

Yeah. Tall, dark, handsome, mysterious strangers come my way every day of the week.

"We'll see."

***

We had two guests left, including him. Two rooms to clean, two breakfasts to do. One for Fris and one for me. I sent Fris up with his coffee and cleaned the Reynolds' room while they had breakfast downstairs.

Fris came back down without any obvious bullet holes.

"I like him," she said. "He's really cute. You want me to do his room or are you gonna?"

"I'll do it," I heard myself say, in spite of having resolved to let Fris do it. "I don't mind."

She arched an eyebrow at me. "Don't mind cleaning? Must be love."

"I don't get involved with the clients, Fris. You know that."

"First time for everything."

"Not for that."

She smiled slyly. "But you like him, don't you?"

"I like his bankroll."

"Liar." She threw a set of clean sheets at me. "Go on. Go see your new boyfriend."

"He is not--"

"David and Midvalley sittin' in a tree, K-I-S-S--"

"Whoa, wait--David?"

"Yeah." She stopped, surprised enough to drop the stupid little song. "David Wolfe, it's in the register. You didn't even know his name?"

"Didn't think to check there."

"Uh-huh. Or he told you his real name, and it ain't David."

I started to protest, but she gave me a little shove toward the stairs. "Go on, get out of here. And I wouldn't worry about coming down if you get...occupied." A horrendous waggling of eyebrows accompanied this remark. "The storm's supposed to last till tomorrow, so I doubt we'll see anyone in the bar tonight."

I detoured briefly to the kitchen to get sandwiches and then went upstairs. I knocked.

"Who's there?" Just from his tone of voice I could picture the gun in his hand and the suspicious expression on his face.

"It's me," I said.

"Me who?"

"Me Midvalley. Open the damn door, my hands are full."

He opened it and took the sandwiches from me. I dumped the sheets on one of the beds.

"I'm here to clean," I announced. "'Scuse me. Got to go get the dust cloth and stuff."

He stopped me with a hand on my arm. When I looked down I noted that his nails were now blood-free.

"The room's not dirty."

I shrugged. "It's a hotel. We clean excessively to make up for the excessive slovenliness of most of our guests."

"It really doesn't need cleaning. But I could use some help eating the sandwiches."

"I got to at least dust. Hold on." I retrieved the dust cloth from the closet down the hall, shut the room door behind me and started on the window sill.

He lay on his stomach on the bed, watching me. "What made you ask if I was a hit man?"

"I've seen bounty hunters and wanted criminals who weren't as jumpy as you. Plus, that's a hell of a lot of cash you're carrying. And something must have given you that nightmare."

"I don't think hit men get nightmares. They're too tough, aren't they?"

I glanced over at him and went back to dusting. His face wasn't telling me anything.

"Maybe. Maybe they get that way after a while and you just haven't been doing it long enough. Or maybe you're not cut out for it."

"I don't think I get a choice."

I stopped dusting. "You really are...?"

He looked surprised. "I thought you could tell."

"I wasn't *serious*. I mean, I was, but...I wasn't."

He looked away and rested his head on his crossed arms. "So I probably shouldn't have told you. Oh, well. Doesn't matter that much."

"Doesn't matter that much? You kill people for money and it doesn't matter that much?"

"Are you going to turn me in?"

I stared at him with my mouth hanging open. Shut it with a click. "No. On what evidence? Just don't kill anyone in front of me, okay?"

"I wasn't planning on it."

"Good."

Silent dusting.

I switched on the radio. It filled the silence with news of the Yarol Gang's latest atrocities, still fortunately far away from here. Nice to know, but I wasn't in the mood for news. I spun the dial until I got static-laced music, probably from a hundred miles or more away.

To the background of 'Hey, Jude,' I wondered about the night before. He seemed like a different person, and despite the whole killing people for money thing, I couldn't picture being as shit-scared of him now as I had been then. He could be making it up...but I didn't think so.

His hand closed around my wrist as I was starting on the dresser, and it made me jump. I hadn't heard him move.

"Enough already," he said. "Come and sit down."

"What for?"

His hand dropped from my wrist, and he rolled his eyes. "All right, don't sit down."

"What's your problem?"

"What's *my* problem?"

"Yeah, Mr. Barely Legal, I'm-a-hired-killer mystery man, what's your problem? You don't fuck with a guy's head as bad as you did mine last night and then turn into his best fucking friend the next day."

