thene: "'The spirit is a garden,' said he." Photograph from ColinPurrington.com (snowdrops of gratuitous self-reference)
[personal profile] thene posting in [community profile] last_herald_mage
-this one took...a lot longer than I expected. Stuff happened; technology meltdowns, travel, etc. I only wrapped it up due to getting stuck in this god damn blizzard (I KNOW RIGHT. THIS SHIP). Lessons learned; never write 30k of build-up to a bad one-liner. It makes carrying on kinda hard.

Nothing graphic here - bit of softcore. There is also some passing mention of sexual abuse - again, nothing graphic or descriptive.




He reached. His shaking hand spread over chill skin, five fingertips atop five marks, and Stefen jerked away like like he'd been burned.

Stef rose to a crouch and turned back a corner of the curtain, watching the forgotten outside world. That sublime pulse between them had slipped out of rhythm. It felt like rended cloth; the wholeness and warmth of their union ripped open between them. His underbelly still throbbed with disjointed satisfaction. He was so aware of his body that his mind was hard to find.

I actually can't remember my name. That's impressive.

"Coast's clear?" he asked.

Stefen looked back to him with shuttered eyes. "As a bell," he replied. "Clear as midday and still water. No lawmen, just a few smokers and dicers and the like." And you. And me. His eyes met Vanyel's, distant as passing stars. "And soon enough, one of two things going to happen - either it gets crowded around here, or Poll tells me I owe her a favour. Could be both." He gathered his discarded clothes, and dressed as rapidly as he'd undressed.

Vanyel took his cue to do the same. "How do we get out?" he asked, pulling his damp-edged cloak over his shoulders.

Something flashed through Stefen's eyes, and Vanyel cursed himself - I still need your aid, I'm still using you - "Ask Polly and hers. They got ways to get someone gone from these digs unobserved. I'll be making my way." The curl of Stef's lips was almost like an afterthought. "You fancy to come get your things sometime, you know where I live -"

"Wait -" He reached out to take Stefen's arm, and it spun away from his touch. "Am I a stranger to you, now?"

As soon as he spoke the words he regretted them. Stefen's eyes filled with hurt. "No one plays with me," he hissed. "I know what you saw."

The pieces were locking into place in his mind. Stefen's wariness of knowing him, his eschewing of loyalty and antipathy to belonging. The distance he kept - seeing and trust were opposites, intimacy beyond him. And the warnings he'd given. "No -" Vanyel surged through the curtains after him as Stefen disappeared, his bare feet slipping on the trail left by Stefen's damp shoes, his hips still jarred from pleasure. "Stef - please -"

"Nought to say," Stef snapped. Far down the tunnels, two curious gamblers looked toward them from their alcove - a keen audience for the first lover's quarrel of the night. Poppy smoke and sex-scents wafted on silk nearby, carried by a biting draught. He heard dice click on stone. Stefen pulled his thick woolen cloak close around himself, raising the hood over his head, hissing his words as he went. "I know how it goes. I never wait around to sing out the last verse of this."

"Then listen -" Somehow, that drove Stefen to look back at him, but in truth he had no idea how to use that moment that he'd won on insistence. "Stef, I saw nothing that would turn me away from you -"

"You're blind."

"Blind, and a stranger perhaps," he replied. "And I don't know a thing about this city but what you told me - that no mark should trap you here." He knew words would be useless or worse, and Stefen shrank back into the stone behind him, the ricochet logic creasing him between the eyes.

Words wouldn't bridge that rift. Words wouldn't build trust where there could be none. Stefen seemed not to breathe, and Vanyel took a careful step closer and slowly reached for Stefen's hands.

Stef flinched away from him, and ran until he'd turned out of sight. Vanyel froze, stumbled after, his feet sliding on the ground, and where the tunnels branched, he looked either way to no avail. He sagged against the wall, a hand scrunched to his face in frustration. I can trace his aura. I could run him down -

Black ink danced in his vision, and he breathed hard. That won't change what he feels, and he wrenched inside at the thought of what he'd felt in that last fleeting clasp of his hands. No, Stefen was gone from him, save for the indelible phantom of his touch - a tingle at his lips, a black shudder in his hand.



