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Stitches

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Zolf starts brushing up on his mundane healing skills on the airship journey from Cairo to Hiroshima. 

They can’t exactly take the most direct route. They’re trying to lay low and not attract too much attention. So they end up with weeks in the air on a crowded passenger ship, making stops in most of the populous cities along the way. 

It’s at least partially a way to distract himself from the guilt being back on the currents brings to the surface. Every time he’s up on deck, he thinks about that altercation with Bertie, how he left the Rangers behind only for Hamid and Sasha to end up in Rome, maybe dead now. 

Who is he kidding? It’s been nearly a year. They’re most certainly dead, and it’s all his fault. Two more souls to add to his ledger. 

But he’s trying not to think about that. He’s trying for a little more hope. Sure, in this case it’s mostly hope that he’ll get to see them on the celestial plane, have a chance to beg their forgiveness. But even that bitter hope is important. He can’t afford to lose it. Losing one god can be understandable. Lose two and a man starts to seem careless. 

So instead of dwelling, like he’s prone to do, he knocks on the door of the ship’s healer and asks for use of any medical books the man might have. Luckily, Healer Matushek, a halfling cleric from the Artemisian cult, is both well-read and happy enough to share his personal library as well as his afternoon tea with Zolf.

When he brings an armful of books back to the cramped berth he and Wilde are sharing, he gets a pointedly raised eyebrow.

“Moving on from the Campbells, are we, Mr. Smith?” he says with the ghost of a smirk hovering at the edges of his mouth. 

“Don’t you start,” Zolf warns, but it’s too late. 

Wilde’s already caught sight of the volume on top of the pile. It’s one of the newest among Matuschek’s collection, a first-edition printing of Gray’s Anatomy, full of fine and meticulously labelled line drawings that Zolf’s anxious to study.

The mischievous glint in Wilde’s eye tells him his warning has fallen on deaf ears. 

“You know, Zolf,” he says with an exaggerated leer. “If you find yourself in need of more … practical anatomical study, I am more than happy to oblige.”

Even a few months ago it would have flustered Zolf, made him snap and stumble over his words, but he’s getting more accustomed to dealing with Wilde.

He leans in and up on his toes, so that his face is only inches from Wilde’s, returns his smile with a toothsome one of his own, then snaps his fingers to create water directly above the man’s head.

“Think I’ll pass,” he says, skirting around a now soppy Wilde and climbing up into his hammock by way of a ladder built into the hull. “But I’ll let you know if your services are needed.”

Wilde splutters and then examine’s the sleeves of his peacock blue jacket mournfully. 

“Rather should have expected that. Velvet does take so dreadfully long to dry …” 

He grumbles to himself, carefully stripping off the jacket to dry on the rope of his own hammock, hung a few feet below Zolf’s. The berth is too narrow to allow for arranging both side by side. 

It’s only then Zolf remembers that Wilde can’t just prestidigitate himself clean and composed like he did the last time he pulled that particular trick. That’s the main reason he’s sat here with a load of medical books anyway.

A heavy stone forms in the pit of his stomach, and he scrubs at his face, then rubs his hands together and sends a wave of energy out to whip at the jacket like a warm breeze.

“Sorry,” he says, looking up into the corners of the room rather than face Wilde. “Give that a quarter hour or so, it should be good as new.”

“Much obliged, Mr. Smith,” Wilde says, rifling through his trunk until he finds a suitable replacement jacket, this one a vibrant mustard silk that highlights out his dark coloring to great advantage. “Shall you be joining me for dinner this evening?”

The airship has a first-class dining room that does full dinner service every evening, and Wilde’s dragged him there a couple of times, but it’s all a bit much for Zolf’s taste. He always feels he’s using the wrong fork, and looks out of place in the soft leathers that comprise his fanciest set of clothes.

“You go on,” he says, knowing Wilde will be much better able to embrace his element without Zolf hanging on. “I’ll scrounge something from the kitchens later.”

“As you wish,” Wilde replies, fussing a bit with his hastily-dried hair in a hand mirror before waving a hand in surrender and heading for the door. “Enjoy your singular anatomy studies, Mr. Smith.”

Zolf watches Wilde go, trying not to listen for the gentle clink of the anti-magic cuffs on his ankles as he walks. He does a bad job of it. 

He’ll never forget the first time he saw Wilde after the mess in Paris. 

Zolf was volunteering at the Temple of Aphrodite in Cairo. The Aphrodite lot were confused by him, sure, but they were more tolerant of a godless cleric than a lot of religious folk would be. 

He’d been giving Eren Fairhands a rundown of the multiple curse victims he’d triaged that morning — something to do with a failed bank heist — when he’d spotted him out of the corner of his eye, off in a side room, and momentarily lost the use of his clanky wooden legs.

Sometimes Zolf thinks he must have sensed him more than saw him. Noticed an aura maybe, though he generally doesn’t. Because as he approached, all he could think about was how different he looked from the Wilde he’d known in Paris — head shorn of its dark curls, skin sallow probably with infection, so thin Zolf could see the bones of him. And all that was outside of the line of black stitches — still fresh and an irritated red at the edges — that ran down his face, giving his mouth and unfamiliar twist even in his sleep. 

“Stitches?” Zolf had muttered to himself when he saw. “What in all the gods …”

“Oh yes, poor man,” Eren had said, gliding almost silently up beside him. “Had to do things the old fashioned way, there. Under some kind of continuous curse, so he needs an anti-magic field at all times. Horrible business.”

“I know him,” Zolf said, almost a whisper.

“Yes, well, I gather he’s rather famous,” Eren said.

“Famous git, maybe,” he’d replied, and Eren looked at him questioningly.

“Not a friend, then?”

Zolf considered for a long moment. What was Wilde to him, other than a nuisance with a nice bum? He’d used all his strength to get them out when Paris was burning around them, and then let them all fly away without him with no protest. Maybe that said something for him. Or maybe all the feelings that rushed through him in that moment only came because he’d been so desperate to see a familiar face, even one that usually inclined him toward murder with a bucket and water. 

“Close enough, I’d say,” he replied.

Zolf had come to Cairo about six months after leaving the Rangers, having chosen it as the last place he’d known Hamid to be. He’d tried for weeks to make contact with the Al-Tahan family, hoping to get word through them to his old companions. But when the high and mighty really don’t want to see you, then they don’t. They had walls high enough and guards well-equipped enough to keep him out.

