Consider What Becomes of the Ashes
When Noah does not run, the past rises to prison him. The walls close and seep stinking smoke. He sleeps clad for nightmares wake him and send him screaming into the hall. His shirt strives to throttle him in his sleep. He wakes with the sheet sticking to his belly and his trousers sticking to his groin and does not remember what he dreamed.
The letter comes within a week, Penleigh's apology both polite and vague. Reiche has words with Noah. Her voice trembles with her passion, so Noah shaves and showers to win himself some silence. Reiche still pays his way: if she wants him to attend Penleigh, her substitute son, Noah has no grounds for protest except morality. He has no right to wield that weapon.
He meets Penleigh as Penleigh requested, in Auldemon away from the docks, in a pub far distant from where either of them have any other need to be. Penleigh cannot risk meeting anyone he knows from above. Every corner in the place is unfamiliar; they can stare there instead of at each other. Words are exchanged: to get there they both traveled on common cabs, a disguise for Penleigh and a necessity for Noah. It took an hour, and will take an hour to return. Noah fears such an expanse of time, such a commitment, what will come before, between, after. To even get here he spent an hour trapped in repetitive thought.
They are both thinking of sex. There is nothing to think of but sex. All conversation here is a symbolic allusion to that act.
Penleigh apologises, 'Again, seriously, I'm so sorry.'
'For what, for being right? I'm a whore.'
'For everything,' Penleigh says, stiffly; awkward youth fights against mature sarcasm, 'for being a small-minded LaGattan prick.'
The lanterns overhead chase gold through Penleigh's hair. Penleigh has an earring now, and did not at his homecoming. The flesh around the too-thick twist of metal is still tense and inflamed.
Noah is looking at it when he says, 'This could have been done better.'
'Tell me about it,' Penleigh says.
It cannot be better. Every time between them is perfect, coming in waves and torrents that paint the walls and ceiling and floor with engulfing white. It breaks Noah every day to leave his bed and go to that stinking tavern. They fuck in the toilet until they topple a cubicle wall. They fuck in alleys until they are nearly arrested, thrice. After that they fuck in a hotel. Penleigh sells his unworn jewelry to pay, he will not mark this against his father's accounts, where his family's lawyers watch all funds. Reiche tells Noah to bring Penleigh to her house instead, but Noah runs from that thought.
'Why should I not want to see you happy?' Reiche asks, with the tremulous vibrancy of years of performance, while Noah sees the theatrical mask, hears the LaGattan order. 'You are still welcome here, and Penleigh is always welcome here, I will not care what you do in your room.'
'For that you will watch?' Noah asks; he never thought to see Reiche look at him with terror. Her knuckles are large and frail, and her hands tremble. Noah cannot smooth his fists back to fingers. 'Or listen? Or imagine what passes between us? Come outright and ask if you want to be in that room, woman: I'm your whore! Nothing you do to me can be pervert me further!'
Reiche weeps, so Noah tries. Reiche absents herself after Penleigh's arrival. They play a game of twelve-piece strategy, Noah taking Highest for once. Noah thinks Penleigh lets him win, but the young man's eyes narrow with irritation, then with a strange wondrous surprise. Penleigh re-sets the board, dark grease under and about his fingernails. He is unselfconscious of the dirt as he moves his Auldemon, toys with the tasseled ties of his coat, but Noah stares. They drink rounds of coffee and eat almond and apricot biscuits.
Noah shows Penleigh the garden. Somehow they end working on a small tree Noah has long wanted to transplant, as Reiche's bedroom window could use a tree for shade. Association-fit, Penleigh's bare back ripples with long muscle when he digs, their shovels sliding in perfect counterpoint. The dry dirt never comes to rest, every grain tumbling in an endless cascade of motion, caught on metal and cast aside. The tree they lift together.
When they are done, the tree replanted and well watered, they are black with foreign mud and fallen leaves. They hose the worst off outside, Penleigh swearing the sky blue at the cold. After that, the shower inside is almost too hot and not big enough for both of them. Penleigh is on his knees, water running along his cheeks like displaced tears. His lips are reverent.
'Not here,' Noah says, 'please don't do this here.'
Penleigh sucks falling water from Noah's thigh before he stands. The dirt washes away but the grease under Penleigh's nails does not. Penleigh frowns at the fan of his fingers, his lashes dark stars made of water and hair. 'Thought I should take on some extracurricular activity, considering the upcoming war. I've been working on an old prototype engine—'
Noah sucks long fingers into his mouth and tastes only soap. He has to bite Penleigh's nails to get to the grease, a taste of scorched air, fire, cigarettes. Soaped up and rubbing together, they come against each other's stomachs, the water carrying it away but for the white echo of their breath.
They dress in each other's clothes and go out for dinner. Holding Penleigh's sandalwood card in his pocket, Noah orders and demands the poor quality of the wine be amended; Penleigh keeps his eyes downcast and pretends to be Noah. The day is as false and strange as a badly written play.
