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10/04/2021 07:09 PM 


1. Quotation marks mean I'm speaking in character, anything following // is an out of character remark. I'm trying to stay in character, even for status sh*tposting and the like, so expect ooc to be very rare. 2. I often get lazy or feel uninspired, and on those days I'll likely mess around in statuses alot. Don't pester me for replies, I'll get to you when the inspiration hits me, I'm not going to forget about you. Feel free to banter and interact on my statuses and such in the meantime. 3.This character is a serial killer. It is not unlikely for a story to be cut shorter than expected because something triggered him into murdering your character. It happens. We can always start something new and different afterward. On that note, don't get upset if he does get violent with your character. My profile and these rules are public, you knew what you were adding. 4. That's basically it, just have some common sense and don't be a d*ck out of character, and we'll get along fine.    I'll update this as needed.


10/04/2021 05:48 PM 

therapy / talking about trauma / post - trauma starters.

she knows wanda means it because wanda rarely says anything she doesn’t mean.  but it doesn’t make much of a difference to carol.  not when she’s coming apart at the seams. it sounds like the kind of advice she’d give and she’d mean it, too,  when she’d say it.  but it isn’t the kind of advice she has an easy time accepting.  she’s supposed to be captain marvel, earth’s mightiest hero.  not just carol danvers,  feeling her crummiest.   she sighs as she nods her head,    ❝ — i used to dream of days like today. ❞   she remembers wanting to be taken seriously,  wanting to be a leader.  carol had wanted to step out from under the shadow of the avengers and define herself as a hero.  not just as ms. marvel or binary or whatever she was that week but as the world’s greatest superhero. and now,  that’s what she is,  according to the latest polls, at least.  but she hadn’t prepared for the mounting,  astronomical pressure to always be perfect.  carol lets out a breath as she looks to wanda for her guidance.  she’ll never stop being shocked by wanda’s neverending maturity.  she offers her a soft,  slight grin,    ❝ — i’ll be fine once i’m able to punch it out of my system.  ❞


10/04/2021 08:33 PM 

{Central Marsay's Info}

Central Marsay●・○・●・○・●・○・●・○・●・○・●・○・●●・○・●・○・●・○・●・○・●・○・●・○・●"See, I have this condition where I speak the truth and it pisses people off"●・○・●・○・●・○・●・○・●・○・●・○・● Full name: Central Marie MarsayAge: 19Gender: FemalePronouns: She/HerSexuality: Bisexual though she actually prefers females over malesBirthday: November 3rdZodiac: ScorpioSpecies/Race: She was originally made to be a demon but it can easily be changed depending on the roleplay●・○・●・○・●・○・●・○・●・○・●・○・●Likes:  Anything music related, determined people, and occasionally teasing othersDislikes: Stereotypes, prejudice, and being considered an emoMain Traits: Sarcastic, stubborn, a bit of a pessimist, and bluntHobbies: Dancing and light sketchingExtra Info: If I were to guess an ailment for her it would have to be chaotic good. Central's also terrified of faries- She just hates glitter guys●・○・●・○・●・○・●・○・●・○・●・○・●Height: 5'4ftWeight: 121lbsHair Color: Charcoal BlackEye Color: Ruby RedSignature Quote: "Only dumb people try to impress smart people. Smart people just to what they do."

Character Bio


10/03/2021 02:01 PM 


Angemon is an Angel Digimon. It has six shining wings, and its body is clad in cloth so pure white as to be divine. It is a being of perfected virtue, and although it is called a Digimon that brings happiness, when confronting evil, it does not stop attacking, with extreme composure, until the opponent is completely annihilated. On the countless times when the Digital World is visited by a crisis, it is told that it descends to lead Digimon of the same genus, and Devimon, who was won over to the Dark Side, was originally of the same species.[13]   Attacks Hand of Fate[14] (Heaven's Knuckle): Strikes the opponent with its fist shining gold. It may also fire a beam of energy from its fist. Angel Rod[15] (Holy Rod): Attacks with its "Angel Rod". Omni Typhoon[16] (God Typhoon): Creates a divine tornado. Angel Slam Staff Sweep Air Slam (Halo Attack) GlideHoly Shot: Shoots a burst of holy energy.

Brutally Honest

10/02/2021 01:32 PM 

条例 Guidelines
Current mood:  accomplished

☆  R U L E S ☆ ✘ Do not automatically expect smut roleplays from me. Yes, females are overly emphasized with their bodies in anime. I understand this, and it's sad that they are used in that manner. However, I do recognize that smut does happen in real life and in roleplay all the time and would not mind a smut-based roleplay, but only if it was a story that had some built-up plot twist to it. I hope that makes sense.✘ Please do not steal anything from my page. I have worked hard to make the images, and layouts cropped, edited, changed, and manipulated on photoshop cs6 and paint tool sai so if you're looking for something similar or are curious about my content please just message me. I really.✘ I will not do underage roleplays with anyone. I am 32 years old in real life and it's just disgusting to me. Anyone under the age of 18 or 19 I will automatically delete and block.✘ I do not mind how you contact me. However, I do prefer messages for roleplaying. I don't usually answer to copy and paste comments that most people don't take the time to write for everyone individually. When I send greetings they come from individual statements. I write them out according to the roleplayer. I care about the people behind the roleplays. They aren't just stories to me; they're memories we make together.✘ I don't mind chatting outside of roleplay. I draw the line with personal emails, phone numbers, and personal addresses of homes. I do not like the idea of someone coming to my house unless we've known each other for a very very long time and you have earned my trust. And that has only happened once and it didn't end well.✘ I am not going to be able to be online 24/7 so please respect that if I'm not online that I will reply as soon as I am able. I will be back as soon as I can to reply, and I usually leave a status stream comment saying I'll be gone and for how long I will return. ✘ Please use literacy when communicating with me and sending me messages. I do not expect perfection, but at least put effort into what you're writing to me. I do not want to be the only one coming up with ideas for our story. Please keep in mind this is a dual effort in creating memorable stories that can change people.✘ No god-modding or auto-hitting in fighting. I don't usually fight much anymore since most people don't know what the hell they're doing or they don't know my way of fighting. There is always that person that thinks they know it all and boasts about their abilities and then doesn't show any merit in roleplay.✘ Mutes will be deleted within 2 weeks and if you don't speak up if I remember I will probably send you a message to introduce myself and who I am to you. I am typically very friendly although these rules might seem a bit strict. I know people make mistakes and I acknowledge that no one is perfect nor do I pretend to be.✘ Literacy - please use grammar and punctuation in roleplay. The format I use for roleplay is 3rd person and I hope you will be able to understand it. If it's not your standard writing style, I can work our way around it so we both come out of it happy campers.✘ That's all I can think of for now. I reserve the right to change the rules as I see fit and to delete or deny the people I don't want on my page. I have a small group of friends and I am completely comfortable that I found my friends on here. Anyway, thank you for reading all the rules on here. If you made it here you may now message me for a roleplay however you see fit.  ✘✘✘

тнє ѕℓιєит νιρєяѕ

10/02/2021 01:08 PM 

The Silent Reaper

Full Name: Cassandra Bellatrix Juliette Johnson MoranaPronunciation: kuh·san·druh  More-AnnaAlias: The Silent Reaper, The Assassin ReaperNickname: Cassie, Cass, Give her someMeaning: Cassandra (helper of men) Bellatrix (Female Warrior) Juliette(Youth) Morana (Goddess of Winter & Death)Origin:ID Number: 537Signature: Bold and CursiveGender: FemaleGender Role: FeminineOrientation: PansexualReal Age: 15 CenturiesAge Appearance: Mid 20'sBirthday: March 13, 520 ADBirthstone(s): Purple AmethystDeathday: --Location: Ka'RashBirthplace: KuttoraSpecies: Witch/ReaperOccupation: Dancer/BartenderAllegiance: Reapers of Anarchy (Motocycle/Mafia Gang) , The Ripper Clan (Morana/Ripper Family)Rank: Healer, Peacemaker, AssassinPreferred Hand: AmbidextrousFacial Type: OvalEye Color: EmeraldHair Color: Light Black fade to Blue VioletHairstyle: VariesSkin Tone: PaleComplexion: FairMakeup: Lip GlossBuild: Petite/SlimHeight: 5'3Weight: 160 lbsCup Size: 32 DDShoe Size: 7.5Birthmarks/scars: None/SomeDistinguishing Features: Innocent Green Eyes, LipsHealth: HealthyEnergy: NormalMemory: Very WellSenses: Very WellAllergies: NoneHandicaps: NoneMedication: NonePhobias: FallingAddictions: NoneMental Disorders: Not sureBrief Bio:=====================Mother: Amanda Morana (Dead)Father: Lucian Morana (Dead)Sister(s): Lovitar Morana (Soul Ripper), Elizabeth Morana (Snow Reaper/Twin)Brother(s): Vladimir MoranaDaughter(s): Input infoSon(s):  Input infoAunt(s): Input infoUncle(s): Input infoFemale Cousin(s): Input infoMale Cousin(s): Input infoNiece(s): Azreal Morana, Kala Ripper-Morana, Amani Morana Jr, Taima AyitaNephew(s): Tala Ripper-Morana, Dorian MoranaGodparent(s): Input infoGodchild(ren): Input infoLoyalties: Ra'Kash, Sisters, FamilyBest Friend(s): Input infoFriend(s): Input infoPet(s): Kit & Rit (Twin Female Hellhounds), Ryo (Male Bengal Cat)===================Relationship Status: SingleWhom: <a href="/">Name</a><br>Since: --/--/----First Met: --/--/----First Kiss: --/--/----Engaged: --/--/----Married: --/--/----Past Relationship(s): No one

тнє ѕℓιєит νιρєяѕ

10/02/2021 01:08 PM 

The Snow Reaper

Full Name: Elizabeth Amanda MoranaPronunciation: ih-LIHZ-ah-Bah-TH More-AnnaAlias: Jinx Ripper, The Seer Ripper, The Snow Reaper, The Second in ComandNickname: Jinx, Jinxie, Lizzie, Liz, Beth, Jinxie, JinxyMeaning:Elizabeth (My God is abundance) Amanda (Worthy of love) Morana (Goddess of Winter & Death)Origin:Title: Miss, Ms, LadyPet Name: Sissy, Mom, AuntieID Number: 637Signature: CursiveGender: FemaleGender Role: FeminineOrientation:PansexualReal Age: 15 CenturiesAge Appearance: Mid 20'sBirthday: March 13, 520 ADBirthstone(s): Purple AmethystDeathday: 545 ADBirthplace: KuttoraAstrological Sign: WaterZodiac Sign: PiscesSpecies: Reaper/GoddessOccupation: Soul Reaper/MilitaryEthnicity: WhiteBlood Type: A NegativePreferred Hand:AmbidextrousFacial Type: OvalEye Color: Emerald GreenHair Color: Light Black fade to Scarlette RedHairstyle: VariesSkin Tone: WhiteComplexion: FairMakeup: Lip Gloss, Light BlushBody Type: EctomorphicBuild: Petite/SlimHeight: 5'3Weight: 160 lbsCup Size: 32 DDShoe Size: 7.5Birthmarks/scars: None/SomeDistinguishing Features: Innocent Green Eyes, LipsHealth: Very HealthyEnergy: 50/100Memory: very WellSenses: Better then mostAllergies: PollenHandicaps: NoneMedication: NonePhobias: SpidersAddictions: NoneMental Disorders: NoneBrief Bio:=====================Grandmother(s): Input infoGrandfather(s): Input infoMother: Amanda Morana (deceased)Father: Lucian Morana (deceased)Sister(s): Lovitar Morana (Soul Ripper/Older), Cassandra Morana (Silent Reaper/Twin)Brother(s): Vladimir Morana (MIA/Elder)Daughter(s): Kala Ripper, Taima Ayita (Adopted)Son(s): Tala RipperAunt(s): Input infoUncle(s): Input infoFemale Cousin(s): Input infoMale Cousin(s): Input infoNiece(s): Azreal Morana, Amani Morana JrNephew(s): Dorian MoranaGodparent(s): Input infoGodchild(ren): Input infoLoyalities: Ra'Kash, FamilyBest Friend(s): Kiki (Kioni), Kurt WagnerFriend(s): ArkinPet(s): Rexi (Female Savannah cat), Lex & Max (Male Twin Hellhounds), Severus (Male Basilisk)===================Relationship Status: FingleWhom: NameSince: --/--/----First Met: --/--/----First Kiss: --/--/----Engaged: --/--/----Married: --/--/----Past Relationship(s): Kade


09/30/2021 03:02 PM 


Summary: Long ago, Xion's previous existence fought a war unknown to the region. It was then she saved a child from a cruel ploy in the midst of battle taken before her final confrontation in Transcendent Wish. The child  would later tell her grandchilren briefly in her final days about her and where she rest.  Mysteries blanketed her resting place and curiosity peaked among the people and adventurers around the world. They would attempt to find  treasures, but would be swept along with the mysteries behind the cold.  “Bleak are the chances of our salvation. If we are stranded in Frozen Desolation. “   Grim words binding the citizens. A reminder of the danger within the mysterious rough ice patch that blanketed the mountainous region with the seasons with  harsh winters all year round. It did not carry such warning nor the plaguing cold throughout its existence. Many many years ago, a woman spoke fondly of the place.    “An old friend rests there.” she would tell her grandchildren. “In her last brave moment, she saved her friends and me…” Waters gently welled in her eyes before the children.   “What happened to her, grandma?” They looked at her with much concern.    “She fought valiantly and carried out her wishes. She wielded a unique sword that embodied a powerful spirit that helped seal away the evil and prevented a potential war.”   “Does the sword still exist? Can we visit her there?!”   She paused at their questions and smiled with her hands patting the two, “No… No... We should let her rest. She has been through a lot. Save the questions for another time. Grandma is really tired. She is too. Perhaps even more than me...”   The woman never answered those questions as she would pass shortly after. Curiosity and rumors heightened afterwards. Adventurers dared to answer those questions setting out into the land of eternal winters.  However, the outskirts contained the deadliest cold. Many would turn back instantly. Bandits, mages, adventurers attempted to enter in the continent’s summer where the outskirts were weakened enough to pass into the mountainous center.  Several members banded together and made their way deeper into a distinctive cave, where a light abnormally radiated from within. Azure light radiated against the rocky walls with sprouts of glimmering ice protruded prism like from the ground. They continued farther towards the light. Some were awestruck. Some were frustrated in hopes of monetary gain. The opening contained a bowl of ice. Shaped so beautifully, wave-like, surrounding a pillar in the center with a fragile blue flora. Their reflections wereclear with a tint of blue gradient upon their reflections.   A clear path was paved towards the pillar within the center where a bright pillar of ice stood hgh amongst the rest. The young mage slowly approached it and stopped to the sound of ice crushed beneath boots of many disgruntled members of the group.    “F***! We risked our asses to find something of value and there is nothing! F***ing nothing!”   “Hey wai-” The mage attempt to quell the other members halted to quell their frustrations until a chilling touch of ominous breeze tread across their skins.  “Men, wait.” A long pause and silence held the men in place.    “Whatever! Just a scare…” One of the members brushed off the timidness and lifted his feet.  “What the-” He struggled to lift one of his feet up, as ice formed up to his ankle.  The other members assisted him and chipped away at the ice after stepping away freely across the flowers.     “Guys calm down and be mindful of the place.”   “What are you babbling about!?”   “This place is…”   (You all have desecrated her sanctuary...)   “Hey! You hear me!?”    “Shut up!”   (Leave at once.)   The mage frightened by the unknown voice in his mind.   “Oy! There are swords here! Looks like we got something after all.” The adventurers reached for the glowing pair of swords laid behind the pillar.    “No! Don’t take them!” The mage rush towards the member as he was shoved away.   “Knew we couldn’t trust you. Always wanted to take charge and now take the spoils for yourself.” The member was annoyed with everyone else staring at him with discontent.  His hand was inches away from the blades.   “STOPPPPPPPPPP!!!”   A bright blue light radiated from the crystal with a veil of a figure.   (A...a girl?) The mage caught a glimpse, but the light consumed all the members.  The members never returned. Only worry that would become fear plaguing the people with their absence. The grandchildren now adults wondered what grandma knew of the place. How she thought of such a place so fondly, was so sad and horrifying. Why would a hero rest in such a desolate place? A teardrop shedded beneath the ice.       


