Breathe Me

© Carole Cummings

 ~

Written for the DSP Publications’ “Giving Thanks” promotion.

Character chosen by the winner: Fen + surprise character

Prompt: Breathing

~

It’s funny, Goyo thinks, how this Fen Jacin is Hitsuke, but he’s not. How his face is sharp and angular and beautiful, but the mouth is all wrong—hard and set—and the cheekbones are too high and the eyes are an unremarkable gray with only the thinnest ring of the indigo the irises should be. Were once. Deep and dark like the ocean.

And that’s the funniest thing, Goyo supposes, that the fathoms are still there in eyes that should be foreign, but Goyo knows them, recognizes them, has seen them in dreams he refused to remember up until… well. He still refuses. There is no point now, like there was no point then, because though Hitsuke recognizes him too, Goyo can see Fen Jacin trying not to. Hitsuke’s wrong-but-right eyes stare at Goyo from a face so set, a body so still it may as well be a statue, a slab of marble carved into intense angles and thewed arcs, and so aloof Goyo can’t even tell if Fen is breathing.

It’s a tearoom, like the last time Goyo had seen Hitsuke, only the chatter isn’t subdued and wary as it had been in Ada all those lifetimes ago. Fen had wanted neutral ground, and Goyo had wanted… symmetry maybe, or perhaps it was an unconscious prod toward reminder. Some kind of We shared things once, and maybe even a daring We can still, if you’ll only….

Goyo hides a sigh behind his teabowl. “Naro-yi tells me the Kurimo’s training goes—”

“His name is Morin.” It’s low and even, but there’s a scrim of threat around it. Fen peers at Goyo calmly across the table, gaze gold-flecked stormclouds set in a blank face. He hasn’t touched his tea.

Goyo bows his head in apology, though he can’t help the faint smile. Hitsuke’s eyes always did give him away. What they’re giving away now is a little scary, but still. It’s something.

“Morin. Of course.” Goyo holds out a hand, palm up, in conciliation. “Naro-yi tells me Morin’s training is coming along—”

“Naro-yi should perhaps maintain the privacy of the households to which he’s permitted access.”

Goyo lifts his eyebrows. “Come now, you must know there are no secrets among the gods and their servants. And you must know the whole of Mitsu—likely the whole of Tambalon—is waiting to see if Wolf’s Kurimo will grow into—”

“Wolf is satisfied with his Null, is he not? And he’s set his hand upon the Kurimo.” It’s said with a curl of the lip that Goyo finds strangely heartening. Fen runs his fingertip along the rim of his teabowl. “There’s no reason to believe Wolf makes his choices lightly.”

That bloody-minded loyalty, that faithful blindness Hitsuke had never understood would one day end him and, well. Goyo looks away, jaw tightening. He doesn’t know if he was afraid of that, exactly, but close enough.

“Mm, so….” Goyo sets down his teabowl and scrutinizes the grain of the table. He peers up at Fen with a faint half-lashed smile. “What about his Incendiary?” he asks, quiet, though it seems anyone who should know already does. It isn’t as though any of Kamen’s party has anonymity here. Goyo leans in. “Are you truly Wolf’s, then? Surely submission to another god is not….” He trails off when Fen’s eyes narrow, warning, but Goyo can’t not say the things that have been weighing on him since he understood who Fen is. “You can’t be serious.” Goyo sits back and shakes his head, wondering, teeth clenched. “Bloody hell, and here I thought Kamen might actually truly care for you, but he’s merely Wolf’s pup after all, isn’t he? A pup, Fen, a child when it comes to the gods’ servants, he can’t possibly know what—” His hands fist. “I know. I remember. I remember all too well when an Incendiary was coveted by a god who—”

“Stop.” It’s ice-cold, thin-edged, and then, lower, “You’ve no right.”

I bloody well do but Goyo doesn’t say it. He makes himself breathe deeply and tries a different angle: “You must know that none of this is set until you set it. I’m told this Morin means a great deal to you.”

