Tabitha does not like Brodie. He never has, from the moment he'd first laid eyes on him; everything about the flamboyant man sets his teeth on edge. Brodie, the Phantom Thief—because he insists he is, though Tabitha's certainly never heard of him before—Brodie, the Man with a Thousand Faces, who shows up late for roll call on his second morning with a uniform cut to pieces and stitched back together asymmetrically, like some kind of clown.

"Do you think this is a game?" Tabitha had asked, and Brodie's of course not was belied by the laughter in his eyes.

Brodie's always laughing, even when he isn't; smugness seeps from him like cheap poison, the corners of his mouth curled up as he stands not-quite-at-attention. He pulls pranks on other grunts, stealing things and giving them back, cracking jokes and skipping jobs, and the uniform issue only gets worse with time. After the first month it's hardly recognizable as a Magma uniform at all, repeated assignment to janitorial duty be damned.

"You'd better shape up if you know what's good for you," Tabitha warns him one morning; it gets the same teasing nod and yes, sir as every other order. Tabitha frowns at Brodie's back as he saunters away, the half-cape of his hood cut into a diagonal zigzag that flaps behind him. Tabitha's Mightyena snorts disapprovingly, flattening its ears.

·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·

Team Magma is as interesting as Brodie hoped it would be. There isn't much to steal from them, but he's not here for that; the prospect of getting a paycheck for doing not much of anything is what brought him here, after only escaping the sting in Lilycove by the skin of his teeth. As good as he is at thieving, he's never had much knack for getting rid of the things he thieves. How was he to know that the gentleman who made him such a generous offer on that painting was an undercover cop? Best to lie low, really, and these people in red are entertaining enough company for now.

For the most part, they're a predictable sort. Losers, mainly: drifters and petty criminals and other odds and ends scraped from the bottom of society's barrel. A good few genuine eco-nuts mixed in, apparently for flavor; the scientists and smarter people tend to be those. The boss of it all, cordial and arrogant, strutting about the ship in a tailored overcoat, and then his two admins following in their master's wake, keeping all the wheels turning smoothly. A woman and a man, both young, both serious and stern—but while Courtney's abrasiveness can be eased by courting her favor, Tabitha (a guy named Tabitha, of all things) disciplines everyone equally, and gives no quarter to slackers. It's his command Brodie is put under, once the formalities of signing up have been completed.

For the first couple of weeks, Brodie can't decide whether his immediate superior is the most or least intriguing person on the ship. Either way, he's annoying; he takes the joke Team Magma so obviously is far too seriously, and for no reason that Brodie can make out. Digging up some super-ancient Pokémon that might or might not control the weather, and then what? Fun, sure, in a scavenger hunt sort of way, but there's no excuse for being as hardassed about it all as Commander Tabitha is. Courtney, at least, exists off-duty too; sometimes she can be found on the upper deck with her hood thrown back, leaning against the railing and smoking a cigarette, civil enough if you're one of her favorites. But Tabitha? The half-believed rumor among the grunts is that he even sleeps in his uniform.

Brodie settles in quickly. He knows full well how much more useful honey is than vinegar, and his spot-on impressions of other team members in the mess room always draw a crowd. And while not everyone likes him, everyone respects him, once he's demonstrated his skill as a pickpocket on the nonbelievers. Anything that Brodie doesn't feel like doing can usually be passed off to someone else with the right lie, and so he makes plenty of time to focus on honing his talents; he can't afford to get rusty. If he decides to spend an afternoon test-driving a disguise, it's rare for someone to catch him.

It's an easy life, really. Just what he needs right now. If only his commander wasn't such a stickler for rules.

·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·

The constant enemy isn't Team Aqua. It's not often that they cross paths with them, actually, and if it happens it happens out in the field, on away missions. No, the daily struggle at the base is against entropy, which in Tabitha's dictionary is the tendency for things to unravel by degrees, out of complacency. Groudon is the goal, to be sure, but the journey towards it isn't all thievery and blackmail and scouting out ancient ruins (dead end after dead end after dead end, but there can only be so many dead ends, he tells himself).

The truth of it is that the base (an old battleship, too large for their numbers) isn't in spectacular condition, and outside of raids and scientific work, there's an endless ream of unglamorous chores to be done. The place has to stay clean, for one; the chopper and subs have to be maintained, and there's uniforms to wash and Pokémon to tend, acquiring supplies and keeping inventory and managing salaries and they've got to eat meals, too, on top of it all. Granted, Tabitha isn't always swamped with such things; he's field commander, and so any sufficiently dangerous or important mission falls to him to go out and lead. But nevertheless, he and Courtney spend most of their days herding grunts and scanning checklists, making sure everything that needs to happen, does. (Maxie's above such trivialities, and rightly so; Tabitha detests the thought of him having to put up with the baffling stupidities the grunts sometimes get themselves into.)

It's for this reason, perhaps—the very real need for order—that Brodie becomes such a thorn in Tabitha's side. He's always doing something outside of the box, even if it's just existing; Tabitha's caught him sitting up on a ledge before, perched like a brightly-colored bird, watching the comings and goings on the deck below with that trademark jester's smirk. He can be punished but it doesn't work, really, and it's not in Tabitha's nature (or Team Magma's guidelines) to just punch his sniggering face in—not that the thought isn't tempting, sometimes. Brodie is Brodie and nothing can change that, and when Tabitha passes by the mess room and hears raucous laughter, he peers in to scowl at Brodie, sitting in the middle of a small crowd, mimicking like a Chatot some poor fool who happens not to be around.

Tabitha's arrival kills the mood; the grunts sober up at once, as wary of their commander's potential ire as they rightly ought to be. Brodie keeps smiling.

"Good afternoon, commander. Is something the matter?"

This is this group's break shift, technically, so there's not much Tabitha can do except give them all a curt nod. What is he supposed to say? "Stop having fun"?

"Keep it down," he finally orders, and stalks away. He knows Brodie's started up the impressions again when he catches the sound of his own voice.

·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·

Everyone wears disguises. Brodie knows this from experience and observation, it's a fact: everyone wears disguises. He himself is simply one of the few who bothers to change clothes for each one. Most people switch between them seamlessly, even unconsciously—a dozen faces for a dozen places, every role and relationship compelling them, as best they can, to become someone different. But the commander...

The curious thing about Commander Tabitha, Brodie decides, is that he doesn't really seem to have disguises. Surely he must—everyone does, absolutely everyone—and yet Brodie's never heard half a rumor about him outside his capacity as admin, never seen him interact with anyone in a way that's anything less than professional. (Supposedly this isn't strictly the case—Derek claims that he's been known to make a joke in the right company, and he was a lowly grunt once upon a time—but as far as Brodie's concerned, that's all hearsay.) It's absurd, frankly, that level of ignorance or arrogance or whatever the hell it is. He's a guy named Tabitha, for crying out loud. He has some nerve pretending that he's anything more than a guy who eats and sleeps and shits like the rest of the human population. You! Back to your post!—and for what, precisely? They're all stuck on this ship together, every day of the week, out in the middle of nowhere; it's not as if there's any reason to act like a small army. Even the boss is less uptight than him.

