Going Under, the first book in the Something in the Water series, arrives Tuesday, September 5!

 

Chapter I [Bad Spirits]

Chapter I [Bad Spirits]

 The rain poured down, punishing the earth. Raindrops rattled off the tin roof of the makeshift shack with regularity, some maddening rhythm, and he stared up at the ceiling. He could feel the muscles in his eyes straining with uncontrolled rage. He wasn’t sure what he could do, however; there was no one to stab and the rain would only stop when the storm had passed. With a sigh, he hauled himself out of bed.

He tried to start a fire on the hearth, but the house was damp; the walls were nowhere near solid enough to keep out the elements. Moisture had seeped in through every chink and crack in the construction of the little hovel. It was a cold damp too. Even the firewood was wet. The newspaper had been turned to mush and there was nowhere to get dry kindling. Even his blankets were of no use in the battle to keep warm; they were just as damp as the rest of the house.

It had been raining like this for two days now, and the muddy pathway that served as a road through the shanty town had turned into a makeshift river. Water rivuleted down it, pooled in puddles in the lowlands, then continued running away through the waterlogged grasses. The fields just beyond the tiny cluster of dwellings had been turned into marshes. He peered out the window, through the filthy, murky glass, and he watched the dark, storm-bruised sky vaulting overhead. Somewhere toward the horizon, the world seemed a little brighter, but it was a tease. He watched as one of the peasant farmers attempted to drive a horse and cart through the waterlogged fields. The poor beast was knee-deep in mud and the cart kept sticking, even with the hobbled old man pushing it along from behind. A mist was rolling along the road now, and Ilya shivered before turning away from the window.
The packet of matches was damp, but he struck one off the flint and, by some small miracle, it sparked and caught fire. He set it to the kerosene in the lamp, then set the lantern on the table. He drew the tattered blanket that served as a curtain back over the window, a futile effort to keep out the wind and the rain. There was simply no way to keep it out and it reminded him that he needed to do something to these walls, or risk freezing to death in the bitter Rus winter. He shuddered, then pulled another ratty blanket over the door. He needed to stuff all the chinks and fissures, stop up the walls tight, and patch the roof.
It was pleasurable to worry about such trivial things. It was mechanical. It was easy. There was nothing but his own pathetic life at stake, and he could make or break his life with his own two hands. If he were to die, it would be by his own two hands and what they could or could not do.
It was … restful.
Nobody asked questions here. The peasants weren’t exactly welcoming, but he worked hard and did what was asked of him. Hardly anyone spoke to him, and he spoke to hardly anyone, so the arrangement wasn’t disagreeable to either party. His clothes were now as tattered and patched as everyone else’s wardrobe, and his hands bore the bulbous callouses of hard, backbreaking labor. He shaved once a week, in a cloudy little mirror that was so dirty he could hardly see his face. He washed in frigid water. He ate bland, mushy food out of tins, or thin, colorless soup made up of the last edible items of last year’s harvest. It was a pathetic existence, with no thanks, but he almost liked it. It reminded him, in ways, of being a child. Abject poverty suited him just fine; he was accustomed to eking out a living by any means he could. He was like a cockroach; he would not die. Fancy places and finery did not suit him, not at all.
He opened a tin of some shapeless, colorless, nameless meat and ate mechanically, straight from the tin using a fork with two missing prongs. It used to have four tines; he couldn’t bear to part with it, however. Once, in some distant past, it had gleamed in the light, but that luster had all but faded away.
He tossed the can aside, barely satiated, but barely caring. It was too rainy today to work in the fields; he’d patch up clothes and concentrate on staying warm. Maybe he’d sleep, to conserve energy.
He’d just stabbed himself in the thumb with the needle for the first time when there was a terrible banging at the door. The wood buckled and bowed; the door jumped on its flimsy hinges and he sat on the stool, needle and thread in hand, poised to begin stitching but now frozen with terror. They’d come for him at last; he’d known he could never truly escape from them. They would track him down like the dog he was, shoot him dead in a ditch, just like they had to all the other traitors.
