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This thing between us.

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Lea Chen and Ríonach Ò Raghallaigh don’t like each other. He doesn’t like them, they don’t like him. They work together, and that’s it. That’s enough. All he needs to be for them is their handler, the source of their hunter’s draught, their spotter in combat, their liaison when it comes to speaking to the outside world. There are times when he knows that the dislike between them—well, perhaps not dislike. Not now, anyways. Just indifference, though before it had been hate, sharp and raw, and then the dislike, and now the indifference—makes it easier for them both to do their jobs. If he cared for them too much, after all, every fight with a petty wraith or lycan or corrupted sidhe would be colored with terror. If he cared, then watching Ríonach leap across a rocky outcropping, propelling themself forward with reckless abandon and a furious magical wind, hunter’s knife held overhead, ready to plunge into the neck of the sluagh they’d been tracking—then that would make his heart beat faster, harder in his chest. So he doesn’t care, and they don’t care right back, and it’s easy for Lea.

Except then when it isn’t. Except for the moments when Lea isn’t sure what he feels.

There was that one trip to the Blackwater, for example. A silent ride, long on the road. Fair weather, for the most part, but a stillness between the two of them. They’d just chased off an omen in a nearby village, chased off the misfortune and then in return been chased off thrice as quickly by the townsfolk, given enough coin for their services and enough whispers and stares to know that it was the two of them, the hunter and the handler, that scared the people more. And so the ride was silent, and Ríonach just grunted when Lea suggested stopping at the Blackwater on their way back to Black Iron. They shut themself up in the slightly dingy, faded room the two found in an inn, tumbling into the bed almost before they’d unbound their chest, uninterested in following Lea when he offered. Lea couldn’t say if he was disappointed or not. Then he thought about it. Definitely, decidedly, not disappointed. Distance between them was good. As he walked toward Alphonse’s shop, he knew that was the right answer. After all, they were just…so confusing. Infuriating. So on-and-off. All business one moment, just there to do the job, to kill the monsters and be paid and go; and then the next showing a child how to draw Gaelish knot designs with a stick in the dirt, a child too young to know to be afraid, or too near to their teen years to listen to the stories, too full of defiance, a child that quickly turned and ran no matter what when its mother called for it, leaving Ríonach disappointed with a stick and an intricate pattern in the dirt that they quickly scuffed away with their shoe, avoiding Lea’s eyes.

No, they were too inconsistent for Lea to ever feel comfortable saying he liked them. And that was how he liked it. He shoved open the door to Alphonse’s shop with his shoulder and put it—put them—from his mind, giving his concentration over to the mental list of alchemical compounds for which he was shopping, and turned to browsing the shelves. By the time he brought his armful of supplies to the back counter, presenting them to a grinning Alphonse, he had forgotten about the thoughts.

“Lea Chen! Good to see you again, as always. Just passing through again?” Alphonse reached across the counter, gripped Lea's hand in a rough but enthusiastic shake. Lea had nodded at his question, rolled his neck and shoulders as he pulled his hand back. Alphonse was always a pleasant fixture of the Blackwater, a known commodity, a friendly figure. He brought a slight smile to Lea’s face.

“Headed back to Black Iron. Back from a job.” Alphonse nodded seriously, making quick work of wrapping up the small vials and packets.

“Still in charge of that same hunter you told me about? What was her name, Reena?” Lea had inclined his head slightly, mouth twisting a bit. He didn’t like them. He didn’t like being reminded of them while he was doing his own business. He didn’t like others getting their name wrong, or thinking he was ‘in charge’ of them.

“Ríonach. They go by they, now. But I’m not ‘in charge’ of them. We’re partners.” Alphonse had stilled then while wrapping up a packet of dried henbane, and laid an appraising eye on Lea. But he said nothing, just nodded, the hint of a smile in his cheeks, hanging at the corners of his eyes. “What’s so interesting, Alphonse?” Lea narrowed his eyes then, suspicious. Alphonse allowed the smile to break fully across his lips, though he continued wrapping up Lea’s purchases.

“Nothing much. Just didn’t think I would hear that again after Shoshana.” Lea felt himself bristle at the mention of Shoshana.

“Hear what? What do you mean?” Alphonse passed the wrapped-up vials and packets of herbs back over to Lea, grinning broadly.

“Partners.”