“I should hope.” Fen lifts his eyebrow. “He is my brother.”

Goyo’s mouth wants to pinch tight, wants to blurt Mortal “brotherhood” means little to us—do you still not understand you’re not this once-Untouchable Jacin-rei creature whose mortal bonds can only destroy him like Raven destroyed Hitsuke?

He doesn’t say that either. Instead, he says, “Then you should perhaps not allow him to waste his young life on what Wolf—on what Kamen wants.” He can’t help the derisive curl. He looks away, and forces calm where there is an abrupt, seething anger. “Perhaps,” he goes on slowly, “you should, for once, do what you want.”

Fen’s tone is warning when he says, “It’s what Morin wants.”

Goyo scoffs. “He’s a child. He has the luxury of wanting such things. It’s all blood and glory to a boy. He hasn’t seen what the gods—”

“He’s seen enough.”

“Has he?” The anger boils up into rage. “Has he seen how the gods betray? How they watch and they wait while their servant stumbles from one madness to another? All for the crime of being what he was! Does he know his precious Wolf left his brother to Raven’s retribution for lifetimes?” Fen’s hands clench on the table and Goyo doesn’t care. He’s livid now, breath coming too heavy, and he hadn’t even realized how astonishingly furious he is. More so, because it seems Fen isn’t. Goyo’s teeth set so tight it flares a spike of pain through his temples. “Has he seen them jealous? Angry? Vengeful? Because I have. I’ve seen it. I watched it, Hi—” He catches himself too late.

Fen has stiffened up, spine set like an iron rod, and if the stillness had been illusion before, it’s not now.

Think, Fen,” Goyo says, softer, entreating. “All of Hitsuke’s lessons….” Fen’s jaw clenches at the name, but that’s all. “Please. Don’t let Hitsuke’s pain—your pain—have been for nothing.”

That gets something—a flash of something dark and dangerous from Hitsuke’s restless ghost behind Fen’s wrong-right eyes.

Goyo pulls back from it. “I mean no offence.” It’s hastily said, but sincere. The last thing Goyo wants is to turn Hitsu—Fen away from him. It would probably destroy any hope there might be of… damn. Goyo doesn’t even know what he wants out of this. Snake wants the Incendiary oath-bound to him, or he wants the Incendiary dead. Goyo wants….

Goyo doesn’t know what he wants. Some kind of hold on the memory of who Hitsuke had been? What he’d been to Goyo? What Goyo had been to him?

…What had Goyo been to him?

Goyo shakes his head and reaches out to keep Fen from snatching up his walking stick and hobbling away. “Truly, I—”

He falters when Fen looks down at Goyo’s hand on his wrist and then back up at Goyo. It’s not exactly a deadly look, but it’s certainly not friendly either. Goyo draws his hand back.

“Fen, I….” He doesn’t know what to say. If this really were Hitsuke, Goyo would have no problem at all. Better—if this really were Hitsuke, given… not a second chance, because there was nothing like a chance before, but given something new, something without limits, something with every possibility that hadn’t existed before, and without the obstruction of Raven between them….

The could have been of it all just… hurts.

Maybe it shows on his face. Maybe what’s left of Hitsuke recognizes Goyo, just as Goyo recognizes Hitsuke behind that familiar-unfamiliar gaze. Maybe something still calls to Hitsuke from deep within the well of Fen Jacin.

Fen stops looking like he means to just get up and walk away and never look back. He looks down, sets his fingers around his teabowl and pushes out a flat chuckle. Strangely, it doesn’t shatter the illusion of still marble without breath to stir stone.

“I’m not him.” It’s quiet but steady. Fen looks at Goyo straight, his eyes a little sad now, softer. “I’m not him. I’m….” He looks away, brow pinched, mouth tight. He shrugs, almost helpless, before he looks back at Goyo. “I’m not him.” He sets the teabowl down and takes up the walking stick. “I’m just… this.” He stands, and though his words are almost defiant, the tone in which he says them, the way his gaze is on his hands, it almost seems like an apology. “I can’t be what you’re looking for.”