He’d already cut his ties with Poseidon by then and was beginning to understand the new, unexpected source of  his power. It wasn’t about blind belief, at least. He’d always been terrible at that. It was more about hope. Hope that things could be better, that he could help to make them better. If only he didn’t muck it all up again.

After he finished his rounds at the temple, Zolf made his way back to Wilde’s room and settled into a chair to wait. It was normally the time he’d use to go and bang on the al-Tahan gates for an hour or two, work off a bit of frustration, but he’d gotten the feeling he wouldn’t have to do that anymore if only Wilde would bloody wake up. He’d still been sleeping when Zolf got there, so he pulled out the novel he’d been reading, a battered and dog-eared copy of With the Passion of the Sun, and let the familiar words wash over him.

Aylette and Morris were in the middle of their first flaming row, when Zolf heard rustling fabric and looked up to see Wilde stirring at last. He hopped off his chair and approached the bed cautiously on his crutches, watching the man’s face contort in a grimace as he seemed to struggle for consciousness. 

He looked different without his signature dark curls falling around his face. Younger, somehow. More vulnerable. Combined with his new stitches, it made Zolf’s chest twinge in sympathy.

“Wilde,” he’d said, leaning the crutches agains the wall and balancing on his two wooden pegs. 

Zolf laid a hand on the mattress next to him, but didn’t dare to actually reach out and touch him. “Come on, Wilde. Snap out of it.”

Well, he’d never been known for his bedside manner. It seemed to work at least. Wilde blinked and looked at him hazily. It took a few minutes for those dark eyes to focus on him.

“You with me, Wilde?” he asked.

Wilde’s reply came soft and confused.

“Zolf?” he said, raising a finger to his temple.

“Be careful, will you?” Zolf cautioned. “Looks like you’ve been scrapping.” 

Wilde’s responding smile was bitter, and he winced immediately after, letting his hands hover over the fresh wound without ever landing.

“Ah,” he said. “Yes, Mr. Smith. It’s seems we’ve both decided on some changes in fashion since last we met. I like yours, by the way. Silver suits you.”

Zolf could tell he was trying for his old easy, flirtatious manner, but it didn’t quite land. His voice was thin from disuse, and he spoke stiffly as he figured out how to move his mouth around the words without stretching his wound too badly. He decided to humor the man, let him change the subject for the moment.

He tugged self-consciously at his beard, gone white now.

“This ain’t exactly an aesthetic choice,” he said. “Had a bit of a spat with Poseidon. We decided to part ways.”

“Took it well, did he?” Wilde asked, eyeing Zolf cautiously, like being a gods-cursed man was a thing that might be catching.

“You remember that time I threatened to drown you in a bucket?” he asked.

“More than once,” Wilde replied, raising an eyebrow at him, as though Zolf might challenge his claim. “And vividly.”

“Well, that’s what Poseidon did to me. Except instead of a bucket, it was the whole of the gods-damned ocean.”

Wilde’s eyes went wide at that. 

“My,” he said. “And yet you lived to tell it.”

“Only died a little bit,” Zolf said with a shrug. “I’m resourceful.”

He still couldn’t properly explain it to himself then, maybe never will be able to. He just remembers being pulled beneath the spiteful waves and reaching for something, anything to hold on to. It wasn’t like the first time. There was no merciful god to pull him from the water’s icy grip. Instead, when he reached, he reached inside himself and found the barest spark. 

Wilde had tilted his head just the tiniest bit, and Zolf knew he wanted to ask a thousand more questions, but he restrained himself to a curious, noncommittal “Hmmm.”

“Leave it to Zolf Smith to shout down a god and walk away,” he said at last, with the hint of a smile. He’d grown better already at adjusting his face to its new configuration, chameleon nature winning out. 

“Wouldn’t give me too much credit,” Zolf said. “The ability to needle a god into murder ain’t exactly a mark in my favor. Anyway, what happened to you, Wilde?”

He tried, but it was impossible to keep his eyes from the place where someone had sliced Wilde open. 

“Ah,” the other man said, fingers going to run through roughly-shorn hair, though Zolf could tell he wanted to touch the line of stitches down his face. “I have heard that scars are charming, give a face character and so on. But I fear mine shan’t be a pretty thing to look at.”

“Not like I’m surprised someone wanted to gut you,” Zolf said. “Just surprised anyone was able to get close enough to actually manage it.”

He’d meant to lighten the weight of the conversation somehow, but he could tell immediately he hadn’t managed it. Never had a way with words, damn it. Wilde grimaced and went impossibly paler. Zolf had wanted to bite off his own tongue. It was just so strange to see him … vulnerable. 

“Yes, well,” Wilde said, eyes flitting around the room, landing everywhere but on Zolf’s face. “Old beau of mine. Normally not much of a threat, but I’m still adjusting to …”

“To not having your magic?” Zolf prompted, soft as he could manage.

“Yes,” he said, voice like ice. “That.”

“Tell me what’s going on, Wilde,” he begged, gritting his teeth against the desperation in his voice. “Why are you in hospital without your magic? And where are Hamid and Sasha? They should be here, surely.”

When Wilde finally looked him full in the face, Zolf knew immediately. There was something broken behind his eyes, something that had mourned and buried and now didn’t know where to turn. 

He felt a crack opening in his chest, a great sucking chasm that wanted to devour everything. Zolf felt himself on the edge of releasing the storm inside of him, knew he was about to do or say something he regretted. His whole body trembled as he stared deep into Wilde’s mournful eyes.

Then he wrenched himself away from the gravity of that gaze and fumbled for his crutches. 

“Shite,” he muttered to himself as he finally got his legs under him. “Shite.”

“Zolf?” Wilde called from behind him, but he didn’t turn back, just waved a hand behind him. 

“Need a minute,” he said, knowing his voice came out like a sharp, scalding thing and hating it. 

There was a courtyard at the very center of the Temple of Aphrodite that usually sat unused. The carefully tended gardens behind the complex were where recovering patients took in fresh air and stretched formerly bed-ridden legs, leaving the courtyard dusty and shabby-looking. At its heart, an ancient olive tree grew gnarled and sagging, its silvery branches drooping towards the dirt.

