The sun beat down onto Nic's back as his feet shuffled through the dusty streets. He squinted his eyes against the glaring light, exasperated with the drops of sweat that kept rolling down his face, kept burning in his eyes. He was carrying a large box. It was filled to the brim with their belongings and the only box to be transported. As far as moving goes, that was a convenient side effect of living like nomads, but that didn't take away from the fact that that bitch was fucking heavy and Nic ran fucking hot in the sweltering heat.
Longingly, he thought of the little stash of Celebre in the left front pocket of his pants. Just enough to keep him moving throughout the day; if he took one now, he would sourly miss it later that evening. Monroe kept his leash sparkly-pink and pretty, but goddamn tight.
Nic huffed as he moved into the shade of the roofed entrance. The hallway was cool. A light breeze pulled at his hair, carrying the stench of sweat and hot stones and dry grass. Nic waited for the black blooms that were sprouting in front of his eyes to subside before he climbed the stairs to the first floor. Their new apartment was squeezed between two others, crammed and small. The bedroom was also the kitchen (and the living room, he supposed), but there was a narrow door leading to a tiny bath with ugly brown tiles and dirt crusted into every joint. It was quite the ascent from their days spent on the street, but much dirtier than how he had housed in Monroe's expansive estate.
Nic would not change it for the world.
He entered, disposed of the box next to the door, ran his bare arm across his sweaty face and then let his eyes wander to see if Worick had already made it here.
It was already past noon when Worick finally managed to drag his body out of bed and right into the shower, deliberately going ice-cold for a few seconds to wake up his system and cool down his heated skin. He was a little sluggish and exhausted from work and the ongoing, sweltering heat these days. Stepping out of the shower, he didn't bother to properly dry off, enjoying the slight cooling effect the left-over water droplets had on his skin. Getting dressed, it was a bit difficult to pull up his pants over his still wet legs. He shrugged into a loose shirt, leaving his front wide open, only tucking the shirt tail into his waistband and rolling the sleeves up to his elbows. The strings of his eyepatch snapped in place around his ears.
Recently Worick had been taking on more customers than usual, all for the extra money of course. And whatever those jealous men, who hadn't gotten their pricks wet in a while, might say about his job, it wasn't just all fun and fooling around. Worick's customers definitely knew how to wear him out, but they did pay well enough for it.
With Nic's payment from his work in Monroe's service, they had made enough money to finally move into their own little place now. Worick was just trying to build up a small cash cushion to fall back on should their financial situation change for whatever unforeseeable reasons.
There wasn't much that he could take with him from his room in the brothel. Most things stayed put since Worick would continue to spend a lot of time here still and not many items had any personal value to him anyways. Everything important was neatly packed away in a large box that Nic wanted to bring over to their new place today.
One box of their combined belongings. That was more than they had when they'd first arrived in Ergastulum.
Worick moved his sore ass, leaving the establishment for the day, though not without a scolding from Big Mama to take better care of himself and to not overdo it and brushing off the curious girls hanging on his arm, asking him why he was leaving so early today and where he was going.
Even without Nic at his side, Worick avoided taking the main streets today. The back alleys were more comfortable to take and led more easily to their new apartment. On his way, he stopped at a small shop to buy a new pack of cigarettes and two bottles of mineral water, foregoing the bottle of whiskey that had caught his gaze first. But it was probably wise not to get drunk the first minutes in their new place, especially not in this heat.
Walking up the stairs to their apartment, a little bounce in his step and humming a tuneless melody, the glass bottles clinked together with each movement. With their apartment door open, Worick cautiously peeked around the corner. He almost stumbled over the large box of their belongings right beside the entrance as his eye was focused on the person standing in the room. Nic must have just arrived shortly before him.
"Hey, I see you've already worked hard and brought our stuff over." He didn't pay attention if Nic had actually noticed him. Even if he had, he might not have read his lips, but it didn't matter, Worick always just kept talking normally to him.
Worick let his gaze wander over the compact little place. Small and dirty still, but nothing a good cleaning couldn't remedy at least a little.
He walked up to Nic, holding the big-bellied Perrier bottles up in his field of vision and offering him one with a grin.
Nic was looking out the sole window of their abode, conveniently placed in the middle of the outer wall in a straight line to the entrance. He was with the back to the room but knew someone had entered as the draught picked up a familiar scent. He felt the floorboards vibrate under heavy steps. He knew it was Worick before he turned to look for him. His after-shave always gave him away. As it often happened with Worick, who seemed to be talking constantly, Nic caught him mid-sentence: "... our stuff over."
A quick, searching glance told Nic that Worick was overworked and giddy with tiredness and excitement.
Now that Worick was here, Nic felt his shoulders relax. They had not seen much of each other these last couple of months, with Monroe keeping him busy and Worick working himself thin in the brothel. Their schedules rarely worked out in a way for them to spent much of their free time together and Nic did not like it, the way it felt they were living completely separate lives. Worick's grin was as radiant as ever but he looked gaunt and tired underneath. Nic resolved to spent the extra cash he had made on the job yesterday on take-out. The Indian restaurant on the corner looked promising. More expensive than the places they usually frequented, but it was a day to celebrate, wasn't it?
Their first apartment.
A few years back, they had dreamt of this day and not dared to hope for it to come true. It had seemed so far out of reach, so impossible. Now, they were standing at an open window, looking out on the graffitied wall of the neighboring apartment block a stone's throw away, and Nic felt content.
He took the offered bottle, eyes on Worick's lips, and clinked it against the other.
Cheers, he gestured with a big, wolfish grin of his own, and poured down two thirds of the water in a few big gulps. He hadn't realized how parched he was. He swiped his mouth with the back of his hand, placed the almost emptied bottle on the window sill, then gestured: I ran into Chad the other day. He says he has a few pieces of furniture to spare. No mattress, though.
Cheering to their new abode, the glass clinked together loudly. Nic's big grin had a feral note to it, but Worick liked it anyways. He took a few refreshing sips from his bottle and kept it in his hands, his thumb mindlessly wiping across the droplets of condensation on the outside of it, watching as Nic almost emptied his in one go.
When Nic started signing, Worick's eye went from that hand that had put the bottle on the window sill to his friend's face, like he would with anyone else he was talking to. Over time, Worick had noticed that he didn't have to keep looking at Nic's hand movements directly, he could still see and read them in his periphery while paying attention to Nic's expressions and overall body-language, even if most people said that the former didn't change much.
The sign language book from his father's personal library was still in their possession, beaten and burnt and a reminder of the past but still something like a little treasure. Of course it had not been enough to provide the extensive sign vocabulary that Nic and him had built up to over the years. Finding more books on that topic in Ergastulum had been quite the work but was ultimately worth it in the end. Now that he wasn't teaching it to Nic anymore, Worick didn't use sign language as much as back then, it was just too convenient that Nic could read lips as well as he did.
"Heh~, so the old man has some housewarming gifts for us, huh?" Worick chuckled to himself. Chad was still looking out for them, even if they weren't those lost boys anymore. Or maybe they still were in his eyes, who knew.
He directed his gaze out of the window and let it drop to the street below. Not much of a view with that adjacent wall but it gave a good sight over the alley and the street corners. Worick was glad that the sun didn't directly shine into their apartment. The bright reflection of it on the stones below was already hurting his tired eye. He pulled out of his thoughts and back into the shadowy room they were standing in.
Moving his wrist slightly, Worick let the water in his bottle slosh in a circular flow.
"I'll give him a call later," having their own phone would be useful as well, "and arrange something with him. Hope he'll be fine with driving those things over in his car, he can get prissy over that piece of junk. Don't worry, I'll help with carrying everything this time."
Worick turned around and looked over at the box of their belongings. There was no use in unpacking it now, they still had nothing to put everything away in. But they had only just gotten their keys. Over the next days things would slowly come together.
And Worick was glad that he finally got something else to do for a while and that he would get to see Nic more often as well now. Monroe surely knew how to keep Nic busy, making full use of his skills. It bothered Worick that he wasn't as involved anymore. Not that he had a need to be super controlling, but not seeing each other for days on end at times was somewhat unsettling. After sticking together for so many years and everything they had been through, it just didn't sit right with him. And he felt that Nic was also exuding some kind of quiet restlessness. He held a tension in his body that would only slightly relax whenever they'd meet for the short time they currently had for each other.
Worick took another sip of his bottle.
"No mattress, huh..."