"I--"

"No. I got to know where I stand here. I could use the money, but I can't take what I took last night from a guy I sat around eating sandwiches with. I just can't do it."

It surprised me, to hear myself say that. Two different people, this kid and the dark stranger who made my hands shake. It was true. I couldn't deal with both of them.

He was looking down at the floor, hands in his pockets. "I didn't mean to... Well, I guess I did. Sorry," he said shortly.

"Why'd you do it?"

"I thought it would help, I guess. You know. To fuck with someone the way he did with me." Quiet voice, speaking to the floorboards, not to me at all.

"Who's he?"

"The guy who did this." He place a hand over his bruised eye and then let it fall again. "I thought it would help, but it just made things worse."

"You're afraid of him?"

"Afraid?" He looked up and frowned at me. "Why do you say that?"

"He hit you. And you, the man with the itchy trigger finger, ran away. You didn't shoot him, is my point. Did you?"

He shook his head quickly. "No. No, I couldn't do that. Not him. I'm not good enough. I probably never will be. He says...I don't make my choices fast enough. I always hesitate too long."

"Maybe you just hesitated too long in getting the hell away from him. How much did he hit you?"

"Not much. Only when I was stupid."

I swore under my breath. It's such an old, tired story. You'd think I'd be used to it by now. Kids get hit. It happens. And mostly they end up blaming themselves. But every time, every goddam time, I end up wanting to wipe the bastard who did it to them off the face of the Earth.

I chose my words carefully. "I don't think that it had as much to do with you as you think."

He looked at me levelly. "It wasn't abuse. It was punishment. So I'd remember. He was always careful. He never hit me this hard when I was a kid."

"Jesus," I muttered. "And that somehow makes it okay?"

"Not...not okay. I left, didn't I?"

"Yeah, you left. And now you're looking for what? A friend? Or a body you can buy for a night? I can be either, but I can't be both."

He crossed his arms over his chest, hugging himself. "I wouldn't be a good friend to you, Midvalley. I don't know how."

"Hell, kid, that's easy. I don't know who that was last night, but I don't think it was you. Just be yourself and we'll get along fine."

He shook his head. "You don't know me."

"What's to know? You're a teenage hit man with freaky nightmares. And I'm an aging hustler who cleans hotel rooms and plays bad sax music in a seedy bar."

He looked up, a little smile on his face.

"My point being," I continued, "that we already know the worst about each other, so everything else ought to be easy as pie."

The smile grew.

"Unless there's anything else you think I should know about you?"

"I have terrible taste in music," he said solemnly.

"Ah. Explains why you like mine so much. That's okay, I can't dance to save my life."

He grinned. "I can't play pool. I mean, at all. I think it's some kind of congenital condition."

"My socks don't match." I pulled up my pants to display one blue sock and one grey. "Maybe not doing laundry regularly is congenital, too. Also, I don't know what congenital means."

That got a laugh out of him. "I drink too much."

"I can't hold my liquor."

"I like anchovies on pizza."

"Is that the best you can do? I like pineapple. God, pineapple and anchovies. I am never sharing a pizza with you."

His smile faded. "Um. One more thing."

"Can't be that bad. Out with it."

"I'm going to kill someone tonight. Here in town. I've got a contract."

"Oh." I didn't know what else to say.

"It's different, I know. Knowing what I do in theory and actually knowing I'm going to do it a few hours from now. It's different for me, too."

"You could not. You know. Kill anyone."

"I took the contract. I have to. And it's what I do. Teenage hit man, remember?"

"I remember."

"Are you going to turn me in?"

"You already asked me that."

God, I did not want to be having that conversation. I didn't want to think about this kid killing anyone. It didn't seem right. It didn't seem possible.

"I won't do it in front of you. I'm sorry, Midvalley," he said softly. "It would have been nice to have a friend."

"Hey." I put a hand on his shoulder as he turned away. "Who said you didn't?"

His face was grim. "I'm going to do this."

"Yeah, I know you are."

***

He did. We spent the rest of the afternoon in his room, talking about this and that. At dusk, he picked up his cross and left. He didn't say where he was going, but I knew.

I waited. The stars came out, and the moons rose. I tried not to think about what might be happening to him or about what he was doing. I paced the room and finally settled down in the chair with Sylvia. My fingers picked out the melody from 'Careless Love,' and I wondered if I was trying to tell myself something.

It was midnight by the time he got back. He opened the door, got through it, shut it behind him and leaned against it as if he was expecting immediate pursuit.