09/30/2021 04:11 PM 

Rules Of The Sheriff

First Rule: Do not add me for Smut. While i roleplay romance it has to be developed through a story Second Rule: I roleplay Multi Para to Novella. While i can't ask you to do the same, I won't Rp para and lessThird Rule: When you add me, don't expect me to make a story/ send a stater e.c.t COLLABORATE WITH ME Fourth Rule: An extension of the third: I don't mind sending starters BUT NOT ALWAYSFifth Rule: I Deny once? Don't add me againSixth Rule: When it comes to sexuality. It's cannon cofirmed that Caitlyn is Straight BUT Bi-Curious. That means that both genres have equal chances of be in a relationship with Cait. As it is already confirmed that Cait lost a boyfriend, K.I.A and also confirmed that she had a romantic relationship with VI. Bottom line, she swings both ways HOWEVER, keep in mind rule number 1When we discuss if i recieve 1 words/ 1 lines/ or links for descriptions is INSTANT Delete and Block. BE ACTIVE Last Rule: I can understand real life comes first, However if you haven't reply me for 10 days i will send a warning, after the warning you have 48 hours to reply to me. If still no, then i will delete you


09/30/2021 02:28 PM 

Brief Backstorys

Brief Backstory Behind My Characters In My Albums.The List Will Grow As I Add Characters. Yoko Yuki, she is basically based off Yoko Kurama from Yu Yu Hakusho, she is/was a very good thief and her battle skills are pretty decent, she was injured a long time ago though, so she had to pretty much drop off the grid and been living as a human, keeping her demonic side hiddenMicaela is the daughter of a Mob Boss, but the woman who gave birth to her was just a one night stand who went to him to ask to protect their daughter, there were loan sharks after her and she couldn't be on the run with a baby, so he took her but kept their relation secret, the only ones that know that she is his daughter is herself, him, and his right hand, while growing up though she got to see the ins and outs of what they do and as much as he tried keeping her out of it all she made friends with the mobs main bar hang arounds and the bartender, her goal is to know everything as much as possible so she could try taking her father position when the time was rightZiviiia was an experiment, horns, bat wings, tail and bright red hues, the wizard that ran tests on her kept her locked away in a tower, with a guard who eventually took pity upon her, in doing so he let her go, she ran away, but years and years of being chased out of every town she ever came across and after finding love only to get it taken from her so quickly and violently it twisted her mind into something of pure evil, now she loves the screams of her victims as she tears their flesh from their bone and bathes in their blood, she has multiple personalities, all evil, but one is more civil where as the other is more blood lustyKaos Storm is human with special abilities, she can use her imagination an pretty much turn it to life, but the only one that can see it is her, she uses her imagination to train, she keeps a very positive attitude but that is due to her training, all her pain and anger is manifested into these images she creates from her mind to fight off, it didnt start though til the day she lost her best friend and the grief was to muchJezebel is a college student who works on cars and bikes and is pretty much just a rebel, she grew up in a rich family, but she ran away when she got tired of all the mundane things and just wanted to be treated normally, instead of surrounded by fake peopleSly Vindict is a trained assassin, she got separated from her long lost childhood friend and partner when they got set up on a mission and had to split ways, shes been running and trying to find him ever sinceTatiana is another mechanic and motorcycle enthusiast, but she was not born into privilege, she grew up with her father and 3 brothers whom only 2 are around, their father died from liver disease once he became a drunk after their mother left and the oldest brother was not far behind when he got into a motorcycle accident after joining some illegal motorcycle races which she started secretly taking on behind her other 2 older brothers backs, the rush makes her feel aliveMaki...i do not really have anything set and stone for her, shes kind of a...i can make her be wahtever, character, she is to new for me to really have a backstory on her, i havent played with her much

backstory, ziviliz, yoko yuki, Micaela, Jezebel, Tatian, Kaos Storm, a, Zivilia, Maki, Sly

Lay's Ladies MCP

09/29/2021 11:37 PM 

Lilac aka Lil

Name: Lilac Nickname:LilSpecies: HumanAge: 30Hight: 5ft 11in.Lilac is the princess of the Sequoia tribe and next in line to rule since she is the eldest but has no brothers. She is also one of the most fierce warriors in her tribe; only a handful of elders being able to best her. She has a quiet nature except when it comes to her father who will not let her succeed until she marry. So if you like being on the right side of dirt don't mention the chief or tease about any wedding plans. Abilities: Lil is as fast and as strong as a wild Buffalo. Master archer, spiritual abilities and 9/10 in hand to hand combat.  


09/29/2021 10:57 PM 

Grimm Info

Full name: Sabella Grimm   Gender: female   Species: succubus   Age: unknown   Birthday: October 31st   Sexuality: anyone   Currently lives: anywhere   Languages spoken: all   Relationship Status: single   PHYSICAL APPEARANCE   Height: 5’9”   Weight: 160lbs   Figure/build: curvy   Hair colour: blue and black (top to bottom)   Hairstyle: long   Eye colour: red with black around them   Skin/fur/etc colour: porcelain white   Piercings: 1 tongue, 2 bottom lip   Preferred style of clothing: black bikini, black gloves, black thigh highs and black high heels   Frequently worn jewellery/accessories: crosses   PERSONALITY   Personality: teasing, lustful, sexual, smart, mysterious, cunning, loving   Likes: energy, art, and video games   Dislikes: bugs, churches, priests    Favourite colour: blue   Hobbies: drawing, writing, video games   Taste in music: anything   EATING HABITS   Favourite drink(s): energy, souls   HOUSE AND HOME   Describe the character's house/home: anywhere she can go   COMBAT   Peaceful or aggressive attitude? Peaceful   Special skills/magical powers/etc: fly, levitate, teleport, heal, illusion magic, paralysis, charm   Weapon of choice (if any) magic   Weaknesses in combat: if fighter is strong willed and breaks through her charm    FAMILY, FRIENDS AND FOES   Parents names:  Xander Grimm(father), Tilda Grimm(mother)   Is the character still in contact with their parents? yes   Siblings? Relationship with siblings?


09/29/2021 10:16 PM 


SUMMARY: e·nig·ma (n): a person or thing that is mysterious, puzzling, or difficult to understand. :: "She can't be all that great," Kakashi declared in an assured tone. "I mean…look at her, she has pink hair." (In which, Kakashi is a bratty preteen.) :: [AU][Age Swap][Canon Divergence][Kakashi x Sakura][Obito x Rin] NOTES: event: naruto couples event 2018prompt: favorite non-canon pairing // role swappairing: kakashi x sakuragenre: romance // humorword count: 4,340     E N I G M A -o- When Kakashi was twelve, he passed her off as insignificant. -o- Obito whistled; a low, appreciative sound that quickly morphed into a chuckle as the ground shook beneath their feet. "…Guys, I think I'm in love," The dark-haired twelve-year-old declared. Rin hummed in agreement, seemingly unphased by her long-time crush's sudden proclamation of affection for another woman. After being on his team for the last five months, this was far from the strangest thing she heard come out of the Uchiha's mouth. "She's so strong," Rin whispered in awe, short chocolate locks bouncing as her head pivoted back and forth, eyes following the spar occurring across the field. Obito nodded his head, concurring. His Cheshire grin grew tenfold as he watched the limp body of their teacher fly across the training field, crashing into a tree trunk with a sickening crunch. "Oh man…," Obito said, voice filled with unrepressed mirth. "She's kicking his ass!" With every echoing twang of kunai meeting kunai, Rin's wonderment grew just as much as Obito's amusement. "Do you think your cousin would introduce us?" She inquired, looking at the onyx-haired male out of the corner of her eye. Obito turned towards her, tossing the thought around while his hand ran through his hair, lips drawn down in a tight-lipped frown. He was silent for a moment before he gave her a brief shake of his head. "No," He commented, shifting black eyes back towards the scuffle going on a few yards away. "We have a better chance of getting sensei to quit eating ramen than we have of getting that ice prick to introduce us." Rin deflated, shoulders slumping at the denial of her request. The subject of their conversation stomped her foot with a loud, piercing battle cry and the ground opened up into a large, jagged fissure. Rin observed as the crater grew in size, attempting to swallow their teacher and his clones whole. The brunette grimaced when a piece of flying debris managed to catch their sensei in the shoulder. Rin, ever the optimistic, then offered, "Maybe if she doesn't send him to the hospital, Naruto-sensei will introduce us?" "I don't see what the big deal is," The third member of their party cut in with a bored tone. Obito and Rin half turned, gazes drawn towards Kakashi, who sat a few feet away at the base of a tree. He seemed nonplused by the commotion going on around them, body lax and hunched over, sharpening his tanto with slow, precise strokes. Obito bristled at Kakashi's nonchalance. "You're telling me that you wouldn't want to meet the Godaime's famed pupil personally?" The tone of his question was incredulous, borderline hysteric. "A woman said to be able to reduce a mountain to rubble with a flick of her wrist?!" Kakashi remained unperturbed by the Uchiha's questions, finishing his task without so much as a glance in his teammates' direction. Obito, never the one to be ignored, immediately went on the defensive, but before the young Uchiha could voice his continued complaints, Kakashi finally lifted his head. The silver-haired genin flicked his gaze towards the fight, then shifted his dark eyes back to look at Obito, brow arched. "She can't be all that great," Kakashi declared in an assured tone. "I mean…look at her…she has pink hair." -o- Over the next few years, Kakashi tried to understand her. -o- Naruto may not have been the most competent sensei, but he really wasn't that bad. Sure, he was unhygienic most of the time, and his eating habits left something to be desired, but what he lacked in intelligence, he made up for in strength, dedication, and heart. Their blond teacher shined bright like the sun. Obito was a lot like Naruto in that aspect; always joking, always smiling. His sensei's lack of proper etiquette never stopped him from training his students to the best of his ability. Though Naruto's methods may have been questionable – because really, how could that bell test be useful – he still brought out the best in his students. When Obito struggled with using his Sharingan, Naruto convinced his old teammate, Obito's cousin – or was it second cousin? Distant relative? Kakashi really couldn't keep up with the Uchiha family tree anymore – to help the young man with his family's kekkei genkai. When Rin mentioned in passing that she was interested in studying medical ninjutsu, Naruto made sure to introduce her to certain hospital staff, who gladly took her under their wings. When it became apparent that Kakashi was developing skills which were beyond what Naruto could teach him, their knuckleheaded teacher called up his father – the prematurely retired Fourth Hokage – to assess his ability. By the end of the day, both father and son promised to sponsor Kakashi for ANBU after he passed the jounin exams. Since their graduation from the academy, for three long, long years, Naruto Uzumaki gave his all to his pupils. Kakashi had come to respect him immensely, despite his boisterous personality. What Kakashi could never wrap his head around, however, was that anytime that woman was nearby – the one with the bubblegum pink hair and those vibrant jade eyes – his sensei turned into a blubbering, love-sick fool. It wasn't just his teacher, though. She held this power over everyone. Even Obito and Rin were both smitten with her. The entire village knew her on a first name basis. Sakura Haruno was bright and lively and filled with so much happiness that she drew people in like a moth to a flame. Yet, he seemed unaffected. Or at least he thought he was. She was an enigma to him. -o- When Kakashi was fifteen, she kicked his ass. -o- "You don't like me very much, do you?" Kakashi looked down from his perch on the tree branch. Sakura stood beneath his dangling legs, face upturned in his direction, a smile on her lips that made the corners of her eyes crinkle. He must have been daydreaming because he didn't sense her approach. Kakashi could hear Naruto rattling off critiques while Obito and Rin sparred a few yards away. "I don't know you," Kakashi returned coolly. "You very well can't dislike someone if you don't know them." Sakura's stance shifted, petite hands coming to rest on her hips as her face contorted into an expression of mock hurt. "Now that hardly seems fair, Kakashi-kun. I've trained with you on and off for the last three years. I've even been to some of your team dinners!" The way his name rolled off her tongue made Kakashi uncomfortable, an odd twinge settling into the pit of his stomach. He didn't like it. Not one bit. "Just because you've been around doesn't change the fact that I still don't know a thing about you," He called down to her. She pursed her lips in response, continuing to look up at him while seemingly pondering over some unvocalized thoughts. Kakashi immediately tensed under her scrutiny, fingers awkwardly picking at the bark of the tree branch he was perched upon. His palms became uncomfortably warm in his gloves, and he had to fight down the urge to run his hands over his thighs to quell the feeling. Whatever it was that she was mulling over suddenly passed. Sakura cocked her head to the side, puffing at her bangs as they fell into her eyes with the movement. She was looking at him strangely, like a predator sizing up her prey. There was an odd glint in those viridian hues, and his stomach flip-flopped when her lips quirked into a small smirk. "Fair enough," She stated in a tone that seemed a little too sweet. "How about a little spar to break the ice then?" He furrowed his brow in confusion at her challenge, slipping from the tree branch to land gracefully in front of her. "You want…to spar…with me?" Kakashi parroted, slowly. With a curt bob of her head, Sakura confirmed that he had, in fact, heard her correctly. "That is unless you're too scared to step into the ring with me?" "Oh! Kakashi's about to get his ass kicked!" Obito shouted from across the clearing, the others having halted their practice in lieu of the rising tension they sensed coming from their silver-haired teammate. Kakashi frowned in the Uchiha's direction, the scowl pulling the material of his mask harshly against his cheeks. He looked back towards the woman in front of him, charcoal eyes taking in every detail, starting with her vibrant colored head and ending at her perfectly manicured toes. There was no way this girl - who happened only to be a few inches taller than himself - could take him down. Something ugly reared its head, in the back of his mind, begging him to rise to the taunt. The thought of this woman challenging him, attacking his pride, didn't sit well with Kakashi. He didn't train as hard as he did; didn't dig himself out of the darkness of his late father's reputation, to be bested by some girl with pink hair. It didn't matter that Sakura had the strength of one hundred men or that she could go toe to toe with his teacher. Kakashi himself had proven to be a difficult opponent for even Naruto at times; he could easily outsmart her. "I won't go easy on you," The silver-haired male warned. Her answer to his statement was a broad, feral grin. Kakashi was sore from the spar for the following week. That was the first time a girl had ever beaten him. -o- When Kakashi was eighteen, she saved his life. -o- He awoke to ringing in his ears and pristine, white lights blinding him. Kakashi saw double, then triple, before he screwed his eyes shut in an attempt to gather his bearings. The world continued to spin even behind his eyelids, and he had to bite back the bile that began to rise in his throat. For a while, all he could do was lay there, prone, and force himself to breathe. He tried to remember where he was and what he was doing previously, but nothing came to mind. After shifting uncomfortably on the lumpy mattress for a few minutes, Kakashi realized where he was. A hospital. Then it came back to him. His first ANBU mission. It was an assassination assignment; a local gangster was causing problems in a small village about two kilometers outside of Konoha. He completed his task quickly and efficiently, but he was spotted during his escape. A fight ensued, and the last thing he remembered was being thrown off balance by an explosion right before a large piece of the ceiling came crashing down on him. He released a gurgled groan, opening his eyes once more. The harsh lighting caused him to grimace, but he didn't shy away from it. Struggling, he tried to sit up, but only managed an inch or so before the exertion became too much and he fell back with a small huff. "Woah there, don't try and move so quickly," A soft voice called out to him. Sluggishly, Kakashi turned his head to the left, taking in the sight of Naruto unceremoniously sprawled in a plastic hospital chair next to the bed. The blond's head was cocked at an angle that couldn't have been comfortable, but he seemed unbothered, his teacher’s soft snores filling the silence of the room. Something soothing and warm ran across the back of his neck, and Kakashi tensed. He tried to turn his head in the opposite direction, but his neck was stiff, and his eyes began to feel unbearably heavy. "Rest Kakshi-kun," The voice murmured. "We've got you. You're safe." The darkness was a welcomed relief. When he awoke again, Kakashi was unsure of how much time had passed, but it was now Obito and Rin who were with him in the hospital room. "Oh, thank god!" Rin cried out, reaching to grasp his hand tightly between her own. "Finally, you're awake!" "You look like sh*t man," Obito joked placing his hand on Rin's shoulder. The inky-haired male might have looked chipper, but Kakashi noted his stiffness, the awkward posture that had Obito standing ramrod straight. Leave it to an Uchiha to hide their real feelings behind insults. Kakashi must have looked horrible to make Obito apprehensive. He grunted, licking his chapped lips while trying to sit up. The movement came more natural to him this time around, but he was still sore. Rin quickly scrambled to his side, offering her assistance. She helped him lean forward, taking a majority of his weight while Obito organized the pillows behind him so that he would be adequately supported while upright. "How long have I been out?" Kakashi croaked his inquiry. He coughed after the use of his voice, then tried – and failed – to clear his throat. Rin reached for the pitcher of water that was on the bedside table, pouring him a glass before she pressed it into his hand. Kakashi drank it greedily; the cold, crisp liquid was a welcomed relief. When he was finished, she plucked the cup from his grasp, refilled it, and then handed it back to him. "You've been out for almost a week," Obito stated, answering his earlier question. "When you didn't return as scheduled, Hokage-sama sent out a two-man squad to retrieve you." Kakashi mulled over this information for a moment before he asked, "Who found me?" "Naruto-sensei and Sakura-chan," Rin chimed in. "You're extremely fortunate Kakashi, by the time they found you, you had already lost so much blood…" Her voice trailed off quietly, but the implication wasn't lost on anyone in the room. "They raced to get you back here," Obito cut in, voice surprisingly subdued. "Neither of them left your side since they brought you back. Sakura-chan was the one who healed you. She stayed to observe your recovery over the last couple of days. Naruto-sensei finally dragged her out of the hospital this morning, telling her she needed to get some proper rest." There was suddenly an odd feeling in Kakashi's chest, an awkward pang that caused him to squirm under the thin sheets of the hospital bed. He suddenly felt far too hot. Later that day, after Rin and Obito had said their goodbyes, Kakashi realized that the uneasy feeling from earlier had nothing to do with his injuries. -o- When Kakashi was nineteen, he found out she liked dogs. -o- Naruto may not have been their teacher anymore, but that didn't stop the three of them from seeking out his advice when it came to sharpening their skills. Their ex-sensei wanted to work with them on tracking, more explicitly, tracking each other in case of any emergency situations. With Kakashi off in ANBU, Obito slowly getting sucked into his clan politics, and Rin delving into her work at the hospital, they barely had time to train with each other on a regular basis. Getting together again was a nice reprieve from the daily stresses that came with being a ninja. They had just finished running a through a drill with Kakashi's ninken when she broke through the tree line. Immediately, all of the dogs were on guard, but at Naruto's cheerful greeting towards his best friend, they simultaneously relaxed. "Naruto, your father is looking for you," The rosette stated during her approach. "I think he and Shishou have a mission for you." "Ne, Sakura-chan, can't you ever bring me news that's not work related?" The blonde questioned with a whine. Sakura chuckled but chose not to answer his pouted inquiry. Instead, she turned to regard the three younger ninjas with a smile on her face, "Hi guys! Training hard?" "Hi, Sakura-chan!" Obito greeted, excitedly. Rin rolled her eyes skyward, nudging her boyfriend none too gently with her elbow. "Down boy," The brunette reprimanded. "I swear you still act like you're a genin." She turned back towards the older woman with a grin. "How are you, Sakura-sama?" The pinkette rubbed the back of her neck sheepishly at the honorific. "Rin-chan, we're not at the hospital. You don't have to address me so formally." A small flush of embarrassment colored Rin's cheeks. "Sorry. Force of habit." Sakura dismissed the apology wave of her hand. "Don't worry about it, were friends, after all, right?" "Yo, Sakura-chan," Kakashi called, drawing the attention of everyone in the clearing. "If the knucklehead is leaving, do you want to take his place in the drill?" A sudden stillness descended on the training grounds, four pairs of eyes shifting to regard him with varying levels of surprise. Though they had been on more agreeable terms since Sakura had beaten him in that spar four years prior, Kakashi still chose to interact with the older woman when only when strictly necessary. It was a habit that he seemed to be breaking out of ever since her involvement in his stint at the hospital. Before anyone could question the sudden change in Kakashi's demeanor, Pakkun broke free from the gaggle of canines, trotting over until he stood in front of Sakura, sniffing the air around her curiously. Whatever scent he discovered, it seemed to make him happy because suddenly, the pug's tail started wagging furiously. "Boss!" The dog called in his usual gruff voice. "She smells just like my strawberry shampoo!" -o- Half a year later, they went on a mission together. -o- It was a simple B-Rank escort mission. A Konoha diplomat named Yuko needed to be escorted to the Fire Daimyo’s estate. There was an upcoming council meeting in the village and politicians were beginning voice their concerns to the Daimyo in hopes of gaining favor when it came to passing new regulations within Konoha. Naruto had been out on a solo mission at the time, and the only other person Tsunade trusted with this assignment was Sakura. Without a team of her own, the Hokage had selected Kakashi and Obito to go with her. Rin, having become a prominent part of the staff in the hospital, couldn't be granted leave. It was terrible enough Tsunade had assigned Sakura to this mission; she could not afford to send two med-nins. Everything had been going smoothly for the first half of their mission. The client was a middle-aged man who immediately took a liking to all three of them. Yuko was charming, trading lighthearted stories and cracking jokes with the trio to pass the time. Obito seemed oblivious, but Kakashi watched the older male's body language. There was something about him that didn't sit right with him, and Kakashi knew better than to ignore his instincts. Yuko was overly touchy. Given a chance, some part of him was touching Sakura. Be it a hand on her shoulder while pointing out something in the forest, or their arms brushing as they walked along through the trees. It didn't matter how prominent the caress, he felt the need to touch her nonetheless. To be close to her at all points in time. That in and of itself was an annoyance, but when Yuko's eyes started to stray from her face and began to linger on other parts of her body, Kakashi's jaw clenched. His frustration mounted further and further as he silently plotted ways to place himself bodily between their client and his team captain. It was during this string of dark thoughts that they were attacked. Obito immediately sprang into action, Sharingan pinwheels spinning as his evaded two incoming enemies. Sakura grabbed Yuko, hoisted him over her shoulder, and jumped back from the fray, securing a position in front of him to fend off any assassination attempts. They may have been outnumbered, but their opponents were under-skilled, and the overall conflict only lasted a couple of minutes. As the last of their enemies dropped to the forest floor, Kakashi immediately beelined for Sakura, who was trying to calmly placate a frightened Yuko as he clung to her in a fearful frenzy. Kakashi stepped over a few of their downed adversaries on his way towards them, his desire to throttle the older male overriding his senses. He didn't see the attack coming. One minute he was looking at Sakura's face twist into muted horror, the next, he was face down in the dirt with a body on top of him. There was a series of grunts, a shuffle of movement, followed by a massive thud. Then silence. "Are you alright?" Sakura asked softly, her voice pitched in an uneasy tone. The weight on top of him eased off, allowing Kakashi to sit up, charcoal eyes to taking in the scene around him. Obito was sitting on his hunches, checking the vitals of a ninja that Kakashi swore he had killed earlier. Next to him, Sakura was on her knees, breath coming out in ragged pants. Her face looked pained, brow furrowed and lips curled back in a silent snarl. "Sakura-san!" Yuko exclaimed. "You're injured!" "Now, Yuko-sama," She stated, airily. "There's no need to panic. Kakashi-kun, are you alright?" At the repeat of her question, Kakashi nodded dumbly, scrambling to stand. Her relief was palpable, a small smile curling on her blood-stained lips. "That's good…that's good," She hummed softly. Kakashi dropped to his knees behind her, the tendons in his neck standing in attention at the sight of three kunai embedded in her back. Those were meant for him. "I need you to yank them out," Sakura gritted out, hands already glowing green. "The angle is too awkward for me to reach. Make sure you do it quickly. If you do it slowly, you risk the chance of making the wounds worse than they already are." Kakashi swallowed and then suddenly, his world slowed down. He blinked once, but couldn't bring himself to move. Seeing his teammate hesitate, Obito stepped closer to Sakura, placing a hand on her shoulder and giving it a comforting squeeze. "I'll do it Sakura-chan." The rosette nodded slowly. "On my count…one…two…three…" The sound of her crying out in pain and the sight of her blood haunted Kakashi for the rest of the mission. -o- When he was twenty, they shared their first kiss…sort of. -o- The bar was dark and muggy, the air thick with the pungent scent of sweat mixed with alcohol. Even in the dim lighting of the room and the throng of bodies, Kakashi could easily spot her. Nestled between her two old teammates, head tossed back in a fit of laughter with a slight blush dusting her cheeks, Sakura Haruno was the epitome of beauty. She was the brightest person in the room, and his feet carried him towards her without a second thought. Sasuke spotted Kakashi first, regarding him with mild curiosity. Sakura and Naruto noticed him at the same time, both turning on their stools to grace him with twin, cheeky grins. "Kakashi-kun! What brings you here?" Sakura questioned. Kakashi took a step towards her, awkwardly invading her personal space. Sakura blinked up at him in surprise but said nothing as she stared at him from under her lashes. There was a long, drawn-out silence as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other. An uncomfortable knot sat at the base of his throat, and his mask suddenly became stifling. For a moment he felt like he couldn't breathe. "Kakashi? Are you okay?" Naruto asked from his perch, eyeing his former student warily. Kakashi never took his eyes off of Sakura and after another moment of uneasy silence, he blurted out, "Go out to dinner me." The reactions from her former teammates were immediate. Naruto's jaw dropped in shock before he tried to collect himself, sputtering, "W-w-what did you just say?" Sasuke showed no outward signs of his surprise, but his eyes narrowed marginally as he glared at the side of Kakashi's head. "Are you even old enough to be in here?" The Uchiha questioned. Sakura remained mute as she gazed up at Kakashi. She blinked once, then twice, before the corner of her mouth twitched like she was fighting back a smile. "You do realize that I'm fourteen years older than you, right?" She inquired, tilting her head curiously to the side. Not one to be deterred, Kakashi merely repeated, "Go to dinner with me. That is unless you're too scared to step into the ring with me?" Hearing the same taunt she used on him all those years prior thrown back at her caused Sakura to release a bark of laughter. Slowly, she pushed herself up from her seat and stood before him. In the back of his mind, Kakashi was pleased to note that he was taller than her and she finally – finally – had to look up at him for once. Sakura seemed to know precisely what his train of thought was and tilted her chin up defiantly, viridian eyes sparkling with mirth. "Well, I can say that this is the most unusual way that I've been asked on a date," She started, her tone laced with amusement. "But, if you want me to consider it seriously, meet me on your team's training grounds tomorrow morning. If you can finally beat me in a fight, then I'll go to dinner with you." Before he could even think to respond, she leaned forward onto the tips of her toes and pressed a quick, chaste kiss to his masked cheek. "See you in the morning, Kakashi-kun!" In the next moment, she was gone in a flurry of pink hair, lost among the crowd of patrons at the bar. Kakashi didn't have time to bask in his giddiness. A large, calloused hand clamped down on his shoulder, and he was ungently dragged down into the seat that Sakura had just vacated. "Kakashi," Naruto's tone was all business. "We need to talk," finished the Uchiha. It was a long night. -o- The following morning, Kakashi was beaten by a girl for the second time in his life. Sakura went on a date with him anyway.