Everyone wears disguises, but Commander Tabitha seems to have just one: his Team Magma uniform, with the striped pants and longer horns that mark him as an admin. Besides that, Brodie wonders, what is he? Everyone here is something else, too, even if they don't much like it; there are people from all over Hoenn, some of whom might even be expected to have something better than this to do. Tabitha, however, remains a mystery—a handsome mystery, but a mystery nonetheless.

Well, he's got to have some sort of personality, surely, buried beneath that red hood. It might be fun, Brodie decides, to try and dig it up.

·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·

Courtney waves the stub of her cigarette, exhaling; their unofficial break room looks like there's been a fire from the amount of smoke floating across the low ceiling.

"I don't see what the big deal is, Tab."

"You haven't had to deal with him every day." Tabitha scowls at the wall, leaning back in his chair. "He doesn't listen."

"What, he talks back to you?"

"Hn...No. Technically no."

"Doesn't follow orders?"

"I don't know." Tabitha's scowl deepens; he folds his arms, balancing on the back two legs of his chair. "I've never caught him at it, but I don't think he does half of what he's told. Cons other people into covering his duties for him."

"Then what's the problem? Long as it all gets done."

Tabitha looks askance at her, and she smears her dying cigarette against the wall, leaving a streak of ash on the dull metal.

"It's his attitude, Courtney. He doesn't know his place."

He can tell, beneath her hood, that she's rolling her eyes as she rummages in her skirt pocket for a fresh cigarette. In public they're equals, but when the grunts are gone Courtney never forgets that she's older than him, if only by a little, and that it was her recommendation to Maxie that got him promoted in the first place.

"Tab..."

The lighter's flame dances for a few seconds, then flickers out. She takes a deep pull and exhales smoke from her nostrils, like a Torkoal.

"If you're that worked up about it, tell the boss."

"No." Courtney raises an eyebrow at his tone. "It's not worth bothering him about. He's got better things to do."

"Well, so do we."

Tabitha leans forward, setting his chair on all four legs again with a bang as Courtney gestures with her cigarette.

"It's not spreading, y'know. Nobody else is acting out, he's not starting a rebellion. Guy's a fuckin' weirdo, but Maxie wanted him on board, and he's good at pinching stuff."

Tabitha can't argue with this. Brodie was recently set loose on a mission to infiltrate a private residence in Pacifidlog, and returned after only a week with even more material than Maxie had asked for.

"I still don't trust him."

Courtney shakes her head and takes a drag from her cigarette.

"He's just a freak, Tab. Let it go."

·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·

"Let's get one thing straight, pretty boy: I don't like your attitude."

Commander Tabitha clearly wants to be intimidating; there's a cutting edge to his normally curt voice, and he's summoned Brodie to this out-of-the-way corridor instead of chewing him out in line like usual. He doesn't speak loudly, but his words bounce off the metal all the same.

"Pretty boy?" Brodie echoes. "Well now, look who's talking."

They size each other up, and Brodie can tell Tabitha doesn't quite follow him; it visibly deepens the commander's anger, his expression clouding beneath his hood. Cute guy, really, if he'd smile.

He snarls as if stung when Brodie reaches out and runs a knuckle along his bare upper arm, strong and toned and chiseled—quite deliberately chiseled, though Tabitha doesn't seem vain enough to justify the effort. More than a little suspicious, that.

"Who are you trying so hard to impress, commander? I've been wondering."

"Shut up and listen."

"I know you don't screw any of the girls, they all whine about it."

"This is serious work we do here, and I'm sick and tired of you waltzing around like you're above the rules. You're not, and you sure as hell don't have the right to—"

"Is it Courtney?"

"Listen to me."

"That redhead on Team Aqua?"

Tabitha grabs a fistful of the Magma logo on the front of Brodie's hood, yanking him forward a few inches. Brodie forces himself not to smile as Tabitha's grip tightens, but it's difficult, particularly when his mouth twitching makes Tabitha's eyes blaze. Brodie's not afraid—if anything, such ferocity is a sign of weakness. Tabitha is never physically violent with the grunts, no matter how inept.

"I don't like you," Tabitha says again, measuring out each word. "Got that, smartass? One more toe out of line..."

Brodie strikes like a snake, locking their lips, leaning forward far enough to press against Tabitha with the full weight of his body. Tabitha hesitates for one second too long before shoving him away, cursing and spitting, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand; Brodie laughs and is gone.

·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·

"I must say I'm surprised at you, Commander Tabitha."

Maxie supports his teacup from below with his other hand, leaning back in his plush office chair. Behind him, through the enormous glass panel that takes up the far wall, sunlight glitters along the surface of the sea.

"He's an ass, sir." Tabitha knows the anger's there in his voice, though he does his best to keep it at an acceptable level. "An insubordinate, self-absorbed, lazy, attention-seeking—"

Maxie takes a sip of tea. It's a simple gesture, measured and thoughtful and not at all threatening, but it silences Tabitha as effectively as if he'd shouted.

"I understand your concerns. And I realize that Brodie might not be...usual material, shall we say, as a team member. But he's very good at what he does, and his is a skill set we'd been sorely lacking."

Tabitha shifts his weight. Maxie leans forward and sets his teacup on the desk, next to a stack of paperwork.

"What strikes me as odd, Tabitha, is that you've evidently let him get the better of you."

"Sir?"

"You've always been a professional. I appreciate that very much. So you'll understand my surprise—" (he says surprise, but Tabitha knows by his tone that he means displeasure), "—that you've allowed one of your teammates to get under your skin to this degree."

It's the first time such a thing has happened, and Tabitha is painfully aware of how it makes him look: petty at best, incompetent at worst. His whole body tenses. Incompetence is by far the greatest sin, and Maxie's disapproval the greatest punishment; Maxie isn't angry yet, but Tabitha still feels like he's being gutted a bit too slowly. Maxie picks up his tea again.

"Since this is obviously an ongoing issue, Brodie will be moved to Courtney's division, and report to her from now on. I assume that will put the matter to rest."

"Moved..."

Tabitha collects his thoughts, opens his mouth—Maxie interrupts him before he can begin.

"I'm not going to fire him, Tabitha. He's invaluable, as I've explained." Another sip of tea. "Truth be told, we were lucky to secure his services. People like him tend not to sign their loyalties away."

Tabitha's stomach twists with righteous indignation. Loyalty? Loyalty isn't signing the damn papers and stuffing yourself in a uniform—any idiot off the street could manage that—loyalty is something terrifyingly sacred, a peculiar, desperate feeling that runs through the depths of him like a vein of buried gold. Loyalty! What the hell does that preening fool Brodie know about loyalty?

Maxie does not seem aware of the magnitude of what he's said. He speaks over the rim of his teacup.

"That settles it, then. I'll inform Courtney this afternoon."

"What about his uniform, sir?"

"Pardon?"

"He's ruined every one he's been issued."

"Oh, that's of no consequence."

"But letting him do that makes—"

"He has permission, Tabitha, let's leave it at that." Maxie leans back in his chair, cradling his tea with both hands. "And I hope it goes without saying that I don't want to hear about this again. You are dismissed."

Tabitha bows his head, partly out of respect, and partly so Maxie can't see his expression.

·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·

Tabitha's cornered him in private again, obviously unwilling to let the others see him potentially lose his composure; the fluorescent paneling overhead flickers feebly inside the large, empty storeroom. Brodie leans back against the closed door, holding Tabitha's gaze while reining in his own smile. The commander himself looks quietly frustrated, and it's delightful. Nobody else has ever gotten this much of a rise out of him, and Brodie's not even making any effort yet.

