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it doesn't have to hurt

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It was the front door clicking shut that woke Hangman from what had somehow turned into a dead sleep. He remembered sitting down on the couch, listening to Rooster peck out a rough rendition of a Creedence Clearwater song Bob had asked him if he knew on piano—the answer, in Hangman’s opinion, was a resounding no, but Rooster was endeavoring to play it by ear anyway. He remembered hearing him finally figure out the basic chords and start singing under his breath, and he remembered watching through half-lidded eyes as Bob laughed and leaned over Rooster’s shoulder to press a few notes of his own into the melody. He could even remember deciding that ok, fine, he could doze off here for a few moments—everyone was so fucking loud anyway, he’d wake up within a few breaths.

But it was quiet now—no piano, no turned-low music from Payback’s infamous party playlist on the stereo, no shouts from the kitchen where slap cup had evolved into a convoluted dogfight version of rage cage, no hum of conversation from the stairs, no thunder of footsteps across the creaky floors of Rooster’s house. Hangman squeezed his eyes shut, trying to clear the bleariness away, before rolling his head to the side to look out the window onto the porch. The screen door was swinging in the breeze, not quite shut tight by whoever had just gone out the front door, and he watched through the dark as headlights appeared and then slowly waned into the night.

He groaned as he sat up, peeling himself off the back of the couch. He’d only had a few beers, nothing to warrant knocking out on a semi-horizontal surface like a cheap date. Once he was vertical again, he had the cold, whip-crack awakeness that he was military-trained to achieve from a short nap.

Hangman peered into the dining room and the kitchen, looking for any other stragglers, but found nobody, just a black garbage bag stuffed with their stray cups—a Rooster house party policy for the end of the night—and a microwave clock reading 3:04.

“Shit,” he muttered, eyeing the couch he’d just vacated. He and Rooster were operating on a tentative truce since the mission had ended a few days prior, but he wasn’t sure if the truce included sleeping on the guy’s couch without prior clearance. Besides, he was never sure what in Rooster’s house was a random object found on the side of the road or Facebook marketplace, and what was a precious family heirloom kept in the exact state it had been when his mother had lived here raising him in the shadow of his father’s plane overhead.

He opted instead to begin the search for his shoes, which he’d kicked off upon arriving to the house approximately five hours ago and hadn’t seen since. He was creeping around the living room when the floor creaked directly overhead and he heard a soft fuck. He paused, down on his hands and knees looking underneath the couch, and slowly got to his feet as the floor upstairs creaked again.

Rooster was still awake, then. Did he know that someone was still in his house, or had he retired upstairs before everyone else had left? Hangman padded into the kitchen to grab two unopened beers, tucking one into his back pocket, before he started up the stairs, skipping the fourth step that always groaned when you stood on it.

The second floor was dark, the only light a yellow angle carved around the cracked-open bathroom door beside the stairs. Hangman hesitated at the door, leaning closer to peer through the crack towards the sink.

His eyes fixed on a small strip of skin sliced into a sliver by the edge of the door, and he followed it up the side of Rooster’s body, along a stained white t-shirt, as the man contorted in front of the mirror, twisting uncomfortably towards and away from it as he reached behind himself to his back. Hangman’s gaze flitted to the mirror and he jerked back. The meat of Rooster’s hip, the bottom corner of his back between the dimple of his spine and the firm side of his body, just a few centimeters above the waistband of his sweatpants and barely exposed by his rucked-up t-shirt, was a ferocious, fresh red scar with black stitches crosscutting it.

He let out a hiss and Rooster twisted again, this time towards the door, his eyes widening as he let his t-shirt fall back into place. Hangman bit his lip and pushed the door open, never one to shy away from being caught snooping.

“Hey,” he said. Rooster’s eyes drifted down to his hands, and Hangman glanced down at the beer he was clutching in both hands. “Uh.”

He held the can out, and Rooster slowly reached to take it, squinting.

“I must be dying,” Rooster said dryly, and Hangman’s stomach twisted. Rooster cracked the can open and made a face as he lifted it to his mouth. “You’re giving away your beer now?”

