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God Hates A Coward

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In hindsight, Adam Jensen should have known better than to dare Duncan MacReady to eat a series of increasingly unpalatable foods — the man had, after all, completed the infamous SERE training course out of RAF St. Mawgan, and was surprisingly comfortable with suppressing his gag reflex to great effect. It had all begun with a few drinks and some rough banter. A Finnish operator, Heikki Kinnunen, had just transferred from the Lyon branch of TF29 to Prague, and there had been a little welcome party.

Shots of slivovitz had been raised and downed with due ceremony, and then Kinnunen had returned their hospitality by pulling a distinctive cut-glass bottle from his duffel bag. Finlandia, the label read, but the contents of the bottle were not clear, like vodka was supposed to be. No. The liquid within was black and opaque, reminding Jensen of squid ink, or distilled shadow.

Salmari,” Kinnunen said as he refilled everyone’s shot glasses, “vodka with a little something extra.”

Jensen had taken a whiff at his shot glass, catching a hint of black pepper and anise, and then taken a fiery sip. Under the overpowering licorice flavor of the shot was something salty and yet not that reminded him faintly of smelling salts and used litter pans. He managed to hide his wince, and nobody noticed how his eyes had started watering behind his built-in sunglasses.

Everyone had noticed MacReady’s wince, however. “That’s bloody rubbish,” he said as he slammed his empty shot glass down after he had thrown his drink back, “what was that ‘little something extra’?”

Heikki’s only response was to pull out a half-empty bag of candy tucked in a zip-sealed plastic bag. The bag beneath its layer of plastic was a dark blue with a large yellow diamond stamped on the middle. Tyrkisk Peber, the label read, since 1997. Original. Beside the word original were three pictograms — three dancing flames, and a picture of a coal-black nugget of candy.

Jensen picked the proffered bag up, turned it around in his hand to read the nutrition information on the back. VEGAN, part of the label read, as though that knowledge would help the flavor. He let his gaze scroll down a list of descriptions in various languages. Finnish, then Swedish/Danish/Norwegian, and another one that he presumed was Estonian before he got down to the English-language ingredients list, helpfully marked GB. “Pepper candies,” it read. Sugar, glucose syrup, ammonium chloride, licorice extrac-

Ammonium chloride. Jensen was fairly sure that chemical had no business being anywhere near confectionery or anything else that wasn’t industrial-strength cough syrup or window cleaner, and yet here it was in the ingredients list. “It’s just candy,” he told MacReady, before he pried the zip-sealed bag open and popped one of the sweets into his mouth. It wasn’t too bad, he thought, appreciating the smooth licorice flavor, and then an awful burning spread onto his tongue, a terrible stinging sensation that wafted up into his sinuses and made his eyes water yet more.

Jensen looked in vain to his HUD, saw that the Sentinel RX display showed no warnings. So it wasn’t poison, just something that made him wish he’d downed a vial of nerve agent instead. He did not say the first thing that came to mind, which was “What the fucking fuck is wrong with the Finnish candy industry?” Instead he held the opened bag out to MacReady and said, “Want one?”

MacReady’s eyes narrowed suspiciously at Jensen as he twisted his expressive mouth. “No.” The scar on his cheek distorted the downward turn of his lip, lent him a wryness that Jensen was sure he did not feel.

“Really?” Jensen asked. A flash of inspiration hit, a faraway memory of his high school days. “God hates a coward, MacReady.” God Hates A Coward had been, for want of a better name, a game Jensen had played with his best friend in seventh grade; two adolescent male idiots daring each other to eat increasingly grosser things for the sake of their nascent machismo. Jensen had given up playing it after a dare to eat past-due-date burritos led to a horrible case of food poisoning and three days off school for the both of them.

Scowling, MacReady took one of the candies between his broad-tipped thumb and forefinger, the skin of his hands rough, slightly powdery from hard work and long experience, and stuck it in his mouth. He sucked on it thoughtfully, opened his mouth as though to say “That’s not so bad,” and then shut it again, quickly. “This tastes like someone dipped a torpedo in an open latrine,” he said after a few moments more of stoic suffering. He had borne the unusual flavor of the sweet with the same detached fortitude more commonly seen on the faces of martyred saints, or to be precise, depictions thereof.

Jensen didn’t think the candy tasted that bad himself, not until Fletcher explained to him later that the Torpedo was a small licorice sweet, something like the American Good’n’Plenty, at which point he had to ruefully concur with MacReady’s judgment on this specific Finnish hell-candy.

***

Four days passed without further event, and Jensen would have assumed that MacReady had chosen to let things go if he were a less paranoid man. It wasn’t really paranoia if they really were out to get you, however, which was how Jensen found himself facing MacReady across the table in a hole-in-the-wall curry place.

“Eat for free,” the menu said in Czech, “if you can finish our extra-spicy vindaloo. Ask your waiter for details!” English letters hovered in Jensen’s augmented vision, his HUD helpfully translating the text for him.

“Is that what we’re here for?” Jensen asked MacReady, “Round two?”

“You said it yourself, Jensen,” MacReady said, “God hates a coward.” He then followed his challenge with a friendly nod at the waiter, who stood expectantly with his notebook in hand. “One extra-spicy lamb vindaloo, please,” he said as the waiter began writing down his order, “with a side order of papadams with hot mango chutney, and a salted lassi to drink.”

No booze, of course, they were both still technically on-call.

“You wish to take the challenge, sir?” The waiter asked in his flawless English, and MacReady had nodded in confirmation, a nasty smile spreading over his face.