That night all Noah's attempted restraint proves meaningless. Over two hours Penleigh comes three times, in Noah's hands, mouth, bed, and Noah the once but so hard he forgets who he is for long moments afterwards.
The idea was a broken one to begin with. Noah breathes Penleigh's traces, pinned to his own bed by Penleigh's scent, the breath of life haunting this house of the half-dead like a strange ghost.
'There is nothing worse to have at your back,' the old general barks at a tree, 'than a soldier who says he feels no fear.' He instructs a rosebush with a riding crop. 'Fear is for the unknown; fear is built on the past and forbids the future. Of all creatures, only a man is made of memories and hopes.' The general beheads the dahlias. 'Thus all men must be afraid. He who insists he is not afraid is an animal, hopeless and heartless, unable to think beyond the circle of his own instinct.' In his wake, Noah airs only endless agreement.
'No, oh Noah.' Reiche cannot face Noah any more and never paints him now. 'Storm eyes, Noah. Do remember you're alive.'
Noah leaves before she thinks to eject him. He has saved a little, and he has clothes that he owns now. He has put on a layer of softness, aging so long where he does not belong, in among the Highest. He can withstand a winter of scarcity before he returns to the white-haired man. He finds a temporary bunk in a shelter smelling of cigarette smoke. Noah does not need to wander. He is close to the tavern where he meets Penleigh. He waits his whole day now, hurting.
He is restless.
Noah's palms and wrists are raw, his shoulders worse. His palms he can blot against his trousers. His body aches.
There is a significant crowd at the far end of the amphitheatre. Noah should join them, to bluff and pretend he belongs, but he does not have the courage. He wears his best, set aside for clients who live above Septe, but it is not good enough for Highest. He sits at the opposite end of the curve, unnoticed; the girls and young men in the crowd stay intent on the duel.
Penleigh's balance is good. He is quick, his strikes always striving for the preemptive. His footing is firmly grounded, a slide and never a step. Noah wonders why he presents his chest so square to his opponent, but Penleigh's lean opponent is left-handed, and Penleigh right. Even standing square, Penleigh is quick, twisting away from blows in either direction as necessary, never committed to a single side.
Despite his grace, Penleigh is not a natural swordsman. He seems unused to the weight of his Ministerial armor, and does not use it to his advantage.
Stuffed sacks lie about the field as bodies would have, over which Penleigh leaps, feints, and uses to foul his opponent's footing. He stumbles once and glances down. Unwary, he is struck heavily on his right shoulder and drops his blade. Penleigh rolls and comes up in a cloud of dust with his blade flashing through, a vile shout echoing through his armor. The crowd catcalls at him, sledging, laughing. They all know his name, and mock it as well as him.
Noah rubs the sweat off his brow, the back of his neck. The sun is hot up here, the amphitheatre's depth cutting the breeze. His nape prickles with unease. He has not heard the song of swords since leaving Badenstee, the sound painful.
Penleigh does not control the flow of the fight. Noah did not see the first blow struck, but he knows Penleigh will lose. He is too tall; his opponent strikes at his legs and overbalances him. He is too lavish, and puts his whole being into every motion; in such weighty armor he cannot last. He uses the ground well, moving about without a pattern, but he is inexperienced. He has never fought for his life before.
Noah looks away so he does not see the end, and wipes away the stinging from his eyes. Penleigh shouts obscenity long and loud, and does not laugh. In the aftermath of the fight the onlookers run to the field to remove Penleigh's dented armor, while Penleigh's opponent strides for the amphitheatre's side exit, tugging at his helm.
Penleigh is pale and sweating, his undershirt transparent against his skin. A bruise swallows his right shoulder with blackness. He hastens to the stand where his injuries are checked. Noah can hear him snap, angrily, demanding solitude. Noah waits. Penleigh pushes through the crowd, walking towards him.
Noah looks down at the ground. Penleigh's boots are not so shiny today.
'My lords Aracelis,' Penleigh says, 'I didn't think you were coming. I wasn't prepared.'
Noah starts. The stand creaks with a heavy tread. Noah does not look up. Paul Aracelis, in black fabric, and Penleigh's armoured opponent walk past him, until they are before Penleigh on that dusty field.
'I nearly forgot,' Paul said. 'It disturbed you, to have me watching your attempt to trounce our Emperor's pet?'
Penleigh hunches, tries to laugh. 'Disturbed regardless, sir, fighting the Emperor's second hand.'
Then Noah looks up at the opponent, his face bared. The rumours are true, Emperor's chief bodyguard is a bastard Vail, a child taken from the first vicious invasion, raised as the Emperor's own.
