|Crossing III: Labyrinth
Author: Guede Mazaka
Dean shoved away the piles of books and notes through which he was working and leaned back. Then he snapped forward, cursing: he'd forgotten about his ribs.
"Anything interesting?" G popped into the study long enough to drop off another stack of indexes, then wandered off. Fed up with his lack of progress, Dean got up and followed her into the next room, where Fred was busy torching some absinthe and sugar.
"No. The book's-" oh, he was carrying it "-this thing is just as all the texts describe it. Except for having nine engravings, whereas they all say it should have eight. But none of that's any help in determining authenticity."
The sugar tipped into the green liquid with a hiss that snaked about the room. Fred blew out a breath, then took out the spoon and put the glass to his lips. He drained it in one continuous movement, head curving back to touch the wood frame of the sofa.
"Dean." G had that damnable faint smile on her face again. "Eight?"
"Eight. But it's entirely possible that that's a mistake on the compilers' parts, or that said texts actually refer to one of the other existing volumes." If Dean tilted his head at the right angle, he might be able to see a way out of this entire spiderweb of a mess. On the other hand, that'd been what he had been telling himself for a while now, and things simply kept getting more tangled. His angles were flipping back on him, one after another.
And now Fred was a useless limp rag on the couch, head lolling, eyes faded into some other place. His lips were pursing and rolling around some meaningless babble-but damn it, Dean really shouldn't be watching so closely. He was beginning to suspect that going any deeper might result in a point of no return. Which were never good ones for him.
"So you're saying that you need the other ones?" She perched on the couch next to Fred, folding her arms over the back and grinning cheerfully up at him.
"It would be helpful. And no, I don't want to know how you're going to do that. Just like I don't want to know how you managed to 'borrow' half the bibliographies from supposedly private archives." Dean spun on his heel and marched back to his table, where the world made sense to him. Where he was the expert, and others the ignoramuses blindly stumbling around in the dark.
He may be clothed, and well-fed, and relatively healthy aside from his bruised body, but his life was otherwise beginning to gnaw at him in a fairly good approximation of hell. What was it they said? Getting exactly what you wished for?
The game that couldn't be won. The prey that caught instead of being caught. Layers and layers-more than he remembered nailing down, in fact-had been stripped off of him since the moment a dark man with a dark book had stepped into his store, and it didn't look like the flayers were quite done yet. But Dean was aware enough to know where most of his lies led, and that included the ones he told to himself. Beneath all those safe-guards and precautions, there was still that streak of taunting, the one that took on borderline criminal assignments. The one that wanted to know what kind of person could outplay him, if there even was such an individual. The one that called itself devil-may-care.
Apparently, the devil did. A day and a half spent locked in this apartment, mechanically flirting with G and trying not to look at Fred too often and determinedly not asking after Ahmed, and Dean still wanted to go on. Turn the corner and follow the trail to the very end, be that beauty or beast. Curiosity was a damned sin.
"And if it's not, it should be," he muttered, sitting down and taking up another dusty tome.
* * *
Ahmed followed Liana all through her nightly rounds, but lost track of her the next morning when she ducked past a gaggle of ladies taking their morning strolls. He smiled nicely at them, but kept well clear of the fluttering eyelashes and stretched out his senses, trying to figure out how she'd dropped away. Instead, he was side-blasted with a burst of radiant darkness, surrounded by Illuminati pests.
The ringing in his bones led him to a side-alley and a decrepit antique book-restorer's doorway: Ceniza Bros. A quick charm sent the Illuminati scattering out the back, and Ahmed gave them another five minutes while he scavenged a piece of wood from a nearby pile of refuse. He walked casually up to the ajar door and knocked, then stepped swiftly back as he pitched in the wood block.
Which was shot to the left. Ahmed promptly threw himself through the window on the right and collided with a tall, lean body that tried to coldcock him with a revolver. He ducked, letting the blow land on his shoulder, then kicked out and rolled free of the glass shards. Slammed his cane down once on the other man's head, but missed the second time as his opponent desperately scrambled for the door.
::Close!:: Ahmed barked, yanking out his sword. He dove back to the floor just in time for the bullet to pass over his head, then sprung up and sliced down on the other man's arm till his blade hit bone. Pulled it out and kicked away the dropped gun, then kept his sword pointed at the other man's throat as he retrieved the other fallen object: copy number two of The Book of the Nine Doors of the Kingdom of Shadows.
Its previous owner, a feral, brown-skinned man with a scarred lip, slumped heavily against the closed door and clutched at his arm. Blood steadily bubbled out from between his fingers, but abruptly stopped after he muttered something. As a warning gesture, Ahmed jabbed the sword a little deeper into the other man's throat. "Calm down, sir. I was only healing myself."