The banging persisted. His limbs unfroze. He moved to the door, then slowly opened it. He would have to face them sooner or later; they would have the hovel surrounded and it wasn’t like the hut would keep them out forever. It couldn’t even keep out water droplets; what hope did it have against armed men?
As expected, he came face to face with the wrong end of a shiny black pistol. It stared at him, like a gaping mouth, and he stared back. He stared at the gleam of it, the sleekness of its curves, and he knew he’d seen that pistol before. How many times had it been slung at his hip, concealed under a jacket, or even gripped firmly in his own hand?
He studied the finger on the trigger, the chipped nail with dirt caked under it; the roughness of the knuckle, the lines of the joint, blackened with grease and dirt.
Slowly, he let his gaze trace the line of the hand, the arm, the shoulder, the neck, and then, he let his eyes rise to his assailant’s face. At least he would know who killed him.
He gazed into bright blue eyes, hardened with hatred and burning with a desire for revenge.
“Timmo,” he murmured. His lips felt numb; he hardly registered that it was his voice drifting on the air between them.
He was breathing hard; his lips were shredded and there was blood on his front two teeth. He was soaked to the bone, his hair matted in his eyes. His arm began to shake and his face twitched with hate, with regret, and finally, with despair.
“Dammit,” he spat, before he tossed the gun to the ground, snapping his eyes shut as he did so. He was quaking now, a trembling that wriggled its way through his entire body. Ilya could only watch him for a moment.
“How did you find me?” he asked at last. He’d left no traces. He knew there were many, many people out for his blood, and he’d done his damnedest to disappear.
Timmo crashed into the doorjamb, leaned against the rotting wood. He clutched at his arm a little bit. A strange smirk played upon his lips; there was light in his eyes. It was a look Ilya had seen him wear before – the look he always wore when he was about to kill someone.
Ilya should have known better than to ask stupid questions. Timmo could do anything he wanted; he always could. If he wanted to find Ilya, there was no stopping him.
Timmo opened his mouth to speak, but he pulled his hand away from his arm instead. He reached for the breast of his saturated coat and Ilya twitched with anticipation, then grabbed that hand, twisted that wrist, and forced the helpless appendage tight against Timmo’s chest.
The blond gritted his teeth, then held up his other hand. “That was the only one,” he said. “I swear.”
Ilya held him captive for a moment more. It was impossible to discern truth from fiction in the other man’s eyes, but he tried anyway. He released him as though he’d been burnt a second later, still unsure.
He looked at the blood on his fingertips, then back at Timmo, who was stripping off his blood-soaked gloves.
“You’ve been shot.”
Timmo shrugged. “It’s nothing, really,” he said, looking nonchalantly at the soft, worn leather. “I’ve been through worse.”
The grin he gave Ilya was the nastiest look a human being had ever worn; Ilya could scour the annals of history and Timmo’s grin would still rank worst of all. It was humorless and dire, an animalistic snarl that promised blood, pain, and death, and somehow, it looked so damn happy about the rage seething in every muscle of the man’s face.
Ilya should have closed the door; he should have slammed it shut or picked up the gun and shot the other man point-blank. But he didn’t. He glanced at the pistol, then back at Timmo, whose grin became something more smug, as though he were daring the other man to try. It wasn’t that, however, that held Ilya back. He wasn’t sure what it was, but it pulled at his muscles, much like a puppeteer tugged at the strings of a marionette, and he closed the door, shutting the two of them in the shack together.
“What do you want?” he asked, moving to the other side of the table. Wounded as he was, disarmed as he claimed to be, Timmo was still Timmo – dangerous. Lethal. It was best to put distance between them. He knew the Nords carried knives on them at all times, and Timmo was a Nord. There was little doubt in Ilya’s heart that the blond had a knife sheathed somewhere on his body, perhaps concealed under the folds of his bulky coat.
Timmo, for his part, rested against the doorjamb, head lolling to the side, one hand against the rough wood. He closed his eyes for a second; the lines around his mouth relaxed just a little. Ilya noticed this, waited for the tension to return, to illuminate the assassin’s next move. Even the most masterful killer couldn’t hide all his intentions. There was always a slippage between thought and action. It might be a second; it might be five, but if Ilya could catch it, then he could win.