'I saw.' Paul reaches out his hand and claps Penleigh on the shoulder, the bruised one. Penleigh gasps and staggers, nearly to his knees, while Paul does not adjust the pressure of his hand. 'Come, lad, bear the small hurts better than that. There'll be worse to come when you venture out with the Imperial sons: more than one Vail to face and fight, too. What does not kill us, so to speak...' His voice trails away. Noah feels the hairs on his forearms lift. His stomach turns, and he does not know why.
'Paul?' Penleigh says, almost hopeful.
'—but that's rot, now that I think on it. Drink-addled, my cursed head, so on. What doesn't kill us can't possibly make us stronger. Thoughts?' Paul looks at his companion, whose Vail face is flat, dispassionate, impossibly alien.
'A platitude of vile proportions,' says the Emperor's only foreign soldier, 'merely another indoctrinated idiocy through which the ordinary citizen is placated into complaisance, kept a mindless dog for better masters, cowed and weak. Do not accept your lot or pain, Kerse. It is not the will of the gods. Strike your own path.'
Penleigh stares at the two, white as ice.
'What doesn't kill us,' Paul muses, 'merely lets us survive. Survival being a dubious mercy on the battlefield, mind. The right choice being between death or destruction, if you ask me.'
Agreeing, the Vail grates, 'What is survival but the way an animal lives, and the meanest way for a man to be?'
'The Association's nothing like it's going to be out there with the Princes, you know.' Paul Aracelis claps Penleigh on the shoulder again, this time the action seeming merely forgetful, a touch where words run dry.
Penleigh does not flinch. He turns his head aside, his lashes wet when he glances at Noah, his face still frozen.
'Thank you for coming, my lords, and thank you for the chance to test my sword against the Vail. But I must return to the change rooms and prepare. I have a hearing to attend in an hour.'
Noah waits until the amphitheatre clears. He makes his way under the stands to reach the change rooms without being sighted or stopped. Within the smell of liniment and sweat is thick and familiar. Another fighter is in the shower. Penleigh is nearly naked, and hastens him into a cubicle. His flesh is pale with pain, his expression intense. 'How did you get here? What were you thinking?'
Noah shudders, an unspeakable rage clawing at his throat. 'The Vail,' he says. 'The bastard Vail. They destroyed Badenstee, put LaGatta against us—'
Penleigh fought the Vail, Penleigh would leave him to fight the Vail, and the Vail would take him too.
'Come on, Noah, the invasion was, what, two decades ago? You're a foreigner too, you surely can't begrudge the man how hard he worked to get so high. Only the Aracelis sibs have ever bested him, two to one—'
'I had to see you,' Noah hisses; he cannot hear another word of the Vail. 'A week since your last message. I had to see you!'
'I know, I know. But you can't come here, Noah, do you know what will happen if you're caught? How did you get here, did you climb a border house or—' Penleigh kisses him and bites. Noah's raw palms cannot slide on sweat-wet flesh, so he gropes and grabs as though he can come away from this battle with something to hold.
Penleigh shudders with restraint. His fingers curl on the tile. 'I want to touch you. Somewhere else, where none of this— What did that sod Aracelis say, about survival? I'm sick of just surviving. Take me to your place? We can do it in a bed, our bed, I want—'
The cab is a private one. Penleigh asks the address, gives it, and shuts the divider. Noah holds Penleigh's hands in his lap and touches the calluses, the blisters, tracing the roughness and finding the soft. Penleigh's hair is wet from his shower. The smell of liniment fills the cabin from the rub on his shoulder. Penleigh frees his hands and attends Noah's shirt-ties.
He falters. His fingertips hover over where the whip wounds wrap rawness around Noah's ribs, but he does not touch those vermillion marks. He sounds sick, thick, when he speaks. 'You're not still with others, are you, Noah? Are you?'
'I have to eat,' Noah says. 'Penleigh, I have to eat.' Penleigh moves away. Noah looks at his rope-burned wrists, curled in his lap.
The rest of the ride is in silence. The sunlight fades with depth until they drown in that ocean of shadow. The cab stops at a desolate concourse, scavengers running from the trash at the sound. Penleigh looks out the window and goes pale. 'I never knew LaGatta had this sort of—' He bites his lip. His eyes are brilliant. 'You live here?'
It would be painful fucking here, worse than at Reiche's townhouse. What dream Penleigh must have had. Noah does not want his grey sheets to smell like Penleigh. Noah does not want Penleigh to spend the time between orgasms counting cockroaches on the walls. Noah does not want Penleigh here. He is almost thankful when Penleigh stays in the cab. 'Tomorrow,' Penleigh says, shaking with some emotion. 'Tomorrow, at the tavern—' Noah's cock twitches, thick and willing already.
'I don't live here,' Noah tells Penleigh's absence. The tenement is only twelve floors tall, gloom cast from the higher terraces. 'No one lives down here.'