I went over to him. "Are you okay?"

He shook his head, trying to get his breath back. His face and hands were spotted with blood, like freckles. His shirtfront, too.

"I'm fine," he said after a minute of panting. "I'm fine, but I have to get out of here. Tonight. I have to leave." He looked up and looked me right in the eye. "Come with me."

"What?"

"Come with me. You don't want to stay here. You're thinking about leaving anyway, you said so. Leave now."

Skipping over the boring details and leaving out my stalling and temporizing, five minutes later I was packed. I left a note on my bed for Fris, telling her I was running away with my new boyfriend. It's what she'd believe anyway, and it would make her happy to think I'd found someone.

It happened so fast I could hardly credit it. Nick and I were out of town within half an hour in a car he'd dug up somewhere, probably stolen. He pulled off the road and stopped after we'd gone about half a mile into the desert.

"What now?"

"Um. There's something I got to do, okay? You just stay in the car."

I didn't stay in the car. I helped him bury the body that he pulled out of the trunk. Then we drove on. I fell asleep, and we were still driving when I woke up.

"What time's it?"

"Don't have a watch," he answered. "Still pretty early, though."

"Let me drive for a while. You can get some sleep."

"No, it's okay. I couldn't sleep anyway. But, look, I want to show you something."

He pulled over and got out. I followed. I admit, when he pulled his gun out, I was a little nervous.

"Come here. I want you to learn to shoot."

"What, me? Why?"

"Because I don't want to be responsible for getting you killed. Here, take this."

I took it, but I didn't like it. The gun felt unnatural in my hand. Too large, heavy and awkward. He arranged my hands on the grip and stood behind me.

"Okay, see that rock over there?"

I saw the rock. I missed the rock. I missed a lot of rocks that morning, but he just readjusted my grip, steadied my arms and made me try again. I made absolutely no progress that I could see.

"You did good. We'll try it again when we stop tonight."

"Again? Do you have any idea how much my wrists hurt? I'm not going to be able to play for a week."

He laughed. "You're doing fine. You'll be a crack shot pretty soon."

"I couldn't hit a barn if I was standing inside one."

He just grinned at me and climbed into the car, on the passenger's side. He cleaned the gun while I drove.

"Where are we going, anyway?"

He shrugged. "Doesn't really matter. Wherever you want."

"One of the big cities. What's closest?"

"December, I guess."

"Right. Sounds good to me."

He fell asleep not along after that. One hand cradled the gun against his chest in a way that would have worried me if it was loaded. It worried me anyway, actually, but I wasn't about to try taking it away from him.

The jolts from the car's ancient suspension made him slump more and more towards me until he was leaning sideways with his head on my shoulder. I steered with one arm and did my best not to wake him up.

***

"I vote we wait until the next town."

"We haven't passed anything all day, Midvalley. We could be driving all night."

"So? I'm the one driving. What are you complaining about?"

"What are you, scared of the dark or something? Come on, just pull over."

There was more argument, but I did pull over. I wasn't scared of the dark...not the dark you get in towns and cities anyway. I didn't like the open desert, and I especially didn't like it at night, but was I going to admit that to Nick? Hell, no. So I pulled over.

He made a fire, and I sat close to it and tried to ignore the tiny creaks and rustles coming from beyond the ring of light. The wind moaned through holes in the nearby cliffs. I hoped it was the wind.

There were a couple of blankets in the back of the car and we rolled up in them. I heard him fall asleep before I did, breathing changing from his controlled in and out to puffs and tiny snores. He sounded like a little kid, and I wondered again how old he actually was.

We were only about a foot apart, and I took a chance and scooted closer. The night was cold, the blankets were thin, and-- Oh, fuck the justifications. I just wanted to.

Taking my life in my hands, I pressed up behind him and carefully laid an arm around his waist. Either he was getting used to me, or his reflexes were slipping because he never stirred. I let myself relax and shut my eyes.

***

I woke at dawn to find him watching me from the other side of the fire.

"Morning," I croaked. "Is there coffee?"

He shook his head silently. His face was grim.

"What's up?"

"What's *up*? I wake up with you all over me, and you want to know what's up?"

I hardly thought all over him was a fair description.

"Excuse me for trying to conserve body heat. It was like twenty degrees last night, in case you didn't notice."

"I don't care, okay? Freeze to death. Don't fucking touch me without my permission. Ever." His back was to me, and he was hunched over, arms crossed over his stomach to hug himself.