Lea rolled the word around in his head the whole walk back to the inn. Why had he even said that? He’d kept the shock at the realization from Alphonse, or at least tried to. He was fairly good at it, he knew that, and he was pretty sure he’d managed it. But still. Partners. He had said partners. But he didn’t even like Ríonach, really. He was only ever indifferent, and that was at the best of moments. Not at all the same as Shoshana, who had—he was back at the inn now, no point in thinking about her. None at all. He shouldered his way inside, up to the room they were renting, careful of the bags he carried. No, Ríonach was not the same as Shoshana. Not even close. There was no point in comparing the two, when Ríonach would never be her. Would never be like her. Anger flashed in his stomach, anger that Ríonach was the one he was stuck with now, that they kept fucking toying with his ability to stay closed off - Lea fumbled for the key to the room, opened the door, stepped inside. He set the bags down and then looked up, across the room, to the small bed shoved up against the wall, to Ríonach’s sleeping form, huddled on top of the mattress. They were turned toward him, face smushed up where it rested on their arm, a few of the painful red spots on their face visible. Unsure why, Lea watched them as the anger and the meanness faded, watched their breath flutter in their unkempt, brown-black hair, searched their face for traces of their usual brusqueness. Instead, he saw peace, and he frowned. He wanted to put it from his mind. He didn’t want to like them, not then, in that moment, and not after.

That trip to the Blackwater wasn't the only time Lea questioned himself, even though he wants to be sure, has always wanted that, wants to know solidly what his feelings are. Wants those feelings to be nothing, even when he breaks his finger on a man's jaw when he won't stop running his hands over Ríonach's waist, their back, their shoulders, their ass. The trouble is that Ríonach makes it hard, the way they snap and snarl at Lea at some moments, keeping the dislike between them an easy wall, and then they go and turn that feral ferocity towards others when they threaten Lea, when they step between the pair, the handler and his hunter. It’s strange. It takes Lea a long time to understand why they act that way, a long while to realize it’s their brand of loyalty. Their general feral nature makes it hard to differentiate when it means something.

But not always. Like the time they were on the move, passing through some small town with a name like Shillegh, or maybe it was Lenbrough, he couldn’t remember any more. No, it was Lenbrough. It was autumn, rainy. The rain had clung to the signpost on the road, fat droplets of cold water sliding over the peeling paint of the letters, the ‘G’ almost indistinguishable from the ‘O’. He’d been in the stable, tacking up Gambit and Macha while Ríonach ‘stayed out of trouble’ and found them some food inside. Lea had spent ages haggling with the innkeep in the tavern of the inn, as the man flat out refused them a room for the coin they had. Lea was sure he’d glimpsed beneath the shadow of Ríonach’s hood, caught the gold rings about their pupils, and Lea was bristling with indignation at the thought.

“All this will get you,” the man had said, stubbornly, a glance at Ríonach, “is a stall in the stables.” And then he went back to wiping out dinged and dingy tankards with a rough cloth. Lea felt Ríonach’s posture sharpen beside him, and he’d stepped on their foot then, wordlessly trying to signal to them to back down, despite the bile that was rising in his own throat. Sent to sleep in the stables, like animals. He was livid for the slight, and he could only imagine how Ríonach felt. But he had conceded, and done his best to avoid storming off and slamming the door as he went to take care of the horses and find a dry stall that was free of animals and of too much shit. Over his shoulder, he’d called for Ríonach to get some food with the remainder of their coin and then join him in their ‘accommodations’ for the night, making sure they stayed out of trouble. He hadn’t waited to see their face or hear their indignant scoff.

But as he had stood there in the stables, finally finished comforting Gambit and ignoring the way he nuzzled at Macha, he realized it had been easily a half hour, and no Ríonach. Lea had cursed softly, then headed back out into the rain, back to the inn. He opened the door to a burst of sound; shouts, curses, chanting, cheering, jeering, and, more alarmingly, grunts and the smacks of fist against flesh. It took him a moment to take in the scene, a ring of onlookers surrounding two struggling figures, knocked over chairs, shoved aside tables. A brawl had taken over the tavern. He glanced about for Ríonach among the crowded watchers, but couldn’t spot them, then turned his attention back to the fight and let out a string of curses.

One of the fighters was a hulking man, muscular and perhaps handsome beneath the bloody nose and rapidly rising black eye on his face. He scowled down at his much smaller opponent, a slight individual of less than average height, wiry build, nevertheless brimming with power and a barely bridled rage, straight and choppy brown-black hair—Ríonach. Fury flashed in the pit of Lea’s stomach. Could they do nothing right? Could they not just listen to him and stay out of trouble? He tried to elbow his way through the crowd, ignoring the way almost all of them seemed to be chanting for the man’s victory. Where had Ríonach’s cloak gone? Their hood? Why the fuck were they out in the open like this? Out of the corner of his eye, Lea saw some coin exchange hands. Betting. He hoped for the sake of their coinpurses that the gamblers were betting on the man; though energized by their anger, Ríonach wasn’t looking good. Their face was a swollen mess already, a few of the spots they picked at on their forehead split open by blows and leaking blood again, a sharp wound to their cheek that seemed to fit the edge of a table. Lea wasn’t sure exactly how to feel, but he knew was angry. Part of him felt that they deserved it. Why the fuck were they making such a scene?