Noah meets Penleigh back at their old pub, over and again, neither better nor worse for the setting. Penleigh gets another earring, a small rebellion against the uniformity the Association demands. Noah fucks Penleigh's palms and knees raw against cheap carpet, his cock and one finger inside as Penleigh moans at the glorious impossibility of holding it all. Noah will meet him at this pub, inside or out, and sometimes to meet him walking towards the pub; over and again it will happen just like this. Noah's life is a prison of circumstantial entrapment. He and Penleigh can never resolve this. LaGatta cannot contain the possibility of anything but this between them. Noah knows what will happen. Penleigh will marry, or Penleigh will bring war across the ocean, to the Vail's distant homeland; Penleigh will die on the field, or his successes will raise him beyond high. Penleigh will outgrow this. Penleigh is better than this. Penleigh deserves better than this. There will be an evening when Penleigh does not come, but Noah will still be there and waiting. Noah wonders if he will wait forever, leaning against the wall of the tavern until the stone, air, shadows rise to swallow him whole.
Noah wants this to continue, but it is so hard to wait. The tension is an old tension, and it hurts. Penleigh arrives a little bit later every time. Three minutes, ten, forty minutes against the wall of the pub or in the shadows of the lounge; Noah aches at the thought Penleigh will not come. But come he does, sometimes sprinting and flushed for his lateness, uniform askew and poorly disguised by unfastened shirt, insignia tucked into a pocket. Penleigh is tired. Penleigh is stressed. Penleigh has a life other than this, but Noah is a whore. This is all he has. Noah knows this will end.
Noah does not know how much more he can survive: death or destruction await. He glimpsed what life is but cannot run fast enough to claim it. Freedom is a bird flashing through a room to fly on and fly free, across the ocean. Noah should not begrudge Penleigh his horizons.
Penleigh's features are as familiar to Noah as the face he shaves in the mornings. Today Penleigh's face is especially troubled.
Penleigh is the composite of all faces Noah has ever loved, his mother, his father, his brother. Every day Noah has watched Penleigh's face change without changing, turn hard with brittle resistance. LaGatta is eating Penleigh with her readiness for war. Noah stays in the shadow of the pub's alley and watches Penleigh approach. Penleigh knows Noah waits, but they do not run at each other as they had the last time they met here. Noah does not wonder if today will be the day everything breaks again. Noah knows. When Penleigh's slow pace brings him to where Noah waits, he stops. He makes no move to suggest they should enter the pub, walk onwards, or move deeper into the alley.
He sighs, 'Noah,' with the sound of a pressure-valve releasing.
It is the same hotel. The clerk waves them upstairs, and Penleigh still has the key. The room is bare of anything but a bed, a single lamp, a broken chair and the impossible glory of how good it had been last time. They clutch at each other with a quick desperation. The pressure of LaGatta that has them curl inward, mouth to cock and cock to mouth, to make a safe world inside the circle of their bodies. Like this is so good, for the curve of their cocks can move in alignment with their throats to a full depth, muffled voices punctuating the room's silence. A complex rhythm, they move not in unison but in rising counterpoint. Noah watches as Penleigh's free hand plucks the threadbare linen, then rapidly, then clenching white-knuckled. Penleigh comes first, so deep in Noah's throat he cannot taste it, three fingers forced to the knuckle in Noah's arse. Noah is nowhere near, but Penleigh is still hard after his pulsing ends. Penleigh breathes with Noah's cock against his cheek: 'oh, my aching throat! I tried, but I can't take any more, but I just, I want—' He puts his lips around the head of Noah's cock and applies his free hand. Noah does not stop. Penleigh's vocal recognition shifts to a fevered pitch. When Noah surrenders to whiteness, Penleigh spurts against Noah's tongue and in spasms around Noah's fingers. It takes time, sometimes two or three, but they always come together.
Penleigh walks about the room wearing nothing but his unbuttoned shirt. He cannot be still. He touches the chipped plaster on the walls. He regards a suspicious stain on the carpet with a contemplative expression. He tries to open the window and gives up. Penleigh transforms the sordid little room into a jeweled palace. To Noah's eyes Penleigh glows with a luminosity found only in a painting, where every velvet drape and discarded shoe is a symbol of passion and fidelity. This cannot last. They move within a dream. Noah asks what he does not want to ask. Anything to hasten the end. He cannot stand this strain for much longer, all questions are a reminder of reality.
'How are things at home? At the Association?'
Penleigh says nothing for a long time, only to respond, 'Difficult.'
'Difficult,' Penleigh repeats 'Or perhaps things aren't difficult, and I am being difficult. I've been gone for so long this is hardly my home. These are not my things. This is not my city.' A pause. 'This isn't my war.'
Noah recognises Penleigh's restlessness, his tension.
Penleigh wants to leave.
He hurls himself onto the bed and puts his mouth to Noah's neck. 'I am a dutiful son,' Penleigh mumbles, 'I am dutiful and diligent, and I do everything my father asks of me even when he opens me to further mocking; he doesn't pay attention, you know? He placed me into Princes' cohort, they're the best, Noah, the best, but they're— But there's a strange air to this war; something not right about the Princes, almost like they're taking more tribute than artillery.'