“I have to warn you, sir, that the extra-spicy vindaloo is beyond what I would normally call Indian hot,” the waiter said in reply.

“Oh, I’m used to that,” MacReady said, his smile turning outright diabolical. “I like the extra bite.”

“Very well,” the waiter said, with the air of someone who had given up trying to dissuade people from jumping off the local suicide cliff. “And you, sir?” He asked, turning to Jensen with a slightly more optimistic expression on his face.

Jensen could feel MacReady’s stare fixed upon him and knew that there was no backing down, not if he wanted to keep MacReady’s respect, and his own dignity. “The same thing for me,” he said, “but with a mango lassi instead.”

Neither Jensen nor MacReady spoke after the waiter took their orders kitchen-ward. Jensen toyed briefly with his cheap stamped silverware and flimsy paper napkin, noticing that MacReady looked very smug indeed. The curries, when they arrived, were not red like Jensen had expected, but he could feel his nostrils tingling at the spice-tinged steam wafting upwards, misting the lenses over his eyes.

MacReady met his gaze, raised an eyebrow, and lifted a forkful of curried lamb, stuck it in his mouth, and chewed slowly with every sign of genuine enjoyment. ”Oh, that’s it,” he said after he swallowed, “I haven’t had a proper curry in too long.”

Jensen took up his own fork to pick up a small cube of lamb meat and popped it in his mouth, wary of the heat. The lamb was tender and juicy, but almost instantly a wave of pain jangled up his tongue and along the roof of his mouth, setting his lips to burning. Christ, he thought, but he made himself keep chewing despite the intensity of the pain. “It’s good,” he managed to say after he swallowed. His nose prickled and his eyes began to leak, and he was forced to retract his eye-shields before they began to flood with his tears.

“Can’t take the heat, can you, Jensen?” MacReady asked, his face a mask of false concern. He smashed a papadum between his hands and began to dip the fragments in his vividly red chutney.

“Fuck off,” Jensen replied, making himself eat another mouthful of the curry. The pain only intensified with each following bite, and he sipped desperately at his mango lassi for relief. The cool tangy sweetness of fruit and yoghurt seemed to soothe the stinging as it passed over his tongue, but the reprieve was brief. The burning resumed once he’d swallowed. “I grew up in Detroit,” Jensen said, “and there was a Korean fusion food truck right outside Sarif Industries, that sold bulgogi tacos with kimchi.”

“So you’re not afraid of spicy food?” Again that patronizing little evil smile. “I was afraid you’d have to quit before you were done.” It was true enough — Jensen held no fear of culinary heat, it was just that the curry he was eating seemed to have been seasoned with riot-suppression pepperballs.

“You can actually taste what you’re eating through the heat?”

“It’s a scientific fact that capsaicin actually sensitizes the palate. You taste food better if it’s spicy,” said MacReady. Ugh, Jensen thought but did not say, and dismissed his HUD with a thought. He really did not need to see the Sentinel implant’s constant warning of the spike in his blood pressure and heart rate right now.

It took Jensen four mango lassis to get through what he managed to eat of his dinner, while MacReady’s empty plate mocked him, the whole time. He was finally forced to admit defeat after he foolishly took a bite of his chutney. It was less spicy, overall, than the vindaloo, but a different kind of pepper had been used in its composition, and the competing waves of pain made Jensen’s jaws tense up, his head throbbing with syncopating beats of misery.

“I’m done,” Jensen croaked. He sipped desperately at his glass of iced water, found no relief, and drained the dregs of his fourth mango lassi instead. MacReady looked proud, sure of his victory, but he also slid what was left of his salted lassi across the table to Jensen, a surprisingly magnanimous act that made Jensen wonder if he had been gloating.

***

The real evil of Duncan MacReady’s revenge didn’t quite impress itself upon Adam Jensen until some time in the wee hours of the night. Jensen had crawled into bed after two antacids taken with a tall glass of milk, and eventually drifted off into uneasy slumber, his mind wracked with surreal, vivid phantoms that were too unsettling to be dreams but also too attenuated to be nightmares. He had tossed and turned a few times in between his disjointed periods of slumber, and then fully woken in response to a terrible burning cramp in his gut.

A similar fulminating sensation, lower down, warned him that he had maybe a minute to get to the bathroom before disaster struck, and he found himself clutching the toilet seat in what would have been a white-knuckled grip, his teeth gritted as the remnants of the vindaloo made their way out of his surgery-shortened gastrointestinal tract with some dispatch. Playing in his head, non-stop, was Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire.

The plastic toilet seat groaned, began to crack under the pressure of Jensen’s augmented grip.

Mac was going to have to pay for this, Jensen promised himself. He just had to figure out how.

***

“Dear God.” That was Aria Argento, across the table from Jensen in the HQ’s pathetic little staff cafeteria. “You let Mac taunt you into the super-spicy curry challenge? Vaughn walked funny for two days after he tried to finish that curry.” Their lunch hours coincided once in a while, as it did today, and he liked spending lunch with her when that happened. Aria was a bright spot of sunshine in the day-to-day of his work; always cheerful and considerate, and still currently the only aug working for TF29 in Prague. Aria understood the constant soul-grinding exhaustion of facing anti-aug microaggressions and prejudice, and Jensen wondered at her equanimity sometimes.

“I had to,” Jensen said, shifting uncomfortably in his chair, “I challenged him first.” Sensitive parts of his anatomy still burned with residual irritation, and he had to be careful sitting down.

