Gold and green winked in the glittering molten swamplands of the Shadow Forest as the sun sank, unseen, beneath a horizon far beyond the fringes of green canopy. The soft chirrups and shufflings from the undergrowth sounded anything but menacing...now. The Shadow Forest was no walk in the park, however – they had been fighting all day.
“Too bad we don’t have anyone with innate Yellow,” Nikki murmured, quashing the urge to lean on his axe. They’d been fighting all afternoon, and it seemed like everything in the swamps was a creature with Green for its innate element.
“My ElectroJolt does just fine, thankee,” Kid sniffed, hearing him.
Nikki said nothing to that. His three back-up dancers were girls and through trial and error he’d learned to handle their ways. Not having mother or sister at hand for the length of his memory, it hadn’t come easily to him.
Serge’s double-bladed Spectra Swallow dipped even as the boy tightened his grip. Nikki glanced over, shouldering his guitar, and noticed those blue eyes were dulling with exhaustion. They would have to find a place to crash soon, and he figured they should get rested up and tackle Viper Manor in the morning. The sewer battles alone would test their strength, not even considering the Manor itself. The girl Kid had sheathed her knife and thrown her shoulders back defiantly, but she looked tired too – even her braid was drooping.
“Hey,” Nikki spoke up, “I know a place.”
Serge looked up. His eyes were so blue.
“Whaa-!?” Kid blinked over at him, fisting hands on her hips. “Whaddya mean, ya have a place? An’ ya didn’t say nothin’ before? We’re right bushed, mate!”
Nikki gave her an irritated glance. He had been unwilling to mention it. The shack was deep in Shadow Forest, and it brought back some difficult memories.
“Calm down, Kid,” Serge cautioned, giving Nikki a sympathetic glance. “I’m sure there’s a reason.”
Kid sniffed again.
“It’s not my place,” Nikki said, disarming her with the mild answer. With his eyes he told Serge he was grateful.
“Then—” She started forward, stopped, and a look of confusion crossed her pert face. “Well, wot’re ya gonna do?”
Nikki studied Serge’s profile. The boy had turned to him after each battle with a ready smile. Now they were all slowing down. Was it worth breaching the wall of Tora’s memory so they could all have a night undisturbed? It would be worse to bring another boy there, unsure of his intentions.
Serge was looking at him now from the corner of one blue eye. There was a slight smile waiting at the corner of his mouth.
“All right,” Nikki gave in. “Let’s go.” And he was rewarded with the realization of that smile. Nikki caught himself and turned away. There was no sense in plunging himself headlong in a dream for a boy who might not be available, or interested. But he could still recall, acutely, the shock of contact that had jolted him to the elbow when he and Serge had clasped hands. That quiet, unassuming ‘I’m Serge’ followed by his warming smile and Kid’s pert addition, ‘He’s a ghost.’
‘You seem solid enough to me.’ That had been when Serge smiled.
Nikki was recalling how easy it was to fall...
“All right!” Kid cheered. “Soft beds, warm food, anna bath in the mornin’!”
Tora’s house had been closed up for years. He didn’t know how much of that he could promise.
“It’s this way,” he said instead, taking the lead.
He had been in a daze today. It had felt like he’d been in a daze for weeks, maybe months. Today was different, though. He’d snapped out of it sharper than ever before, goaded by a pair of intense blue eyes.
Nikki led them past a few nasties and green stalks chasing around butterflies, trailing past the wells of hollowed-out burdocks. They were getting closer. Why had he come here today...?
It had been Miki’s fault. Ah, that obsessed girl. She had come on to him again this morning, another drop in the bucket of her countless advances. She’d pressed her soft breasts against him and invited him with lips and eyes even as he told her ‘no.’ How many times had he told her that outside the ‘scene’ of the gig, he couldn’t summon the feeling to gratify her? Not to mention the lack of bodily reflex. How many times had she tried to dip her hands into his pants? How many times had her eyes expressed surprise, finding his unaroused state?