He retrieved his worn-out boots, and tried to make sense of it all. He felt unaccountably empty; whatever Valdir now was had shaped around Stefen like a cloak. He didn't know the city otherwise, and nor did it know him. I came here for Harren - and so often had one thing in his life trickled into another. He'd found his level here in Cul Aber's gutters.

He shook himself. What did any of it mean to him? They'd shared a night, then a day, then a fumble. That was all. Had it been such a mistake? Probably. He hadn't exactly had time to think before acting. I've always worked best on impulse, even as Valdir - but if he was defining what they'd done - the sense of it still heavy in his muscles, aching at places he'd forgotten how to ache - as work, he was far, far gone from any hope of looking himself in the eye any time soon.

I have to get out of here. Whatever I've done, I don't have time to ruminate about it.

He stalked through the low tunnels, his hand brushing absently over the places where plaster and wood and stone came together in the Scale's hybrid home. His ears guided him toward the river and its bustle. He heard whistles and drumbeats now, and breathed charcoal and lamp-oil. As he came near another branching path, the echo of a voice caught his ears - so low he could just barely hear the tone of it, and couldn't discern the words. But it sounded like Polly.

He leaned close to the wall, and set a hand to his ear, kneading the air between himself and the stone with his fingers. It was a simple Tayledras hunter's-charm, one so commonplace to them that they didn't even regard it as magic. He listened; not for the steps of monsters, but for words.

"- may or may not have seen him about, what's to you? I've got more important things on my mind. Another night of this and out come the sandbags, away goes my money, can't all prosper on bad tides -"

"He might be in trouble, is all." Polly's conversation partner was a man, one he knew he'd never heard speak before; he would not have forgotten a voice so rich and beguiling. "I have enough trouble to go around."

He heard feet tap restlessly. "Wouldn't want to make more of it."

"Then no need to be playing games, Duchess. All I want is to ask what brought him to the Grand Bazaar this morning. See if he can shed light on why the law came by so soon after."

"All sorts get washed down the river, Yorann. I'm sure I don't know what she carry your way." There was a silence of a kind that demanded elaboration. "I'll say, I don't like the water lately. I swore I could set to river again soon. Now I'm not so sure."

In the pause that followed, he felt fragile calm stretch over a pointed smile. "Aye. I used to think I knew her, or at least knew her face."

"Y'aint rivermen," Poll sniffed. Petty needling. The Rockharbour were but shallows scavengers, for all Vanyel had heard.

The man - Yorann of Rockharbour - laughed low. "You say. But I never saw her do so ugly as dawn fore last." That's when Harren disappeared - "And she's still looking better than the streets tonight -"

"I ain't speaking of what she looks like," Poll snapped. Vanyel heard something shift against the stone. "I didn't mean to say, I know things get nasty up your way. Can tell by how it landed on my doorstep." Yorann merely snorted. "Well I don't know anything. I just hear one story after another, don't I."

Cat and mouse; Yorann would put her out of her feigned ignorance solely because it was dangerous to him. "You really want to know? Watchmen's the least of it," and he heard the sound of a struck match. "They making a fuss over some fenced trinket, want to know who was selling it, who was interested in it. Should see where their damn ring came from."

"You been dredging up the Culway's skirts -"

"You should seen it," Yorann repeated, and the air turned cold as Vanyel heard his own heartbeat amplified in his ears. "I seen the river beat a man around the traps before, but not like that. He washed up in three, four pieces. Like someone took a hacksaw to him."

"The fuck? River don't got teeth, Yorann." Polly's breath was as hard as his own.

"You'd know, right?" The silence that followed was brittle and textured; her doubt, and his knowing horror.

"Sommat's got into her," said Polly darkly. "It weren't like this any other springtime. I ain't sure which way she's going." Her. The Culway. "What you do anyway - you hide him good?"

"Naught special. We just give him to the damned monks." Vanyel was perplexed at the cadence of his words - damned monks, not intoned as a pejorative but simply as an adjective, a fact of the landscape. "Watchmen won't bother them."

"Scared, are they?"

"As any mindful folk." Footsteps echoed through the stone. "You do see Stefen, tell him we've got to talk."

"I might see him, I might not, he does as he please," Polly reminded him obliquely. Her stillness was as noisy to him as Yorann's movement; skirt swishing in the draught, her mind adrift on black waters.

He leaned on the stone to halt his shaking. Harri? Oh great gods, what happened to you?