“Mm. I don’t know,” Aria said, a brief smile flickering across her winsome face, “I think I might have gotten used to the taste of that licorice-spiked vodka Kinnunen mixes up.” Jensen shot a glance at her, raising a brow in disbelief, but she did not appear to be lying. “But that’s beside the point,” she continued, “I’m surprised you didn’t call out sick.”

Jensen laughed bleakly in response to Aria’s smile. “Believe me,” he said, “I was tempted to, but I didn’t want him to see me blink.”

“You’re both acting like little boys, you know,” Aria said. She shook her head, matter-of-fact, “but the problem with Mac, as I see it right now, is that he’s fired his biggest shot too soon.”

Jensen nodded, once, as the import of Aria’s words began to sink into his sleep-deprived mind. He had gotten up three times, all in all, over the course of last night, to rid himself of that ill-advised riot-grade vindaloo. “You don’t think he has anything more unpleasant tucked away in that nasty mind of his.”

Aria shrugged, remained silent for a few moments until she spoke again. “Mind you,” she said, “he’s special forces, so he’s done survival and evasion training. He’s probably got a broader yuck tolerance than you do. But what can he make you eat that’s even worse than the curry, that he will eat, too?”

“I see.”

“Plus we’ve got a national advantage,” said Aria, her eyes lighting up with mischief. “We’re Americans. People bag on English food, but seriously, we eat the most junk food, internationally. The trashiest shit in the supermarket.”

***

The next month was punctuated with a series of stalemates and one great loss. Aria had been right inasmuch that MacReady had fired his biggest shot too soon, but Jensen had found nothing that he wouldn’t eat. And while the worst of British cooking was a slightly miserable experience in aggregate, it really wasn’t something that Jensen couldn’t eat.

Rumors flew, however, and somehow God Hates A Coward had become a game that everyone in Counterterror decided to play, to the mingled horror and delight of assorted analysts, forensics experts, and paper-pushers alike. The offerings now ranged from stewed beef heart (surprisingly lean and delicious), barnyard-smelling cheeses (pungent, but rich and creamy), deep-fried smelly tofu (surprisingly umami under the stink), to the completely horrifying Jell-O aspic salad that Aria had made from a recipe she had found in a 1960s cookbook (disgusting, revolting, absolutely inedible).

That had been no winners in God Hates A Coward that day, only losers. Aria had run, gagging, to the ladies’ room after tasting her own concoction, and the quivering, gelid mass had eventually gone to the trash. Everyone who had tasted it, Jensen and MacReady included, had regretted it — who the fuck even put ersatz whipped cream in a vegetable aspic?

The game languished for nearly a week, after that. Nobody wanted to even try to best Aria’s culinary tactical nuke — not when the results had been so clearly detrimental to participants’ collective palates and gastrointestinal health. Not even MacReady, who had so far proven capable, if not enthusiastic about trying everything he had been dared to eat, had wanted to cross that line, not especially after Ava Cook left a passive-aggressive note on one of the refrigerators in the HQ’s pathetic little cafeteria, reminding all and sundry that pungent foods were a breach of office etiquette, and that she would begin writing up all offenders if this state of affairs persisted.

It wasn’t as though she had any power to censure any agent who didn’t obey, but it was a good enough excuse not to play God Hates A Coward any more, without opening one’s self up to accusations of chickening out.

***

Team Baker raided a Dvali chop shop four days after Aria had brought in her Aspic Abomination — it had been supposed to be a simple in-and-out job, following up on the parts and fertilizer used in the explosive devices in London. Jensen had gone along just in case something unexpected popped up.

Nothing did. The place was empty, their quarry flown, and MacReady had gotten into a shouting argument with Prague police, who insisted that they had jurisdiction, since it was “merely” a criminal matter. Mac had scowled, his temper visibly fraying as the local officers had summoned backup consisting of armored, heavily-armed rapid-response forces who spent most of their time carrying their rifles at low ready and staring pointedly at Adam and Aria, who were the only augs on the team.

Team Baker was forced to return to HQ empty-handed while Director Miller spent the afternoon hosing the deck down from his desk at HQ. “We’re overdue for a new Organized Crime head,” Jensen heard Strickland Hall saying as quietly as could be done over the whine of the VTOL engines.

Joo,” Heikki Kinnunen had said in reply, and the discussion had turned to speculation on why Lyon had delayed sending someone, anyone to fill the late Vincent Black’s vacant desk. Jensen’s attention turned then to Aria Argento, who was sitting across from him, her eyes shut tightly as her lips moved soundlessly.

He’d been in that spot before, watched her meditate herself to a state of glassy calm en route to ops, and then watched her banter with the other team members afterwards. She was tough as nails, tougher, even, but he sensed that the constant hostility from Prague police had managed to get under her skin this time.

“Are you okay?” Jensen asked her, checking in, and she had opened her soft brown eyes and nodded, the tension in her face slackening as she returned her attention to the physical world.

“Yeah,” she said, managing a sunny smile Jensen-ward. “ Just meditating. Mindfulness, you know? You?”

“I’m fine,” Jensen said, which he was. He’d become inured to the petty cruelties of local police at this point. He glanced briefly over at MacReady, who stood aloof from the team members in the VTOL, his gaze fixed on his boots.

“Maybe you might want to take up meditation too,” Jensen heard Aria say, her voice alight with amusement. MacReady looked up from his boots then, to glance over his team. His gaze landed on Adam and Aria, and he nodded once, stiffly, before glancing elsewhere. This was probably going to be Mac’s sole admission that what had happened had been unfair to both Adam and Aria, but that was the way MacReady was. Jensen let Aria lure him into a discussion of meditation’s merits, and they passed the flight back to their helipad in the Dávný district mock-arguing in their usual friendly manner.