"Before I've decided whether or not to kill you?" Ahmed cast his mind through the building, feeling for any survivors. One, upstairs, but rapidly failing. "Liana's new bedtoy, I take it?"
"Who are you?" Voice suddenly rougher, more aggressive, and that was a bad move, showing off a weakness.
"One of your predecessors. And I have to say, she was good, but the knife in the back I could have done without. What were you doing here?" As expected, Ahmed received no reply except a ferocious glare; the other man's eyes swept over him as if to memorize every detail. "What do you want?"
"You know," said a new voice from broken window, "When you're angry like that, I almost miss you."
Benediction of the fallen angel. Liana's exquisitely arrogant face peeped in and beamed a strained veneer of nonchalance at Ahmed. "I don't suppose we could discuss this rationally? There isn't much time before it starts."
It was an attempt at distraction, Ahmed knew, but even lies could hold some truth. And at this point, he wasn't sure whether he could risk losing any information. Not with the only other person who could tell him what'd happened here about to die on the floor above. "Before what starts?"
"The bloody convergence-what did you think? It'll start, and that poor Inspector you're sheltering will be in it." Cool and ominous as a glacier, she trailed her fingers along the windowsill. "And that would be a rather interesting time to summon up Lucifer, wouldn't it?"
The other man suddenly flung himself backwards, door exploding open behind him, and Liana whipped a dagger at Ahmed.
::Shit!:: He dodged as best he could, but the edge cut into his shoulder. His vision went blurry as he staggered into the wall. ::Allah curse her and her line for nine generations back and forth.::
Ahmed fumbled in his pockets and dug out the small vial just before his knees collapsed. He nearly lost his grip on it, but he was damned if he would let her win. One gigantic effort, and the antidote was burning down his throat.
It took a few minutes to fully work, but he didn't have that much time. He shoved his blade back into its sheathe, then snatched the book up and hauled himself to the second floor. A complete wreck, tools and red-splattered parchment everywhere. Groaning from the farthest corner of the room-of course, always the long way-so Ahmed crawled over there and crumpled next to the small body. He cradled the battered head in one hand and wiped some of the clots from the other man's split mouth. "Mr. Ceniza?"
Gurgling, but the face did turn in his direction.
"I am-" Ahmed stopped, puzzled as to why the dying man appeared to be laughing. Ceniza flapped a hand at a half-stitched sheaf of paper a few feet away.
"Art imitates art," rasped the old man, scarlet bubbles sticking to his lips. "Life is a forgery by…compar-comparison."
Then he was dead. Ahmed looked around the room, but saw nothing except partially-dissected books and the pitiful lump of the other Ceniza brother. He sighed and picked up said bundle of papers, which appeared to be part of an edition of Dumas' The Three Musketeers.
If Corso didn't find anything in it, G might like it for reading; she did prefer the swashbuckling novels. He tucked it beneath his coat with Torchia's masterpiece and began to heave himself up, then stopped. ::Ah, well. You're not Muslim, but I suppose almost everyone deserves a few words. To be forgotten is a terrible thing.::
Ahmed muttered a few prayers, then leaned down and brushed Ceniza's eyelids shut. He did the same to the other one before slowly walking out. Liana and her paramour were long gone, apparently leaving him the field. And if he believed that, he was a fool.
* * *
Fred swirled the dregs of his absinthe and looked up through the bottom at the flecks of powder and shreds of herbs circling the sides. "What is this stuff?"
"Something that works." G finished scribbling down the last of her notes, then flipped her book shut and slipped it into a pocket. She'd changed into men's clothes after lunch, and bound up her hair so she could pass very easily for a delicate rich youth, if one didn't look too closely. "Are those the last of your visions?"
"I can't believe-all these years, and no one ever suspected." Unexpectedly angry, Fred slammed down the glass on the side table and got off the couch, pacing across the room. So many machinations and interventions, so many abuses…and for what? Some stupid society of upperclass whitebeards? And now it was more than clear what Warren had been planning to do to Fred, before Ahmed had shown up. Christ, years on the force and they would just-"I knew some of those people the Masons had committed," he finished, voice heavy with too many emotions to count.
"Thanks to them, I'm rapidly running out of people that will speak to me." Dean plopped himself in the nearest chair, then swept his eyes up and down Fred. "You're not looking much better."
"He might be a little drunk. And-Fred, sit down. I didn't rewrap your ankle only to have you wrench it some more." Even G sounded a little cranky. Then again, that was understandable, considering they hadn't seen or heard from Ahmed since yesterday afternoon.