"I don't know how you did it," Tabitha continues, "but you're off the hook for now. But don't think I'm taking my eye off you just because you're off my squad."

"I'm flattered, sir."

"Cut it out. And another thing..."

He grabs the front of Brodie's uniform for emphasis, but does not pull him close.

"If you make a move like that ever again, I'll break your face in half. Got it?"

Brodie knows full well what he's referring to; grabbing his shirt in the same way was reminder enough. But instead of laughing, he frowns, and Tabitha freezes, his grip slackening. Brodie suddenly wonders if he's ever frowned properly in front of the guy before, and milks his surprise for all it's worth, using the time it buys him to study Tabitha's handsome features. Anger blazing there, anger anger anger but not a pure anger, exactly; there's something else, something Brodie recognizes at last in the depths of his dark eyes. Something hidden there—a proper disguise at last.

"You like pretty boys, don't you, pretty boy?"

Tabitha lets go of him, a spasm contorting his face.

"What I like is none of your damn business."

"Oh? That's too bad." He can't contain it any longer: his grin reappears. "Because I could make it my business, if you wanted."

Tabitha looks ready to hit him—righteously indignant—but doesn't actually raise a hand to strike, or even step backwards, and that alone tells Brodie his instincts are correct. He grins and reaches a gloved hand out as if to stroke Tabitha's jawline; Tabitha flinches and catches his wrist, but Brodie twists out of his grasp in a flash. He's a thief, after all.

"Am I your type, commander?"

And for the sheer surprise of it, Brodie grabs him by the front of the shirt, strolling merrily along the knife's edge between playfulness and aggression; the look on Tabitha's face is worth the risk.

"Be honest now. Am I?"

"Let go of me before I knock your fucking teeth out."

That's a yes.

·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·

The sudden sound makes Tabitha look up from his seat on the edge of the bunk. He grimaces and runs a hand through his hair, having just removed his hooded overshirt, left sitting in the thin sleeveless shirt beneath. The knock comes again.

"You in there, Tab?"

Tabitha watches the door open, sitting up straight, beginning to frown; it isn't like Courtney to stop by his room.

"What's going on?" He gets to his feet as she steps inside; something has to be wrong, surely, if she's swinging by this late. "Did something happen down in the lab?"

Courtney laughs. Or rather, the person standing in the doorway laughs, and anger boils up inside Tabitha when the voice is Courtney's no longer. "She" strides forward, one fist on her hip.

"Where the hell did you get that uniform?"

It's Courtney's, one of her spares—surely he couldn't replicate it that faithfully on his own—surely—

"What are you doing here?"

"Oh, just testing this out."

Courtney—dammit, no, Brodie—Brodie flips his hair—not his hair, a fucking wig—the blasphemous abomination in front of Tabitha laughs again at his expression.

"I thought if I could fool you with this one, I could fool anybody."

The illusion cracks three feet away; now Brodie's close enough for Tabitha to see the cut of his features, blurred by makeup and the framing wig but most definitely not Courtney's. Yet he's gotten her mannerisms perfectly, right down to the exaggerated swing of her hips, and even this close Tabitha knows he couldn't tell him from her out of the corner of his eye. It's very, very weird.

"You've got ten seconds to get the hell out of here."

"Ten seconds? Before you do what, Tab?"

"Stop—damn it, you bastard, stop doing her voice. Get back to your quarters or you'll have hell to pay tomorrow. And get rid of that fucking skirt."

Brodie-Courtney bows mockingly, then straightens, lowering his hood and removing his wig with one fluid gesture. His shock of dark purple hair escapes from beneath the wig's net, and he teases it up with one hand.

"Get out."

"What's the hurry?" Brodie tugs at a streak in the front of his hair that's dyed orange, setting it into place, then pulls his gloves off like a surgeon. He slips the red armguards off after them, letting them fall to the floor next to the wig.

"Listen, asshole—" (the insult only makes him smirk) "—I'm sick of your clown act. I don't know who you think you are, but not even you can get away with a stunt like this. Tomorrow—"

"What's going to happen tomorrow?"

Throw him overboard...No, not allowed. Report him to Maxie, but how much would that accomplish? Would Maxie even believe something as outrageous at this?

"Just get the hell out."

"I'm hurt, commander. And here I thought I was your type."

"Go fuck yourself. All right? You don't know the first fucking thing about—"

On some level, Tabitha expects the kiss, but not enough to dodge it in time. He stumbles backwards; when his heels hit the base of the bunk he falls onto it awkwardly, suddenly sitting on the edge, glaring up at Brodie with gritted teeth. Brodie laughs and sinks to the floor, resting his chin invitingly between Tabitha's knees.

"How about a quick favor, commander? I promise I'll be nice."

Tabitha calls him many unpleasant names, but does not try to move away.

·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·

Calling him desperate would be an exaggeration, and unkind to boot. But it's been a while since Brodie's been with anyone who falls into the rhythm of things this quickly, vitriol and half-assed protests aside. He knows Tabitha's trying to prove something at first by attempting to be stoic, but whatever point he might have wanted to make goes out the window soon enough; his knuckles clutching at the edge of the bed turn white as Brodie teases him. Should have popped his tongue ring in, he thinks, but ah well. Too late now.

The job's so easy that Brodie begins to wonder at it after a few minutes. Is he faking, for some reason? He tries something specific—Tabitha chokes back a cry—nope, definitely not faking. Well then, no wonder the guy's always so tightly wound. He whines like it's been years.

·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·

Tabitha grits his teeth, trying to stifle his gasps; a bead of sweat trickles down the side of his face, down his neck, all the way to his collarbone. When he yelps and goes blind the whole world hangs suspended, and he has no idea how many seconds have elapsed by the time reason comes crawling back to him, drunk and dazed.

"There. Are we even?"

Tabitha passes a hand over his face, shudders once, and exhales, his heart throbbing in his ears. Brodie sits back and rocks on the balls of his feet, red-faced and grinning, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. He smiles like he's won a game, and Tabitha shudders again, swallowing hard, staggering to his feet so he can clumsily refasten his pants. The air feels cold on him.

"Go back to your quarters." His voice shakes with relief. "Get up. Now."

For once in his life, Brodie obeys. He looks absolutely bizarre in Courtney's uniform, and doesn't care a whit, laughing gently to himself as he stoops to retrieve his gloves and wig. He doesn't put the wig back on, holding it in one hand instead.

"You're welcome, commander." He makes a motion with the wig as if tipping a hat, one side of his mouth twisted up in a mocking grin. "See you around?"

Brodie saunters out, evidently unperturbed, shutting the door behind him. Tabitha paces a little before sitting on the floor with his back against the wall, cursing quietly.

·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·

Tabitha looks him dead in the eye the next morning at roll call, daring him to say or do anything to acknowledge the previous evening; Brodie doesn't, just smiles his usual smile, but as they all disperse for their first round of duties he can tell Tabitha is off-kilter. Tabitha doesn't avoid him—that would be tantamount to defeat, apparently—but he doesn't go out of his way to harass Brodie, either. Doesn't want to arouse anything resembling suspicion, Brodie supposes. Courtney ushers her half of the assembled team away, barking orders; Brodie lags behind.