***

They were shedding their unused tacgear in the locker room when Vaughn Lee threw an arm over Aria’s shoulders in an act of false camaraderie.

“So what’d you put in your aspic, Argento?” He asked her, as she squirmed out from under his touch, her face hardening, “Motor oil?”

“It’s not like you’d know what I put in it,” Aria replied, “you didn’t even dare to take a bite.”

Jensen could feel his muscles, organic and synthetic alike, tensing back up as the rest of the team broke into sporadic laughter at Vaughn’s expense. He knew Aria could take care of herself, but it was reflex by now, that taut anxiety welling up within him unbidden. “Are you calling me chicken, Argento?” Vaughn continued, affronted.

“God Hates A Coward,” Aria said tartly, before she turned her back on him, to stow her helmet on the top shelf of her locker.

“She’s got you there,” Jensen heard Strickland Hall say, “come now, stop embarrassing yourself.” He saw, out of the corner of his eye, Vaughn being coaxed back to his own locker by Hall. The tension eased minutely from his shoulders as he turned back to his own locker, stowed his gear. The mood in the locker room was lighter now, despite Vaughn’s wounded pride.

“Besides,” Jensen heard Kinnunen chime in, “most of you probably aren’t even secure enough in your masculinity to play gay chicken.”

“That’s not fair,” Strickland protested, “you have a picture of your boyfriend on your locker door.”

“Yeah, but that means it’s not a game to me,” Kinnunen retorted. “God Hates A Coward, Strickland.” Now that made Jensen turn in surprise, unsure whether to be alarmed or amused at the turn this game had taken.

“Yeah, but I wouldn’t trust you to keep your hands above my waist, Heikki,” Strickland countered. He had stripped down to the polo-neck and fatigues all the operators wore under their body armor, and was in the process of stowing his tacvest.

“Point.” There was a good-natured smattering of laughter through the locker room. Even Aria was joining in, albeit with a knowing shake of her head.

“Now, you know who I’d trust to snog me without getting too handsy about it? Mac,” Strickland said, nodding over to MacReady, who had just taken his polo-neck off so he could change back into his suit.

“I wouldn’t, if I were you,” MacReady said, a slow, slightly mean smile growing on his face, twisted by the scar on his cheek. “I went to Rugby. Haven’t you heard all the rumors about public school boys?” MacReady had decided to play along with the banter this afternoon — and Jensen really couldn’t grudge him, seeing as he had to take the brunt of the the Prague police’s rudeness today.

“Even so, boss,” Strickland said, “I trust you to … have my back.”

There was another burst of laughter, and then a roar of approval when MacReady dipped Strickland in cinematic fashion, and then planted a brief kiss on his lips. “Ok,” he said afterwards, “that’s enough play. Put your gear up, we don’t have all afternoon.”

“How about you, Jensen?” Vaughn piped up, stepping up into Jensen’s personal space. “Man enough to try, or did they remove your balls when they put all those parts in?”

“Oh, come now, don’t —“ someone else said, as Jensen shut his locker door, just in case he had to sidestep a grab or a shove.

“God Hates A Coward,” said Vaughn. “You started it, it’s only right you have to do this.”

“Sure,” Jensen said, summoning all the bile he could muster, “but I would never be desperate enough to kiss you, Vaughn, not in a million years.”

Nobody shoved Jensen, in Vaughn's direction, fortunately. Someone did, however, push MacReady in his direction. His bare chest gleamed under the open placket of his shirt, and he shook his head briefly, glancing around at his men. “God Hates A Coward, Jensen?”

“Well, better you than — just about anybody else,” Jensen said, in resignation. He noticed out the corner of his eye that Aria had managed to look offended at his reply, despite the situation. Jensen stepped up to MacReady, waiting, patient, expecting another dramatic gesture. But MacReady did nothing of the sort. Instead he reached up to spread the fingers of his right hand against Jensen’s cheek. Jensen fought a tremor at the touch. Despite himself, the situation — everything — MacReady’s broad strong palm against his face reminded him of how long it had been since someone had touched him like this.

The only times it happened were when someone took a swing at him — or when Koller needed to check him over, and Koller, despite his eccentricities, had always been a professional, his touch deft and clinical and sure.

This was oddly intimate, and Jensen bit down on a brief grunt of surprise when MacReady’s mouth brushed against his. His breath was surprisingly sweet, his lips slightly chapped but tender, and Jensen found himself opening to the soft probing of Mac’s tongue. He was trembling, he realized, unable or unwilling to pull away from this raw, human contact.

They ignored the roar of applause and approval around them, standing in a personal oasis in the heart of a hurricane’s eye. He can’t know, Jensen managed to think through the sudden need flowing hot through his veins, I can’t let him see how much I need this —

“Enough.” Jim Miller’s clear voice cut through the whooping and laughter, and Jensen felt MacReady pull away from him as though he had been tased. There was something different in MacReady’s gaze — a look of surprise, shame, even, but he turned away to button his shirt, and Adam saw no more of his facial expressions.

A long, ringing silence filled the locker room, and Jensen felt his face color, turned away from the others, only to find Aria by his side. She gave his bicep a gentle squeeze and then looked away, granting him the privacy that he needed right now.

“My office, Agent MacReady,” Miller continued. Jensen could feel his gaze sweeping over the locker room, felt the hair on his neck stand up. The goosebumps faded only with the fading sound of Miller’s footsteps, as he went back upstairs, presumably to his office, to await MacReady.

