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It had been fifteen years since Gerard had slept in any kind of wilderness, and that had been summer camp and, therefore, Not Much Fun. Sleeping in an enchanted forest--or what they were starting to suspect was an enchanted forest, because they'd walked and walked and fucking walked and there was still no end and no way of telling where they were going or how long it would take to get there--was much like summer camp in the way that it was also Not Much Fun and Really Uncomfortable and Cold and Wet and a shitload of other things Gerard had to put out of his mind just to fall asleep.

They walked until evening set, and the way it had set was seriously troubling. It literally took place in a blink of an eye: the sun was high in the sky and then it was not, or so it seemed that way, and was suddenly hovering over the tops of some trees, waiting for its invitation to plunge them into darkness. When it did, they were spooked enough not to even try walking anywhere, and had settled along the trees on the path's edge. They made a small fire to accompany them with Frank's lighter, then sat and watched it die before passing out.

Gerard really, really wanted to go home.

He could see this in Frank too, only more so, and he knew that Frank was most likely beating him in the miserable game. This was his life that was still being screwed over, as it turned out that the bad luck hadn't dissipated at all once in the Untitled: it'd actually doubled. There was dropping the lighter twice, nearly burning him when he used too dry grass as a base for the fire, and there was burning on two different fingers, twice, when he'd forgotten to reach around the fire for their jackets, not through it. Neither of them had eaten and were forced to ignore the sounds of their own stomachs and each other's before Frank had yawned and turned over in his jacket and fell asleep.

They woke considerably early, when the sun refused to let them sleep for just a while longer, and Gerard scrubbed his eyes heavily, feeling like shit. "Morning."

Frank said nothing, staring around him confusedly, hair rumpled. "Fuck, still here."

"Yeah," Gerard agreed, and it was pretty much how he felt. They sat in sleepy silence before Frank stood, dusting himself off. "You regret this yet?"

"No," Gerard said, and meant it. Frank smiled tiredly, and Gerard was glad for the gratitude he could see. He looked down; the fire was still smoking, but in small waifs now, and his stomach, forced itself awake, grumbled annoyingly at not being fed. Frank seemed sheepish at the sound, which made Gerard frown, "I'm hungry. That's not your fault."

"I know, but. You wouldn't be if we weren't here. And we wouldn't be here if--"

"If," Gerard barged in, diplomatically, "someone hadn't decided to fuck around with your life. The Lord, whoever he is, is the reason we're here, and we'll deal with him. Don't take his responsibility, Frank." Frank paused for a second, looking ready to argue further, but sighed and nodded, "Come on."

They stepped onto the path, silent except for the crunch of gravel beneath their feet. Gerard was barely awake still, hiding his yawns with his hands, but Frank was alert in minutes, darting around them and glancing behind every occasionally. There was something jerky about the way he moved and the way he rubbed his neck slowly, almost absent-mindedly. Gerard wanted to ask, could feel the question propelling its way up his throat, but Frank was on edge already, they both were. No point in pushing shit that could be explained later, when they weren't cold or hungry.

They spent the better part of the morning walking, Frank growing increasingly agitated as they went. Gerard succeeded in keeping his face fairly neutral, and slowly began to inspect things for their edibility instead of their existence factor. Two hours, or what felt like two hours, of this proved him successful: he'd discovered tiny little shrubs further along the edge that carried tiny little berries that were red as apples. They were neither sweet nor sour when he tasted them, and when he didn't die, they ate them by the handful, unapologetically. The shrubs ran out quickly, but what they didn't eat they saved in the pockets of their jeans and their jackets, satisfied.

Wiping their dirty fingers on their jeans, they continued on, in somewhat higher spirits, now that there was food in them. Morning came and went in the same snapshot structure of the evening before, and the path once again became unbearably hot by mid-afternoon. The berries were doing what berries did in this kind of heat, making Gerard very thirsty.

Frank had said nothing the entire time; his only reaction to the berries was resigned noise and the sounds of chewing, and Gerard could tell his mood had not improved. He looked more jittery than ever, and was now stopping every once in a while to gaze into the bushes, as if he’d finally pinned a location to whatever was bugging him. The third time he did this, Gerard stopped with him, and had to ask, “What the hell, Frank? What’s in there?”

Frank’s eyes had become unfocussed, and his voice came small, “I don’t know. I just. I feel something.”

“Something?”

Frank shook his head slowly, trying to clear it, “I don’t know. I just thought—“ and he was creeping closer to the edge now, taking precise steps and crouching low. He looked as if he was trying to hide as he was trying to move, but from what or who, Gerard had no idea. “I think something’s—“

A root, something, anything—Frank grunted, body suddenly tipping forward with the unwelcome balance. Gerard cursed and reached forward, grabbing a fistful of the back of his shirt and hauling him quickly onto the path. There was the sound of something sharp and old breaking, and they both collapsed, Frank’s weight hard on Gerard’s shoulder. A huge branch came undone from an oak tree and crashed to the ground, exactly where Frank had been standing. Plumes of dust rose from it, blinding their vision temporarily, and for a second, Gerard could only pant and wonder what the hell had just happened.

Then the dust cleared, and caught underneath the branch was a man, flat on his back. He wasn’t moving.

“Fuck,” rasped Frank, and scrambled to his feet. The branch was huger up close, and pinning the man from chest to waist, but Gerard could see his chest rise steadily underneath it, and exhaled, almost light headed with relief. Frank bounded over to one side of the branch and gestured to the other end; together, they hefted the branch a few inches up, enough for the man to slide out of if he wanted to. Then Gerard’s end slipped, and the branch crashed down again, prompting a pained moan from the man.

“Fuck,” they cursed in unison, and attempted the heave again. Gerard watched the man eagerly, taking in his face: large, blond, cheeks red and forehead shiny, and a strange mark imprinted into the back of one hand where it held his stomach. Gerard stared, finding it too familiar. Then it clicked, and he dropped his end again, this time from surprise. “Frank.”

Frank followed his line of sight. The mark stood angrily on the skin of the man’s hand, the lines bold and neatly done, and there was no mistaking the Victorian M, or the menacing cobra that linked itself through the loops and the cracks of it. They had seen it once before, on a page, in a Senser’s apartment: the Lord of Mischief’s Emblem. Back then it’d been a picture on a page, but here it was fresh and sharp and angry onto this man who was now staring at them imploringly and pressing against the branch with both hands, weakly. “Help,” he said plainly.

Frank’s mouth made an open-and-close motion, then he chuckled. Gerard didn’t know what to make of that chuckle, but he had the feeling of making one in the same vein, a totally mirthless, completely surprised chuckle. Frank thunked one foot onto the branch, increasing the pressure. “I can’t believe this.”

The man groaned again, twitching under Frank’s shoe and the branch. He lifted his head once to confirm that it was Frank who was causing him this much pain, then let it fall to the grass again with a hollow, accepting noise. He looked pretty content to just lie there, as if the branch was keeping him from a not so important arrangement he didn’t mind missing so much, with the face that was expecting an explanation some time soon. Frank was all too happy to give him one, a smile stretching wide and superior, “So you’re him.”

The man said comfortably, “I’m who?”

Frank nodded at his hand, “That’s your emblem, right? The Lord of Mischief? I’ve read about you, I know about you. I know what you’ve been doing to my life.”

The man tugged at his hand a little until it came free, then stared at the emblem as if he’d never seen it before. Then he laughed, his body shaking the branch beneath Frank’s foot, and kept laughing, his voice awed and echoing and completely tickled pink. Frank sneered, “It’s not fucking funny, what you did. You’re going to change it, and you’re going to make it right.”

“I’m…” here the man paused for breath, “I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

He said it so calmly, so indifferent to them and everything they’d gone through so far, that Gerard could feel the anger stirring up inside him, and he came to stand by Frank, placing one foot on the branch next to his.“Why the hell not?”