09/29/2021 10:08 PM 

these walls (are meant to fall)

Summary: “What’s going on?” Karen says, sitting up. She looks down at herself—hands with too-long fingers, scars along her knuckles and a heavy weight around her chest. It’s a vest. She’s armed. She’s—   Holy f***ing sh*t. She’s Frank f***ing Castle. (Or that body swap fic I’ve been threatening to write.)   Someday, her life is going to be normal again. It certainly isn’t this week, though, when Matt arrives on her doorstep and says, “A wizard is trying to steal some military equipment.” Karen gapes at him. Puts her groceries down long enough to unlock her apartment, then says, “…You want some coffee?” “Sure.” They end up in her kitchen, drinking coffee out of Bulletin mugs. It was Ellison’s attempt at merchandising, and it went so badly that all of the writers ended up with them as their Christmas bonuses. “So,” she says, when she thinks she’s had enough caffeine to say the words with a straight face. “Wizard?” “Master of the mystic arts,” replies Matt, and even he can’t help but roll his eyes. “Or so they keep calling themselves. That guy with the glowing hand—Danny, you remember him? Came back to town and asked for my help. I agreed, and now it looks like one of these mystic arts a**holes is trying to steal a miniature missile.” “Why doesn’t the wizard just use the killing curse?” says Karen. Okay, maybe she hasn’t had enough coffee for this. Matt snorts into his mug. “Don’t ask me—I’m just the backup.” “And what am I?” asks Karen. Math looks uncomfortable. “The wizard’s stealing it from some private defense company. We need a way in. And I thought…” He winces and looks a little uncomfortable. Since he returned from his supposed death, he’s still a little hesitant to ask her favors. Good—she appreciates not being a sure thing. “Maybe if a Bulletin journalist walked in the front door with her two assistants, you could get inside?” she says. He nods. She puts her mug down. “When?” Between working at the Bulletin again and occasionally freelancing as an investigator for Nelson and Murdock, her schedule is pretty crowded. “Tonight,” says Matt apologetically. Karen lets out a breath. “Fine. What can go wrong?” Everything, as it turns out. For one thing, the wizards—yes, plural—get to Defense Contracts Incorporated (or whatever the place is called, Karen didn’t really look) before they do and blow the place wide open. For another, Frank Castle shows up. She isn’t sure how he heard about this—maybe there’s a Weird Sh*t in New York Slack channel that she hasn’t been invited to join. But he’s there, guns in hand, trying to keep three different wizards from stealing a few small missiles. Matt and Danny join the fight, and Karen pulls out her own gun just in case. She doesn’t rush to join the fight; rather, she creeps around the side of the building. There’s a bit of movement—and she’s right to notice it. Because there’s a freaking apprentice wizard walking out with a box of antipersonnel mines. “So this is what happens when the Hogwarts houses go all military?” says Karen, because she can’t resist. The wizard apprentice is a young man in his twenties who looks like he should be at some hipster cafe. He has a neatly trimmed beard and shiny shoes. And he glares at Karen. “Oh, ha ha,” he says tartly. “Back off, lady. I’ve got—” Karen fires a warning shot into the air. The wizard flinches, nearly drops the crate, and looks horrified. “I’ve got a pistol,” says Karen. “Not as cool as a wand, but it’ll do. Now put the mines on the ground and keep your hands on your head.” The wizard glares at her. But he does put the crate down. “You don’t know what you’re dealing with,” he says. Then he grins. It’s a rather discomfiting grin, and then his hand moves faster than Karen can react. She doesn’t want to shoot him, not really, but then— Light flares between the man’s fingertips and she has only a moment to think, How the f*** is this my life, before Frank crashes into her. She feels the weight of his body and then the heat of the spell crashes into them both. The world tips sideways. She can’t breathe and then she’s gasping, blinking hard. Her knees hurt. Her cheek stings a little. And something feels strange—like an itch, just beneath her skin. “Frank,” she croaks. But it’s not her voice. It’s got a bit of gravel to it, that rough low tone she still remembers from those quiet moments in between the running and the gun fights. It’s a voice she knows, but it isn’t hers. “Karen?” Now that’s her voice—but she didn’t open her mouth. “—The f***?” Again, her voice. Then hands pushing at her, and she realizes she’s on top of someone. Herself. She pressing herself into the ground, body a shield between that wizard and— “What’s going on?” Karen says, sitting up. She looks down at herself—hands with too-long fingers, scars along her knuckles and a heavy weight around her chest. It’s a vest. She’s armed. She’s— Holy f***ing sh*t. She’s Frank f***ing Castle. She meets the eyes of—herself. Wonders if perhaps this is a dream terribly gone wrong, and she’ll awaken in a few moments. “—What the f***,” says the person that looks like Karen. But Karen would recognize that tone anywhere. “Frank?” she whispers. In that too-deep voice. “Yeah,” he replies, because that is definitely him. Even in a red blouse with blonde hair tumbling down his shoulders. “Karen?” She nods, and she has a feeling she’s utterly pale. Then Frank’s gaze sharpens on something behind her and without hesitating, he flips them both. It’s fascinating, in a detached kind of way, to watch her body move like his, Karen thinks. She never considered herself ungraceful before, but there is a kind of predatory power to Frank’s stance, and even in her body, the threat is unmistakable. He grabs the wizard by the shirt, kicks his legs out from under him, and throws him to the ground. “What the f*** did you do?” he snarls. Karen looks down at—herself? Himself? F***, she’s going to just keep her original pronouns because otherwise this will be entirely too confusing. The wizard looks horrified. “It wasn’t supposed to swap you two,” he blurts out. “What,” says Frank, and it’s interesting to her hear own voice growl like that. “You thought you’d swap bodies with the woman and then escape in her body? Let her go to jail in your place?” Going from the look on the wizard’s face, that’s exactly what he was planning. “You son of a,” Frank begins to say, but then there’s an explosion from inside. His grip slackens on the other man and the wizard gets his hand up and there’s a flash of light and— He’s gone. Frank stands there, looking murderous. There’s a few angry cries from inside, and Karen realizes that all of the wizards must have decided to flee. Leaving her and Frank like— “Oh,” she says. “F***.” It takes some explaining. (“F***ing magic,” says Frank. “You’ve got to be f***ing kidding me. I heard they were just petty criminals trying to steal military equipment. Got a tip-off from a contact in Homeland.”) Then there’s more explaining. (“Wait,” says Danny Rand, gazing at Karen in astonishment. “Who are you again?”) And then there’s decisions to be made. (“We’ll track down the wizards,” says Matt. “You and… both of you—stay safe. Stay together. Maybe you’ll go back to normal, maybe the spell will wear off. If it doesn’t… we’ll find the wizards. Make them reverse it.”) Which is how Karen and Frank end up back at her place. She feels awkward in this different body; it takes three tries just to unlock her door with his fingers. They’re longer and a little thicker than she’s used to, with familiar calluses. Frank stands behind her, arms at his sides in a way that she never holds them, and it just looks weird. Finally, with the door shut behind them, Karen says, “I need a beer.” She looks down at herself, then at him. “I mean… if that’s—” “You can have a beer in my body,” he replies. “As long as I can have one in yours.” “Deal.” They end up at her kitchen table, drinking a microbrew and trying to avoid looking at one another. “So how’ve you been?” asks Frank. Karen snorts into her beer. “Really? That’s how we’re handling this?” He looks grumpy. Which is interesting—she usually never gets to see those expressions play out across her own face. “Well, I’m not familiar with what a person does after they’ve been shoved in another person’s body. I thought magic was bullsh*t up until about two hours ago.” “I knew there was some weird stuff in the world,” she admits, “but nothing like this.” She brightens. “Did you know dragons are a thing?” “Now I know you’re sh*tting me.” They drink their beers in silence for another moment. Then Frank says, “No, really. How have you been?” This time, there’s a note of quiet sincerity to it. As if he’s been holding the question back. She lets out a breath. “Busy. I went back to work for the Bulletin after… well, after.” “I heard about that,” he says, glancing sharply at her. “Didn’t find out until after or—” “Or what?” she says with a small laugh. “You’d have come bursting into the Bulletin offices with a bulletproof vest and a rifle?” “If you’d needed me, yes,” he says, and that stops her in her tracks. His walls are down and his face seems oddly disarmed. He sits the way he always does, with his legs spread a little and index finger twitching once or twice. She would recognize that posture anywhere, even if he’s currently wearing her body. She wonders how she appears to him, if he could pick her out of a crowd as easily as she could find him. “Anything for a war, right?” she says softly. He doesn’t answer. She lets out a breath, looks down at her hands. Which are his hands. She’s always liked his hands—they’re nice to look at. “Listen,” she says quietly. “You don’t have to pretend. I know you don’t want to be here.” With me, goes unsaid. “Once we’re back in our own bodies, you can go back to punishing or whatever it is you do these days,” she says. “And you won’t have to see me again.” “Karen.” He leans forward. “I—” But whatever he is going to say, she doesn’t want to hear it. “I’m going to sleep,” she says. “I’ll just—take off your boots but leave the jeans on.” She goes to the linen closet and unloads an armful of blankets and sheets onto the couch. “Help yourself to anything in the kitchen.” Then she turns and walks into her bedroom, quietly pulling the door shut behind her. It’s late and she’s exhausted and her body aches in ways she isn’t used to. Her shoulder hurts. Her knees pop when she kneels to unlace her boots. When she pulls off her socks, she discovers that Frank has a rather gnarly scar through the top of one foot. She runs her fingers—his fingers—across the mark. It feels strangely intimate to be touching any skin, and she isn’t sure she has the right. So she doesn’t take off her shirt or jeans. She does leave the vest and the jacket draped over the back of a chair, though. As she glances into a mirror, she catches sight of her own reflection. Frank Castle stares back at her—dark-eyed and haunted. She crawls into bed and falls asleep at once. She wakes and the first thing she thinks is: I have to pee. Her second thought is: I don’t know how. She gets out of bed—and her knees are even creakier in the morning. Walking back out into the living room, she finds… herself. On the floor. Doing push-ups. “Um,” she says. “Good morning.” “Morning,” Frank grunts. He’s wearing the same thing from last night: a comfortable work-out shirt and leggings, which she wore to a battle because pencil skirts aren’t great for running in. “You ever do upper body workouts?” “Not really,” she says. “You should.” He grimaces, then sits up. “You could punch harder.” “I’ll take that under consideration.” She crosses her arms. “I—I have a question. About something we should probably talk about.” Frank begins stretching—pulling one arm across his chest, then the other. She has a wild thought that she’d much prefer watching this little routine of his were he still in his original body. On her, it just looks weird. “You mean the nudity thing,” he says frankly. “Yes,” she replies. “I want to know how we’re going to handle this. Because—I kind of need to use the bathroom.” He lets out a breath. “Unbutton, unzip, point and shoot. Be careful when re-zipping.” “Okay.” She tries not to smile and fails. “I think my equipment is pretty self explanatory. At least I’m not due for my period for another two weeks.” He blanches. “Oh. Hadn’t thought of that.” “Most men wouldn’t,” she replies, with a laugh. “Yeah, teaching you how to use a tampon isn’t something I’m looking forward to." He finishes stretching. “So we’re all right with this?” he asks. “I mean, I want to shower at some point,” she says. “And—yes. I’m all right with you seeing me. Well, you. Christ, that’s confusing. I trust you’re not going to do anything stupid with my body.” “I wouldn’t,” he says seriously. She nods, and goes to use the bathroom. It’s—an experience, to be sure. She tries not to look too closely because she wants to give him some kind of privacy… but it’s kind of useless. She has his d*ck in her hand. His hand. Whatever. It’s a nice d*ck—a little over average size, and the skin is very soft. She tries not to think about that. She tries very hard. She ends up taking a shower—and that’s when she sees the rest of his body. He’s about ninety-percent muscle and ten-percent scars. She runs her fingers down her own chest, touching raised places where he’s taken bullets. His body holds the memories of hundreds of fights, and it’s only looking down at herself that she realizes how close he must have been to death at least a few times. And then there’s a problem. Because as she’s showering, she gets a f***ing erection. It’s muscle memory. He probably jerks off in the shower. Karen glances down at herself, then lets out a breath. She’ll admit to a bit of curiosity. But curiosity isn’t enough to drive her to this. She glares down at her own d*ck. “Not a chance,” she mutters. “That’s a line I’m not crossing.” Once she’s finished, she pulls on his clothes from last night. Frank made breakfast, thank goodness. She’s starving in a way she’s unused to—her own body can sometimes be rather indifferent toward food. In times of stress or panic, her appetite has a tendency to shut down. But now, she feel ravenous. “Pancakes?” he asks, setting down a plate he must have been keeping warm in the oven. She hasn’t turned on that oven in months; she wasn’t even sure if it still worked. “Thank you,” she says gratefully. He also made eggs and coffee and they end up eating in silence. “So what now?” he asks, when they’re mostly finished. She shrugs. “You should probably call in sick to work, because I don’t know how you’d pretend to be me at the Bulletin. Then… I guess we wait for Matt and Danny to figure this out.” He does call in, then he looks at her. “I—should I shower?” He’s giving her the option to say ‘no,’ which she appreciates. She nods. “Go ahead. Towels are in the bathroom. I’ll clean up the dishes—thank you for breakfast.” “You’re welcome,” he says. He sounds as if he wants to say more, but he walks into the bathroom. Karen does the dishes and tries not to think about how he is getting undressed in the bathroom. About what he’ll see when he does. It’s only fair; she can now say she’s held Frank Castle’s d*ck, if only so she could pee. She snorts quietly as she begins loading the sink with dishes. About half an hour later, Frank emerges. His hair is damp, as if he wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. He found some of her clothing; he’s dressed in jeans and a sweater—and what looks like a sports bra. He probably didn’t want to try one of her normal ones. Karen sits beside him on the couch and gestures to his hair. “You want me to braid that back for you? It’s the easiest way to keep it out of your eyes, unless you want to blow dry it.” He hesitates. “I do know how to braid hair,” he says. “I used to braid Lisa’s hair. I’ve just—never done it on myself.” “Come on,” she says, and twirls her finger in the air so he’ll turn around. He does, and she begins combing her fingers through the damp strands. She remembers braiding her friends’ hair in high school. A shudder rolls through him on the first touch and she goes still. “Sorry. If you don’t want me to touch—” “No,” says Frank. “Nothing like that.” There’s a moment of quiet, then he says, “It’s just been a while.” She understands. It’s probably been months since anyone has touched him. And she does know how sensitive her scalp can be—which is nice when someone wants to run their fingers through her hair. But it might be a little overwhelming for him. She manages a simple french braid, tying it off between Frank’s shoulder blades. He sits quietly as she works, then she pats him on the shoulder. “Okay. Now you don’t have to worry about it going everywhere.” He smiles, touches the braid. “Thanks.” There’s another bit of silence, and then he says, “You’ve got scars along your ribs.” A little shiver runs through her. She forgot about those, if she’s being honest. She’s had them so long they’ve blended into the background. “It’s from a car accident,” she says. “I crawled out on my left side after the car flipped. Some of the windshield glass snagged.” “They’re faded,” he says. “I was nineteen.” She looks at him—and thinks that if anyone in the world might not judge her for how she received them, it’s probably Frank Castle. But the morning is bright and sunny and she doesn’t want to darken it like that. “It was