Hangman pulled the second can out of his back pocket and Rooster’s brows raised. He wasn’t sure what he’d been angling after, bringing two beers up here like he and Rooster were a friendly nightcap sort of pair. Hangman had never been the ‘stay back after a party and wind down the night together’ sort of friend to anybody. He was usually out the door as soon as the party wasn’t the most interesting option for him anymore—or was asked to leave sometime before that point. But he could almost imagine being that sort of person, with Rooster—maybe they’d climb out onto the low slope of the roof and pretend their legs weren’t brushing as they said a quiet cheers out at the Pacific.

Rooster took a gulp of beer, his Adam’s apple bobbing in his throat, but Hangman set his own beer down on the bathroom counter, on a small square of ceramic left bare. The rest was covered—gauze, hydrogen peroxide, bacitracin, bandaids, an Ace bandage, medical tape, a pair of scissors...

Hangman grinned. “I didn’t know you moonlighted as a nurse,” he said. Rooster huffed a weak laugh out his nose and craned his neck to look at his back in the mirror, reaching back to brush a hand over his t-shirt where it smoothly hid what was underneath.

“Yeah,” Rooster muttered. “Duty calls.”

He tipped his head back to drain the rest of his beer and held the can out to Hangman, who was taking it and setting it down on the tile floor before he could come up with a quip about not being a waiter. Rooster reached back with his left hand to hold up his t-shirt and picked up the hydrogen peroxide bottle with his right, stretching awkwardly to dispense the liquid over the cut. He hissed immediately as it hit him and bubbled.

“You’re welcome to crash on the couch,” Rooster gritted out, finding Hangman’s eyes in the mirror. “I won’t make you pancakes in the morning, though. It's not a bed and breakfast.”

His hand was pressed against his side now, hydrogen peroxide abandoned. He reached for the gauze, and Hangman found himself reaching too, catching Rooster’s hand just as it closed around a pad of gauze.

“I know what I’m doing,” Rooster said. “Just go to sleep.”

Hangman tugged back, and Rooster’s grip went slack, letting Hangman pull the gauze out of his grasp.

Hangman dropped the gauze, placing it back where it had been. He set his hands on Rooster’s waist, just above the wound, and twisted him around carefully, so his stomach was against the sink and his back was to Hangman.

“You’ve been changing the dressings yourself?” Hangman asked.

“Just yesterday and today,” Rooster said finally. He lifted his gaze and found Hangman in the mirror again, their faces side by side, Hangman just behind his shoulder.

Hangman paused, watching Rooster watch him for a moment, before he slid his fingertips under the hem of Rooster’s t-shirt and worked it upwards. Rooster lifted his arms obligingly, letting Hangman pull the shirt off and over his head. His torso was marked elsewhere, little nicks and scratches and dark violet bruises. Hangman brushed his fingers over one strange, linear bruise perpendicular over his spine, and Rooster shuddered.

Hangman reached around Rooster to grab a packet of sterile cloths, ripping it open and pulling one out. He stretched around Rooster to run it under water before wiping carefully around the edges of the cut, watching as the muscles in Rooster’s back tensed and rippled at the cold.

Hangman nodded and tossed the red-tinged cloth into the trash. “You’re not supposed to use hydrogen peroxide,” he said.

Rooster sucked his teeth. “The water doesn’t do shit,” he said. “Hydrogen peroxide, you can tell it’s working.”

“Not everything has to hurt,” Hangman said carefully, grinning wryly into the mirror when the warm sting of sentiment was too rich in his gut as he spoke.

Hangman could see the eyes still on him in the mirror as he picked up the open jar of Vaseline from the counter and the second sterile cloth. He scooped a small bit of petroleum jelly with the cloth and carefully smeared a thin layer along the cut.

“Not going to ask how it happened?” Rooster asked.

Hangman shrugged. “I assume it wasn’t a knitting accident,” he said, and Rooster barked a laugh, too loud in the cramped bathroom. Hangman took a breath. “Should’ve been more careful out there.”

Rooster rolled his shoulders, joints cracking. “Maverick shoved me,” he said. “When he saw that I’d come back for him. I fell on something sharp in the snow, I didn’t even realize it’d actually cut me until later.”

“No shit?" Hangman murmured. He picked up the gauze and pressed it along the wound. Rooster nodded.

“I didn’t tell him,” he said. “I’ll have to bring it up if I ever need him to feel guilty.”

