This is a prequel to my story "Emotionally Yours." The plot (such as it is) is self-contained, but the characterization of Iphicles will make a lot more sense if you read "EY" first.
Disclaimer: Iphicles, along with all characters and concepts from Hercules: The Legendary Journeys belongs to Renaissance Pictures. Methos, along with all characters and concepts from Highlander belongs to Rysher Entertainment. I'm using these guys without permission, but I'm making no money off it, honest.
Hercules continuity note: This story is in the same continuity as my story "Emotionally Yours," but it's set some years before the events in the episode "What's In a Name." Iphicles is in his mid-twenties here.
Highlander continuity note: This story takes place a few months after Methos left the Horsemen.
The inn was dirty, noisy, and cheap. Methos was willing to put up with the first two things for the sake of the third, but that didn't mean he had to like it. He slumped against the bar, sipping watered-down ale from a battered tankard, and tried to look inconspicuous.
A drunk farmer trod on his foot as he staggered past, and Methos had to fight down an instinctive urge to cut the man down right then and there. He didn't do this anymore. These people weren't his slaves, or his victims, or his enemies. They were just people. And he was just a person too, now.
Except that he was Immortal. Except that for centuries, he'd been such people's worst nightmare.
He finished his drink, and banged the tankard against the bar until a serving girl appeared to refill it. She was pretty in a farm-girl sort of way, blonde and plump, and she gave him a flirtatious smile over her shoulder as she flounced away to serve the next customer. Methos wondered if she'd ever lost a friend or a loved one to the Horsemen. He could hardly look at anyone these days without wondering that.
If these people knew who he was, they'd cower in fear. Or try to kill him. Or both.
His gaze roamed around the room, searching for something, anything, to distract his mind from this downward slide into self-loathing. That was when he spotted the beautiful young man at the corner table.
Thick, shoulder-length brown hair, tied back with a strip of leather. Eyes like melted chocolate, hot and dark and sweet. High, elegant cheekbones and a mouth that badly needed kissing. Broad shoulders, narrow waist, lean hips. He slouched low in his seat, feet propped up on another chair, and his legs were long and muscular, the soft leather of his trousers molded to his thighs like second skin. Methos took a gulp of ale, and tried not to stare. Or at least not to be too obvious about it.
The young man had a half-eaten lamb chop on a plate in front of him, but he seemed much more interested in his wine bottle. He was refilling his mug, obviously not for the first time. His movements had that slow, over-precise quality that signaled the early stages of drunkenness.
"I'm telling you, it was Hercules!" A much too-loud voice announced from the other end of the bar. "No one else could do what he did! He threw those boulders around like they weighed nothing at all. Had the cave-in cleared in no time."
Feeling mildly curious -- he'd heard quite a bit about Hercules since coming to Greece -- Methos turned in the direction of the voice. The speaker turned out to be yet another farmer, a short, bald-headed man with a powerful build just beginning to run to fat. He was surrounded by half a dozen friends, who were attending to his story with varying degrees of skepticism.
"Come on, Parsius!" One of the listeners rolled his eyes. "You expect us to believe that the son of Zeus just wandered into your cousin's village one day? Yeah, right."
"Believe what you like." Parsius drew himself up, an expression of wounded dignity on his sun-reddened face. "But that's what happened. Rescued six children from a fallen-in cave, he did."
"What did he look like?" Someone wanted to know.
Parsius' forehead furrowed in concentration as he tried to muster his powers of description.
"Big," he said finally. "Taller than any man I've ever seen, with shoulders out to here." He held his arms out to indicate a shoulder width that Methos did not believe for a moment. "Had his boyfriend with him, a short blond guy. That one didn't move any rocks, of course, but he did help get the kids out."
Parsius' friends were crowding in, demanding more details, but Methos had lost interest. He looked into the corner again, to see if Pretty Boy was still there.
He was. He was staring at Parsius and his entourage with a surprisingly hostile expression, and fingering the hilt of the sword at his hip. It was a plain, serviceable-looking sword, the sort that a professional soldier might carry, though the young man did not have the look or bearing of a soldier. Methos pegged him as a second-tier mercenary, the kind that guarded trade caravans or signed on for short stints in city guard regiments.
Think you're so tough, huh, kid? The Horsemen would stake you down in the middle of camp, and toss dice for a go at your ass.
