Since my last fic ('I Know Something You Don't Know') was taken down by Fanfiction.net for its incredible lemon-y flavor, here's something considerably milder. Though this one does have a nice little lemon zest, of course…

Chronology Note: This takes place sometime during episode 18 of the anime. ---Hott

Deceptively Soft.

Griffith flicked his right hand over to the edge of the desk and tapped his quill into the inkwell. His right hand darted back to the top of the blank page and hovered, unsure.

He stared at the quill. A single drop fell, stained the page.

Griffith raised his head to look out the window. The snow outside fell so thickly he couldn't see across the courtyard.

He imagined that he could hear it falling—a faint and unending hiss atop the snow that had fallen before. Outside it would be silent, the snow muffling all, save for that deceptively soft hiss.

Griffith bent his head back to the oak desk and bound journal that lay open before him. Behind him and to his left, the fire in the hearth competed with the single lit candle near the inkwell. The shadows fought a silent dual, mirroring the inside him.

Griffith wrote, "The worst part"

and tapped the quill into the inkwell with a soft ping. Between rapid and expert taps, he finished,

"is the half hour or so before I fall asleep.

"I have nothing else to occupy my mind. I am left alone while the world sleeps, and when life holds its breath like this, something inside of me"

Griffith paused.

Another drop of ink fell, stained the page.

He tapped the quill into the inkwell, over and over, and the room filled with the song of quill against brass as he hastily scrawled

"awakens, something that should never be allowed to open its eyes, something that gnaws at me like a wolf gnawing slowly at bone, only this gnawing never stops, only waits in the background of my mind until I am supposed to be sleeping and only then do I feel it eating at me and only then can I feel it closing over my throat, and only then do I realize that I have been awake for more than thirty minutes because I can hear the great clock down the hall tolling the hour and I know that this thing is choking me like a hang noose"

Griffith's hand twitched violently. The quill snapped like a brittle twig and a black scratch flashed across the page. Griffith leaned back in his seat with a gasp, as if it were suddenly hard to breathe. The chair squealed with his movement, and he thought it sounded unnaturally loud.

He breathed a moment. He knew he could reach for another quill. There were seven of them in the cup near the inkwell, to the left of the candle. Griffith swallowed and listened to the sound of the fire in the grate. Between the pops and cracks, it made a deceptively soft hiss.

Griffith took another quill, tapped it in the well, and drew an arrow that pointed at his last block of text. At the other end of the arrow, he wrote in the margins,

"I am finally beginning to go mad, and not for the reasons I expected to"

and set down the quill.

Griffith folded his arms. Though he only wore a long nightshirt, he felt very warm. Outside, the snow was still falling, still probably hissing against itself, still making it impossible to venture outside. At this claustrophobic thought, the feeling of wearing a hang noose intensified.

Griffith swatted aside the quill. It rattled to the floor as he shoved himself out of his old and squealing chair. He began to pace, from the desk to the door, his arms still nervously folded. Like a wolf worrying at a bone, he thought. A very persistent wolf, gnawing for weeks, months, years. The bone will wear down someday.

But I'm not made of bone.

I am made of flesh, and flesh is so easily damaged, and flesh can only take so much pain…

Griffith stopped. The hearth was to his right now, the door to his room in front of him, his bed to the left. He didn't glance at his bed. He didn't want to lie down. If I lie down, it'll get worse.

I'm amazed that it can get worse.

Griffith turned on his bare heel and went to the end of the desk. He picked up his journal and looked closely at the page. The ink was not yet dry. He blew on it, his warm breath running over his fingertips. The warmth of his breath strangely reminded him of summer wind. Summer wind and summer nights, camping in the field with the Band of the Hawk. Summer nights—stars in the sky, huge and brilliant and thick, thousands of them, like snowflakes.

Dark skies, the chuckling of brook water over stones, the rough laughter around campfires. The smell of burning wood, of leather and metal, of unwashed skin and old rainfall. Summer in the field. The night offering some cool relief from the sun, the black shadows of trees secretive and inviting, the song of crickets heavy in the tall grass. Dew clinging to bare feet and boots. Orange sparks from a flint or grindstone as metal edges were polished and honed. The burning taste of cheap alcohol in the back of the throat. The fuzzy feeling of alcohol in the veins, warm and slow, stumbling off to bathe in a brook while not quite sober, sitting nude on a rock, the rock still warm from the heat of the day, and the wind cool on bare skin. Sleeping in a tent, mind in a lazy spin with alcohol and delirious thoughts of a man in a tent only twenty yards away.

Summer nights.

