[P] [m] puppet man, a zombie

WARNING: This thread contains material exceeding the general board rating of PG-13. It may contain very strong language, drug usage, graphic violence, or graphic sexual content. Reader discretion is advised.

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"We’ve established what you are, now we’re just haggling over the price"
  • [+WC] stop AVOIDING me I'm SORRY OK JEFF (takes place after this thread)
It was surprisingly easy to find Jethro, after Calrian dismissed them from the family meeting. For days they'd circulated around his absence as though it was a physical thing, a hole in the corner of their visions. Now, with him back, it was impossible for Malik not to know where he was; His own festering guilt a polar compass showing his feet the way.

Still, the coyote was good at evading him. For two days that had been the case, though admittedly Mal's attempts to seek him out had been weak and half-hearted at best. Reaching out to touch a flame, just to see if it is hot, is one of the first lessons children learn. Fingers burned, the bard was understandably hesitant.

But he'd seen the pointed look that Cal had given him from across the campfire.

He's coming back. When he does, you'll have a chance to apologize.

He found Jethro near the horses. The shadows were deep here, so far from the schoolhouse. "Hey,-" Mal blurted, his expression twisted by uncertainty. In the dark he felt, rather than saw, the glowering orange eyes turn his way - and then the sounds of footsteps, crunching stiffly in the opposite direction.

"Jethro," The bard called plaintively, but as the man continued to walk away, he frowned, "Alright, hey! I know you can hear me. Will you- will you just wait, a second?"

He stumbled through the underbrush, trying to keep up, and when the coyote stopped suddenly Mal almost blundered right into him.

He'd forgotten how tall Jethro was - like his sister. Reassembling his expression into something more peaceable, Malik tried again: "Can we talk, please?"

At night, things were quiet. A few people were already asleep, and the schoolhouse – soon to be a proper establishment, if things kept moving forward – was relatively still. He could hear voices inside still, but they were isolated and low.

The meeting had left a bad taste in his mouth. He didn't regret what had been said, but airing things out had been like uncovering a wound. Exposed again, all the emotions that went with it felt raw. They were faced now with the unresolved issues caused by such a crisis and their own poor handling of it, and Jethro among the key players.

Even now, faced with Malik, his impulse was to ignore this new threat. He almost escaped too, but the damn Bard had seen him.

Jethro finally stopped when Malik's voice got loud enough he worried it would attract attention. The last thing he wanted was to exacerbate what was already threatening to tear them apart, but here he was, making it impossible to ignore. In the dark, Malik's face was hard for Jethro to read.

“What do you want?” he practically spat.
The only way to find true happiness is to risk being completely cut open.
Character Wiki | La Estrella Roja | Player Wiki
"We’ve established what you are, now we’re just haggling over the price"
  • [+WC] ---
The ash around the coyote's eyes made him look furious. No, Malik thought with despair, he is furious! Instinctively he took a step back, out of the man's space. Sticks crunched under his heel.

"Well, I-" What did he want? To apologize - for things to go back to the way that they were? Quite suddenly it seemed clear to Malik that there had never been a 'before'; This problem, this rift, had been buried in them from the moment they'd arrived at the hotsprings. It was Old Inferni, all around them. It was a grief - a fury - that had existed before he'd ever been born.

All the guilt he'd been carrying felt very, very heavy. It bowed his shoulders under the weight. Belatedly, Mal realized it wasn't only his guilt, but a collective burden.

Time to set it down, he thought, picturing his brother's reassuring face.

"I wanted to say sorry," His voice sounded clearer, stronger than it had in days, "I know you're angry at me, Jethro. For what I said - what I thought - that night."

If he shut his eyes he could still see it, pristine. The nighttime glade, Indis hunched and cowering, the dead men with their guts spilling out of them. Jethro, breathing heavily, hackles raised. The axe in his hand dripping with gore.

"It was a mistake," He said slowly, showing the tall man his open palms, "But an innocent one. It wasn't because of where you came from, or who you were before all this. It wasn't because you're - a coyote," The anger radiating off of Adina's brother felt like physical heat. Malik, sensing the burn without even reaching for it, nonetheless persisted: "I just made a bad call. Can you - forgive me?"

