The police had burnt the bush, trying to chase them out like animals. A success of a sort, though not the desired one. But they couldn't stay out there any longer. That had become abundantly clear.
When they came up over the rise, riding double on sagging horses, the homestead was a surreal vision of normality. The green grass, the neat garden, the children playing; it was a dream, illusion thrown up by the charred, smoking landscape.
Even after they were spotted, and the children sent inside, innocence removed, he knew they didn't belong here. Never could again.
Julia cut his hair. Ned gripped his knees, keeping his fingers tight to stop them trembling. He could feel her actions only as faint tuggings and shadows of movement at the back of his head. The scissors snipped primly, and her fingertips were butterfly-light, brushing occasionally at the nape of his neck.
Words had failed between them, fallen flat. Ned could barely remember how to use language. It seemed strange, foreign, like something from another life. So now there was silence, and Ned had nothing to distract him from Julia cutting his hair.
She was gentle. So incredibly, unthinkingly gentle, not like it was something special for him, but as if this was just how she dealt with everything. He couldn't bear it, didn't deserve it. She didn't even realise, and he sat stiff in the chair, hands on his knees, braced against her onslaught of tenderness.
Julia tilted his head forward with two fingers under his ear, and he moved like her touch burnt. Shifted back into place, and looked down. His hands, on his knees, were clean, scrubbed free of the grime he'd been covered in. But the fingernails were still dirty. Blood and dirt and ash were wedged deep under the nails like accusations.
He curled his fingers up, hid the fingernails and their filth in his palms. Made his hands into fists on his knees.
"All done," she said simply, stepping away from him.
He remembered words, remember his manners, remembered society and said: "Thank you." It tasted unnatural on his tongue.
Joe was left to himself in the bathhouse, forgotten by everyone else, and he was entirely happy with that. The bath had been filled by a scuttling, head-down maidservant Joe had been too distracted to even notice. The bath, steaming gently, was as close to a vision of heaven as Joe had ever seen, so good he hesitated, unsure it would touch him. He felt filthy through and through. Skin to soul.
He made his hands keep moving on his buttons, stripping off waistcoat and shirt. You solved the problems you could, Joe told himself. Washed off the dirt you could reach, and he would worry about rest, the grubby smudges inside, another time.
His clothes he left in a pile on the floor. Hopefully they'd be washed, or preferably burnt. He clambered into the tub with an appreciative wince. The water was barely a shade off scalding; it seared down to the bone, cauterising, licking hot and clean up the back of his thighs as he lowered himself into the tub.
And stopped, hands gripping the side of the tub and the water against his buttocks. He looked down, saw the marks he hadn't noticed before, blessedly covered by darkness and the false modesty of clothes. Fanned out over his hipbone, tucked in a dark blotch in the space behind the bone. They weren't really recognisable prints, smeared and smudged by movement and urgency, but Joe knew them for what they were. Brands, daubed in blood and ash and dirt. Hands.
He lowered himself the rest of the way into the tub, slowly. Watched the water creep up his hip, start to lift off the grime in rust-coloured flakes of dried blood and swirling specks of black ash.
He knew that even if he scrubbed, he couldn't rid himself of the marks entirely. Underneath the skin they were painted in bruises, just another ache in his body, deep down, where the hot water couldn't cleanse.
"What would it take for you to save yourself?" she'd asked him, and Ned had nearly laughed out loud, but the sound stuck in the back of his throat.
A miracle. Not even that. He was way gone beyond saving.
But that wasn't what she was asking, and not how he could answer her. It was easier to play along now that he was washed and barbered, now that he at least looked human.
He knew the truth. Knew that maybe he was beyond being human as well. If he wasn't the monster the newspapers painted him as, then even so, he wasn't a member of their society any longer. They'd forced him out, and he'd compounded it.
Some things could never be forgiven, would never be acceptable.
The stables smelt of horse and hay and the scents came attached to memories that seemed to belong to another world. It was here that they'd come together, him and Julia, stupidly, blindly. It was another world, before any of this happened, before he had anything to worry about other than that her husband might come looking for her. He had held the memory dear, closed his eyes to relive the way she'd moved against him.
Now he didn't have to close his eyes to have memories rush at him. The husky dry tang of ash overcame the warmth of hay, the scent of horses altered into the cloying thickness of blood, so dense he could taste it; he could taste it, covering his throat and licked off skin. It was a different body moved under his now, not graceful and arching but bucking and wild, violent, elemental, fighting him, with him, oh God!