a long time ago.” He nods, as if understanding that she doesn’t really want to talk about it. “You want to watch some tv?” she asks, and he agrees. They sit on her couch, drinking coffee and watching some sitcom. Or rather, she thinks, they both pretend to watch it. Neither really seems to be paying attention. The truth of the matter is, she’s cataloging sensations: the rise and fall of her chest, the strength in her arms, the way her body seems to stay alert even when her mind wanders, and the slight ache in her knees. Everything feels sharper. This body is different than what she’s used to, and it’s only now she’s truly taking it all in. It’s like… it’s like going from driving a normal car to one of those muscled-out Dodge chargers. She feels a little awkward, like she might accidentally break something. So she keeps very still. She notices Frank wrapping his arms around his torso and she lets out a small laugh. “Cold?” He glances at her. She can see him opening his mouth to say ‘no’ but then he huffs a breath. “Yeah. You’re cold all the time—how do you stand it?” She reaches over and pulls a knitted blanket from the back of the couch, tossing it over his legs. “I’m used to it.” He takes the blanket gratefully and pulls it around himself. “Your knees ache,” she says, because she has to say something. Frank smiles—and the expression makes her heart ache a little. “Oh. Yeah—they do when it’s cold. I don’t even really notice anymore.” He hesitates. “Can I ask about the scar on your thigh?” “Bike accident,” she says. “I was fourteen and hit a patch of ice. The bike buckled sideways, a wheel snapped and a bit of stray metal gashed into my thigh. Tore right through my jeans. I had to waddle home and bandage it myself.” A frown tugs at his mouth. “No doctor?” “My mom was in the hospital at the hospital and Dad stayed with her,” she says. “It was just me and my brother at home, and I was supposed to take care of him. I managed.” His frown deepens, cuts a line between his brows. He looks so much like himself in that moment that she has to look away. “You don’t talk about your family,” he says quietly. “Because I don’t have one anymore,” she replies. Her own voice is even. Her pain has dulled over the years—maybe it’s a little like his knees. It’s always there, but she’s learned to ignore it. The quiet that fills up the room is the kind she can only share with Frank—sorrowful but not bitter. He gets it in a way that no one else does. And where others might press in, demand answers, he remains quiet. The sitcom buzzes quietly in the background, a laugh track rising and falling. They end up going grocery shopping because she does need food. Particularly if they’re going to be stuck at her place for a few days. Karen grabs a cart and they meander into the produce section. Frank goes straight for the leafy greens because of course he does. Karen picks up a few containers of raspberries. “They’re not in season,” says Frank, glancing at her. Karen shrugs. “I like them.” “You’ll have to wash them pretty thoroughly; they won’t be domestically grown.” Karen has the wild impulse to pick up a berry and eat it right there, while maintaining eye contact the whole time. She resists. Barely. Frank ends up grabbing salad ingredients. A few of the store employees smile at him as he walks by, and he frowns. When they’re out of earshot, he mutters, “Why do they keep greeting me?” “Because you have boobs,” she answers. Frank narrows his eyes. “You really want an experience?” she says. “Go to a bar. Alone.” “I think I’ll pass,” he replies evenly. They buy enough groceries for a few days and walk back to her place. Frank still seems aware of the eyes on him, and he looks less than comfortable with it. He isn’t the only having trouble adjusting, though. Karen’s senses are—she wouldn’t say they’re heightened but her body feels as raw as an exposed nerve. She notices every passing car, sees the glint of sunlight on windshields, hears every backfiring engine. Her body is tense, fingers tight on the shopping bags. She remembers reading a book about how trauma slips into the body, lingers in ways that no one expects. And if this is what she’s feeling, she wonders what Frank is experiencing in her body. Her own memories are written beneath her skin. All he has to do is get behind the wheel of a car, step into the Bulletin’s offices, or walk into a church and he’ll probably know that something is wrong, even if he doesn’t know the details. When they return to the apartment, Karen sticks the raspberries under the tap and lets the water run for a few moments. Frank puts some of the groceries away in the fridge. They move in silence, and it’s only when she’s handing him a folded up paper bag that she realizes he’s putting them in the correct place beside the fridge. Muscle memory. It’s weird. She wonders if she could draw a gun with the same ease she’s seen him do it—but then again, maybe she doesn’t want to find out. The rest of the day passes in relative quiet. That night, Karen dreams. She dreams of a woman with dark hair and eyes who kisses her nose and says, Hey, sleepyhead. Of a little girl whose smile is everything good in the world. Of a little boy whose so much like her it hurts to think about sometimes. She dreams of a house that smells of the old wood of the piano and the neighbor’s mown grass. Dinosaurs scattered across the floor and motes of dust illuminated by sunlight. Even without knowing where she is, Karen knows this is home. It’s perfect and safe and— And a man strides into the bedroom. He’s dressed in dark fatigues, a heavy vest across his shoulders, a balaclava over his face. The dark-haired woman doesn’t see him, can’t see him. She’s turning to leave the bedroom and then the man raises that gun and pulls the trigger. Blood spatter hits Karen in the chest. The loss is staggering. It’s more than physical pain—it feels like her soul is being cut from her body, like she’s being unmade in every way that matters. A scream rips through her; she comes awake gasping, clawing at the bedsheets. It takes several seconds for the world to return to her. She’s safe, she’s in her bed, she’s safe, she’s in her bed. Then the door crashes open and Frank is there. He’s carrying a gun and even in the low light, she recognizes the tight slant of his mouth. He’s ready to kill. “What’s wrong?” he says, voice low. It takes a few seconds for her to answer. “I—sorry. Didn’t mean to wake you.” He glances about the room, but even when it’s clear there’s no threat, he still doesn’t fully relax. “Dreams,” Karen finally says. “Nightmares.” Frank sets the gun on the dresser, then steps toward the bed. Without thinking, Karen moves a little and makes room for him. It feels natural for him to sit on the edge of the bed. “Should’ve known,” he murmurs. Her heartbeat won’t stop thundering. She hates feeling like this—so keyed up that she could break apart with a single touch. Her body feels more like a cage than a comfort. “I—I don’t think it was my nightmare,” she says quietly, putting emphasis into the words. Frank’s eyes flash up to meet hers. In the dark, those blue eyes almost look brown. They could almost be his eyes, the way they’re sinking into her. The silence hardens into something painful, making every breath a little harder. “What’d you see?” Frank whispers. She shakes her head. “Just—flashes. Your house. I think it was your house. I only ever saw it in the dark but… it was daytime. Morning, I think.” “What else?” His jaw barely moves when he asks the question. His whole face is still, set with some emotion she can’t identify. “A woman,” she says. “A bedroom—white sheets and pillows. She wore a sundress and—and—” She doesn’t know how to continue. Frank exhales and the sound judders out of him. “Was it the masked soldier or the gangs?” She looks up in surprise. But of course he would know. It’s his nightmare. “Soldier,” she says. He nods. “Yeah. That version’s been more popular over the last year or so.” She can still feel the hot blood on her bare skin; it was so real she half-expects to look down and see it now. “I’m so sorry,” she says. “Sh*t. If that’s—if that’s what you see every night—” “Not every night,” he says. “Used to be like that. But it’s fading, as time goes on.” His jaw clenches. “Part of me hates that. Thinks I shouldn’t forget any of it, because it means I’m losing them.” Karen reaches for him without thinking. She wraps her arms around him—and it’s strange because her arms are longer and he’s small against her. He tenses, then his fingers are digging into her bare chest. Holding on like he’s afraid of falling from a high cliff. She isn’t sure how long they stay like that. But Karen finally says, “Stay here the rest of the night? I’d rather—not be alone.” She feels him nod. “Okay.” He pulls back, and then he’s slipping beneath the covers. It’s surprisingly easy to give him a pillow and feel him settle onto the other side of the bed. She reaches for his hand beneath the blankets. She squeezes his fingers and speaks quietly into the dark. “I could feel how much you loved her,” she whispers. “How much you loved all of them.” She hears his breath snag. His hand tightens on hers. They stay like that for some time, that one point of connection between them, waiting for sleep to come. The next morning, Frank works out again. It’s odd seeing it in happen in her body. But it’s even more odd when he insists on her joining him. They end up doing squats, push-ups, and a series of stretches. It actually feels sort of good, in a way that Karen doesn’t expect. It’s like this body was yearning for this release. Her lungs are accustomed to the burn, the muscles ready for the exertion. When it’s over, she feels energized rather than the exhausted. Frank calls in sick again at the Bulletin. Karen ends up grabbing her laptop and working from the couch, at least trying to get a head-start on some research. Frank reads a book at the kitchen table, having found her collection of guilty-pleasure mystery paperbacks. Matt calls around two in the afternoon. “We’re still trying to find the wizards,” he says. “No luck so far. How are you two doing?” Karen glances across the room; Frank is still reading. He’s changed into sweatpants, having flatly stated that the jeans were too tight. (“And why are the goddamn pockets so small?” “Welcome to women’s fashion, Frank.”) “We’re doing fine,” Karen says into the phone. “You just find those wizards.” Frank mutters something that sounds like, ‘f***ing ridiculous,’ but Karen ignores him. “We’ll get it done,” says Matt, and hangs up. The next night, Frank doesn’t even pretend to want to sleep on the couch. They go to the bedroom together, and it feels strangely comforting to have him there, only a few feet away. If the nightmares come again, at least he’s in arms reach. She reaches over and flicks off the light, curls onto her side and tries to rest. Her sleep is blissfully dreamless. Even so, she wakes around three in the morning. Frank is already awake. He sits on the edge of the bed, gazing at the far wall. There’s something in his posture that gives her pause. “What is it?” she asks. He shakes his head, doesn’t answer, and a wave of worry breaks over her. She thinks of all the things that Frank might have seen in her dreams: Kevin’s death, the emptiness of the diner as her father told her to leave, Daniel Fisher’s body covered in blood, James Wesley’s blank stare, Ben’s funeral, the dark offices of the Bulletin as her coworkers lay unmoving, the colored lights of the church as Karen faced the man she thought would kill her. Any one of those things could have visited him in his dreams. And for the first time, this change feels like a violation. Like he could be looking into parts of her she doesn’t want anyone else to see. “Frank, tell me,” she says. Because she needs to know. Frank takes a breath, presses his fingers to his forehead for a few seconds. “It wasn’t a memory.” “How do you know?” she asks, frowning. Frank doesn’t look at her. He looks pale, as if all of the color has been blanched out of him. For a few seconds, he doesn’t answer. Then he says, “You have nightmares about losing me.” “I have nightmares about losing everyone,” she says. She’s too tired to try and come up with a better way of saying it. “Because I do. It’s only a matter of time until you’re gone, too.” “I’m still here,” he says. “Only because you have to be.” There’s no rancor to her words. It’s just a statement of fact. “Once we’re back to normal, you’ll be gone.” He closes his eyes for a moment. She waits for him to agree with her. After all, they don’t lie to one another.  “You were wrong before,” he finally says. “When you said you didn’t have any family left.” There’s no mistaking his tone—his voice is determined, and she recognizes the same tone from over a year ago. I will come for you. “Frank,” she says, unsure of what else to say. He meets her gaze and his is unwavering. “You want the truth? I didn’t go to that military warehouse because I got a tip-off. I went because I saw you and Red leaving your apartment, dressed for battle. I followed you there. Because if you were going into danger, I wasn’t letting you do so alone.” “What were you doing outside of my apartment?” she asks. Her heart is pounding. Too fast and too hard. It hurts. “Because I’d been working up the courage to talk to you,” he admits. “Because I wanted—sh*t. I was tired. Of all of it. The war, the bloodshed. I’ve had my fill of it—I was f***ing choking on it. Ended up rescuing some kids a few weeks ago. Fought my way past the a**holes who were selling them, slaughtered them all, then broke the lock to the cage.” He lets out a hollow, aching laugh. “You know what the kids did when they saw me? They cringed back. Wouldn’t come near me. And that’s when—f***, I realized my kids probably would’ve reacted the same if they saw me then. “I dropped the vest in the river that night,” he says, his voice quieting. She reaches for him—because she feels like her heart might break if she can’t touch him in this moment. Her forehead presses to his. There aren’t any words, not for several long minutes. She can feel Frank’s fingers tracing up her arm to her shoulder, then back down. Their breathes are close, every touch every movement slow. “You aren’t going to lose me,” he murmurs. It’s a promise he can’t really keep, no matter how much she wants to believe it. But it’s a comfort, and she wants to wrap herself up in it. She ends up settling back into the bed, his arms still around her, and she closes her eyes and tries to rest. She wakes in the morning to the sensation of a face mashed against her bare back, a heaviness in her bladder, and a f***ing erection jabbing at the sheets. She groans softly, turns her face not the pillows. “Hey.” Frank sounds just as out of it as she feels. “You awake?” “Time is it?” she mumbles. “About ten. I got up to pee an hour ago, then came back to bed.” He shifts behind her, sitting up. But she doesn’t. If she sits up, he’s going to see. “You get some sleep?” “Yeah.” She still doesn’t move, and she can almost feel him frowning at her. “Karen,” he says. And her name’s a question in his mouth—and she understands it, even though she doesn’t reply. F*** it. “How do you make it go away?” she mumbles. “Make what go away?” Now he sounds really concerned, like they’re talking about two entirely different things. She feels him sit up. “Sh*t—is my back again? Listen, you just need to roll over. I’ll get some heat—it’ll go back to normal in a few days.” His back? Is there any part of him that hasn’t been hurt? She cracks open her eyes and looks up at him. His bed hair is fantastic—blonde strands everywhere, a nest of tangles on his left side. She’s going to have to teach him out to get those tangles out. “It isn’t my—your—back,” she says, finally. He frowns down at her. “Knees?” She sighs, presses a hand to her eyes. Her jaw itches with stubble and she really should shave it. She rolls over and the source of her discomfort is apparently obvious. He snorts out a laugh, rocking back onto his heels. “Oh,” he says. “That.” “Yes,” she says, peering at him through her fingers. “That. How do you make it go away?” “Wait it out,” he says blandly. “Or go into the shower and jerk off.” “I—what?” She can’t have heard him right. He laughs again and it’s a sound she wants to hear more of. She sits up, puts her back to the headboard and glares at him. “You can’t be serious.” He shrugs. She feels herself frown. “Have… have you…?” It takes a moment for him to get it, then he’s shaking his head. “No—f*** no. I wouldn’t—” “I mean I wouldn’t blame you,” she says. “Multiple orgasms are pretty nice.” He chokes on whatever he was going to say, and that’s kind of adorable. “I wouldn’t,” he says again, when he can. “Not without…” “Without what?” She isn’t even sure why she’s pressing this, but she does. He meets her eyes. His fingers are tightly knotted in the sheets, and there’s a taut curve to his shoulders. “Not unless you wanted me to.” It feels like there’s an abyss opening beneath her, like she could fall in at any moment; her stomach flips like it does when she misses a step on the stairs. And for the first time, she wonders if perhaps her desire to have Frank near—maybe that isn’t entirely her. Maybe this yearning isn’t as one-sided as she thought. Muscle memory is a hell of a thing, after all. She isn’t sure which one of them closes the distance. All she knows is that