“Don’t stop,” he moaned. He begged. “Oh, Saints. Please, don’t stop.” Sweat made it hard to hold onto Valera. Still, he tried. As his body rocked over his, his hands digging into his hips.
The only anchor holding him to a broken world.
Leonides threw his head back. His thighs were sore. His back ached from the continuous arch. The air around them all too hot as if a fire was blazing they didn’t care to notice. His hair coiled and tangled all down his back, except for what Valera was holding. Curling bronzed fingers through inky hair. The only proof of Leonides’ ministrations apparent in the twitch at the corner of his grin.
Valera lifted himself onto his elbows, nearly throwing Leonides off balance. His hands shot out to steady himself, taking hold of Valera’s shoulders.
“What can I stop, little prince? You’re in control here.”
Leonides was never in control.
Not with him.
“He won’t forgive you.”
“Then, I won’t ask for forgiveness.”
He would have liked to think he’d practiced such a reunion in his head. When the time came, he would know what to say, how to compose himself, what not to say, and what not to do. But he hadn’t, because he’d thought himself in control of his own truths. The truths of others. Of history, of who would be remembered, and who would be forgotten.
Time was supposed to forget about Valera, not dig him up and let him fester like a sour old wound in the sun. History couldn’t remember them.
Rain made the stones slippery, the jagged rocks Alda carved itself out of all the more deadly. The sky, rolling and black, looked as if it cracked itself open. Mirroring the angry waves swelling below the bridge Leonides had to cross to reach the stronghold. It jutted out of the mountains, ancient and foreboding. This was where his mother hid when his father surrounded her city with foreign soldiers. This was where his mother’s advisers and allies turned against her for fear his father would sack the city. And this, as he wrung water from his councilmen robes once he dipped underneath the feeble covering of the arches, was where he would decide Valera’s fate.
Queen Liliana dragged him out of hiding to test his resolve, to force Leonides out of his own hole. He would not let her win. Control was his only weapon.
Damp knights greeted him at the door, hardly keeping up pretenses as he passed. They all knew who he was. They all knew who answered to him. Officer Gerwin waited in the grand entrance, dripping and displeased.
“We put him in one of the upper cells,” he said. Officer Gerwin’s mouth pulled into a tight frown. “As requested.”
Did it scare him? How easy each breath came, how relaxed his body and unwavering his heart? He counted the years, each passing without a thought as they ebbed away what few good memories of those months he had.
The smell of him. Ink and old books. Burnt coffee beans
The squinty-eyed look he fashioned when he couldn’t find his glasses.
The ink stains on his fingers, callouses on his palms.
Leonides swallowed a growing lump in his throat. He still saw himself, foolish as all eighteen-year-olds were. And he saw Valera, older and thus as worldly and intriguing as could be. Opinionated and fearless. He saw them both, surrounded by the tall razor grass surrounding the Pala Harviso. He saw his thumbs caressing Valera’s hands, resting palm up over his own. He saw himself lean down, press a kiss to the place where Valera’s pinky fingers met.
Valera laughed, of course. In that smooth way he always did when he was mocking him. But it was Leonides could do at the time. They’d never kissed, and to distract himself from becoming obsessed with his lips he focused on his hands.
There was much that could be said about someone’s hands.
Next time he looked up, rain snuck into the dim halls through the barred windows. The wind howled outside, so loud and full of rage for a moment he wondered if the force of the world itself could knock Alda from its ancestral perch. Officer Gerwin had guided him through the maze-like halls and up to one of the higher floors. He’d guided him down a hallway free of the anguished moans and torture rooms of the lower cells, and held a key before his chin.
“I’ll stand guard.”
“I have my own security. You’re dismissed.”
Officer Gerwin’s eyes darted skeptically to the shadows before they flickered his neutral glare onto Leonides’ face.
He raised an eyebrow expectantly. Certainly here, Leonides was still in control. There was more he knew about Officer Gerwin than he wished the world to know. A keeper of damning secrets was often repaid handsomely.
Officer Gerwin gave a slight nod. “Very well, Your Highness.” He glided past him.
Leonides waited until he was alone, as alone as he ever allowed himself to be. People did foolish things when they thought no one was watching. Someone was always watching. This truth kept him grounded, kept him from doing things that might one day be used against him.
His own security aside, people talked. And people had talked about his interest in a fugitive, an exiled writer from some twenty years ago. His uncle no longer alive to remind him or anyone else he’d once read the books of a traitor. His brother gone to the Saints and couldn’t tell anyone he’d run away for months with a man he’d never met and told few about. With so few who knew the truth, the interest only doubled. How much longer could Leonides hide? Valera’s name could not be written down beside his.
The world would forget.
It had to.
He slid the key into the lock and opened the door.
Whatever he expected about seeing him again, this was not it. He never imagined, never let himself, think of Valera lounging comforting on a bed with a book in his hands. To see him older, to see him seemingly comfortable. A glimpse of another future he could have had.
His brown hair turned almost ashen, his hair shorter but still braided, his skin unwrinkled but worn. He sat with his leg crossed at the ankles, all but annoying the thick manacle around the left.
The upper floors of Alda were reserved for criminals on the fairer side of life. Leonides should know. He’d spent a short time in a cell himself, and the knights had chosen a good one for Valera. The bed and copper tub took up the first room, but he had a second. One with an open door so Leonides could see the bookshelves, and another with a large albeit barred window where he guessed he took his meals. The blankets looked warm and the furniture sturdy. Probably better than any accommodations he had as a fugitive. As an exile.