That’s where Zolf pointed himself instinctually, collapsing to the ground when he finally reached his destination and feeling absurdly grateful to be alone with the horrible voices in his head. You abandoned them, it said, and he couldn’t disagree. You abandoned them so you could have a nice, long sulk and now they’re dead and it’s all your fault. Hamid, so young and bright and full of potential and magic, and Sasha just learning that the world was bigger than the dank warren of Other London and meeting it all with a sharp, brilliant curiosity. Gone now. Because of you. Because you couldn’t keep your shit together. Fucking useless. Always useless …

His knuckles were bloodied from beating at the hard-packed ground by the time he was able to see clearly through the fog of grief and recrimination. Zolf felt worn through. He scrubbed at his face to find it sticky with the tracks of tears long-since dried. Enough, now. He told himself, taking deep, shaking breaths. Enough.

He created water in the cupped palms of his hands and scrubbed at his face until he thought he might look slightly more presentable. Then he struggled up and maneuvered his way back to Wilde’s room, dodging paladins in bright pink robes rushing between patients.

When he entered, Wilde met him with a still-incongruous serious expression, lips set in a thin, pale line.

“Alright,” Zolf said. “Tell me what happened. That is … If you can. I’d … I’d like to know how it was.”

And Wilde just nodded and patted the edge of his mattress. Zolf sat himself down close enough that he could feel the heat from the other man’s body, smell the sharp antiseptic used on his injuries.

He got the whole story then. The hostages, the desperate journey to Rome, the months and months standing vigil at a silent portal to planes unknown. Once he started, it seemed like Wilde had a difficult time stopping, the words bubbling up out of him like water from a spring.  Zolf knew they left chaos behind them in London and Paris, but that was the first time he heard of the infection, blue veins leaving a body a shade of themselves, following orders from an unknown master. 

“Him that gave you that souvenir?” Zolf asked, gesturing to Wilde’s face, and Wilde nodded a sharp acknowledgement.

“I was a fool,” he said, darkly.

At any other point, Zolf would have agreed with him, out of spite if for no other reason, but he found himself instead frowning. 

“I reckon this is a sight past what any of us could be prepared for, Wilde,” he said. 

Wilde had given him a sharp look.

“That’s more indulgent than I expected of you, Mr. Smith.”

“Right, well,” Zolf said, reaching for his crutches and levering himself up. “If you’re gonna snipe, maybe I should let you get your rest.”

It was hardly a slight, but he’d about reached his limit for the day of tough conversations, or human interaction, if he was honest. His skin was itching with the effort. 

“Oh yes, don’t let me trouble you,” Wilde shot back. “I can waste away as well by myself as I can with company.”

Zolf couldn’t help but snort a laugh.

“Always with the dramatics,” he muttered, but he stopped before leaving the room to look back at the wan figure in the bed. “Is there anything I can do for you Wilde? Anything you need?”

“You needn’t put yourself out,” Wilde said, stiff and formal. “I can do for myself.”

Zolf didn’t know how to respond to that, so he walked away with a heavy, portentous feeling in his chest and went back to the dingy inn where he’d been living for the past few weeks. 

It had taken a little bit of swallowed pride to return to see Wilde the next day, but he managed it. He brought a few worn paperbacks with him, figuring Wilde must be going mad with nothing to do, as well as some fresh made meshabek soaked in sugar syrup and rosewater. 

Zolf felt gratified at having correctly guessed at Wilde’s sweet tooth as he watched the man lick the remains of the syrup from his fingers. He crumpled up the paper wrapping they had come in and scooted the pile of books closer to hand.

“Harrison Campbell?” Wilde asked with a snort.

“Don’t you start,” Zolf warned. “I’ve thrown men overboard for crimes against Campbell. Anyway, if he isn’t to your taste, I can bring you something else later. Just tell me what you had in mind.”

“No, no,” Wilde said, leaning back against his pillows and picking up a copy of When Passions Collide. “I am very anxious to know what kind of writer elicits such fervor from you.”

A Cheshire cat smile spread uncomfortably over his face as he cracked the book open. Zolf’s stomach dropped at the thought of the ammunition he’d just placed in Wilde’s hands.

That evening, he’d trekked across the city — through a dust-up that was just on the verge of being a proper sandstorm — to find an English-language bookstore.

The whole situation made Zolf feel restless and even more useless than he already did at the state of the world. He had to do something with himself besides administer minor healing and stare surreptitiously at Wilde during his visits, monitoring the slow knitting of his skin together. This wasn’t much, but at least it was something. 

Wilde raised his eyebrows nearly up to his hairline when Zolf set the stack of books down at the foot of his bed the next day. They were neatly wrapped in brown paper and twine, and Zolf had been surprised at the care he took in the unwrapping. Inside was a small selection — a travelogue from a few years prior, a collection of poems by a young woman named Dickinson, the newest Mary Shelley, a volume of mystery stories. No romance, he’d made sure of that.

“Have you brought me love poetry?” Wilde asked, hand hovering over the tomes spread out on his bed and alighting, bird-like, on the green leather cover of the poetry book. “How forward, Mr. Smith.”

His tone made Zolf grit his teeth, but he couldn’t deny it was nice to see that spark of mischief back in Wilde’s eyes. 

“You make things so … difficult,” he muttered. 

Wilde had shrugged.

“Some people quite enjoy a challenge,” he said. 

Zolf pursed his lips together, unsure how to deal with Wilde’s jibes. He’d never been good at twisting words around, and something about the man always left him feeling flat-footed and flanked. 

“It ain’t all romantic shite,” he said, roughly. “There’s a nice one in there about hope.”

Hope is the thing with feathers …

He’d found it as he flipped through volumes in the little shop the night before and felt the rightness of it immediately, couldn’t help but add it to his pile to take to Wilde. Zolf felt unaccountably nervous when Wilde actually started to leaf through the little tome. He irrationally didn’t want to be around to when he started to read. 

“Anyway, maybe they’ll help a bit. With the boredom. I’ll, uh, see you around.”

Zolf fled the room as quickly as his crutches would carry him, and if Wilde called after him, he didn’t hear. 

He spent the rest of his day settling accounts and saying his goodbyes. Eren had said Wilde would be discharged in two days time, and if Zolf knew the man at all he wouldn’t want to be hanging about with work to be done and problems to solve. It wouldn’t take him any time to pack up his belongings. He’d always traveled light. 

The head healer was going over instructions for wound care when Zolf clambered in on Friday morning with his pack and glaive strapped to his back and his wax cloth coat thrown over his shoulders. Wilde had stopped mid-question just to stare at him.

“What?” Zolf asked sharply, gaze flitting from Wilde with his raised eyebrows and stunned expression to an inscrutable Eren Fairhands. “Look, I know you’re not a fan of the coat. It ain’t exactly a fashion statement. But I don’t know where we’re headed, do I? Gotta be prepared.”