her mouth is soft against his. It isn’t rushed, isn’t frantic, isn’t all of the ways she’s imagined kissing him in the past. It’s still and quiet and so very sweet. It’s Do you want to and Yes all in the same breath. It’s different; kissing her own body is a little strange. Her mouth is softer than the ones she’s used to, and the rasp of her own stubble is something new. But this is still Frank, even if they’re in unfamiliar territory. He’s still the person she trusts. Her hand strokes up his side, curls behind his shoulder. She wants to him closer, wants everything. The kiss changes—shifts into something a little more hungry. Frank pushes her back against the pillows, and then he’s above her, hand at her cheek and tongue sliding against hers. She whimpers, and that’s a sound she didn’t even think Frank’s body could make. He straddles her thigh and she can feel the telltale heat and slickness of her body’s sex—and then there’s her f***ing d*ck pressed up between them. She pulls back, breathless. “Oh God,” she groans. “You can’t tell me the first time we have sex, it’s when we’ve been body-swapped.” “You want to stop?” “F***, no.” She slides her fingers beneath his shirt and he lifts his arms, allowing her to help. She gets his shirt off and there are own breasts staring back at her. “Hi girls,” she says, with a small laugh. “Never thought I’d miss having them.” “They’re very nice,” he says, and he sounds so earnest that she laughs. “Come on,” she says, and helps him wriggle out of the pajama shorts. Soon, they’re both naked in her bed—and he’s kissing her again and she can feel her own d*ck pressed up against her stomach and it’s weird and strangely arousing, and all she can think is, Nope, my life has not gotten any less strange. “What do we do?” he asks, pulling away for a moment. “What do you want to do?” She considers the question—and honestly, the one thing she’s thought about when it comes to Frank Castle in her bed is just… keeping him there. Making a place where he might feel safe enough to let his walls down, to let her in for once. She’s thought about going down on him, how it would feel to make him utterly lose control. Well. She might as well try it. “Can I go down on you?” she asks, and he flushes from cheeks all the way down his neck. “You want to?” he asks. “Yes,” she says. Because she does—she wants him unraveled, relaxed, and she wants to give him something good. He deserves a few moments of peace. He nods. “It won’t be weird?” “All of this is weird,” she says. “I’m just embracing it, at this point.” He laughs, quick and heartfelt, and his hand is in her hair. “Whatever you’re comfortable with, then.” “Lay back.” She situates herself between his legs, gentle titling them apart. He’s soaked—and that’s familiar, at least. She kisses his thigh, then moves closer until she can smell the arousal coming off of him. Which probably shouldn’t be a turn-on, but knowing he’s just as into this as she is… it makes her a little dizzy. She strokes her fingertips lightly over his sex, then leans down to replace hands with mouth. She knows how good this can be—she’s been on the receiving end of some fantastic oral. She knows how good the scrape of stubble can be on the inside of her thighs, the breath of a partner panting against her cunt, the slick heat of tongue and mouth. “Jesus f***ing f***,” he says raggedly. This isn’t the first time Karen’s done this, but it’s been years and it takes a few moments for things to come back to her. Luckily, she knows what she likes and how her own body responds. She slides one of her fingers into him—slowly, because these fingers are thicker and a little more callused than she’s used to—and laps around the clit, just the way that always makes her own legs begin to shake. She eases another finger into him, crooking them forward and rubbing at just the right angle. She’s been practicing her fingering since she was thirteen, so this part at least is easy. She envelops his clit with her entire mouth and sucks gently—making him cry out. It takes only a few more minutes until he curses again and she feels him come. His cunt clenches hard around her fingers and he groans loudly. She doesn’t stop until he’s panting and the muscles of his stomach jump beneath her hand. “Okay,” he says, gazing up at the ceiling. “For the record, your body has the advantage there. Jesus.” “Want me to try for orgasm number two?” she asks, grinning. “Other upside of having a vagina—multiple orgasms.” “I think I need some recovery time.” He rolls over. “Besides, I’m not letting you have all the fun.” Frank runs his hand across her d*ck. It's good—she can feel her heartbeat there, twitching in time with her pulse. “You ever done this before?” she says. “I mean, is it true what they say about sailors?” “I was a marine,” he says, with a retributive nip to her shoulder. “And no. But I figure, can’t be too hard.” She snorts. “Okay, but remember, you’re going to have to deal with the toothmarks if you screw this up.” “I’ll manage,” he says dryly and then leans down to take the head of her c*ck into his mouth. Jesus. F***ing. Christ. Okay, now she understands why men are kind of obsessed with this. The heat of his tongue is mind-numbingly good and it’s all she can do to keep herself still. There’s an instinctive need to thrust, to move, but she holds back. His hand curls around the base of her cock, thumb running up the seam and she gasps. The air in the room suddenly feels too thin. Her fingers knot in the sheets as his cheeks hollow and the suction makes her whimper. She has to close her eyes, because she isn’t sure how long she can last like this. He works her over, tongue stroking the underside of her cock. Then the sensation vanishes and she glances down. Frank is pressing his fingers to the place where his jaw connects to his ear, and he looks irritated. “You okay?” she asks, sitting up. “Just appreciating all of my previous partners’ dedication to jaw exercises,” he says, wincing a little. “I’m sorry, did you just backhandedly compliment the size of your own d*ck?” “It was more about the neck craning,” he replies. “Going down on someone without a d*ck requires less… bobbing. It’s easier.” “I love that you’re analyzing this.” “Weren’t you?” he says. She shakes her head. “Not the first time I’ve had sex with a woman.” That gets a laugh out of him. “Well, well. One of these days you’ll stop surprising me—but not any time soon.” He reaches down, curls his fingers around her length. “You want to f*** me?” She blinks. “I mean, the real question is if you want me to. I’ve never done this before.” “I want you,” he says. “I’ve wanted you for so long—and if this is how it’s going to go, then I’m fine with it.” “Oh, really?” She brushes her mouth against his—lightly, more a tease than a true kiss. “All right, if you’re sure.” “Karen,” he says. “You’re the only thing I’ve been sure about for years.” She kisses him again, and she hopes he understands what she’s trying to say. How much she cares about him, how he’s part of her, even when he isn’t here. He kisses back with the same intensity and she thinks—maybe he gets it. He swings a leg over her hips, settling above her. She strokes one of his thighs, knuckles brushing back and forth. She knows how physical touch can help with nerves. She sits up enough to kiss him as he takes hold of her c*ck and tries to guide it in. There’s a few false starts—“F***ing hell, it’s still difficult from this side of things,” he grumbles—but then she’s sliding into him—into pulsing, silky heat and— She’s inside of him, and there’s a mind-numbing intensity about it. And all at once, the sheer ridiculous of this situation falls away, leaving behind only need. She forces herself to remain still, to let Frank figure things out on his end. There’s a line along his forehead, and his face is scrunched up a little. She strokes her thumb along his cheek. “You okay?” she asks. He nods. “Just—takes some getting used to.” He rolls his hips and groans a little, head falling forward. “Is—f***, is this how it always feels?” “How does it feel?” “Full,” he says, and again, she laughs. “Again, complimenting your own d*ck?” she says, teasing. “Not like that,” he says, and moves again, as if testing out a movement. “It’s just—hard to explain. Like something was missing, and now it’s not and—” She knows what he’s talking about, and it has little to do with sex. She’s felt that only once before, back when she was in love and nineteen. When sex wasn’t just physical intimacy, but emotional, too. She wonders if love is something like muscle memory, if her body still loves Frank even if she’s no longer inside of it. Well, she is inside of her body but not like that. There’s a clenching sensation and Karen jerks with surprised pleasure; Frank is tightening down on her, tensing inner muscles as if in experimentation. It feels amazing and she bucks a little, thrusting into Frank without meaning to. “Oh, God,” she groans. “Okay, now I get why every man I’ve ever been with went a little cross-eyed when I did that.” Frank moves again, rolling his hips. He’s making a face like he’s tasting a new food and isn’t sure he likes it or not. “You’re frowning,” she says. “Hey, we can stop—” He shrugs. “No, I mean. It isn’t bad. It’s nice, but… I don’t know. I thought there’d be more.” She grins. “Yeah, being on top was never exactly the best position for me. Roll over,” she says. His frown deepens. “Trust me,” she says, a bit insistent. “Hands and knees, chop, chop.” He rolls his eyes a little but does as she says, getting on hands and knees. She takes a moment to admire the curve of her own ass before taking hold of his hips and easing back into him. A small gasp escapes him as she thrusts this time, and he groans. “Better angle, right?” she says. She rolls her hips, slowly, the way that has driven her insane when past partners did it. “It’s gravity—makes the d*ck drag right against my g-spot, just enough to—” She sinks in a little deeper and he moans louder, almost a whine. She takes pity on him, bending over his slimmer form and beginning to f*** him in earnest. It takes a few false-starts to really find a rhythm, and it’s harder than it looks. Being on this end of things is more work than she’s used to, and it requires a surprising amount of multitasking. Hands on Frank’s hips to keep him steady as she thrusts, trying to concentrate on not going too deep because being jabbed in the cervix is something she would never wish on a newbie, listening to the sounds he’s making, trying to gauge his body’s reactions to see if he’s anywhere close to coming because she is already having to stave off her own orgasm. She knows she can get him to come this way—she knows exactly what he’s feeling right now: the lightning-bright sparks of pleasure at being f***ed at just the right angle, with the right pressure and—all right she’ll admit it—a larger than average cock. Frank’s back arches. “Karen.” He is squirming a little, fingers clenching in the sheets as if unsure what else to do. She thrusts a little faster, and this isn’t gentle at all but he doesn’t seem to mind as he arches back to meet her, his whole back taut. She feels when the tension breaks, when his cunt contracts around her, and it feels like she’s being sucked in even deeper and f***, that’s too much for her and it feels like tumbling off a high ledge, like falling down the stairs, like gravity. Pleasure rolls up through her sac, into her cock, and then she’s spilling into him. She thrusts deeply, reason giving way to instinct as she feels another pulse of orgasm. Sh*t. It’s different than her usual orgasm; there’s a primal satisfaction in coming inside of him. He’s hers, if only in this moment. Hers to protect, to care for, to— She drags in a ragged breath. Are those her thoughts or more muscle memory? She doesn’t know.  For an eternity, they remain like that—breathing hard, as close as two people can be. Things are never going to be the same. But maybe that isn’t a bad thing. She pulls out and he groans a little. She grabs a couple of tissues from the bedside table and hands them to Frank. “So we don’t stain the sheets.” He blinks. “I—oh. Right.” He presses the tissues between his legs. Then his eyes flash wide. “We just—sh*t. I didn’t even think about—what if—” “I knocked you up?” she says, grinning. “Or did you knock me up? That’s going to get confusing.” He gives her a flat stare. “I’ve got an IUD,” she says. “And yeah, we probably should’ve had the STI conversation before this happened, but…” “I had a one night stand about eight months ago,” says Frank. “But I got tested after that. I’m clean and—and there hasn’t been anyone else. Not until you.” She lets out a breath. “Well, you’ve been more social than I have. I haven’t slept with anyone for several years, and my last tests were clean.” “Too busy?” he says. “No, just pining after someone.” For a moment, he frowns. Which would probably look brooding and strangely attractive on his normal face, but on hers he just looks kind of scrunchy-faced. Okay, now she understands why Foggy eggs her on sometimes. “Please tell me you’re not talking about Red,” he says, as if he has to. She rolls over onto her side, takes him by the chin and meets his eyes. Her eyes. This will never not be weird. “I love you,” she says simply. “Creaky knees and all.” He draws in a startled breath. “But if you were just in this to see what sex with a vagina is like, I’d completely understand,” she says, a bit hastily. “I mean—” He kisses her hard. Kisses her breathless. Until she is pretty sure that he’s going to have stubble rash. “There isn’t anyone else,” he says again. “There isn’t going to be anyone else.” Well. What a note to end the morning on. “And when Red finally gets us back into our normal bodies,” he adds, “I’m going to spend an hour going down on you.” Nope. That’s the perfect note to end the morning on. When Karen awakens the second time, it’s to a familiar ache between her legs. It isn’t wholly unpleasant; it’s the aftermath of a bout of less than gentle sex, and she should get up and use the toilet, just to be sure she doesn’t end up with a bladder infection and— She sits up. Looks down at herself. Breasts, stomach, pubic hair, pale legs—it’s her. It’s all her. “Frank,” she says, with her own voice, and she missed that. Frank comes awake at once, alert in a way that must come with practice. He looks around for a threat, fingers curling against the sheets as if to brace himself. Then he blinks. Looks down at his hands. “Oh thank f***.” His voice is delightfully hoarse after sex, she is pleased to know. “We’re back to normal.” “Looks like,” she says. He looks her over. She sniffs, then winces. “God, we smell like sex. I’m going to take a shower—care to join me?” He smiles, and it’s a bit wolfish. They have sex in the shower and it’s even better the second time, her leg twined around his waist and the warm water streaming across them both. She comes twice with him inside of her, the pad of his thumb resting against her clit so that every thrust has her gasping with pleasure. This time, she’s the one clenching around him and she can appreciate the girth and way he manages to hold off his own orgasm until she’s wrung-out and limp. And it’s far better to hear him gasp her name in that voice of his. It’s all kinds of sinful, the sounds she makes when he pulls out of her and his come drips to the shower floor and spirals the drain. He helps clean her up afterward, a damp washcloth between her legs, and then he’s on his knees and her clit is against his tongue and he manages to wrangle a third orgasm from her. She is shivering uncontrollably when it’s over. He wraps a towel around her, dries himself off, and they return to the bed, not even bothering with clothes. She curls up in his arms, and it feels so good to have him here. “Better in your own body?” she murmurs against his shoulder. “More familiar, at least,” he says. They’ll have to leave this bedroom eventually, but for now it’s warm and safe and comfortable. Karen finds herself drifting off in his arms, the steady rhythm of his breathing soothing. Then there’s a knock at the door. Frank sits up. Glances down at Karen, who is utterly naked, then then he swings his legs over the side of the bed. “I’ll deal with it, whatever it is,” he says, taking her robe from its hook on the door. It’s a little frilly and pink—it was on sale. He pulls it on, and it’s a little too tight around the shoulders. Then he strides out of the bedroom. Karen listens as he pads across the floor and then there are voices at the front door. It’s Matt. “Karen,” he says, and he sounds disappointed. “Oh—no. I tried, last night. Danny and I—we thought we fixed it. We went to Doctor Strange and he said he’d make things right but… but I guess he didn’t. Listen, we’ll find a way, so you don’t have to—” “You did,” says Frank. Matt pauses. “Did what?” “You fixed it,” says Frank. There is a moment of silence. Rather heavy silence. Karen presses the heel of her hand against her mouth to stifle a laugh. “…Frank?” says Matt. “Good guess.” Another pause. “Is that… are you wearing Karen’s clothes?” says Matt. “I am,” says Frank, agreeably. “Thanks for fixing this. I’ll let her know you stopped by.” There is the sound of a door shutting and when Frank walks back into the bedroom, Karen is shaking with silent laughter. “You good?” he asks, and she leans over to kiss him. “Yeah,” she says quietly. “I’m good.”