The thought was followed by an immediate surge of disgust. Was this all he was capable now? Was this all he'd ever be? Getting away from the Horsemen had been hard enough. Getting away from the monster within himself was proving impossible.
"So did he take the money?"
That was one of Parsius' friends again, still wanting to hear about Hercules. Methos decided to pay attention to them again. They weren't much to look at, but they weren't bringing out his worst instincts, either.
"No, he didn't." Parsius shook his head, as if confused by the idea of anyone turning down money for any reason. "Wouldn't let the village give him a parade, either. Said that if they really insisted on thanking him, all he needed was a meal and a bed for the night." He laughed, and slapped his hand against the bar top. "Probably wanted a comfortable place to fuck blondie in!"
"Or maybe he just wanted to get away from your ugly face."
The room fell abruptly silent. Everyone stared at the young man in the corner, who stared back defiantly.
Parsius blinked, obviously startled at being insulted by a total stranger out of the blue.
"What did you say?"
"You heard me. Maybe he wanted to get away from your ugly face." The young man swung his feet off the chair and leaned forward. "Or maybe it was the pig smell that got him." He spoke slowly, making an effort to enunciate, but his voice still slurred. He was obviously drunker than he'd first appeared. And crazier.
Methos leaned back with his elbows propped on the bar, and watched the show unfold. He'd seen this scenario more times than he could count. Parsius demanded an apology. None came. More insults flew back and forth. The shouting match quickly led to a shoving match, and before long the two men were rolling around on the floor, pummeling each other. At least the young lunatic had the sense not to draw a sword in a bar brawl. As long as no one pulled a weapon, the fight stood a good chance of winding down with no real harm done.
And then one of Parsius' idiot friends decided to jump in and help out. The others, refusing to be outdone, followed. Within a minute, a harmless little brawl had turned into an ugly beating.
Methos shifted from foot to foot in growing discomfort. It was none of his business. The kid had brought it on himself. It was the barkeep's job to stop this sort of thing, anyway…
He put down his mug, and waded in.
Six angry pig farmers might've been more than a match for one drunk mercenary, but they were not even a minor challenge for Death of the Horsemen. Before the men knew what hit them, three of them were writhing in pain on the floor, and one was on his knees, clutching a broken arm. The remaining two men scrambled desperately out of reach.
The room fell quiet again, but it was a different kind of silence, frightened and stunned. Methos stood perfectly still, hands held out in front of him.
"I don't want any trouble." It was hard to keep his voice steady. His pulse was still racing, and a blood-red fog blurred the edges of his vision. He was right on the edge of a full-blown battle rage, the sort that had served him so well in his raids with the Horsemen. He needed to get away from the crowd.
He dug a handful of coins from his belt pouch and tossed them on top of the bar, not even bothering to count. This was going to make a pretty bad dent in his finances, but he had things he could sell.
"Here," he told the barkeep. "Buy these men some drinks, and give the rest to the guy with the broken arm. That should keep everyone quiet. I'm going up to my room."
Methos walked away without waiting for a reply. No one tried to stop him. He staggered through the door that led to the back staircase, and slammed it behind him. His excitement was quickly fading, taking much of his strength with it. He sat down on the bottom step, and rested his head against his knees.
The door creaked open. Footsteps scuffed on the landing.
"I guess I'm supposed to be grateful, huh?" A voice drawled.
Methos looked up. A pair of unfocused dark eyes smouldered down at him from beneath a thick fringe of lashes. The young idiot who'd caused all the trouble stood leaning against the wall, looking much healthier than he deserved. He was sporting an impressive collection of bruises and scrapes, but no serious injuries as far as Methos could see. Even with a bloody nose and a dark bruise swelling up along one cheekbone, he looked fucking good. Emphasis on the fucking.
Methos scowled and stood up.
"Whatever. I really don't give a shit if you're grateful or not, all right? All I ask is, if you really want to kill yourself, go do it someplace private where it won't interfere with my evening drink. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to bed." But he stayed where he was.
"Aww, come on..." Iphicles staggered forward a couple of steps until he was standing just a few inches away, well inside Methos' personal space. "Don't you wanna fuck me?" He cupped one hand against Methos' cheek, and brushed his thumb, ever-so-lightly, across the Immortal's lips. "I know you want to. I saw you watching me."