He did, flinching at the complaints that needled up his leg, and stared at his empty glass. Revelation after revelation, but none yet that answered any of the major quest-the doorknob clicked and he hastily turned around. As did Dean, he noted from his peripheral vision.
Ahmed walked in, then stopped. "Yes?"
"Well." G bit her lip, then carefully stood up and went over to him, dabbing a handkerchief at the crusts of dried blood on his face. "I think you just won the contest for who looks the worst. What happened?"
"I decided I didn't like my suit." He side-stepped her ministrations and eased off his overcoat and coat to reveal a long swathe of stain down one sleeve. Dean started to say something, but was interrupted by a bundle landing in his lap. "There's the second book, and a parting gift from the Ceniza brothers."
"I take it they're dead." Dean's voice trembled, and his fingers were clenched about the black leather covers. "Of course. Every goddamned person I've ever met turns out dead, or rendered mentally incompetent. Well, thank you very much."
He bent over the book, but jerked up a second later as a crack whipped through the air. Fred jumped as well, and they both stared at the cane that had slammed into Dean's chair, inches from his neck. Then their eyes followed the wood up the hand holding it, finally landing on Ahmed's black storm of a face. "I am trying very hard to keep everyone in this room alive and intact." Words like diamonds, cutting effortlessly through the glassy atmosphere. "Unfortunately, I do not know everything. Partly because I am not told everything. For example, I had no idea you knew the Cenizas. I still have no idea why Liana would send her man to see them. So you will excuse me if I am occasionally too late."
With that Parthian shot, Ahmed straightened up and headed for the kitchen. Dean's head bowed, and his grip somehow became even fiercer on the book, to the point that Fred could see it bending. "Liana was Enrique Taillefer's mysterious wife, right? I heard about her, but never met her in person."
Ahmed halted, looking up at the ceiling. After a moment, he assented that that was true.
"The Cenizas are one of the best book restorers in the world," Dean continued, very quietly. "Moreover, they're one of the best antique book forgers in the world. Enrique used them on occasion for both reasons. They-might have done work on the-whichever one this is."
"That one is his. The only missing one is the Illuminati's stolen copy, which Liana still has." Ahmed half-turned so the shadows merged with his cuts to make an eerie mask, then twisted back and stepped into the kitchen. A moment later, gushing water indicated he'd turned on the sink.
G wore a pensive expression as she watched her colleague go, holding her coat tightly around herself. Then she flicked a surprisingly vicious look at Fred and Dean before stalking to the hallway door. "Stop upsetting him."
"What-oh, never mind." As she left, Dean got up and headed for the study, leaving Fred alone to ponder the new exchange.
Banging and low cursing from the kitchen interrupted his thoughts, however, and he ended up making his wary way toward the noises. At his approach, Ahmed glanced up from the sink.
No shirt. Rather nasty cut across one arm, near the shoulder, which Fred could see because Ahmed's shirt and vest made a shredded pile on the countertop. And…this was embarrassing. Confusing. "I think I'm going to make some tea," he said, only vaguely conscious of his words. "Would you like some? Or anything else?"
"Tea's fine." Ahmed turned his attention back to cleaning and dressing his wound. After a few more seconds, Fred realized he should probably be getting out the teapot, or something along those lines. So he did.
He'd forgotten how fragrant tea leaves were, and how soothing the process of making it was to his jumbled mind. It almost made him forget the current muddle of circumstances. But then a presence, heat and night, loomed up beside him, and everything shocked back into focus. Or out of focus. Whenever Ahmed was around, Fred's points of reference had a nasty habit of disappearing.
Thankfully, the other man simply picked up his cup and silently sipped at his tea. "Not bad."
"Not bad?" Fred raised his eyebrows over his own cup. "You were expecting it to be?"
"Fact of the world, Inspector Abberline. The English butcher tea. And if you'd ever drunk the properly-made kind, you would agree with me." Ahmed took another swallow, then wiped his lips with his hand. He gazed into the milky brown liquid as if he could see secrets there. Which he most likely could.
"Fred, if you'd like." The other man's eyes slanted a gaze as warming as the hot tea dissolving into Fred's veins. "And where would I find that? In…Arabia?"
When he smiled, without any irony in it, Ahmed could almost be taken for a quiet scholar, happily drifting his way through life and libraries. "Yes. Sadly, I haven't been there for a very long time, or else I would advise you as to where to start looking."
It was a stupid idea. It was probably going to get him killed-well, a lot of things would-and…
Ahmed set down his cup, beginning to move back to the sink, and Fred stepped in before he could think about what he was doing. Leaned up, hooked his arms around the other man's neck, and soundly kissed him.