09/29/2021 10:02 PM 

The Festive Season (or a Horror of Holmes)

Summary: "Besides," Mycroft says, "you've met Sherlock. The rest of my family is no better." "A horror of Holmes?" Greg asks, undeniably curious about what a Holmes Christmas would be like. "Precisely." *** “So, Christmas Day?” “You're truly under no obligation," Mycroft says smoothly. "I'd only wish my family upon my enemies.” Greg remembers Mycroft's description of the day. But he also knows that as much as Mycroft rolls his eyes or scowls at Sherlock, he loves his little brother dearly. For all the condescension and the hyperbole, he suspects Mycroft loves his parents too. “I'd be happy to come.” “You're curious,” Mycroft surmises. “You're the one dating a copper. Curious and suspicious come with the territory.”       It's Thursday night, and Greg has an invitation to Walker's for drinks. It's nice to be included, even if he's not exactly one of the club anymore. He's still divorced, but he's not single, and he's far from being the sad bastard he was a few years ago. Not that he's gone out of his way to tell the guys -- this crowd happily avoids talking about relationships, the ex, or any intersection of the two. Anderson and Sanders are already there when he arrives, but there's a few others expected later. Anderson eyes Greg nervously, cradling his almost empty glass like a security blanket. “Is the other Holmes coming?” Greg rolls his eyes. “Not this time.” He'd asked Mycroft, but Mycroft would generally prefer to work late than be forced to socialise with the masses. As long as he doesn't have to come, Mycroft's all for Greg attending these get-togethers. He even offered a ride home when the night's over. Greg gets a round, and they complain about the weather and the cricket. They grumble about their jobs or the latest round of efficiency targets (same outcomes with less resources, basically) and if the Rolling Stones will ever stop touring. Someone complains about the latest horror movie on Netflix and they somehow end up talking about bad Godzilla movies and how much they loved them as kids. It's nothing important. It won't cure cancer or deliver world peace, but it's nice to have a few drinks and a few laughs. He's definitely merry and a little too enthusiastic when he answers Mycroft's call. “Hey, what are you up to?” he says, walking to the back of the room to hear the call better. “Some last-minute arrangements,” Mycroft says, tone too flat to show any regret. “I may need to stay in the office for a few more hours.” “I can get a cab if you're busy.” He doesn't bother asking if Mycroft can get out of it. If Mycroft could avoid it, he wouldn't bother telling Greg about it. “Will I see you tonight?” “Unlikely, but not impossible.” “That's me,” Greg says brightly, “bringing the impossible into your life.” It's only after he's said it that he realises it's not as clever as it sounded in his head. He might want to have a glass of water before the next beer. “Don't mind me. I've had a few already.” There's a pause on the line and then Mycroft cautiously says, “You do, you know.” “Do what?” “Bring the impossible to life.” Mycroft clears his throat. “To my life, at least.” Greg doesn't need a mirror to know he's grinning like a fool. He can feel it on his face. “I'll text you when I'm leaving. See if you're still stuck in the office.” “Enjoy,” Mycroft says, hanging up. *** It's dark when Greg wakes up, dark and quiet. For a moment, he lies there with his eyes closed, trying to avoid the day for a little longer. It's been a long week of internal audits and late nights, and Greg desperately wants to hide from it for a few more minutes. Then he hears snatches of birdsong and groans in relief. It's Saturday. Saturday: a karmic reward for a horrible week. Warm and comfortable, Greg drifts between awake and asleep. There's a high pitched trill of birdsong outside the window, the odd stretch of silence around it. Greg's lived in London his entire adult life: he's used to waking up to traffic and noisy neighbours and the shuffle of people outside. But he's getting used to this: the warm, blanketing silence of Mycroft's house, the way birdsong seems so loud here. Rolling over, Greg reaches out a hand. He’s hoping to find Mycroft in bed beside him, but he isn't surprised to find the bed empty. Mycroft hates exercise but hates being observed doing it even more. His solution is to rise early and get straight on the treadmill. Get it done before Greg's really awake. That self-control is admirable. And very sexy, if you ask Greg. Greg also likes how Mycroft looks in Lycra, his long, lean legs on display, so sometimes he sneaks down to watch Mycroft anyway. Not on a day like today, when the bags under Greg's eyes have taken over his whole face. Greg would rather have a lie-in than catch Mycroft sweaty and flushed. No matter how appealing the sight would be. *** He doesn't emerge from bed until almost lunchtime. And that's only because Mycroft stands in the bedroom doorway, backlit with sunshine falling across the hallway carpet, holding a cup of coffee that smells fantastic. “I've made coffee,” Mycroft says from the doorway. “You'll have to come downstairs if you want some.” Greg groans and grumbles, but he drags himself out of bed. He pulls on a sweater and socks, does his best to navigate the stairs without opening both eyes at the same time. He gets to the kitchen and leans both elbows on the tall wooden island in the centre of the square room. He closes his eyes and lets his forehead drop to the counter. “I was promised coffee.” Mycroft hands over a plain, solid mug of the best coffee Greg's ever smelled. Greg takes a sip and it's the right temperature, the right amount of milk, just enough sweetness. Mycroft always makes his coffee exactly the way he likes it. Mycroft is kind enough not to say anything until Greg empties the mug. “Much longer and you wouldn't have slept tonight.” It's not an apology because Mycroft doesn't really do those. It's an explanation. “Thanks,” Greg says because he does appreciate it. “It's been a big week.” “Internal audits are never pleasant,” Mycroft says, more aware of Greg's workload than his immediate supervisor. “You'll feel better after a walk. We'll have a late lunch afterwards.” Mycroft can't help organising things, scheduling and arranging, like a cross between a super efficient robot and the world's biggest mother hen. It took a little getting used to, but once Greg recognized it for what it was -- Mycroft caring enough to pay attention, Mycroft using part of that enormous brain to anticipate what might make Greg happy -- he could accept the micromanaging. Most of it. “Sandwich first?” “I'll make it if you want to shower.” Greg goes to the shower, pretending it was his own idea rather than the bribery of a roast chicken sandwich. *** Once lunch is finished, they set off across the fields. Over the rolling green hills to the left, Greg can see the white stone houses of the village, the pointed spire of the church rising above. It's a twenty-minute brisk walk through well-worn tracks, but that's not where they're headed. Mycroft prefers wandering through pastures. He likes picking a different direction each time, leisurely rambling for hours. Like Heathcliff and his moors, Greg thinks, although Heathcliff never had the best fleece-lined wellies money could buy. The first time Mycroft suggested a walk, there was a second pair of wellies already sitting at the back door, plain black in Greg's size. He'd put them on, amused by the unnecessary amount of thought behind them, but he'd appreciated it by the time they got back. He'd been ankle-deep in mud. But this is the Mycroft he gets to see on weekends. The Mycroft who has two pairs of wellies, brown and green, to coordinate with his jackets when he goes walking. The Mycroft who still wears jackets and waistcoats, but they're warm, woollen checks, worn with thicker, softer shirts and corduroy trousers. Mycroft suits the quiet here, the endless green curves divided by old stone walls, the horizon as limitless as Mycroft's vast knowledge. It's old and settled and isolated, but Mycroft is so content here that Greg thinks this is what retirement might look like. Green fields and country quiet, just the two of them and days spent doing whatever they like. Greg's getting ahead of himself. He knows it. Early days, horse before the cart, and all that. Two years ago, he never would have imagined living outside of London. If you'd asked him where he'd be at eighty, he always figured he'd be one of those poor souls shuffling across the road as the lights changed, ignored by seas of students and business suits around him. A year ago, he was only starting to imagine Mycroft, to think about how Mycroft would kiss and wondering what Mycroft saw in him. He wasn't imagining how easily they'd fit together. How midweek pub lunches and fancy restaurants could become as much of a staple as short phone calls and good morning texts. They haven't moved in together, but these days, they spend more nights together than apart. Mycroft's London flat is only used for extremely late work nights or recovering from jetlag. The rest of the time, it's Greg's flat or weekends in the country. Hell, he's even updated his emergency contact details at work. Now, he knows that Mycroft is pitifully miserable when he catches the flu. He knows that Mycroft has cold feet in winter but his fingers are delightfully cool in summer, especially when they slide over Greg's flushed skin. He knows that Mycroft likes apples and pears but not stone fruit; that he's not fussed on cheeses but can still identify the type and origin within the first bite. He knows that Mycroft has always worn his wedding ring on the wrong hand and tells people it was his grandfather's; he knows that there's a shoebox of photos of the ex at the back of Mycroft's wardrobe, dust proving it hadn't been opened in years. (Well, until Greg found it. He couldn't resist looking inside, finding pictures of a younger Mycroft he'll never know. Happy and in love with someone else. Sometimes carefree and clearly on holiday, sometimes surrounded by someone else's friends. There were only two family photos of Christmas, clearly taken in different years, but the pose is the same. The Holmes parents in the middle, Sherlock to one side, Mycroft and his husband on the other. Greg couldn't help looking at it like a copper, seeing the stilted body language and obvious dislike. Then he put the photos back.) He knows that Mycroft has the same ringtone set for John and Sherlock, a light waterfall of violin notes. He knows that Mycroft will watch TV with him if asked, that he's capable of reading an inch thick book of computer science or economic theory and still follow who's who in Games of Thrones. Still, they should probably spend Christmas together before Greg thinks about retirement and happily ever after. “Do you have plans for Christmas?” “I may have to go to my parents’ for Christmas day.” Mycroft raises a graceful hand, an uncertain gesture. “They were talking about a doing a ‘Boot Scootin Cruise’ instead but it hasn't been finalised.” “Yeah?” “Our parents used to prefer travelling. The family Christmases were only enforced after Sherlock returned from the dead.” “Well, that makes sense,” Greg says, thinking if his parents had suddenly returned from the dead, he'd make every effort to stay in touch too. “Yes. Extended punishment for our ruse.” Mycroft continues stepping across the pasture, still graceful even as his wellies suck at the mud with each step. “Eventually, we'll be forgiven and released from the obligation.” Mycroft sounds serious, but he’s betrayed by the quirk of his left eyebrow. He enjoys playing the misanthrope, but he deeply cares about his family. He may complain about them, but he is devoted in his own wry way. “You’re a terror,” Greg says, nudging Mycroft’s elbow in retaliation. “Many would agree with you,” Mycroft declares imperiously. The wind picks up, and Greg crosses his arms against the chill. It's one of those rare days of weak winter sunshine, just enough to pretend it's still autumn. Mycroft is wrapped up in a dark burgundy scarf and soft leather gloves, but he hasn't worn his coat. “And your Christmas plans? Did your friends decide on Dublin?” Greg hasn't mentioned the discussion doing the rounds, but trust Mycroft to have noticed it anyway. Last year was a success, and everyone's talking about doing it again. Jules wants to go back to Scotland this year, Dave wants Ireland and Greg… well, Greg's not sure he wants to miss Mycroft's next birthday. “Nothing's decided yet. They're still finalising the leave roster so I don't know if I've got the days off yet.” *** It's Sherlock who confirms Christmas plans. Pausing at the edge of the crime scene, holding the tape up for John to walk under, Sherlock's justifiably smug at solving the case in under twenty minutes. “Bring something sweet for Christmas.” “What?” “If you bring a savoury dish, Mummy will take it as a criticism of her cooking.” Greg frowns, thinking. It takes him an embarrassingly long time to connect the dots. “What happened to the cruise?” “It's been postponed a month,” Sherlock replies, dropping the tape and spinning on his heel after John. “Bring enough cake for Mycroft and the rest of us.” Greg rolls his eyes at the petty jibe. It's sadly familiar but also something Sherlock says less often to Mycroft's face, and Greg hopes that's a sign of improvement. When it comes to the Holmes brothers, it's hard to tell the difference between personal growth and a new passive-aggressive tactic. Fishing out his phone, he calls Mycroft. “Hey,” he says when it connects. “Go ahead.” There's a quiet murmur in the background, the chink of glasses and faded sound of a string quartet. One of those fancy nights out that Mycroft endures mostly for the sake of dressing up. The man owns three tuxedos. “When were you going to tell me I'm invited for Christmas?” “Last minute change,” Mycroft says and then murmurs, “You'll need to excuse me.” The background noise grows quieter and quieter. “Sherlock told me this evening,” Greg says as Mycroft finds a little slice of privacy at his fancy dinner. “It was only confirmed today.” There's a creak of an old door and then the noise around Mycroft disappears. “He didn't need to rush to tell you.” “What's the fun in Sherlock knowing something if he can't tell everyone else?” Sometimes Greg loves Sherlock's compulsion to share everything he knows and how he knows it; sometimes he has to remind himself that good DIs do not punch civilians. “So, Christmas Day?” “I spoke to Mummy this afternoon. She did extend you an invitation but I told her that you might have already made plans with friends.” “Nothing's decided yet.” Greg takes a breath, leaning on the side of the police car. “I could come with you.” “You're truly under no obligation. I'd only wish my family upon my enemies.” Greg remembers Mycroft's description of the day: a horror of Holmes. But he also knows that as much as Mycroft rolls his eyes or scowls at Sherlock, he loves his little brother dearly. For all the condescension and the hyperbole, he suspects Mycroft loves his parents too. “Think about it. I mean it, I'd be happy to come.” “You're curious,” Mycroft surmises. “You're the one dating a copper. Curious and suspicious come with the territory.” “If you insist,” Mycroft says graciously. *** Despite Greg's best efforts, he catches a murder on the nineteenth and ends up working late the whole week. Right through the dinner reservations he'd made for their anniversary. He realises as he's interviewing a suspect, but it takes another hour before he steals a few minutes to call Mycroft. “I'm sorry,” he says before Mycroft can say anything. “I know we had reservations, first anniversary, I know. I'm sorry. I'm still at the Yard but--” “Gregory,” Mycroft interrupts firmly. “Breathe.” Greg pulls in a slow breath and makes himself push all the air out before he talks again. He knows he has a tendency to apologise too much for his job -- he loves it, inconvenient hours and all, but there's always this guilt when it takes priority. When he follows a lead and forgets other people are relying on him. And he starts apologising, trying to avoid the fight… Not that he could ever placate Jenn by saying sorry. If it wasn't a screaming fight, it was quiet and weary, Jenn telling him not to even bother, that she hadn't expected him to show anyway. He panics and acts out a fight he's never had with Mycroft, and that's not fair to either of them. “I'm just calling to say I can't make it,” he tries again, calmer this time. “I wanted to, but I can't.” “The Harrogate murders,” Mycroft says. Greg doesn't confirm or deny. In theory, that should be confidential within the Met but Mycroft knows far more than anyone should. Greg would be concerned if it was anyone other than Mycroft. “I really did have a reservation.” “I know,” Mycroft says lightly. “I'm at the restaurant now.” “You are?” “Seemed a waste to leave the table empty. I'll bring you dessert.” “I don't know when we'll be done tonight. If we play it right, we might get a confession.” “Then I'll leave it in your fridge.” “Yeah?” Greg grins. This part is new: knowing Mycroft has a key to his place, that he could leave food in the fridge and might even be