Nikki had lost count. Nikki had gone off this morning to search for memories of Tora. When Serge’s blue gaze had snapped him out of it, searching for the living had become his anchor to reality. He’d remembered Marcy. He had to keep it real. But searching for his lost sister was a pretext to stay with Serge’s group. The side benefit was staying away from Miki, for awhile.
Kid’s voice was explosive atop the weight of his own thoughts. Nikki looked up – no, he hadn’t been dazed, just introspective. He had to keep it that way. He had incentive.
“That little shack!?”
Nikki winced. It was Tora’s. His and Tora’s. They had never really noticed how it looked. He supposed now that Tora was gone it was his, but he could never look at it that way. It would always be Tora’s.
“Leave it alone, Kid,” Serge told the girl in his quiet voice. “What we need is a place to rest, and this is it.”
“How’re we s’posed to hole up here fer the night?” Kid demanded, posture indignant. From hidden female reserves she drew on the power to rant. “This ain’t nothin’ but a ho—”
The surprise of Serge raising his voice was enough to shut the girl up. She rocked back on her heels, mumbling something with resentful eyes, her apology worthless for the grudging tone.
At least Kid would listen to Serge. Women never seemed to listen to Nikki and this one was no different. The lisping pink dog would be better company – but the other party members were back in Arni Village, from what Kid had said.
He had a key so he took the lead again. It was the only key now.
They pushed inside and Kid sneezed, sending up a cloud of dust. Serge’s nose twitched but he managed not to repeat the gesture. Nikki held a hand in front of his mouth. No one had been here for a long time, that was easy to see.
“Whose place is this?” Kid’s gold braid swung to and fro as she looked around the room. There were two main rooms, both small – this one had a couch and a kitchen, the other had the bed and a connecting bathroom.
Nikki could feel Serge’s eyes on him. There was a lump in his throat.
“A friend of mine. He won’t mind if we use it, I guess.”
Tora wouldn’t mind if he were serious about Serge. Nikki didn’t know how he felt, he only knew what he wanted – right now, he wanted to be closer to Serge. And the likelihood of that was...
“Let’s get some sleep,” Nikki had to clear his throat twice before he could speak.
“Yes,” Serge agreed, turning to him. “We have a lot to do tomorrow.” His eyes were full of questions.
Nikki hesitated on the threshold of the little bedroom. “Who’s going to take the couch?”
*Hi, I’m Tora – your new bass player.* Green eyes sparkled in a light brown-skinned face. There was a prickle of instant attraction, acknowledged by the widening of the young man’s smile. *And you’re Nikki. It’s so great to finally meet you.*
How old had he been? Fifteen?
Nikki had always made a point of meeting with the backup band members, even if the girls didn’t seem to care. Miki, especially, ridiculed him for meeting ‘the help.’
*You’re good.* Nikki looked at him directly, excited by his own boldness. *I was listening in on your audition...*
Tora’s smile turned sexy. *I’m looking forward to working with you.* He let go of Nikki’s hand and they both glanced down, realizing how long the handclasp had held. The man lifted up his case and moved down the hall. *Closely, I hope.*
Nikki stared after the lean-bodied man, long dark hair trailing unfettered over his shoulders. There was a warm tingle in his body, something that had never sparked inside of him during any of his fumbling attempts with girls. He felt odd...but excited, too. He wanted to go after the bassist, continue the conversation, touch him again...
Touch him? Nikki, the untouchable?
He raked red-dyed bangs out of his eyes and turned to go the opposite direction. Maybe he had been trying to play the wrong field.
As he strode up the hall in his heeled boots, he didn’t realize an appraising green gaze was fixed on him.
Panting. Perfumed arms clinging. *Honey, I don’t wanna stop...* Moist kisses flowering over his face and neck.