Goyo shakes his head, frowning, and makes himself not reach out again, though he desperately, desperately wants to. “Fen, no, I wasn’t—”

 “I’m sorry you miss him,” Fen cuts in, soft but firm, final, like the drop of a gallows floor. He bows his head politely and limps away, that damned walking stick with Wolf’s blank-eyed grinning face tap-tap-tapping out his retreat.

Goyo shuts his eyes tight, shakes his head, before he calls out, “Fen. Wait.”

The tapping stops and Goyo looks up, says, “I….” He has to clear his throat, but he grits his teeth and forces out, “I’m sorry y—” No. Anything started like that will only come out sounding like I’m sorry you’re not him, and that’s not what he means. Mostly. “I’m sorry I miss him too,” is what he ends up saying, and Goyo’s not even sure what he means by that, but it doesn’t really matter. Fen doesn’t turn around, just sets his shoulders even tighter and hobbles away.

Goyo sighs out a long breath and watches him go, lets go, and thinks it’s probably just as well. Kamen would kill him anyway.

Well. He’d try.

~

Morin blocks with the bo staff, juts the lower tip up, as hard and fast as he can, and sets his teeth when Jacin merely blocks with his left hand and snakes his right in to snatch-twist-yank. The staff is flying across the courtyard before Morin realizes it’s out of his hands. He doesn’t get a chance to yelp or even blink before Jacin’s got him in a headlock that’s way too brief, and then Morin’s feet are kicked out from under him. Before his body even registers the vertigo, Morin is down in the grass, blinking up at Jacin’s lean frame silhouetted by the late-morning suns.

And Jacin isn’t even armed. Morin keeps the growl inside his head.

“Fen.” Samin sighs, edging on exasperation. They’ve been at this a while. “You’re supposed to be showing him the proper stances, not—”

“If he thinks he’s good enough to mount an offense,” Jacin cuts in, raspy voice low and too even—for pity’s sake, does Jacin even breathe?—“he needs to be good enough to back it up.”

“Bloody hell, Fen.” Malick’s tone is… not really amused, but giving it a good go, like when he’s deliberately trying to lighten Jacin’s mood without Jacin catching on. “Try not to break the boy’s legs before he learns to hold the thing properly, yeah?”

Morin can’t really see Jacin’s face, what with it backlit above him, but he’s pretty sure the look Jacin shoots Malick is fairly deadly. Malick, immune as usual, only chuckles.

Jacin ignores it all and looks down at Morin. “You learn the rules first. You learn the proper positions. Until your body moves without you even knowing it. Then you figure out which rules you can break.”

Morin grimaces. It’s annoying, because he wants to be good at this, all of it, and he wants to be good at it right now, damn it, doesn’t Jacin understand that time actually moves, and Morin has things to do? People are dying while Morin lies here in the grass, panting and squinting into the suns, trying to learn how to be what he’s going to need to be before it’s too late to save anyone at all, and—

He peers up at Jacin, looking down at him calmly, like he knows, and it makes Morin flush and look away, because of course Jacin does.

Jacin holds a hand down to Morin and waits until Morin is on his feet with the staff back in his hands before he says, “Again.”

Chastened, Morin snaps the staff out crosswise—the proper stance and form—and pays attention this time when Jacin says, “Diagonal, diagonal, stab. Watch my hands.”

Morin does. It’s hard, though. Jacin is fast, and though he’s trying to slow down his moves to suit Morin’s capabilities—current capabilities, Morin thinks stubbornly, because he will be awesome at this, damn it—they’re still almost a blur as Jacin blocks each move Morin makes, no matter how quick Morin tries to be.

“Much better,” Samin calls. “That’s it, follow through with the down-end, just like—good.”

It’s almost hypnotic, the repetition of the movements, the utter predictability of Jacin’s defenses, and the equally predictable failure on Morin’s part to get past them. He knows where Jacin’s hands are going to be, he knows how Jacin turns his body to block, he knows in which positions Jacin will plant his feet in the grass when Morin swings the bo staff in just so.