waiting in Greg's bed when he gets this tied up. “Any chance you'll be there too?” “Not in your fridge,” Mycroft says primly. *** It's after midnight when Greg gets home, cold and wishing for his gloves. He shucks off his coat and leaves it over the sofa, navigating through the living room by the hall light. Inside the fridge, he finds a carefully cling-wrapped plate on the top shelf -- the sour cherry tart, a dark pool of chocolate to one side. It looks so good he nearly pulls it out to taste, but then thinks better of it. He'll enjoy it more when he's not gritty-eyed and desperate to lie down. He opens the bedroom door quietly, but Mycroft stirs as the light falls across the bed. He blinks sleepily at the light, hair fluffed up from the pillow. Covering his eyes with one hand, Mycroft says, “Turn the light on and get undressed.” Greg does, pulling his clothes off as quickly as he can, and hanging his suit up before it wrinkles any further. In T-shirt and boxers, he flicks the light back off and then turns the hall light off too. In the sudden darkness, he carefully makes his way to his side of the bed. “One step forward, then left,” Mycroft says from the darkness. Greg follows the instructions and finds the covers pulled back for him. He gets into bed and leans over, finding Mycroft's cheek by touch. “Happy anniversary,” he says, and kisses Mycroft's smooth cheek. “I'm sorry I couldn't make it.” Mycroft turns his head, pressing a warm kiss to the side of Greg's jaw. He slides his lips to the edge of Greg's mouth, pausing for a kiss. “Don't be silly.” Greg could argue it or apologise, or he could pay attention to the way Mycroft rolls towards him, to the parted lips breathing warm air against his. He can smell the champagne on Mycroft, can taste it when he licks his way past Mycroft's lips. In the dark, in the quiet, he can hear them kissing. Can hear the sheets rustle as Mycroft moves closer, hooking a long thigh over Greg's hip. There's a hand at the back of Greg's head, holding him close as they kiss and Greg has to retaliate, sliding chilled fingers under skin-warm cotton, feeling Mycroft's stomach hitch as he jerks away. “Your hands are freezing.” “Says the human icicle,” Greg replies, tugging Mycroft closer and undoing the buttons on his pyjamas. “I know how cold your feet get.” “Not as cold as that,” Mycroft says, which is an absolute lie. “And you don't mind them.” That is true. Greg pulls his hands back, breathes on his fingers to warm them up. “There we go. Warmer already.” This time, Mycroft doesn't flinch. Greg slides a hand up Mycroft's chest, smoothing his fingertips over chest hair and lightly dragging fingernails back down. Mycroft's breath stutters delightfully. He still manages to say, “It's possibly too late for anything--” Greg kisses him before he can finish that ridiculous sentence. It is late, yes, but it's their anniversary. And he knows champagne makes Mycroft randy. All good reasons to continue. He cheats a little. Scrapes his nails down the back of Mycroft's neck, following the line of vertebrae. Mycroft groans around the kiss, thigh tightening on Greg's hip. It's easy to roll Mycroft over, to press him into the mattress and settle between his legs. “Gregory,” Mycroft says, wonderfully breathless as Greg lowers his mouth to Mycroft's collarbone, dragging his lips over old marks. He's discovered that Mycroft's pale skin marks easily. Mycroft loves it, squirms if Greg nips at his neck, digs fingers into Greg's shoulder and groans at the slightest scrape of teeth, but those dark red marks tend to bruise by the morning. So Greg sticks to the collarbone and lower, and tries not to suck too hard, no matter how urgently Mycroft clings to him, breathing heavily and rutting against his hip. He can't help but feel a little bit invincible, a little bulletproof. It's a heady rush to be the one person that gets to see Mycroft like this. To know all the power and terrifying intellect at Mycroft's disposal, and know just how to touch him to make him groan. To know that he can kiss the curve of Mycroft's collarbone and make him clench at Greg's back. To slide his hand under the loose waistband of his pyjamas and know he'll find Mycroft's hard c*ck waiting for him. To know Mycroft by heat and taste and smell, by the smothered gasp Mycroft makes, by the twist of his hips as Greg starts stroking him. Even in the dark, Greg feels like he'd know Mycroft by touch alone. Hand working Mycroft's cock, Greg starts to shuffle down the bed, slow and a little clumsy. Mycroft tugs on his elbow. “Where are you going?” It shouldn't be awkward to say -- I want to suck you off, I want my mouth around your cock, I want to taste you -- but it is. It's embarrassing and the words don't come out. Greg still freezes about this stuff. Not doing it, because that's surprisingly easy, but finding the right words always leaves him second-guessing himself. “Less clean up,” Greg says, which is not exactly what he means but Mycroft's clever. He can usually work this stuff out. “I'd rather have you near,” Mycroft says, shimmying out of his pyjama bottoms, pushing them down to his knees, pulling up one leg and then the other to get them off. Greg follows suit, pulling off his underwear and then tugging off his T-shirt for the sake of it. Mycroft still has his arms covered, his pyjama shirt lying open across his chest. He doesn't bother undressing completely, just pulls Greg down on top of him. It's nice, skin to skin, chest to chest, Mycroft's legs bracketing his. Mycroft fumbles in the bedside drawer and retrieves tissues and lube. One gets placed beside the bed, the other is opened and squeezed onto his fingers. The first touch to Greg's c*ck is smooth and cool, certain. Mycroft slicks his own cock, then wraps long fingers around both of them. A light squeeze and Greg's hips thrust forwards, c*ck sliding against Mycroft's. “Yes,” Mycroft mutters against Greg's shoulder. “Again.” Greg rocks his hips back and then thrusts again. Shallow movements, like f***ing on an easy Sunday, slow and gentle. Trapped between the soft, hot skin of Mycroft's c*ck and firm, graceful fingers. Weight held on his elbows, head held up to breathe. Mycroft's legs wrapped around him, and Mycroft panting open-mouthed against his shoulder, mumbling “Gregory,” and “Yes,” and “Please,” so f***ing polite as he screws his hips up, trying for more. It's perfect. Even with the sweat gathering between his shoulder blades, even with Mycroft's hard, plastic buttons digging into his chest, it's perfect. It's close and it's real. Greg shifts his weight to one elbow, reaches down to tangle his hand around Mycroft's, fingers sliding over and between Mycroft's as he feels the pressure building in the base of his spine, in his balls, as he tightens his fingers and rides it out. He comes with his hand still around both their cocks, with Mycroft panting against his shoulder, still hard, still rocking up and searching for more. Greg takes an unsteady breath and rolls off. Heart still pounding, he reaches down and gets his hand around Mycroft's cock. Hard, fast strokes to finish. Mycroft's head pressed back into the pillow, back arching up as he spills through Greg's fingers. Afterwards, they lie there, breathing heavily in the dark. He thinks Mycroft uses Greg's T-shirt to clean them both up. Greg makes a mental note to remember to put a wash on tomorrow. *** They make an arrest the next day and Greg spends the next two days avidly completing reports and trying to avoid active cases. Unfortunately, the Met doesn't think ‘wanting to make sure my holiday leave isn't impacted by work’ is a valid excuse when there's an open case. Greg gets the call and attends the crime scene, waits hours for SOCO to show up, and then he gives in and calls Sherlock. Who doesn't answer, so he calls John instead. “Hi Greg,” John says warmly, and then there's a high pitched giggle in the background, a squeal of amusement from someone very small. “Rosie says hi.” Greg grins. “Tell her hi from me. Do you know if Sherlock's busy right now?” It's Christmas Eve. Normal people are busy but Sherlock has never been normal. “Any cases on?” “Not right now. Why?” “I wanted his help. Probably not interesting by his arbitrary scale, but I'd like to get this wrapped up today. If it's possible.” “Mrs Hudson's out so I'll need to look after Rosie. I'll send him 'round on his own.” There's a low rumble of disagreement in the background, and John hisses, “Otherwise he might not make Christmas,” and then Greg hears, “Fine, but only to make Mycroft bearable for the day.” “Text the address,” John says cheerily. “He'll be there soon.” That's how Greg ends up spending Christmas Eve chasing a cheating brother-in-law down a row of terraced houses in Knightsbridge. Sherlock's beside him, yelling at the suspect -- Jimmy Knowles -- about a red tie as they duck around crowds of last-minute shoppers and too keen carolers. He keeps up with Sherlock but he's panting by the time they get Knowles cornered. (Greg suddenly appreciates spending those dull hours in the gym. He's not as rigorous about it as Mycroft but it's been motivating knowing there's someone who enjoys seeing him naked.) By the time Greg's caught his breath, the suspect is cuffed and arrested, and they're waiting for backup to come get them. It's Christmas Eve and London is full of last-minute shoppers, traffic slowed to a frustrating crawl. Greg's advised it could be up to two hours, so he marches Knowles into the nearest pub and sits him in the corner. “Say one thing,” he warns the guy, “and we'll spend the next two hours waiting outside.” There's a shifty, narrow-eyed look from Sherlock to Greg, and for a minute, Greg thinks they might have to do this the hard way: freezing on a London street. Then the suspect gives a sigh and all the fight goes out of his hunched shoulders. Knowles gives the nod of a man who knows he's hit a low point and life is going to get even worse from here. “Want a drink?” Greg asks, taking pity on him. “You'll have to drink through a straw but orange juice, water, coke?” Knowles shakes his head and sinks further into the seat. At the other end of the table, Sherlock is typing into his phone with a sharp smile. “Are you texting?” Greg really hopes he's texting. Lord save them from another round of twitter gloating. “John,” Sherlock replies. “Rosie was asking for her favourite toy.” It's so strange to see Sherlock talk about Rosie. It's even weirder to see him around her. He dotes on her. Sarcastic, unfeeling Sherlock Holmes, who has made qualified Met staff cry or threaten physical violence, and Greg's never seen him happier than trying to explain the scientific method to a toddler. “Thanks,” Greg says. Sherlock frowns at him like he's an idiot. “For helping. I appreciate getting this sorted.” “I wouldn't want you to miss Christmas,” Sherlock says with the kind of glee usually reserved for dead bodies. “Is there something I should know?” “Mycroft hasn't dated since the divorce.” Greg hadn't known for certain but he's not surprised. Mycroft's interest in other people is amazingly limited. He can sum most people up in a glance and very few even get a second look. Greg feels a warm glow of smugness at knowing he’s an exception to that rule. “So?” Sherlock's eyes narrow like an amused cat. “So Mummy is going to spend a lot of time asking you questions. While Mycroft spends the day attempting to run interference.” “It won't be that bad,” Greg says, pretending he can't see the sympathetic look Knowles gives him. Suspects aren't supposed to pity the arresting officer. “It's just Christmas.” *** Greg offers to drive on Christmas day. Mycroft had suggested taking a car but the idea of their driver sitting around all Christmas Day, alone and away from his family just for convenience, it didn't sit right with Greg. Mycroft had promised the driver would be compensated accordingly, but Greg insisted. “It's a few hours driving country roads. I'm happy to do it.” Mycroft had responded by hiring -- please, Lord, let it be hired, thinking Mycroft owns it is too much for Greg -- a Bentley Continental in racing green. Greg falls in love at first sight of the big silver grille. The interior is all tan leather and inlaid wood, and the motor purrs like a tiger. Greg spends the first half hour trying to keep to the speed limit, resisting the urge to floor the accelerator to see how fast this beast can go. From the passenger seat, Mycroft spends the drive working on his phone. He occasionally glances over at Greg with the world's smarmiest smirk. “Yes, fine, I'm loving this,” Greg says after the third time Mycroft's glanced his way. “Great Christmas present.” “If you insist on driving,” Mycroft replies, “we should at least be comfortable.” Comfortable, he says, like Greg’s even noticed the leather seats. He's having far too much fun shifting up a gear and increasing speed as the roads clear. He lets himself break the speed limit for a few minutes and then slows down again. The car responds like it's telepathic -- no lag in acceleration, no sudden jerk of too-sensitive brakes. It's the driving dream shown on car commercials, all smooth turns and easy handling. Greg's enjoying every minute behind the wheel, so it's not until they're twenty minutes away that he notices Mycroft's tension. No jiggling foot or tapping fingers for Mycroft. No, his tension is all in the very straight posture, the shoulders peeled back and down, the unforgiving line of his mouth. “You okay?” Greg asks, not really expecting an honest answer. “Of course,” Mycroft replies, forcing a smile that's almost convincing. “Take the next left.” “Are you really okay?” Greg asks again, flicking the indicator on. Even the click of the indicator is muted and tasteful: nothing cheap or crass allowed in this car. Well, other than the driver. “Nervous?” “It's Christmas with my family.” Mycroft turns to look out the window. “Believe me, my expectations for the day are not high.” “Doesn't matter. Doesn't matter if they don't like me. I'm dating you, not them, and I know you like me.” Mycroft turns away from the window with a hint of a smile. “Quite a lot.” “See? It'll be fine, whatever happens.” *** Mycroft's parents are reasonably ordinary. His mum is blonde and pale, heavy but still pretty. His dad is tall and lean-faced, clearly where Sherlock gets his bone structure. They're both frightfully posh, but Greg's dealt with the rich and incandescently angry; he can deal with posh and polite easily. Mycroft introduces everyone. His parents are Siger Holmes -- “Call me Cigs, everyone does,” he says -- and Doctor Violet Holmes. (“Like the flower,” she says and Greg wonders if it’s a joke, or if she genuinely thought he needed that clarification.) Mycroft introduces him as Detective Inspector Gregory Lestrade, so Greg grins and adds, “Call me Greg. Everyone does.” Mycroft’s dad finds it funny. His mum… is less impressed. Mycroft had described their home as a small cottage in the Cotswolds, but it's still bigger than the terraced house in Essex where Greg grew up. Probably costs four times as much. Greg says, “You have a lovely home,” as he's ushered inside and does his best to mean it. It's homey like Mycroft's house, lots of wood and rugs, comfortable old furniture in deep reds with embroidered cushions. Every surface is cluttered with decorations or knick-knacks, lived in and messy like Sherlock's flat. John and Sherlock are seated on the sofa, Rosie on Sherlock's lap. She's nearly four now and has John's cranky squint when she's puzzled by something new. Right now, she's squinting at a jigsaw puzzle laid out on the coffee table. “Hi Rosie,” Greg says, squatting down to be closer to her level. “What have you got there?” “Puzzle,” she says, holding up the piece in her chubby little fingers. She's a bright girl but doesn't talk much around strangers or in new places. Greg only sees her rarely, so she's usually quiet for the first twenty minutes whenever he visits Baker Street. Greg smiles, asking, “Trying to work out where it fits?” Mycroft claims he doesn't especially like children. That he didn't particularly like them as a child and hasn't changed his mind. Yet he gives a serious nod of the head and says, “Good morning, Rosamund,” as he casually picks up a puzzle piece and slots it into the half-finished puzzle. Rosie squints at it, then at the piece in her hand, turning it until it fits next to the piece Mycroft laid down. “What do we say?” John prompts her gently. Rosie looks up, all big brown eyes and dirty blonde pigtails tied with bright red baubles. “Thank you,” she says carefully, reciting her good manners, “for your conda-sending help.” Over Rosie's head, Sherlock grins like the Grinch, gleefully spiteful. John tries to look disapproving but there's a twitch to the corner of his mouth that says he wants to laugh at Sherlock's antics. Mycroft smiles his most smug and least warm smile. “You're most welcome, Rosamund. Do let me know if you need any further assistance.” It's some sort of jibe because it makes Sherlock straighten, eyes narrowed. “We'll keep that generous offer in mind,” he replies sharply. After Mycroft’s dad sinks into an old armchair with the paper and Mycroft's mum has gone back to puttering in the kitchen, Mycroft offers to give him a tour of the house. Reception rooms downstairs