“Because I’m not the Lord,” explained the man, “Or any Lord, really. But--but I do know him. I know who you’re looking for.”

Frank wasn’t buying it. “That so?”

“Yes,” said the man, and fell quiet. When neither of them made to let him up, and when he realized neither of them was going to make the means to let him up, he went on, “Yes, and I’m guessing you’re looking for him?” He stared at both, “I can take you to him. I work for him, I know the place.”

“You work for him?” Gerard repeated, unconvinced. “Salaries, hour duties, that…that whole thing?”

The man shook his head, dismissing the detail. “I just work for him.”

“So why would you help us?”

A patch of anger came and went on the man’s face, and for a second he was no longer complacent. “There are reasons. I can’t explain them all, but they’re there.” And because his hand was still free, he turned and offered it to Frank, then Gerard, “I’m Bob.”

Gerard considered Bob, who blinked politely back at him and waited, hand still outstretched. He’d never even seen a Lord before, much less one of mischief, but he really couldn’t say that Bob resembled who he thought they were looking for without feeling that sharp pang of something not quite being right. Bob wasn’t small, but wasn’t heavy, with thick blond hair that didn’t beg for, but demanded a haircut. He looked as if he was used to being pinned beneath large objects, as he wasn’t panicking or rushing them into letting him up anytime soon. He gave no air to mischief or intimidation, and that, Gerard decided, was probably the worst part, and could make him more dangerous than they were being led to believe.

Bob's hand quavered for a few seconds when neither took it, then he sighed, dropping it. “This isn’t the first time someone’s complained about the work, okay, and it’s not like I have a secret agenda or anything that stupid. He’s a dick, he’s a huge dick, he’s a colossal dick that deserves at least half of the shit he’s going to get, and I think I owe you. Better yet,” he made a studious face, “I’m pretty damn sure I owe you.”

Frank said, “How do you owe me?”

Bob sighed, and sounded extremely tired of questions all of a sudden, “Think about it, and really think about it. That branch was supposed to scare you, it was supposed to throw you off course. You would’ve fell onto him,” he gestured at Gerard, “crushing his cell phone and erasing the only link to your world forever.”

Frank studied him, then said flatly. “It’s you. You’ve been doing this. Everything.”

Bob didn’t respond. In essence, he was explaining the inside of an atom bomb, or how penguins migrated; he was void of all concern. The color drained from Frank’s face and he increased his pressure even further, “What the hell is wrong with you? Why did you do this?” Another question seemed to take his mind, instantly, “Why me?”

Bob shrugged, effortlessly unmoved. “No hard feelings. Just doing the job.”

Frank glared at him unblinking, then released his hold. Gerard followed, and they hefted the branch off Bob together. Frank turned to glower farther away from Bob as he stood, dusting himself and looking incredibly cheerful, “Thanks, I really owe you one.”

“You’re fucking right, you do,” Frank snapped, “You’re going to stop what you’re doing to me, him, my life, and everything in it. You’re going to leave me alone.”

Bob didn’t lose the cheer, “I told you, I can’t do it. It’s not my place, I’m not the Lord. You’re only involved because you’re my Subject, and I don’t pick who I follow. I can’t just shut everything off. You’d have to talk to him.”

Frank opened his mouth to protest further, but Gerard, seeing where this was going and the exact amount of nowhere it was going to lead them to, added, “So take us to him. Where is he, where can we find him?”

Bob grinned even wider, if that was possible. He seemed delighted to give out such important info such as this, “He lives on an island, just off the coast of the town’s market. After that, you just cross the sea and it’ll be there, on the highest rock. But the town’s market is a four day’s walk at best,” he frowned, “Even if you’re not stopped or anything. But judging by the way you were going,” he pointed at the path, “You would’ve pretty much died before you got there.”

Gerard frowned confusedly, “How?”

“This is the Endless Path,” replied Bob, “Only endless if you’re walking on it. Walk on the sides, and you can get to the town in two days. The market’s way on the other side, and that’ll take you another two.”

Frank spoke in curious tones, “How long to cross the sea?”

“By boat, a few hours. It’s not very big. If he sees you approaching, though,” Bob shrugged again, “Can’t give you anything on that.”

Gerard bit his lip, and glanced over at Frank. Frank was sizing Bob up and taking Bob in, and Bob was accepting this all with his hands clasped loosely behind his back, still grinning. The emblem stood out even more with his fingers clenched, Gerard noticed, and the cobra was even more horribly detailed. The hours it probably took to get that tattoo, Gerard thought, and shuddered. Then he surprised himself by wondering if Bob had even been willing to have it tattooed on him at the time.

“All right,” Frank murmured, “Yeah. Take us to him, I want to meet him. I want to talk to him. But I don’t want anymore of this luck bullshit. None of it here.”

“I can’t control that,” Bob reiterated.

“You can try,” demanded Frank, and they held each other’s eyes before Bob blinked, somewhat confusedly, swallowing once. “I can try,” he agreed. He looked from between them again, then down at their things, “That your stuff?”
They nodded. He nodded as well, “Leave it. Shit like that will only slow you down here.”

“We have food in there,” Gerard protested, “Berries.”

Bob shook his head, “We can get food ahead. Better stuff grows from the further trees. If you want to get to the town fast enough, we can’t keep stopping. Where did you sleep all this time?”

“On the side of the path. We made a fire,” added Gerard, wanting to feel competent in some way. Bob was already criticizing them, faulting their efforts and making them feel small and strange in this weird world. Gerard didn’t like the feeling, and he didn’t like Bob of all people, who they could’ve left to rot beneath that branch if they’d wanted to, delivering it. Bob smiled, a tinge of sarcasm to it, “Well, there’s that.”

“Are there any houses we can sleep in?” Frank inquired, “You know anybody around here besides your shit boss?

“I know a few people, yeah.” Bob ignored the jibe, “But they’re all in the town. We should probably start heading there.” He didn’t wait for either of their responses, just pushed between them and down the grassy path. Frank scowled, “Fuck him. Fuck this,” but he followed anyway, shoulders hunched in and low. Gerard hesitated, then hurried on after them.

*

Things Bob quickly turned out to be: informative, pleasantly quiet when he wanted to be, focused, nice, and a great conversationalist, if you could find the right topic. It made it so difficult to hate him, after a while, but somehow, through some small amazing feat, Frank managed this, and he managed this well.

No sooner had they started their journey together had Bob stopped them and, ignoring Frank’s glare and Gerard’s confusion, reached up to pick a ripe, orange fruit from one of the trees. It was, again, nothing they’d ever tasted, sweet and sour in rapidly fleeting flavors that lost Frank as he chewed and swallowed. He really couldn’t place anything on it, but it was good, and they each had their shares from the available trees that sported them. This was lunch, and a later snack made itself out of the berries still in their pockets (Bob recognized them instantly and approved, nearly inhaling his own handful.) He seemed unnerved at the sudden change from afternoon to evening, which was still disturbing enough that it made Frank wonder how anyone could get used to it. The sun went from sticky to approaching normal human temperatures, and it slowly sunk behind the trees before disappearing.

Bob kept walking, “Not that much danger out here. We can keep moving.”

“Don’t you get tired?” mocked Frank, “It’s cold and it’s dark and we need to rest.”

“Do you want to make it to the town or not?”

“It’s not going anywhere,” Frank muttered, and Bob turned once to stare at him. It lacked some of his constant cheer, but it was still there, amused with what Frank knew was his own impersonation of a bitchy teenager. “If you want to stop,” he told him simply, “We can stop.”

Gerard yawned hurriedly and tried to hide it, catching Frank’s eyes. “I’m fine.”

Frank smiled, “I didn’t ask.”