And yet Morin can’t get past a single one of Jacin’s defensive moves.

It’s a little embarrassing, actually. Morin’s sweating. His arms are on fire. His back hurts from hitting the ground every time he messes up and Jacin catches him at it—which is every bloody time. His breathing is heavy and wet and getting painful.

Jacin doesn’t seem to be breathing at all. Every move he makes has this frustrating efficiency to it, no extra twirls or wasted flourishes to give an opponent a convenient opening. He’s not flushed with exertion. He’s not even bloody sweating.

The anger wells up in Morin—not at Jacin, really, more at himself, because he needs to be good at this. He needs to be good at so much more than this. And he’s not, not yet, but not yet is going to become too late if he doesn’t start excelling like he should, like Jacin does, and he thinks, not for the first time, that they’re wrong—Wolf’s wrong, they’re all wrong—he can’t be this, he’s just a boy, like Malick said, and who are any of them to set a war to save the Jin around his neck like a chain so thick and tight he sometimes can’t bloody breathe.

And fuck, he wants it, somehow he wants it all. He wants to be that general everyone’s waiting for him to become. He wants to be that machine Jacin turns into when he’s got a knife in his hand. He wants to cut swathes through the injustice his people have suffered for generations. He wants to show them how to be something other than the slaves they’ve been taught to be. And he wants to throttle and cut off the heads of the snakes who would stand in the way of righteousness.

He wants to not fail.

And the fact that he is failing, every time Jacin successfully blocks a swipe or feints away from a jab… it makes Morin want to scream.

He’s thinking it one second and doing it the next, a deep guttural cry crawling up from his chest and rumbling out his mouth. He grips the bo staff and shoves it out crosswise again, another cry roaring up when Jacin blocks and deflects, and again with a sideswipe that Jacin evades like a slippery mink then repels with a head-on chop that vibrates the staff almost out of Morin’s hands.

It doesn’t do anything but piss Morin off more. He’s a flurry of swipes and strikes and jabs, pressing in as hard as he can, forgetting for now that he’s attacking his brother, and he’s pretty sure he means to hurt, to inflict some damage, because he doesn’t think anything else will slake the thirst of want, the demand inside him right now for things his body won’t be able to do for probably bloody years, and the fury just keeps spiking every time the staff doesn’t hit where Morin is aiming, every time Jacin averts and redirects with that blank look on his face like he’s not even trying.

Damn it, just getting Jacin out of breath would be a victory right now, but Jacin just doesn’t cooperate. He allows Morin his embarrassing little tantrum for uncounted minutes, then he does that same snatch-twist-yank move Morin should bloody well know how to counter by now, and Morin’s in another headlock with his arm twisted up behind his back before the staff even hits the grass.

He doesn’t flail and curse and hiss like a little boy. He’s humiliated himself enough today, thanks. He stills, as much as he can, his heart pounding in his ears, his chest heaving, lungs sucking in great gulps of air. Sweat dribbles down his forehead and stings his eyes, so he shuts them tight and tries to calm down.

Jacin’s hold isn’t the punishing sort Morin would get from an enemy. It’s almost comforting, the way Jacin holds him up, the hard lines of his body like a cliff against which it’s safe for Morin to dash himself. Jacin’s grip on Morin’s wrist is only just firm enough to keep Morin’s arm behind him, locked between Morin’s back and Jacin’s chest, and Jacin even loosens his hold a little when Morin gives an experimental tug. He doesn’t let go, though.

“Do you want it, Morin?”

It’s so quiet, so flat and windless, spoken right against Morin’s ear, but with no heat of breath to tell him it’s been spoken by his flesh and bone brother. Jacin might as well be the Ghost he used to be, for all the warmth and mortality held in that toneless question.