Vanyel dismissed the listening-charm, and slipped down the passageway until he reached the branch that evidently lead to Polly's quarters. A man walked through the gloom towards him. Vanyel straightened, and looked back at him nonchalantly as he turned towards the river. As well I might - Yorann, if it were he, was fair and tall and dressed as elegantly as any prince, and he glanced at Vanyel with lively, pale eyes; the kind of eyes that drank in details and revealed nothing in return. A sharp and handsome man, as much a killer as he was.

Vanyel turned away to the riverside.



He squeezed himself past the toughs and prostitutes sheltering in the tunnel-mouth near the shore, enduring a few dirty looks. He saw Jorry among them - the Scaleman who'd pulled a knife on him. Bad news like Valdir travels fast.

The riverside crowd was swelling and brimmed with unease. He picked his way through the evident regulars; mutterers hawking the wears in their pockets, dancers tripping over the stones. He found a place to kneel by the shore, between a barely-conscious drunk and a fire that he doubted would survive the wind and the rain for much longer.

He set his hand palm-down to the river as if it were a heartstone. He felt only numbing, stinging cold.

Water's quite good for destroying traces of magic. Ever changing. Polly's understanding of the Culway defied his own; if there was any constant spirit here that spoke to her, he couldn't find a trace of it. She's not godtouched. I thought at first she was a weather-senser, or even a minor hedge-wizard. But now I've a hunch that what she spoke of was Foresight.

And that made him inclined to trust her instincts, even knowing that - well, if she wasn't Chosen in her childhood, there must have been a reason why not. His surroundings weren't indicative of a guardian with the strongest moral compass.

I'm not sure I can stand in judgement, lately. He wasn't sure of much of anything. How long had he been away from himself? Not yet two days - but it feels like a lifetime. He was away from his life, from Haven and bloodless bureaucracy and from watching a friend slowly die while helpless to so much as to ease his pain. Away from his own monastic strictures and his eternally empty room. He was still rended, and hopelessly unsettled - exposed to feelings he'd not tasted in years.

And was that good for me? Gods knew enough people had told him otherwise. Jisa told him he didn't smile enough. Savil had told him he needed more, well, anything. Moondance had warned him that he went against his own nature.

Words didn't matter - none of them understood that he'd made the only choices he could.

Until Valdir, misforsaken rogue, had chosen otherwise.

He tapped out ripples on the skin of the river. Am I to blame some other self for my own deeds? Or am I just cutting loose, like a child tired of living under authority?

No.
Relief from duty was the last thing on his mind. I came here to set something aright, and only found more and more that was wrong... He stared into the water, watching the lanterns ripple. Lines on skin under his hands -

Rising, his heart seemed to follow him slowly, drifting up from the depths.



The sound caught his ears as he drew close to Stefen's window. Ponderous, meandering notes, fingers stumbling along strings without rhythm. Yet he knew them. Leaning his lips close to the glass, he sang.

He sang on through a half-minute of silence before the door beside him opened. Stefen looked at him from within its shadow, the instrument cradled in his arm. "You know that song."

"It's one of my favourites," he admitted. He noted how Stefen held the lute, its neck in his right hand. "You were playing with your off-hand -" he noted.

"I was?" Stefen looked at his hands, as if he had no knowledge of what they'd been doing. "It just felt right," he tried to explain, then he abruptly thrust the lute into Vanyel's hands. "That's what you come for, I won't misuse it no more," he declared, and Vanyel felt something inside Stefen crushed as he let the careworn instrument be parted from him.

The woodgrain against his hands was fit to sting him. Was it only the music that moved him, not I? - but the irrational hurt couldn't deflect the need that had brought him back here. The need to set something right. He held the lute out again. "No, it's not what I came for. May I come in?" he asked.

The wind rustled her strings as he waited at the threshold. Eventually, Stefen nodded, taking the lute with gentle hands and glancing out at the street like a mother hawk as he let Vanyel pass. "You could've been followed -"

"I wasn't. It's not possible," he pledged. His very certainty made Stefen blink, and he looked warily back at Vanyel as he slunk back into his room - no longer certain what I'm capable of. He'd been hidden by an illusion until the moment Stef had opened the door.