In their quiet celebration of their new place, Worick's mind kept filling with old memories so much he was a bit absent-minded, spacing out for a few seconds as his brain had trouble staying in the here and now. It was all a bit overwhelming.
"Mhm? Oh, I'll talk to the guys from the junkyard, maybe they have a tip for me. We'll get it real homely in here in no time!"
He flashed Nic another one of his cheeky, bright smiles, genuinely looking forward to making this their own little place, no matter how mundane.
Chad Adkins had approached Nic amidst the glaring blue lights of police horn's swiveling like nervous, overgrown fireflies in the semi-darkness. The crime scene, at that point, was being wrapped up by faceless police officers like a neat package, much like the three corpses packed in black bags like perverse birthday presents. A splatter of blood had crusted against Nic's jawline, unbeknownst to him in this moment. It had come from the arterial spray of one of his victims, a low-grade Twilight.
"I hear you're moving out of that house", Chad had said in lieu of a greeting. He meant Danny Monroe's mansion. The conversation had been brief and absurdly cordial, as if they had met in a café or a park and not on the edges of a crime scene caused by Nic and two assisting Monroe thugs. It had been hard to read the police officer's lips in the flimsy light. "I'm glad you're turning a new leaf", Chad had said. Nic had offered a grunt in response. He liked Chad. Liked him for his unobtrusive way to reach out a hand to them, for his pragmatism, for his knowledge of the streets, even for his grumpy, somewhat awkward grandfatherly manner. Most of all, though, he liked him because he saw things for how they really were: "I suppose you're moving in with Worick, aren't you? Good thing, too. A brothel is no place for anyone to live."
Nic agreed fiercely with the sentiment. But all he signed was: Neither are the streets.
Now, two days later and with the satisfying slosh of a stomach full of water, Nic felt the same surge of protectiveness rise as he watched Worick speak. The light stubble around his chin was familiar but bleached by sun, as was the hair framing his face. His skin looked slightly tanned, too. The last time Nic had gotten a good look at Worick felt like an eternity ago; it had been the beginning of summer. In the sweltering heat, Nic suddenly realized how little time they had spent together. How little he really knew of Worick's day-to-day troubles.
He let Worick talk, and wondered if he really was alright.
I can sleep on the floor, Nic signed at Worick's suggestion. Nic saw no need for Worick to go out of his way for his sake. Nic could sleep most everywhere, and even if he had learned by now that a bed and warm water out of a tap had its undeniable merits, he also understood that such a life was not meant for a Twilight like him. However, he wanted Worick to feel comfortable. He was used to a very different lifestyle, and Nic suspected he missed at least the security of a space that was all his own to decorate, to inhabit. A safe haven, the way his bedroom had been in his childhood home.
Nic remained stoic in face of that next smile, but it settled something in him, a nagging worry in the pit of his stomach. He signed: No girls, though. This is our space.
Worick waved off Nic's simple solution that he could just sleep on the floor with a flourishing hand. He knew that Nic could survive on the bare essentials but this was going to be their home. They were supposed to live there not merely exist. And it irked him that Nic was so fast to forego his own comforts for his sake. Nic wasn't a dog that could sleep on the hard ground, he was going to get a goddamn bed, if he wanted to or not.
But there was no use in becoming angry over it, it wouldn't get through to Nic, so Worick just stayed in his cheerful, playful persona.
"No, no, no. You'll drool all over the floor and then I'll slip on your slobber and break my neck. We'll get us some beds or at least one bed and a pull-out sofa. I'll probably sleep better on a sofa anyways."
Worick liked to tease and banter, it kept the mood up and forced himself to stay relaxed. When he was young, he had gotten easily frustrated with handling Nic at times, not quite yet understanding how his mind worked. Some things were still frustrating to this day and he'd probably never completely understand what was going on behind that thick skull of his, but Worick had learnt a few things over the years. Just annoy and outplay him.
"Well, for the first night we'll both have no choice but to sleep on the floor I guess....," he mumbled to himself, noticing the flaw in his own thoughts and line of argumentation. He'd definitely have to borrow some cleaning utensils from their new neighbours to get the dirt out of the way. Considering all the places they had spent their nights before when they first arrived in Ergastulum, even a dirty little apartment like this was a luxury.
Worick blinked at Nic's signed first house rule in slight surprise, then snorted and burst into laughter.
"What? Already setting up rules like that? We don't even have anything a lady could sit comfortably on, well, maybe the box would do...," he nodded over to their belongings, wiping a stray tear of laughter out of the corner of his healthy eye.
It was a bit amusing how seriously Nic glared at him over his joking. He had to really mean it. Worick couldn't blame him, Nic probably hated his work as a gigolo a lot. Like everything else, he still remembered clearly the day when he first came back with trembling hands, clutching those bills in nervous excitement over having found a way to make some quick money. Worick's brain conjured up such a clear picture of young Nic's expression, when it first dawned on him what method he had used to gain that money, it was easy to tell that he'd most likely been very disgusted by it ever since. Granted, at age 14 Worick had been a stupidly cheap lay in a dangerous territory. Ah, sweet memories, heh.
"Alright, alright, deal. But don't regret it when you're gonna find yourself a hot chick!"
While Nic wasn't exactly as emotionless as people usually thought upon their first impression of him, no matter how much Nic had warmed up to someone, he had never shown much of that kind of interest in someone. Probably another thing he wouldn't let himself have for whatever stupid reason. Not that Worick was one to talk in that regard, while he was very flirtatious and experienced, with women and men alike, he preferred to keep people at an arm's length. It was rare for him to let anyone close enough to try something serious and it was doomed to fail anyway, thanks to the nature of his job alone.
It didn't matter. What mattered was that Nic was already putting up rules to protect their empty, dirty, little abode from outsiders. Worick couldn't deny that the sentiment made him a little happy.
Nic rolled his eyes hard at Worick's mocking statement, mostly for his benefit. If one of us drools in his sleep, it's you, he informed him. Nic didn't know if he himself drooled or snored or not -- most nights, he fell into the sack like a fallen tree and slept like a stone, until he didn't -- but he had thousands of memories of Worick tapping on bare feet in one of the dozen squats they had crashed in for the night, scratching his stomach, his hair a nest at the back of his head, dried salvia sticking to his chin, or cheek. He had not known he had missed that view until now.
He didn't quite believe that Worick, of all people, would sleep better on a sofa. Unbidden, the picture of his childhood bedroom came to Nic's inner eye. He had few vivid memories, but this was one of them: A long hallway, floral scents, sterile scents, everything mahogany. A thick door, larger than Nic had ever seen in any kind of house, so richly ornamented it seemed like a waste to him. The feeling of confusion about the lavishness of it all. The door swinging open, revealing an inconceivably large room with an equally large, downy, majestic bed. And on it, his new master, golden-locked, nose scrunched up, haughty and rebellious.
At Worick's sudden outburst, annoyance surged, covering up the anxiety underneath. He didn't think it too much to ask. The place was small enough to make any third party a nuisance quickly enough.
The women you keep around aren't exactly ladies, Nic thought but didn't communicate it. He felt a twinge of disgust at the thought and didn't quite realize that in truth, the sensation of a heavy stone in his stomach was guilt. Nic never liked what Worick had to do to keep them above water -- not the way he had to do it in the early years. It had done something to him, Nic knew, an irreversible damage that Nic, like so many other things, couldn't repay. He took a last swig of water, shrugged his shoulders mulishly, and reiterated: No girls.
Apart from the fact that it was next to impossible that any girl would be willing to go anywhere with a Twilight like him, Nic didn't care much for the thought of one of Worick's lady friends to snoop around their new place.
As he went over to the single box of their belongings, he realized he was about to sour the mood. He didn't want that. He pulled out a brand-new woolen blanket, soft and expensive. It had a rich plum color and the initials D. M. in slanted lettering prominently stitched into one of the corners. Snatched it from my room, he signed with a grin, then threw the blanket in a way it would land over Worick's head if not caught first.
"FoR YoU", Nic said.
The few syllables wrapped around his tongue uncomfortably, but with Worick, he knew he didn't have to be ashamed for the way the spoke.
Worick watched as Nic guzzled down what was left of the water in his bottle, unbothered by the carbonation tickling down his throat. Whenever Worick swallowed carbonated drinks quickly, the fizz was building up in his throat to an almost painful degree and it was giving him heartburn. Maybe that was why he had started swirling his water, to let some of the carbon dioxide gas escape before he'd have another sip.