Gerard made a pinched face, “I know, but I’m…I’m fine.”

Frank turned to Bob, “We can stop.”

Gerard made a few grumbling sounds of protest, but they ended up setting a small fire on the side of the path, Bob putting Frank’s lighter to good use. He disappeared quickly into the forest and returned with more fruit, handing them a piece before biting into his own. The fire cracked almost inaudibly, casting shadows on their faces and the trees, and the smoke curled and made for the sky in slow, winding tendrils.

Frank worried a bite of his piece nervously, then asked, “How did you end up working for the Lord of Mischief?” He felt stupid the minutes the words left him, but he dismissed it. Bob owed him something, really—six months of pure hell didn’t just slip by, no matter what was going on. Bob took another bite of his piece and for a moment, appeared as if he hadn’t heard him. Then he said, “I was a gift to him.”

Frank hid his surprise in another bite of fruit, wondering how anyone could just wrap someone else with a bow and tight smile and drop them off easily, as if they were an ugly vase or a useless ornament. Bob didn’t seem angry or uncomfortable, just resigned, and finished his piece with the same enthusiasm he put into finishing every other piece of fruit they’d had that day.

“Was it his birthday or something?” Frank snarked, “The Lord’s? Did you jump out of a cake?”

“No. I was shackled and bound, and walked for three days before I reached the palace,” Bob said seriously. Frank frowned, eyes on his fruit and lips on the verge of apology, before Bob smirked, “There was cake involved, yeah.”

Frank glowered and continued eating. Gerard chewed a bite slowly, “So you were a gift and…what? He just used you for his mischief shit?”

“Not just me,” Bob assured him, “There are others, hundreds of them, but he has his favorites. They’re the Cobra Clan: hand–chosen, traded, bought. Right hand men, fucking loyal, possibly as insane as him.” He shook his head, “I’m not exactly in his good graces. I wasn’t chosen, bought or sold, and he and Bert aren’t—you couldn’t call them friends, not really. “

“So you just chose to go along with it?” demanded Frank, “Do whatever he said, no matter who was hurting?”

Bob, for the first time, looked guilty, “None of it was enjoyable, it never has been. It’s like your job at the music store—taking orders, interacting with people. It’s just a job. My job. Nothing else.”

“That doesn’t change what you did. That doesn’t change anything,” Frank told him, and fell silent. Bob nodded in understanding, “It really doesn’t. But there’s nothing I can do about it now, besides taking you to him.”

“Is there anything we can say to him,” asked Gerard, “that would change his mind, lift the curse?”

Bob shifted doubtfully, and gave his answer in doing so. He then leaned forward to throw his pit in the center of the fire and, as if he was unsure whether these two actions had not proved his point, added a shrug for good measure. “We should sleep. If we wake early tomorrow, we can cover more land.” He gave no room for arguments or comments; just turned over on his side, breathed deep (once, twice), and was asleep.

Frank’s breaths had evened out a long time ago, and the fire casted uneven shadows across his face as he slept. Gerard shivered in the night, although it was no longer cold, and began to list the reasons why he should sleep. Soon after that, sleep over took him.

He awoke to the sound of soft voices.

One was still unusually cheerful, and the other was tentative in meeting that cheer, its focus rooted deep in asking more questions. “The job at the pottery barn?”

The other voice laughed. Bob, Gerard thought, that was Bob. “Come on, admit it. You hated it there.”
“It was a fucking nightmare,” Frank agreed, “but you couldn’t let me stay for just a few more weeks? Enough to pay the rent? Horrible timing, man, horrible timing.”

“Sorry,” Bob said, and didn’t sound it. Frank chuckled and called him a bastard, which Bob also took cheer to. Frank’s voice then grew lower, “I’ve been a dick, I know it. But it’s hard, seeing you. It’s really hard knowing I haven’t been crazy for a while now, that there was something there. Something tangible. Something that explains all of this.”

Bob sounded as if he was waving him off, “What made you stop being a dick, then?”

“Wasn’t getting me anywhere,” Frank confessed, “and sure as hell not any closer to this Mischief guy.” Bob laughed again and slowly, after a few seconds of just Bob’s voice ringing in the air, Frank joined in as well with a genuine chuckle that was satisfying enough to lull Gerard back to sleep. When he awoke hours later, they were seated around a new fire, and Gerard gave the impression that he’d heard nothing.

They ate in relative silence, then dismantled the firewood and left no traces. There was just the crunch of the grass beneath their feet and whatever noise the forest felt appropriate enough to make, but something about moving made more sense, felt incredibly thrilling in ways Gerard couldn’t describe. They had a destination, they had a way to get there—they were going to do this, they really were.

A quick glance at Frank, his smile, and even the quick hand squeeze he attempted, fingers locked, and Gerard never wanted to stop walking.

*

Gabe woke up eyes first: they were closed, then they were not. His ceiling was still his ceiling, his canopy was still his canopy, and his tired was still tired, but something in his mind, and maybe in his lower back, told him he was not going to sleep again; the limit had been reached. He groaned, sat up slowly and yawned, one hand sliding up to tug at a few loose tufts of hair sleepily, then pushed his sheets and blankets back. He hissed as his feet hit the floor—gold and cold, as they always were, in the morning—and shuffled over to one of his mirrors, yawning and at the moment, avoiding all contact with it.

Then he grinned, frowned, rearranged that grin into a brighter one, and faced the mirror, “You are—oh my God.”

He screamed. It was a good scream, as far as screams went: it started out loud and hoarse, and crescendoed into one extensive, wordless wail of the kind of despair they conjure up just for drama movies and fake, on-command tears. His voice had gone hoarse from too much stress, in addition, which added to ugliness of it, and the exquisiteness. In conclusion, it was a very beautiful scream.

Someone, on the other side of the mirror, inhaled and exhaled deeply, as if this scream was everything they’d been hoping for, everything they thought it would be, and very much more than that. Gabe, in his madness, didn’t register the heavy intake of breath, or the tinge of voice that carried the release, but he did take note of some presence, and ended the scream with a moan and whimper, both beneath vocal range.

He was old.

He was, at best, charmingly older or frighteningly gray-haired, wrinkles caved in at his forehead and cheeks, and the skin around his eyes sagged and bagged and puffed. Tiny lines appeared and disappeared as he turned his chin, which had gathered tiny clumps of hair on the very end, barely noticeable if your face wasn’t pressed against a mirror. Gabe was old, his face was old, ancient, near-extinction. He moaned again, a deep ragged sound, “Oh my fucking God.”

There was another inhale and exhale, “Screams of the damned. Delicious. Fucking magical.” The voice was deep and wicked, and would never be able to convince any sane person of being otherwise. The body, for now, was still hidden behind the length of the mirror, but the person was in no rush, and had no intentions of going anywhere. It’d traveled far, this body, just for this. It deserved results.

Gabe moaned a final time, “My face, my—“

“Yeah,” the voice agreed, playfully, “You should really do something about that, really. Five years, sweetie—you’ve really let yourself go.”

Gabe knew this voice now, and knew the body that came with it. He hated both, he loathed them, he was going to destroy them. “What did you do to me? What did you do to my face?”

“Me?” the voice played at innocence, “Why, I did nothing, nothing at all. Nothing that you couldn’t fix in your fucking sleep, anyway. No, buddy—that was there when I got here. I’m just reaping the aftereffects.” Then, “The beautiful, amazing aftereffects. Could you…could you just scream for me? One more time? Please, baby,” it begged, then launched into a scream of its own, a horrible parody of Gabe’s surprise and horror.

Gabe's fingers stopped roaming the excess skin on his face, shielding his face against the scream and, with one fluid motion, stepped around the mirror and promptly smacked the body's shoulder with a resounding thwack. "This isn't fucking funny. This isn't--this--" he gave a final, backwards glance towards the mirror, "Oh God, Bert. Bert."