Stefen sank into a chair, the lute resting in his lap. He eyed it as if he didn't know if he could touch it, and when he glanced up at Vanyel it was as if he wasn't sure he should look at him. Vanyel hung back near the wall, beneath a sconce that held a guttering candle. He leaned on a silk curtain, stilling its errant fluttering. "Those is Loa's, you know?" Stef said absently, as he brushed the lute's gutwork with shy fingertips; in the wavering light Vanyel saw his thin hands in a series of flashes - torn fingernails, strings and varnish, shining and then shadowed. "She got a few bolts of silk from some eastern pirate take a fancy to her. She's got a thing for not liking colours lately."

"I noticed," Van replied. "She could have sold them to Yorann -"

"When you see Yorann?" Stef asked, suddenly alert.

"At the market - not so long after you left."

"Did you now," Stef muttered, and his eyebrows waggled in an exaggerated fashion. "Yorann used to be an actor. Found a new trade after the old Grand Playhouse closed. Sight for sore eyes, in't he?"

Vanyel shrugged. I haven't eyes for aught other tonight. "I heard him speak to Polly about the troubles in his corner of the city. He said that he'd seen the body that my friend's ring was lifted from." Stefen's eyes dropped - a small respect. "He said the 'damned monks' have it." The description of its condition, Vanyel didn't feel the need to repeat.

"Should've known. Damned will clean up anything." He noted Vanyel's incomprehension. "They live in a chapel on the river up Northgate ways. They got a long name - Order of Saint Thiera in Ministry to the Damned Souls of the Culway. They says they purify the nameless dead who just happens to wash ashore - pretty convenient for all the good pious people of Cul Aber who are willing to share what they find so long as someone will take care of a corpse or two."

:Tantras,: and Vanyel quickly relayed Stefen's words. :And if you find anything there, it won't be pretty -:

:Never expected otherwise. Thierans, really?:
Tantras sounded bleak, and more disappointed than Vanyel was still capable of. It couldn't shock him that in Cul Aber, even sacrament amounted to little but coin. :I'll try it. Beats listening to the watch-captain tell me this must all be the work of Cejan spies.:

:Scapegoats,:
Van observed. Stef was frowning at him. "You got good hearing if you got that off of Yorann. He talk soft about such things."

"I've good hearing." Another unlikely declaration. He wondered what Stefen's wide eyes saw in him now. A lost singer, an enigma chaser, a mysterious swordsman who passed unseen and heard whispers. And a fly-by-night lover - he blushed to think it, but Stefen had not seemed unappreciative of his lovemaking until he knew what Vanyel had seen writ on him.

He shook his head. "Why didn't you tell me about the monks?"

"Because you never wanted me to. You wanted a reason. A body ain't a reason."

It was true. It wouldn't have even helped him - he needed to learn how Harri had died, not where he lay. But frustration rose in him and he glared daggers at Stefen, too confounded to argue with him. How could he be so obtuse when he must have known I needed to know that - and Vanyel's breath caught as he thought on what sight had brought Yorran to shudder.

Stef's hand wrapped awkwardly over the lute's fretboard, and he avoided Vanyel's eyes. Do I seem so innocent to him? No one dies neat or kindly on the Culway, do they? He thought to protect me - when was the last time anyone did that?

A chord - off-handed, off-key - rang from the lute as Stefen rose to his feet and set it on the table. He gave it a wary look, then turned the same look on Vanyel. "You know, I not met too many folks know that song about the Shadow-Lover."

"It's not performed much. I learned it from a book," Vanyel told him.

"I got it from a roads-minstrel with a taste for argonel. Took the song off his hands because I felt like he didn't deserve it." Stef's black humour roused an unexpected smile. "That song were a friend to me at times - when I didn't want to think about...just being here."

The words seemed to beckon him closer, and Vanyel took a few hesitant steps towards him, picking his feet carefully through the dark as if he walked close to the edge of - of something. Stefen's eyes, dark and liquid with candlelight, reminded him of every time he'd turned aside comfort and company, every time he'd sooner a song in the dark than a friend close by, and if I say a word to you, one promise, one offer of trust, I'll betray it. If I could touch you again...

Their eyes locked as if the song had wrought some dark-nights-past magic between them. It echoed inside him, an energy-line trickling back to that moment they saw each other - when Van had played a lovesong to no one - when they'd kissed as mere strangers in the street. What happened to me, then? What was it I felt when I saw you? A calling? Did I know you were key to something that would need a Herald to set aright? I don't know. But I was drawn to you then, and I still am.