Just as he was about to step in, Lea felt a tug on his sleeve, and looked down and behind himself to see a young woman, olive skinned, black haired, brow furrowed with anxiety, dark eyes wide. She shook her head, and Lea hung back as the man threw a heavy punch at Ríonach’s stomach. The young woman’s wordless worry was right; stepping in would make things worse. And so Lea watched, angry and now more than a little anxious, as Ríonach doubled over, retching and choking. Around the circle, onlookers cheered, and the man, boldened by their response, approached Ríonach once more, expecting his victory. But instead, faster than Lea could track, Ríonach threw themself down, hooked their arms around the man’s legs, and let their momentum carry them forward, yanking his legs out from under him so that he fell face-first to the tavern floor, smacking his head hard on the reed-covered stone. The room went silent and he lay there, dazed, as Ríonach stood up shakily.

“Pick on someone your own fucking size,” they spat out at the man, wiping blood from their face, stepping pointedly on his hand as they staggered over toward Lea. The young woman at his side was gone again when he looked down and back. The onlookers were flooding from the tavern, the air seeming to have been sucked out of the room, and two other men helped lift the dazed and wounded loser to his feet and ushered him out the door. Ríonach slumped onto a stool, sapped of energy, like water spilling from a glass, and Lea swore again, but pulled a kerchief from his pocket and stepped forward to tend to their wounds. Their fucking wounds, which they had gotten in a fucking barfight, when he had told them to stay out of trouble. No, he didn’t like them.

“What, so you’re just throwing caution to the wind and attacking townspeople now?” His voice was brittle with frustration. They were going to get kicked out of the stables now. Lea could feel it. “What the fuck were you thinking, Ò Raghallaigh?” He didn’t wait for an answer as he pressed the kerchief—perhaps a bit too forcefully based on their wince—into the still bleeding wound on their cheek. It was nasty. “Oh, that’s right, you weren’t thinking, because if you were, you would be staying out of trouble and getting some fucking bread, or maybe a nice, shitty, salty, flavorless cheese!” Ríonach said nothing, just glared at him, chest heaving. They'd taken off their dark brown gambeson, it was about somewhere, and their undershirt was spattered with blood, mingling with the dirt. Part of the collar of was torn, hanging loose, ripped right at the seam, and Lea could see their binder, tight across their scarred chest underneath. Blood trickled down from the corner of their mouth, and they wiped at it roughly with the back of their hand before looking away, breaking Lea’s gaze. But they didn’t fight back, didn’t bother even explaining.

Lea pulled one of their hands up and pressed it to the kerchief, signaling for them to hold it in place while he looked them over. Second nature took over as he tilted their head back, looking into their eyes as they caught the light, watching how their pupils dilated and checking for concussion, as he pulled their hair back and checked for more cuts or blood, as he turned their face to the side to examine the rapidly blooming bruise across their cheek and feel the bone of their eye socket for any damage. They winced again under his fingers, but didn’t complain, and Lea found himself moving gently, tucking their hair behind their ear before he noticed what he was doing.

“I’m going to get some water to clean you up. I mean it this time. Stay out of trouble. Don’t. Move.” He stood and headed toward the bar, hoping beyond hope that he would come up with some way to explain things to the innkeeper. But instead, the young woman from earlier was with the innkeeper behind the bar, and while the innkeeper didn’t meet Lea’s gaze, he shoved a bucket of water and some clean—if threadbare and old—cloths across toward Lea. Confused, he glanced at the young woman, who smiled slightly and nodded, handing Lea Ríonach’s discarded cloak and gambeson.

With furrowed brow, Lea took the water, the cloths, and the cloak and gambeson and returned to Ríonach, setting about wiping the already drying and crusting blood from their face. Still, they said nothing, explained nothing, not even when they offered up their hands, showing Lea their bloodied and battered knuckles, which he set about cleaning. The anger hadn’t quite gone, but he was more confused and concerned now. Ríonach’s silence was unusual, especially after he had yelled so forcefully at them. And the fact that they were now nearly alone in the tavern, with only a few other souls drinking in the scattered corners of the room, perplexed him. What, exactly, had he walked in on?