The lines of Timmo’s face did tighten again; his mouth puckered as his lips pulled into an “o,” and he pivoted so that his back was resting against the jamb. He tilted his head back, looking toward the leaking roof. His breathing became more ragged.
“What do I want?” he asked.
He turned his head to the side, and this time, his lips were pulled into a smile – a genuine smile, although one tainted with something faintly ironic. If Ilya tasted him now, he would be bittersweet on the tip of his tongue. “What do you think I want?”
Ilya made no reply. He didn’t break eye contact, even as he pulled out another tin and another bent fork and tossed them to the blond. Timmo let them drop to the ground, the can denting and the fork clattering.
“You should eat something.” Ilya was surprised by how rough his voice was.
“Yeah,” Timmo agreed easily and reached blindly for the tin.
“Did you come here to die?” Ilya asked, closing the space between them. Timmo was sitting on the floor now; Ilya had the upper hand. He glared down at the other man, studying him again. Timmo peeled back the lid on the tin without breaking eye contact.
“Of course not. I came here to kill you. You should know that.”
Ilya glanced at the gun again, still lying on the floor. He looked back at Timmo. “You wouldn’t be able to shoot me,” he said.
“Mm?”
“It’s been raining for two days straight. The powder will be soaked through.”
Timmo snorted, then grimaced as though the action pained him. “You’re right,” he murmured, looking into the can. He prodded at the food in the tin. “What are you doing all the way out here?”
“That should be obvious,” Ilya grunted in reply. It was best not to trust Timmo too much; he knew what the man was capable of and he knew they had parted on bad terms.
Bad terms wasn’t even the proper nomenclature for it.
Timmo sighed, then set the can down. He looked up at Ilya.
“What are you really here for?”
“Revenge? I don’t even know. It seems stupid now. You weren’t the only one willing to kill me.”
His lips flattened into a line. “It’s honorable to die in the line of duty, right?”
Ilya shifted his weight to the other foot. He grew more and more nervous with every word falling from Timmo’s mouth. “Maybe,” he said, glancing at the door. He wondered how far he could run in the mud. How fast would he be able to escape?
“Then it was cowardly to live,” the blond surmised. “I should have died in Norcross. But … would you believe me if I said I wanted to live?”
Ilya kicked his shoe. “What the hell for? You’re finished; there’s nothing left.”
Timmo snorted. “I don’t know. I just … didn’t want to die. In the moment, when they were shooting, I didn’t want to die. So I didn’t.”
The nasty grin broke over his face again. “So I killed them instead. I made them die.”
Ilya was silent. The rain falling on the roof deafened them, a rain of bullets hailing from the sky, thundering down all around them. It wouldn’t be the first time they’d been caught in crossfire.
“Do you want to die now?” Ilya asked at last, crouching down so he could meet Timmo eye-to-eye.
“No,” the blond replied instantaneously, then drew a sharp, pained breath. He clutched at his side, then pulled away bloody fingertips. He stared at them. “No. I don’t want to die.”
Ilya studied him for a moment, before he said, very slowly, “You’ve got nothing left to live for.”
Timmo returned the favor, his eyes scrutinizing every line of the younger man’s face, before he smirked. “I won’t die unless you kill me,” he said. “And your life is mine. Got that? You owe me that.”
Ilya balked at the idea of owing the Nord anything at all, but there was something warm in the Nord’s words, something almost comforting. For months now, all he’d been doing was hiding out, struggling in a mechanical day-to-day existence. There was nothing to live for; if he ever did anything of merit, he’d be killed. He might as well have been dead already; as far as the government was concerned, he ought to have been. The only reason he was still alive was because he’d run.
“I’m serious,” Timmo said. “You’re not allowed to die unless I shoot you.”
“Does that mean that I can’t die if you stab me?” Ilya snarled, wresting the knife out of the blond’s hands. He’d known it was there all this time, but he’d been so distracted by the blond’s words, by the contortions of his lips, he’d nearly forgotten about how lethal the assassin was. Only the subtlest of motions had given him away; Ilya would have been dead if he’d remained oblivious any longer.