His lips were dry as he felt his way through what few honest words he could find. "Stef. I know things happen in Cul Aber that no one wants to know about. But - I'm not anyone. I thought I could come here and be just anyone, but I can't." His disguise had been impossible - since they kissed, since Stefen led him through the city's dark secrets. "And I want to - I need to know what's not right here. It's not just about finding a lost friend now - if it ever was. It's about you too."

Stefen stared at him - narrow eyes devoid of answers, his fatalism finding challenge in Vanyel's words.

Slowly, Stefen turned away and stripped off his shirt. He stepped into a bright ray of lanternlight beneath the window, as if daring Vanyel to stare at his back. The marks at the edge of his ribs were unignorable; two rows of inch-high black figures in crisp ink over his bones, and above, deep scars on his shoulderblade writ their own stories. Vanyel came close as if hypnotised, and set his hand to Stefen's back. Reading with a finger, trying to remember Cejan numbers. A line in a ledger. How many. How much. Someone said they owned you.

His hand shook. I should have known. How should I have known? Who should -? And there, he lost his grasp of who was asking - what would Valdir think as he touched this? A little fear and pity, a lot of gladness that he hadn't yet fallen so low on his luck? Not this searing anger. His hand pressed gently against Stefen's back, and he dipped low to kiss the words on his skin.

"Valdir," Stefen twitched. "What you mean," and he trailed off, shaking.

He hid this from me. Hides it from anyone he can hide it from - but some know, Loa good as told me and I wasn't listening. And he can't trust me. I can't ask that of him. Vanyel extended his empathic senses, angry at his own helplessness. Empathy was all he had to staunch the wound - and he could feel it, blood seeping beneath the silk and dust and time that Stef had wrapped over the damage.

One last kiss against Stefen's ribs, and he dropped to the ground beside his feet, a hand coasting down Stefen's body until it rested loosely on his ankle. "You tell me what it means," Van responded softly.

Stef spun on his heel, kicking away his hand and curling his lips in a snarl, and Vanyel simply looked up at him until Stefen's face crumpled. "I never tell no one." I know you don't. "I was gone, then I was here again. It's not like I'm the only one. Not like anyone don't know it happen."

"I'm not anyone." And his blithe ignorance of Cul Aber's pitfall secrets condemned him. "You told me about it," he reproached himself softly. "You said children got sold -"

"They prefers young ones. I was safe until Berte died - she weren't letting me go without her getting her price. No one ever bothered me when she was around - Scale knew my coin would reach their hands soon enough, and junkies made nice with her cause she knew when to share. I found her cold one winter's morning - don't tell me you're sorry," he warned. "About anything. It was all just mistakes. She were dead and I thought I was free of her world. Didn't realise I hadn't no other world until Dotrid and his friends drove me off. All my gods damn mistakes, you see?"

"No I don't see -" he exclaimed, and Stef sat heavily, clattering a discord from the lute on the table. "Stef, what in hell's names do you mean?"

Stefen's head rested on his arms, and he breathed harder and harder. "I mean I fucked up. I hit the streets, slept here and there, whatever, until they picked me up as vagrant. I got thrown in lockup for the night - and I thought I'd done alright! Didn't seem so bad, got kicked around a bit but it got me indoors on a cold night - you believe that? Seemed fine until a slaver come by the jailhouse and ask if they caught any Cejan runaways for him."

Van gasped. "But...you were born here. You weren't a runaway."

"No, I was a fucking vagrant. No one know where I was born and there weren't no proof I couldn't get sold. Anyone with no home and no papers is a catch. Anyone whose name isn't writ down. Jailer came ask me, and I was too dumb to lie - what my last name is, where my parents are, where I was born? I haven't a fucking clue, do I? If I'd lied..." He thumped his head down, chin rapping on the wood. "So he looks at me - one name, no records, no parents, noplace to sleep, not on the parish roll, not on the temple school list, not known nowhere except the smoke dens. And they knows it, too. He saw me sing on the street enough times. I was fucking unmarked cargo. I don't even know what he was paid for me. He socked me one and when I wake up it were on the far side of the river."

"Stef," Van breathed as he fell quiet again. "That's when they marked you?"