'You won't go to war,' Noah says.
'It's treason, to leave,' Penleigh whispers. 'I don't want to talk of war today, Noah. Meanwhile, you never talk. Tell me of Badenstee.'
I don't want to talk of Badenstee today, Noah thinks. 'I remember so little. Fifteen years ago, half my life away. Almost all of yours, Penny. Can you remember your thoughts from fifteen years ago? LaGatta is all. The city's in my blood.'
'Like a disease.' Penleigh shifts. 'Would you like to visit Badenstee, seeing as you can't remember?' Penleigh hesitates. 'We could go. We could. If you wanted. I did some research after - after I met you. The forest is reputedly very beautiful.'
Noah can still taste Penleigh on his breath when he speaks, the only thing that eases the words. 'The great forest was dried up years before the war, then burned. You will find only ashes.'
Penleigh's surprise is genuine. 'You didn't know? After the Vail withdrew, the LaGattan consul directed his attention to restoring forestry and agriculture the moment he subdued all Badenstee insurgency. The trees should be well established by now. Apparently, the fire wiped out all trace of the tinderbox plague, and put a grand lot of nutrients back into the soil. We looked at the plague and the prototype plan of restricting its resurgence as a part of first year land management and restoration classes.'
It strikes him that he cannot recall the last time he did so. His face sunders from what lies beneath and merely floats, a skim on hot liquid. Penleigh gazes at him quizzically. Noah must give him something in return. Noah has nothing to give him in return. Noah has one thing to give him in return.
This is postponing the end. Noah has no tension in him any more, no springs to snap or cogs to snarl. He has reached the limit of all of his means. He will do the only thing in his life that will be right and true. How detached he is after the painful tension leading to this moment, but Noah supposes this is the one true skill he has learned in his life. His mind survives in a series of compartments. In one is his mother; in another the gibbering memory of what fire and later infection made of her beauty. His father is beside her, loving and loud; his father is also over here, shouting, slapping, punching until only LaGattan words were wept from his mother's bloody mouth as he drags her outside by the great midnight glory of her hair. In another room, are the flames, in her hair and on the horizon both, and somewhere Dar howls at the head of a young pack hunting all foreign flesh on Badenstee mud, LaGattans, the Vail. Dar is tight-locked in another compartment, demanding justice and vengeance and LaGattan blood as water to wash the diseased forest clean, for the treaty was void by the LaGattan Emperor's withheld hand.
Dar is also here, slapping Noah's practice sword with his own and bragging of the first crop of hair at his groin and singing a song of old heroes and warriors who never faltered, who never failed. Dar is also here, looking at Noah over a woman's curved shoulder, and they are both in her, loving each other as well as her, and Noah's hands and eyes are more on his twin than on her. Dar, the betrayer, a blazing torch in his hand, a Badenson in face and blood.
Noah looks at himself in another compartment and sees a child, too young to war, stinking of a month's worth of shame with his arms bound behind him and his legs bound apart and his face to the dirt, a brazier's heat near scorching at his heel, his father's broken sword between his elbows and his back. There is still skin charred on the jagged blade from when the LaGattans took it from him, heated it, laid edge and flat across his thighs until the metal cooled.
Clay and earth and dirt, that room stunk, scorched flesh, blood-metal and semen and foulness; Dar looks in through the window and calls Noah's name and Noah sees himself shriek, no, no, no, for the shame of Dar seeing him so is worse than the degradation, worse, worse; Noah sees himself smile so strangely when his call rouses the LaGattan guard, and Dar, dark and deadly Dar, double-edged and destructive with vengeance, swears at him, weeps at him, and runs, and a weeping Noah imagines his wild twin at last put down so well, he believes him dead.
Noah finds himself in another compartment, here, mentally casting away every spear, arrow, bow, sword; the LaGattans liked when he fought their flame, oh they did, but he failed when bound and failed when free and the flame would always come. He was not of Dar's potential. Noah was not born to shine and burn and fight. He was not born for what freedom demanded.
Here is the deadly and languorous Paul Aracelis and the bastard Vail soldier, the Vail, the cursed Vail, who lives with the Highest and eats with the Emperor's sons. Another foreigner, who chose LaGatta, chose to lift his sword, and rose with that winged blade to the sky and the side of a LaGattan son, while Noah denied himself sword, heights, everything.
And here is Penleigh, refusing to stay in a single compartment, infiltrating everything. Here is Penleigh, pacing in his Imperial Military Association uniform beside the guard that first flushed Noah out from the blackness of burned trees; here is Penleigh holding up Noah's head by the hair, staring into his face, swearing in recognition, ordering those soldiers to break Noah's bow across Noah's back and each of his arrows across his thighs; here is Penleigh exchanging wit and poetry with Noah's mother beside a roaring Badenstee hearth as they sip rare imported LaGattan tea; here is Penleigh comparing swift and admirable sharpshooting with Noah's father as they hunt the wild rabbits haunting the great wood; here is Penleigh swapping entendre, cigarettes and lewdness with Dar as they march side by side in the matching green-and-brown of Badenstee woodswear.