Hangman scoffed. Plenty for him to feel guilty for already, he thought, the words on the tip of his tongue, nearly tripping off before he paused, fingers tight around a large non-stick pad in its paper packet. He swallowed instead, nodding curtly as he ripped the packet open and unfolded the pad to layer over the gauze.

He grabbed the tape next, carefully taping along the edges of the pad. He smoothed a hand softly over the bandage when he was done, his fingers slowing at the edges where papery cotton turned to skin.

“All done,” he said.

“Now who’s playing nurse?” Rooster said, smiling faintly at him in the mirror. It felt like they’d done this before—talked to each other through a silvery layer of distortion, of not-really-them. Half of their interactions had been between planes—canopies and helmets between them. And half had been like talking underwater, everything muffled and indistinct; meanings garbled like a shitty game of telephone where nobody knew why they were even playing.

“Happy to help,” Hangman said, smiling in what he thought was a winning, charming way.

Rooster turned slowly, his hip brushing Hangman’s as he settled against the counter to face him. They seemed closer like this, with Rooster’s eyes so close and too bright for the middle of the night. Close enough to feel breath on his cheek.

“Never thought I’d hear you say that,” Rooster said, mouth quirking.

“I’m a whole new man, Roo,” Hangman said, and Rooster’s head tipped slightly to one side as his eyes narrowed.

“Yeah,” he said, frowning.

Hangman stepped back slightly, his back bumping the door. “I’ll help you change it again tomorrow,” Hangman said. “Wouldn’t want you dying of an infection after all my effort saving you.”

Rooster’s head dropped, but Hangman caught the grin stretching across his face before Rooster hid it out of sight, and his chest went warm like they were standing a breath apart again.

“I’m taking you up on the couch offer,” Hangman said. He’d started to feel tired again, his eyes going grainy; his shoulders heavy.

“You don’t have to sleep on the couch,” Rooster said. His cheeks went red, and he laughed, shaking his head slightly. “I mean, I know you’ve got the bad shoulder. My bed’s huge.”

Hangman pressed his lips together and pictured it—each of them at one end of the bed, curled towards each other nevertheless, their feet and fingertips nearly touching in the middle. The way he wouldn't be able to help but brush it off in the morning and avoid Rooster's eyes until the dents in their cheeks from pillowcases wore off.

“Take me out to dinner first, Bradshaw,” Hangman said, grinning as he slipped out of the bathroom and back down the stairs, letting the fourth-to-last step groan underfoot.

It was a few minutes before the floor upstairs creaked, and Hangman listened from the dark living room as Rooster walked slowly down the hall. Finally the bedroom door creaked shut, and Hangman closed his eyes.

He woke with sun in his eyes and the smell of apples in his nose. He threw an arm over his eyes, willing the morning away for a few more moments. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d managed to not screw something up for as many minutes in a row as he’d managed last night. In the daylight, he couldn’t help but feel it’d be harder.

But there was the soft crackle of radio music from the kitchen, and the even-softer murmur of lyrics being sung along, and he slid off the couch and onto his feet.

“Hey,” he said, leaning in the doorway to the kitchen. Rooster glanced over his shoulder, one hand on the handle of a skillet, the other wrapped around a spatula. “I thought you said no pancakes in the morning.”

“Well, you were well behaved,” Rooster said. “Good boys get pancakes.”

Hangman scoffed incredulously as Rooster gestured with a wave for him to take a seat at the table still slightly sticky from slap cup the night before.

A plate of pancakes were dropped unceremoniously in front of him.

“Not quite as good as taking me out to dinner, but I’ll take it,” Hangman said, picking up the fork.

Rooster just shook his head. “How was the couch?”

“Passed out,” Hangman said. “It’s comfortable, for something that looks like it’s from the seventies.”

“It is,” Rooster said, sinking into the seat across the table.

“Moving slowly this morning,” Hangman commented. “Slow even for you.”

“Ha,” Rooster said. He pointed his fork across the table. “Someone wrapped me in forty thousand bandaids so tight I can’t scratch my own ass.”

Hangman hummed and shoved a forkful of pancakes into his mouth. He waited until he’d chewed and swallowed and the taste of cinnamon was all that clung to his tongue before speaking.