“Where we’re headed?” Wilde said, skin twisting and puckering in uncomfortable confusion. 

It had only been then Zolf understood what was happening. Somehow he’d just assumed they were on the same page. Their friends were gone, but the work wasn’t. Now it was just the two of them that had been there at the beginning of all this mess. Of course he was coming with Wilde, or going wherever he saw fit to send him. To fix things. To make it better.

But clearly Wilde had not had any such expectation. And why should he? Who needs a washed-up cleric of who-knows-what dogging their heels? Especially one who had abandoned his team in a fit of pique. Gods, he was fool. 

“Right,” Zolf said, feeling his cheeks go hot against his will. “Yeah, that. That makes sense. Anyway. Best of luck to you, Wilde.”

He gave a curt nod, and then turned on the tip of one crutch with more dexterity than he usually managed and moved out the door. He ignored Wilde calling out his name. Token protest at best. He wondered if Karim would give him his room back or if he should just flee the city in shame. 

“ … By all the gods, stop!”

A warm hand wrapping around his wrist made Zolf freeze, but he didn’t turn to look back at Wilde, just clenched his hands into fists and gritted his teeth.

“Don’t trouble yourself, Wilde,” he said. “I get it, yeah? No reason you should want me around—”

A hiss from Wilde and the tightening of fingers around his wrist cut Zolf off. After a long beat he turned to see Wilde with his mouth set in a firm, pale line.

“Of course I want you with me, you stubborn ass. I just didn’t think you’d be willing. You’ve never exactly been my biggest fan.”

And that, that was true. So why had Zolf felt a desire to protest it? To demure or soothe?

“This is a bit bigger than either of us, Oscar,” he’d said instead, softly, and his fingers lingered over the other man’s as he removed the hand gently from his wrist.

“Yes,” Wilde said, freed hand moving up to tug at his shorn hair. “Well, quite.”

“Where are we headed then?” Zolf asked.

“Japan,” Wilde had said. “It’s the only real lead I have right now, I’m afraid.”

Zolf nodded. 

“That’s the plan, then.”

Before they set off, however, Wilde beckoned him back into his room.

“Ah, Healer Fairhands,” he said, addressing Eren, who stood with an extremely put-upon expression on his face. “The prosthetics we discussed. Can we arrange for a fitting post-haste? Mr. Smith has places to be.”

And that was how Zolf found himself  in the hands of a Hephaestus cleric having his makeshift pegs removed and being fitted instead with a pair of mechanical legs that looked remarkably and rather disturbingly like the mechanisms of the simulacrum. 

He was at least mostly sure they were made of pure adamantine, and the thought of the cost made him swallow hard as they were secured and padded. Wilde hovered over the cleric as he adjusted them to fit naturally.

“When did you even have the time for this?” Zolf asked, faintly, as the man in question double checked the alignment of everything.

“I’ve had them prepared for a while, just in case we ever crossed paths again,” Wilde says, staring intently at the legs and very pointedly not looking at Zolf’s face. “Took a few days to have them shipped from Damascus, though.”

“Damascus?”

Wilde shrugged.

“The materials were available, and it seemed a shame to waste them.”

“You know that don’t actually explain anything,” Zolf said, but before he could bully a more fulsome explanation from Wilde, the cleric placed a bracing hand low on his thigh and said “Deep breath, now.”

Zolf obeyed while the man spoke a complex incantation over the legs. He felt it almost instantaneously, a tugging in his chest that soon settled into a present but small tension as the legs pulled from his own power to function. 

The feeling flowed into them slowly. Toes that Zolf didn’t have tingled with sleep, the sharp edge of the table he sat upon dug into a metal calf. He could sense his own breath coming fast and shallow as he pushed himself off the edge and felt, for the first time in years, the cold of tile beneath the pads of his feet. 

Unused to the sensation, and to balancing on two feet, Zolf almost immediately wobbled, only stopped from falling on his face by Wilde’s bracing hand on his forearm. 

“Th-thanks,” he stuttered out, willing his breaths to come slowly and for the prickle in his eyes to go away. He hoped Wilde understood he didn’t mean just for the arm, because he sure as hell couldn’t manage to say it.

Still can’t. But he can stay up half the night making his way through a textbook on complex human anatomy, just in case he should need to do some non-magical healing. He doesn’t at all trust Wilde not to put himself in mortal danger at the first opportunity. 

The man in question stays late in the airship lounge gathering what information he can from passengers, piecing together a picture of the world now that communications from Europe are coming patchy if at all. So Zolf has plenty of time to study before he hears footsteps in the corridor. He has to quickly damp down his lamp and thrust the thick book under his pillow, then. 

He pretends to be asleep when Wilde rattles his key in the lock and enters the room on soft feet. Ears pricked, Zolf listens to the susurrations of Wilde undressing and the creaking of ropes as he clambers into his hammock. He’s been a surprisingly good sport about the sparse accommodations available. Zolf had half expected him to pitch a fit at the lack of a proper bed, but he supposes they have bigger things to worry about now. 

When he hears Wilde let out one long, tired sigh, Zolf allows himself to follow suit. He snuggles down into his hammock and falls asleep to the sound of Wilde’s steady breathing.

Zolf spends most of his free time during the journey to Hiroshima slowly making his way through the pile of medical books, making notes on all the things he thinks might be relevant. It’s a good distraction as well as a bit of a balm to the anxiety that’s building about the job ahead of them.

In the end, though, it’s not the medical books that prove most immediately useful in his bid to keep Wilde whole and hale. Instead, it’s the things he remembers from his mum years ago. They could only afford a healer in the most extreme circumstances, and she had been the one to take care of any smaller ailments.

He remembers that strong steeped willow bark tea is as good as anything for a headache, that candied ginger can help to cure nausea, that a tincture of valerian root and lavender in a glass of warm milk is a good as any casting of sleep, and that honestly nothing does better for a head cold than a hot toddy with plenty of honey. She knew what she was about, his mum.

Zolf feels a bit sheepish when he first presents Wilde with a little jar of ointment infused with skullcap and marigold flowers. He finds them growing wild in a field near the inn on Okinoshima where they set up base —waterlogged from all the rain, but still usable. He remembers his mum brewing up something similar to treat the scarring on his father’s hands from a few grisly incidents with a pick axe, massaging it into his palms by the fireside at night. 

Wilde stares curiously at the little jar, unstoppers its top to sniff and makes a sour face that causes the skin around his scar pucker and warp. Zolf winces in sympathy 

“Bit more floral than my usual scents, Mr. Smith,” Wilde says.