No girls. Nic had made his standpoint clear and Worick refrained from teasing him over it some more. He didn't want to end up completely pissing off his friend in earnest. Instead he followed Nic's movement towards the box of their belongings, curious to see what he was looking for now. Apparently something he had nicked from the mansion?
Worick didn't have a real chance to see what Nic had pulled out of the box before it was tossed to him, since from his position, closer by the bright window, the part of the room where Nic was standing was comparatively darker. His blue eye was trying to identify what looked like some kind of fabric in motion. It unfolded during its flight and Worick awkwardly tried to catch it with his free hand, his other one still holding the Perrier bottle. He managed to grab one part of the super soft material while the rest of it gently fluttered down on him, wrapped around his head and shoulders.
His vision wasn't completely black under the blanket, the backlight from the window behind him gave it a slight glow, tinting everything into a rich violett. Nic's distinct voice reached Worick's ears, proclaiming it a gift for him. In that heat the air under the cover was quickly growing stale and uncomfortable, especially under wool. Worick tugged at the fabric in his grip and pulled it off his head. As the blanket slid from his hair, the minimal friction was already enough to build up some static charge and pulled his hair in all kinds of directions. The static crackling was audible, at least to him, and Worick shuddered and shook his head like a wet poodle to get rid of the tickling sensation.
Over time Worick had decided to let his hair grow out for no particular reason. It was currently a little longer than shoulder length and he had considered cutting it again once summer had started, against the protest of some of his clients when he had told them. With his hair all electrically charged and tickling, the prospect of cutting it all shorter again was beginning to look like a more and more attractive plan by the second.
Worick leaned down to put the bottle on the ground and to finally free his hand that he immediately used to comb through his platinum blond strands in an attempt to tame them back into their initial position. He then shook out the blanket, it looked brand new and unused, and folded it back into a neat square.
"You little thief." He grinned and let his hand stroke over the soft material once more. "Thanks!"
Once again Nic had selflessly done something for Worick's benefit, only thinking about his friend's comforts and not his own. Sure, during the day a sweltering heat was pressing down on Ergastulum in summer but at night it could cool down significantly, when certain meteorological conditions were met. A blanket like this would come in handy and provide ample comfort.
Worick didn't feel like scolding Nic for it. He picked his battles more carefully. It didn't hurt to show his gratitude every once in a while either. And telling Nic to be a little more selfish was like talking to a wall. The only thing Nic was greedy and selfish with were the fights he was living for. And yet even there he showed an astonishing and worrying lack of concern for his own safety and health.
Also, they didn't really have the need to steal things anymore now with both of them earning money, but old habits died hard and Worick didn't think that anyone in the Monroe family would notice a missing blanket. And even if, it wouldn't be a big deal.
They had a pretty good standing with Daniel Monroe and his underlings so far, even enjoying his favour to some degree. And still, there was something about stealing from the mafia family that you worked for that was so beyond daring, it was outright stupid. So stupid that Worick hadn't heard of this kind of betrayal before, at least not over a plain blanket - as high quality as it was. Drugs, weapons, other goods, information, anything else worthwhile, sure, but a blanket was a first. He really hoped that Monroe would take it with humour, should he ever find out about it. Worick liked and respected him a lot and he had been good to Nic and him so far, but Gunslinger Danny wasn't feared for being a philantropist, that much was clear.
Worick walked up to where Nic was still standing by the box and carefully stored the blanket in it again. He didn't want to let it drop on the dirty floor. Walking back to pick up the bottle he had deserted before, he threw his head back and drank the rest of the water in three big gulps before setting it next to Nic's empty, discarded bottle.
Turning back to Nic, Worick made sure he had his attention before he spoke.
"Did you already have lunch? I could use something to bite before I'll turn this place into a spotless, sparkling sight!" There were definitely some stains in this apartment that he'd never get rid of but that wasn't on Worick's mind right now. He was determined to clean the place up before nightfall to the best of his abilities.
Nic watched Worick's brief struggle with the blanket with something akin to fascination. A graceless, one-handed attempt to catch the thing, then a velvet ghost in the middle of their living room slash kitchen slash bedroom, then the pull of hair, for a moment straight up towards the obviously electrically charged material, then hair everywhere, golden strands flying every which way and Nic burst out laughing. It was a rough sound, somewhere between a dog's bark and an old man's hacking cough. It was untrained, unfiltered, and absolutely genuine.
Elation, as the unfamiliar joy coursed through him. For once it was not subsidized by chemicals. A flash picture of the stash of three pills in his left front pocket, there and gone. The temptation stayed.
Nic watched while Worick sorted out his hair until he seemed content with its state. Nic didn't mention that a strand of it had twisted and was sticking up from behind his ear in an awkward angle. It looked strangely endearing. Worick's occasional vanities had astounded and fascinated Nic when they first met. He knew a time when his own mirror image had been nothing to him, unassociated to the person inhabiting this apt, lithe body that meant nothing to him, that was trained to kill and nothing more. A body separated from the self; or maybe merged with it so completely that they were one and the same. In any case, Nic did not care (much) for his own appearance, even if he got the feeling that he had grown more accustomed to the notion of representing something, projecting a certain image. He had learned that from Worick, knew he was doing it with the way he wore his hair -- longer than he used too -- the way he kept his shirts unbuttoned, even the way he smiled, wide and all-encompassing. Worick wanted to project a carefree attitude that Nic knew to be entirely fake most of the time. Nic wanted to project strength, to keep the monsters away. Also a fluke, most of the time.
You're welcome, Nic signed without remorse. Danny Monroe could spare a blanket. He lived so extraordinarily extravagant in that baroque mansion of his: in a city like Ergastulum a provocation in itself. A statement of power, a might that was gained with more than money. It was bought with violence, and Nic was doing a not insignificant amount of it for Monroe. Nic felt he had earned the right to snatch an item that was so unimportant to Monroe, and so useful to them. Use it as a bed tonight, he suggested, 'till we get you a sofa.
He had not told Worick yet how Monroe had reacted when Nic told him about his plans to move out of the mansion. He watched Worick's adam's apple pop as he took a few more deep swigs of water. The heat was building quickly in the small space of their apartment. A beat of sweat was running down Nic's neck. Monroe's eyes had been piercing, his hands big, elegantly manicured and calm on the surface of his writing desk. The large window in his back, and beyond, an endless stretch of supple green lawn that was heavy with dew each morning when Nic crossed it on his way back from the city. The gardeners didn't like Nic crossing the lawn. The gardeners were too afraid of him to say anything. Sometimes, Monroe chided him about it, like an obstinate child.
It had been more than a chiding this time. Nic had not heard a word of the tirade, of course, but he had watched the spit fly out of the man's mouth and wondered, idly, if he would be giving himself a stroke if he continued on any longer.
He knew he had to tell Worick eventually. Monroe had let him go after a while, shaking his hand, even, but Worick needed to know these things. The disgruntlement of one of Ergastulum's most dangerous man was rather high on that particular list.
The day was too sweet, though; he decided to put it off once more.
I believe it when I see it, Nic signed. He stepped into the hallway. The draft was cool against his heated, sweaty skin. He was already thirsty again. Curry?
The place down the corner was a mere two minute walk away from their apartment door. It was so small that people had to wait in line outside the restaurant. It fit only two or three people at one time, and after they ordered, they were shooed outside to eat. The lucky ones managed to grab one of the few spots on a moldy bench situated in the shadow of the building. Others found themselves on doorsteps or on the ground. A scent of spices and rice was wafting through the whole street, and Nic's stomach grumbled. He patted it, fished for a few crumpled bills in his back pocket and waved it under Worick's face. I'll buy. Don't get greedy.
"Hey, I'll have you marvel at my cleaning skills!" Worick shouted after Nic and followed him towards their entrance.
"Curry sounds great," he easily accepted the proposal with another grin and a lick of his tongue over his lips in anticipation of a good meal. He instantly knew which place Nic must have had in mind. There was a nice little Indian restaurant right on the corner of their street. They had talked about wanting to try it out one day when they had still been checking housing in this district and had gotten lucky. During opening hours the place was well visited, which spoke for the food they served, even if the seating space was limited. The prices were a little above their usual budget but they could allow themselves a treat to mark the occasion.
Worick pulled the door closed behind him and locked it with his key. If any thug wanted to, they would still easily be able to break in, but Worick did not want to let it be an open invitation. They weren't a worthwhile target anyways. They had hardly any valuables.