Before too long, Lea had cleaned Ríonach’s wounds and rubbed a bit of ointment onto the nasty scrape on their cheek. He stood, throwing the cloths into the bucket of now blood-tinged water, and headed back to the bar. Behind him, Ríonach pulled their cloak back on, but didn’t bother yanking the hood down over their face. Everyone had seen their eyes. As Lea walked, the young woman scurried out and approached him, hurriedly taking the bucket with one hand before pressing a key into Lea’s now empty palm. When he looked at her quizzically, she finally explained.

“For the room at the top of the stairs. Free of charge. As a thank you. That man, he comes often. Extorts my father for ‘protection’ money. Your partner stopped him.”

“We aren’t partners.” The words had bubbled up quickly, a reflex. The young woman looked a bit startled, and then stuttered out an apology.

“I’m sorry, I just assumed—My mistake. It’s just, the way—I thought with they way they looked at you, and then with the way you—but never mind. The room is still yours; there’s a bed, it’s big enough for two, if you don’t mind sharing, or we have some extra mattresses…” She continued, but Lea wasn’t really listening anymore. Partners. There was that word again, like some cosmic joke. Alphonse’s smile swam in his mind. But it wasn’t true, they weren’t anything more than a handler and a hunter, paired together with no say, and he definitely didn’t like them.

But later, after he’d helped Ríonach up the steps, through the door, he still couldn’t get it out of his mind. The word ran in circles and spirals through his head, and he caught his hands lingering on their skin as he was helping them unbind their chest.

“Why didn’t you say it was to protect the innkeeper and his daughter?” Lea had asked after a long silence, while he helped apply a poultice to a bruised rib, as they couldn’t raise their arms high enough to do it properly. Ríonach shrugged, then winced.

“Would it have made you any less upset?” Lea chewed the inside of his lip, eyes tracing the line of their bare shoulder blades before they wove their way into their shirt again, back muscles working with the odd angle. Would he have been less upset? He wasn’t sure. But despite himself, he admired it. The man Ríonach had fought had easily been twice their size, and yet. He knew how they threw themself into fights. Reckless abandon and all that. Disrespect for those trying to claim authority they hadn’t earned. Feral loyalty to the less fortunate, to those who had somehow earned it. Fuck, to him. He didn’t want to like them, but he found himself wondering then just how bad it would be if he did.

That thought, that doubt in his convictions, follows Lea for months after. He practices indifference when he can. At times, Ríonach continues to piss him off, and it’s easy to be indifferent. Easy to be mad, to yell into the night, cutting words and bitter edges and seething hatred, but still always tempered by something he's unwilling to examine. They piss him off a lot. But there are times, too, where they don’t, times like that fight in the inn’s tavern at Lenbrough, where they’re rash, but Lea can’t help but admire it, the way they refuse to bow to ill-gotten authority or to humiliation. When their feral nature reveals the deep-seated morality behind it. He starts to see them in a new light, and there are times, truthfully, where he likes what he sees. But still, he doesn’t want—he can’t, he shouldn’t.

He won't.

There’s one night that makes it hard for him to remember why, though, a night when the two of them were passing through the Southern countryside, headed back up north for a job in a town called Keld. It had been uncharacteristically warm for a few days, even for the south, and as a result they’d been riding for nearly two full days. They’d both been awake for longer, though, and when Ríonach almost fell off their horse after sundown that night, Lea made them stop and set up camp despite their protests.

“Sleep,” he had commanded them, and though he saw in their eyes that they wanted to argue, wanted to disagree on principle, the bruising circles of sleeplessness beneath their gaze won out. They turned and crawled into the tent as Lea lit a fire and took watch.

He knew he should have woken them, should have taken time to sleep for himself, too, but he couldn’t bring himself to. He sat there, through the night, fairly sure he fell asleep with his eyes open at one point. The heat of the fire and the dancing flames lulled him, combined with the unseasonably warm night air, and the night had passed more quickly than he had expected. As sunlight crept up above the horizon and landed on the face of the tent, Lea knew it was time to wake Ríonach, and reluctantly he had gone to do so.

He hadn’t expected what he saw when he stooped to pull aside the tent flap, hadn’t expected something to catch in his throat and burn in his chest and his belly, but there was that feeling, a feeling he didn’t want to feel, magnified tenfold. Laid out in front of his gaze was Ríonach, one hand resting on their bare stomach, the other palm facing up, near their head. Their pants were low on their hips, and the dawning sunlight caught the curve of their skin, embossed it gold, traversed their stomach and the faint curve of their naked chest. Lea warred with himself, wanting to look away, but unable. He hadn’t noticed they weren’t wearing a shirt, but then it was warm last night, and it made sense, and he had seen them half naked like this before when he tended to their wounds, but this felt different, and his eyes kept moving, kept roving. The sunlight gilded the line of Ríonach’s cheek, the swoop and curve of their nose. Their face was so utterly peaceful, the dark circles beneath their eyes almost unnoticeable in this light, their acne burnished away, and that molten gold light caught in their eyelashes, in a few strands of their hair, and it was as if the dark threads were turned to liquid light rippling across their forehead and pooling on the pillow of their bedroll.