"I.." Methos licked his lips and swallowed. Suddenly, he was hot and breathless, though he'd felt chilled a moment ago. His mouth tingled.
"Isn't that why you helped me?" Iphicles stroked Methos' hair with his other hand, combing his fingers through the dark strands, then moved both hands down a little to massage Methos' shoulders and the back of his neck. "So that I could thank you properly?"
It was hard to think straight when Iphicles was standing so close, with cheap wine on his breath and a desperate neediness in his eyes. His hands were strong and skillful, kneading the tight knots of muscle in Methos' shoulders, working away the tension. Methos closed his eyes and sighed. Even his spine felt relaxed.
His body was responding to the contact, even as his mind still struggled with the decision. He had taken no lover, male or female, since he left the Horsemen. In fact, he had avoided all but the most casual human contact for the past several months. Maybe it was time to change that… He opened his eyes again.
"My room's one flight up," he muttered hoarsely, and turned to climb the stairs.
The room, like the rest of the inn, wasn't much to look at. Peeling paint, bare floor, rickety bed. A single tallow candle burned under a tin hood on the nightstand. The air smelled musty.
Iphicles sat on the bed, and bounced up and down a couple of times. "Thassnice…" He pulled up a corner of the blanket to wipe the blood off his face. "So what's your name?"
"I know. You told me."
"Did I? I forgot."
Methos glared at him. "You're drunk."
Iphicles' smile was distinctly lopsided. "Yeah. So what?" He stood, put his hands on Methos' waist, and pulled him close. "It's my birthday, I'm celebrating. You can be my present." He ground his hips, rubbing his crotch against Methos'. Whatever other effects the wine might be having on him, it certainly wasn't interfering with his ability to get it up.
Methos bit back a groan. Blood was rushing to his cock at an alarming rate. He put one hand on the back of Iphicles' neck, and drew him into a long, slow, wine-flavored kiss.
Iphicles sighed softly, leaning into the kiss. He twined his fingers in Methos' hair and thrust his tongue deep into Methos' mouth. He rocked forward, throwing Methos off-balance, making him step backwards until his back was pressed against the wall. Then he cupped one hand around Methos's crotch, and rubbed the heel of his hand up and down against the bulge.
Methos was beginning to feel a little overwhelmed. Iphicles was no taller than him, but he was broad and muscular where Methos was slender and wiry, and standing so close he made Methos feel surrounded. It was not a feeling the Immortal handled particularly well.
Anger boiled up inside him, red and hot, not so different from lust when it came right down to it. He could feel it pounding in his temples and his groin. Who did this mortal think he was, anyway? It was one thing for Kronos to take the lead in their little bedroom games, but mortals were supposed to know their place. He braced his hands against the wall and pushed off.
Now it was Iphicles who was thrown off balance. He made a startled sound, and staggered back a step. His boot heel slipped on the bare floor, and he flung one hand out to grip the front of Methos' shirt.
Methos slapped his hand away, and swung one leg in a low, fast kick that swept Iphicles' feet right out from under him.
Iphicles hit the floor with a gasp and a thud. He sat up immediately, and Methos braced himself for a counterattack. But Iphicles just sat there, head tilted back to look into Methos' face. He did not seem frightened, or even particularly surprised, though his eyes held a definite wariness. When he spoke, he pitched his voice to a low, soothing tone, as if trying to calm a startled horse.
"I'm sorry. I did something wrong, didn't I? Something you didn't like?" He climbed to his feet, making no sudden movements. "Tell me what you do like. I'll make it up to you." He reached out one tentative hand, and ran his fingers down the entire length of Methos' erection, his touch so light Methos barely felt it through his trousers.
Methos slumped against the wall and struggled to control his breathing. Iphicles was pursuing this seduction the same way he'd pursued the fight downstairs -- brazenly, single-mindedly, and possibly for the same obscure reasons. He stroked Methos's crotch again, more firmly this time, then scraped his fingernails lightly against the leather. Methos' cock grew even harder, while his legs went suddenly limp. Once again, he felt the situation slipping out of his grasp, borne away on a rising tide of need and desire. Gathering the ragged remains of his self-control, Methos gripped Iphicles by the shoulders and pushed him away.
"What do you want?" he demanded.
Iphicles blinked at him. "Isn't it obvious? You."
"No you don't. You don't even know me."