*Dammit, stop!* Smothering, heavy breasts pressed against him, intensifying the sense of *wrongness.* *Get off me!*
Hard green eyes turning on him, hurt, pouty, disbelieving. *Nikki, baby, I just wanna make you feel good.*
*I don’t want this.* Spacing words out, watching the wide eyes shift to anger.
*You always run so fucking hot and cold, Nikki. Maybe one day you’ll be able to finish what you start.* Shaking, furious, storming off in a confection of gold-blonde hair.
Hands over his face. *Dammit, dammit...* Couldn’t do anything right. Jazzed up after a concert, couldn’t even follow through with something every boy was capable of...
*Hey, who’s in—hey...hey, Nikki, what’s wrong?* Smooth deep voice, the burst of lights flicking on, Tora’s concerned green eyes.
*Nothing.* Arms wrapped around self in a protective hug. *Go away.*
*Guys, take a hike.* Tora talking to the rest of the back-up band. The lights flicked off again, leaving the room in semi-darkness relieved only by moonlight pouring in the window. Unsteady flames of the candles Miki had lit. *Nikki, talk to me.*
Huddling away from the warm rangy length of the man approaching him. *It’s nothing, Tora, I—*
Fingers brushed under his chin, lifting his head up. *Yeah, I saw Miki flouncing the other way. What happened?*
Shaking. *Nothing. Nothing happened. That’s why she was mad.*
A surprised ‘oh.’ Then a throaty chuckle. *Is it just her, Nikki, or girls in general?*
His eyes searched anywhere but sympathetic green. *I...it’s not...I’ve never been able...*
Another ‘oh,’ this one more seductive. A warm body pressing close. *Is that so?* Hands touching, roaming. Gasping, something shattering at the touch, Nikki reached frantically for the larger body pressed against him. *You seem perfectly capable to me.*
*Ohh...* A low resonating groan. Tora on his knees. The ship was rocking, he was convinced; it had burst its moorings and they rolled in a high tide.
*Nikki...come to bed with me...*
*Yeah. Oh, yeah.*
Tora, lazy and grinning, black hair spread shining over light chocolate skin. Propping himself on an elbow. *I always thought you and Miki...*
He shuddered. *Don’t say that. It’s what she wanted, but I never could. We’re not even very good friends.*
*Then I’m glad you and I can be.* This pair of green eyes could look inside him, could touch his soul. Nikki relaxed and let a pair of strong arms enfold him. He had thought something was wrong with him. Tora showed him how to put it right.
It was dark and the hushed sounds of the Shadow Forest filtered in from outside. Nikki rolled over, groping for the familiar lean-bodied heat factory. If the bed was empty it had been a dream and not a memory... This had to be real.
“Baby, I missed you so much,” he murmured, rousing out of sleep and pressing himself against the so-close warm body.
“Nikki?” a drowsy tenor cut through the dark, waking him up wide. Not Tora. It was Serge here in bed with him, on the mattress wide enough for two boys, with Kid on the couch in the next room.
“Serge!” Nikki gasped, pushing himself away. “Damn, I’m sorry, I thought...”
“That I was Miki?” The boy’s tone was cautious, testing.
“Hell, no!” Nikki was unable to disguise the disgust, his restraint loosed by the darkness and late hour.
“I thought she was your girlfriend,” Serge shifted, sheets rustling. He could dimly see the boy propping himself on one elbow.
“She’d like to be,” Nikki said, a little calmer.
“So who...” Serge trailed off, the question implicit. He shifted again, maybe from embarrassment, sheets tugging taut over his slim body.
Nikki could just imagine sliding his hands over that smooth skin, wiry muscles beneath. He turned away. “No one... a friend. He used to live here; this was his place.” Until monsters rose up thickly in the Shadow Forest, and people began to leave, and people died. Tora had never been much of a fighter.
“He?” Nikki could almost see the intense blue eyes popping wide in the dim near-dark.
“Everyone expects it from someone like me; why does it keep coming as a surprise?” Nikki could barely keep his tone light the way he wanted to. Somehow he managed.