Bert was currently perched on one of the many detailed sitting chairs in Gabe's room, legs crossed like a delicate lady-in-waiting, hands in his lap. He was grinning a grin that only his face was, and would ever be, accustomed to, and there was absolutely no sympathy in it. There was amusement, expectation, even a little relief (he was pretty sure he'd have an entirely different reaction upon waking and discovering he was at least fifteen years older; one that would most likely wipe out half of the Untitled--because he was like that) but there was no sympathy. Gabe was not even sure if Bert was capable of sympathy, or anything that wasn't amusement or righteous anger.

Bert tilted his head back, still frozen in position, and screamed another long, frightening, terrible scream, then stopped himself mid-way to comment, "You know, when your asskisser of a servant told me your situation was dire, I wasn't sure what he was playing at, exactly. Guess I know now, huh? Imagine me, walking into your room this fine, fine morning, and realizing your sweet little baby face wasn't," he waggled his eyebrows, "Sweet, anymore."

"I don't know how this happened," Gabe started, hysteria clinging to the edges of his voice, "I don't fucking know--"

"Aw, sweetie," Bert's mouth pulled at the corners, "You do. You know everything about this, right down to the nitty-gritty. It's what you do, remember? This is what you do."

"It's what...?" mimicked Gabe, eyes widening as it dawned. "You."

His fists curled tightly, his face pulled back into a monstrous snarl, making his wrinkles and sagging skin worse, “You fucker.”

Bert just smiled. “You know me, darling. I just cannot resist a challenge. What’s better than pranking the Lord of Mischief?”

“You call this,” Gabe gestured wildly at his face, “a prank? You fucking little piece of—“

Bert held up his hands and waited until Gabe’s voice had reduced itself to tiny little pants of rage. “Now, I can tell that you’re mad, but screaming won’t get you anywhere with me, you know that. What do you do when you want Berty on your side?”

“Be sweet and kind, with words that are fine,” Gabe recited, as he had heard this before. His voice still shook, barely on the cusp of tolerable, “I want to know what you did. Where’d you hide the talisman, what the hell did you put in my food?”

For a second, Bert actually looked disgusted, “Did we not just talk about not insulting my charm and wit? I believe we just talked about not insulting my charm and wit.”

Gabe loomed closer, “Bert.”

“Fine, fine—“ Bert waved Gabe’s small attempt at intimidation away. They both knew neither was particularly fearful of the other, and Bert had played enough of these little games on Gabe to know which weren’t that serious, which were on the border of getting him turned inside out, and which ones he should never, ever play again. He was having a hard time placing this one, as Gabe still hadn’t unclenched his fists but was still speaking in somewhat reasonable tones, but hell, it’d been a long time anyway. That made the entire thing fun, after all, pushing Gabe’s buttons and watching the pretty lights explode.

He sat up even straighter, met Gabe’s eyes, and with a smile that was gradually approaching Cheshire levels of wrong, said, “Bobert.”

It took a full moment for the words to connect, then Gabe’s face relaxed. He blew out a long sigh, and then smiled sarcastically, “You’re full of shit.”

“Am I?” Bert teased nonchalantly, “He’s mine, my gift to you. He hates your fucking guts. You put him up for years. The dots, babe, aren’t really that hard to connect.”

Gabe had started chuckling during this, shaking his head and backing off. He moved to sip at the glass of water on his bedside table, appearing calmer and calmer as Bert spoke, until he was outright giggling, “You’re full of fucking shit. You know better than I do that all of your being within him died when I took him in. What he has is mine now.”

“Exactly,” Bert said, and Gabe stopped drinking.

Bert tapped a rhythm on one thigh, and didn’t stop smiling. “Bobert is what we’d call special. You ever wonder why I lumped him out to you in the first fucking place? You think I was being nice? To you?” Here the smile dropped, the posture dropped, and Bert leaned back into the chair, slow and easy and satisfied, “He sucks power, you stupid shit. He sucks twice as much power than anyone you got.”

“Oh no,” he secured when Gabe rounded on him, horrified, “He didn’t at first, not at all. Despite what you’ve proved to me these last years, you aren’t a completely hopeless idiot, you’ve got brains. You would’ve noticed, just like I would’ve noticed when Brian dropped that fucking sack of organs on me in the first place. He builds up to it, slowly gaining more and more. Visualize a cat on helium,” he stopped to daydream briefly, his face full of bliss, “sucking and sucking until,” he made a popping noise, “guts and carnage.”

“Your lackeys? Probably could’ve matched him in the early days, but he’s probably got all their power in one fucking finger, and hell—give him enough time, and he’ll be just as big as you,” wicked grin, “If not more.”

Gabe stared. He just stared. He made no accusations, no statements of denial; he didn’t move an inch or budge a mile. He just stared, water sliding down his very expensive silken pajamas from where his mouth had fallen open. Bert took in the expression silently, his body thrumming with the hate, the anger, the regret. It was perfect, all of it. It was what he lived for, this destruction. The planning, the hesitation, everything—everything came down to this, him and Gabe, the radiation coming off of him in thick, dangerous waves that blinded Bert’s senses and made him inhale again. So fucking sweet, it felt. So fucking sweet.

Gabe gave him one answer, “How do I stop him?”

Bert shrugged with one shoulder, “I ain’t got the key to his secret places. What I know is what I told you—I never cared about stopping him. Why would I, when I knew handing him off to you would cause this much glory? I figure you’ve got two options: lump him off or get rid him. Which,” he amended, with another shrug, “is all the same to you, isn’t it?”

Gabe agreed, eyes slowly becoming cloudy. “I going to need…I need Victoria.”

Bert nodded in return, and clapped his hands loudly in a ‘my work here is done’ gesture. “I’m sure you have some lives to consider, people to order into a blood crazed frenzy. And as a person who takes deep pride in these works, I truly, deeply understand,” he pressed a hand to his heart, and tried for painfully sensitive, “what you’re going through, but I’m afraid my leave needs to be taken—“

Gabe swiped one hand through the air quickly, and the doors to his suite shut with twin slams, then locked themselves instantly. Bert, expecting something similar to this, had not taken more than two steps from his seat, and slid down into it again, taking up his posture. “Plan?”

“I want him here,” Gabe told him, flatly, “Don’t want to destroy him yet. Not yet. For now, you stay here.”

Bert didn’t protest, “Do you even know where he is?”

Gabe didn’t, and was suddenly aware that he didn’t. The Dangerous One hadn’t been around for days now, and while he normally enjoyed these short bursts of absences, he knew he could no longer tolerate them. Not if he knew what they were doing to him. He needed information, he needed a location, and he needed that fucking time bomb where he could see him, and possibly dissect him for all his time bomb-y parts.

“Victoria,” he announced into the air, and when nothing happened, he screamed, “Victoria!”

There was the sound of sharp sucking, a loud snap!, and Victoria was standing, in all of her pink pajama and mussed hair glory, in the center of his room, swaying on unsteady feet. Even now, Gabe felt a nice punch of victory in his gut—of all of the interesting shows he could force the Cobra Clan to put on, this was one of his favorites, and most likely the greatest. It was also, no longer curiously enough, the one move he could never perform with The Dangerous One, and it added to already oodles of dislike Gabe had for him. At this point, just watching Victoria glance around herself, eyes blurry and tired, increased Gabe’s complete and total hate for him.

Victoria yawned, then fixed him with one of her ‘I hate you and one day I will be free of your wretched life’ glares. “Sir?”