And Zolf grits his teeth at that. He’s such an arse sometimes.

“I didn’t give it to ya so you can smell nice, you great ruddy bastard,” he says. Wilde already smells nice. Like ink and parchment and ozone from the built up magic held off by the cuffs.  “It’s for your scar.”

The iron bars behind Wilde’s eyes slam immediately shut at the mention of the scar. It’s a little off-putting how easily he can do that now. His entire being switches from open to closed in an instant. Zolf’s grown accustomed to it, the icy chill he gets every time he has to quarantine and Wilde looks through him and not at him.

He shoulders through it, taking Wilde by the wrist and guiding him down into his desk chair so he’s got easier access.

“Don’t get tetchy with me,” he says, roughly, pulling the jar back out of Wilde’s limp hand and dipping two fingers into the cream. “If you apply this regularly it should help keep the skin supple. Help you regain some more movement.”

Gently, he lifts his fingers to Wilde’s face and begins to apply the cream in soft strokes. Wilde tenses at first. He stops breathing. But after half a minute he seems to realize that the anticipated pain isn’t coming. He sighs and relaxes. His eyes flutter closed. 

“I could … You don’t have to …”

It’s faint protest, and Zolf ignores it as intended. 

“Tilt up for me a bit,” he says instead, directing Wilde’s face with gentle pressure up and more directly into the late afternoon sunlight so he can see better. He has to stand between Wilde’s knees to get a really good angle. They’re not touching anywhere but at the point where Zolf’s fingers are applying the cream, but he’s close enough he can feel the other man breath deep, steadying breaths.

He sees Wilde’s eyes twitch beneath the thin skin of his eyelids as he works and watches his mouth considering several expressions before resolving into a crooked almost-smirk, where it must be most comfortable. Zolf likes this. Likes doing for Wilde when he can, mending him up and making sure he doesn’t run himself into the ground.

He likes the softening of the lines on the man’s face when Zolf brings him willow tea and he breathes in the first hit of steam from the cup. He likes the way Wilde never remembers to eat, but will lick the last remnants of buttercream off his fingers when Zolf makes fiddly macarons just to get food into his stomach. He likes the surly expression he gets when Zolf drags him out of his office by the loose ends of his cravat and puts him to bed when Wilde goes more than 48 hours without sleep. He just …

It’s not magic, but it fizzes somewhere in his chest the same way magic does sometimes, when it goes wonderfully, critically right. And Zolf doesn’t know what to do with that feeling.

Under normal circumstances, he’d run as fucking far away from it as he could. Or at least he’d sulk by the sea until Wilde grew exhausted by him and stopped giving him soft, confounding looks. But there’s a war on, and they’re fighting a soul-stealing plague, and Zolf is pretty sure Wilde’s the only one with a good enough look at the big picture to piece together a solution. So he can’t exactly run. Who would take care of him if Zolf left?

Instead, he bakes bread. Too much for the crew at the inn to eat. He has to send it out to surrounding villages so it doesn’t overrun them and begin to rot. But it means he gets to punch something into submission, and Wilde is pretty fond of his brioche, so it’s not a total waste.

Zolf also spends too much time thinking about the nature of magical healing, and his skills in particular. Because he’s not sure where all his power comes from, really. There isn’t a god to beg for guidance or favor in a pinch. It’s just Zolf Smith hoping hard enough that he can make things better. He worries, in his darker moments, about his magic being a finite resource. 

At those times, it’s a comfort to know that he’s learning to heal Wilde with no magic at all. Maybe he’s saving up for something big. One spell that can turn the tide. Or maybe the trauma of a worldwide plague — even when he himself is still hale and hearty — is driving him a bit mad. 

Regardless, Zolf finds himself reluctant to use the small spells he once did without thinking throughout the day. Why cast spark where a flint will do? Why create water when the well isn’t that far away, and you’ve got two perfectly good legs? He won’t skimp on things for the others. He’d never not heal Barnes or Carter if they needed it, and he won’t hold back in a fight. It’s his everyday magic that suffers. And, well, probably his personal care. 

Zolf is pretty sure no one has noticed until one evening he’s getting ready for bed and there’s a tap on his door. He’s already in bed, removing the prosthetic from his left leg. He doesn’t want to bother to get up, so he just shouts that it’s open. 

Wilde slides open the door and steps inside. He’s got a jumper tucked under one arm and a flat, serious expression on his face. He clears his throat, but Zolf takes the time to finish removing his metal leg and place it by the bedside before turning his attention to the man.

“Wilde,” he says at last. “Is this pressing? I’m knackered.”

It’s not even an excuse to avoid whatever heavy conversation Wilde clearly wants to have. One of their horses broke through the paddock gate last night, and Zolf spent half his day repairing it, and a good other portion attempting to persuade a great beast significantly larger than him that it wanted to come back into the fold. His body aches, and his legs twinge and chafe where they’ve been rubbing into the sockets of his prosthetics all day. He just wants to go to sleep. 

Wilde narrows his eyes at him. 

“Mr. Smith.”

His voice is clipped and hard, which automatically puts Zolf’s back up.

“Yes, Mr. Wilde?” he replies in a  copycat tone.

Wilde clears his throat again and scowls harder. He’s looking so intensely at Zolf that his skin itches. He tries not to fidget.

“Have you been punishing yourself because I’m cursed and you can’t magic it away?”  

The question takes all the blustering wind out of Zolf’s sails.

“What?” he asks. “No. I mean. Wilde, what are you on about?”

He sits back in bed with a huff, knocking the air out of the feather pillows and crossing his arms.

“You’re obviously in pain,” Wilde says, one elegant hand gesturing in Zolf’s direction to indicate, well, all of him, actually.

“Yeah,” Zolf confirms. “I had to wrangle a bloody big horse in the rain. In metal legs. I’m knackered, and I was trying to go to bed before you barged in.”

“Can’t you just … Lay hands on yourself?” Wilde asks. There’s no change to his tone, but the edge of his mouth does flutter briefly upward at the last bit.

Zolf grinds his palms into his eyes. 

“Can we save your innuendos for the morning, Wilde?” he groans.

“But you’ve got mercies for these sorts of situations, don’t you?” Wilde continues on, as though he hasn’t done anything.

Of course he’s got everything wrong, but Zolf definitely doesn’t have the energy to argue semantics and spells with Wilde at this time of night. He gets the man’s point. He could basically snap his fingers and make this bone-deep ache go away. He just finds himself resistant to the idea.