He wrenched on the wrist and Timmo winced, then gave up the blade, holding his hands high, as though he were innocent. “Whatever way you want to die,” he hissed. “Just tell me what method suits you best.”
Ilya preferred not to die at all, but he held his tongue as he moved the knife away from the Nord. He placed it on the table, by the flickering light of the lantern.
“You should take off those clothes,” he suggested.
They both chose to ignore the implications. Before, Timmo might have smiled, might have joked, might have made a snide comment. But that was a long time ago, eight short months ago, an eternity ago when they were different people, in different places, with a different understanding of the world.
That was when Timmo thought that Ilya was Nord too.
Today, his expression was decidedly neutral, bordering on grim as he shucked off his coat, then pulled his soaking shirt over his head. His skin resolved itself into gooseflesh, and the muscles beneath the skin twitched with cold; his entire body shuddered and Ilya watched as the man laid himself bare before him. He stared at the garish wound in his side; the bullet had been pulled out, but it had left behind a gaping hole that had started to crust. Blood caked all around the opening, smeared across the skin. The shirt was stained; even the rain hadn’t been able to wash it clean.
He crouched down at the blond’s side and trailed his fingers across the wounded flesh. Timmo took a sharp breath and Ilya watched the angles of his face relax as he pulled his fingers away. “We should clean this.”
Timmo snorted. “Do you have anything in this dump to clean it with?”
Ilya didn’t reply, but watched the tattoos across Timmo’s ribs expand and shrink with each inhalation and exhalation.
Timmo dragged a hand down his face. “Do you even have a dry sheet?” he asked. He didn’t look at Ilya; he stared straight ahead instead, focusing on the wall.
Ilya looked forlornly at the tattered sheets on the frayed mattress he called a bed. They were by no means dry, but they were less wet than anything else in the hovel he called home.
“You should lie down,” he instructed, then stood up, his knees popping with the action. He grimaced; had he really become so old in the last eight months?
“Where are you going?” Timmo’s look was cold, calculating.
Ilya paused with his hand on the door handle. “To get iodine.”
“Aren’t you afraid I’ll rob you blind?”
“There’s nothing to take.”
“Aren’t you afraid I’ll pick up the gun and shoot you point-blank when you come back?”
Ilya didn’t reply. Timmo smirked. “Aren’t you afraid I’ll take the knife back, then wait until evening falls, then stab you in the dark?”
Ilya shoved the door open, ignoring the way the earth seemed to swell up as he stepped out into the rain and the mud. “I trust you can do better than that. If you can’t, then you deserved to die in Norcross.”
He let the door fall shut, blocking out the blond’s face. He listened to the mud squelch and squeal as he experimentally lifted one foot, then took a step into the boggy street. He struggled on, clutching his coat tightly to his body. The rain pelted him from all angles and the wind tore through flesh and bone, leaving him raw with cold within a minute.
It was all right, however; he enjoyed the cold, the numb feeling in his fingertips. He could focus on the lack of external feeling, instead of the unsteady inner processes of thinking and feeling. He could focus on his skin, his body, rather than his mind, the strange twisting of his innards. Timmo had always caused that reaction in him, and he wasn’t sure if it was fear or some feat of alchemy.
He had a curt conversation with the hook-nosed healer woman, who spat at him before doling out the iodine – three drops on a tattered scrap of cloth. He tucked it inside his clothes, a futile effort to keep it dry, lest the chemical wash away in the rain.
He wasn’t gone five minutes – the houses were very close together in this tiny place; no such thing as urban sprawl here – but Timmo had moved to the bed, torn up the last of his good sheets, wrapped the wound, and picked up the gun and loaded it with fresh, dry powder. The evidence that he’d ransacked the very few dry goods Ilya had was scattered all over the floor – tins and boxes rolling about haphazardly under the table; the cupboard door still ajar. The blond actually had the audacity to point the pistol at him. Ilya wondered why he’d even bothered to risk pneumonia to get iodine to help the bastard.
“Unwrap that,” he ordered. “I told you I was getting iodine.”