“N-no...that’s not what I- I meant...” Serge stammered, abruptly sounding young. “I...it’s just, I...well, I’ve lived in Arni Village all my life, I never knew...”
Nikki thought he understood. “You never knew there were other options out there?” he offered. He’d suffered from similar circumstances for most of his upbringing.
“Y-Yeah.” Serge still sounded tense. His face turned towards Nikki in the dark. “I was the only boy my age in the village. And Leena was the only girl my age...”
“Leena. Is that your girlfriend?” Now it was Nikki’s turn to be cautious.
Serge chuckled, a hoarse sound, and twisted the sheet in his fingers. “She’d like to be. She thinks she is.”
“Oh,” Nikki said. He was amused. He thought he was amused. Serge sounded like him at five minutes ago; like him at fifteen.
“What’s so funny?” Serge was on the defensive.
“Nothing,” Nikki replied, mirroring Serge’s propped-elbow position. “History repeats itself.”
“A-anyway,” Serge continued awkwardly, “since we were the only two our age in the village, it was only natural people paired us up in their minds. I guess. And then Leena started bossing me around, and...well, everyone assumed...”
“Did you kiss her?” Nikki asked, tone soft, inching closer. Sheets rustled and he winced.
Serge’s eyes popped wide again. “No! No...I...aren’t you supposed to save that for someone you care for?”
Nikki chuckled. “Usually.”
The sheets whispered again. Was it his imagination or was Serge moving closer to him?
“Are you tired?”
For a self-assured fighter, Serge could sound very young and uncertain.
“Not anymore,” Nikki replied.
Now, to anyone who hadn’t been raised in a mostly-isolated, tiny fishing community, this would be a provocative invitation. Since Serge *had* been, however, he just seemed to take the comment at face value. Then the sheets rustled a little, dead giveaway, and he realized Serge was *definitely* moving closer, more uncertain in this than anything else.
“So you’ve been saving your first kiss,” Nikki managed to say. It was about all he could manage, imagining vivid cerulean trained on him, gauging every movement. With an odd wrench, he realized he was nervous. He’d never been anyone’s first kiss before. Tora and Miki had both been skilled.
“Serge,” Nikki said the name quietly, fingertips brushing over unfamiliar skin beneath the sheet. “It’s okay to be nervous.” It was up to him, because Serge didn’t know how to ask, even if he knew what he was angling for.
An audible gulp was his reward. “How did you know?”
“The first kiss is always difficult.” It was, oh, it was. If Tora hadn’t moved on him first, it might never have happened. And here they lay in the bed that had been his and Tora’s. Instead of inhibiting him the thought made him feel warm, like Tora was slyly spurring him on.
“Are you going to kiss me?” The tone was so ingenuous. Serge was already moving towards him.
“Only if you want me to.” Does this mean you care about me?
“I want—” A gulf of longing was his answer.
Nikki cut him off with a kiss, skipping the preliminaries. He saved them both the volumes of awkward little minute adjustments as they moved towards liplock.
Serge made a murmuring, surprised noise against his mouth. Nikki decided not to take advantage; this was enough shock for Serge for now. Instead, he cupped Serge’s face in his hand. The skin was soft and smooth and warm and Serge’s lips were pliant but unmoving against his.
“Mm...” He pulled back a fraction, then sealed them together again, trying to eliminate every inch of space between their bodies. Now Serge was responding, lips moving clumsily against his, a hand clutching at his arm. It was hotter than ElectroJolt coursing through his veins.
If anything had the power to stop the universe, it was this boy. This kiss...
Serge’s mouth moved under his, questioning. Nikki pulled back with a low moan. Just a kiss got him raging this hot. He clutched the slim waist with unsteady fingers and ran his tongue along Serge’s bottom lip, drawing a shudder out of him. Then they relaxed into a fiery-liquid kiss, lips rubbing and exploring and never breaking the excitement of contact.