“It’s your lucky day, Victoria!” Gabe ignored Bert completely—had to, would never fail to put something on for his servants, no matter how little the status—and sashayed towards her. He also ignored the look on her face when he got nearer, and placed his hands on her shoulders, “I’ve decided you and the boys have been working much, much too hard. It’s absolutely dreadful, how hard you’ve been working. Wouldn’t you say you’ve been working much too hard?”

Victoria blinked at him warily. “…Yes?”

“So it's settled,” Gabe squeezed her shoulders, “The Cobra Clan is going on their first annual field trip!”

Victoria, who had never had this long of a conversation with Gabe before (and who had never heard the words field trip or relaxation or too hard) peered at him as if he had gone insane. “…Sir, I mean no disrespect, but are you--?”

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Gabe chuckled again, “Perfect. Wonderful. I only want to repay your for your hard work, that’s all. Unless you would like a perfectly, wonderful normal day of work?”

“No!” Victoria rejected, much too loudly. Bert snickered. “No…the field trip. It’s fine. The field trip is fine.” A hint of curiosity snuck into her voice, “Where are we going? What shall we be doing?”
Gabe thought, and thought, and when he had finished thinking, thought a little bit more.

“Somewhere fun…something fun. You all are going on a little scavenger hunt. A tiny, insignificant scavenger hunt.”

*

Even as Victoria asked him what they were going to search for, she knew she was not going to like what they were going to search for. When he told her, hands digging noticeably into her shoulders and waking her up further, her brain leaned back, sipped a bit of coffee and went, There, and I didn’t I tell you?

It’s too early for this shit, she told herself, and it really fucking was. But she knew, as she’d known for a good long while now, that she had three things: no say, no choice, and no hope of worming herself out of this. There would’ve been a time, years ago, where she could’ve just loaded this onto the guys, crawled back into bed, stuck her head underneath her pillow and slept the entire freaking year off, but that time, she hadn’t been appointed leader, and she hadn’t caught Gabe’s eye. Now that she had done both of these things, she was paying out of the eyes, nose and mouth for it.

Gabe had made it simple: find Bob. Find Bob, and bring him here, and go away, because then Gabe would deal with it then (no questions about how, she didn’t need to know that.) Just find him. Did Gabe know where he was? No. Did Gabe even know he was in the town? No. Was Victoria and her crew expected to fan out over thirty to fifty thousand acre lands and search for him? Well, fucking duh. She was a Cobra, after all. Following Gabe’s whim and performing ridiculous searches for him was all she could do after nearly a decade of serving him.

Gabe had dismissed her neatly after that, turning all of his attention onto the small man in one of his stupid looking chairs. Victoria had hung back a bit and stared at him, because she knew that face, she knew it from somewhere, anywhere. She’d already commenced with the kind of blatant staring you perform in situations such like these, and hadn’t been able to pull away, just then. The man quickly noticed her staring, and winked before waving at her, his grin showing all teeth and gums in a way that could induce nightmares. Victoria, startled at being caught so openly, accidentally teleported herself off, like she was some teenager again with no control over the power she held; it was mortally embarrassing. It was only until she arrived back at the bunks that she realized who she’d been gaping at.

Bert, one of the Destroyers. No, she corrected inwardly, not one of. Bert was the Destroyer, the best Destroyer. When you were a kid, Victoria remembered, mothers and fathers could get you to behave by promising you that if you didn’t stop your foolishiness right that second, Bert would crawl out of a gutter, or a teapot or a broken eggshell and take you away. When Victoria still had a family and still lived with that family, her mother used that same promise to stop Victoria from wrestling with her cousins or jumping on her bed. Seeing him sitting so behaved in that chair, Victoria didn’t find him that scary, but she’d heard of the things he’d done, and even seen some of the towns herself, after he’d been through them. What Bert had in lack of size or strength, he made up in reputation.

“Aw, hell,” she exhaled loudly, and from his bed from across the room, Alex opened one eye. “Whassa matter?”

“We have a mission,” Victoria monotoned at him. Alex groaned loudly and turned his head away, as if Victoria was the mission he was trying his hardest to avoid. Ryland turned over to glare at them both, “Tryin’tosleep.”

“Well, wake up, idiot,” Victoria snapped, “Gabe gave us a mission.”

“Are you going to ever,” Nate started, turning over as well, “Stop being such an asskisser, Vicky? Or is it nice and comfy down there in Gabe’s—“

Victoria ignored him; Nate was a complete bitch in the morning. That didn’t stop her from rising his bed a few feet and dropping it, hard and fast, onto the concrete floor. Pops roamed throughout the room as the frames cracked and fell apart, dumping Nate onto the floor. He grunted with the impact, surveyed the damage wearily, then let his head fall with a sigh. “I’m up.”

“Now the rest of you,” ordered Victoria, “Up.”

They grumbled and they groaned, but Victoria got them into the showers, then the dressing barracks, and finally before her, backs turned as she dressed. She snapped her fingers once finished, and they turned sourly towards her, barely awake. Ryland, less attentive than Victoria but more attentive than the other two, asked, “So, what’s the mission?”

“Bob,” Victoria said simply, and took in their surprise. “We have to find Bob, and bring him back to Gabe. Immediately.”

“How immediate is immediately?” Nate had gone from bitching to joking. Victoria gave him a world-weary look; she’d much rather have him bitching. “Meaning his ass is probably on the grinder, which means if we don’t get him, our asses will be on it instead. It’s us or him, and I don’t know—I kind of like us?” She met each of their faces, pleased to hear their small noises of agreement. “We need to move fast. He’s been gone for days.”

“How he’d even manage to get out when he wasn’t haunting?” Alex pondered, almost admiringly. Victoria gave him a noncommittal shrug, “Probably some traces of Bert left in him. Could’ve confused some of the guarding charms. Doesn’t matter, he’s out, probably in the towns, and it’s been a long time. He could’ve gotten far by now.”

“So, we start from the towns,” Ryland kicked up, already on a roll, “Then fan out from there. But he wouldn’t stay in the towns, it’s still too close to Gabe. He’s probably as far as the borders now, maybe even the Endless Path.”

Victoria grimaced, that was fucking far. They were pretty much screwed at this point, honestly. “Can’t let that stop us. Gabe doesn’t care about the miles, he just wants the guy. We’ll just up the ante—won’t stay longer than a day in each quadrant. If we fan out and search, we’ll be able to keep moving.” She stopped, scanned her brain for any hidden pieces of plan, then nodded decisively. It was a good plan, she figured, but now was at that little annoying stretch of time whether they would figure out if it worked or not.

Nate wasn’t one to be put down, bless him, and managed to cajole them into a cheesy round of slapping their hands on top of one another’s and ending the display with a , “Go Cobra go!” Even as she was pulling her hand away, frowning at the faint sting on her knuckles, Victoria wondered how she’d been convinced to go along with that. Nate, as if sensing her confusion, smiled a fruity smile and waited patiently for orders.

“We aren’t going to find him just standing here,” Victoria pointed out, “Go.”

They exited the bunks in a military fashion, Ryland temporarily breaking the stride to bounce over to the old, wooden shed sitting faithfully behind their showers. Before any of them could question his sudden need for freedom, he returned jogging, an ancient crossbow clutched tightly in his fist. There was one ancient arrow to complete the package, and Ryland shrugged at each of them when he surveyed their faces. “We might need it. It’s Bob,” he added, and Victoria was pretty damn sure Ryland thought that explained just about everything.

“You do realize,” she started slowly, speaking as if Ryland was a very small, slow child with wax in his ears, “that we control our own special sects of infinite power, right? The magical kind of infinite power?”

Ryland scowled, “We might need it, all right?” He clamped his mouth closed in a way that would say no more. Victoria, with her migraine building in slow short bursts and absolutely no fight left in her, decided to let him have it. The palace had screened them way before they reached the main gate, and allowed the thick, golden doors to swing silently and presenting their path to them in a way that nearly made Victoria sick.