Disguises...Well, he's torn at least one off: Commander Tabitha isn't as unfailingly professional as he'd like the world to believe. Everyone has weaknesses, cracks in their self-image, and it's into those cracks that Brodie slips when he's trying to pass as someone else; he's more familiar with them than most people ever decide to become. Tabitha, like so many, chooses to pretend that the cracks aren't there, and that's his first mistake. After all, those cracks can be widened with a little patience.

Brodie finds him in one of improvised staff rooms at the start of third shift, brooding over some paperwork.

"Why aren't you at your post?"

Always so confrontational. Brodie studies the fingernails of his one gloveless hand (he never bothers to wear both at once), then steps forward.

"Afternoon, commander. Heard you wanted to see me?"

Tabitha's brow furrows, and he stands up, leaving the checklist on the edge of the folding table.

"I don't. Who sent you over?"

Brodie chuckles to tell him he'd lied. Tabitha's scowl deepens as Brodie approaches, and Tabitha moves from behind the table to menacingly close the distance between them.

"If you weren't sent here, then get back to your post."

"Or you'll what? Write me up?"

"Only if you're lucky."

But Brodie can tell at once that the threat's half-empty; Tabitha won't knock him flying over anything he might say. Too professional for that sort of thing.

"Just wanted to drop by, commander. Friendly chat. How's your day been?"

"Don't talk to me."

Brodie studies him. So furiously dedicated, and to what? For what? Why bother? Brodie does what he does because it's fun, but this guy acts like he's never had fun in his life. Such a flimsy shield to try and put up. Who does he think he's fooling, really?

"I didn't want to talk," Brodie says invitingly, smiling.

·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·

Somehow, a routine develops over the next couple of weeks. Tabitha pretends to himself that it isn't happening, and it helps that he doesn't have to see Brodie much during the day; Brodie seems to avoid him on purpose, presumably to make whether he shows up in the evening that much more of a surprise. At first Tabitha worries about someone noticing Brodie's coming and going, but as Brodie himself points out, if anyone can move around the base without being noticed, it's him. So Tabitha lets it happen. There's nothing between them but immediate physical gratification, and Brodie always leaves, and it's inexcusable and unprofessional and will be detrimental to his authority, even, if Brodie decides to spread the word—yet it happens nonetheless.

But Brodie won't blackmail him over it; he's oddly sure of that from day one. It's a game to the infuriating bastard, yes, but a game with only two players; if he'd wanted to ruin Tabitha he could have done it sooner, and dishonestly. Their tug-of-war stays behind closed doors. And no matter how much Tabitha might despise Brodie's flippancy, he can't deny that he's a man of many talents.

"How do you do that?"

He talks to Brodie's reflection in the bathroom mirror in front of him; Brodie's leaning against the door frame, half-dressed, arms folded.

"Do what?"

"Everything you do. Look like someone else. Sound like them."

Brodie shrugs with one shoulder and steps inside.

"I pay attention. Most people don't."

"Pay attention to what?"

"Oh, you know. All the little things...Details."

Brodie's right behind him now. He rests his chin on Tabitha's bare shoulder, wrapping his arms around his waist; Tabitha frowns at their joint reflection even as Brodie teasingly runs a thumb inside the waistband of his underwear.

"Besides...People only see what they expect to see. And they never expect to see me."

Tabitha inhales sharply through his teeth when Brodie's hand goes lower. Brodie hums a few bars of some tune Tabitha's never heard, and Tabitha stares fixedly at their reflections even as Brodie presses himself closer, kissing his neck.

·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·

There are things beneath that uniform; Brodie's sure of it after a month. It's like the recon part of a thieving job, this prying and prowling until he discovers something valuable, and it's funny, almost, the difference between what's outside and what's inside. He's Commander Tabitha, after all, and the boss's right hand, but no matter how deep Brodie digs he's never found anything particularly Magma-ish below the surface—no fiery zeal to expand the land mass for everyone's sake, or whatever it is the grunts have convinced themselves they're all up to. Tabitha's not here for Groudon, not really; he wants it because Maxie wants it, is all. Brodie has the impression that if Maxie woke up one morning and announced he'd like one of the stars, Tabitha would nod gravely and go fetch a ladder.

"Why are you here, commander?"

"What do you mean?"

"I'm here because I was bored. What about you?"

It's easiest to prod him with questions when he's relaxed; even if he doesn't answer them, he doesn't get wound up, either. Tabitha closes his eyes, exhales deeply, then looks down at him, his sweaty bangs clinging to his forehead; Brodie's own hair is wild and unruly, sticking out in odd ways even when damp. He's lying on his back on top of half the sheets; Tabitha sits on the bed beside him, his bare back to the wall. Brodie's still wearing random bits of clothing: his thin undershirt, a single glove.

"I was bored," Brodie says again. "I'd been in one city too long. You know how it gets." A lazy yawn. "And you? What brought you on board?"

Tabitha mutters something, shifting, looking away. Brodie studies his frown. Either scowling or smirking, this guy; not much in between.

"I wanted to start over," Tabitha admits. He doesn't look at Brodie when he says it. "That's all."

"Not big into the environmental stuff, huh?" Brodie yawns again. "Yeah, you never struck me as the type. Not like Rachel and all them. Wandered in from the school of hard knocks, am I right?"

"None of your business." A brief silence, and then: "You don't care about anything, do you?"

Brodie raises his head up off the pillow.

"Hmm?"

"Nothing but your stupid jokes. Nothing fucking matters to you."

"You say that like it's a bad thing." He sits up, pulling up one knee so he can rest his arm across it. "What is it that matters so much to you, commander?"

He waits, but doesn't get an answer.

·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·

Trying to figure Brodie out is like trying to put together a puzzle blindfolded—or rather, like trying to put together one complete puzzle out of the jumbled-up pieces of several. He'll drop little hints, sometimes, about things he's done and places he's been, but Tabitha has no way to sift through and determine what is and isn't true.

Tabitha doesn't ask questions directly—that would imply he cares, which he doesn't, it's not an emotional curiosity—but all the same, there are certain things it would be nice to know. Where the smug bastard's from, for one. So he asks one night (demands, really), and once Brodie stops laughing he says Rustboro.

"What does it matter?"

"It doesn't."

"Well, where are you from, then?"

As usual, Tabitha does not answer. Brodie waits patiently, propping himself up on one elbow to walk two fingers across Tabitha's chest.

"Hmm?"

Brodie's paler than him; it's most noticeable when they're tangled like this, not yet down to business but still skin on skin, beginning to sweat at last. Not scrawny, exactly, but lithe, is how Tabitha would describe him. Lithe and pale and always smiling, even when he's pinned down, and pinning him hardly helps because he's so damned quick; he can feign helplessness and then have a hand somewhere new before Tabitha has time to fight back. And the worst part about it is that he really is gorgeous. No tattoos (the fake one under his eye changes color every week), but piercings enough to make up for it, and his eyes are an odd, honeyed hazel that seem to morph, like the rest of him, whenever he needs them to. Tabitha is sure he's seen them be green, some nights, and brown and black and blue.

"I'm from Slateport City," Tabitha says at last. He bites Brodie's collarbone to keep him from asking anything else.

·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·

They never set a schedule, so to speak. Brodie hates scheduling on principle, and so whether he shows up and what they do to one another doesn't get set in stone; it's more fun that way, in his book. Truth be told, Brodie himself hadn't expected this to last more than a few visits. It's just that Tabitha's amusingly frustrated by it, and that means it doesn't grow stale as quickly as it could have.