* * *
Melting burnt sugar, liquor-edged tang, and for a moment, Ahmed let it happen. Then he slowly pulled back. "Do you know what you're doing?"
"Not really. But-" Fred started to move in again, but Ahmed held him off. "What?"
What? Wasn't that the question of the hour. No one ever seemed to think about consequences any more, or about effects beyond the immediate future, and then they wondered why they had so much trouble. Of course, they never actually got around to cleaning it up, figuring that people like Ahmed would always be around to take care of it. "This," Ahmed hissed.
Then he shoved the other man against the counter and crushed their mouths together. Fisted his hand in Fred's hair, didn't pay attention to the silkiness but did to the pained gasp, because that afforded him a chance to force Fred's lips even further apart and savage the other man's mouth till he was clawing at Ahmed's back, whimpering strangled pleas.
When Ahmed let go and moved away, Fred almost collapsed, barely catching himself on the counter. His lips had thin lines of blood across them, and he was panting as if in the last stages of brain fever.
Ahmed stopped looking then, and instead, picked up a dishcloth and soaked it. He started dabbing off the dried blood from his face. "Don't ask for something you aren't certain you want. Especially when you can't take back the decision once you've made it."
They stood there, breathing, for several minutes. Then footsteps retreated out of the kitchen, and Ahmed bent over the sink, partly in relief and partly in frustration.
If Liana had been telling the truth, then he had to keep Fred in London, or else risk all kinds of backlash if history's flow was seriously interrupted. If Ahmed had any sense left, he would stop trying to collect new weaknesses, and just concentrate on shielding the old scars. And if anything ever went as it should, he would have been long dead by now. Which he wasn't. Sometimes causal thinking wasn't worth the time it took to formulate a chain of probabilities.
* * *
Dean took one look at Fred and shook his head. "Played the gentleman?"
"Shut up." The other man dropped into a nearby chair and rubbed at his temples. "Why would you be concerned, anyway?"
"I…" To Dean's unpleasant surprise, his sarcasm died an unnatural death in his throat, while his newfound honesty decided to test its strength. He bit down on his lip and tried to concentrate on the two books before him, but his eyes refused to stay on the words. "You can't be that oblivious."
Fred blinked at him, swaying a little in the chair, and Dean suddenly remembered G mentioning drunkenness. Added to the opium pipe he had spotted on the shelf, and which Fred probably hadn't had a chance to use in at least a day. Thus…cravings. Frustration because they couldn't be satisfied, and confusion because-
Wait. Was Dean talking about Fred or about, God help him, himself?
"You kissed me first," Fred remarked, playing with a spare pen. He put it down and flicked it across the desk.
"And you damn well kissed me back, so I wouldn't bring up any complaints if I were you. Besides, you're one up on m-" Falling was not a good thing. Falling brought pain to already injured limbs, and messed up his…to hell with it. Dean grabbed onto Fred's shoulders and wrestled his way out of the toppled chair while his tongue was busy dancing with the other man's.
He got a leg out from between them and wrapped it around Fred's waist, trying to drag the other man as close as possible. Attempted to use it for leverage so he could roll them over, but Fred shoved him back down rather roughly, so Dean gave up on that idea. Anyway, there were more pleasant things to do. Like poking at buttons, and tugging at shirts until he could press his mouth into the hollows between throat and collarbone. Like feeling hands press up and down his ribs, pain and pleasure flaring up in a deliciously indistinguishable mixture.
They stopped for a quick breath, staring into each other's eyes. Fred was…well, not confused about this any more, and it was interesting that he still refused to let Dean up. "So?"
Dean arched an eyebrow, running his tongue over his lips to taste alcohol-laced tea and blood-spangled sweetness. Pure virgin, Fred wasn't.
"How does he taste?" Fred clarified. "Good enough for your games?"
And then Dean's hands were yanked above his head, which was forced back into the floor till he thought he could feel his eyeballs smashing into his brain. Fred was peeling him from inside out, kissing him raw, and Jesus Christ-
"You-you are a complete bastard." The other man's eyes were bloodshot, his breathing ragged.
So was Dean's. In fact, he wasn't able to talk for a few seconds. Or feel his fingers and toes, for that matter. "Innocent we aren't, but I don't think I lie to myself nearly as much as you do. Yes, I can taste him. And yes, I want more, you-" he pulled uselessly at his wrists "-fuck, let go. At this point, it should be obvious I can't do a damn thing to really hurt him. Whereas…"
And the defensive, possessive anger in Fred's face turned to sympathy, which more than anything else made Dean furious. "Whereas?" the other man softly prompted.
