"Oh, for the love of the Virgin," Raúl muttered under his breath. Fernando, at his side, looked more than passing amused. The young man in front of him flushed with anger and repeated, "You're Raúl González, aren't you?"
He was loud enough to attract the attention of the crowds passing by; heads turned, as a murmur ran down the street.
"I am," Raúl said, with a credible veneeer of patience. "And you?"
The young man – still a boy, really – looked as though he hadn't expected that. He rallied, and declared with self-conscious zeal, "My name isn't important. I speak for the nameless of this city, those of ability overlooked by the hierarchies of your beloved Institución – "
Raúl groaned, very quietly. He felt a tremor against his arm; Fernando's shoulders were trembling with the effort of holding in his laughter.
" – those who struggle without the benefit of patronage and promotion, while a chosen few perpetuate oppression and inequality of the grossest kind – "
The boy went on in this vein for some length. When he finally paused for breath, Raúl managed to insert a word. "I appreciate your concerns, but wouldn't your remarks be better suited to a petition?"
The boy's eyes flared and he spat on the ground. "That's what I think of your so-called petitions. Anyone knows the only way to get the attention of any of you chosen people is to force you to give it."
Raúl tried to keep his patience; Fernando's growing amusement wasn't helping him. "Then I'm not sure how I can help – "
"Don't treat me like I'm stupid," the boy snapped. "I mean to contest with you."
Raúl took a deep, deep breath, and then let it out again. "All right," he said, pinching the bridge of his nose. "What's your class?"
The boy's face flushed an even deeper red. "See? That's exactly what's wrong with you people – with this whole city – your obsession with everyone's class and their record and your precious Academy – "
"You're not classed," Raúl interpreted. "Then I'm sorry, but it can't be a formal contest, you must know that. If you'd like, perhaps I – "
"Expand," the boy snapped, and suddenly the noise of the crowded street vanished.
They were standing, it appeared, in a long hall, plain and unornamented. Large wooden pillars lined the wall; Fernando, inspecting one, suggested, "Splinter," but it only gave a slight creak, and remained firm.
The boy was frowning at Fernando. "What are you doing here?"
Fernando looked back at him and raised his eyebrows, all surprise. "You established a stand."
The stripling looked disconcerted. "Who are you?"
Fernando smiled, showing teeth. "Call me a friend."
The boy narrowed his eyes and spat on the floor again, indicating a certain lack of creativity. "Another dog of the Institución?"
"Hardly," Fernando said, sounding less amused now.
Raúl interrupted. "Listen – what's your name?" The boy stared at him, lips pressed mutinously together. "You're not classed, so a contest has no meaning. The odds aren't what you thought, you didn't know there were two of us. I promise you, if you let it go, I'll make sure your petition is – "
The boy's face went blotchy with color. "Don't fucking patronize me, you – you – I'll take you both, see if I don't, unless you're too scared, you filthy – "
Raúl exhaled and pressed three fingers to his temple. He opened them, and met Fernando's amused gaze. "You don't have to," he said.
Fernando shrugged, and grinned at him. "Oh, why not? I haven't had a chance to try my speech in a long while." He dropped his voice and said, "Though we could probably just break the stand. It wouldn't be pretty, but he hasn't got the strength to resist."
Raúl seriously considered it for a moment, before shaking his head with a sigh. The kind of brute force needed to break even a weak stand, and what it would do to the boy –
"Just try not to hurt him," he said, and Fernando nodded.
Raúl felt the familiar thrum of Fernando's presence at his side as they fell in harmony as if they had never been apart. "Open and attack," the boy said, the most elementary of openings, and Raúl, with a sigh, said, "Counter and defend."
"Flood," the boy said, quick but not entirely resounding. "Drown body, skill, and confidence."
Raúl felt nothing more than a faint brush against his throat, like the lapping of a gentle wave. Nevertheless, he countered properly, for the spirit of the thing, and because it never hurt to be cautious.
"Tide recedes. Drought. Run dry."
The lapping vanished. The boy faltered. "Strike with fire, scorch, sear – um, blister – "
"Smother," Fernando said, just the single word, and the pleasant warmth Raúl had felt was immediately snuffed out.
The boy was speaking rapidly now, more rapidly than he could choose his words. "Hail of stones, breaking concentration, never – never letting up, blow after blow – "
"Misaim and fall short," Raúl countered. He waited –
"Rebound," Fernando said lazily, and the boy staggered backward, tripped, and fell over in a heap.