That's always what drives Brodie away: staleness, or whatever it's called when people start getting comfortable. He's not sure because he's never gotten comfortable with anyone; he's always just here and then gone, bowing and kissing someone's hand after effortlessly filching whatever's in their pockets. His list of crimes built on attraction is as long as any of his other accomplishments, and it's not without pride that he reflects on them. (The best, he still thinks, surely must be that widower from Lavaridge who was engaged to him, as shrinking violet 'Priscilla,' for a good three months.) This fling with the commander isn't a caper, though—just a bit of fun to pass the time. Fooling around in a nightclub without the nightclub, so to speak.

"Why won't you leave me alone?"

Tabitha asks this between rounds, not angrily but with a definite sour note in his voice. He's left his socks on again, Brodie notes. He does that more often than someone of his demeanor has a right to.

"You don't want to be left alone, Tabby."

"Don't call me that. And you don't know what I want."

This is phenomenally untrue; Tabitha's very clear about telegraphing what he wants once he's been kissed long enough, and Brodie laughs at his reflexive bravado, leaning his head back to rest in the crook of Tabitha's armpit. Tabitha growls and sits upright, making Brodie's head fall back onto the pillow.

"Don't be so dramatic." Brodie sits up too, cracking his neck and sighing merrily, surveying with mild interest the tangle of sheets spilling off the narrow bunk. "Face it, commander, you're an open book sometimes."

Tabitha's reply is too low and muttered to make out, and with some curiosity Brodie realizes he's distracted—lost in himself, genuinely thinking about something that the conversation has turned his mind towards. Odd. He's not one for getting pensive. Or at least, Brodie's never seen him at it.

"What's eating you all of a sudden?"

Tabitha snaps back to the present—dim lights, damp sheets, Brodie's voice—and Brodie laughs at him. No matter how dark Tabitha's expression gets, there's just no taking him seriously when he's naked.

·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·

Brodie rarely goes anywhere, Tabitha learns. He does not have the physical restriction of needing to pick himself up and move from place to place; he simply appears, as if by magic, wherever he wants to be. This is why Tabitha can look up from pulling off his boots as he sits on the edge of his bunk, and find Brodie filing his nails in the corner, leaning against the wall. The door is closed.

"Miss me?"

"Get out." He pulls his other boot off, and considers throwing it at him. "Now."

"You don't mean that."

"How do you know?"

"You've never meant it before."

He has meant it, at least a little, every single time—not that it matters. Brodie approaches him, smiling that jester's smile; Tabitha does not throw his boot, or anything else, at him.

"You're so tense," Brodie says a little later, once Tabitha's shirt is on the floor. Tabitha bows his head and shudders when Brodie licks the crook of his neck, running one hand's worth of nails down his bare back just hard enough to hurt.

"I've been busy."

"I'm sure." Brodie chuckles into his hair, scratching his back more lightly; it relaxes him. "Say you missed me, commander."

"No."

The bunk creaks as Brodie shifts position.

"Aww. You're hurting my feelings."

"You don't have feelings."

"That's not very nice."

"It's true. Everything about you is fake."

Tabitha can hear Brodie humming quietly to himself, turning this thought over. The bunk creaks again when he leans forward, and his words are warm on his skin.

"Well, you're not completely honest yourself, now are you?"

Brodie's hand on his back wanders further, and another hand joins it. Tabitha shivers, vaguely ticklish.

"Why do you keep letting me come back, hmm? You don't like me..."

"Better than nothing," Tabitha grunts, scowling at the floor. Not entirely true, though, that's the nagging thing. He doesn't like the bastard, sure, but the guy knows how to fuck, and while it's better than nothing it's still not what he wants. But what he wants is too...No, there's no point. Admitting it to himself—digging it up and scraping the dirt off and actually looking at it in the sunlight—doing that would make it real, and that's the last thing he can afford. Some veins of gold are better left unmined.

Brodie's right hand does something so sudden and unexpected that Tabitha jolts.

"Fuck you," is the first thing he spits out, even as his body responds.

His tone would have terrified any of the grunts. Brodie laughs.

·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·

When he comes, it's a bitter, mechanical release—pressure easing, and nothing more. Brodie's finished already, and as Tabitha crumples beside him, he resists the urge to kick him onto the floor, where he belongs.

"You're off your game tonight, Tabby. Long day?"

Tabitha grumbles something unintelligible as he fights to get his breath back, trembling like a drunkard. Brodie chuckles and props himself up on one elbow so that he fills Tabitha's field of vision; Tabitha closes his eyes, but that doesn't block Brodie's voice.

"You're so cute when you pout."

"Hn. You sound like Alex."

He doesn't realize he's muttered it until it's already said, and grits his teeth at himself; beside him, Brodie's eyes have lit up.

"Oh? And who is Alex?"

Tabitha rolls over, scowling. He flinches when Brodie traces his left shoulder blade with a finger; the muscles in his back tighten, like an animal shying away from something painful. Not even the warmth spreading from the pit of his stomach is enough to quench his anger.

"How many times do I have to tell you to shut up?"

"You haven't said it yet tonight."

"Then shut the hell up. All right? If we're done, get out of here."

"Are we?"

The finger swirls across Tabitha's back, snaking down along his side and beneath the tangled sheets. Tabitha feels it tracing patterns on the side of his thigh.

"Tell me," comes Brodie's voice from behind him. "Who's Alex, hmm?"

"Just a guy I used to know. Drop it."

"Oh...Broke up with you, huh? Ouch."

Tabitha's elbow hits Brodie in the ribs more or less by mistake; he just sort of jerks his arm back without looking, hoping to make contact, and is rewarded with a satisfying jolt and Brodie's cry of pain. But the sound turns into a laugh almost at once, and Tabitha bitterly wonders whether Brodie's whole damn nervous system is wired backwards. Maybe laughing is his reaction to pain, and if you told him a joke his reflex would be to cry.

"Was it the first time you'd been dumped?" Brodie doesn't get an answer, and so adds, with gleeful spite, "I'll bet it wasn't. You're so very difficult."

Tabitha doesn't roll over to glare at him, staring instead at a dent in the metal wall. The bunk shifts; he can tell by the feeling that Brodie's pulled himself upright.

"You don't know anything about me," he says to the far wall.

Brodie slips a hand into his sweaty hair and scratches his scalp, paying particular attention to that one sensitive spot just above his right ear.

"That's not true. I know you're from Slateport." (Tabitha snorts.) "You aren't?"

"I was."

"And is that where you met Alex?"

Tabitha growls softly, and Brodie does not press the question. Instead he keeps scratching, and it feels so stupidly delicious that Tabitha can't help but sigh; the tension in his back eases. No, Alex wasn't from Slateport. Nothing good had ever happened in Slateport, and Alex had been good, for a while.

"Are you really from Rustboro City?"

He looks up at Brodie when he asks this.

"Rustboro?" Brodie's teeth flash in the dim light. "Hah! No, I'm not. Forgot I told you that one, haha..."

·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·

"—according to plan. Which is almost more than we could have hoped for, in point of fact."