I was too surprised to reply right away, and while I was trying to think of what to say, something nasty occurred to me. "This guy, the one who hit you... Did he...do anything else?"

"No! He wasn't-- I'm not some abused kid, okay? He was training me. That's *all*. He never touched me like...like that."

"But someone did, didn't they?"

He whipped around, and the hand pointing the gun at me was trembling. He spoke slowly and distinctly. "I don't. Want. To talk. About it. Got that?"

"Yeah, I've got it. The gun makes a pretty convincing argument."

He looked at it as if he hadn't even known it was in his hand. Then he put the safety back on and threw it to the ground.

"Shit," he muttered. "Can't you just leave me alone?"

"You're the one who asked me to come."

"Well, if I'd known you were gonna be all--"

"All what? What the hell did I do to piss you off? No, wait. Sorry." I took a deep breath. He had a right to be acting like a teenage brat. He was one. I, on the other hand, was supposed to be an adult. "I know what I did. I won't touch you, okay? But you're going to have to deal with it eventually. Stuff like that doesn't just go away."

He sat down and crossed his legs. His voice was flat when he spoke. "I did deal with it. I killed him."

"Oh."

"Yeah. Oh. Not much else you can say to something like that, is there? When I told Ch-- When I told the guy who trained me, he said I'd done well." His voice sank until I could hardly hear him. "He said the choice you make isn't important, the important thing is that you make the choice." He looked up at me, challenging. "I'm glad he's dead. I'm glad I killed him."

"So am I."

He looked so surprised that I almost laughed.

"Of all the people you could have killed, Nick, trust me, this is the one that's going to upset me the least."

He chewed on his lip for a minute, and then scooped up the gun as he stood. He held it out towards me across the fire. "You should get some more practice before we take off."

I took it, and it was warm from the sand and from his skin. I did marginally better that morning.

***

We found a town by late afternoon, to my relief. The hotel was almost empty, and I talked the manager into giving us a discount. We settled into the bar downstairs and listened to the news on the radio.

We weren't the only ones. The entire bar, empty when we walked in, was now packed with people. Their faces looked closed and wary, and they were all listening to the news with the kind of concentration that usually gets reserved for the last words of a dying man. A rich dying man.

"In other news," the girl reading the report was saying, "the Yarol Gang, last spotted in Keldar where they evaded capture, killing two marshals, has been reported to be heading west along the Bano-Hobe Highway..."

A murmuring began in the bar and grew louder as it became clear she wasn't going to say anything else on the subject. The Bano-Hobe Highway was what we'd been driving on for the last two days. I turned to find Nick looking at me.

"We should get out of here," he said.

"Is this that snap decision making you were trained for?" It just popped out of me. I really didn't want to spend another night in the desert.

His face closed up.

"Nick--"

"I'm sure you're right. There's nothing to worry about." He got up and went up the stairs, not turning when I called after him.

I went up to bed a little later, having convinced myself that another drink was not a good idea. The gun I'd been using that morning was lying on my pillow with a note. The note said: "Just in case."

I almost knocked on his door and made him take it back. It wasn't easy to sleep with it in the room with me. Under my pillow was much too close to my head even with the safety on. On the small desk was too far away if I actually needed it. The bedside table was all right, except that the way the moonlight came through the window bounced off the metal and shone in my eyes. I was still wide awake when I heard the roar of motorcycles coming into town.

Peering out the window, I counted them as they rolled up to the hotel. There were twenty, exactly. I told myself it was probably nothing, probably just a bunch of...what, traveling salesmen? I snorted at myself and looked over at the gun. After a moment of hesitation, I picked it up and got out of bed.

There was a soft knock on my door before I got halfway across the room. I let him in, and he went immediately to my window.

"Is it them?" I whispered.

"How should I know? It's a bunch of guys on motorcycles. I don't know the Yarol Gang personally or anything."

"So what do we do?"

"We wait."

"For what?"

There was a shout of laughter from downstairs, a man's laughter, coarse and low. Then a scream. Nick and I looked at each other, and I felt my heart start to beat faster.

A gunshot split the night, and as if it had been a signal suddenly there was noise everywhere. Screams rang out from the street and from the rooms around us. More gunshots, and in the pause that followed them, the sound of a child crying.

Another gunshot. Silence.

Nick's jaw tightened. "Stay here."

He started for the door.