Samin and Malick are just watching it all, Samin with a frown and Malick with narrowed eyes and a measuring stare. Samin is looking at Morin, but Malick’s eyes are on Jacin, like always, watchful, like Jacin’s the one he’s worrying about when it’s Morin who’s pretty much helpless in the grip of someone who’s been known to tear hearts out of chests and stomp on them.

Morin shakes his head and tries to squirm a little. Jacin doesn’t let him.

“What the hell, Jacin? Do I want what? Do I want you to let me go? Yeah, I do.”

Jacin still doesn’t. He firms his grip on Morin’s wrist when Morin tries again to pull it away; his arm around Morin’s neck tightens. Still not too hard, still nothing dangerous, but Morin’s not getting loose unless Jacin lets go.

“Do you want it?”

Morin hears it this time. The everything inside it. The Is this really what you want? The I can make it all stop for you. The Just say you don’t want it and I won’t want it for you.

He hears it all, and he stills completely, his own breath hung on the sharp edges of it, caught in his chest in a tangle of want and ambition and guilt and fear.

He’s thought about it. How could he not? It’s a lot to take in, and a lot to expect of himself, let alone what everyone else is expecting. The fates of tens of thousands, set in his incapable hands, and who is he to think he can save anyone, let alone an entire people? Who are they to presume he should? Who is Wolf to lay this at Morin’s feet like a divine command and just expect him to become and do and eventually win through? It all seems so far away sometimes, like it’s something someone else will do one day, and other times it’s right there, right in front of him, looming up too soon, and how will he ever be ready? How could anyone ever be ready?

And Jacin can make it all stop. All Morin has to do is say “I don’t want it” and Jacin—Incendiary—will stop wanting it for him.

Funny how this brittle moment is when Morin remembers that boy in their father’s dooryard, screaming insanity into the dirt and then cutting it away with a swipe of a cheap little knife, trading one kind of pain for another. This is when he remembers the boy he tormented and mocked, and who cried when he accidentally broke his little brother’s arm and who still, to this day, accepts the guilt like it’s a stone he deserves to carry on his back for all time. This is when he remembers that boy making himself into a man who could weep for a father who didn’t love him, who could kill his mentor, his first love, who could fight Temshiel and maijin—and win—for the sake of a mother who would never even know what he’d become for her, who might weep if she did. And now he is a man who will want things for an incompetent boy—things that terrify him, Morin knows—just because Morin asks it.

“Yes,” Morin says, breath still a thick knot in his chest, but he pushes the affirmation out, “yes, I want it,” and not for the Jin or for justice or for Wolf or for the good of the world. Those motivations will come in time, and they’ll be real and everything Morin needs them to be.

For now, though, it’s for the boy who cried. For now, it’s for the boy who learned. For now, it’s for the boy who killed for the first time, knowing what it would bring and what it would make him.

And in the end, at the very stanchions of its still-nascent foundation, it will always be for the brother who throws him down then picks him up and says, “Again,” because Jacin will beat the shit out of Morin, will push him, will test him, will teach him and will make sure Morin cannot fail, because Jacin cannot lose another thing he loves.

“I want it,” Morin says again, softer, almost an apology, and he lets his body go pliant in Jacin’s hold.

Jacin doesn’t relax. He doesn’t sigh in relief. It seems like he doesn’t even breathe. He’s still for a long, long moment before his forehead touches Morin’s crown, briefly, then he lets go, backs off and waits for Morin to turn.

When Morin does, Jacin merely retrieves the bo staff, holds it out to Morin and says, “Again.”

~

Malick catches up to Fen just as Fen is clearing the gate and heading down the path toward… somewhere. The depths of the city, looks like, where Fen can scale the sides of buildings and trip along the roofs, lose himself far and above anyone who might want to find him. It’s serious, if the house’s roof won’t do. Then again, Joori knows he can find Fen there, and by the sideways glare Malick’s getting right now, it looks like Fen would rather not be found. By anyone.

Too bad he’s not as good at disappearing from Malick’s sight as he is from everyone else’s. Then again, Malick had been watching for it.

“Brought your smokes,” Malick says, holding out the flat little tin.