Here is Penleigh, a LaGattan son, who is everything and everyone Noah was born to become, and did not.
Here is Penleigh, young and whole, and Noah cannot touch him for Penleigh will break with his touch. Noah breaks everything. He does not know what to do with wholeness. The world is burned and broken, cannot be mended, dare not be remade.
And here is Penleigh, who will leave, who must leave, who is staying only because he comes every day to meet Noah in a place of filth a boy should never endure.
LaGatta is an empire, starving, and will eat Penleigh if he stays.
'That's a strange smile. You've made all the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.' Penleigh laughs, forced. 'I expect such a thing speaking with Aracelis, not with you. Do you have an answer?'
'I can't take this any more,' Noah says. 'I know you've been planning. I know you. Oh, how I know you. I'm glad I can bid you farewell.'
Penleigh's eyes fill with fear. His lips flutter about the shape of a smirk, deceptive and devious. Noah looks only at his eyes. 'I have,' Penleigh says tightly, 'had enough of ambiguity.'
'Leave,' Noah says. 'Yes, of course you'll leave. The right and only thing to do; find your own path, don't accept your lot. I want you to leave.'
Penleigh's expression is not young. This is a man who sees his world fraying. Penleigh rises to his knees, his hand cups Noah's chin. 'You are the only good I found in this city since I came back. I will never leave you. If you don't want to go—'
Noah shoves Penleigh off the bed. Noah does not fight well. His size is born of his native flesh but he is not in his native habitat; LaGatta rotted his strength and devoured his youth. Against Noah, Penleigh is lean and hard and so well trained. He dodges the blow with ease, arrogance, and an expression of mystification. Noah stops. He is panting. Penleigh is not.
'You must leave me. LaGattan and honorable and Ministerial; your father's pride and the Imperial prize. If you stay you'll lead armies and the world will follow you or fall before you. Another pimp hustling for LaGatta's impossible hunger. They took my country!'
'No, no. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that. You should leave, because you're - so bright. You will leave, and be better than this city would ever know you. You don't know who I am, illegal and born, a halfling, a halved life. You do not know what I've done, how I drank the dregs of survival where you had the freshest cup, please, leave me. I'm not worth surrendering what you are.'
'I am only any good because it is with you. Your presence shames me. I cannot rise to equal you. I cannot aid you to become what you should be. Leave me, or I will leave you. I will leave you.'
Penleigh's face crumples. Penleigh shouts, and Noah does not hear the words or the desperation. Noah responds with the intent to hurt and he does, striking what Penleigh cannot dodge, blows to his nobility, his birth, his LaGattan flesh. Noah babbles Badenstongue; he thinks he has forgotten how to speak LaGattan. Penleigh's words are meaningless. Noah recites Badenstee law until the room is full of the echoes of ejective consonants and hard guttural ghosts. Penleigh is ugly with rage and frustration. The wetness of his lips looks rubbery, as though he moves as a puppet to this performance. Three times he goes to the door, twice he turns back and rages. Noah speaks no words, is an animal, curled with a beautiful fear. Penleigh slams the door behind him on that third go. Noah is so hollow. The room echoes. He laughs to hear how empty he is. He wants to howl, but he is not insane; he does not howl.
Penleigh waits for him in the shadow of the street. His shirt is still undone, his belt ends dangling. His knuckles are bleeding. Repeatedly he has struck a wall. Noah cannot turn swiftly enough, and Penleigh strikes him now as though fists will convince where words failed. Noah does not defend, yet Penleigh's blows fall precise and few.
Noah tastes blood and metal as he falls, Penleigh's arm is an iron bar about his waist. Penleigh does not let Noah's sagging knees touch the grime of the alley's cobble.
'Leave me,' Noah breathes.
Penleigh shouts, 'All right! I will if you want me to, but I'll not leave you here! You don't belong here!'
Noah cannot see, can barely breathe, and cannot move, blood in his eyes and thick in his nose. He is being carried, and Penleigh swears about his weight. Penleigh does everything with the wholeness of his heart, even rage. Blood sprays from a cut inside Noah's lips to stain Penleigh's shirt. He thinks he has asked a question.
'You read me right, Noah, I was planning. You know me so well - but you damned well twisted everything before I could speak. I'm so sorry I had to hit you, look at you, but your eyes, Noah— I could stand in the heart of an icemaker and would be warmer than letting you look at me like that. You listen to me now if you wouldn't then. Noah, I am leaving. I want to leave. But you are coming with me.'