There was a long silence before Stefen decided to answer him. "The first row. Second was after I were sold. I never did get reading Cejan, not like I even care what it says," and Van saw tears run from the edges of his eyes. "I was smaller then - never ate much - and all the bastards knew of me from the jailer was that I sang around Cul Aber, so that's what I was. Songbird for sale, and someone bought it. He was rich as hell. I was his god damn ornament - wound me up, felt me up, had me sing all pretty. It's not like - look, I was lucky."

"What?"

"I weren't sent down a mine or set to an oar like most boys they take. I was a rarity," he grated. "He was so rich, he had everything, and I was just some toy he picked up at market. It were easy - I could have just kept on giving him what he wanted and lived easy til he had enough of me. Always enough food. Soft place to lay down - didn't sleep much, mind. Never even had to go outside. All so damn easy until I tried to run away, and I still wonder some nights if that was my only mistake. Running away."

"Stef, gods, Stef," and Vanyel straightened and rose over him, staring at his hunched back in horror. "How could you think -"

"They get to you," and his voice was sepulchurally quiet. "They tell you every day that the gods made your soul in its place in Ceejay. They made me sing songs full of it - everyone got their place, and where you're put is where you belong, even if they had to drag you there in chains. Us who was vagrant or runaway, they tell us they saved us from wandering the hells. And I sang it, until I thought they was right or I was mad. I had to get mad," and he spoke into the empty space between his arms, "I kept my songs in my head. All the old love-songs and hero-songs I used to sing. I would pretend," and his voice cracked. "Like I was in a song and - and - V - v - s-someone would come rescue me." He shook his head, despairing of his own imagination, and Vanyel's heart pounded bitter in his throat. "I knew was all just pretend. I knew heroes only happen to godly honest folk. I had to rescue myself, and it took my madness to get through their madness and see it. And I tried, and," he curled his arms about himself and looked away.

"You escaped," Vanyel whispered, his heart hanging by that hair. You thought of me, while I languished in Haven and Valdemar betrayed you to slavers?

"Not first time. The gateguards saw me try to sneak out and," Stef's face curled with a pain that cut out of memory, and whatever else he had to say of it was lost. "Second time, I wasn't alone - Tajinet and me helped each other. She heard stories about how some has made it out, and she weren't scared. We made it to the docks in Lydra before dawn - hadn't but a penny and some hope to stow away, but Loa were there hauling cargo and wanted sport of us." He raised his head, staring through the thick window-glass. "Maybe I got some luck. More luck than I got mistakes. I don't ask why no more. Don't want no truths about why is what is," and he shuddered as if the thought of looking upon his own life through that rippled glass was too much of a horror.

He thinks he caused all that. Valdir's heart ached for him. Valdir might as well have vanished like smoke between their bodies. Vanyel's mind tore at itself, helpless to do more than listen. "How old were you?" he asked, because he couldn't not.

"Don't rightly know, do I? Four winters ago. I was fourteen by my count. Took near a year to get away." Stef glanced at him of a sudden, and if he saw Vanyel's feelings in his eyes, he mistook them sorely. "I know I shouldn't have lied to you, but I never wanted you to look at me and see just some pitiful runaway slave."

Vanyel stared at him with something very far from pity. "If I -" and he broke off because any pledge of vengeance would serve only himself. He hated feeling so helpless. Give me time, he only vowed. There was so little he could offer without time. "If, Stef, if you need a shoulder -"

"If I needed aught, would be a kick to the head. It only happened because I was stupid," and Stef turned around, folded his arms over the back of the chair defiantly. "I pick a damnfool way to learn."

Vanyel bit his tongue. Silent and listening with his every sense, aching to do anything to reach him. He couldn't imagine feeling indifferent to Stefen's suffering - not as a Herald, or as a lover. Certainly not as himself.

"Let me ask you," and he looked at Vanyel with a muted desperation. "Do you think, if I went west I'd get to places where even if someone saw it, it'd be more trouble than I'm worth to come all the way to Cul Aber to sell me back?"

For a moment he couldn't speak because his sorrow and anger were far, far too much in the way. "Stef," he forced out. "If you leave Cul Aber, you'll be safe. I swear on my soul. I swear on my name," and Stefen looked deep into his eyes, searching for something to believe in.