Fen merely sets his jaw and walks faster, his limp more pronounced than usual after the workout he just gave Morin and with the speed with which he’s trying to not-so-subtly outdistance Malick. He doesn’t take the smokes. He doesn’t even give them a sideways longing look.

Malick holds back a sigh and starts girding himself. This one might get ugly.

“He’s improving,” Malick says as they pass the tearoom where Malick knows Fen met with Goyo this morning. Not that Fen told Malick as much. And not because Fen was trying to hide it. It just doesn’t cross Fen’s mind to inform others of his doings. It doesn’t cross his mind that others might care.

Fen snorts, dark and scornful. He doesn’t answer. He doesn’t slow his pace, either, and he really should be panting and puffing with the strain, because he hasn’t even brought his walking stick. He isn’t.

Malick would kind of like to deck him. Knock some sense into his thick skull. It wouldn’t work, though. Coming at Fen with a physical fight will maybe exhaust him and force him to let go of some of that string-tight tension that’s got him so wound up he’s almost not breathing, but it will only shut down further what’s driving it all. Sink it deeper.

The foot traffic is getting thicker the farther they get in toward the city’s center. It’s just after the midday meal and the suns are high. People chatter as they wander from the tearooms and the poppy dens and the fish shops that sell this morning’s catches rolled up neatly inside a flat spool of sticky rice. Malick’s stomach grumbles. He thinks about trying to talk Fen into a bowl of noodles with some of that spicy shrimp sauce he likes. Wishful thinking right now, but still. Anyway, it’ll only delay the inevitable.

A fortune teller tries to coax Fen inside her ragged-fringed tent with the promise of “Let me show you your fate, pretty” and Fen couldn’t look more savage if he’d actually hissed at her. The death-glare he gives her as he passes is enough, though—she blinks and jolts back then seems to find a very important matter she must attend… elsewhere.

Malick stifles the laugh, because it would be rude to the woman and Fen will probably really disappear on him if he doesn’t. He flicks a koin onto one side of the scales the woman has set up at the tent’s frontis, though. He’s just that kind of guy.

They’re nearing the piers now, the bells of the fishing boats out on the bay chiming their catches to the skinners and gutters waiting on the docks. Fen sometimes likes to come out here and find a spot in the sand down on the shore, watch the water, or climb up on top of one of the boathouses and peer across the bay where Tougei sits in the distance like a smudge of remembrance.

Not when he’s in this kind of mood, though. This Fen is looking for something else, something that doesn’t remind him of what he was, what he is, what his brother will be. This Fen wants the spikes that shoot up his leg with every step he takes, the wrench of not enough air in his lungs, because nothing blocks out pain like more pain, and he won’t take a knife to himself anymore. Not if he doesn’t want to have to deal with Joori because of it.

This Fen has lost the fine balance he walks between Jacin and Hitsuke, has already yielded too much ground astride the crevasse of others’ expectations of both. He’s falling.

Malick waits until they’ve almost reached the warehouses, right before the cool fragrance of briny silt gives way to the dirty pong of fish guts and sweaty labor. He doesn’t give Fen a warning, because you can’t give Fen a warning if you don’t want your own guts added to the reek.

Quick and clean, Malick snatches at Fen’s arm and the collar of his shirt, trips him sideways then heaves him into the closest alley. Instinct makes Fen fight back, one hand going to a knife at his thigh and the other going for Malick’s throat. Malick doesn’t twitch, doesn’t move, only keeps his hold firm on Fen as Fen’s knife comes up and… lowers. Almost immediately. Malick’s kind of proud of him. Not even a nick this time.

Slowly, Malick lets go of Fen’s arm and guides the knife back into its sheathe. Fen lets him, just stares up at Malick, still as stone, breath held tight in his chest and eyes taking on a different kind of fire now. Expectant.

It’s like he doesn’t want to lift his head a little when Malick sets a hand around his throat, but he does anyway. His eyes don’t leave Malick’s and he doesn’t move, but Malick can feel everything about him vibrating, fight-or-flight duking it out somewhere behind that ringed gray gaze, and any shame Fen might have once felt over needing things like this long-since buried beneath the practicality of staying sane.