Griffith shut his journal.

Then opened it again, and paged numbly through past entries, flipping slowly backward, the paper crackling under his slender fingertips. Phrases from old writings caught his eye: "deep well of his eyes"—"smells like leather and something I can't place"—"profile against moonlight so unbearably"—"hoping he'd see me bathing"—"throat goes dry"—"as if he's keeping a marvelous secret"—

Griffith shut his journal for a second time. No, he thought. It's hardly even my journal. After all, each time I write in here, who is it that I am discussing?

Griffith opened a drawer in his desk and replaced the journal. He slid the cover over the inkwell, picked up the quill from the floor, put it back in the cup.

He turned to face his bed.

He didn't want to lie down.

Without knowing why, Griffith put on his trousers. Bare-footed and half-dressed, he picked up the candle from the desk, turned, and exited his room.

The hall was black, save for the light of Griffith's candle. He cared not about the dark. Nor did he care about the icy stone under his bare feet, his unkempt attire, nor the hot drop of wax that fell onto his fist. He did however care about the rising panic in his chest, and the feeling of an invisible hang noose, tightening.

Griffith found himself outside of Gatsu's door.

Griffith held the candle away from himself and put his eye to the keyhole.

The room was full of the dim glow of a nearly-dead fire; only embers lay in the hearth here. The lump in the bed had to be Gatsu; the covers rose and fell with an erratic rhythm, and Griffith could make out a rough tangle of black that had to be his hair.

The lump under the bedclothes rolled over and cursed.

Griffith held his breath.

The lump rolled over again, cursed a second time. Griffith heard him say, "Feels cold as the damned Abyss in here," and smiled in spite of himself.

Gatsu suddenly flung off the covers and swung his feet to the floor. Griffith felt a hot flood of something blossom in his chest as he watched Gatsu stand and go to the hearth. He squatted and rebuilt the fire. Griffith watched the firelight grow and hug the curves of his body, his muscles, the irritation in his dark eyes. Gatsu was only wearing trousers. No nightshirt. Why not, in this cold weather? Griffith intently watched his face. Gatsu sat on the deerskin rug in front of the grate and held his large hands out towards the fire. He made a sound, a deceptively soft hiss, as if disgusted with the fire or himself.

Gatsu, thought Griffith. He felt another drop of wax hit his hand. The pain was trivial, compared to what was twisting in his chest, along his nerves, and invisibly, around his neck.

 Griffith's feet were growing cold.

He didn't care at all.

Gatsu shivered and rubbed his arms. Griffith listened to the deceptively soft hiss of skin on skin.

Griffith shifted his weight, and a small flood of wax poured over his hand, on the sensitive stretch of skin between his forefinger and thumb. He made a sound in his throat before he could stop himself and instinctively dropped the candle.

"Who's there!?"

He bent to snatch it up, but the damage was done. He could hear the slick sound of metal on metal as Gatsu unsheathed a dagger, the sound of footfalls, the rough voice beyond the door: "I said who's there!"

Griffith stood, and the heavy door was thrown open, wide.

The two men looked at each other.

Gatsu's inscrutable eyes and hard mouth softened. His posture eased. "Griffith," he said.

Griffith looked at this tall, dark man, and he felt as if his heart were rolling over inside his chest.

Gatsu said his name again, in a different tone, one of concern: "Griffith," and hearing Gatsu speak his name made him achingly warm all over, even in his feet. "Are you alright?"

Griffith tried to pull away from the spell of Gatsu's eyes. In a flash, he remembered what he looked like: half-dressed, exhausted, bare-footed, candle in a bare fist, spattered with wax.

Griffith could say nothing.

Gatsu said, "Aren't you cold?"

"Am I?" Griffith cursed himself for a fool. Why did this man's presence make him talk in riddles, and so aloofly?

Gatsu's eyes flicked to Griffith's bare feet. "I'd think so."

Griffith found himself saying, "Think what you like." He turned to go back to his bedchamber, when he felt a sudden warmth and pressure on his shoulder.

Gatsu's hand.

"Griffith," he began.

Griffith stood still. If Gatsu says my name like that even once more…

Gatsu's tone abruptly changed, and his hand dropped. "You can warm yourself by my fire if you want. It's a cold night. Bad time to get insomnia and go wandering around the castle like a halfwit."

"A halfwit?"

"Yeah." He heard Gatsu retreat into his room. "A thin nightshirt like that in weather like this—a halfwit."

Griffith turned. "And what of a man who wears only trousers to bed?"