In the dark, Jethro looked nothing like the man who had combed out his hair, or who had told him about his mother by the beach. But the bard was certain he could find that man again; He reached out, tentatively, as though to touch Jethro's arm.
For a few too-long moments, Jethro didn't say anything.

Then he slapped Malik's hand away.

“Don't touch me,” he growled. “You think that everything's okay now, just because you want it to be? Because you said your sorry? I know that my sister told you off,” Jethro said. “Is that why you're apologizing? Forget it,” he rumbled.

Each time he opened up too much there was a chance for hurt, just like this. When he and Marlowe had been in the north, looking for the remnants of Inferni, what he had found was nothing but cold rejection by someone who had once loved him – or, he supposed, pretended to love him. There were people who had been important before and who had so easily moved on with their own troubled lives while he was left to suffer alone.

Before all this, Jethro had nothing.

Sometimes, he felt as if that was all he deserved.

“As far as what you thought,” he went on, fueled by his anger. Jethro took a step closer to Malik. They were not far apart in size, but Jethro was taller and bigger than the Bard and sought to impress this upon him. “If I was going to kill someone, I wouldn't waste my time hacking them up with a fucking axe.”
The only way to find true happiness is to risk being completely cut open.
Character Wiki | La Estrella Roja | Player Wiki
"We’ve established what you are, now we’re just haggling over the price"
  • [+WC] ---
The slap stung. Malik wrenched his hand back and held it to his chest defensively.

When would he learn! Fire was hot!

The skin beneath the fur of his cheeks colored up ripe. In some way he felt embarrassed - embarrassed that Jethro (and everyone, presumably) knew that Adina had shaken him up like a child's toy, embarrassed that his weakness was now some universal thing that defined him. But more than this he felt... What was this feeling?

"I won't forget it," He insisted, heavy brows pulled low in a frown. From their banks of soot Jethro's glowing amber eyes cauterized him. Malik felt his own grow watery, shimmering and threatening to spill; The shame in him grew sharp and pointed and ugly, a creature with claws intent on digging its way out of his chest.

"I don't know!" The exclamation came out barbed, "I don't know how you'd kill someone, Jethro! I don't know what you would or would not waste your time with! All I know is that I made the wrong called based on what I saw," A uncomfortable sob pressed tightly against his throat, but for once the bard held it in. "Is it really so stupid of me, to assume that you could take out two men? Compared to Indis, for luck's sake!"

It was anger. That was the feeling. Anger!

"Everyone acting like they knew it was her - they bloody didn't! She was supposed to be just a... Just... Well, you know. Useless, like me! You're a guard, Jethro, and only an idiot would think you can't hold your own in a fight. Why am I the crazy one here?"

Adina's brother could look real big, when he wanted to, when he puffed up and squared his shoulders and leered. Bigger than Mal, anyway, who - even with this newfound spine - was waning beneath the dominance of the other man's fury.

A single fat tear betrayed him by sliding over his cheek, but Malik dashed it away irritably. He was so tired of being the crybaby. "So you're mad, then. I get it, you deserve to be. You want fair? Go ahead," The bard took a deep, shaky breath, filling up his lungs and puffing out his chest. "Go on. Hit me! I can take a hit, I've taken plenty in my life."

Scraping up the last of his nerve, he shoved the tall coyote in the chest.
Malik wasn't stupid, and that's why what he had thought stung. Jethro should have been the one who had handled those men. He and Galilee called themselves guards, but what the hell had they been doing when there was that real, tangible threat? This failure, this mistake, it clung to him.

Guilt had chased him away as much as all those other things he felt and imagined were real.

The blonde was bristling. Useless people, dead weight, was that all they were supposed to be? Was he supposed to be protecting a bunch of simpletons?

The dark-faced hybrid was breathing hard and his eyes were large and glossy in the night. He looked like he might fall apart if he kept going on like this.

Then he did something so surprising that Jethro didn't – at first – know what to do.