"Whereas he could-can hurt me, all right?" Dean drew in the rest of his strength and heaved, nearly breaking free. Important word there being 'nearly.' Something twisted inside, and pain lanced through his chest, making him groan and go limp. "Will you get off? Or is this going to be the full interrogation?"
The fingers twined around his wrists loosened, then started to rub circles down his arms. "Sorry," Fred murmured, bending down and sucking gently on Dean's lower lip.
"I should be working on those books," Dean muttered, staring up at the edge of the desk. At the only things to which he'd ever been true before…life had altered. Apparently for good. He wasn't terribly sure whether he liked that. In fact, he wasn't terribly sure on a lot of matters, no matter how good he'd been at clamping down on that over the past few days. Strangers waltzing in and out of death and life, people he'd known being so carelessly knocked off the board. "And there but for the grace of God go I…"
He leaned up and swallowed whatever Fred had been about to say, then trailed his mouth down the other man's neck, paying a little more attention whenever he ran across a bruise. Didn't understand a damn thing, after all, but at least he had company. Who understood him, even if liking probably wasn't included. Wistful thinking, anyway; Dean had given up on that early in life.
Fred slid down, rocked a little, and then thighs and hips and arms all fit. It wasn't anywhere near elegant, but it was good, grindingwarmhard, and it laid fire into the freeze that had taken root deep inside Dean, burning him almost clean. For once, he didn't think about appearances or meanings behind them, but instead simply submerged himself in the uneven rhythm of limbs against limbs, gasp passing from mouth to mouth. Remembered how to take comfort, and barely noticed when he found himself giving it.
They lazily cleaned themselves and eventually made it to the makeshift bed Fred had set up in the corner for G, luckily only a few feet away. Dean took off his glasses and watched the world blur to browns and yellows, Fred's arm draped around his waist and moist puffs of air prickling the back of his neck. "You think he heard?" came from behind him.
He let his chin dip forward so his face was half-hidden in the rumpled blankets. "I think he heard a lot more than that. What…G was mumbling about visions, and magic, and…"
"It exists. Though I can't tell you how that reconciles with science, I can tell you that Ahmed has a great deal of it. So does that woman that's apparently behind all of this-Liana Taillefer." Fred's lips grazed Dean's nape with every word, too like a real lover's intimacy. And suddenly Dean found salt stinging the very corners of his eyes, which shocked and embarrassed him.
So. He'd been lonely, and never noticed.
"I saw something the other night. A great burst of light. Except there wasn't the usual angelic choir. It was…more like a warning." He squeezed his eyes shut until the threat passed, then opened them. Somewhere along the line, he'd become very tired, and they soon drifted closed again.
* * *
Fred woke to someone brushing fingers along his side, yet he was curiously unafraid. Then again, his mind was so fuzzy that he wouldn't swear to being conscious. "Don't you ever sleep?"
"Occasionally." Ahmed finished pulling the sheets over him and Dean, then leaned over and pressed a kiss to their foreheads. "You need it more than I do."
It made sense to whatever was passing for logic in Fred's mind at the moment, so he laid back down and curled against Dean's back. Sleep soon swept him up again, and for the first time in a while, it was pleasant.
* * *
Ahmed was sitting in the hallway outside Fred's rooms when G finally returned. He checked her over for injuries while she probed his bandages, and then they leaned against the wall together. She produced a hip flash, took a swig and passed it to him. "I found some mead, believe it or not."
"Thanks." He only drank a mouthful before passing it back. "So? How are they?"
"Idiots. Insane. The Illuminati don't give a damn about anything except getting their copy back, but they're being so obvious about it that people are starting to notice. If anyone needed one, they'd make a great scapegoat." She rubbed at the bruise stretching across the back of her hand, then covertly studied Ahmed. He looked much calmer, but not the way she was used to. If anything, she'd say he was…sad. "You do like them."
"Far too much. Abb-Fred at least is going to be necessary to some other events, later. And I doubt that Dean would give up his business." Ahmed bunched up a corner of his overcoat and idly polished the hilt of his cane. "It's better that way. Liana's already too interested in them; Allah knows what she would do if she knew…"
"But we're going to kill her, and whatever events there are, they can't last forever." She grinned at his silent reprimand. "If you're going to be pessimistic, then I have to be optimistic. This city is depressing enough."
Ahmed shook his head in mock-despair, but he was smiling. They sat in comfortable quiet, ensuring that no malign influences would disturb the sleeping.
"So…" G ventured, after about a quarter-hour. "I was thinking I should visit Godley soon. To check on the dog. And maybe bring him a thank-you present."
::Allah have mercy on me::, Ahmed groaned. ::She never learns.::