“Waste of magic,” he grumbles into his own hands as he pulls them down his face.

“What?”

“I said,” Zolf enunciates. “That would be a waste of magic.”

Wilde’s jaw unhinges. He gapes at Zolf and is oddly, blessedly silent for nearly a minute.

“That’s not how anything works!” he finally splutters out.

Zolf pushes himself further up against the headboard, narrowing his eyes at Wilde.

“Except we don’t actually know how it works, do we?” he huffs. “I’m a one-of-a-kind freak of nature. You ever heard of a godless cleric before?”

“Seems ironic for me to have to tell you to have a little faith,” Wilde says.

“Point is, my magic isn’t a predictable thing,” Zolf argues. “Better to save it for when we really need it. And if you can make do without it, so can I.”

He watches as Wilde’s mouth tilts subtly downward. 

“Impossible man,” he mutters with a shake of his head.

Zolf thinks that’s the end of it. He’s made his point. But instead of leaving, Wilde removes the jumper from under his arm. It’s not, as it turns out. Instead it’s a hot water bottle with a knitted cover.

He approaches the bedside with an overdramatic sigh and plops down on the edge of the mattress. Wilde’s hands hover over his legs, and he raises an eyebrow in question. 

Zolf feels the heat rise up his neck and into his cheeks. 

“Fine,” he says tersely, then watches at Wilde cautiously lifts his thighs to place the water bottle underneath. 

The soft bloom of heat seeps into his muscles and almost instantly begins to relax them. Zolf closes his eyes and groans involuntarily. Without further warning, Wilde’s hands are back on him. He rubs firmly with the heels of his palms. The smell of peppermint drifts upward, and a pleasant tingle sinks into his skin.

“What are you doing?” Zolf asks, voice a little bleary from exhaustion and just how nice that feels.

“Peppermint oil,” Wilde says, hands continuing their work up and down Zolf’s legs. “Is excellent for relaxing muscles. I spent a few months with a boxer in my younger days. We made quite … Extensive use of it.”

Zolf snorts at him, eyes fluttering open to catch the mischievous glint in Wilde’s eye. 

“You could just leave me the bottle,” he says. 

“Yes, darling, but that wouldn’t impart the evening’s primary lesson.”

Wilde digs in hard with his knuckles to a particularly tight muscle, and Zolf sucks in a breath. There’s a quick, sharp pain and then it feels like his body melts into the mattress.

“And what would that be exactly?” Zolf asks, words feeling like thick molasses on his tongue. “Your fondness for greasy prize fighters? Because I already knew about you and Bertie.”

Wilde snorts indulgently at his poor joke, shakes his head.

“That even stubborn as you are, sometimes it’s alright to accept help from others.” 

“Hm,” Zolf says. “That doesn’t seem true, but ohh…”

Wilde’s fingers have moved on to the ends of his legs, and he applies a slow, insistent pressure with the tips, the sensation simultaneously soothing and mind-melting. When Zolf’s eyes flutter back open after having rolled back in his head, Wilde is smirking at him like the cat that got the cream.

“Try not to look so smug,” he mutters.

“Oh, but Mr.Smith, I wear it so well,” Wilde says, pressing a hand to his breastbone and lowering his eyebrows in a challenge.

They keep on in that manner. Zolf uses all the little non-magical tricks he’s taught himself to keep Wilde’s body and spirit together. And every now and then, when he must notice the stiffness in the set of Zolf’s shoulders, or an extra heaviness to the way he plods about the inn, Wilde comes to Zolf’s room at night with a hot water bottle and peppermint oil. 

Zolf tries hard not to dwell on the pleasure he derives from both of those scenarios, and mostly manages. It becomes normal. It becomes a habit, second nature to reach for a mundane solution. Zolf thinks he’s prepared to deal with whatever comes.

Until he’s faced with Wilde bleeding out, face-down on the floor of the inn. Then, without a second thought, he attempts to heal the wound. Falling to his knees, he rips a larger hole in the back of Wilde’s already lacerated shirt, places his hands on either side of the jagged cut, and pours as much magic as he can muster into the man. 

It goes nowhere. Zolf feels the magic rebound off Wilde and vibrate uselessly through his own body with the uncomfortable heat of a friction burn. He growls in frustration, thoughtlessly tugs a bloody hand through his hair. Think you mangey bastard, he orders himself. Think.

It was an ambush. They should have known it from the start, but the opportunity had been too good to pass up. They couldn’t make it to Shoin’s island by sea, but some of the locals talked about tunnels under the water to bring supplies in from the outside. 

Maybe a few months earlier they would have been more cautious. But it was the first big break they’d had in ages, and Wilde had said it was worth the risk to go in with their full force — He and Zolf and Barnes and Carter — and attempt an assault on the institute. 

It had been too easy for the first mile or so, and then they had been jumped by way more guards than they had thought Shoin could muster. 

It was a rout. They’d had no choice but to retreat. But one of the mooks must have caught Wilde in the back during the withdrawal, because there’s a grisly slice biting into the muscle of his left side. It’s staining the floor of the inn a deep crimson that makes Zolf’s stomach turn over. 

He has no idea how the man managed the ride back home, through a downpour, in such a state. He’d seen him wrap his arms about himself and hunch over his horse’s saddle, but he’d thought it merely exhaustion, and maybe a little self-pity. He should have said something. They’d ridden for miles.

“Bloody idiot,” he spits at him, voice quavering in an entirely too telling fashion.

He feels frozen in place, staring at Wilde’s bright blood seeping out through his fingers where he’s trying to hold the wound together. Wilde’s blood on his hand. On his hands. He only vaguely registers Carter by the bar, pacing and swearing and Barnes stood statue-still in the doorway behind him.

“Apollo’s eyeteeth, they were waiting for us,” Carter says, swinging a bottle around for emphasis before taking a swig. “Shit, do you think they followed us? Do we need boobytraps?”

He’s pacing and running his mouth, and Wilde’s blood is staining Zolf’s knuckles red and …

“Zolf?” 

Barnes’ steady voice cuts through his spiraling thoughts. He turns to look at the other man, still applying pressure to Wilde’s wound.

“What are we meant to do now?” he asks. “What about quarantine?”

Zolf shakes his head. 

“What’s the point now?” he says. “If one of us is infected, we all are.”

What’s the point at all if they lose Wilde? He thinks but does not say.

Barnes nods an agreement, clenches his jaw. 