***

Jensen was sitting at the worktable in his bedroom later that night, the magnification on his augmented vision turned up as he stared at the delicate gears making up the guts of the watch he was currently working on when his infolink put a discreet notification up in his peripheral field of vision.

“Jensen, it’s MacReady.”

“What do you want from me?” Jensen asked him — him and nobody in particular, his voice bouncing soft off the walls of his bedroom.

“I — I’m outside your front door,” MacReady said, “I would appreciate it if you could let me in.”

Jensen remained silent and killed the conversation. He turned the magnification down on his vision and blinked as the world receded into its usual distance, and then stood up, rolling his neck backwards experimentally, glancing briefly up at the ceiling. He then stepped out into the living room and glanced at his personal computer, checked the security camera footage showing him the view of his doorstep — MacReady really was outside.

Jensen did not step aside, after he had opened the door, however. He simply waited for MacReady to speak. A desultory rain was falling outside, and MacReady had the collar of his overcoat turned up, the silk of the ascot tucked inside his shirt collar spotted with drops of water. He held a gift bag in one hand, and shifted uneasily upon his feet when faced with Jensen’s silence.

“I brought something for you,” MacReady said, holding the gift bag up, “I’m — I’m sorry.”

Jensen thought briefly about shutting the door in MacReady’s face, but there was an odd nakedness in the man’s face that made him hesitate. He could have pierced through that uncertainty in MacReady’s expression effortlessly with his CASIE augment, but it felt wrong to use it in a situation like this.

He stepped aside instead to let MacReady in. “You might as well say what you came to say out of the rain.”

“Jim — Miller reminded me that sometimes I’m too invested in winning. That, when I kissed you, I was being unfair, because you were meant to lose no matter what you did. I’ll be absolutely honest with you, Jensen. I fancy blokes, as well as women, and in daring you to kiss me, I was goading you into consenting just to prove yourself. I thought at the time that it wouldn’t have meant the same thing to you, that it would to me, because I thought you were straight, I really did. But when you kissed me, I knew.”

“You presume to know who or what I’m interested in.”

“No — it’s not like that. I just realized then how much you needed someone to touch you. That you were letting me do it, because you needed it so badly. And Miller’s right. It was underhanded of me, it was cruel of me. I’m ashamed of myself, and I’ve taken full responsibility for the incident.”

“Okay. You’re sorry,” Jensen said, feeling irrationally furious that MacReady, of all people, had seen this private and intimate fear and longing, that he himself had wanted and welcomed the sensation of MacReady’s hands sliding up his jawline, tangling in his hair as they had kissed that first time. He had accidentally given MacReady a glimpse of his soul, and now he wanted it back. “I accept your apology. Now get out.”

“Wait,” Macready said, a curious pleading in his dark eyes, “I could try to make this up to you. I could —“ he cut himself off, then, looked down at his feet. Jensen watched his chest expand as he took a deep breath, remembered again the tickle of his breath against his lips. “I could try to — give you some comfort.”

“You’re offering me a pity-fuck.”

“It only has to be sex if you want it to be, and it’s not — I’m not offering out of pity.”

“Why else would you do this, then?”

“Because you’re fit, Jensen, even if you’re not entirely my type. Because you look like you need it, and casual sex just isn’t a huge deal for me. And because you’re a bloody good kisser.”

“And you’re not doing this for some kind of bragging rights.”

“No. Never. This remains between us, always.”

“Okay,” Jensen said, thinking again to how MacReady always had his back in the field. He was a man whose word Jensen could trust. Slowly, he stepped forward until his chest was nearly touching MacReady’s, and stood motionless, waiting.

“I’m going to put my arms around you, now,” said MacReady. He dropped his raincoat and the gift bag, shuffled closer until they were in fact touching, and stretched his arms out, wrapping them around Jensen’s shoulders. Jensen let MacReady pull him into the embrace. MacReady was warm and solid, reassuring through the rough tweed of his suit, and he smelled faintly of a spicy cologne. Sage and frankincense, nutmeg and pepper and freshly planed wood rising upwards on MacReady’s body heat, and Jensen could only sigh and close his eyes as he pressed his face against the fabric over his shoulder.

They stood, rocking slightly together as long seconds passed, listening to each other’s breathing. Jensen half-expected MacReady to recoil, to pull away once he made contact with the steel and graphene and titanium of his augmented body, exotic polymers and silicone and transition metals, through the wool and cotton of his sweater and t-shirt, but he did not. Instead MacReady remained steady, granite almost, save for a faint tremor when Jensen let his arms slide around his flanks.

This can’t last, Jensen told himself, but damn, he wanted it to. MacReady’s pulse was strong and slow against Jensen’s ear, booming as it counted out the next few seconds of their lives. Jensen had forgotten how weary he was — or maybe he had just ignored how tired he had been for the past two years, or maybe this had gone on for even longer than that. Maybe he had been yearning for someone else’s touch against his since things had broken down with Megan.

MacReady was not her, and could never be, but the contact was a welcome comfort, nevertheless, and Jensen let go, gave himself over to the warmth of him. MacReady had started rubbing slow, gentle circles into Jensen’s back, just over the C7 and T5 vertebrae. Jensen knew full well that MacReady could snap a man’s neck without breaking much of a sweat, but he knew with a strange certainty that he was safe here and now. He lifted his face from MacReady’s shoulder and turned to face the spotless white line of his shirt collar peeking out the collar of his tweed suit, caught a glimpse of the silk ascot tucked inside against MacReady’s skin.