They had sex again, somewhat to Vanyel's surprise, but Stefen wanted it and that was all that mattered to him. It was much slower than their first tussle; wandering touches, together and apart in broken rhythm. Sometimes Stefen backed away and silently stared at him for a while. Every resumption of touch was another opportunity to share Stef's feelings skin on skin. Naked above him, letting Vanyel caress his marked skin. Van's anger slipped out in his passion, dissipated in his yielding. The dying candle seemed to throw what he knew of Stef into shadow; his aura of careless sexuality, his guardedness, his solitary life. Someone hurt you, and the thought of it could have torn him apart.

It was enough to offer Stef what he needed - and he felt those odd, contradictory needs, a search for control, escape, oblivion in the arms of a stranger. Stefen needed to call their tune, but Vanyel kept the pace languid. At times, Stef mocked him for his age.

Lying together spent, Stef asked questions to which Valdir had no answers, and Vanyel was surprised how free he felt to answer on behalf of his virgin alias. If he'd been himself, his tongue would have withered in his mouth. How many? Stef scoffed a little at his answer, and more when he clarified that some of them had been girls. Did you get much in the Guard? Some, but he'd been careful - years at close quarters made one wary of rumour. Did he ever like to do it the other way? Well enough - yet not so well. When did he have his first?

"I was fifteen," he answered softly.

"Was it good? Did you like him?" Van's heart caught in his throat as he nodded, and Stef slumped against his shoulder. "Wish you liked me that much."



He was drowsing with one of Stefen's elbows wedged in his ribs (in sleep, Stefen seemed composed wholly of elbows) when Yfandes prickled at the back of his mind. :Chosen,: she murmured. :Did I hear the strains of a duet?:

:Shut up,:
he replied, with affection but little contentment - it was a long time since last it were she teasing he about a tryst. He'd feared how she might react; she didn't usually question his choice of company, but he had rarely taken such questionable company.

He desperately needed to rest, but Stefen's warm, angular body beside his gave him too much to think about. He'd gone far, far further than he should have, without coming close to doing enough. Stef had never known childhood or family, never had any safety but what his own hands could provide, and all Vanyel could offer him was the embrace of a lying stranger who'd be gone from his life within days. He hadn't even realised how young Stefen was - and Stef wasn't the one of them who'd lied about his age. I should be glad she's only taunting me...

:You're not sure this was wise,:
she observed.

:I'm sure it wasn't.: Wisdom had not been one of the faculties he'd engaged before diving into this. :But it was what he needed,: he added, defensive.

:What he needed?: She seemed a little amused, and Vanyel allowed that his body was as deeply satisfied by the encounter as his mind was troubled. :Surely you surely don't think you're the only one he could have turned to for a tumble?:

He sat up slowly, trying to avoid disturbing Stefen's rest. :No, but...it meant more than that. He needed someone to listen - and to show that they were listening.: His Empathic senses still felt oversensitised, oddly attuned to Stefen's every breath. Vanyel could tell he was dreaming - not of hurt, but perhaps of flight. His mind's habit was to run away. Van stroked the young man's head, intensely protective of his fragile rest. And how will he feel when I leave? Once he realises Valdir was a fraud?

Godsdammit, would none of his deeds go unpunished?

:You're right,: he conceeded, bitter. :I won't leave him short of one-night lovers, and one night with me won't put him at so much risk. He won't miss me and he'll never know who I am.:

He clung to that, put faith in peaceful sleep. Had he kept the hurt from his words? Probably not. Knowing that he could mitigate his error by leaving soon, silent and unmissed, only made him feel more wretched, and why?

If he'd looked down with eyes alone he could not have seen more than a shadow in the darkness, but he could feel - such warmth, the quick pulse of Stef's restless dreaming. A fortitude kept as well-concealed as his vulnerability. The thought of leaving the young man alone here was unbearable.

He would do it - no question of that - but damnit could he not take even one illusory night of comradeship and pleasure, one tryst without having to be Vanyel? Without worrying who knew, who watched, who he might offend, who he might mark for destruction? Could he not once have sex like he didn't care about any of that? No, he realised. I can't separate off that part of me. It wasn't Valdir he made love with - it was me. A stranger to him. A stranger with baggage.

Strangers, healing each other. Liars, finding each other's truths.

Sleep troubled him.

-->Part 9
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LHM: Love the characters, hate the canon.

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