"And you don't know me. What does it matter?"
"It matters, dammit!" Methos didn't even realize he was shouting until he saw Iphicles flinch. He took a deep, steadying breath, and went on at a more normal pitch. "If you knew what I was, you wouldn't want me."
"Yes, I would." Iphicles reached for him again.
Methos backhanded him across the face.
Iphicles fell back a step, wide-eyed. A drop of blood trickled from the corner of his mouth. He wiped it away with the back of his hand. He smiled again, but this time there was a bitter edge to it.
"Is that what you like?" He held his hand up, inches away from Methos' face. The smear of blood across the knuckles looked almost black in the dim light. "Does that turn you on? Go on, you can hurt me. I don't mind."
Yes, you do, Methos thought, but he didn't say it. Iphicles was noticeably less aroused than he'd been earlier, before Methos knocked him down. Yet his eyes still had that same reckless determination, the look of a man who was going to get laid or die trying. Methos might've been flattered by such tenacity, if he didn't the nagging suspicion that it actually had nothing to do with him personally.
He took Iphicles' outstretched hand, lifted it to his mouth, and licked the blood off with slow, deliberate laps. It tasted salty and sweet, enticing and disturbing at the same time. When the hand was clean, he turned it over and pressed a kiss into the open palm, then kissed the fingers, one by one. Iphicles drew in a ragged breath, and closed his eyes.
Methos gripped his wrist with both hands and twisted, spinning Iphicles around and wrenching his arm behind his back. Iphicles cried out and tried to pull away, but Methos had had centuries to practice that move. He maintained his hold, twisting the arm and pushing it upward, forcing Iphicles to balance precariously on his toes in an attempt to escape the pain. He held him there for a few seconds, then let go with an abrupt push that sent him to his knees. Methos slammed one foot into his back, and watched him fall.
Iphicles lay curled up on his side, cradling his arm against his chest. Methos prodded his shoulder with one foot, rolling him onto his back, knelt on his chest to keep him pinned, and wrapped one hand around his throat.
Iphicles struggled, but Methos kept up the pressure. For the first time, the mortal's eyes showed real fear. He arched his back, writhing beneath Methos' weight, pushing his hand against Methos' chest in a vain effort to get free. It should've been arousing. It had been, in the past. Methos could remember exactly what it had felt like, to take a lover by force, and get off on the pain and fear. But now, he only feld cold and sick.
He let go and climbed to his feet, leaving Iphicles gasping on the floor.
"Didn't enjoy that nearly as much as you'd like me to think, did you?" He hissed.
Iphicles coughed and rubbed his throat. "Neither did you."
So where does that leave me? Methos, Death of horseback, killer of thousands, master strategist. He could read and write in three languages, and speak four more. He could shoe a horse, forge a blade, fortify a camp. But he couldn't, apparently, take even a willing lover without huring him.
He looked down at Iphicles, who was sitting up now, still gulping air as if he couldn't get enough. His wrist was bruised and swollen, and his lip was still bleeding .
"I'm sorry," Methos whispered hoarsely. "I didn't mean-- Maybe you should go." He turned his back and stood staring at the wall, waiting to hear the door slam.
He nearly jumped out of his skin when strong arms encircled his waist. Warm breath tickled the back of his neck. Soft lips brushed against his ear.
"It's all right," Iphicles whispered. "I told you, I don't mind."
Methos closed his eyes is resignation. To Hades with it, he decided. He wanted this. He was growing hard again already. Methos rocked back on his heels, and pressed his back against Iphicles' broad chest.
Iphicles tugged at Methos' shirt, untucking it from his pants, and slipped his hands under the soft cloth. He ran his hands up Methos' stomach to his chest. Methos felt his nipples puckering in anticipation, even before Iphicles' fingers brushed against them. He sighed softly and let his head fall back to rest on Iphicles' shoulder. It felt so comfortable to just stand there, with a warm, strong body to lean on. Iphicles was kissing the back of his neck, nuzzling his hair, tracing the curve of his ear with an eager tongue. His hands roamed over Methos' torso, tracing lines of white heat on his skin. He kept murmuring endearments in a muffled whisper. Caught up in the moment, Methos was almost ready to believe them.
Iphicles shifted his feet and tilted his hips forward to press his crotch against Methos' ass. Methos wiggled against him impatiently. Now that he'd made the decision, he didn't want to waste time on preliminaries.