“I’m sorry,” Timmo replied, tossing the gun by the wayside. If he’d actually meant to shoot, Ilya wouldn’t have even made it in the door. It had been purely for show; a testament to what the Nord was capable of. Ilya wasn’t sure who he was trying to prove himself to. “Your Nord is funny; I can hardly understand a word of it.”
“Yob t’uv mat,” Ilya spat at him, retrieving the iodine-soaked cloth from beneath his shirt. He found it odd that the cloth could be warm when the rest of him was soaked and frozen to the bone. He sat down on the edge of the bed and tore the makeshift bandages from the other man, uncovering the hole again. Timmo snarled in displeasure as Ilya pushed the cloth against the wound, the blood and pus dissolving with a chemical hiss.
He was no gentler re-wrapping the wound, tugging cruelly on the wrap, making sure he let his fingers catch against tender flesh. He saw the bruising now; angry and black against the Nord’s pale skin.
“Careful,” Timmo hissed at last, pushing his hands away, taking the wrap himself. “Be gentle with me.”
Ilya snorted at the very thought; Timmo would spare him no kindness if the situation were reversed. Nonetheless, he let his hands fall away and watched as the Nord finished the job himself, placing a hand over his injured side, as if to test how securely the bandage was wound in place.
“Sorry,” he mumbled at last.
Timmo grunted in reply; an apology wasn’t something he’d really wanted. At least, not for something that trivial. Ilya had been crueler to him.
“So,” he said, glancing over his shoulder at the Rus. “What are you doing out here?”
“What do you think?” Ilya asked. He refused to look at the blond; he stared at the wall, at the water running in from one of the cracks. He thought about all the things he ought to do, but he couldn’t do anything until this infernal rain let up.
“Hiding out,” Timmo replied. Ilya ignored the light, playful touch to his shoulder. “Pretending to be someone you’re not. You’re good at that, you know?”
Ilya glowered at him. Timmo just smiled in response, a kind of innocent look that was much darker, much more smug once you knew him.
“You do it a lot, though,” the Nord said, as though he were musing on the subject. “Do you even know who you really are?”
“What does it matter,” Ilya grumbled, picking at some of the hay ticking poking out of the corner of the mattress. “Even if I knew, it doesn’t matter – they want that man dead. Better to be someone else.”
The Nord considered that. “So,” he said at last, “you’re out here. Hiding. Living day-to-day like a beast, only worrying about where you’ll sleep at night, what you’ll eat tomorrow. Slaving away for little thanks and less money, toiling day in, day out in the field, back-breaking work in –”
“Enough,” Ilya snapped, giving him a rough shove. The Nord wasn’t expecting it, and nearly tumbled from the narrow bed, onto the flooding floor.
“Well,” he said after a slow moment of recomposure, “it’s the truth, isn’t it?”
Ilya shrugged. “So what if it is? Nothing matters any more.”
“Then why keep living?”
Ilya gritted his teeth. “Because they want me dead,” he growled. His clenched his fists in the flimsy sheet; he felt moisture against the palms of his hands.
“Ah. Defiance then.”
“It’s the same reason you’re still alive,” Ilya accused, pointing a finger at him. “You ran too; you killed them because you didn’t want to be killed.”
Timmo’s expression softened a little bit; the lines of his face relaxed and there was something sincere about him for once, something gentle and genuine. Ilya took a sharp breath. “No,” the blond murmured, “I still have a reason to live.”
The pressure of the air in the room was almost unbearable, crushing Ilya from all sides as Timmo inspected him, that strange softness still on his face. His eyes were very clear, so clear that Ilya almost felt that he could look straight through them, deep into the other man’s most secret places – perhaps into his soul.
Then again, that would have to assume that Timmo even had a soul, and Ilya was fairly certain the man didn’t. He had no heart, after all.
Ilya jerked away, almost angrily, grinding his teeth. What was it about the Nord that infuriated him so much?
“Hey.” His voice was soft.
“What?” He snapped his head back to glare at the other man. Even his face, his very presence was pissing Ilya off. Why had he even come here? What did he seek to gain by stalking the Rus, threatening to kill him, then throwing away the gun?
Timmo just looked at him, the kind of look he gave to someone he was sizing up, someone he was planning on murdering. Ilya narrowed his eyes more.