"Ned?" she looked at him with frustrated concern. He shook his head; words had left him once more.
When Joe tilted his head back against the rim of the bath, he could close his eyes and just float in the warmth. He ached. All over. He ached in places he hadn't known he could ache. Couldn't decide if the way memory-ache spread through his limbs was panic or satisfaction.
Didn't really want to think about it, frankly.
Didn't want to think about things against his skin - blood, ash, rough rock, rough fingers and hot breath... Sweet Jesus, things inside his skin and himself ready to crawl out of it because, because... too much.
Joe shifted in the cooling water. He didn't want to think about it, but there wasn't much else to do.
A noise from outside made him sit up straight. Water sloshed, he felt a twinge. A moment later the maidservant came back in. He noticed her this time, unaffected and abashed, apologising and blushing, Chinese. Pretty. Leaving.
No, don't go. He needed... "Wait," he called, scrabbling for Cantonese.
And she stopped. Looked at him with beautiful eyes under long lashes and accepted his offer to "wash his back". She came closer to the tub, and he teased her to see her blush, pushed her sleeves further up her arms and let his fingers linger on her skin. Skin that was too smooth, too clean. Eagerness seemed oddly curdled in the pit of his stomach.
Then she said: "What's this?" with one hand on his neck.
On his neck, what? A mark. A bruise. Teeth scraped and sunk in, agony and ecstasy, and he'd almost screamed, bathed in moonlight and shadow.
Joe's fingers stilled on the fastening of her dress.
Horse blood made their skin itch, made their clothes stiff, clotted in their beards, the wretched taint of it thick in their noses. Slicked over palms that pushed against flesh, spreading the blood - it looked black in the moonlight, peppered with ash, speckled with dust - over newly-found skin, unsightly and clean, gleaming, now stained and smeared.
The world was painted in shades of black-red and silver, and they were self-contained in silence. The other two - Dan and Steve - were asleep somewhere on the rocky hilltop; they didn't matter. Somewhere out there, on the hellish plains, the Victorian police were searching; they didn't matter either.
Daylight would never come to them. They no longer belonged under it.
Ned's back hit the boulder and his breath hissed out, into Joe's mouth, tasting of blood and sin. Except sin tasted of the world, these days, of everything they had and all that was left to them.
Blood-slick tongues strangled each other. Charcoal rasped on skin rasped on rock. The last of someone's clothing ripped. Ned gripped; Joe twisted, snarled. Or maybe that was Ned. You couldn't call this an embrace; it was a wrestle. He shoved, Joe heaved. They were slick each in the other's grasp, breath harsh and hands demanding.
When they were joined with a vicious thrust, Joe cursed Ned, or maybe himself, maybe the world, maybe just cursed, spitting blasphemy as he writhed wilder than any horse Ned had ever broken. But never away from him, always against, bucking back against Ned fit to make him see stars, make his fingers tighten until he thought they'd sink into Joe's hips. Fit to make him wild himself, teeth in Joe's shoulder to stop him shouting his name into the night sky.
They collapsed together, sticky anew, tacky with blood, branded with ash. Ned's hand in Joe's hair was absurdly gentle.
They sat together on Julia's verandah, watching the boys chase each other across the lawn in the hot afternoon sunshine. They were both clean now, dressed and respectable. They sat on the steps, not looking at each other.
Joe cleared his throat, squinting across the lawn. "So, what now?"
Ned had no idea. He felt out of his depth, the wood of the step uncomfortable. They'd been cast out, even if they'd been given this last glance at Eden. A final taste, but that taste was drowned out by remembered blood. That was what they belonged to now. What they'd been forced to.
But had they been forced to? Hadn't they embraced it for their own, in some pagan ritual, some pact with the Devil. If society didn't want them any more, why should they play by its rules?
They could make their own rules now. Their own society. Their own ritual. Who was left to tell them they were wrong? Who was left that hadn't already?
So, what now?
"Now," Ned said slowly, "we're going to take the fight to them. We're going to do it on our own terms."
He turned his head, and Joe was grinning at him. "How are we going to do that, then?"
Ned grinned back. "We'll figure something out."
Ritual by dee
All stories are works of fan-fiction by Dee. "Fan-fiction" means that she does not own any of the core creative concepts and characters, but she does heap adulation, appreciation and awe upon those people who do hold the intellectual property rights to those concepts and characters. Further, any instances of real people are fictional, and the author does not wish to suggest any truth should be attached to the actions, emotions and words attributed to them in these fictional stories.