Maxie's mood dictates the tenor of these briefings, and when he's pleased they're frankly pleasant—formal, to be sure, but without a sense of urgency. Courtney stifles a yawn (it's early) and thumbs through her papers; Tabitha nods, and Maxie (sitting at his desk, while the two of them stand in front of it) rolls a pen idly between his steepled fingers.

"Anything else, sir?" Tabitha prompts; Maxie tilts his head back a little, so that his pensive gaze goes over the tops of their horns.

"Yes. I want to send Brodie out for something. It's been a while since we've used him, and I have a particular target in mind."

"I'll tell him," Courtney says, scribbling a note to that effect on the corner of a paper. "You wanna see him today, boss?"

"No. Tuesday, perhaps. I still have to make some decisions."

"How long will he be gone?"

The question escapes Tabitha's mouth completely by accident; he'd had no idea it had even been sitting there. Courtney and Maxie both glance to him, and he meets Maxie's gaze—has to, no choice—Maxie's curiosity is mild but unmistakeable. Tabitha forces himself to maintain his composure, but he can sense Courtney giving him an odd look out of the corner of his eye.

"I'm not certain." It takes Tabitha a second to realize Maxie has said this in answer to his question. "A week, I suppose, at the least. Why?"

Tabitha has more sense than to talk himself into a corner, and so simply bows his head.

"Just curious, sir."

Maxie gives him a swift, puzzled look, and Tabitha knows he's remembering their other conversation about Brodie, already a couple of months ago. For one horrible moment he's afraid Maxie will pursue the subject, but instead he turns his attention back to the paper in front of him, and to Courtney.

"Well. On top of all of that..."

Tabitha tries to look nonchalant, and not as if he's dodged a bullet, but he keeps his eyes unwaveringly on Maxie, who has leaned back in his chair. It's a sight he's looked at countless times over several years, and yet there had come a day (not even Tabitha himself can pinpoint which one) when he grew to appreciate the difference between looking and seeing. Looking was all he'd wanted to do at first, and all he'll let himself do these days. But at the moment, as a distraction, Tabitha permits himself to see.

Not slouching, but relaxed, one bent elbow on the armrest, toying with the pen in one hand as he thinks aloud at the notetaking Courtney. Coat on, as always. He gestures at her with the pen, leans forward and adjusts his posture; the elbow on the armrest of the chair moves to perch on the edge of the desk, balanced perfectly. Smiling as he talks. Not widely, not Brodie's jester smile, but with a note of comparable arrogance—yet far more dignified, more refined. Lines at the corners of his mouth. His sleek red hair has receded only just enough to accentuate his widow's peak, and his eyes are red, too—not blindingly red like fire or blood but paler, to match his pale skin—the color of some flower, maybe. A maple leaf in autumn? No, something rarer than that, rarer and more valuable. A gemstone of some kind.

He sets the pen onto the desk and leans back again with a satisfied exhalation that matches the faint squeak of his chair. Both elbows on the armrests now, so he can lightly interlace his fingers: his customary position of contentment, rules set and orders given, the world lying at his feet. At this angle he's almost fully in profile, his silhouette sharp against the bright glass wall behind him; a shaft of light slips from around the high back of his chair to fall, as if intentionally, just where the high collar of his coat gives way to soft skin.

"—all in order. Tabitha, do you have anything to add?"

"No, sir."

·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·

"the best you can do, you lazy bastard? At least make an effort back there—"

Brodie's not angry; Tabitha knows better than that by now. He just likes to be vicious sometimes, trying to rile Tabitha up, sneering at him between gasps—and as Tabitha goes faster the sneers become fewer and further between, Brodie too overwhelmed to keep up the tirade, gasping blending into laughter blending into the gamut of noises that people make when desperation begins to cloud all other thought.

Tabitha follows him there soon enough, sometimes steadying himself against the wall with one hand, the hard bunk a little painful on his knees. A bead of sweat runs from his hairline down the side of his face, like a teardrop, skittering along his jawline to drip off of his chin. He no longer hears Brodie's panting. Panting, yes, but not Brodie's. Not Brodie's—

—not him—

—not—

him—

He doesn't realize exactly what he's done until the moment has passed and a sharp laugh parts the tide of dizzy warmth flooding his brain. He gulps down air as Brodie laughs.

"Oh, so that's what this is about? Too funny! I hadn't guessed..."

Tabitha flushes even as relief courses through him—shit—had he actually said—shit.

As Tabitha pulls away, Brodie rolls over onto his back, grinning broadly up at him. Tabitha, still kneeling, gives himself time to catch his breath, passing a hand through his hair, only now feeling the sweat on his back. When he straightens up, two droplets race each other down his spine. He does not make eye contact with Brodie, who has propped himself up on both elbows as if lying back on a sofa.

"Well now! That's not very professional of you, commander."

"Shut up."

"I could do his voice, you know."

"Shut up. Just—fuck. Damn it. Shut up for once."

Mercifully, Brodie leaves soon. Tabitha tears off the pillowcase smeared with his makeup, tossing it onto the floor.

·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·

That one cry connects a number of dots for Brodie, and he keeps away from Tabitha for a few days (partly to ponder the whole thing, partly to grate on Tabitha's nerves). It's almost disappointing—certainly laughable—how trite such a revelation is, and yet Brodie feels confident that he now knows something about Tabitha that no one else does. Everybody wears disguises and Tabitha's no exception, obsessive professionalism be damned; here's some more proof.

Sitting cross-legged on the floor of his tiny cabin, surrounded by bottles and vials of liquid and powder, Brodie sets about mixing another batch of his basic concealer, and a few other things that his disguise kit is running low on. He stirs a pinch of powder into the bowl in front of him; nearby, Ditto oozes lazily, looking rather like one of the bottled concoctions has spilled. It squeaks its name, and Brodie pokes it, then holds a vial up to the harsh yellow light to study its contents.

It's actually disappointing, in a way. Half the fun this whole time has been setting the knife point against Tabitha's ribs and tickling ever so gently, but now that he knows this it's as if he's accidentally applied too much pressure and sent the blade all the way in, slicing his heart. He has a gut feeling that things can't last much longer between them; Tabitha was so obviously humiliated by his accidental confession that he'll surely steel himself to the task of cutting Brodie loose sooner rather than later. In which case Brodie might as well do the honors himself. That way, he can be sure to wring one last round of entertainment out of Tabitha before it all goes up in smoke.

"What a silly bastard," he says to no one, swirling the vial. Ditto blinks and squishes itself into a smaller blob, yawning.

·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·

"Who have you told?"

Brodie looks up from his perch on the edge of the bed; he had been methodically untying his boots.

"What now?"

"About what...Look, who have you told? Since last time."

Brodie gives an exaggerated yawn, followed by an equally exaggerated look of wounded pride. He looks strange, sitting there naked from the waist up; the cut of the uniform pants makes them look baggy without the top half of the ensemble for balance. He's wearing a nipple ring, too. Just one.

"Really, commander, I thought you knew me better than that."

"Don't play dumb."

Brodie waves a hand dismissively, then removes his other boot.

"As a matter of fact, I haven't told a soul."

Tabitha stares hard at him, as if this will somehow intimidate him into being even a fraction less flippant; naturally it does nothing of the sort. Brodie might be intimidated by something or someone, somewhere, but Tabitha has yet to figure out what. And the most unnerving part is that he's probably telling the truth. Despite Tabitha's paranoia, he hasn't noticed anyone treating him differently lately, not Maxie or Courtney or any of the grunts.

