"What d'ye want with a dress anyway?" Kate asked, laughing as she handed over the double-handful of fabric. Her colour was high - they were only away from the family party for a few minutes - and she was full of the pert Kelly humour. Joe had always admired her, might have taken that admiration further save that she was Ned's sister, but he couldn't even manage a shadow of a smile tonight. Just took the dress, wrapped its worn-smooth cloth around his knuckles.
Kate wasn't stupid. None of the Kellys were. She looked between his discomfit and Ned's grim face and she drew her own conclusions. "This is about Aaron," she stated, voice growing sharp.
Joe shifted his shoulders uncomfortably, and Ned just stared at her stonily.
She wasn't at all quelled. "What are ye tryin' to prove? That nobody crosses the Kelly gang? Are y'no better than bullies and thugs?"
"Kate!" Ned's snap was as sharp as a whipcrack. Joe flinched.
Kate just stared at him mulishly. "Well," she said stiffly, "I hope it works out for you an' all." With a prim swish of her skirt, she turned and stalked back to the other end of the room, where the younger folk hadn't even noticed the exchange.
Joe, dress bundled in his fists, looked to Ned, who was watching her go with a scowl. He shouldered his way out the door, into the moonlit night. "Joe. Joe!" He heard Ned catch the door and come out after him.
He hadn't had anywhere to go, just outside, and he stopped a few steps from the house, let Ned catch him up, lay a hand on his shoulder.
"Don't worry about her," he said, voice a quiet rumble Joe could barely hear over a sudden burst of laughter from inside. "She doesn't understand."
"Doesn't she?" Joe grimaced, looked away. He hated the way his accent thickened like that.
The grip tightened on his shoulder. "She doesn't," Ned repeated.
If Joe tilted his head back to look at the stars, his ear, the hinge of his jaw, would brush against Ned's knuckles. He looked at the stars and said: "But she knows us, Ned. Knows us both, and Aaron too. Maybe she understands all too well."
"What are you getting at?" Ned released his shoulder with a shove, and came around in front of him to lean against the fencepost, arms crossed over his chest. "Eh? What's your point, Joe?"
Joe looked at Ned now, not the stars. He pointed with a hand clutching a bunched-up dress. "When I asked Aaron to trip down to Melbourne with me to meet you out of gaol, he didn't even hesitate. He had work needed doing, but he didn't even blink. He's our mate, Ned. He's me best mate in the world, save you."
"Well, your best bloody mate set Hare's hounds on us both," Ned spat. He was simmering, had been simmering since Joe had told him the first whispers, since they'd watched the troopers ride into town, ready for them. Really, he'd been simmering since the first, and Joe had been trying his best to keep the lid on the pot. Except sometimes, he didn't know why, he just wanted to let Ned boil over. Let him explode in both their faces.
He wondered if now was one of those times. Joe sighed, stretched the dress taught between his fists, slung it round his neck like a scarf. He looked at Ned, leaning hard and angry against the fence. He looked, and wondered if now was one of those times, or if he was waiting for himself to blow. They called Joe the calm one, but just because the wick was longer didn't make the end explosion any smaller. It'd been building for weeks.
He gripped the ends of the dress tight in white-knuckled hands, and took a step forwards, slow measured step, and another, as his shadow cast by the light from the house began to cover Ned. "Maybe there was some mistake," he said carefully, clipped. "Maybe the coppers told him a lie, how are we supposed to know?"
All he could see was the glint of Ned's eyes as he snarled: "So why are we doing this?" And he shoved Joe again.
"I'll tell you why," he snapped, and shoved back, except he didn't let go, just pushed. Pushed Ned hard against the fencepost and it held; when the Kelly boys put in a fencepost it stayed put, even with a grown man's weight against it. Even with two grown men.
Joe pushed Ned back against the post, leaned against him, pressed him down with his entire body and his mouth, his mouth on Ned's. His tongue plunged past shock-parted lips into whiskey-flavoured warmth, and he gripped a shoulder, slid his hand round to cup Ned's head, hold him still, because Joe would be damned if he was letting the other man go until he was damn well good and ready.
Ned's hands were up at Joe's shoulders. Might have been pushing, Joe wouldn't have paid attention, but now they were relaxing, just there. His lips parted slightly more, and a tongue brushed against Joe's.
Joe jerked back slightly, still not letting Ned go, holding him close so their breath came fast and harsh mingled together.
"Joe?" Ned's voice was small and dark, and all he was waiting for; Joe chased it back into Ned's mouth. Back into the slick warmth where another tongue waited to wrestle with his own. Ned's mouth opened, tilted, slanted against Joe's and pushed back.
This was no shy girl willing to be kissed, nor a sly-eyed hussy with her teasing tricks. Ned kissed him back hard and thorough, pushing with mouth and tongue and body. He pressed forward, leaning off the post only to be slammed back by Joe. Bodies together, so hardclose together that they didn't fit - there was no corresponding in to their out - and he shifted, rubbed.
Groans were swallowed, were caught in tangling tongues. Ned's hands were on his shoulders, gripping his hips, in his hair and Joe couldn't hear a thing beyond the blood thundering in his ears. He was on the boil, boiling over, scalding Ned wherever they touched.
He could do anything. He'd done it. He could do anything.
Ned tore away, left them both gasping for breath and leaning limp, pressed together, against the fencepost. "Jesus," he whispered.
Joe eased back a little, took his weight on his own feet. His blood was racing, but his head felt weirdly clear. He could still feel Ned against him, the way he'd wondered about, and he wanted, he wanted. But first... "Let's do this."
"Anything," Ned mumbled, sliding their lips together again, pulling Joe back.
Joe laughed, licked at Ned's mouth at he disentangled himself. "No, Ned. C'mon. Aaron. Let's do this."
When Joe stepped to one side the light from the house fell on Ned's face again, and he blinked as if blinded. "What, now?"
"Yes now, daft idiot. Can you think of a better time? They won't even notice we're gone. You get the shotgun and I'll get the horses."
Ned ran a hand through his hair, and looked at Joe consideringly, head tilted to one side. He nodded. "All right." He took two steps towards the house, then stopped, reached back to grab Joe by a handful of hair and yank him close for a brief, fierce kiss. Then he was gone, striding for the house.
Joe couldn't stop grinning, at the stars, the bush, the night in general. He headed for the horses, hands in his pockets, whistling. It was a beautiful night, and they were off to kill Joe's best mate in the world.
Well, best mate save Ned.
Doubt by dee
In the Bhagavad Gita, Shiva (or Krishna, can't remember which) tells a lot about the spirituality, the true nature of reality, and reveals himself as the divine being, in order to get Arjuna to go to war against his own family. I feel very small-scale.