MacReady made a small sound, not quite a murmur as Jensen’s breath puffed across his neck, and then gasped softly when Jensen leaned closer to kiss him in the soft, vulnerable spot just beneath his jaw. MacReady’s pulse sped up against Jensen’s lips, and then those broad hands were sliding possessively upwards to catch in Jensen’s hair, to close in the collar of his sweater.

“Can I keep touching you?” MacReady asked Jensen, sounding as though he could not believe that Jensen had just kissed him, and yet unwilling to give up his chance.

“Yes,” Jensen murmured softly against his ear, kissed MacReady again on the left cheek, just over the line of his neatly trimmed beard, and one of MacReady’s hands slid down Jensen’s back to settle in the curve just above the waistband of his trousers, broad fingers spreading across the bone and metal of Jensen’s augmented spine. MacReady was trembling now, the same way he had been just before Miller had interrupted them, and Jensen marveled internally that he could still have this effect on someone, even after the augmentation surgeries.

Thank you, Sarif, Jensen thought, and then he pushed back against his memories, chose instead to distract himself with the texture of MacReady’s beard against his lips — the hair was wiry and smooth, intriguing. Jensen felt MacReady’s center of gravity shift, felt him leaning into the embrace, and they were leaning against each other while Jensen let his own hands slide downwards to rest very low on the tail of MacReady’s coat.

“May I kiss you back?” MacReady asked almost inaudibly, his breath hot against Jensen’s ear.

“Yes,” said Jensen again. They were now close enough that he would have had to look at MacReady cross-eyed if his eyes were still organic, but his augmented vision zoomed smoothly in as a camera did in close-up shots. The quirks of human vision were something he missed, but he did not have much time to think about that after MacReady took a careful fistful of Jensen’s hair, steering him gently in for a long, slow kiss.

It was all hot breath and slick spit, their hearts beating syncopated against each other’s chests as they touched lips again and again, as MacReady’s hand slid up the tail of Jensen’s sweater to toy with the hem of his t-shirt. The touch sent an electric thrill up Jensen’s spine, zinging to the base of his skull and then down to the frustrated knot of his balls, spreading up his cock, and he ground himself instinctively against MacReady’s hip, sucked in a wet breath at the blaze of sensation that followed.

It had been too long, far too long, and Jensen felt a sudden pang of anxiety flood cold in his gut. I’m not going to last longer than a minute like this, he thought, had a sudden visual of MacReady leaving in disgust afterwards. But then MacReady bucked up against Jensen’s cock, rutting eagerly back against him through maddening layers of clothing, and the sensation of MacReady’s erection rubbing up against his fed the blaze in Jensen’s nerves, in what little skin he had remaining, and the rush of utter wanting began to obliterate the traces of worry lingering in the back of his skull.

Jensen took that as an invitation to let his right hand rove lower, his fingers spreading across the firm curve of MacReady’s muscular ass. MacReady let out a little sigh against Jensen’s mouth in response, pulled briefly away to speak again. “Tell me when you want me to stop.”

Jensen did no such thing. He kissed MacReady again instead, gasped against his mouth. It was like drowning in a hot bath, the way MacReady kissed him back. It was desperate, slightly sloppy, all wet lips and questing tongue this time, now that the both of them were learning each other’s responses. Because you’re fit, MacReady had said earlier, and this time Jensen did not have any difficulty believing him. Even MacReady’s touch hungered. Strong fingers pressed firmly, but not unpleasantly into the flesh of Jensen’s back up under the hem of his t-shirt, tracing the lines of the scars, remnants of incisions where surgeons had replaced and augmented much of Jensen’s spine to support the rest of the augmentations they would later install.

At least I’m still human enough to have these needs, Jensen thought in mingled bitterness and relief as he guided MacReady carefully around the end of the couch. The soft wool of the knitted blanket draped over its bulk was stifling, almost, against Jensen’s hot skin as he let himself tumble onto the couch, and he shoved it off onto the floor just as MacReady climbed up to half-straddle him.

“You haven’t asked me to stop,” MacReady said, panting the words as he settled himself carefully over Jensen, taking most of his own body weight on a knee, an elbow, as he hesitated briefly.

“That’s because I don’t want you to,” Jensen said with a little laugh, stray nerves bleeding off in the weight and solidity of MacReady’s muscular body pressed up against his. So that’s what it’s like, he thought. It wasn’t as though he had always been on top in his relationship with Megan, but there was just the sheer difference in mass, in the way MacReady’s body fit over his. Jensen felt oddly sheltered like this, protected, almost, and he realized that he was growing to like and appreciate this, that he was becoming sure that he would have wanted MacReady just as badly as he did now if the situation had been different.

“Mm,” MacReady grunted softly in contentment, and then his broad fingers were rucking up the hem of Jensen’s sweater and t-shirt. Jensen flinched briefly in response, uneasy about baring himself out of reflex. What if he sees all the augmentations and — but MacReady stopped immediately, paused to look carefully in Jensen’s face as the eyeshades came back down. “Should I stop here?” he asked, his breath hot in Jensen’s ear.

“I’m — my augmentations,” Jensen said lamely, “I have a lot of them.”

In response MacReady climbed off the sofa and reached down to his tweed coat, began to work the row of buckles holding it shut, dropped it. “I’ll go first,” he said as he shrugged his waistcoat off to reveal his white shirt, the cotton gleaming in the low light. He reached into the collar of his shirt and unknotted the ascot he wore, revealing a narrow sliver of skin, before he reached down to unbuckle his belt. His hands paused just then, and he waited for Jensen to nod before he continued to strip.

