Title: body language of a lab rat
Characters/Pairings: Chikusa, Ken, Chrome
Rating: PG-13
Word Count: 2121
Warnings: Language, nudity, dark themes
Disclaimer: Standard disclaimers apply.
Notes: Written for prompt-in-a-box ("If you're being a gentleman, I may die of shock") and mission_insane ("Taboo")

The grocery bag exploded on the near wall, like a bout of laughter, sudden and short-lived.

"If I find that bitch, I'll –" A thunderous rattle of tin cans tuned down the inevitable string of curses to white noise, monotonous and unimportant, like most of what Ken ever said. The remainder of the plastic bag came apart in shreds between Ken's hand, the pieces fluttering to the ground with a dying hiss. He had needed something to illustrate the threat just uttered.

"I'm not picking those up." Chikusa placed his bag on the dusty counter, away from the clutches that longed for more destruction. Wise foresight had dictated him to carry the more fragile contents himself. Even without precedent, he did not trust Ken with anything remotely breakable.

Apart from the rain showers outside, the night was silent; she was not back yet. They had brought the rain with them, dripping on the dirt floor and leaving clear puddles for once. If anything happened to her the puddles would look different.

It's common sense not to let a girl walk alone at night, she could be kidnapped or worse. They did not worry about any of that, the girl could hold her own; it was updates on Mukuro they wanted.

Chikusa wiped his glasses; the wild pattern of rain droplets had been obscuring his sight, leaving him almost-blind and almost-vulnerable to sudden attacks. You never knew who lurked behind the corners. (They weren't exactly popular with the rest of the world.) Restoring the frame to its rightful place on top of his nose did not help any, though. The sudden attack hit – a spurt of water across his face – impairing his sight once again, a blindfold of distortion. Ken had probably done that on purpose, waiting for the one moment between non-vision and vision when Chikusa would drop his guard to shake himself dry like a dog, his namesake, and make it rain again inside, droplets flying like sparks in all directions from his clothes and hair.

Ken showed no sign of malicious intent, however, busy with discarding the soaked uniform as he was. It clung to him like a second skin, the skin of a dead animal, heavy and lifeless. He was careful with the shirt, though. Hands that loved to tear and rip things apart treated it almost tenderly, as though it was the most precious and fragile of treasures, being his last.

The skin he revealed little by little was full of tiny bumps from the cold, a bird with its feathers plucked, and almost white where not covered with freckles or fresh injuries.

Each time Ken undressed, Chikusa would discover new scrapes, cuts or bruises. (Their life was a dangerous one and Ken none too careful with his.) His skin was like a map, a morbid painting in shades from white to crimson that revealed his life's story for all who knew how to read it. It stretched taut like a canvas over the sharp angles of his bones and what little apparent muscle he had, a canvas ripped and stitched at many places.

Apart from the deep, conspicuous scar – thick layering of scars, rather – across his nose they had opened and reopened time after time to imprint the profile of new animal beasts and extract his humanity, Ken carried a wealthy collection of others, varying in shape and form, hidden beneath his clothing, abrasions on the knees and elbows the most commonplace.

Chikusa watched the star-shaped remainder of a gunshot wound on Ken's right shoulder; it was pink and smooth and caved in when he moved his arm. There were more holes in his body, not all of them the result of ballistic trauma, but of tubes and needles driven into him to alter him in strange, twisted ways, to test and torture for the sake of science, to see how far they could go, how far they could push him and what he could be capable of. Like paw prints the largest of these holes treaded down his spine, one and a half inches in diameter, an overstatement for the paper-thin needles they used to access his spinal nerves.

Those scars, they were proof of their past, proof that monsters out of nightmares could come and hurt you, no matter how often you look under the bed and see nothing. (The worst monsters were all around you and not even disguised: they were human.)

Those scars were fading. Chikusa looked for the self-inflicted claw-marks on Ken's chest and arms; fading, also. Proof that the nightmare was over. No more lying awake at night, covering his ears to the bone-chilling howls whenever Ken sought a way to rip out the animals contained in his breast and the pain they caused.

Not that he could sleep any better now. Cold weather like this seeped into the bones, made them ache and creak like rusted hinges.

Chikusa hadn't noticed he was staring, until Ken growled at him, low and dangerous: "Stop staring, you gay bastard or I'll gauge your fucking eyeballs out."

Not one to be cowed by empty threats - he was used to that kind of violent language, anyway - Chikusa picked up a towel, their last clean one. Despite Ken's almost desperate attempt of ridding himself of his damp clothing, he was actually slower in getting it done. "I'll go take a take a shower."

"No way, Kaki-pii." Ken's head whipped around, accusatory in both looks and sound. "You always get to shower first. I'm not gonna let it slide anymore."

"It stinks like wet dog after you've been there."

"What was that?" Ken kicked his trousers out of the way to pounce the other boy, but before he could do any harm Chikusa had wrestled his arm around and jabbed his fingers into Ken's lower back and trapezius muscles.

There was nothing to catch him when he fell like a sack of grain; the floor was hard and Chikusa unemotional. A sobering experience, for Ken took his own overpowering strength for granted and never for once stopped to think that his adversary might be superior in skill, if nothing else.