“Right,” he says. “What do you need, then? To patch up the boss?”

Thank the gods for James Barnes. Of course that’s what he should be doing. He studied for this. He prepared. He knows what to do, he just has to pull himself together.

“Medical kit,” he says. “On the top shelf in the pantry. Bring it here.”

“Aye,” Barnes says, and moves without further question.

Zolf closes his eyes, and tries to bring up the right diagrams from the medical books. The wound is too deep to just bandage. Wilde will need stitches. He’s got to stop the bleeding. But that’s not the only danger. There’s also infection. Rot running through the body even after a wound heals.

“Carter, shut the fuck up and bring me a bottle of bai jiu,” he says, snapping fingers sticky with blood in the man’s direction.

Carter stops mid-rant, stares for a long moment at Zolf, and then turns to comply. There’s a much larger variety of sakes available to them, but none of them are nearly as strong as the Chinese-made moonshine. 

“Wilde,” he whispers, stroking once through his hair. “C’mon Wilde, need you to sit up for me.”

Wilde grumbles unintelligibly, but allows Zolf to haul him up to his knees. He takes the bulk of the man’s weight, allowing him to drape himself over one shoulder. He doesn’t weigh much anyway. It’s downright worrying. Not at the top of his priorities at this exact moment, though.

“Carter!” he calls, and holds out an expectant hand for the bottle. 

“Coming, coming,” Carter says, finally placing a mostly-full glass bottle in Zolf’s hand.

He uses his teeth to remove the cork from the bottle, then strokes a hand across Wilde’s neck. The other man raises his head just a little and turns to look at Zolf. His complexion is ashy grey, and his eyes are glassy with pain.

“Mr. Smith,” he slurs. “If I die …”

“Well you ain’t dying for a start.”

The words feel pulled directly out of his chest. Wilde winces at the volume of his objection, then gives his head a little shake. His words, when they come, are slow and full of pauses to catch his breath.

“If I do,” he continues. “Do promise me. You’ll, ah, you’ll make up a better story. Better than getting stabbed in the back. While running. Running away. I’d prefer something more, uh, legendary.”

Zolf stifles a bout of hysterical laughter with a single snort. At least Wilde hasn’t lost his sense of humor. It’s strangely comforting. 

“How about this?” he says. “If you die, I’ll resurrect you and then kill you myself. That should make for a pretty good story.”

A huff of breath stands in for laughter. 

“Message received,” he says into Zolf’s neck. 

“Good. Now, deep breath. This is gonna hurt.”

He waits for Wilde to inhale deeply, then pours the alcohol across his the gash in his side. He feels all of Wilde’s muscles tense the second the alcohol hits skin, and he releases a hiss like a freshly-lit fuse. 

Zolf clutches him a little bit closer, but keeps pouring until the liquid runs pale pink instead of dark red.

“Alright,” he says. “That part’s done. Now, drink the rest of this. You’re gonna need it.”

Wilde takes the bottle clumsily when Zolf presses it into his hand. 

“If you’re trying to get me drunk, I prefer a gin and tonic,” he says, though his words tremble a bit.

“Think you’ll find in a couple minutes that you prefer the moonshine. It’s quicker.”

Wilde raises the bottle to his lips with a grimace. Zolf realizes, as he does, that there’s a fingerprint smear of his own blood at the lip. Luckily, the other man doesn’t. He tips the bottle back and takes a long swig.

As he’s drinking, Barnes returns with the medical kit and sets it at Zolf’s knee.

“Open that for me,” he orders Barnes, who seems honestly relieved to just be asked to take orders at this juncture. “You’ll find a needle in the top section. Thread it for me.”

It’s not a task he can do one-handed, and he hasn’t any intentions of letting go of Wilde just yet.

Wilde, who’s releasing his mouth from the bottle with an audible pop and looking wide-eyed at Zolf.

“Mr. Smith, are you planning on tailoring me?” he whispers.

Zolf pushing a sweaty curl of hair out of his eyes in apology. 

“Let’s think of it more as a bit of light mending,” he says.

The ridiculous grin he gets in return for a bit of light wordplay tells him that the booze is at least beginning to have the desired effect.

“One more go at that, then hand it back to me,” he says.

Obediently, Wilde takes another gulp. Zolf uses what’s left in the bottle to disinfect his own hands. It would be better, he thinks, to do this at a different angle. When he attempts to lay Wilde down, however, the other man clutches at him like a squid.

“Don’t —” 

Wilde protests, tone panicked, eyes wide and beseeching, tilted down to implore him.

“Alright,” Zolf soothes. “Alright.” 

So, this isn’t going to be pretty, then. It is, however, worryingly easy to wrap his arms around Wilde so he can have use of both hands. He’s far too thin. Barnes holds the wickedly curved needle out to him, threaded with catgut. Zolf wills his hands to be steady, and takes it from him.

“D’you want something to bite down on?” he asks Wilde. “For the pain?”

Slowly, Wilde shakes his head where it’s fallen to rest against Zolf’s shoulder. 

“M’fine,” he says. “Just. Do it, Mr. Smith.”

Zolf nods. Breathes in deep, breathes out. He plunges the shining needle into Wilde’s pale skin.

He isn’t new to welding a needle and thread. He learned to mend a sail fair enough in his days on the sea. This is different. The amount of resistance is what initially catches him off guard. He’s not expecting it to take as much force as it does to pull the thread through. Zolf grits his teeth and concentrates on keeping his stitches straight and taut.

The tremors that wrack Wilde’s body vibrate into him, and he pauses a moment to stroke a hand down the man’s flank. 

“Hang on, sweetheart. Almost done.”

Zolf swears he intends the words to be sharp and sarcastic, meant to chivvy Wilde back into himself a bit. But instead they come out soft and uncomfortably tender. He feels himself blanche as they leave his mouth. 

The only response he gets is a smearing of lips across his collar bone. It’s unclear if any words are intended, but the action lights a familiar spark in the center of Zolf’s chest

He forces himself to concentrate on his stitching. As he resumes, Wilde groans in pain, mutters something unintelligible against the base of Zolf’s neck. 

“Shh,” Zolf soothes him. “Shh.”

His fingers are slippery with blood, and he holds the needle with a grip so tight his fingertips turn white. It feels like forever before he reaches the bottom of the long laceration, sees Wilde’s skin knit back together with black thread, finally breathes full and deep again. 