“How is it,” Jensen asked, with a faint sense of unreality swimming in the back of his head, beneath the desire and arousal that thrummed in his veins with every beat of his heart, “that an asshole like you is this considerate — now?”

MacReady laughed low in his chest as he toed off one loafer, then another. “Because I think consent, especially enthusiastic consent, is bloody sexy, that’s why.” Mac’s laugh was deep and warm, when he wasn’t being an asshole about things, and Jensen found himself liking the sound of it. MacReady let his trousers drop slowly, stepping out of the puddle of fabric on the hardwood floor of Jensen’s living room, his movements careful and deliberate. He’s putting on a show for me, Jensen thought, and it was a hell of a show. Jensen’s gaze rose up MacReady’s muscular calves, fixed on the growing V of skin, that glimpse of his broad scarred chest as he finished unbuttoning his shirt. “Like what you see?” he asked Jensen as he shrugged off the shirt to reveal his silk boxers, the thin slippery fabric tented impressively by his cock.

“Yes,” said Jensen, breathing the words as MacReady stripped his socks off and then slid his boxers down his hips to stand wholly naked before him. Jensen wasn’t sure what to focus on first — the rise and fall of MacReady’s chest with each of his breaths, the points of his hips, his cock dark with blood, in proud salute, and then it was no longer the time to just watch as MacReady stepped back up to the sofa and dropped to his knees in front of Jensen.

“Can I —” Jensen said, remembering MacReady’s brief comment about enthusiastic consent, “may I touch you?”

“Yes,” MacReady breathed, the word almost a sacrament as Jensen reached out to stroke his head, to run his fingertips over the warmth and life of him, tracing the curve of his neck and jawline, lingering on the trapezius muscle. This passivity was incredibly arousing to Jensen, that someone as headstrong and decisive as MacReady could be his for the taking in this unbelievable moment. MacReady pressed a brief kiss against the palm of Jensen’s hand, turning his head to let his mouth brush against the silicone padding that lent Jensen’s hand a semblance of the softness of human flesh.

Jensen shivered and then keened as MacReady’s hot mouth moved upwards to press against the flawless machining of Jensen’s wrist, and then further up his forearm, MacReady pushing the sleeve of Jensen’s sweater up to bare him more.

“You smell a bit like gun cleaner — like Break-Free CLP, this close,” MacReady said with a soft laugh, after letting his mouth linger over the inside of Jensen’s elbow, where a pulse point would have been had his arms still been organic.

“It’s not a turn off, I hope,” Jensen said, forcing out the words in short pants as his teeth started to chatter from nerves and sensory overload.

“No, not really. Just different. May I see more of you?” MacReady asked, looking up, meeting Jensen’s gaze with his own. Jensen nodded mutely, reading the trust in MacReady’s gaze, in the way he knelt bare and vulnerable, and he propped himself up on an elbow and tugged his sweater off, left it draped over the back of the couch. Jensen’s t-shirt followed, and there was a catch in MacReady’s breathing, a change in his gaze as he took in Jensen’s bare torso. Jensen caught MacReady’s gaze, realized that he had traced his way upwards with the rising hem of the t-shirt to study the scars on Jensen’s body, the skeletal reinforcements that prevented his augs from tearing his flesh apart showing through his pale skin.

“What —” and there was a curious flatness in MacReady’s voice, a sudden brightness in his eyes as he took in Jensen’s changed body, “what happened to you?”

“I didn’t ask for this,” Jensen said, realizing belatedly that what he had seen in MacReady’s eyes was sorrow, that and regret. “It was done against my consent, but it saved my life.”

MacReady opened his mouth as though to say something, then shook his head briefly as he rose up on his knees, pressed his face in close to the vulnerable skin of Jensen’s scarred belly to land a hot kiss just over the waistband of Jensen’s trousers. I’m sorry, that touch said, and I want you, and the sensation of MacReady’s breath hot on Jensen’s skin left him shuddering with need as his cock twitched inside his underwear. MacReady’s kisses wandered up the scars on Jensen’s belly, lingering hot on the soft spot just beneath his sternum, tracing the curve under one of his pectorals, and each touch blazed against Jensen’s nerve endings, drove him to further heights of desire that culminated in a grateful whimper when he felt MacReady’s fingers brushing carefully against the fly of his trousers, rubbing the underside of his cock in slow, easy movements. The friction of the zipper drove Jensen half-mad, and he bucked up against MacReady’s hand, made a low groan of utter frustration and need.

“May I go on?” MacReady asked Jensen, his hand poised over the zipper tab on Jensen’s trousers, and Jensen had twitched bodily, frozen up in brief, alarmed response.

“It’s — it’s been a while, for me,” Jensen said, his face flushing with a shame that he could not dispel, “it’s not going to be long.”

“I understand,” MacReady said. “I won’t judge you.” And still, he hesitated.

He’s waiting for my permission, Jensen realized belatedly. He reached carefully out to caress MacReady’s cheek again, searched within himself for any more traces of fear or embarrassment, and found none. “Please,” Jensen said at last, his voice breaking with pent-up desire, with all this emotion mingling uncomfortably within. He had been so tired of this loneliness, so carefully cultivated, was so desperate for any kind of relief, and here MacReady was, willing to grant it for the moment.