Not even two steps away from the door, he fished out his freshly bought pack of cigarettes and shook out a smoke, putting it in his mouth while he was patting down his pockets in search of his lighter. It had slid inbetween the wad of cash in his right pocket, his share of the money he'd made the last couple of days that he had let them immediately pay out to him.
With a quick flick of his thumb the lighter produced a small flame. Worick lit his cigarette and immediately took a deep drag, before slowly blowing out a thin line of plume. He sighed with relief as his fix of nicotine finally took off some of the lingering edge. The cigarette smoke was quite pervasive but it did not manage to cover the delicious smell of food that was getting stronger around them with each step.
Nic's growling stomach was so loud, it made Worick snicker with amusement. If only he could hear what his obvious hunger sounded like.
Worick looked at the bills that were shoved in his face and read Nic's accompanying message. He plucked the smoke from his lips to tap off the ash.
"Heh~, you are a weird blend of a Sugar Daddy and cheap pimp." He stuck the cigarette back between his lips, right to one of the upturned corners of his mouth. It would be easier for Nic to read his lips when the smoke didn't stick out of his mouth like the butt of a lolipop when he talked to him. Although it seemed as if Nic was able to understand him well enough either way. Well, Worick had been smoking ever since they'd first met, it should be a given that Nic had gotten used to that prop in his mouth quickly.
Patting his firm belly, Worick frowned down at the bare part of his torso with a belated realization.
"Wait, are you saying I eat too much? Don't tell me you think I am getting fat!" he exlaimed in mock horror. Worick might be having a little too much fun with teasing Nic today but he was really enjoying the change of pace and finally being able to spend some time with Nic again. He had been aware that the situation was bothering him for a while but he only just now realized the full brunt of it and how much he had missed Nic at his side. It was relaxing to be able to joke around in his comfortable company. He had been filled with delight to have made Nic laugh like he had back in their apartment. It was too rare a sight and sound and it was precious to Worick. It filled him with a kind of peace he couldn't otherwise achieve and an ache in his heart he still didn't try to understand.
When they joined the queue, he asked what Nic wanted to eat and drink, pointing to the big menu overhead, and then ordered for the both of them when it was their turn. He chose a cold beer and the korma curry for himself, after a long time of an inner debate where the dhansak and saag curries had both been runner ups for the pole position as well. He decided he'd take the well-spiced but not too hot dish in the end, since he did not want to end up sweating even more in this heat.
As agreed, Worick let Nic pay for their food. In the end it didn't matter who of them paid for it, since both their earnings landed in the same money pool for their joined household. He thanked Nic anyways, leaning in close towards him, fluttering the eyelashes of his good eye at him and whispering quiet and low, "thanks Daddy." He knew that the effort of his sultry sounding voice was wasted on Nic but when he played a role he went all or nothing. Worick topped it off with an exaggerated wink, which was a bit hard to pull off with only one visible, functioning eye but he thought he had managed well enough and lastly stuck out his tongue in a childishly cheeky manner. Whatever kind of punishment he had to take from Nic, he was sure it had been worth it.
Maybe he was a little too drunk on this small taste of freedom, unlasting as it was. Right now, Worick didn't care how foolish he was. He greedily wanted to enjoy these little moments.
When their order was called, Worick quickly collected it, looking around searchingly for a place for them to eat and drink.
An eternity ago, at the tender age of twelve and wet as can be behind the ears, he met a blonde boy with a cigarette sticking out of his mouth. Bluish-gray smoke spiraled into the air over the boy's head and out of sight. The smell of nicotine, fresh or stale, was a constant around this boy. Nobody seemed to mind this child with its favorite blend of cigarettes, and for a long time, Nic had thought nothing of it. It had been months until he understood this treatment as just another part of the neglect that surrounded his young master like a swarm of invisible flies.
Nic had known cruelty as a literal kick in the butt: the cap of a heavy boot aimed at his ass but connecting with his upper thigh, yanking his leg from under him as he walked away from a table, the metal bowl connecting with the floor and spilling the meager portion of stew all over, the laughter of the troop a mute pantomime in the corner of his eye. Humiliation and anger turning the tips of his too large ears red, provoking another bout of shrill laughter, all of it silent to Nic who just saw their faces turn into bizarre grimaces of foul merriment.
Only when he met the Arcangelo family had he understood the subtler signs cruelty could take. A face, directed towards you but with eyes turned away when you spoke. A well-fed, well-dressed, well-educated child in a golden cage, smothered by passivity. The people that were supposed to love the child, petrified by their vile selfishness.
A smoldering cigarette sticking out from a smooth face that had not grown out of its baby fat too long ago.
Now, the smell of Pall Mall was so ingrained in Nic's memory, he sometimes thought it to linger around him even in the dead of the night, when he roamed the streets of Ergastulum on Danny Monroe's behalf.
Worick was very talkative today. Nic, who was used to it, decided to humor him and kept half his attention on his companion. It was as subtle as a gaze out the corner of his eye to read Worick's face, gestures and lips: this triangle of Worick that filled Nic's world from the day they met.
Did you just call me cheap? Nic asked, deadpan. His eyes followed the way of Worick's hand. Loose fabric tightened around firm muscles as he patted his stomach. Nic's eyes flicked up again, frowning. You're too vain to get fat, even if I offered to buy you all the curry in Ergastulum. A pause, then a clarification (just to make sure): Which I don't.
Worick seemed preoccupied with his choice of food; Nic didn't bother to read the menu. He had the same as Worick for convenience's sake. He liked rice because it was plain and filling. As Nic was grabbing for a can of beer from the refrigerator, Worick's head popped into his field of vision from a dead angle: cigarette breath and a wrinkle in the corner of his mouth, witness of dry humor and crude jokes and a smile tilted to one side when it turned wry. Nic's face tingled with sudden disgust at the look on Worick's face, at the words formed on the familiar pair of lips. Without a thought, he planted the palm of his hand, fingers spread, in Worick's mock-seductive face to shove him away.
Nic knew Worick meant it as a joke, but he could not shake the picture of him, speaking like this to his customers.
Nic hated these kinds of affectations in Worick.
Nic was afraid that one day, Worick would have unlearned the sincerity he had known as a child, when he looked at Nic from across a table with both eyes intact, incredulous about Nic's ignorance, frustrated by their inaptitude to communicate, eager to connect.
To Nic, his bond with Worick meant everything.
Without it, he was nothing more than a machine poised to kill.
(With it, he was just that anyways.)
(The stink of copper in his nostrils as he poises the sword; two dead bodies in too small a space. The stepmother and the half-brother; the father deserved even worse.)
Once their order came and they settled on a flight of stairs leading to an alleyway to the east part of Ergastulum, Nic took to his food as if he hadn't had any in days, ignoring the slight nausea the images in his head produced. Since he could think back, he had felt on edge while eating, a vulnerability instilled in him by a mercenary life. Even a decade later, the shortly cropped hair in the back of his neck bristled with anticipation of a blow, or of someone trying to snatch his food away. Large gulps of beer washed down the barely chewed chunks of meat and rice. He thought of the Celebre pills in his pocket again.
Too many thoughts in his head.
He risked a look at Worick, whom he had blanked out for the few minutes he had been eating. The sun stood low in the sky, would vanish behind a line of buildings any minute now. Worick's skin glowed in the dimming light. For the hundredth time, Nic wished he could stop Worick from working himself to pieces for Big Mama. He got up and went to buy them more beer. He held the can out to Worick like a peace offering of a fight they had not fought, that was going on nowhere but his own mind.
Worick had followed Nic to the flight of stairs they settled on to have their meal, watching for a minute as the other started to shovel the food into his mouth as if he was starving, barely chewing before swallowing everything. At least the times where Nic had been waiting for his permission to start eating were long gone now but it had taken the form of an order from Worick to kill that habit. To this day, he wasn't sure if that had been a good thing. He hadn't even planned it.
One day Worick had just been so fed up with his lack of progress with Nic, coming home to his friend waiting obediently for him, not having touched his meager food at all despite a loudly growling stomach. He had tried to teach him to unlearn that behaviour so hard but while Nic had been quicker on the uptake with anything else, like sign language, he always gave him that look when Worick tried to make him behave humanly, like it was all pointless play pretend. It had then just slipped out of his mouth, the order to take care of his bodily needs and to eat whenever he felt hungry. It hadn't been the first nor the last time he had issued Nic an order and yet it always made Worick feel sick to his bones.
The hypocrisy of being the master of your friend, whom you were ordering to be your equal.