“Let’s get out of here,” Timmo said after a moment of silence.
Ilya stared at him. “What?” he spat at last. “Get out of here? Why? What for? Are you crazy? Where would we go, what would we do –”
“I don’t know,” Timmo murmured. He wouldn’t meet Ilya’s gaze. He glanced at the door. “It just seemed like a good idea. I don’t like it here. It’s depressing.”
Ilya clenched his fists again. “You’ve been here all of half-an-hour, and –”
He cut himself short, following the blond’s furtive glance at the door. He nearly groaned aloud. “You were followed, weren’t you?”
“Not hard to follow a wounded man, is it?”
Ilya bit his lip, then swore. He stalked across the room and picked up the pistol. The powder was probably damp now, but it would likely still fire. “How long have they been following you?”
“All the way from Norcross. How the hell do you think I got shot?”
“And you didn’t kill them?”
“Oh, I picked off one or two, and that was warning enough. They fell back. But … you know. I just feel like there’s eyes on me.”
Ilya knew exactly what he meant, and he knew that Timmo was rarely wrong about those sorts of things. He checked the ammo in the gun. “We can’t set out in this weather.”
“We’d be better to.”
Ilya frowned at him. “Why? So we can both die of pneumonia and they can let the vultures pick our corpses clean?”
Timmo gave him an even look. “They’d have a harder time tracking us,” he said calmly, as though he were explaining advanced physics to a particularly stupid three-year-old. “And they’d be more reluctant to start out in the rain. It will slow them down.”
“It will slow us down too,” Ilya growled, and they both glanced at the white strip of cloth wound around Timmo’s ribs. They were both aware that there were many things that might set them back.
Ilya let the blanket fall back across the window. There was nothing to be seen outside, except the fog rolling in thicker and thicker. He knew Timmo was right; they could escape without a scent, maybe even without a trace, into the fog and the rain.
He couldn’t believe that the Nord was stupid enough to let himself be tracked all the way here. ‘Maybe, he thought, it’s a trap’: Timmo allowed himself to be shot, allowed himself to arrive first, to lure Ilya into a false sense of security, or maybe to attempt to win Ilya’s trust. Then he’d lead him out into the open, where he’d be shot by the “tails” – the remainder of Timmo’s team. That seemed a hell of a lot more plausible than what Timmo was suggesting.
“Besides,” he said, “you should get some rest. You look like hell.”
Timmo snorted; amusement played over his features. “You aren’t much of an improvement, doll,” he drawled, leaning back on the mattress. “But I’ll gladly take up the offer.”
With that, he rolled over, twisting the remaining sheets about himself. Ilya gritted his teeth, then went back to inspecting the pistol. He crouched by the door, taking aim. Eight months ago, this would have been as natural as taking a breath. The callous from holding the gun had started to fade; new callouses had appeared, callouses from holding instruments of life-giving, of growth, of fertility and creativity. He was almost disgusted by the fact he was holding a weapon again, holding the power of death in his hands once more. He ran away from all of that because he didn’t want to kill anyone else, even if they were trying to kill him. He wanted to wash his hands of the blood and just live, simple and clean for once in his goddamned life. Apparently, though, that was too much to ask – Timmo showing up at his door was proof of that. His past was going to haunt him until it finally interred him six feet deep in the earth. He crinkled his nose at the thought.
He sighed heavily, then sat down on the floor, dropping the gun. Timmo was likely right; his tails wouldn’t move until the fog lifted a little, at least. It was nearly impossible to get a shot off in conditions like this; the chances that you might shoot someone on your side were too high.
They wouldn’t move until Timmo gave them the signal, and Timmo would give them the signal when the fog lifted a little bit.
He shuddered; the cold was creeping in along with the wet. He glanced at the scattered contents of the cupboard. He should have moved to put them away. They were getting wet, sitting out on the floor, and in a little while, they’d be useless to him. Still, he couldn’t bear to drag himself away from the door long enough to put them back in order; he couldn’t stand to turn his back on the door for even one fraction of a second – that was how imminent death seemed. He checked the gun again, then glanced about uselessly.
He glanced back at Timmo, then sighed again.