Well. Sane-ish.

Malick can see it all fighting for space in Fen’s head—Incendiary and Kurimo and whatever Goyo said to him this morning that took his breath and made him look at Morin as though Morin already had a sword through his throat and Fen was the one who let it find its mark. Malick tightens his hand, crowds in at Fen’s body and crowds out all of the things whirling around in Fen’s head, squeezes until Hitsuke’s ghost stops prowling behind Jacin’s eyes. Throttles it all down beneath his hand into the single primal need to draw breath.

Fen does. Finally. A long, thin wheeze of it past the constriction, and then another, deeper, and his shoulders loosen just a touch, his eyes close. Reprieve.

And there he is. The stiff stillness of Fen slides off rounded shoulders and leaves only Jacin. Not Fen. Not Untouchable. Not Incendiary. Just a man whose wants get tangled with and then buried beneath everyone else’s, getting so knotted in his chest he can’t breathe past it until the interior shifts to the exterior and into something he knows how to fight.

“He’s learning,” Malick says, voice soft, fingers of his free hand gentling over the slender braid at Fen’s temple. “Samin will teach him. I’ll teach him. You’ll teach him. And he’ll learn. Because he wants it, Jacin.”

It’s like the name, spoken sure and firm, is somehow what Fen has been needing to hear. His chest heaves with a deep, full breath, and he slumps back into the brick of the building.

“I won’t let him die.” Malick says it with all the confidence of knowledge, because he won’t. He’ll make any sacrifice necessary to keep Morin and Joori alive, because he knows damned well what’ll happen to Fen if he doesn’t. What’ll happen to Jacin. “Maybe he won’t be a great general. Maybe he won’t end up saving the Jin. Maybe this is all just too much for a boy not even out of his teens and Wolf will just have to choose another to suit his ends. Maybe he won’t win, Jacin, but he won’t die. I promise.” He pauses, licks his lips, because it’s still a hard thing for him to say, but he does it—“On my oath.”

Fen shuts his eyes again, leans forward until his forehead is touching Malick’s. His hand comes up and settles around Malick’s wrist, but he doesn’t try to remove Malick’s grip from around his throat. He just stands there and breathes for a while, his pulse still pounding against Malick’s fingers but slowing now, no longer the erratic flutter of a caged bird.

He swallows—once, twice—then he blows out one more deep breath. Says, “All right,” then, “all right,” again, and he nods.

It takes a while, long minutes of just standing there and breathing, settling, calming, before Malick feels the last of the rigidity bleed out of Fen, feels muscles loosen and tension tremors go still. Composed now, Fen pulls back to look at Malick, eyes narrowed, but not in the scary way. More in that promising I know exactly what you’re thinking, you pervert way. Which, all right, fair enough.

With the barest touch of a smirk, Fen shifts his leg so his thigh brushes Malick’s groin. Malick only shrugs with a little grin, because of course he’s hard. Fen just does things to him.

“Like you’re surprised,” Malick says and reaches down to cup his hand over the promising bulge in Fen’s trousers.

Fen snorts and shakes his head, his hand still holding onto Malick’s wrist and Malick’s hand still around Fen’s throat. “It’s always alleys with you, isn’t it?”

Malick’s leer is blatantly insouciant. “Call it nostalgia.”

“Or deviance.”

“Or that.”

“I’m not going to let you fuck me in an alley,” Fen says, one eyebrow cocked up high, one of those tiny Fen-smiles twisting his mouth and just barely dimpling his cheek.

“Oh?” Malick tightens his grip and shoves Fen into the wall. “Will you let me blow you in an alley?”

Fen stares, both eyebrows up now. Then he blinks. He looks left. Speculative. He looks right. Sly.

He shunts out a breath that would be a robust laugh from anyone else, and looks back at Malick.

Malick grins.

~~~~

 

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