They stirred, and Lea yanked his head back through the tent flap, heartbeat rushing in his ears, heat rising under his collar, fanning across his thighs. He cleared his throat and called out, smacking his hand against the canvas side of the tent.

“Rìon—Ò Raghallaigh. Time to get moving.” Rustling inside the tent. They were moving, gathering themself together. Lea tried to slow his breathing, concentrated on the dwindling fire, on the slow rise of the sun, and then stamped out the embers. He needed to get it together. They were on their way to a job. To do a job. What the fuck was he doing, what was he thinking? He didn’t like them. He didn’t want to like them. But by the fucking wolfmother, he couldn’t get the image of the sunlight on their sleeping face out of his mind.

Eventually, Ríonach stepped out of the tent, clothes hastily pulled on, a quizzical look in their eyes.

“It’s dawn,” they had said, looking with suspicion at Lea.

“Well spotted,” he replied, though his tone lacked the teeth, the bite he had hoped for. Ríonach set the bedroll down and together they made quick work of their tent.

“You didn’t wake me for watch.”

“Would you have preferred I did?” That appraising look made a strange anxiety rise in Lea’s throat, a blush to his cheeks. He wanted this to be over, wanted to be on the road. Wanted to be able to remind himself that he didn’t like them. They were blessedly silent next to him, though, business-like in the way they helped pack up their small camp, and Lea concentrated on willing the feelings down. By the time they had watered and fed the horses, he had nearly succeeded. And then, with a hesitant hand on his arm, Ríonach shattered that success.

“Thank you,” they had said, brow knotted together, eyes still confused. They spent the rest of the ride that day in silence, and Lea pointedly looked away from Ríonach, but couldn’t keep his mind from lingering on the caress of sunlight on their skin, couldn’t keep his mind from imagining his hands—his lips—where that sunlight had been.

Keld, of course, changes things. The omen turned out to be a lycan, and Lea found it easier again to actually, actively dislike Ríonach. After fighting the lycan, their own fight sent irritation, anger coursing through Lea’s veins. Ríonach had gone into the fight as usual, all in, moving to kill. To kill the son of a prominent townsperson. Of fucking course. Lea spat his accusations at them—bad decisions, rash, foolish, idiotic, selfish. And their response, ferocity matching his own, venom and bite behind their words with wild anger and a strange sort of pain flashing in their eyes –

“Next time I’ll just let the thing have you, then!” It tore a strange hole in Lea’s chest. “Next time, just stay the fuck out of my way.” It stung. It stung, and he didn’t want it to. Because he didn’t like them, because he didn’t want to like them, because that image of sunlight caught in and on and under their skin wouldn’t fucking leave him. Like a wounded animal, Ríonach slunk away, avoided eye contact with Lea, bristled at their haunches whenever Lea made a terse suggestion. Lea knew he had messed up, having met their loyalty with screaming criticism, turning them back toward their feral nature. But it made things easier for him. It made things clear again. The anger was easier than the desire, than the wanting, than the confusing need for their company that was building inside of him. Than the memories and thoughts of their skin.

He saw them a few times at Black Iron after they made it back, saw them turn tail and head across the courtyard whenever they saw him. He ignored the stabbing feeling in his gut and instead fed the righteous indignation he felt with the fact that they wouldn't apologize first. It was easier. It was easier and it had remained easier until now, now while he sits in an almost pitch-black pantry, shoved together with Ríonach, unable to sleep. A tiny beam of light squeezes beneath the door, illuminating their face. If he were to reach out, Lea could brush the hair from their cheek. He could give in. He’s hurt them; he had been stubborn, just as stubborn as they had. He had wanted to be mean, to keep them apart from himself. But now, he could make amends, could give in and admit it. He could run a hand along their sleeping spine, even as it shudders in some nightmare they, he knows, will never share with him.

He sighs, leans his head back, presses it against the wall of the pantry, closes his eyes.

Lea Chen is not sure what Ríonach Ò Raghallaigh feels. But Lea Chen knows, in that dark pantry, smushed up next to them, breathing in the same air, that he likes Ríonach Ò Raghallaigh. Maybe more than he knows, and certainly more than he wants to admit. And those reluctant thoughts follow him as he falls asleep next to them.