Brodie yawns again, apparently bored, and folds his arms behind his neck, cocking his head and closing one eye as he regards Tabitha.

"Have you ever considered telling him you want your cock in his mouth? Because I doubt he'd be surprised."

Tabitha makes a stiff, reflexive gesture, wanting to hit or throw something at Brodie, but there's nothing at hand and he's several feet away. Brodie laughs heartily (that damned court jester laugh—nails on a chalkboard) and falls backward, sprawling across the bed, humming a tune. When Tabitha does not move for a few seconds, Brodie raises his head.

"Look, commander, you're not the only one around here who's been busy lately. Are we going to fuck or what? I've got things to do."

Grimacing, he wriggles out of his pants and slides them over his narrow hips, kicking them onto the floor; he's left lying sideways across the bunk in nothing but socks and—no, just socks, he wasn't even wearing underwear. Goddamn freak.

"I fucking hate you," Tabitha growls, pulling off his shirt.

·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·

Sometimes their liaisons are almost not worth the effort: forced and awkward, habit taking over when one of them (usually Tabitha) is too tired or preoccupied to take the situation seriously. Tonight isn't one of those occasions. It's been a long week (for Tabitha at least), but Brodie's in an acerbic little mood that makes him bite and scratch more than usual, rather like when they'd first starting doing this only a few months ago. Tabitha fights back, trading insult for insult even as his body shudders in time with the pulse of the fire coursing through his veins, heat and hate and sweat, the pair of them burning and burning together until all of a sudden the flames roar up and consume his mind, a white-hot flash of eternity that leaves him exhausted when it evaporates.

"Welcome back."

Brodie pokes him in the temple, having a laugh at his expense; Tabitha shoves Brodie over a few inches, so that he's stuck with the worst of the wet spots. Brodie doesn't seem to mind.

For a while they lie there, both uncomfortable in the narrow bunk but neither willing to admit defeat by sitting up. When enough relief drains out of Tabitha for him to grow restless, he opens his eyes, and finds himself (since he's on his side) gazing down at the floor. A mess of their clothes, as usual.

He reaches down with one hand for his pants, then stops himself: they aren't his. One of the things Brodie's done is put stripes on just one leg of his asymmetrical pants, so that from this angle they do look like his, if a little less worn. Tabitha frowns, shoving them aside.

"What is it?" comes Brodie's voice.

"Your stupid uniform."

"What about it?"

"I can't believe Maxie lets you wear it. You look like a fool."

"Oh, and you don't?" Brodie's laugh rattles around the cabin. "We all look like fools on this boat, Tabby. Kids in costume."

"Don't call me that."

Brodie's laugh quiets to a hum as he doodles absently on Tabitha's back with one finger.

"I got permission, you know. Right after I joined."

"For what?"

"My uniform. I could have told you that up front, but seeing it bother you was a lot more fun."

Brodie sighs contentedly and wriggles a bit to get comfortable in the indent he's made in the scratchy sheets, his eyes closed.

"Maxie said no at first, of course. He likes things all in a row, like you. So I persuaded him."

A flick of his tongue and merry laugh makes it very clear what he means, and the second Tabitha registers it, he pulls himself upright, glaring down at Brodie.

"You're lying."

"I'm not."

He says it so breezily that Tabitha's stomach drops. Of course he's lying, stupid bastard, he has to be. Brodie opens one eye.

"What, does that bother you?"

His expression must be betraying him, because Brodie's suddenly all amusement, eyes glittering as he sits up too.

"Oh, but I thought it wouldn't. You're a professional, after all."

"Don't say shit like that." Tabitha feels his heart speeding up—but why? Brodie's lying. "That's not funny."

"You don't believe me?"

"No."

"Or you don't want to believe me?"

"You're a fucking liar, Brodie."

Tabitha swings out of bed, tossing the sheets over Brodie's head as if to hide something disgusting; Brodie pulls them down again.

"I wouldn't say that if it didn't happen, you know."

"Shut up. Get up and leave."

With an exasperated sigh, Brodie slides out of bed; Tabitha glares at him as he gets dressed. Stupid bastard...of course he hadn't...Unthinkable, is what it is. He's just trying to get on Tabitha's nerves, like always.

"You really don't believe me, do you?"

"Don't joke about things like that."

He absolutely has to be lying, because the alternative is that he was good enough while Tabitha can't hope to be, and the thought is sickening. As usual, Brodie seems to read his mind.

"Want to hear about it?"

"It didn't happen—" he's backed Brodie against the wall now, Brodie grinning delightedly at how upset he's becoming, Tabitha tries to get a grip on himself and finds he can't, "—don't fucking say things like that, got it?"

But Brodie isn't listening—in fact, he's still talking. Vulgar details—something about texture—

Tabitha strikes him across the face so hard that Brodie's bottom lip cuts against his teeth. The trickle of blood reaches all the way to his neck before he breaks into a crimson grin, his teeth stained, and when Tabitha loosens his grip on the front of his shirt, Brodie chuckles.

"That jealous, huh? Oh dear."

A drop of blood falls from his chin onto Tabitha's wrist. Brodie runs his tongue along his bottom teeth and laughs at the taste; Tabitha lets go of him. He can still feel the sensation of the blow on his own hand, and yet it doesn't seem real at all—as if he's dreaming or drunk or someone else, right now.

"Get out of here. And don't come back."

"You don't mean that."

"Yeah, I do. Beat it. Now."

Tabitha does not watch him get dressed, and only glances up when the door clicks shut to make sure he's really gone. He spends fifteen minutes trying to decide whether Brodie was telling the truth, then punches the wall so hard that his hand hurts for three days.

·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·

Brodie's called into Maxie's office first thing the next morning, but to his genuine surprise it isn't anything to do with the commander. Maxie wants something from the mainland, some historic documents from an archeological society that are kept under lock and key, and Brodie listens with interest to the mission briefing, arguing a little (as they always do) over his payment scale before Maxie concedes that he can steal whatever else he'd like from the building, if he thinks he can sell it later.

"It might be of some benefit, actually, to have more than what we need taken. To mask the trail, as it were. The authorities are more aware of who we are than I would like."

Brodie leaves that evening. He doesn't see Tabitha at all before then, and deliberately takes his time with the mission, not rendezvousing for nearly two weeks. When he returns at last Maxie is pleased enough with his work to give him time off, and instead of bothering Tabitha, he puts together a few new disguises he'd bought the supplies for on land, testing them out, tweaking the makeup. Finally, after a few days, he pays his visit.

An emphatic no is the only response he receives to knocking on the door; Brodie picks the lock and steps inside. A snarl greets him: Tabitha's Mightyena, clambering to its feet and growling across the room, Tabitha sitting on the bunk behind it.

"Get lost."

Mightyena advances a few paces, its claws clacking against the metal floor, snarling all the more loudly; Brodie advances too, unfazed. He knows Mightyena won't pounce without a direct order to do so, and though he walks all the way across the room and up to the bed, past Mightyena, it does not attack. Snarls and snarls and doesn't attack, just like its master. Brodie stops right in front of him as he gets to his feet.

"Long time no see, commander." He tosses his jagged half-cape over his shoulder, for effect. "Miss me much?"

Tabitha calls him a long string of things he's been called many times by many people.