“Your Highness, Prince Leonides an‘Frederick Harver.” Valera’s lips curled sarcastically around the words, and it struck him that he’d never addressed him by full name before.
He licked the tip of one finger before flipping the page of his book. “Royal Governor of Tadrus, Prince Regent of the Escana Empire and all her territories, Overseer of the People’s Council and perhaps future Duke of Pontegrono. Did I miss anything?”
Valera tore his eyes away from his book.
He looked up.
His eyes still sharp and inquisitive behind his glasses. Still looking at the world as if it could be cracked open and studied, everyone and everything just a puzzle to pour over and complete.
Leonides closed the door behind him. “You didn’t.”
“An impressive bunch of titles, and yet I recall a man I knew who claimed to never want to be a leader. Or to be anything but a listener in his father’s grand council.” He looked him up and down, pouring over Leonides like he had the first time. “But I see, that man isn’t here anymore. Is he?”
“It’s been a long time.”
If he ever allowed himself to think of this moment, he hadn’t expected to be forming a puddle around his shoes either. What had he wanted? A confrontation? A glimpse of another life so he could get the closure that he’d made the right choice all those years ago?
“Are you here to reminisce?”
Reminisce? He didn’t need to dwell on the past. It already lingered before him.
Valera palmed his lower back. The gentle squeeze. The push forward. The subtle urge to push Valera deeper, fill himself completely with another man. He was straining, he knew, always afraid he wasn’t enough to satisfy him.
How could he be? When he was the one who screamed and moaned, begged for more, pleaded for mercy, and Valera did not much more than smile at him when he was done. He had to finish him off first. Win one victory.
Valera’s fingers traced him, rubbing circles into his skin, pressing hard on the sensitive patches of flesh. It made him shudder. It made him drool. He groped him, touched Leonides were he pathetically bloomed for him. Letting his fingers tickle and tease him until his hands trailed up his chest. Nails grazed his nipples. Leonides hissed. His hands went higher still, wrapping around his neck.
A friendly presence. Comforting. They massaged him, pressed the thin flesh of his throat like peppered kisses.
But Valera wasn’t friendly.
He squeezed. Clenched until Leonides could envision the bruises staining his skin as the blood boiled beneath. Squeezed until the air escaped him in a feeble gasp, eyelids fluttering, body weakening.
Leonides hands shot up to his neck on instinct.
He tried to lower them but they wouldn’t listen. He was shaking. He couldn’t stop. His lungs were empty. His heart still. The only thing left in the world, the only thing that mattered, were Valera’s hands on his throat and being buried deep inside him.
Valera raised himself to sit up, his knees cradling Leonides’ back. His braid came loose, hair falling around his shoulders.
“What do you want?” he asked.
Words were lost on him. Leonides couldn’t speak. He couldn’t breathe. He flailed. Valera raised an eyebrow. He patted his arm, fingers feeling bloodless.
He asked for mercy.
And Valera granted it, loosening his grip and waited patiently as Leonides sputtered and gobbled air like sweet nectar.
“You. I’ve always wanted you.”
Wrong answer. Valera squeezed his throat again.
Leonides searched for another answer, before his eyes rolled back and he trembled to a shameful finish while Valera throttled him.
“I want whatever you’re willing to give me.”
A slight smile. Better. “Who am I?” Valera’s hands left his neck. They met his cheeks, pulling him close. Not for a kiss. Never for a kiss. He rubbed the tip of his nose against his, inhaling him.
“Master. You’re my master.”
Leonides cleared his throat, coughing into the crook of his arm before he straightened his back again. “I’m here so I can claim you made an official statement before standing trial.”
Valera closed the book with a loud thud, and he turned to Leonides with a wide grin. “I’m to stand trial? I’m surprised you didn’t hang me when I got here.”
“Whatever you think–
“–your people have killed for less. I’ve watched you. Do you think I’m ignorant of what you’ve done here? Of who you become? Don’t attempt to make me believe I’m not next, or that you won’t put my fair trial to an untimely end for fear I’ll tell people.”
“I don’t fear your slander.”
His grin. The way his eyes peered over the rounded tops of his glasses. Smug confidence as natural as breathing. “I forgot about you, Lee. But did you forget me?”
Why should he alone carry this burden? Valera stained him. He had to have stained him too.
Valera came to a stand. His presence, the irritating confidence filling the room. Always the same with him. Not answering as all just as good as answering badly.
“There have been many like you, Lee. Many before you, and many after–”
Leonides shook his head. “You don’t get to call me that anymore.” He didn’t want it to come to this. Petty insults. Denials. He was here on business.
“I’m sorry you’re not as special as you once believed.”
His breath tickled his lips. It made Leonides’ tongue poke out of his mouth. He wanted to lick him. Every inch of him. Taste the sweat on his skin. He didn’t need food. He just needed him. The sweetness. The sour. The mild.
Valera sighed. “There’s no one like you, Lee.” He leaned forward. Leonides closed his eyes. He wanted him. He wanted him in his mouth. Every part of him.
A sharp tug. His scalp burned, head yanked back. All Leonides could do was yelp as teeth sank into the bruising flesh of his throat.
He was glowing. No one like him.
His tongue grazed his lips. He pretended it touched Valera’s. One day it would. He would suck on him like fruit in the middle of Escan’s hottest summer. Lick the juices dribbling down his chin and swallow the pulp.
“Don’t stop,” he begged. “Oh, Saints. Please, don’t stop.”