Gatsu stopped at his bedside. He looked over his shoulder, the muscles in his upper back jumping in the warm firelight. "What about it?" grunted Gatsu.

"What do you call a man like that?"

Gatsu climbed into bed and threw the covers over himself. "A man who gets ignored by the laundress. Swear to gods, she hates me. In fact, all the servants here look at me funny. I just want to do my own laundry, but nooo, it's—" Gatsu changed his voice to imitate a stuffy courtier—" 'Gatsu-sama, surely you'd wish for the servants to do that sort of work. Isn't washing your own clothes a little… well… primitive?' " Gatsu dropped the imitation. "Assholes. I'm going to sleep. Come in or get out, but shut the door, it's cold as anything in the hall."

Griffith came in, and shut the door.

He sat with his back to the fire, the better to watch Gatsu.

Gatsu's broad back was to him. Griffith watched him shiver, even under the bedclothes, even under Griffith's jumping black shadow.

An idea unfolded in the fore of Griffith's thoughts.

He held back his sudden nervous laugh, and it came out only as a jerky hiss, deceptively soft.

"What?" Gatsu muttered.

"Nothing."

Oh, what an idea.

"No, what?" Gatsu muttered again. "Didn't you say something? I thought I heard you say something."

"You should go to sleep," said Griffith.

"Look who's talking. I'm too cold to sleep. What is it?"

Griffith felt another rush of heat. A blush? He tried to keep his voice light as he said, "If you are that cold, perhaps you could benefit from a bedmate."

Gatsu snorted. "Yeah, and who would do that with me here?" Gatsu changed his voice again to his courtier imitation. " 'Gatsu-sama, might I gently remind you that sleeping alone is a luxury. We aren't mere peasants here. We have sufficient wealth to afford our own rooms and beds. There is no need to resort to bed-sharing like a serf. You wouldn't want to insult our hospitality, now, would you'???"

Griffith smiled. He wanted to say, "You do a very good imitation" but couldn't work up the courage. Instead he allowed himself a slight chuckle.

But then Gatsu said, "Why, are you offering?"

Griffith's chuckle stopped. He sat very still.

The invisible hang noose slid a little tighter.

"What?" whispered Griffith.

"Are you offering to be my bedmate for tonight. Since it's cold as the Underworld and you apparently can't sleep either. Or do you give a crap about all that stuffy courtier shit."

"Of course not," Griffith blurted, without thinking.

"Oh really?" Gatsu rolled over to face him. Griffith hastily looked down at the deerskin rug. He began to pick the hardened wax from his hand. "News to me. I thought you liked all that social whatever."

Griffith tried again for a light tone when he said, "When it suits me."

"Oh. Yeah. I guess that does sound like you, huh."

Griffith couldn't take his eyes from the deerskin. The fire felt warm at his back, but the heat in his face and chest felt threefold as hot. The window of opportunity was passing. If he didn't say something, and soon, about Gatsu's question, it would be forgotten or worse, withdrawn. And in the drawer in the desk in Griffith's room was his journal, with the fresh words, "The worse part is the half hour or so before I fall asleep."

Perhaps it is the worse part because you have no bedmate.

A very particular bedmate.

And as Griffith's poor heart seemed to roll over again, Gatsu said, "But hey, I didn't figure you'd want to anyway. You and you secrets and whatever."

There goes the window.

You poor, desperate fool.

Griffith's hands went still. He continued to stare at the deerskin, the warmth inside of him turning into a bitter ache.

"Griffith? You ok?"

How long have I been keeping that journal?

Griffith listened to the deceptively soft hiss of Gatsu's breathing. "No," whispered Griffith.

"Hey. Hey, what is it?"

Griffith raised his head.

Gatsu's eyes were so dark. Dark as ink. Dark as the drops of ink that dripped on the page tonight, dark as that last desperate accidental scratch. Dark as summer nights.

Griffith wondered if Gatsu's breath also would remind him of summer wind.

Summer wind, against the endless snowfall outside, and the dark sky of summer nights to melt the endless layers of white.

Griffith whispered, "I'm cold."

"Still?"

How many nights, falling asleep alone? How many nights haunted by the deceptively soft memory of Gatsu's eyes?

"Always," said Griffith.

Gatsu lifted his head a little in puzzlement.

Griffith set aside his candle and stood.

"Move over," said Griffith.

Gatsu grunted in acknowledgement and wriggled towards the wall. Griffith put a few more logs on the fire, then approached Gatsu's bed.

He very much wanted to lie down, now.

He slid in.

"AUGH!! Your feet are like ice!"

"I'm sorry."