Today was going to be a long day. He sat there for a moment more, then glanced at Timmo once again.
The blond was sitting up now, just a bit. He crooked a finger at him. His eyes were nothing but slits, but it still felt like his gaze was burning a hole straight through Ilya, even as he tried to ignore him.
He should have known better. There was no ignoring Timmo. He slunk to the side of the bed, stopping just short of the mattress. Timmo’s hands landed on his shoulders. “You should rest too,” he murmured, and that softness was back in his eyes.
Ilya gritted his teeth. “I’ll be fine.” He pushed those hands away.
Timmo’s fingers were rough against his cheek. Ilya looked at him, but neither of them spoke.
It was stupid to trust him, Ilya knew; nevertheless, he crawled onto the bed, drawn to the promise of warmth, of another body beside him. Eight months was a long time to be deprived of contact, and Timmo’s calloused touch reminded him of how much he missed skin.
They laid together under the sheets, neither speaking. Ilya let his hand trail across the worn linen of the bandage, let his fingers rest right about where the hole would be. He felt Timmo’s rib cage press outward as he inhaled, and he concentrated on the rise and fall of his chest instead of his eyes.
“Bury me,” he blurted.
Timmo snorted. “I make no promises.”
Ilya couldn’t help letting his fingers slide up the Nord’s skin. It was electric to be close to a real human being again. Timmo’s eyes were darker now. Ilya closed his eyes. He tried to ignore the way the blond’s hand was trembling as he touched Ilya’s parted lips.
“Promise you’ll bury me,” he murmured, and he felt the heat of his breath against the pads of those fingers, felt Timmo’s exhalation more than he heard it.
“No promises,” the blond said again.
“Then you can’t promise to kill me either.”
Timmo smirked. “No,” he mumbled, “no promises. But you can trust me on some things.”
Ilya stiffened at the word trust, remembering just who he was dealing with. Timmo was an assassin, a cold-blooded killer. How many times had he seen the other man wound, maim, kill a helpless human being? Soft words and tender touches notwithstanding, the man was dangerous. He could kill Ilya without hesitation, without a second thought.
He was the enemy.
“Timmo,” he murmured.
“Alexius.”
He almost cringed at the name. He’d forgotten that Timmo didn’t know his real name; that had never been revealed, even though the mission had been compromised.
Timmo snorted at him. “Ilya,” he sneered. “You really think I didn’t know, all this time? What do you take me for?”
“I –”
“I knew from the very start.” Disgust filled his face. “I suspected you from the very start. Your Nord was bad, you had a Rus accent. I went digging.”
He paused, as though he were unsure of what to say next. He stared at Ilya for a moment, and the younger man couldn’t look away. “It’s a better name for you,” he said at last.
The sincerity in his voice bit, but he held his gaze. “A much better name,” Timmo murmured. His jaw worked, like he wanted to keep speaking, but there were no more words. He let his hand fall away.
Ilya had never wanted to touch another person so badly in his life. But his fingers were motionless, and the desire ebbed away, leaving him nauseous in its wake. He wanted to speak, but his tongue was tripped up, tied around all the clumsy syllables he could use to try and convey the rawness of his insides.
Timmo’s gaze was suddenly terrified, and he scanned Ilya’s face, as though he were reading a book, before he rolled over. “We should rest now,” he muttered, the rustling of the sheets nearly drowning him out.
Ilya didn’t reply; shell-shocked, he settled down on the other side of the bed, staring at the wall, at the empty cupboard, the chaos Timmo had left behind him. He stared and stared; his eyes would not close. His body stayed tense, every muscle taut, leaving him ready to spring at a moment’s notice.
Timmo’s breathing sounded like thunder in his ears.
There was something wrong with that, he realized, slight frown marring his face as he tried to figure out exactly what.
He glared over his shoulder at the blond’s back.
The rain had stopped.
He punched the Nord hard in the arm. “Bastard,” he spat, drawing his fist back slowly.
Timmo said nothing in reply, but rubbed his arm, hint of a smirk sprawling across his face. Ilya wished he’d smashed his teeth in instead.

He remembered why he hated this man.


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