The adrenaline seeping steadily out of his body, Zolf cleans and bandages the wound. It’s Barnes, though, who has to lift the injured man to his feet and help him up the stairs to his room. Zolf slumps as they leave, staring down at his red-stained hands. He drifts. Wilde will be fine. He will be. But just in case.

Zolf mounts the stairs with a cold compress in one hand, and hot cup of willow tea in the other. He’ll have to monitor the wound for infection, but in the meantime, these should help with fever and inflammation. 

Wilde is mostly passed out when Zolf makes it to his room. Barnes is nosing through the papers on the nightstand absently when he comes in. He manages to rouse the patient enough for a few gulps tea before he’s grumbling and pulling away, pushing his face back down into the pillow. It doesn’t take long for his breathing to turn steady and deep.

Zolf runs his hand through Wilde’s hair once he’s sure the man is down for the count. It’s sticky and tangled, and his skin is still clammy and pale. But the bleeding has stopped, and that’s the most important thing. 

He’s searching the room for a chair to set up watch in when Barnes grabs him by the bicep.

“Carter and I will take shifts with him,” he promises, nudging him out of the room. “You look about as near to collapsing as him about now.”

He’d like to protest that, but at the moment Zolf feels like he’s been hit by a train. And besides, he does trust Barnes to take care of things now. It doesn’t stop him from keeping his eyes on Wilde’s sleeping form until he’s forced from the room, through. 

He expects to fall asleep as soon as he’s settled himself into bed. Physically, he’s more exhausted than he’s been in recent memory. It’s unclear whether that’s the effect of the battle, the retreat, the impromptu surgery, or a combination of all three. Or maybe just fear, a treacherous part of his brain whispers. Despite his exhaustion, though, Zolf finds he can’t sleep. 

There are things he’ll have to reckon with, soon enough, about the way seeing Wilde injured laid him low, about accidental endearments and the way Wilde’s mouth felt sliding over his skin. But Zolf won’t be doing any of that thinking now, even if it is another insomnia night. He pulls When Passions Collide out from beneath his pillow, kept there for just such emergencies, and starts from the beginning.

The sun is threatening to rise, and Zolf’s eyes are going blurry over a paragraph midway through chapter twelve when his door creaks open. He figures it’ll be Barnes here to ask him to take a watch in the patient’s room.

Instead, it’s Wilde himself who stumbles inside. He’s using an old umbrella as a cane to keep himself steady, and he’s got the hot water bottle tucked under his free arm. He looks like hell — skin cast in a grey pallor contrasting with his black, matted hair, circles under his eyes so dark they look like bruises. There’s a red print smeared across his neck that Zolf suspects matches his own hand.  The sight of the man brings his heart immediately to his throat.

He stumbles over his own feet as he approaches the bed, and Zolf cries out.

“Gods, Wilde! What in all the planes are you doing?”

Wilde stops and steadies himself, holds a hand out to stall Zolf doing anything. His words, when they come are thick and blurred with sleep. 

“You called me sweetheart,” he says, swaying ever so slightly where he stands at the foot of the bed. "Earlier."

Zolf sucks in a breath. It feels like a slap — sharp and unexpected. He was sure that Wilde was too far gone with pain and drink to remember the details of the night.

“No I didn’t,” he says, mouth dry, voice rasping. “You’re delirious with pain.”

In the half light, Wilde’s eyes crinkle in confusion, and he softly shakes his head, as though clearing away a fog. Zolf thinks he can still salvage things.

“And anyway,” he powers on. “What are you doing out of bed? I just stitched you up a few hours ago. You’ve got to actually rest to get better, you numpty.”

“I couldn’t sleep,” Wilde says, a tiny frown appearing on his lips, along with a wrinkle between his brows. He’s leaning heavily on the umbrella now, free hand wrapped around his injured side. “And besides, knew you wouldn’t be taking care of yourself either.”

He shuffles a little bit forward, until he’s at the side of the bed and lays the hot water bottle down on the blanket beside Zolf. A disturbing thought occurs.

“You didn’t try to climb the stairs.” he asks, disbelieving. He’ll burst his stitches, and Zolf will have to go through the whole ordeal again. He’s not sure he’s got the strength just now.

“Gods, no,” Wilde says. “I made Carter fetch it for me. The walk down the hall nearly did me in.”

“Yes,” Zolf says, dryly. “You have been recently vivisected. I hear it can have that effect.”

“I may have overestimated my spryness,” Wilde admits with a grimace. “And as you say, I should, rather, be in bed.”

He looks down his pointy nose at Zolf and raises both eyebrows. 

Zolf doesn’t have to take this blatant manipulation. He should hoist Wilde over one shoulder and drag him back to his own sickbed this instant. Instead, he scoots over to make room, pulls down the quilt, and pats his hand on the mattress. 

“C’mon then. In with you.”

He doesn’t intend the words to come out so soft, but they do of their own volition. Damn it.

Propping his umbrella against the wall, Wilde gingerly maneuvers himself down into the bed. He tucks the hot water bottle beneath Zolf’s thighs without asking, and then settles on his good side so he can look at him. Then he pats the pillow next to where his own head rests.

When Zolf sighs and lays down, he looks as smug as a man recently returned from death’s door reasonably can. 

The birds are singing in the grey dawn outside, and Wilde’s face is just a few inches from his own on the thin pillow. His warm breath ghosts across Zolf’s cheeks. The hot water bottle sends a pleasant heat through his muscles, releasing a tension he hadn’t been aware he was holding. 

Beneath the cover of his ratty quilt, he dares reach out and stroke a hand down Wilde’s side, under his cotton sleep shirt. His fingers ghost over, but never truly touch, the neat stitches in his back. The other man shuffles a few millimeters forward. Their foreheads touch first, then noses, then lips, just barely.

Zolf kisses Wilde slow and soft, and it should feel strange after so long as enemies, as allies, as friends. But it doesn’t. It doesn’t feel all that different from bringing him a cup of tea or a plate of macarons. It’s that same fizzy spark in his chest. A little like hope and a little like magic. It’s just this: Zolf likes to do for Wilde. He thinks Wilde likes to do the same for him. And maybe that’s enough to be getting on with.

“You did call me sweetheart,” Wilde says when Zolf is no longer kissing him, but still hovering close. The man is a menace. He won’t stop until Zolf admits it.

“Sweetheart,” Zolf says, tone half warning, half caress. “Go to sleep.” 

Wilde flashes him a brilliant smile, then adjust so he can lay his head on Zolf’s chest right above where his heart beats a little too quickly. 

“Yes, darling,” he says.