“Right,” she said confidently, and was surprised. “We’ll break it up. Left, right, middle. Move quickly and neither answer nor ask any questions. We’ll need to meet at the Endless Path. Got it?”

A series of nods, and they each continued without another word.
*

Here’s a good way to know if you’re making progress while traveling through a seemingly infinite, alternate reality with your boyfriend and your now-more-trustworthy-if-not-less-dangerous magical tour guide: You stop hating the sun. You get used to sun first, acknowledging it when it decides to change on you, or ignoring it when it finds its special position high in the sky and beats down on you from all directions, making your already grubby, disgusting clothes even grubbier and more disgusting.

The food tastes better, if not a little more flavorful, and you start to remember the names of each one as Bob repeats them between bites of his own piece. Soon, you’re picking them out by yourself whenever you’re hungry, dropping whatever Bob notes as bad or bland, and considering the taste of each one as you chew, saving the imprint in the back of your mind.

You don’t even whoop or cheer when you find a stream later—or, technically, when Gerard’s pant leg finds the stream, as he steps into it—even though you’re thirstier and more tired than any natural person should be, and even ration out your handfuls instead of gulping it down like some rabid, uncivilized bear-thing (much like that ache growing in your chest wants you to.)

All of these things, Frank summed up nicely in his head, definitely meant one of two things: that his panic factor was turning low, or his weirdness factor was turning up. Either way, things were less strange and more just so; he no longer questioned the weather and just bore it, and sleeping was becoming less and less of a terrifying experience, now that he knew exactly where he was when he woke up. Frank didn’t feel especially happy or unhappy about these facts, he just felt.

Gerard, for his part, was no longer selecting flowers or bits of fruit for his inspections, and instead took what was offered to him with a question (what was it) and a shrug before biting into it. Frank could tell there was no indifference to it; Gerard was interested, but in the way that one would be interested in something previously unheard of in his otherwise familiar world. It was comforting almost, and there was really no other way to describe it.

They’d walked for another day before Bob had stopped to climb a few trees, announcing with each and every climb that he could see the town (Frank and Gerard had shared wildly excited grins during the first announcement, lips stretched so wide it was almost criminal) and from there they progressed in somewhat higher spirits, eager to reach the town in as little time as humanly possible.

They were even more elated to realize that the closer to the town they got, the more people appeared on the Endless Path; scores of people: tall ones, short ones, angry ones, pleasant ones, of all colors and occupations. Farmers were willing to part with a tiny bit of food and drink, and Bob took in information and the daily goings of the town from each one. He looked pleased enough with each answer, and repaid them with the promise that the fruit here was much better this season, and wrote down the locations of where they found the brightest, ripest fruit. Gerard and Frank could only watch talk as they gulped down their own meals, beaming at each other with no other reason than sheer and utter joy.

It was the fourth and final day, however, that seemed the quietest, with absolutely no travelers. Morning came and went with no offers or food or information, and they picked their fruit quietly if not a little disappointedly. Bob made a face to counteract Gerard’s questioning ones, “I don’t know either.”

It was both fortunate and unfortunate, Frank decided later, that the Untitled was all too ready to give them an answer.

It’d only been a few hours into the afternoon when Frank could make out the shapes, still dark from the sun’s overhead glow, but still moving. There was something initially off about them, something more wrong than everything else in this place, and Frank noted, with the first spark of shock he’d had in days, that they were walking directly on the Endless Path, in such a way that didn’t seem to fear or particularly care about what it was doing to them.

“Bob,” he said, and Bob nodded, nonchalant for now. “It doesn’t mean much of anything at this point. We’ll have to get much closer.”

Frank silently disagreed: he wasn’t sure, for one, if he wanted to get much closer. The figures practically screamed in tones that weren’t pleasurable or inviting, and were maybe even aware they were there, which made hiding and running impossible. It wasn’t that they were breaking a rule that everyone seemed to know around these parts, and it wasn’t that he still couldn’t see their faces, even though they were rapidly approaching spitting distance from them; it was that they were almost expecting them, and even slowing for them. Bob slowed too, face alarmingly void of friendliness.

The shapes eventually evened out to five people: four guys and one girl, none of them dressed in the typical farmer way. There were golds and purples and deep blues, and they fit exceptionally well, as if the tailor made sure he’d been paying special attention. The girl was smiling, “Fucking finally. Bob.”

Bob had been staring at one of the guys (and the guy had actually been staring back with a smile, and Frank was convinced at that point that this was not a coincidence. This shit had been planned) but had swiveled his stare at the sound of her voice. “What,” he started gravely, “the hell are you doing here?”

“I think we both know the answer to that,” the girl replied, and was no longer smiling. “He noticed you were missing, and well—“ she cut herself off, momentarily annoyed, “There really is no more story to tell here, you know how he is. You’re going to have to come back with us.”

It didn’t take much of anything for the words to hit. Frank immediately knew the he and most likely the where. The guys shifted uncomfortably behind the girl as she spoke, and threw Bob almost apologetic faces, and it was pretty clear that they were what Bob was, and they were all working for the same guy. Frank felt twin bursts of excitement and resentment at watching them, and could tell that Bob neither cared for nor wanted their apologies. He didn’t even look as if he liked them.

Bob gave her one long, mocking glare. “Like hell I will.”

“That wasn’t an option.”

“Victoria,” Bob told her simply, “I don’t want to. I really don’t. But I will.”

“And we won’t have to,” she agreed, “If you don’t make anything out of this. Do you know what the hell we’ve had to go through just to find you? Do you know what kind of shit he’s currently in? I mean, not that you care, but.”

Bob nodded, he didn’t care. “I’m not going with you.”

“I’m very sorry to hear that, Bob,” and she really did sound as if he’d let her down in some way, even as her hands began to glow, even as thin bursts of purple rippled around her toes and fingers. She did not change her stance, short of curling her fists and hunkering low in a battle stance, but all the while she seemed nervous and unwilling to fight him.

“Bob,” Gerard called from behind Frank, voice faint with both fear and awe, “Bob. She’s—she’s glowing.”

Bob huffed out a long breath, “I know.” He, too, had taken on a slight glow, as purple as the rays emitting from the girl’s fists and hair.

“Bob,” said Gerard, even fainter now. “Bob, you’re glowing.”

“I know,” Bob said and, raising one clenched fist in the air, shot a steam of light directly at the shorter of the guys behind the girl. The guy grunted and doubled up as if he’d taken a punch, making a sound of surprise and then pain as he fell to his knees. One of his buddies, the shortest and most hilarious looking, jerked towards Bob, horrified, “Bob, what the hell!”

Bob ducked low, and calmly shot another stream, this time at him, and aimed for his face. He quickly redirected the flow when the guy ducked, a shield suddenly appearing between him and Bob’s attack. The stream rebounded instantly, nearly hitting the girl before slicing off a nearby branch. The girl stumbled and Bob charged, leaping over her before advancing towards the group. Everything changed immediately: each settled back, a conjugated weapon in each of their hands, except for one, who pointed a crossbow (Frank blinked with surprise. Seriously?) at Bob, one eye closed in concentration.

“We really don’t want to do this, Bob,” Crossbow warned, hand steady. Bob’s fist crackled in response, the beginning blossoms of shields crowning around his fists. One flick of Bob’s wrist and Crossbow lost his crossbow, and they were both deep in battle before it even hit the ground. It skidded wildly, connecting with Gerard’s feet. Gerard backed up, eyes wide with panic, “Frank, fuck—“

Frank could hear his heartbeat in his ears—fuck, it felt like the stupid shit had packed up and moved into his throat, and all he could think to do was grab Gerard’s wrist tight, “We need to run, we need to—“

He wasn’t sure what else they needed to do, after that--his chest felt warm, frightfully warm, and the sensation danced across his skin and then his stomach, gripping and squeezing whatever patch of skin it caught onto. It made his head spin and his legs weak, and there was suddenly no ground beneath him or around him, and his back felt ricked and tight, and nothing but the sky and the girl peering down at him. Only one of them was smiling.