He pulled out of the embrace, and quickly removed his shirt, then turned around to unlace and remove Iphicles' vest. Iphicles kissed him again, a feather-light brush of lips against lips, before sitting down on the bed to remove his boots.
They finished undressing without fuss, hardly looking at each other, dropping their clothes to the floor in two crumpled piles. To an outside observer it might've looked cool and impersonal. It wasn't. Methos was sharply aware of Iphicles' body less than an arm's length away. He could hear every breath, sense every motion. The air between them felt thick and heavy, charged with crackling energy, like the first moments of a Quickening. The hair on Methos' arms bristled, and drops of sweat trickled down his back.
He let his breechclout fall to the floor, and turned around to see Iphicles stretched out on the bed, holding one hand out in silent invitation. Methos took the hand and allowed himself to be pulled forward.
The mattress sagged a bit under their combined weight. The bed was made for one person, not two, and they had to press close to each other in the small space. This was just fine with Methos. He'd begun to forget what closeness felt like.
Methos propped himself up on one elbow, and ran one hand over Iphicles' chest. He caught one nipple between thumb and forefinger and rolled it back and forth, slowly increasing the pressure until Iphicles moaned and writhed against him. Their cocks slid together, no layers of clothing to separate them this time, just flesh against flesh. Iphicles' fingers danced down Methos' spine, striking a spark with every touch.
Iphicles tipped his head back, and Methos took the opportunity to nibble at his exposed throat. Such smooth skin... so perfect. He traced the curve of a collar bone with his tongue. Lovely.
Iphicles brought one hand down to pump their cocks together with a rapid motion, and it was Methos who moaned this time. He was breathless with pleasure, with the throbbing in his cock and the growing pressure in his balls. He didn't even realize that he'd bitten into Iphicles' shoulder until he tasted the blood on his tongue.
He didn't apologize. He wasn't in the least bit sorry. Iphicles wriggled against him, panting, still pumping his hand in a steady rhythm. He draped one leg over Methos' hip, pressing even closer, sliding one foot down the back of Methos' left leg. Methos felt as if his skin was going to ignite from the friction. Losing whatever shreds of patience he had left, he pushed Iphicles onto his back and rolled on top of him, pushing one knee between Iphicles' legs. Iphicles reached for him, but Methos caught his wrists and forced his arms up, pinning them to the pillow above Iphicles' head.
Iphicles responded with a gasp sounded more pained than aroused. Methos remembered that the mortal's right wrist was already badly bruised, possibly sprained.
"Sorry," he muttered, and relaxed his grip.
Iphicles opened his mouth, ready to insist that he didn't mind, no doubt, but Methos cut him off with another kiss.
Iphicles wrapped his arms around Methos' waist and held him tight, crushing their bodies together so hard Methos could barely breathe. Any closer, Methos thought dizzily, and they'd never pull apart again. Not an unpleasant notion, but he wasn't ready to surrender to it just yet. His cock twitched impatiently, the first warm drops of precum seeping from the tip. Reluctantly, Methos pulled out of the kiss and pushed himself up, breaking the warm circle of Iphicles' arms. Iphicles made a soft, protesting sound, but made no move to pull him back.
Methos scooted forward until his hands gripped the bedposts, and his knees pressed into the pillow on either side of Iphicles' head. He tilted his hips forward, guiding his cock toward Iphicles' parted lips.
"Make it nice and wet."
A warm, eager tongue laved his shaft from root to tip, then traced slow circles around the head. Methos groaned and closed his eyes. Little bursts of color danced behind his eyelids. Iphicles continued to lick him with slow, wet strokes that made Methos' entire body quiver. When he found a sensitive spot, he lingered there, tapping his tongue against the little ridge of skin where head and shaft joined, or lapping greedily at Methos' balls.
Methos gripped the bedposts so hard, he thought the wood might crack beneath his fingers. He was trembling all over now. He could feel little incoherent sounds bubbling up in his throat, but he couldn't hear his own voice over the thrumming of blood in his ears.
It took nearly all the strength he had left, but somehow he pulled back, and moved down again to kneel between Iphicles' legs. He pushed Iphicles' knees up and spread them apart, exposing the smooth curves of his ass and the puckered ring of muscle at the center. He pressed the tip of his cock against that tight, inviting entrance and slowly began to push.