I grabbed his arm. "Are you crazy? What are you going to do, hit them over the head with that thing?" I nodded at the cross he carried. "You can't shoot all of them."

He unsnapped the binding on the cross and grinned as it unfurled itself.

"Want to bet?"

Two panels flipped open. The spaces behind them were filled with guns. He took one out and closed the panels, holding the cross as if it were a gun itself--which I suddenly saw it was. The long piece of the cross was the barrel of a machine gun.

He walked out, and I didn't even try to stop him.

I called myself all sorts of names in the pause that followed, but I didn't move. I held the gun he'd given me cupped in both hands, warming it slowly to my body temperature. There was an ominous silence from downstairs.

Laughter. A man's voice saying something I couldn't make out, but it made the rest of them laugh even harder.

I told my legs to move, go down there, do something.

Nick's voice, clear and calm. He was telling them to get the hell out.

Okay, I told myself. Now, right? Now I go be a hero. I could taste my pulse on my tongue, and my fingers clenched around the grip of the gun, but I still didn't move.

The gunfire and screams started all at once, and there was no more laughter. I heard men yelling, thumps, the sound of glass breaking. Then I heard a sharp cry. Nick's voice.

My heart pounded as I stood there for a second longer. It wasn't conscious choice that got me moving, but suddenly I was out in the hall, down the steps, panting and bent over by the time I stopped just outside the door to the bar. I crouched low and took a look around the edge of the doorframe.

The first thing I saw was blood. Blood and body parts. So many dead. All men, and dressed in the Yarol Gang's colors. For a second I thought Nick had pulled it off.

Then I saw him, sprawled on the floor, up on one elbow and scrabbling with one hand for his gun as he kept his eyes on the man who was aiming at his head. The cross was too far away for him to reach. The gun was nowhere near his hand.

Slow motion detail: The solid metal weight in my hand, every thought telling me I'd miss, the pool of blood that the man was not quite standing in. The utter, unearthly silence that you only get before a lightning strike.

I pulled the trigger, and the man fell. Time rushed back at me like it was planning to hit me in the face, and I dropped the gun and stood staring.

He wasn't dead. His hand clutched at his stomach, and there was blood spreading out under it, but he was still very much alive, swearing and ordering his men to help him.

"They can't," I heard myself say. "They're all dead."

My words were much too quiet for him to hear, but he turned toward me anyway, a snarl on his face. He picked up the gun lying by his side, and for the second time that night I couldn't move.

I watched him point the gun at me, eyes fixed on his face--until I heard Nick shout my name. I turned my head slowly, just in time to see him reach his cross and pull out a gun. With a sense of inevitability I looked over to the man on the floor. Two shots, like thunder, and the man's head exploded.

Something sticky and warm hit me and stuck to my arm. I flicked it away without looking at it.

Nick was staring at me with wide eyes, chest heaving. "Are you all right?"

I shook my head and slid down the wall, all the tension leaving me at once. I kept shaking my head as he made his way over to me. Just couldn't stop.

Slow motion detail: A sound, my head turned, my hand reaching for the gun before I knew why, another man who should be dead, going by the hole in his chest.

He aimed, and I fired. I hit him in the head.

I don't remember much after that.

I remember riding a motorcycle through the night, hanging onto Nick's waist with both arms. His cross was tied behind me, and it kept poking me in the back.

I remember thinking that this kid and the dark stranger who freaked me out so bad were the same person, after all. I remember half-heartedly trying to get off the bike and take off by myself. He wouldn't let me, and it was just as well. I wouldn't have gotten far in that state. I think I finally fell asleep.

***

The next time I opened my eyes, it was light out. I was lying on a bed, and Nick was lying next to me, arms crossed behind his head, eyes open.

I glanced around the room, somewhat reassured to see Sylvia's case sitting against the wall.

"That...that wasn't all a dream by any chance, was it?" I asked.

He shook his head. "Thank you. You saved my life."

"Yeah, I guess." I felt vague, and my voice seemed far away. "I'm going back to sleep, okay?"

He nodded. "You want me to stay here?"

I hesitated. He'd scared me last night. I'd never seen anyone killed before, let alone like that. So much blood. But I'd killed, too. And I wasn't sorry for it. Maybe we belonged together.

Either way, I realized, looking at him, that I didn't want him to leave.

"Yeah. Stay."

I couldn't sleep. I lay still with my eyes closed for a long time, not thinking about much of anything. After a while I remembered that I wanted to know how old Nick was. It seemed important. I asked him, and he didn't hesitate in his answer.