“Hold still,” the girl grunted, leaning in close, and Frank could no longer breathe. Her hand clamped itself around her throat, and she hefted him up, smiling pleasantly, “This will only take a second.”

“Frank!” Gerard screamed, and Frank could hear the sound of a body dropping. “Put him down now, Victoria, ” Bob ordered, voice harsh, “or you’ll fucking regret it.”

“You know better than to threaten me, Bob,” the girl spoke easily, “Accept our demands and I’ll let him go.”

Bob made no attempts at moving. “Put him down.”

“Bob, I really don’t—“

Gravel turned itself over, pebbles skidding under shoes, and Gerard now had the crossbow, both fingers crossed over the hilt. Unlike Crossbow, Gerard’s grip was shaky and it almost looked as if the entire thing was vibrating. “I’ll shoot!” he yelled, and sounded as if that was the last thing he wanted to do.

The girl surveyed him with a pitying smile, “I’m sure you will.”

“I will,” Gerard promised, edging closer, “I swear to God, if you don’t put him down, I’ll shoot you.”

“And just where,” the girl inquired, “Will you shoot me?”

Bob stepped forward, “No tricks, Victoria. Let him go. He’s got nothing to do with this or you.”
“While that’s very true,” the girl admitted, “you decided to make this difficult, so now someone else has to pay for your shit, again. I hate asking a second time, but I think it might be in everyone’s best interests: will you come with us?”

Bob’s gaze flickered from her to Frank and back again, “Go to hell.”

“Bob—“

The air whistled, and Gerard was shouting again, and the girl lurched, exhaling softly as the arrow sunk itself deep into her shoulder. Frank was dropped to the ground, the air in his lungs painfully settling itself again as he wheezed and gasped. His throat felt raw and he could still feel her prints on his skin, and he massaged with both hands as he stared up at her. The girl clutched the arrow with her other hand, face contorted with pain and fury, but she didn’t lunge after Gerard. Her gaze was on Bob, “This didn’t have to be difficult.”

Bob stared at her simply, with no sympathy. “You shouldn’t have come here. What did you really expect of me?”

They both nodded; they had known that Bob wasn’t going submissively. In fact, the girl must have noted that something like this was going to happen, and yet, here she was, blood seeping between through her fingers gradually as she considered him. Her glare was cold and flat, and undeniably angry, “I hope you know what to expect of me.”

Bob nodded again, and stood complacently as the girl came to life, purple incasing her in wavy ribbons until she couldn’t be seen, then looked away as the cocoon faded into nothing. The men, some sitting and some lying, were melting along with her, their cocoons winking out in less dramatic measures. Then they were alone again, Gerard and Frank and Bob, who had powered down long enough to pick up the crossbow from where Gerard had dropped it.

“Huh,” he said, and turned it every which way, “Seriously?”

Gerard jumped and pushed him away, taking several steps back, “What the—who were?”

“Coworkers,” explained Bob, still inspecting the crossbow, “The Cobra Clan. They work for Gabe, remember?”

“Coworkers?” Gerard spat, furious, “No, Bob—fuck no. Coworkers steal your fucking coffee and mess up your paperwork and—and play their crappy country music loud where the whole damn office can hear them. Coworkers don’t try and fucking kill you, and they don’t—“ he stuttered, words escaping him, “They just don’t!”

“Gerard,” Frank rasped, and both turned towards him, Gerard running over. “Jesus, Frank, did she--?”

“One sec,” Frank told him, fisting a hand in his shirt and pulling him down for a kiss. Gerard squawked awkwardly, his mouth fitting weirdly against Frank’s tilted chin, but hell, Frank could not help it. Death and death by fist were two different things, but just watching Gerard hold that fucking crossbow, how deep and assured and hot he’d sounded. He would’ve killed her, they knew all knew it, and something about that was—was the wrong kind of thrilling, the worst kind of thrilling to be excited for. The kiss itself was dry and rough and unfamiliar, and coupled with these ideals, it should’ve been completely unsavory. Frank, knowing even all this, didn’t pull away.

“Um,” Bob said uncomfortably. Frank held up one finger and, ending the kiss with a neat little smack, turned attentively to him, “How long until we reach the town?”

“You still want to go?” Gerard asked, incredulous. “Frank, she nearly killed you!”

Frank nodded, and then winced. His throat thrummed with ruptured capillaries and sensitive skin, making speaking temporarily level with insanity. “She could’ve,” he whispered agreeably, “but she didn’t. And we’re so close, Gerard. We’re so fucking close.”

“We haven’t even made it to the city yet,” Gerard protested, voice filled with panic again, a different kind. It was much softer, and only appeared when it knew it was losing a fight it was never really meant to win, “and you almost died. Frank, this is—I. We’re…we’re not even in the fucking city.”

“But we should be,” Bob blurted, “in a couple of hours. I know where they were coming from—there’s only two locations that dump you near the path. The town is one of them.”

Frank smiled softly at Gerard, but still managed to sneak some triumph in there. He was not the kid on the playground with the last school lollipop; he was the scientist after decades of study who finally proved that his infamous disease was, in fact, flesh eating. Gerard took one look at that smile and sighed inwardly, then slowly leaned himself over Frank until just the tips of their lips were touching and all words were nothing but mutters.

“Don’t make me fucking regret this, Frank,” he mumbled, watching Frank’s mouth raise into a silly grin.

“No promises,” Frank murmured, and this kiss was much softer and considerably sweeter. Bob pointedly ignored them to study the crossbow some more and, once satisfied that it was probably the only weapon they could’ve used that didn’t involve his magic but was now completely wasted, he tossed the bundle to the ground and coughed. “We should get moving. I know a place we can crash in tonight, provided it’s still standing.”

They all shared quick nods, Gerard steadily helping Frank to his feet. He hadn’t broken anything, thankfully, and other than his neck, which was beginning to sport thick, red welts in the shapes of long, elegant fingers, he seemed fine, if not a little winded. He leaned slightly on Gerard as they walked, both of them trailing behind Bob to speak a little more in quiet, hushed tones.

It was nearly nightfall when they arrived at the mouth of the town. The only remarkable about the town, sadly, was how unremarkable it was, and at night it really just turned out to be your average magical, sleepy town, including its own set of toy guards who regarded them impatiently as they approached, barking for explanations and names.

Bob held up the hand with the tattooed emblem (and it looked as if it was glowing in the nighttime light; yet another thing that made Frank want to tear it off physically, in hopes of never seeing it again) and the guards paused. Frank wasn’t sure, but if prodded he could’ve sworn he’d almost heard them swallow.

“Right away, sir,” the louder of the two said, “Sorry to have…ah, been so aggressive like that. Orders, just doing orders. No need to mention it to his Lordship, yes?”

“I need to know if someone still resides here,” Bob told them, “A friend. Patrick Stump.” He glanced between the two, “Either of you know him?”

“The shopkeeper, you mean, sir?” Loudy inquired, “Or…or the mage?”

“They’re the same, you idiot,” the thinner one snapped, all too eager to appear as if he was the competent one, the one who had the brains to go with the body. “He still resides here, yes, sir. His shop hasn’t moved. Would you like us to accompany you, maybe wake him?”

“No,” Bob pushed past them, signaling to Gerard and Frank, “You’ve done enough, thank you.”

Gerard hurried in after him, hands linked with Frank to pull him along. It wasn’t until they were deep enough in their walk that he prodded, “So what, all of the guards are supposed to kiss your ass now or something? Because of the emblem?”