Fighting felt like chance – fifty fifty. After all these years, it sometimes felt like it wasn't a choice.

When Malik shoved him, provoked him, it took everything in Jethro to hold his ground. He felt that familiar fire in his blood roar. He took a step back and stood there, stiff and tense, but very still.

“You better fucking stop,” he warned the Bard.
The only way to find true happiness is to risk being completely cut open.
Character Wiki | La Estrella Roja | Player Wiki
"We’ve established what you are, now we’re just haggling over the price"
  • [+WC] ---
Jethro's stillness was so sudden, and so entire, that the whole world seemed to go still with him.

Except for Malik, that is: Malik with his hair all electric like a thundercloud, his eyes swimming with salt water, his chest trembling with a lungful of breath. Nothing about Malik was still. Every inch of him, every cell, seemed to be in motion.

The worst of all were his insides, coiling over and over like writhing snakes, full of an all-too-familiar sensation of pure self loathing and petrichor. Rain was coming.

Calrian had made fixing things sound so simple; But then, it would have been, for his brother. Ever since Brego - ever since his mother had left them behind, actually - the bard felt like his life had never been simple again. He could not begin to fathom the trials and tribulations that this singular moment had saved him from. Too focused on the present, and on his own terrible cocktail of insecurity and sadness, all Malik could see was Jethro and his own larger-than-life mistakes.

He wanted to be hit. He wanted to feel Jethro's fist smash into his nose. It was all he deserved.

He needed it!

Any pain was better than the shame.

'You better fucking stop.'

"I won't," He warned the coyote honestly, as another tear brimmed over. "I'm sorry, Jethro." And then he stepped forward to shove the taller man again, harder this time.
Hitting Malik would only prove him right – prove that all Jethro really had in him was violence, and that he was predestined to a life of war and strife.

He didn't think about what Malik was feeling, not right then. He saw all those tears and a part of him knew there was something more to this, but altruism fell by the wayside. Jethro deserved to be selfish. When hadn't he been looking after someone else, or doing things he didn't want to be doing because it was the good, Christian thing to do?

The Spirit was in him, certainly. Sometimes he felt it like fire.

Malik shoved him again, harder, and any pretense of peace between them ended.

Jethro was on him in an instant. He grappled with the coydog, using his greater strength and reach to gain a hold of Malik. This was, at first, only meant to stop him – but the Bard seemed to lose all will to fight the moment Jethro grabbed him. All of the earlier fight within him seemed to evaporate.

Infuriated by this, Jethro slammed Malik against the nearest tree. He pinned him there, using both hands, and showed his teeth.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” He demanded, blonde hair askew. “You think this is what I want? You think this is going to make things okay between us?” Jethro growled and shook Malik again. “At least fight back, you fucking pansy!”
The only way to find true happiness is to risk being completely cut open.
Character Wiki | La Estrella Roja | Player Wiki
"We’ve established what you are, now we’re just haggling over the price"
  • [+WC] ---
It happened quickly. For a moment, Jethro was a solid weight beneath his fingertips, his palms; The force it took to move him an inch radiated up Mal's arms like heat.

Then he felt the coyote's hands pin him, hard enough to bruise, and any resistance fled him.

It was so easy to make a mess of things. Once the thread came unraveled it rolled off the spindle, and the whole tapestry came undone.

Malik relished the sharp, discomforting knots and snarls of the treetrunk as it bit into his spine. His head lolled on his neck, thumping solidly back against the broad pine. For a moment his vision burst with stars, euphoric but fleeting. Then there was only Jethro's big teeth, and somewhere behind them his eyes, burning bright as hillfires in the off season.

When the man shook him, Mal pictured Adina's face. They looked so similar in the right light.

Glassy-eyed, the bard reached up and rested his hands around Jethro's forearms. They were tense and corded. Mal did not try to pry himself away - did not offer any resistance at all. Only rested his hands there, as though needing purchase against something solid.

"It's not your fault," He wheezed, melodic voice reedy with lack of air and chest too-tight with emotion. "It's mine. I made you feel this way because of my stupid mouth. I ruined it. So take it out on me, do whatever you want, and then we can go back to how things were, right? Can we?" He'd lived his whole life around capable men - capable men, and sometimes violent men. Often it was hard to discern the difference between the two. Their world called for strength and dominance in a way that supported this.