In a world that only ever saw him as a tool.
Worick took his eyes off of Nic's crude eating habits to focus on his own meal, going considerably slower than his friend. He wasn't bothered by the chewing sounds that Nic was making, unaware of them himself. Other people might have considered them gross but to Worick it was another thing he had been missing, since they hadn't had the chance to have many meals together lately. And this lively way of eating comfortably together on a flight of stairs under the open sky was much more preferable to the memories of that long dining table in the cold and sterile dining room with maids and waiters standing aside to rush to their master's every need and whim at the snap of a finger.
Yes, Worick too knew the feeling of having to wait for permission to put his hands on the cutlery on the exuberantly set table, much less start eating before the master of the house had declared the dinner served. As the worthless, bastard son of the household, every tiny, perceivable breach of etiquette had entailed severe punishment in his room afterwards.
Every little detail of those extravagant meals and their artful presentations Worick could recall, but his memories of the flavours were just one big, dull ball of fear. The taste of blood on his tongue a much more frequent and prominent recollection.
The curry was delicious. A rich flavour from an even richer culture. And a cold beer to accompany that savory taste and to quench the thirst the bright sun was causing even on its slow decent to the horizon as the time ticked by.
Worick kept stealing glances at Nic while eating, until he finished first and stood up to walk back to the restaurant. He had a feeling that some of the vigour with which Nic had finished his meal had come from anger. The look on Nic's face when he had shoved him away after his stupid joke had clearly been one of disgust.
Yeah ok, maybe a 'daddy' joke might not have been the most tasteful of jests, even without the sexual connotation. Not that either Nic nor Worick had ever associated that word with a real parent. 'Captain', 'Sir', 'Father' had not been the most intimate ways to address your sire. In a way, it was no wonder that such a kink had come into existence at some point. Too many people deprived of parental love were looking for a substitute for it in their sexual encounters. Why not make it funny, quirky and playful while you were at it? There were far worse deprivations at play in this particular business.
And still, Worick did not feel too bad about going a little overboard with his stupid joke. If Nic had been disgusted by his behaviour and angry at it, then it was even good in a way. Worick did not really want to upset Nic but those were normal reactions. Human reactions and feelings. That was satisfaction enough.
Worick's first impression of Nic back all those years ago had been of something closer to an animal than a thing, still decidedly unhuman though. And he hadn't even been aware of him being a Twilight yet. He should have known better than to believe in the separation between monsters and humans. He had seen it in his father all along.
When he had bought Nic from his own abusive father, it had been with good intentions but it had turned Worick into the monster in Nic's eyes. No wonder he had returned the favour later on. Those hands that had slaughtered the Arcangelo family and staff had been those of a thirteen year old kid. The same ones that had so clumsily traced and copied the letters that Worick had tought him, the same ones that had pantomimed the signs from a book, a new form of communication. Small hands that had held those playing cards, winning with more than just beginner's luck. A kid's fingers not hesitating to end its own life or to gouge out a friend's mutilated eye.
When Nic had pressed his hand in Worick's face to push him away after his tasteless joke, Worick had been aware that that hand could have easily crushed his skull. It possessed a strength far beyond what was considered 'normal'. But he also knew that Nic would not have done something like that to him. Not only because the three laws were in effect. He was sure he wouldn't have done it either way but it would be nice to actually let him have that choice for real.
Pulled out of his thoughts, Worick looked up at the returning Nic and the freshly offered can of beer he apparently had bought them as a second round. He accepted it with a genuine but more muted smile and a short nod this time, actually signing a quick thanks to Nic. It didn't take long for him to finish his last few bites afterwards. Worick leaned back on the stairs and sipped his second drink a little slower than the first one, stomach filled and satisfied, he smacked his lips with obvious enjoyment.
His sole blue eye was looking up into the sky, watching a lone, thin cloud slowly dissipate. It would still be a while until the actual sunset but the glowing orb was starting to creep behind the city skyline, plunging Ergastulum into more shadowy darkness.
Worick sat up and leaned forward, arms loosely propped up on his knees, wrists crossed and the can of beer dangling from his fingers. He looked at Nic but didn't say anything. They should use the remaining daylight to get the cleaning and other stuff done but Worick did not want to move from this spot just yet. He dragged it out a little longer but as soon as he had sipped the last drop of his beer, Worick stood up and cracked his bones in a long stretch.
He cleared the staircase of their garbage, trowing it into a nearby trash can.
"Do you still have enough money left? You could buy us some food for the next days while I clean up," he asked, fishing for his own bills to add to Nic's stash.
It was decidedly not an order. But they could use some food for at home, even if it had to be non-perishable items since they still didn't own a lot, including a refrigerator. Some bread, maybe some dried meat, fruit, some water. The usual.
Worick wouldn't mind having Nic around while he was cleaning but their place was so small he would just be in the way most of the time. This was a job for one. As was the grocery shopping.
When it was over, Nic walked away from the scene with the ache of a pulled muscle in his right thigh and some superficial scratches on his left cheek where the set of nails had caught him. He was leaving a tiny trail of blood like breadcrumbs on the unpaved street, invisible in the faint light of the few street lamps. It dripped from the tip of his katana in a slow, unsteady rhythm. The moon was full, though, and when he emerged from the back streets onto the plaza that lead out of the southern district of Ergastulum, the blood that covered not only his blade but also his bare arms and neck was black in the ethereal light.
He was accompanied by the scent of copper and a steady, unnerving hum in his ears. Three pills were not enough to overdose, and now that the effect of them wore off, he craved more to prolong the intriguing buzz of carelessness that went along with them. He would not crash hard, but he would suffer a headache that would keep pounding against his temples until he got the next dose.
Tomorrow, he thought, longingly.
Worick had instilled enough pride in him, it seemed, that Nic now hated how he depended on Monroe for his Celebre, especially when he was like this. How he would crawl to him like one of the many famished mongrels roaming the city streets, his ribs showing, begging for food and drooling around the chaps at the mere thought of his next hit. How he would do his utmost not to show his need, keeping his spine straight and his face blank, and how they both knew the truth, anyway.
Sometimes Nic wished Worick hadn't taught him some of his lessons. Because the flip side of self-esteem was self-loathing, and it was an ugly feeling, full of shame.
Was that what it felt like being a human?
Nic turned the street corner, and redirected his thoughts. They had ganged up on him unexpectedly, naively, in a back alley a few blocks from the store. By then, the sun was long gone from the sky and the air was humid, boding signs of a summer rain. The rain never came, but the air was heavy with moisture and made it hard to breathe. Nic cut through it nimbly, as sharp as the sword he was wielding, and killed three of them on the spot.
He must have hit an artery as he went for the blonde thug's jugular, because the spray of blood was hot on his skin, and pulled him out of his thoughtless movements at least long enough to notice. The guns aimed at him fell clattering to the ground as he hacked off hands with swift motions, and they seemed surprised by his lack of hesitation, this assertiveness to kill. He did not know why they wanted him of all people, and did not care to think on it -- not when he reveled in the sensation of three Celebre dissolving in his stomach, pulsing through his bloodstream like life itself.
It was all-encompassing, this ability to move like someone's shadow, and when the three low-grade thugs were down and only the woman remained, engaging him with surprising strength for her stature, meeting him in skill and speed like few other's had managed for quite some time, he forgot the world around him.
The fight had taken him across the city, on rooftops and balconies and bridges, and the way back was long and wearing. When he reached the apartment, finally, hours upon hours must have passed since dinner and their goodbye, and Nic suddenly realized Worick's words, as if they had been spoken a long time ago: "You could buy us some food for the next days while I clean up."
He had felt guilty taking Worick's money, as he always did, but he also was glad for the chore because those little missions gave him a sense of validation he otherwise, oftentimes, lacked. It enabled him to contribute to the little pack that was them, undefined and strange as it often was.
The realization struck him, therefore, all the harder: He had dropped the bag of groceries on the spot where they had attacked him, and had not thought about it until now.
Selfishly absorbed in the thrill of a fight.
The hard-earned money Worick had given him gone now, along with two loafs of bread, a bit of butter they would have kept on the window sill until morning, a few glass bottles of Perrier, peaches and grapes that were extravagantly expensive for their small budget.
It sucked the last life out of him, and his arms fell to his sides, the handle of the sword slipping through his fingers and hitting the floor with a loud clatter he did not hear. He stood in front of their door, frozen with shame -- this feeling that left him feeling extraordinarily human, for once, while at the same time made him wish not to be human at all.