and bedrooms upstairs: master bedroom, Sherlock's room and guest room. “My room when I stayed here,” Mycroft adds, opening the door to a room that's bland and country-pretty, white quilted bedspread and small roses climbing the wallpaper. The bedside tables have a lamp each side and nothing else. It's a nice guest room but it's hard to imagine a teenage boy living here. “Changed a lot since you were a kid?” “The curtains,” Mycroft says. “That bedspread is almost as old as me.” Mycroft likes bright, colourful flowers but he's not a pastels and florals guy. The room doesn't suit his tastes at all. “Really?” Mycroft blinks at Greg, considering. “I left for school two months after we moved here. I only stayed here on school holidays.” Mycroft continues, “It would have been a waste to keep a bedroom I'd barely use,” but Greg's thinking of Mycroft's house, his London flat, his club and his offices -- all of these spaces carved out and possessively claimed. He's thinking of a teenager coming home and knowing he was only a guest, knowing that home and family didn't include a space that was his. It must show on Greg's face because Mycroft gives him a look of fond indulgence. “I was not an unhappy child. Give me quiet and a few good books and I would have felt at home anywhere.” “Still…” Greg shrugs. “No posters? No toys stacked on shelves?” “And no desire for them, either.” *** While Violet cooks, Mycroft and Sherlock play a rather unique version of charades. Apparently, it's a Christmas tradition. Not celebrities or films but London locations. Not spelt out by number of words and syllables and ‘sounds like’ clues. Just the brothers taking turns to pull out a slip of paper and then stand there for a few seconds as the other says, “Piccadilly Circus,” or “Euston Station.” For one turn, Sherlock does nothing more than put the used clue in his pocket and Mycroft says, “Queen Anne's Gate,” with bored superiority that betrays he's secretly having fun. Sherlock pulls himself straighter, rising to the challenge, and pulls the next clue. Mycroft looks, then blinks once, and raises a questioning eyebrow. “Really, Sherlock? Buckingham Palace?” John, sitting on the floor with Rosie, stifles a laugh. “Your turn,” Sherlock says, walking over to the sofa with the small bowl of folded pieces of paper. It's an odd game but they're both enjoying it. Certainly enjoying it more than Hungry Hippos, where Sherlock won and gloated, and Mycroft attempted to glare a hole right through him. Greg's glad no-one’s suggested Monopoly yet. He can't imagine that would end without squabbling. “Have they always been like that?” Greg quietly asks Cigs. Cigs looks up from his crossword puzzle, forehead lined in confusion. “Beg pardon,” he says. “Have who been like what?” Greg nods over at the brothers. “Those two. Playing games no one else can understand?” “Oh, no. My wife can usually follow them. That's where they get the brains from, you know.” “Yeah?” “Published mathematician,” he says with a strong note of pride. Greg likes that. “PhD and everything.” “What about you?” “Me?” Cigs asks. He tucks a strand of white hair behind an ear, fingers almost nervous with the gesture. “I’m not really anything.” “I meant what did you used to do,” Greg clarifies. “Nothing, thankfully. Family money, you know.” Greg nods, but he doesn't know. He has no idea what's it like to only work out of choice, to have the option of doing nothing at all -- without that meaning council flats and struggling below the breadline. It's not surprising because look at Sherlock. Lives in central London, dresses in clothes so fitted they might as well be bespoke, and only takes a case if he thinks it's interesting. There's no concept of the necessity of work, of needing successive paydays to avoid poverty. And yet there's Mycroft. Mycroft who works more hours than Greg, which is saying something, and clearly doesn't need the money. He's so brilliant that he could sit back like Sherlock, only working when the desire struck him, but instead he attends frustrating committees and works late nights when required. He puts everything he has into doing his job as well as he can. Greg only realises he's smiling like a sap, staring at Mycroft, when Mycroft gives him a quick frown. He turns back to Mycroft's dad. “So, Cigs, there must be a story behind that nickname.” “An obvious one, I'm afraid.” “Caught smoking?” Cigs raises one white eyebrow and for a moment, Greg sees Mycroft in the gesture and the pale blue eyes. Then Cigs smiles and turns back into a friendly old man, with Sherlock's narrow face and high cheekbones. “My father was the smoker but I used to smuggle a few packs into my case at the start of every term. Hence the nickname.” “What about Mycroft and Sherlock?” Greg asks. “Any nicknames from school?” “Holmes,” the brothers reply in perfect, disdainful unison. From the floor by the fireplace, John looks over Rosie's head. “That uni mate of yours, didn't he say--” “Nicknames are used to one's face,” Sherlock says sharply. “And they are quite unnecessary when one is already known and easily recognised,” Mycroft adds coolly. One. Greg rubs a hand over his mouth to cover the smile. He'd heard it last year, the poshness creeping into Mycroft's voice by the end of the day. He hadn't expected to hear it so quickly. *** In the back of his mind, Greg can almost hear Richard Attenborough narrating the day: Here we have a Holmes in his natural habitat. Notice how calmly he studies the cards in his hands before asking for a King. They've moved to Go Fish, and Greg offered to look after Rosie so John can play as well. Cigs wandered outside for something and hasn't returned. Greg's been to Sherlock's place for Christmas drinks and seen Sherlock enjoy himself around the people he trusts. He's seen Mycroft at home in the country, quiet but far from his chilly reserve. He's seen the brothers squabble over any excuse, taking turns to pick and unravel the other. This is a strange overlap of all of that. The brothers are still competing but the barbs are far less sharp; the teasing is almost friendly. Sherlock is having fun, grinning when he slaps a pair of cards down on the coffee table. Even Mycroft allows the occasional smile, a small pleased quirk of his lips as Sherlock relinquishes a three of clubs. Honestly, it's fascinating. Not quite the Mycroft Greg sees when it's just the two of them -- considerate, content, amused by the absurd -- but it's far from the cold, harsh Mycroft usually shown to other people. Greg's quite happy to keep watching but Violet wanders past and says, “If you're not doing anything, perhaps you could help me with the potatoes?” Mycroft looks up immediately, eyes narrowed. “I'll do them,” he says, as if he's ever stepped willingly into a kitchen to help. “But you're playing,” Greg says, stating the obvious. As soon as he hears it, he cringes, waiting for Sherlock to say something cutting and undeniable. Shrugging off Sherlock’s insults would be easier if Greg thought before he spoke. But Sherlock doesn't say anything mean. Sherlock's too busy watching Mycroft with a smug air of schadenfreude, too satisfied by Mycroft's discomfort. And he is uncomfortable. It's in the sudden tension in his shoulders, the stiffness to his neck, the tight grip on his cards. “Gregory is a guest,” Mycroft says firmly. “I should help.” “Don't be silly, Mikey,” Violet says and Mycroft's chin tilts dangerously. Political coups and terrorist cells are no match for that expression, but his mother doesn't waver. “Finish your game with Sherlock. I'm sure Greg's capable of peeling a potato.” Greg stands up, smiling reassuringly at Mycroft. He's been a copper for twenty-five years; he knows when he's being led to an interrogation. But he also knows trying to avoid it never works long-term. Best to get it done now and appear cooperative. “I've even been known to cook them,” Greg says and there's a concerned twitch to Mycroft's eyebrow. “We'll be in the kitchen when you lot are done. Oh, and Mycroft?” “Yes?” Mycroft asks carefully, still looking uneasy. “Ask for sevens,” Greg says, nodding at Sherlock's hand. *** It's the easy questions first: how long have you known Mycroft (years), how did you meet (Sherlock) and how long have you been seeing each other (about a year now). Simple intelligence gathering and things she probably already knew. But if it's an interrogation, at least he's not stuck in an uncomfortable plastic chair, leaning on a Formica table. No, he's standing by the sink, peeling a large bowl of potatoes while Christmas carols play quietly in the background. Greg can smell the turkey roasting in the oven and the earthy spices of a Christmas pudding steaming away. It’s warm and homey, like something out of a kids’ Christmas movie. On the other end of the bench, Violet chops a pumpkin with a cleaver. A cleaver the length of Greg's forearm. She says her wrists are weak these days and it's easier to use a bigger knife. Greg can't help seeing it as unspoken intimidation, something that works all the better for being unacknowledged. Pity there’s no acceptable way for Greg to use that tactic in an interview room. Professionalism and Standards might have something to say about that. “So you were seeing each other last Christmas?” Violet asks, tone light as she forces the cleaver through half a pumpkin. There’s a clunk as she hits the chopping board. Greg keeps his eyes on the potato peeler in his hand. He knows this game: give them just a hint of information and wait for the suspect to incriminate themselves. The correct response is to be friendly and open, and only confirm what’s already known. “Just started, yeah.” “And you enjoyed your Christmas,” she asks, “with your friends?” “Yeah, it was great. Hired a house on Airbnb and spent a week up in Scotland.” Greg turns and smiles, and Violet gives him a friendly smile in return. “It was good to catch up. You know what it's like. You mean to see people, but months slip by and suddenly you haven't seen friends in years.” “I suppose you wouldn't have much time,” Violet says, “given your job. Sherlock makes it sound very...” “Busy?” “Dangerous,” Violet says with a hard thunk on the chopping board. “Joining the police seems like a very dangerous profession.” Greg's first thought is that Sherlock is in no position to call other people's choices dangerous. His second is remembering John telling him how he met Mycroft, how Sherlock called him the most dangerous man he'd ever met. And that said to a man who'd seen active combat. Right now, Greg is Violet's least dangerous guest, not counting Rosie. But to someone's mum, working for the police probably sounds more dangerous than a doctor or a bureaucrat. “It's not as dangerous as it seems. There's a lot of paperwork and interviewing people. Honestly, most of the job is talking to people and recording what's said, and watching hours of CCTV footage. Not as exciting as it looks on the telly.” “Hmm,” Violet says and falls into the scheming silence that makes Greg worry when Sherlock goes quiet at crime scenes. It's usually only a matter of minutes before he spins off, running after a lead he won't tell anyone else. If she's anything like Sherlock, there's only a small window to keep control of the situation. Greg lays down the peeler and she mirrors him, setting the cleaver down as well. “Look,” Greg says, “we don't know each other well and I'm sure you're curious about me. But I'm curious too, so how about we trade questions? Ask me anything, and we'll trade answers.” Everything about Violet Holmes is soft and rounded. Pale blonde hair pulled up into a gentle chignon, pretty face and round blue eyes, the fat under her chin and the curving of her shoulders. But her nod is sharp and certain. “You have a deal.” Greg picks up the peeler -- the potatoes won't peel themselves -- and says, “Ladies first.” Violet doesn't pull any punches. “Why did you get divorced?” “Short story: she cheated.” “And the long story?” “That's a second question,” Greg says, “but I worked too much, couldn't be what she wanted, and eventually she found that with someone else. There were a lot of years where we kept trying to make it work, and it didn't but it took a long time to let go of what we once had.” It sounds easy, summed up like that. Sounds a lot less confusing than it felt to live through, heartbreak condensed into a simple story. In the end, it hadn't been the betrayal or the humiliation that ended it; he'd just been tired. Bone deep tired of trying and failing and hearing the effort it took both of them to be civil. Tired of how hard it was and how miserable and uncomfortable they both were. He didn't think getting divorced would make him happy, but at least he'd be able to relax. When he looks over at Violet, she's watching him closely. He remembers Cigs saying the brothers got their brains from her. For a moment, Greg hopes that's not true. “My turn?” “That's the deal,” Violet says carefully. Greg wants to ask about Mycroft. He wants to ask how the divorce happened, and why. He wants to ask how many times the ex came to a Holmes Christmas and why the photos were so awkward and what excuse did he use to avoid the other years. He wants to lever this opportunity into usable information, force his way into understanding Mycroft's personal history. But this isn't a case. This isn't background for an open file. If Mycroft wanted him to know, he'd tell Greg. Finding it out like this… That's how you ruin good things. So instead, Greg asks, “Did Mycroft really play Lady Bracknell in high school? John swears he did, but Mycroft won't confirm or deny it.” For the first time, Violet smiles at him and looks like she actually means it. “He certainly did. He was very good, although a little too tall to be convincing. Lady Bracknell should not be three inches taller than everyone else on stage.” *** All in all, it's going well by the time the vegetables are roasting. Greg's been quizzed on his career prospects (the honest truth: he doesn't play politics well enough to rise any higher but he's happy where he is) and financial situation (“I rent in London,” he says because he's not discussing retirement funds with a virtual stranger). He's kept his own questions fairly benign: Mycroft's favourite childhood toy (“An old stuffed bear with mismatched eyes,” Violet says. “He insisted on sewing a new matching pair before he gave it to Sherlock.”) and favourite food as a kid (anything with sugar, apparently). Then Violet asks, “How did you fall in love with my son?” Greg blurts out the first answer that comes to mind. “Slowly.” It was slow and steady, like Mycroft himself. He's not a personality built for sudden declarations and changes of heart -- Mycroft is considered and dependable, and even changing his mind is a slow shift by degrees. “We were spending time together and then… He's fascinating. Different from anyone, from everyone else. Once you spend some time alone with him, once you see that, it's…” Greg shrugs but Violet doesn't make it easy. She doesn't fill in the gap. She leaves the silence until Greg shrugs again and tries to explain. “We spent more time together and there was a spark, and I don't know. I don't know how. I'm just glad it happened.” Greg finds some peace peeling a carrot, trying to phrase a question that Mycroft couldn't answer. That Mycroft wouldn’t consider worth knowing. “How did you know Mycroft was gay? Did he tell you?” “He didn't need to. It was quite obvious,” Violet says fondly. “He never had any interest in girls. Barely any interest in people, but certainly no interest in girls. There was a local girl, lived ten minutes walk from here, had a hopeless crush on him. In summer holidays, she'd walk past every few days, trying to get Mikey's attention and he never noticed her. Too busy reading or running after Sherlock.” “So it wasn't a surprise when he brought a boy home?” “That's a second question,” Violet says as Mycroft walks into the kitchen. “Have you considered living with a man? How different it will be after being married to a woman?” “Mummy!” Mycroft says, horrified eyes wide. “You can't ask that.” “Yes, I can,” Violet replies cheerily, ignoring Mycroft's glare. “Greg's agreed to answer.” “Ignore my mother,” Mycroft tells Greg, stepping between the two of them as if Greg needs to be sheltered. It's simultaneously rude and chivalrous, which is Mycroft all over. “She's clearly forgotten the basic etiquette of hosting.” “Not everything has to be done by rules,” Sherlock says, stopping at the table and picking at the plate of gingerbread snowmen and reindeer. He breaks a top hat off one and a leg off another. Mycroft keeps his back to Sherlock and Violet, watching Greg's face closely. “I agreed,” Greg says gently because Mycroft's worried and if they were alone, he'd reach out and squeeze Mycroft's hand. Remind him that he's fine. But Mycroft dislikes public displays of affection. In his childhood home, surrounded by family members who keep calling him ‘Mikey' and ignoring the way it makes him scowl, it seems like a bad idea to touch. “Perhaps I should show you the garden,” Mycroft says. “Sherlock could take over helping.” “Sounds good. Thanks, Sherlock,” Greg calls out, stepping away from the bench before Sherlock can complain too loudly. ***

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