Malik had never been a fighter. For as long as he could remember he'd carried sadness in his brain, like an infection. Sometimes the singing helped. Sometimes it didn't.

He didn't know what would help Jethro. But he knew what he deserved was catharsis. Wasn't this how men worked?

He wished sorely that he'd known his father better, in the small time they'd had.

"I won't cry to the others about it," Malik added, lifting his chin even though his lips were trembling, "I can keep a secret."

His grip on the other man's forearms tightened.
Malik's words hit him like a fist.

In the grand tradition of the Abrahamic faith to which Jethro had been raised in, guilt was the core and the crux. They were born into sin, after all, and destined to suffer. God had given them a choice, but the hearts and wills of men were weak and easily tempted. To live a life of repentance and redemption was all they could manage, even if it killed them like it had killed his mother.

Jethro believed because he always had. For all their pain to mean something, he had to believe.

Hitting Malik wouldn't make him feel better. All those other times he fought strangers never did. It would just be one more thing to carry with him, one more secret that would weigh him down each time he looked at those sad, clear blue eyes.

His fingers tightened impossibly further around the leather beneath them.

“Just shut up,” Jethro said.

He didn't know what he wanted.

That was why what happened next spooked him – it was impulsive, and stupid, and he regretted it at once.

Jethro released Malik and grabbed his face, forcing them together. This was almost violent – his teeth and his tongue sought out the soft parts of Malik's mouth to silence them.

Then, abruptly, Jethro jolted like he had been struck by lightning. He staggered back, putting distance between them.

Breathing heavily, he demanded: “Don't tell anyone.”

Then he abandoned Malik and fled into the night.
The only way to find true happiness is to risk being completely cut open.
Character Wiki | La Estrella Roja | Player Wiki
"We’ve established what you are, now we’re just haggling over the price"
  • [+WC] ---
The man's hold was a vice, a pressure that crushed through his jerkin and his old tattery undershirt and his muscle and bone beneath. Malik was not a flimsy, waifish creature - to live the life they lived demanded a certain physicality. He could lift heavy sacks and logs. He could walk for hours, for days.

But he would never be as strong as Jethro. Some things were not about muscle at all, but force of will.

I hope he doesn't hit my face, was Malik's final spun-out thought as the coyote let go him roughly, and brought his hands up fast.

Because of this, it ought to have taken him longer than it did to register the lips against his own. Like Jethro's hands had been, they were hard, crushing against him, almost teeth-to-teeth. When the bard's mouth parted in surprise, the kiss deepened, and the taste of the other man was unexpectedly warm.

All of Mal's blood ran from cold to hot in less than a heartbeat. His body responded faster than his brain, which had truly been left behind in its own cloud of woe. His sad blue eyes were wide and white-rimmed with surprise, but he did not pull away. Where his hands had rested loosely on the guard's arms they now clung on tightly.

It was not Malik Amaranthe's first kiss. But all that had come before was tenderness and earnest exploration and Brego, and this - he, Jethro - was nothing like that, nothing like that at all.

Just as suddenly as he had started it, the coyote pulled abruptly away. In the absence of his kiss the bard's lower lip throbbed. He thought maybe he could taste a little bit of rust on his tongue. For a moment the two men regarded one another, both wild-eyed like frightened children, in an incredulous silence broken by the distant hoot of an owl.

Don't tell anyone.

It was hard to make out Jethro's expression from the shadows that clung to it, but the white of his stare was too-bright, panicky. "Wh-?" The bard began, but like a hart in the thicket the guard had startled, and only the crunching sound of his heels on the forest floor betrayed his hasty exit.

Alone, Malik slumped his weight back against the pine once more. His body thrummed with adrenaline, as though it had been in a fight after all. "What... What was that?" He asked the night sky, bewilderment making his voice hitch drunkenly.

He waited for an answer, and only when none was forthcoming, made his way slowly back toward camp.

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