As soon as Nic had left to do his task, Worick didn't waste any time to walk the short way back to their new abode. He wanted to make use of the last bit of daylight lingering in the sky before it completely dimmed to darkness.
Equipped with a bucket and mop - graciously borrowed from a friendly old lady in their neighbourhood, who might be a bit too trusting of the new 'young' residents in her street - there wasn't much else to do in preparation of his cleaning endeavor. Bucket filled with hot water and a bit of soap, Worick used an old rag to swipe the window clean first. By account of it being the only one in their new apartment, this was finished fast even with Worick taking time to polish away any streaks on the glass.
The floor was also generally easy to clean with no furniture in the way to be moved yet, but Worick had to scrub a little harder at some more persistent stains of which he couldn't even eliminate all completely. It was still way better than before and for such a small place it had still managed to accumulate so much dirt that Worick already had had to change the water twice.
Too soon the last rays of daylight were gone, especially with only one window to let it in in the first place and with opposite buildings blocking a lot of it too. A bare light bulb hanging on a cable from the ceiling provided the light that the setting sun couldn't deliver anymore.
On contrast, the harsh neon light in the tiny bathroom definitely wasn't made for sore eyes and it did not compliment the look of the brown tiles at all but the crusted dirt between them ironically did. Worick sighed before mentally hyping himself up for the last and probably most disgusting looking part of their apartment. The bathroom was a place for hygiene and should look that part in Worick's humble opinion.
His previous boast of turning this place into a sparkling, pretty home might have been a bit of an exaggerated utopia, but Worick wasn't someone who'd shy away from a challenge. He might not be able to get rid of each and every stain on the floor and walls but the parts he had already finished looked way better than before.
As it turned out, the bathroom was a worthy opponent, taking more time to clean than the rest of the apartment had so far. Worick completely lost himself in the mindless task of aggressively scrubbing between the tiles. There just was no way of winning completely, so when Worick was finally sick of staring at those ugly brown tiles and now slightly lesser brown seams, he called it quits and still counted it as his win just out of spite.
A quick look at his watch surprised Worick a bit. Quite some time had passed by now and Nic had yet to return from the grocery shopping, he noticed. Just to make sure he hadn't overheard Nic's return during his frenzied cleaning mania in the bathroom, Worick checked their living room slash kitchen slash bedroom but there was no hidden roommate to be spotted.
Leaving the cleaning supplies to be put away in a few minutes, Worick took his cigarette pack and stepped outside of their apartment to get some fresh air and check their surroundings inconspicuously. Even with the sun gone and darkness covering the sky, the humidity was unrelenting. Worick tapped a smoke out of his pack and put it between his lips. He leaned back against the house wall and let his eye drive over the little backstreet, scanning all the dark nooks and crannies the street light didn't reach.
Apart from the click of his zippo and the usual nighttime noise filtering through from the main street and spots of nightly activity, this little corner in their alley remained quiet and deserted. He casually kept observing his environment until he had smoked the cig down to its butt, flicking it away as he turned around to return back inside since there wasn't anything catching his attention. Even if Worick wasn't overly worried - if anyone could take care of himself it was Nic - his gut feeling told him to stay alert, since it still was quite unusual for Nic to take so long.
Inside, there wasn't much left to do. Worick placed the borrowed mop and bucket into one of the empty corners and hung the used rags over the edge of the sink to dry. Then he sat down on the floor besides their box of belongings and waited.
Playing the waiting game with no distractions and while slightly on edge was a challenge in itself with that busy brain of his. Worick's mind had proven very useful countless times before but it was as much a curse as it was a blessing, if not more so actually. He tried to keep his thoughts blank, tried not to let one image conjure up another and another in an endless chain of weird correlations. But the more he wanted to avoid the past and for him never-distant memories, the stronger they came back to the forefront.
Tired, he closed his eye, leaning his head back until it made contact with the wall he was sitting against. The way to the grocery store wasn't that long. How much time had passed since their parting? Worick walked the way in his mind, sticking to the labyrinth of back alleys they were so used to in this city that scorned certain kind of people on their main roads. There were a couple of spots where Nic could have bumped into an acquaintance, but he wasn't one for longer talks and neither were others around Nic when Worick wasn't at his side.
Could he have been picked up by someone from the Monroe family? But it was his time off and Monroe usually respected such agreements unless something urgent had occured. They knew a lot of people, friendly and not so friendly alike and often both depending on their mood and how beneficial an interaction with them was. The reason for Nic's delay could've been anyone and anything.
Delay? What if he didn't return at all?
Worick's pulse spiked at the intrusive musing. What a stupid thought and a childishly fearful one at that.
The scene of a certain young boy after a slaughter trying to take his own life played crisp and clear in his mind. It came accompanied by all the dread, terror, confusion and anger of that moment as it always did. And the pain.
Worick frowned and groaned as the familiar ache started stabbing his nerves and pushing through the bone of his skull. He pressed his palm against the socket filled with an artifcial but useless replacement. Shuddering as cold sweat ran down his back, Worick focussed on his breathing. It wasn't the first time this had happened and it wouldn't be the last. He hated it every single time.
As the pounding in his head started to lessen, Worick slowly removed his hand to exhaustedly drag his fingers through his hair, letting his head drop foward with a sigh. It snapped back up when the clanking sound of metall against stone close-by reached his ears. Without thinking, his body moved on its own, springing up and scrambling to the door to pull it open with way too much force.
Nicolas stood right there. Blood-soaked, unmoving and with a rare desperate expression showing on his face. For a moment the image of a young, equally bloodied 12-year-old Nic overlapped with his adult version in Worick's mind. He blinked and let his blue eye meet that dark and broken stare of Nic's. And in that second Worick was finally pulled out of his shock and stupor.
Immediately he realized a couple of things:
Nic was overdosed. That was too much blood to be his own but it might still be hiding some serious injuries. And Worick was stupid for not keeping his wits about him and grabbing his gun before opening the door so recklessly.
Carefully but quickly, Worick stepped towards his friend, reaching for one of those slack arms to pull him inside their apartment into ostensible safety, though it didn't seem that there was any immediate danger left. But you never knew in Ergastulum.
"Nic!" He tried again. It was hard to get through his drugged mind when overdosed but there seemed to be more to it to have Nic be that unresponsive. Worick quickly stooped down to sweep up the katana that had been dropped for whatever reason. He frowned. Nic usually wasn't so careless with his precious weapon. Not even or rather especially not when overdosed. Something was wrong. He briefly wondered how many Nic had taken with his limited pill supply but that wasn't exactly of immediate concern, all things considered. If worst came to worst, Worick could scrap some downers together.
"Nicolas! Come inside." He pulled him along and ushered Nic inside and directly into the bathroom, where he put down the toilet lid and sat him down, leaning the sword at his side.
"One second...," he mumbled and briefly left to rummage for the first-aid kit and a clean facecloth through their belongings before returning with said items. Plugging the sink with the stopper after he had moved the still drying cleaning rags out of the way, he let it run full with warm water, soaking the facecloth in it before turning around and squatting down in front of Nic.
It was a sight that Worick didn't like at all. And the blood staining Nic's skin and clothes wasn't the worst part of it. It was that drug-fogged mind, the traces of some remaining bloodlust in those dark eye - even if today that seemed rather dimmed - and those twitching muscles still eager for the thrill of a hunt, the lack of any physical pain and it's warning signs, though Nic did look very much a different kind of pained today. It made it worse.
Worick peered up into Nic's face with a tired blue eye, not daring to bring that wet piece of fabric to those cheeks to wipe off the blood lest he'd trigger some violent response. Let him recognize him first, his surroundings, if he hadn't already. It was hard to read.
"What happened? Are you hurt somewhere?" Worick asked, signing along with the one hand not holding the cloth. It might be easier for Nic to understand right now.
The relief to have Nic back at their new home, even in the state he was in, was slowly sinking into Worick's bones and he realized just how worried he had been after all. In the end, they were both still those same broken boys from when they had first arrived in Ergastulum. The brown tiles on the wall were a blatant reminder that some stains just remained no matter how hard you tried to improve.
It's no use. Any of it.
Worick suddenly recalled those words that Nic had uttered back when the three laws had come into effect.
No. No, they might not be able to shake their past but this was the first night at their first shared actual apartment. Worick was determined to make things better for them. As much as was possible in this god-forsaken city.