“Bruises like that suck on day three,” he said, keeping his eyes on his own pancakes. Rooster didn’t say anything, but Hangman could see his posture shift in his periphery.

When he got up to wash his plate, the microwave clock read 11:02, and Hangman blinked in surprise. Even on days he was up until dawn, he didn’t typically end up sleeping so late.

“I’ve got to go,” he said, the words clunky in his mouth. After all, he didn’t like to leave somewhere until it wasn’t interesting anymore. Here, the smell of cinnamon still hovered in the air, mixed stubbornly well with Rooster’s Old Spice and the ocean air, and Rooster was just behind him, warm and soft at all his sharp edges.

“Alright,” Rooster said easily, ten seconds too late.

Hangman turned around and leaned against the counter, facing Rooster. His hands were clammy like he was a kid again inverting a plane for the first time. He wanted— He sighed. “I promised Bob I’d meet him and Phoenix for lunch.”

Rooster blinked. “What the fuck, I’m not invited?” he said, pulling a face.

“You can be,” Hangman said. “Phoenix said the two of them wanted to ‘figure me out.’”

“Oh, well in that case, I’m good,” Rooster said. He crossed his arms. “I’ve got you figured out, Seresin.”

“That right?”

“Besides, I promised Mav I’d meet him at noon,” Rooster said, eyeing the clock.

Hangman nodded, and his heart thumped as he tried to think of words that would keep Rooster standing so close for a few more moments. But Rooster stepped back, picked up the foil-wrapped stack of leftover pancakes, and tossed them in the fridge.

“I don’t know where my shoes are,” Hangman said finally. Rooster looked at him slowly, grinning with his hand still tight around the refrigerator door handle.

“They’re on the beach,” Rooster said. “Sorry.”

He didn’t seem very sorry, leaning in the back doorway of the house and watching as Hangman jogged down the back steps and pulled his shoes out of the sand.

His smile didn’t dim until Hangman was on the front porch, sandy shoes on his feet and his keys in his hand.

“Well,” Hangman said. “It’s been real.”

Rooster was standing barefoot, the screen door firmly shut this time behind him, just staring with an odd, inquisitive look on his face. Hangman paused, waiting to see if that look might turn into anything, until his shoulder twinged and he nodded, turning to leave.

“Hey,” Rooster said. Hangman turned back, and Rooster’s hand caught his arm, twisting him fully around before— Oh. He heard his own keys clatter to the porch at their feet. Rooster stepped back and nodded perfunctorily, like he hadn’t just kissed him.

Hangman stared, and Rooster licked his lips and grimaced slightly sheepishly.

“You—” Hangman mouthed at words, fumbling for what it was he wanted to say. “Jesus, Bradshaw.”

He reached for Rooster, grasping at his sides as they stumbled back, stopping when Hangman had Rooster pressed against the door. His mouth tasted of cinnamon, apples, and coffee, which—Hangman hadn’t been offered any coffee, but he supposed he could learn to forgive. Hangman’s hands tightened at Rooster’s waist and his brain fogged over at the low, throaty noise Rooster made.

He let go when the idea of staying here and very much not going to lunch was starting to sound too good, and met Rooster’s eyes slowly, not wanting to look away from the red of his lips beneath that stupid fucking mustache.

“Ow,” Rooster said, and Hangman’s stomach dropped. Rooster cringed. “Door handle.”

“Shit, sorry,” he said, tugging Rooster away from the door, where the small knob handle was just about hip-height at Rooster’s back. He started to drop his hands from his waist, but Rooster’s hands settled around his forearms, steadying him there.

“You sticking around the area until you get orders?” Rooster asked, his thumbs tightening at Hangman’s elbows.

Hangman shrugged, his chest tight. “I’ve got a hotel room a couple miles away,” he said. “I could stay, yeah. Someone's gotta be around to stop you from getting sepsis.” He shrugged again.

Rooster shrugged back, the slight, amused downturn of his mouth the only confirmation that he was mocking Hangman. “I’ve got a couch that’s free,” he said.

“Not a bed?” Hangman asked, biting his lip in the way he’d been told in the past was devilish and seductive. Rooster just snorted.

“Only if you’re good,” he said.

Hangman laughed, nearly breathless. “Oh, I'll be good,” he said. “I’ll be very good.”