"I'm not putting up with you anymore," is the finishing line. "I mean it. We're done."

Brodie puts one finger under Tabitha's chin, making him grit his teeth; he tilts Tabitha's head up half an inch.

"Just one more time? Go out with a bang."

Tabitha takes a deep breath through his nose, and Brodie does not break eye contact; it works. A few long seconds of his steady gaze numb Tabitha enough to where Brodie knows it's safe to go in for a kiss (gentle, deceptively gentle, but with a little bite of the lip at the end to remind him how things go). Mightyena snarls loudly; Tabitha does not.

"Hmm?"

The silence lasts only a few seconds, though it seems weightless, suspended inside the tension. It ends when Brodie slides a hand up Tabitha's shoulder, rubbing the side of his neck, tracing the rim of his ear with one finger as if in affection.

"I'm not seeing you anymore."

Brodie leans in and kisses him again, more softly.

When things get heavy (which doesn't take long—Tabitha obviously has missed him, if only in a mundane physical way), Brodie sets his plan in motion. He's been practicing this voice and knows it's good enough to fool other people, but this will be the ultimate test. Naturally he doesn't switch into it right away, and Tabitha's so intent on making his fucking as begrudging and furious as possible that when Brodie does start to alter his voice (by degrees, as carefully as he can manage), it produces no reaction; he keeps it up for as long as he can, forcing himself not to get lost in what's happening and concentrating on maintaining the right tone. Playing a role—someone he's not—but he's done this sort of thing plenty of times before, if usually for pay.

It's climax that betrays him; when he yelps his voice contorts back into his own, and the sudden shift in pitch makes Tabitha stop short, gasping and panting and cursing, even, once he realizes what's happened. Brodie rolls over to look up at him.

"What's the matter, Tabby?"

Tabitha grabs him by the hair, making Brodie actually cry out in surprise.

"What the hell was that?" Tabitha hisses. "You sick fuck. What the hell was that about?"

"I didn't hear you complaining."

Tabitha yanks his hair harder, pulling his head back as if to slit his throat; Brodie grins up at him, catlike, and he lets go.

"You're sick," he says again, getting up.

"Oh, don't be so dramatic. You didn't even notice, did you?"

"Shut up. Shut up and go."

"You were thinking about him anyway."

"Leave and don't fucking come back, you hear me? Fuck you."

Brodie's own wadded-up pants hit him in the face. Tabitha's tearing the rest of Brodie's outfit off the floor, throwing pieces of clothing at him one-by-one in a silent rage; Brodie catches each item deftly, as if it's a game.

·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·∫·

Though he no longer has to wonder whether there will be a knock on his door in the evenings—hasn't had to wonder it for a week—it's only mostly a relief. There's a part of him that still expects to hear Brodie's voice after hours, whispering things in his ear that both of them know he doesn't mean, and sometimes an ordinary groan from the metal around him will make him sit up with a start, looking towards the door. Tabitha resumes staring at the blank metal ceiling with a slight frown; after even this little time alone the usually cramped bunk feels spacious. The room, though, seems smaller. Colder, too, or just his imagination? No, imagination. It's always been a little cold.

There's who he presents himself as, Tabitha knows, and who he fully is; the two men are not one and the same. Not wholly different, either, but Tabitha doesn't need Brodie's teasing to remind him that he keeps most of himself, emotions included, chained down in a dark place that he only visits when necessary. Emotions aren't professional, most of the time, and he's a professional so that settles that; there's no use for them in his day-to-day life.

At least, that's how it's supposed to work.

He closes his eyes, and the room disappears. All he sees is the red of his own eyelids by the light of a flickering panel in the ceiling, and for lack of anything better to do, he exhales deeply and goes to that place, grudgingly descending the steps and flicking on the light. It's disorganized down here. Messy to the point of being a hazard.

Some veins are better left unmined because...well, because that's not how things fucking work, is why. He's efficient and loyal and driven and that's the most he can realistically hope to be; hell, for a long time, that was all he ever wanted to be. Even now it's not—well, he doesn't let himself dwell on it, so of course it's not much—certainly it's not like how he knows some of the girls view him, giggling and whispering to one another when they think he's out of earshot. No, nothing like that. All it is, Tabitha thinks, is the difference between showing up for the morning briefing every day without a single concern, and showing up for the morning briefing every day hoping, in some tiny secret fucking stupid little unprofessional corner of his brain, that he'd get smiled at. That's all.

That smile, though...

And Tabitha rolls over onto his side and slams the thin pillow over his head, furious with himself. Doesn't matter. Doesn't mean anything. No matter what else, Team Magma is the best opportunity he's ever been given; he's not going to fuck it all up over something as asinine as this. As long as Brodie doesn't tell any—

A knock rattles the door.

Tabitha bolts upright at once; Mightyena, curled up on the floor, gets to its feet and growls at the door as it eases open. Tabitha swings out of bed and—yes, it's him, damn it, looking far too cheerful than should ever be allowed at this hour. As he lets himself in there's an odd noise: a clink of glass. He's carrying a small bag.

"Evening, commander."

Tabitha barely hears him over how loud Mightyena is snarling, and it softens its tone off of his look.

"What the hell are you up to?"

"Hm? Oh, nothing much. Went and borrowed a few things from the lab, so I thought I'd say hello." Brodie reaches into the sack and pulls out a funnel-shaped glass beaker; when Tabitha scowls at it, Brodie tosses it to him playfully, forcing him to catch it so it won't break on the floor. "The cabinet locks down there are pathetic."

"Leave," says Tabitha. Mightyena advances alongside him. "I told you we're through for good. And if you ever come around again, I'll have Mightyena rip you apart."

Mightyena makes it clear it's fully on board with this threat, its fur on end as it snarls so hard that spittle flies from its fangs. Brodie gives it an almost bored look through half-lidded eyes before rapping it sharply on the snout with the knuckles of his free hand; the swift gesture startles Mightyena enough that it sneezes, and Brodie laughs.

"I thought you'd be interested in seeing me, commander."

"Well, I'm not. Get lost."

They square off, holding each others' gaze. Brodie simply looks amused, even quizzical—trying to see whether he can weasel his way in, as he's done so many times before. But Tabitha's rage is finally unbendable, and after nearly ten seconds Brodie gives a theatrical sigh to acknowledge the fact.

"That's a shame. I hoped maybe you'd gotten over that little joke."

"Don't push your luck, asshole."

Another loud sigh—utterly, grandiosely insincere. Brodie shifts the sack to his other hand, making it clink like a musical instrument, and though Tabitha is fully expecting some kind of last-minute heel turn, or another cutting remark, Brodie really does seem ready to leave. Like he really had come just to test the waters one last time, seeing if there might be one more game left to play. Fucking bastard.

It's not until Brodie reaches the door again that Tabitha realizes he's been left holding the stolen beaker. He starts forward, but Brodie's already paused in the doorway, speaking over his shoulder.

"Well, don't want to waste my time, then. Pity...This was fun. If I'm not careful I might even miss you a bit."

Tabitha does not give him the satisfaction of a reply, his free hand clenched into a fist. Brodie laughs that infuriating laugh, and his final three words fill the bare room just as he shuts the door firmly behind himself. Only three words, but delivered—absolutely flawlessly—in Maxie's voice.

"Good boy, Tabby."

The beaker explodes in a shower of glass when it hits the door.