He pulled back when Serge started to tremble, but kept his arms around the boy.
“I’m sorry,” Serge apologized. “I...”
“It’s okay,” Nikki soothed. He felt warm and satisfied, more peaceful than he had since learning about Tora’s death. He had made a decision.
Nikki was drawn to him, this quiet, solemn-mouthed boy with wiry forearms and a fighter’s grace. This Angelus Errare, an angel who had lost his way and wandered into this world, his life. Maybe Nikki had been searching for fragments of Tora and the way to his sister this morning in the swamp. But maybe he’d been waiting for an angel to light his path, too.
“This is fate,” Nikki murmured.
Serge said nothing. His lips pressed into Nikki’s palm. They moved over string-calloused fingers.
“You’re good at that,” Nikki sighed, playing his free hand over soft black spikes of hair.
Serge made a pleased noise. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”
“To me?” Nikki made sure the boy could see the playful tilt of his lips in the moonlight. Serge lifted his head a little, eyes searching.
“I didn’t know it was you,” he said slowly, “but yes. I don’t think I ever wanted girls; it’s why it felt so wrong when everyone started thinking I was with Leena. I started to get the feeling I should be looking for you this morning in Termina when I saw your poster. I wanted to even before Kid decided we had to get into Viper Manor. So, maybe it is fate.”
Nikki liked to think so.
He moved to nuzzle Serge and the boy yawned. “I’m sorry,” Serge apologized, “I guess I’m tired after all.”
“It’s been a long day,” Nikki conceded, cuddling against him.
“Tomorrow will be longer,” Serge replied, lids sliding down over bruised shadows of eyes. There was a world’s weight of fatigue in his tone.
“Yeah.” Nikki’s thoughts wandered for a moment, to his lost sister, to the enormity of breaking into Viper Manor. They clung together for comfort and that reminded him. “But we’ll be together when we face it.” By the dragon gods, that was the corniest line yet of his repertoire. It seemed to give Serge comfort, though, as the boy snuggled close.
“Together, Nikki,” he mumbled, throwing an arm over his waist. “Give me a kiss and let’s sleep again.”
“Mm,” he agreed with a sleepy smile. That sounded good. He could lose himself in that kiss forever. He leaned forward and brushed his mouth against Serge’s. This time the boy met him halfway, lips molding against his. It was soft and sexy and from the close press of their bodies he could feel a nascent excitement stirring in Serge’s body. Later, Nikki told himself; there would be time...they were both tired, and Serge was inexperienced.
He broke the kiss and his lips were wet. He smiled. “You’re my boyfriend now,” he told Serge. “Not hers. Not anybody’s.”
“All right,” Serge acquiesced with that lovely smile.
They held each other, and slept.
“Ahh, that feels right good!” Kid stretched her arms high above her head, rising up on the balls of her feet. Little ‘pop’ and ‘crack’ noises went off up and down her spine. She flexed this way and that, looking up when Nikki entered the small main room of the cottage. “Well! Took ye bloody long enough, mate. You sure slept in.”
Somehow Nikki kept the satisfied little smirk off his face. “Well, we don’t exactly have an appointment with General Viper, so we can pick any time we like.” That was true, but he had woken up an hour ago. Quiet moments would be few and far between, until Serge had resolved whatever other matters of fate had brought him to this world. So he’d woken and watched Serge sleep in the weak light washing over him from the window. The boy was so pretty, almost unreal, that it was easy to see why they had believed he was a ‘ghost.’
Kid snorted and strode over to the tiny kitchen area. “I s’pose it’s too much to expect anythin’ worth cookin’ fer breakfast.”
“Probably,” Nikki agreed with a smile. “Do you like mushrooms?”
Kid wrinkled her nose in answer.
He looked around anyway, but there wasn’t anything that hadn’t expired a long time ago. There was a nice colony of fungus growing on the kitchen wall, but he doubted it counted as ‘edible.’