MacReady leaned in, reaching up to grasp Jensen by the hip, and took the zipper tab between his teeth. His breath was hot through the fabric of Jensen’s trousers and underwear, welcoming, and Jensen shivered again as MacReady sprang him free. MacReady paused for a few seconds, giving Jensen the room to anticipate what came next, before he licked his lips and closed that spit-slick mouth around the head of Jensen’s cock.

The sensations were immediate, breathtaking, heat and pressure building up in Jensen’s balls as he thrust mindlessly up and up into MacReady’s mouth, against that tongue-tip tracing the sensitive ridge just beneath the swell of his cockhead, of those teeth scratching so very lightly against the shaft of his cock. MacReady had clearly done this before — haven’t you heard all the rumors about public school boys? he had asked that fateful afternoon, and then Jensen was incapable of reason, could not think except in short bursts of fuck and Christ and yes as his orgasm claimed his body, holding him helpless in its grasp, relief overtaking him as he came in long aching spasms in MacReady’s wicked, divine mouth.

Jensen opened his eyes to find MacReady running his fingers lightly over his brow as the last bursts of static faded out from his dazzled vision. He sucked in a deep breath, feeling as though he had been reborn, and then caught hold of MacReady’s wrist, kissed the palm of his hand, tasting the salt of his sweat on his tongue.

“Should I leave now?” MacReady asked Jensen, very softly, and Jensen shook his head.

“No,” said Jensen, propping himself up on an elbow as he let go of MacReady’s hard wrist, “no. Stay.”

MacReady didn’t need any more asking. He climbed back onto the couch, on top of Jensen, and kissed him hungrily, deeply. Jensen caught the taste of his own spunk lingering salty and bleachy on MacReady’s breath, but he felt no revulsion as he tongued at those sticky lips. It was the least he could do, he thought, after what MacReady had done for him.

MacReady shivered a little as they held each other. Jensen wasn’t sure if it from was nerves or the cooling air, but the skin of MacReady’s back was clammy under his curious fingertips, and he reached down for the wool blanket, tucked it roughly around him between kisses. MacReady sighed gratefully, and then his hand slipped down under the blanket, fingers closing around the shaft of his own cock for a rough squeeze.

“I could help you with that,” Jensen whispered, felt a laugh well up deep within at the way MacReady shuddered in response.

“Fuck,” MacReady gasped, as Jensen took hold of him, “oh, fuck, that’s good.” Jensen hadn’t really handled another cock save for his own, and not even that since his arms had been replaced — it had felt too strange, too foreign to be touching himself with his new hands, but it was somehow different when he was pleasuring someone else. He teased MacReady with gentle strokes, concentrating on working his intact foreskin against the sensitive head of his cock. MacReady’s eyes were shut tight as he focused on holding himself still, his arm stretched out so he could brace himself against the armrest under Jensen’s head, failed at that as he began to thrust up into each of Jensen’s caresses.

“I’m not going to last much longer like this,” MacReady groaned into Jensen’s ear, “so you might want to stop now if you expect anything more from me.”

“And what more should I expect from you?” Jensen asked, proud and amused that he had brought MacReady to this point, that he was even capable of doing so.

“I’d have offered to fuck you,” MacReady said, panting softly, “but I wasn’t sure how much experience you’d had. And —” and he shivered at that, as Jensen squeezed down on his cock again, “I’m not sure I’d last long enough to be particularly good, at this point.”

“You presume wrongly,” Jensen said with a little laugh. “I have been fucked. Just never by a man.”

“Ohh,” MacReady shuddered, surged upwards into Jensen’s grip at the mental image.

“A little bit of a voyeur, are you?”

“I just — fuck. Did she bend you over, big strong lad that you are? Or did you just lie back and take it like a good little bottom?”

“I’ve done it both ways,” Jensen said, indulging MacReady’s curiosity mostly because of the impact those revelations had upon him, “but I liked it the best face down. Just having someone’s fingers in my hair, being shoved over a desk. I came all over it, and she rubbed my face in the mess before she let me up.”

“Fuck, fuck.” At that MacReady shuddered and went very still, his cock pulsing in Jensen’s hand as he lost all control. His spunk spilled hot and messy over Jensen’s fingers, drops landing sticky on his chest, and he let out a long, low groan, his face pressed against the juncture of Jensen’s neck and shoulder. “Ah, God.” MacReady’s voice was muffled against Jensen’s skin, and he did not lift his head until a minute or two had passed.

Jensen was content to lie beneath him despite the sticky mess on his chest and hand, and he savored the warmth of MacReady’s skin, listened to his breathing slow as the afterglow crept in on him. “You’re going to have to let me up at some point,” Jensen told him gently, “I need to clean up.”

“No,” MacReady whispered breathlessly, let me.” He took hold of Jensen’s wrist again and began lapping away at the come on his fingers, licking him clean with little passes of his wet pink tongue. It was an incredibly intimate turn-on, perhaps even more so than what they had done just moments before, and Jensen knew that he would have been fully hard again were it not for his refractory period. The licking turned to finger-sucking, and Jensen was pleased to lie back and have MacReady take care of him yet again.

“Would you mind awfully,” MacReady asked Jensen afterwards, after he was satisfied that Jensen’s hand was clean, “if I rested here with you, for a while?”

“No,” Jensen said, glad of MacReady’s presence for the time being. He reached down to grasp the edge of the soft knit wool blanket and adjusted it, made sure that they were both covered by it.

“Mm,” MacReady grunted, contentedly. His eyes were already closed, and he pressed his face against the side of Jensen’s neck, and Jensen held on to him as they lay together on the couch, marking time with their heartbeats in this strange, easy space where reality had ceased to intrude upon their lives.