When the door had opened with such frenzy, Nic was not too far gone to have registered the slightly manic look on Worick's face.
Now, seated on the toilet and with Worick roaming around in Nic's peripheral vision, its significance started to sink in. It amplified Nic's guilt a thousandfold, suddenly aware of the fog clouding his reason, of adrenaline's residue and the need to move, to fight, running like an undercurrent in the stream of his consciousness. He did not quite seem to catch the words falling from Worick's lips.
The air was dense with humidity and the chemically-citrusy scent of cheap cleaning products. Strangely, it comforted Nic. The floor was shining, as were the windows. The bathroom had lost the worst of its grime. The change was subtle, yet Nic felt its profundity in the pit of his stomach. The place was home, not because it was cleaner, but because Worick went to the effort to make it so. Ashamed, Nic dropped his head and stared at his dirty hands. The blood had dried to a brownish crust flaking from his knuckles when he spread his fingers. From the corner of his eye, he registered his katana leaning against the wall. He had no recollection of Worick placing it there. Come to think of it, he was not quite sure how much time had passed at all since he approached the door of their apartment. Worick busied himself with something, never quite leaving Nic's peripheral vision until he returned with a washcloth and a deeply concerned stare that he reserved for the worst moments, when the illusion of control he assumed he had ran like sand through his long fingers. They were forming signs now, and Nic realized Worick was trying to talk to him.
"I'm FiNe", Nic croaked. The syllables rumbled in the back of his throat like something tangible. The cloth in Worick's hand was dripping water. "NoT HuRt", he reiterated, and signed: You're making a fuss.
He realized that Worick's concern was likely caused by traces of blood on his body. He reached out to grab for the cloth. Without much affectation or care he swept it over his face, once. It came away grimy. The warm water amplified the metallic stink of blood. Nic's heart leapt in anticipation, and he ignored it. Pretending a calm he did not feel, he scrubbed his bare arms until they were moderately clean. He did not search of Worick's critical gaze.
Stumbled upon some gang, he signed. Stupid fuckers attacked me. He paused, swallowed hard, and then continued: I lost all the groceries, he signed. There was no way he could hold in the information any longer. The money you gave me is gone.
He very deliberately did not sign "your money", even though the phrase ran through his head, with all that it entailed. The money you worked so hard for. The money you fucked so many people for. The money you gave me to provide for us both.
The inconvenient truth: Nic was down for a fight, always. After the first pill he did not give a fuck about the groceries anymore. After the second, he was elated. The third, and he flew over rooftops in a dance that was as deadly as it was sweet. And it gnawed at him, this readiness to forget everything and everyone, even Worick, for the thrill of a fight. But he could not admit to it, not even quite to himself.
Hearing that rough, broken voice declare that Nic was fine almost came as a surprise, so unexpected was it for Worick to hear it. But he was glad that Nic seemed to be drawn out of his apathetic shell by his words for a bit, that he tried to focus on him and answer him vocally, even if he was anything but 'fine' in Worick's eye. But he just nodded, gaze still laser-focussed on Nic and his every movement - worried and wary - but accepting his statement that he at least wasn't really hurt, luckily. Though, with his pain threshold lowered so extremely it might as well have been extinguished, there was the chance that he just wasn't feeling the pain of his injuries. Then again, his other senses were sharpened enough that Nic would still have noticed and noted any successful and dangerously harmful strikes on his body.
Worick let Nic take the wet cloth out of his hand and watched as he roughly and perfunctorily cleaned off the gore. It didn't escape his notice how tensed Nic's muscles remained or how he was avoiding his gaze, apparently more interested in looking at all the blood and whatever that sight might re-awaken in him. Worick suppressed a shudder. He'd really rather put Nic on some downers but he knew that he would refuse to take the pills and Worick wasn't willing to fight him on that in this state, so he stopped himself from bringing it up just yet. Maybe later. But probably not, since it wasn't as if they had a lot of the drugs to spare in the first place.
Depending on how many Celebre uppers Nic had swallowed, he might have really messed up his supply and would probably need to compensate by stretching out his next dosages. That would definitely affect his physical and mental state for a while and there was no way Monroe wouldn't notice it sooner rather than later, so Nic was bound to suffer even more thanks to a rather thought-out and strict, if not to say outright sadistic at times, punishment system for misbehaving underlings. Especially the ones that were dependent on Monroe's Celebre supply. Very convenient and efficient educational methods. Well, arguably those lessons never stuck with Nic for long but he had always been a slow learner. And a masochistic bastard.
Worick took in the information that Nic was finally providing him with by his signing. He really stuck to the core statements, short and to the point but it was enough to get the gist of the story across. There was an odd focus on the information of the loss of their money or rather the groceries it had paid for but that wasn't what made Worick frown in thought. Of course, they had no surplus of money to waste but they also weren't exactly starving right now so they'd get by one way or another and if it meant Worick had to bum food off someone or had to take on an extra customer, it wasn't anything he hadn't done before to survive and he was sure Monroe would at least provide for Nic, too. But it wouldn't have to come to that, Worick would see to it to get his hands on some basic food for the next couple of days. There was nothing they could do about the lost groceries now.
What was interesting was the other part of the story. Who was that gang? Judging by Nic's grimey apparence, they were most likely dead now. But why would they attack a twilight? It was unlikely that they didn't know what- who Nic was, when they came from a criminal background. Worick and Nic had had their share of shenanigans to make them somewhat known in certain social levels of Ergastulum after all. Which begged the question: had this been a planned attack? It was suspicious that it had happened right after they had separated after spending some time together but maybe that was just by chance. It would have also made more sense to target Worick in that case, but there were always some self-aggrandizing idiots who liked to also overestimate themselves quite a bit.
It seemed to have happened after Nic had already bought the groceries so it might have just been a bunch of burglars, but no, that didn't fit. Had they been in over their heads, they would have fled as soon as they'd seen the tags dangling around Nic's neck. And the fact that he had to overdose suggested that there had been people who'd put up a good fight against him in the first place and probably not just by pure number.
No matter how Worick thought about it, this didn't seem like a normal attack and his gut feeling was agreeing with him.
"Where did this happen?" he kept up the combination of speaking and signing, putting his hands plainly in Nic's field of vision as he was still avoiding looking at Worick's face.
There were too many questions he needed answered and he didn't want to overload Nic right now but something about the whole thing felt off. For a second, Worick felt the urge to seek out the corpses and check if he could match them up with anyone in the database of his mind, but wherever those body parts lay scattered - and he was sure it was quite the human puzzle - it was probably a crime scene by now or would be soon and he'd only get in unnecessary trouble showing up there.
"How many were you up against? Did you recognize anyone, Nic?" Worick was pretty confident that with Nic in the state he was in now, he had wiped out all of his opponents. His bloodlust wouldn't just let him stop mid-fight to let some guys off the hook. For better or for worse, a drugged up Nic always fought to the death. Even not on drugs...
The point was that, while his attackers might be dead now, they couldn't be sure there weren't more left where that bunch had come from and not knowing their motive put Worick and Nic at a disadvantage. And it meant they were still in danger.
Worick needed to gather more information as soon as possible but right now Nic took priority. It didn't help that he'd suffer from the consequences of that overdose for a while. It definitely didn't make things easier and Worick could feel that nagging worry coming back to settle uncomfortably in his stomach.
Worick had brushed over Nic's confession about the groceries. Nic had not really expected Worick to make a big deal out of it, and probably -- no, even likely -- Nic was the only one so hung up about it. And suddenly Nic realized that for Worick it was just par of the course to deal with a damage done by Nic.
(It was part of the deal, part of Worick's responsibilities, part of the reason why he was prostituting himself for Nic's sake and safety in the first place.)
A muscle in Nic's jaw twitched hard as he ground his back teeth together. Do not think like this. Don't even go there.
Worick's hand fluttered in Nic's vision. He had gotten so good with sign language it seemed like second nature to him, even though Nic did not see him use it very often anymore. Nic welcomed the questions that followed as a distraction from the course his thoughts had taken. However complicated his relationship with Worick was, his close proximity gave Nic both a sense of comfort and a purpose, and that they kept fucking each other's lives up, well -- it was not his choice. As a Twilight, he had no choice in the matter, at all.
He forced himself away from the intrusive thoughts and started to respond duly to Worick's questions, working through them one by one. He could almost see the wheels in Worick's wondrous brain starting to turn. The peculiar look he got then was familiar, reassuring and eery at once. Somewhere along Sixth Street, he signed. Around the corner of the grocery store. Four in total, three men and a woman. The men were armed with guns. A dark, feral grin flashed over his face for a moment. I made short work of 'em.