Iphicles gasped and bit his lip, and Methos stopped, giving the other man a chance to adjust. When the clinch of muscle around his cock relaxed, he pushed deeper, once again stopping when the resistance grew too great. His thighs and stomach ached with the effort of restraining himself, when his body was begging him to abandon caution and thrust all the way in, NOW. Heat pulsed in his groin.
It was Iphicles who ended up abandoning control. With a hoarse, desperate cry, he gripped Methos' shoulders with both hands and bucked his hips, completing their joining with a single hard thrust. The motion snapped the last fragile threads of Methos' self-restraint. With a low growl, he began to pump his hips, harder and harder, impaling the writhing body beneath him, plunging his cock over and over into the hot, tight channel.
Iphicles slid one hand down Methos' arm, digging his nails into the sweat-soaked skin. His other hand reached down to pump his cock. Methos covered the other man's fingers with his own, and they stroked together for a while, until Iphicles moved his hand away and left Methos to continue the rhythm.
Given how desperate they both were, it wasn't going to last long. Already, Methos could feel the first tremors coursing through him, signalling imminent release. He tightened his fist around Iphicles' cock and pumped faster. Iphicles closed his eyes and bit down on his lower lip. His back arched, and a low moan escaped from his throat as he came, spilling a warm stream of semen over Methos' fingers.
Methos gave one last thrust and fell forward, covering Iphicles' body with his own as he finally surrendered to his need. The whole world seemed to disappear into a wild whirlwind of blood-red heat that centered on his cock. When it receded, he was left dizzy and breathless, too wrung out to move.
He lay perfectly still, his head tucked under Iphicles' chin, his spent cock still nestled in Iphicles' ass. His bones felt like liquid. He wasn't sure he'd ever move again. After a while he began to shiver a bit as the sweat evaporated from his skin, and Iphicles reached down to pull the blanket over both of them.
"Thank you," Methos whispered, his voice muffled against Iphicles' shoulder.
Iphicles was silent.
Methos woke up early, as he usually did. The first pale sunbeams slanted through the narrow window, casting a soft light that made the room seem almost cosy. He and Iphicles lay spooned together in the narrow bed, Methos' arms wrapped around Iphicles' waist, Methos' face pressed against the other man's back.
Methos couldn't remember the last time he'd slept without dreaming, or awakened without automatically reaching for a weapon. He didn't even care that his back was stiff, or that his left arm was numb from being pinned beneath Iphicles' weight for most of the night. He felt peaceful, a strange and unfamiliar sensation.
It did no good to remind himself that when it came right down to it, all he'd had was a rather tawdry one-night stand with a drunk stranger. After the life he'd lived over the past few centuries, even that felt like an accomplishment. To take a mortal as a lover rather than as a victim -- he hadn't been sure he could do that. It meant a great deal, just to know that he could.
He sat up, and gazed down at the man curled up at his side. Even in sleep, Iphicles did not look entirely relaxed. His right hand clutched one corner of the pillow in a tight fist, and his forehead was creased in a slight frown. Methos resisted the urge to reach out and wipe the frown away with his fingers. He didn't want to wake the mortal.
Did it help, kid? Did you forget whatever it you were trying so hard to forget? Even for a little while?
Iphicles shifted in his sleep, and Methos was instantly tense again. Unbidden, his mind started running through various versions of what might happen when the mortal woke up. Would he have regrets? Demands? Expectations? Methos decided he didn't want to know. He just wasn't ready to deal with whatever it was that normal people did on the morning after. The prospect of trying to make small talk over breakfast filled him with dread. He'd almost rather face Kronos again.
Moving slowly and cautiously so as not to disturb the sleeping man, Methos pulled away from him and sat up. He picked his clothes up off the floor and dressed quickly, then stood up and fetched his travel bag from under the bed.
He considered leaving a note, but there were no writing implements in the room, and he didn't even know if Iphicles could read. What would he write, anyway? Thanks for the fuck, have a nice life? Then he thought of leaving something behind, as a gift and a reminder. But that seemed insulting somehow, almost like leaving money. Or maybe he was just thinking about it too much...
Moving with a silence born of many centuries' experience, Methos slung his bag over his shoulder, slipped out the door, and tiptoed down the stairs.