“My reputation precedes me,” Bob stated, drily. “They know him. Or, at least, they know of him.”

The line of conversation was dropped instantly as he turned another corner and stopped directly in front of another small shop that happened to look like all the other small shops they’d passed since stepping foot into the place. This shop still had its lights on, and the warm, orange glow automatically made it appear more inviting than any other establishment they’d come across. Bob knocked heavily on the door then, as an afterthought, added the muted chime of the doorbell. The lights went out only seconds after that, as if someone had blown something out or turned something off, and the door opened a crack. It was dark as hell inside, and Frank couldn’t place the body that grunted, “Shit, Bryar, it’s fucking midnight.”

“I didn’t know where else to go,” Bob sounded sheepish, and might’ve even looked it if he hadn’t been smiling. “What’s the matter, Wentz? Not so happy to see me?”

The door opened further, and a short, tanned man stood before them with his arms crossed, his face a parody of sourness. Taking him in required many screen shots: one blink, and he had tattoos, ink rich and prominent in the moonlight. Another, and his grin glowed even brighter than anything else on him. “It’s like I told you,” the man said, “If I ever saw your needy ass again, it’d be way too fucking soon.” He nodded at Gerard and Frank, “You brought strays?”

“Just for tonight,” Bob amended, “We’ll be gone in the morning.”

“Pleasure?”

“Business.”

“I meant for you,” the man clarified, and shot an understanding look their way, “Outsiders never come here for pleasure, you know that.”

Bob bounced on his toes a bit. The man clearly had an effect on his mood; talking to him put Bob in the norm again, making him easier and a lot more cheerful than previous, “That I do. You gonna let us in or what, midget?”

“Fuck you,” the man smiled, and stepped back. Frank could hear him shuffle away from them as they entered, then the room was filled again with the soft, orange glow of candles. The man was shaking out the last of the match, his back to them, “Lock the door.”

Bob did without looking, his gaze seeking out the inside of the shop instead. “Still hasn’t changed. You ever talk to Patrick about spring cleaning?”

“No one fucking cares what we look like, you know,” the man chirped, “As long as we get shit done. Think he’s given up on the idea.” He turned to Frank and Gerard and smiled, extending one hand, “I’m Pete, by the way. Bryar’s not going to introduce me.”

“I didn’t come here for you,” Bob’s voice sounded from another room, and he returned minutes later with a sloppy homemade sandwich, several ingredients still dripping from it, “Besides, no one ever explains the sidekick.”

Pete flipped him off, still holding Gerard’s hand. “Either of you hungry? I can make you something if the fat fuck hasn’t taken apart the kitchen yet.”

“The fat fuck saved your fucking chicken,” Bob said, between bites, “Go nuts.”

Pete disappeared and reappeared with two plates loaded with food, not being “completely sure what the hell outsiders eat, sorry.” Another blinding grin seemed to make up for it, and it helped that food was just there and not terrible, which were slowly becoming the only two requirements for Frank to tear into anything. He and Gerard ate in starving silence, watching Bob and Pete’s back-and-forth with relaxed interest. In what seemed like only minutes after Frank had pushed back his own plate, footsteps were padding softly down the step. Another shorter man entered the room and, before anyone could say anything, held up a hand and disappeared into the kitchen.
All of this had occurred with enough speed to make Frank doubt if he’d actually seen anyone, but before his brain could call error, the man shuffled out of the kitchen again, clutching a mug of what smelled—and it’d felt like fucking centuries since he’d had it, so he wasn’t sure—like coffee. This man, probably Patrick, took one huge gulp from the mug, then said, “What the hell are all of these people doing in my sitting room, Bryar?”

“Sitting,” Bob supplied, cheerfully and unhelpfully. Patrick nodded fairly—he had asked, after all. “Are any of them going to die?”

“You mean soon?”

Patrick sighed, “I mean, eventually.”

“Not, really no.”

“Infectious disease?”

“No.”

“Internal bleeding?”

“Nope.”

Patrick leveled him with an impressive glare, “What, you wanted to cause me shit at twelve in the morning, Bryar? Is that it?”

“You know me, Patrick,” Bob grinned, and Patrick groaned again; he did know him, and had known him for a very long time now. Frank found himself wondering how long, exactly: every word was punctured with an air of frivolity, even Patrick’s annoyed expression doubled as a smirk. The entire conversation was merely for taking the piss out of each other; otherwise, both Patrick and Pete seemed genuinely relieved to see Bob.

Patrick set down the mug and peered at them both, “Who choked the shit out of you?”

Frank, alarmed at being acknowledged or so openly spoken to, fumbled his words before gathering them in one quick mind-basket, “The Cobra Clan.”

“All of them did this to you?” Patrick coaxed, “They just took a piece of throat and went to town?” He had a way of speaking that made you feel that even your next words would be much too incorrect for his strange oral quiz, but that was okay, since he hadn’t expected you to pass anyway. Frank stopped to gather his words a bit more cleanly, “The girl. Victoria. She, uh.”

Patrick ahh-ed, effectively stemming any explanations. “Yeah, she’s the dangerous one. The guys are sort of like for show, you know? Hot air and skin—but she’s.” He shuddered, and the effect followed through nicely. Frank swallowed again and tried to nod, his throat emitting sharp bursts and aches as if it was a battlefield. It was impossible not to wince, and once Patrick had caught you wincing, it was impossible for him not to do something. It was a virtue that could be both admirable and damnable (and really depended on the way you were looking at it), but even so, Frank felt some relief at having Patrick round the table, mug in hand, and pressing his fingers into the sore spots of his neck.

“Since you’re in my shop,” Patrick muttered, sliding his fingers to another knot of pain, “I have to assume that Bryar has only gotten you two far enough to properly screw over. Now, tell me—do I want to know how far he’s already screwed you, or should I just give you the obligatory ‘you don’t know what you’ve gotten yourself into, turn back now, if you can’ welcome-wagon shit?”

“We’re already here,” Frank pointed out, wincing when Patrick pinched a patch of skin, then started humming softly. The pain wavered significantly, lessening and lessening until Frank could no longer feel the patch as a whole. It didn’t hurt, but it wasn’t pleasant, and all in all, there was nothing Frank could do but take it and feel grateful that he didn’t, at least, feel like dismembering his own throat anymore. “It’s not like we’re just going to turn back now.”

Patrick appraised these words in silence. “You know, it’s not too late to. Turn back, I mean.”

“No,” Frank told him, firmly, “It is. It really is. Why would I want to go back now when I’ve already gone through this much shit to see him?”

“Because you’ve managed to make it this far alive,” replied Patrick seriously. “That’s worth four different trophies right there, if you can carry any of those back with you. I admire your stamina, I really do, but sometimes there are some problems that can’t be fixed with a letter to the manager. Especially if this manager would rather vaporize you than actually read your letter.”

“I’ll take my chances,” Frank said, as if he hadn’t been doing so already. Patrick chuckled, numbing the last affected patch of skin, “They always do.”

Louder, to the room, he announced: “I have an extra bed, and an extra room for that it sits in. Neither are aired, but hell, it’s not like you’re picky about much these days, huh?” He flashed a brilliant grin at Frank, “You’re welcome to it for the night. Bryar says you’ll be gone in the morning?”

“With no trace,” agreed Bob jovially, “and no hope of ever seeing us again.”

“Please, Bryar,” Patrick sighed, wounded, “Don’t make promises you can’t keep.”

Frank turned to Gerard, who had fallen asleep either minutes or hours ago, head lolling against the small table. “I guess we’ll take the room, then?”

Patrick waved an indifferent hand at him, already standing and hiding a yawn.
“Good. Follow me,” he paused to regard Gerard amusedly, “and bring your friend.”

(part three)

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