There is an agony of shame, inside and out. Noah clutches at Penleigh's shirt and breathes, Penleigh and the smell of their fucking, and he cannot weep. Penleigh talks from a distance and fast, to other voices querying, confusing. Someone touches Noah's face, only to look at him and spit, 'Badenson!'
'Human and hurt,' Penleigh replies, calm and cold and enviably superior. 'Run, attend the crash, three streets that way. That's my card, let me through the cursed gate. I'm just taking him to the hospital.'
Poor unfortunate. Poor and unfortunate. Such pain; motion without direction, and pain. At last Penleigh sets him down. Noah curls, rocking against the agony. It is not his flesh that aches. He is so ashamed.
'You need to walk,' Penleigh says. 'I made plans, man, but I didn't plan to carrying you the whole way. Where does it hurt? I didn't hit you so hard! Noah, here, put this on—'
Noah cannot see. Oh, he sees; the rear of a gymnasium, sweat-stinking benches and white-scrubbed floors, steam and steel and the cold echoing drip of a leaking faucet. Penleigh is in military uniform already and holds out another. And Noah sees, but cannot see a purpose but for mockery. LaGattan soldiers dressed him in their own uniform, swore at him, a boy in a man's garb, a boy acting a man without a man's rationale, a boy trying to run. His arms bound, Noah stood at attention for days, forbidden to stir against the bite of flies or coals or cigarettes; he fell, he always fell. Each time, he never wanted to rise.
Noah fights as best he can, but Penleigh pins him against tile and dresses him as though he is still a child. Penleigh pours whiskey into Noah's mouth, over his neck and clothing; through watering eyes Noah watches Penleigh drink, wipe his lips, and drink again. The knot of Penleigh's throat moves against his high collar as he swallows. Penleigh puts his arm around Noah's waist and lifts. His hand is gentle on the back of Noah's head. Noah bows with the touch. He buries his face against Penleigh's neck.
They walk. Noah closes his eyes. He breathes Penleigh and trusts. Seven times they are stopped. 'A late lunch,' Penleigh slurs; 'a liquid lunch,' the guard responds, 'you young ones have no respect.' 'My father will hear about this if you think to stop me,' Penleigh sneers; 'Your father's going to hear about this regardless.' 'His name will not forgive you further inefficiency.' 'Get rid of your drunken girlfriend and run, Kerse.' 'You're forty minutes late for the evening session, mate!' 'Sergeant's in a temper; he'll burn you a new one.'
Their footsteps ring on hollow steel. They stagger down flights of steps, across wooden boards. 'You can look now,' Penleigh murmurs, 'no one here to see your face.' His voice rumbles in the depth of his chest. Noah does not want to look. His cheeks are wet. Penleigh leads him onwards.
The slap of water against a metal hull. A shift in the volume that surrounds them. Noah curls when Penleigh lays him onto something soft. He presses his knuckles to his eyes until everything blurs. If he opens his eyes, this will all prove a dream and he must wake to nightmare again.
They are at the docks. They are on a ship.
Beneath Noah, comes noise, rumbling, the sensation of motion, familiar and from long ago.
The world is black and white and red. A blanket is across Noah's shoulders, warm and good. He is so heavy he sinks. Noah walks through a forest of saplings with a sun overhead; he turns to face the warmth and he is a sapling also, stretching high. There are bees and blossoms, and the kiss of clean water at his feet and the sun at his crown. He weeps then, great sobbing gut wrenches making him gag, until the field fades against the pestilence of those bitter tears. Noah is brittle bone buried in barren soil, tinderbox wood, set to spark. Nothing good and lasting will ever be wrought of his flesh. Would that he could poison LaGatta with his plague, but the city is too large a woman for him to affect.
Penleigh talk and Noah thinks it a dream, when Penleigh asks him if he dreams.
'Of your hair. Your eyes. You blinked and I was gone.'
'I dreamed,' Penleigh says. 'Since the first stir of sexuality, how I dreamed of men. Older men, why not. I dreamed of one man. He would enter me so wholly I could do nothing but respond, drove all thought out of him except of him. He would demand that of me, force his singularity on me, with truth and honesty. I could be whole, with him in me, and one pure thought in my head. I fragment for everyone else alive, you know, one face for my father and another for my superiors; one voice for my subordinates and another for the matrons who meet me in the street with wall-eyed daughters in tow. I dreamed of a man with whom there would be only skin between us and never distance, my skin and his, no robe or metal or even air. He would be deep in my bowels, he would be at the point of my sword, he would be at the dock when I left and waiting at my destination. He would crush my chest and with my last free breath I would cry out for him, move for him. And what else would be offered in return but that he would move for me. A crazy dream, huh? Nothing in life is like that, but I found I want you, even if you aren't what I wanted. Noah, your eyes, you cannot see your own eyes. You're wild, man, and you're wilderness. Your lips, curving with the cruelty of a sunrise turned cold. I want to set you ablaze, for if you burn you'll—'
Noah drifts, but he does not sleep. He is not worthy of Penleigh's dreams; he is not worthy of dreaming. Penleigh talks again, curt and deep.