The sight and sensation of gushing blood came rushing back. Once more, his pulse quickened, though a sudden throb in his left cheek held him in the moment. The cuts there were long and distinct, three nasty gashes induced by the long nails of the dark-headed woman. His muscles strained from the memory of the moment they engaged. She fought fiercely and stubbornly and he felt a surge of frustration rise.
The woman escaped. He paused, and added for clarification: Twilight. At least B rank.
Listening intently to Nic's recounting of the fight and all the details he remembered about it, Worick noted and appreciated the effort it probably took for Nic to concentrate on such mundane questions and answer his inquiries diligently in the state he was in 'cause he knew that for Worick information was like food.
But even with his peculiar skill, it wasn't as easy as taking in data and spitting out a perfect plan. There were too many pieces lacking in this puzzle and with every new answer came a ton of new questions.
Three gunsmen, disposed of. And a woman, escaped. A twilight.
Still crouched in front of Nic, Worick's gaze was drawn to Nic's tags dangling around his neck. They were dirtied by blood as well but Worick didn't have to be able to read what was on them, he knew it by heart. The current rank displayed there was B1, just recently upgraded. While it might've come with a couple of benefits, the events leading up to that promotion as well as the means with which Nic was improving his fighting skills were leaving a bitter taste on Worick's tongue. Especially since it had happened mostly under Monroe's supervision.
Was this what had drawn attention to them?
Worick let his eye wander over the scratches and cuts left on Nic's skin, the ones he could see on his arms and face at least, who knew what other injuries were hiding under his clothes. But Nic did not really consider these marks to be wounds, even if they were deeper than mere kitty scratches and bleeding.
Worick stood up, stretching his legs and reaching for the dirtied cloth in Nic's hand to wash it out in the sink so he could continue to clean up, even if that task was probably already forgotten by now. Sitting on the toilet seat, Nic looked a bit like a lost puppy that had been picked up from a dirty street corner until you looked closer and saw the raw muscles in that lean frame of his, the tense jaw and high-strung energy seeping out of his every pore. A wild beast.
But Nic was not an animal, nor was he a tool to serve or a weapon to be used.
Worick clung to this belief even as he turned his back to Nic, trusting his drugged up mind wouldn't just snap and slice Worick up as he dipped the bloody cloth in the warm water and let the red seep out and stain the previously clear liquid. Dipping and scrubbing the piece of fabric, he considered what Nic had just told him.
'At least B rank' was a frightening estimate. And that's where something was a bit strange. It was a guess, an educated one, no doubt, and probably quite reliable, but a guess nonetheless.
He turned back to face Nic and signed with wet hands, not minding the water running down his forearms to soak into his rolled up sleeves or fly onto the floor in droplets.
"The woman, was she not wearing any tags? Was she hiding them?"
It wasn't exactly unheard of but usually Twilights were supposed to wear their tags openly displayed for obvious reasons. The question was whether it had been a deliberate concealment and if so, why.
Worick was starting to think it might be safer for Nic to continue staying with the Monroe family for a little longer. They didn't even have a mattress to sleep on yet and now they had to deal with a twilight trying to kill Nic.
Part of him wanted to talk to Daniel Monroe about this whole thing but the wary side in Worick told him not to act rash and keep collecting more information himself first. After all the help they had received from him, Worick did trust the head of the Monroe family quite a lot but he knew that that man had his own ambitions and that you had to play your cards well. Either way, if he wanted to ask for help, Worick needed to have something more to give than just a few vague clues.
Like always, like law, Nic's gaze followed Worick's movements. The blood-infused water swirled, disturbed by the cloth as Worick wrung it out in the sink. The yellow porcelain had been spotless, before. Now it was grimy with dirt. It heightened Nic's sense of futility. He looked away.
"No TaG", he uttered, voice broken from disuse. Sometimes, though, he liked how the words rumbled through him. He could feel them ascending from the pit of his stomach, past his lungs, through his throat until they fell from his lips. Never once had he wondered what his voice might sound like. To Worick, it seemed of no importance: The sign language, the probably strange vocalization of Nic's voice. He always responded. Nic could not remember a time when Worick hadn't responded to his words.
He closed his eyes, stretching his neck extensively. His muscles felt tired and taught. The buzz running through his head was foreboding. He knew that he would suffer the consequences once he started to come down from his high, but he didn't care when he slipped the pills into his mouth. He found it hard to care now, too.
And then there were the visions: Like a dream, behind closed eyelids, the Twilight flew in front of him. She was broad-shouldered for a woman, her neck long and swan-like. Hair short and dark and eyes dead to the world beyond the thrill of their fight.
And once it all was over, all that remained was recognition.
He knew that gaze; intimately. Encountered it every morning in the mirror over the bathroom sink, running a hand over his face.
Nic huffed, opened his eyes. He plucked at the hem of Worick's shirt. He signed: Paul Klee?
They could go there, ask around. The Paul-Klee-Guild knew every Twilight in town. They would know the mysterious woman, too.
Worick only nodded at the confirmation. An untagged twilight was indeed a problem and all the reasons he could come up with why someone would want to hide that kind of information didn't exactly spell good fortune for them either, especially not as the targeted party in this little game.
He watched for a second as Nic closed his eyes and tilted his head backwards and side to side to stretch, the sinews elongated and taut, his spine making some cracking noises with the movement. Worick turned around to fish the cloth out of the sink and wrung it out. A tug at his shirt some moments later made him move to face Nic again, taking in the quick signs and handing the cloth back to him with a sigh.
Yeah, the Paulklee Guild would be the obvious choice for the quickest and probably most reliable information on any twilight in this city. While Gina would not care about a twilight attacking Nic - they were mercenaries after all and it didn't contradict any of the three rules - she might take an issue with the lack of identification. Worick did not like having to deal with Gina, even if he only had had to face her a couple of times so far. She was a very fierce and tough woman who took no bullshit from anyone. In her eyes Worick and Nic were just some greenhorns not really worth her time.
Worick's usual charm with women was lost on her completely and he had actual trouble with her domineering aura. He really didn't want to owe her something. But the suggestion coming from Nic, who had arguably a more troubling time with her, made Worick cave in.
"Sounds like a plan." He said and signed sloppily before grabbing the towel to dry his hands off.
It truly was the best way to get some information on the unknown twilight but Worick was tired and he feared that a headache was on its way. He smiled grimly to himself. Nic was a million times worse off than just being tired and maybe getting a headache.
"You should finish cleaning up and hit the sack, you look like crap." Worick gestured at the cloth in Nic's hand and the towel he was hanging back on its hook, then over to the other room where their sleeping place, aka the wooden floor, was waiting.
"We'll deal with getting some information about that woman tomorrow. Get some rest, you'll need it." Worick made a circular wave with his hand before exiting the bathroom and went straight for his gun. He had been stupid not to make a grab for it before, there could have been any number of thugs right outside their door. He put the handgun out of its hiding place and fiddled with it a bit before giving in to his urge and taking it completely apart, then putting it back together, after checking the spring components and checking the ammunition chamber. It was in top condition, of course, not having been used much recently. That might change.
Taking his gun apart and reassembling it was a bit of a comforting habit for Worick. The familiar weight in his hands, the handling of the parts, usually the cleaning of them, too. It didn't require a lot of thinking, the sequence of movements so ingrained in his muscle memory. It still demanded some amount of focus and was therefore the ideal task to get his mind blank and calm. Not that there weren't a ton of memories linked to using this gun but somehow taking care of its condition and using it were two separate folders in his brain.
His task finished, Worick sat on the floor leaning against the wall, gun in his lap he would keep it close-by tonight. Thoughts started running through his head again. They definitely needed more furniture for their new little home. Nic should be able to sleep in a way that would support his recovery, not be another strain on his weary bones. It did take a toll on Worick's back as well, sleeping on the floor wasn't something he actually liked but he could deal with it for a while.
More than anything they would now have to deal with their little violent stalker first before they could take care of their domestic needs. Nic had been right to suggest the Paulklee Guild. They probably wouldn't get a direkt line to Gina at all. She was the head of one of the four big mafia families ruling Ergastulum. Worick wondered whether their known association with the Monroe family might become a double edged sword if brought up during any negotiations. He'd just have to take it as it was coming. Still, the whole affair did leave him with somewhat of a queasy feeling.