Serge walked into the room, rubbing sleep out of his eyes. “Why didn’t you wake me?”
Nikki shrugged. “You looked so peaceful, I figured I should let you have your sleep while you could.”
Serge smiled. “What about breakfast?”
“Mushrooms?” Nikki offered with a grin.
Kid was looking back and forth between them, arms crossed. A wrinkle of concentration centered between her brows. “Hn. Serge, ya look different this morning.”
“I do?” Serge scratched his head. “Well, I got a good night’s sleep.”
Kid’s brows raised. “Really? On that tiny bed, crammed right up next to Nikki, with the monsters hooting and chirping all night?”
“Ah...well...” Serge stammered, faint color rising in his cheeks. This time Nikki *did* smirk. He thought the bed was just the right size, but then, they’d spent the night cheek to cheek.
“Oh?” Her eyes got wider. She began to chuckle. “I’ve underestimated ya again! It wasn’t the sheila ya were after...it was this bent bloke!”
“Hey!” Nikki protested.
Kid whipped a look at him. “Am I wrong?”
“Um...” Serge was staring at his shoe-tops, still red.
“Hah! I’m right!” Kid crowed. She grinned at them both. “Hey, I don’t mind. I think it’s kinda cute’n all. I won’t say a word.”
“Good,” Nikki nodded. “There are some people who aren’t so understanding.”
“Thanks, Kid,” Serge said quietly.
Kid looked at him and gave him a curt, embarrassed nod. She turned away. “Yeh, well I’m still pissed there’s no breakfast.”
“We should get going,” Serge spoke up, picking up his Spectra Swallow from where he’d propped it against the wall. “We have a lot to do today.”
“Awright,” Kid acknowledged, snagging her belt and dagger from the couch. She strode over to the door, turned, and gave Nikki a broad wink. “I’m gonna go warm up on some Bulbs, or somethin’. Lemme know when you’re ready ta go.”
Serge blushed furiously and looked anywhere but her and Nikki.
Nikki smiled across the room at his...boyfriend. That gave him an internal smile just thinking it. “She’s more understanding than I would have thought.”
“But not tactful,” Serge muttered, still studying his shoes.
“That’s okay, you can’t expect too much from a girl.”
Serge looked up when he was a step away. Kid had been right, there was something different in his eyes. He looked relaxed from the night of sleep, but there was hope there, too. The reason someone fought was if not for themselves, then to protect their loved ones.
“Kiss me again?” Serge said tentatively. “I...last night doesn’t seem real, almost.”
Nikki’s lips curved. “Gladly,” he murmured. Any reason was a good one to kiss that pretty face. He lifted a hand to Serge’s shoulder and they leaned in, the boy’s eyes sliding shut shyly, this kiss in daylight somehow more real and bold than any moonlight ones.
Serge’s mouth tasted sweet, and still had that dizzying power to freeze time.
“So...do you think we’ll be able to share a bed like that again?” Serge said, tone wistful.
“Count on it,” Nikki chuckled. He took the boy’s face in his hands. Less than twenty-four hours, but the attraction was instant, and total. He wasn’t worried they had rushed things. It was fate, after all. “Even if I have to hogtie Kid or kick Poshul over the railing.”
“Nikki!” Serge said, eyes wide. Then he laughed.
“Well, I might,” he amended.
“Come on,” Serge said, snaking an arm around his waist, “let’s get going. We don’t know what kind of defenses Viper Manor has; it might take us all day.”
They burst out into the intermittent sunlight of a day in the Shadow Forest. Kid was waiting for them, hand on her hip, blonde head lifted expectantly.
“Well?” she challenged. “We got big deeds ahead of us!”
They glanced at each other. At Serge’s nod, the three of them plunged into the Forest again. Big deeds weren’t the only thing to look forward to – he’d follow Serge to the end of this quest, since it meant they’d be together.
And, of course, if he stuck closely, he’d have his opportunity to seduce his errant angel.