"Seventeen."

"How old were you when you shot...whoever it was?"

"My guardian. I was seven."

"Okay."

He laid a hand on my shoulder. "I'm sorry, Midvalley. I told you I'd make a lousy friend."

I forgot myself and turned to hug him. He didn't pull away. My promise came back to me almost immediately, and I would have let him go, but now his arms were around me. He was holding me as tightly as I was holding him.

"Dumb-ass kid," I muttered against his neck. "You've got nothing to be sorry for."

I drew back then, wanting to get a look at him. I half expected tears, but his eyes were dry. Lovely, pure blue. I found myself leaning towards him, looking deep into those eyes. Caught myself short and started to pull back.

He stopped me with a hand on my face and leaned in until our lips were touching, not touching, touching again as the motion of our breathing moved us a fraction of an inch closer and then away.

His lips were so soft. It was hell to wait, but I did. Maybe for whole minutes, breathing softly with him, warmth across my mouth from his breath. Then he moved just an inch, and those soft lips pressed against mine, chaste and nervous in a way that I could no longer even remember being. His first kiss. For all the johns I'd done, all the tricks I'd turned, I'd never been anyone's first kiss.

So careful, as if he would shatter at a rough touch, I ran my tongue across his bottom lip, asking for permission. He gasped a little, but I didn't press my advantage, waited until his mouth closed and then did it again, so lightly. Fluttering, trembling, opening to me, allowing me inside him.

The heat of his mouth enclosed me as I sought for his tongue and found it. Slippery, cautious welcome. I teased at his mouth, touching teeth and palate, drawing him out of himself until his tongue was making forays into new territory, allowing me lead it back into my mouth, sucking gently and releasing.

His breath came in gasps as we parted, and I touched his face to make him look at me.

"We don't have to," I told him.

"I-- I want to."

"You're scared."

"Doesn't matter."

He took my hand and put it between his legs, watching my face. He was hard, harder even than I was.

Slow laying aside of clothes, warmed by sunlight like honey from the window. When I stood to close the shades, he followed. He stopped me with a hand on my wrist.

"Not in the dark."

I nodded and kissed him again, deep and slow, just resting my hands lightly on his shoulders. We stood beside the bed like that for a long time. At last he pulled me against him, skin on skin for the first time.

It was so slow. That's what I remember most. Slow as if we had all the time in the world, which I suppose we did, then.

His touches were light at first, almost ticklish as his fingers moved over the skin of my chest with more concentration than anyone has given me before or since.

I let him take the lead, and it was a long time before he pulled me to sit on the bed and longer before we lay side by side. I didn't push, expected nothing. Tried to expect nothing, at least. I never claimed to be a saint. His smile when he ran a steady hand over my cock was a gift.

I took him in hand as well, following his actions, stroke for stroke, leaning forward to kiss him, hand on his cheek but never holding him there.

His arm came around my shoulder and held me close, hand moving faster, the look on his face wild and wondering. So beautiful, and I wanted him so badly.

We came almost at the same instant, and he rolled on top of me afterwards, kissing me hard, and laid his head on my shoulder.

I almost asked him if he was all right, but in the end I kept quiet. We lay in the sun all morning, and he slept most of the afternoon, his body half-draped over mine. I drifted in and out of dreams, wakened from blood and gore by the clean scent of his hair tickling my nose.

***

"Where do you think you're going?"

Nick turned too quickly, banging his cross against the wall. "I thought--"

"Thought I was asleep? Or thought I wouldn't mind you sneaking out while I was asleep?"

"Um. Both."

"You were wrong. On both counts."

He said pretty much what I thought he would say. He didn't want to get me involved with his freaky teenage hit man life, he'd almost gotten me killed, blah, blah, blah. I waited until he wound down and kissed him. That shut him up long enough for me to make my counter argument.

"Everybody dies, Nick. And you like my music. That's good enough for me."

"It's not that simple!"

"It's exactly that simple. Come on." I picked up Sylvia in her case and stepped past Nick out into the hall. "We should make December today if we push hard."

He followed me down the stairs and outside. The suns were low in the sky, and the morning was still cool. If I strained my eyes, I imagined I could see December on the horizon, waiting for us.

-------
..end..


Note: In case anyone's wondering, my rationalization for Midvalley having Sylvia way back then is that he converted her/it into a weapon when he joinged the Gung Ho Guns. Same sax, just with a few added features.

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