Freedom is wrought of Penleigh's voice.
They are sailing. Stowed away, Penleigh curled at Noah's back, metal all around. Noah reaches sightlessly, too afraid to open his eyes. His fingertips find the cool curve of sleek metal, and presses his palm flat to the hull and time swallows him. Years engulf him.
When he wakes it is to water on his lips, bitter as spend. Penleigh strokes his cheeks until he opens his eyes. Noah cannot see Penleigh's features, only the horizon behind him. It is almost dawn, somewhere, somewhen, over an increasingly blue ocean.
'We're away. Are you better now?'
Noah nods. He cannot trust his voice. Penleigh kisses him, and it is always as the first time. Noah moans. Penleigh pulls away to speak, shivering with want, his fingers against Noah's jaw.
'It'll always be like this for us. Always this good. How could it be anything otherwise, when we want it to be exactly so? This is our choice.'
'Yes,' Noah says. 'All right.'
They are a pallet tucked behind a stockpile of water barrels. Noah is stiff but no longer aching. The ship sings and echoes as Penleigh's fingers divest Noah of his false colors, the horizon dipping and rising across the porthole's circle. Penleigh carried him all that way, Noah realises, from the Auldemon alley to the guarded docks on the south of the same level, supported him through the ranks of Imperial men, into the tangle of the dock's jetties and ships.
Only then does Noah recognise the strength he feels in Penleigh's limbs.
Nothing will break Penleigh. He is strong, gloriously strong. Penleigh does not flee, but chooses where he goes. Over a whole city, Penleigh has chosen him. Noah cannot prove Penleigh wrong. He cannot doubt Penleigh ever again.
Beneath that single blanket Penleigh slides to join him, tangled with clothing and each other, complete and not quite bare. Penleigh moves and Noah lets his hands ride the rock of those hips, a strange drowsiness keeping their motion but a slide against each other. Within moments they are both wet with each other's fluids, sweat, spit, semen. Between them are acres of flesh to cover with touch, Penleigh's slight scars to catalogue, Noah's ribs and bones and those ancient burns Noah no longer sees. Penleigh does not ask with his lips, only his eyes, his fingers. Because he does not ask, Noah tells him.
'My brother Dar. My twin. He ever had a fascination with fire. He,' and Noah swallows, flinches, and finds himself again in the tight hold of Penleigh's flesh, 'the death of the great wood made our family poor. Made all Badenstee poor, and the LaGattans were ignoring the treaty— We were hungry, for years. When the Vail invaded, we both fought. Something to do. Something we could be angry about. But we were losing, badly. Then the LaGattans came in, not to save us, but to take over Badenstee, they pushed out the Vail and set about taking over, setting up their consuls, taking land from the landowners, claiming they were offering aid. So Dar - he rebelled. He was the one setting the fuses and laying out the fuel, took almost a year. When he burned the great forest, it burned to the dirt. With the plague, the wood was already four years brittle and broken. I tried, so hard, but I couldn't convince him away from the path. Couldn't stop him. Couldn't lift another useless sword against my own brother; should never put my hand to a sword at all. So many died in the fire, ours as well as yours, so many of yours. Dar fled, and I was caught. They knew his face, you see, and for that I wore Dar's face the LaGattans thought I had been the one and they did to me - as soldiers do when their comrades died screaming in a flame born in hell.'
Penleigh lifts Noah's legs, kisses the scars on the backs of his thighs, open-mouthed and wetly, and Noah cannot speak for the rising pleasure and shame, the fear. He rolls to set Penleigh's shoulders to the pallet, and lifts Penleigh's knees onto his own shoulders. His fingers find Penleigh's hardness sticky, pinned between them and twitching when Noah thrusts, so tender Penleigh whimpers at the touch. Lower, Noah fingers, to feel the heat building, to burn the both of them with every stroke. With his fingers, Noah spreads the stretch swallowing him to hear Penleigh whine agreement. Penleigh has such a tight draw, as though he wants to take Noah whole even when he wants to hold his all in reserve. This is as right as breathing air. Noah does not know how he lived before, without breath.
The sunlight through the porthole is so bright, dawn untainted by earth or stone, only sky and sun and ocean here. The light is brilliant, warm, and fills the ship with brightness.
'Now,' Noah asks, not a question. Penleigh groans with his lips against Noah's throat, 'oh gods Noah, I'm wretched and you're unholy, apply yourself fully or not at all; you bastard, you arrogant, cold, unfeeling bastard; deeper, oh gods, feel me,' and Noah hears the tenderness, depth and length between them, matching. They concentrate.
When they come it is with their eyes and mouths wide and open, and it is wondrous.
July 2008, complete.
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