"Get back here, you bastard, or I'll tear your limbs off," Ken screeched. Even in the face of defeat, he would not shut up. Not even the water rushing past Chikusa's ears could drown him out.

Next time he would knock him unconscious. Or, failing that, he would at least make sure to paralyze the nerves to Ken's vocal chords. Then, at least, Chikusa wouldn't need to listen.

He tried to ignore the cussing for a while, until he heard a dull click like that of a door being shut. At first he thought it was Ken, able to move again, but there was barely any change in the angle his vocal barrages came from.

Then suddenly he was silent, as though aware of something yet unseen, before he continued anew.

"Look who's here. Wouldn't have expected you to ever show up again. Where have you been?" Chikusa could hear him bearing his teeth. Time passing by without word from Mukuro had set them on edge. It did not take much to tip them over.

"What happened here? Are you alright?"

"Don't touch me, whore! You were with Vongola again, weren't you?" Ken's words were raw with anger, as was usual when the topic shifted to the Vongola. After all, they still kept Mukuro locked away from them.

It was somewhat of a mystery why she so readily sided with the enemy. They no longer needed their protection, hadn't from the first, but the deal was made without their consent. There was nothing in it but danger for her, unless it was to worm her way into their trust and gain access to blueprints or staff records of the Vendicare prison, any information they might need to free Mukuro. So far, she had nothing.

Her voice was calm and clear as she carried on, without any trace that indicated whether the insult had any effect on her. "I told you boss wanted to see me." The title flowing so naturally from her lips, tinged with such a fondness too, grated on Chikusa's ears. It felt like broken loyalties, like a knife in the back.

"Yeah, right. For three whole days."

"Where else would I be?" There was a squeak of leather and the heavy tread of boots walking away, dull and measured like a bass drum.

Chikusa stepped out of the bathroom on slippery feet, towel around his waist, when she returned with a blanket. He thought he caught a flicker of sadness in her one eye as it took in the sight of Ken's prone form. Yellow-green clouds were beginning to billow under his skin where Chikusa had struck him before.

The blanket fanned out and settled over Ken like a shroud; only then did Chikusa notice it was hers. Whether she was uncomfortable with his nakedness or the craters on his spine, he could not tell. It must be easier on her to see a blanket covering his body rather than scars.

"What the hell is this going to be? I don't need your pity." Ken snapped. He could find fault in everything if he wanted to and he had long since set his mind to berating her for whatever she did. As far as he was concerned, she could never do right.

"Was this you?" she addressed herself to Chikusa, who hadn't moved from his spot since. It was then that he really saw her for the first time that night. She looked miserable with her hairstyle coming apart and the water running down her face and the leather jacket Mukuro had left behind for her. She never went without it.

"Who else would leave me butt-naked on the floor without any signs of a fight?" Ken growled, face a blotchy red. "I went too easy on him, byon."

She paid him no mind. From behind a frayed curtain of wet bangs, her one eye gazed straight into Chikusa's, searching, demanding an answer. She wanted to hear it from him. She was becoming more like Mukuro every day, in that she seemed to adopt his commanding presence, although unaware of it and Chikusa found it difficult to be untrue even if he wanted to be.

When he nodded, relief softenened her features, diminshing the Mukuro-esque aura and she almost smiled, as though this were the only assurance she needed to know that Ken was alright.

"Do you have news?" Chikusa asked, picking at the fabric of the towel. His fingers felt so useless, without his hedgehogs nearby. It made him nervous to have nothing to do with his fingers.

"In fact, I do." She was silent for a while. Her gaze dropped to his chest, or the burns and scratches covering it, similar to Ken's, although his told a somewhat different story. She seemed to be staring through him, as if the upper layer wasn't there, but a mirror reflecting another world.

Finally, she looked into his eyes again. "Boss is planning to free Mukuro and he wants your help."

"What?!" both Ken and Chikusa exclaimed, taken aback by these pieces of information.

Once he had processed the words, Chikusa's thoughts were spiraling. Why would they do that? Why would the Vongola want to unbind a high-profile killer? What good would it do them?

Before he knew what he was doing, Chikusa was past respectable distances and past caring. His hands found occupation in grabbing hold of her shoulders and shaking them, as quick as a snake attacking its prey. "Are you sure this is not a trap?"

It was an uncharacteristic show of emotion for Chikusa, but control slipped when agitation rose. She remained unfazed however, without any sign of surprise at this sudden outburst, as though she had expected something of this sort to happen.

Calmly, she raised her left hand and placed it on top of Chikusa's wrist, callouses tickling his skin. "I trust him."

The chill of her hand froze the torrent in his head and he loosened his grip on her to mirror the delicate pressure on his wrist, but did not let go of her.

"That's not enough for me to trust them." Ken reminded them of his presence. His legs twitched; so, feeling was coming back to him again.

She was just about to tell him that her boss wanted to get Mukuro out of the Vendicare as any of them, when she was interrupted by a damp plop.

"Hey, four-eyes. No need to be so eager," Ken snorted.

Only then did Chikusa notice that his towel had slipped.

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