"No you aren't, you rotten bastard. You're smiling. Damn you. That's what you get for wandering around the castle at night half-dressed. Didn't it occur to you to put on your boots or something?? No, wait, it obviously didn't."

Griffith lay on his left side, gazing at Gatsu. His dark eyes were inches from his own, irritable and sleepy and wonderful.

"What?" said Gatsu, shortly.

Your bed, Gatsu. I am in your bed. Innocent though my intent may be, I am still in your bed.

"Nothing," murmured Griffith.

"Bullshit. You're smiling again. Why, are your hands even colder than your feet or something? Are you gonna put your cold fingers on me when I'm not looking?"

Griffith slid his right hand forward, impulsively, and set it on Gatsu's hard chest.

Griffith could feel his heartbeat. The rise and fall of his breath. The unexpected smoothness of his skin, the slight curve of a muscle.

And the vibration of Gatsu's voice, when he spoke.

"Hey," said Gatsu. "Your fingers aren't so cold."

And you are very warm, Gatsu.

Griffith couldn't say anything.

Gatsu reached his left hand forward, and set it atop Griffith's.

"But you're shaking."

"Am I?" Griffith whispered, as Gatsu's strong fingers closed over his.

"Yeah. I can feel it. Griffith, are you sure you're ok? There's something you're not telling me."

Griffith looked away, at Gatsu's chest, at his hand, at the mattress, anywhere but Gatsu's eyes.

Gatsu's expression lit with realization.

"Heh," said Gatsu, with a smirk. "It's ok, Griffith. It happens to everybody."

"W…what…?"

Gatsu said, "A nightmare. You got up and wandered around like a half-wit because you had a nightmare, and it's why you're acting so jumpy."

A nightmare?

Is that what you would call this?

My journal? My hang noose? Tormented with memories of summer wind and dark sky and crickets in the wild grass, while dead winter rages outside these windows?

And sleeping alone at night?

Is that what all this is—a nightmare?

Griffith suddenly pushed himself forward and lay flush against Gatsu, his face in the hollow of Gatsu's shoulder, while a terrible trembling overtook him.

"Whoa," said Gatsu, quietly. "Hey. Griffith…"

"The worst nightmare," gasped Grifffith, "of my whole life."

"Griffith," said Gatsu, and an aching warmth poured over Griffith's bitterness and terror, like clean water over a wound. "It's ok."

Gatsu put an arm, protectively, over Griffith's slim shoulders.

Griffith breathed. Gatsu's scent, the taste of him, hung in the back of his throat, the smell of leather and something Griffith could never place. Griffith couldn't get enough of it.

"You're gasping. Griffith…? You're awake. Hey. It's ok."

Am I awake?

Am I really not dreaming this moment?

If all the rest is my nightmare, then when tomorrow comes, and this one night is over…

"When I fall asleep," Griffith whispered, "it'll be waiting."

"Naw it won't," said Gatsu. "I got you. See? Go to sleep. It'll be fine. I'm here."

Griffith closed his eyes.

"Are you?" he said.

"Hmm?"

"Are you here? Are you really here, Gatsu?"

"Huh? Yeah. What are you talking about?"

Griffith pulled his face away from Gatsu's shoulder and looked into his eyes.

Barely two inches from his face, Griffith realized with a sweet rush that Gatsu's breath did remind him of summer.

"Griffith?"

"I'm not dreaming this?"

"No."

"This is what's real? This? Not the rest of it? Not all that horrible—" Griffith stopped.

"Go on," said Gatsu.

Griffith said, "I dreamed of a hang noose. Choking me."

Gatsu listened.

"An invisible hang noose. I dreamed it was winter forever, and I only imagined summer. I dreamed of a wolf gnawing on me. And a journal I kept, where I recorded the progression of my madness."

Gatsu nodded, though Griffith could tell from his expression that he understood none of it. Griffith settled his head on the mattress, his face against Gatsu's neck. He inhaled his scent again, touched his skin.

Gatsu's arm curled around him a little tighter.

Reality or dream, thought Griffith, I need to remember this moment.

He stayed still, letting the moment stretch into silent minutes, letting Gatsu's breath and body hold him. He noticed then that Gatsu's breathing had changed and deepened, that his body had relaxed, that his skin had grown even warmer and that his heartbeat had slowed.

"Gatsu?"

No answer.

Griffith wriggled to look at his face. Asleep, deeply.

Griffith whispered, "Ah, Gatsu… so close and yet so far from what I need from you."

As Gatsu slept, Griffith leaned forward and gently kissed the sleeping man's mouth.

His lips were deceptively soft.

--Hott