For a minute, Raúl thought that was the end. He began to relax, but then the boy pushed himself upright, one hand pressed against the back of his head, and snapped out, "Mallet, pestle, hammer. Pound like beaten goldleaf."
The heavy blow took Raúl by surprise, enough so that he barely had time to catch before another followed. Beside him, Fernando gave a small grunt, which said even more; Fernando was particularly impervious to blunt force.
Those couldn't be the boy's own words. Someone else had written that; sold it to him, or given it. Raúl narrowed his eyes.
"Let momentum carry you away; overbalance. Swing wild."
The boy stumbled, but caught himself almost immediately. He flung up his head and, nearly spitting with anger, bit out, "Slice along the vein! Paper to skin, razor to vein, knife to flesh. Bleed out."
Raúl felt a sharp throb and cursed under his breath, as much in surprise as in real pain.
"Stubborn, isn't he?" Fernando said. "Suture and disarm."
Raúl had had enough. "Disorient," he snapped. The boy started to counter, weakly, but Raúl wasn't done, abandoning finesse for the sharp staccato of essentials as he went for the finish. "Snare in a net. Stumble. Entangle. Gag. Pass out."
The boy stiffened, and his eyes bulged. He tried, in vain, to speak. His face flushed red with impotent, anguished frustration, before his eyes rolled back in his head and he collapsed in a limp heap.
The stand melted away. Slowly, the sounds of the bustling street returned; Raúl blinked, several times, before his vision cleared.
The boy was lying flat on the cobblestones. His nose was bleeding. The crowd streamed around him with hardly a murmur; it wasn't an uncommon sight.
Fernando went over and crouched beside him, poking at his shoulder. "He must be even younger than I thought." He looked up at Raúl, and his face creased with the grin. "You do know how to welcome a friend back to the city."
Raúl sighed. "I'm sorry," he said. "Truly. I shouldn't have let it go on as it did."
"I don't mind," Fernando said. "It's good exercise. Besides, I always like to work with you."
Not well enough to stay in Madrid. Raúl banished that train of thought as soon as it sprang to mind. Fernando's mobile fingers ran over the boy's throat and chest, checking his pulse and respiration; when he moved the collar of the boy's coat aside, a silver badge glinted in the sunlight. Fernando fingered it lightly and read aloud, "The People's Union for an Egalitarian Leveling of Society. Well. That explains that."
A Leveler. Of course. Raúl ran a hand through his curls, ending the gesture in an irritated tug. "What in heaven's name did he think that would accomplish? I'm not against their philosophy, not by any means; for God's sake, I'm probably one of the more – " He bit back the words. He didn't like to bring up Institución politics around Fernando. "Attacking people in the street won't win them any concessions. Surely they know that."
Fernando rose to his feet with a fluidity that belied his height. "He was probably acting on some mad impulse of his own. Don't they usually prefer to parade around in squares and things?" He looked back down at the boy. "What do you want to do with him?"
"Call the city watch, I suppose," Raúl said, after a moment's thought. "I don't like to leave him here, but I'm not going to drag him to the doorstep of the Institución myself."
There was a small boy hovering nearby, eyeing the Leveler's unconscious body with slightly bloodthirsty curiosity. Fernando dug a coin from his coat pocket and tossed it to him, promising a second if he returned with the Watch, and the boy was off in a flash. Raúl took the opportunity to let his eyes roam over Fernando, unobserved.
He'd let his hair grow, since leaving for England. Raúl had hardly noticed, when Fernando had stepped from the carriage the night before: he had hardly noticed anything beyond the sheer reality of Fernando's presence, the smile directed at him once more.
Fernando turned back to him, raising a curious eyebrow. Raúl said, "Woolgathering."
The Watch arrived quickly. The captain on duty began to dismiss them, then caught full sight of Raúl's face and nearly fell over with the double take. "Señor González, my apologies – "
"Please," Raúl said, "there's no need for ceremony." He explained – more or less – the circumstances.
"The boy... wished to lodge a complaint with you?" The captain looked from Raúl to the body on the cobblestones.
"He had a forceful way of expressing himself," Fernando said, which earned him a quick, unrecognizing glance from the captain.
Raúl said, "We had a difference of opinion; that's all."
The captain looked uncertain. "Do you want to press charges?"
Raúl felt Fernando's eyes on him. "No," he said, after a minute. "It was nothing more than a misunderstanding."
The captain looked relieved to hear it. The Watch bundled the Leveler away, and Raúl and Fernando were left standing in the cobbled street as carters and carriages rumbled by.
"Will you tell Valdano?" Fernando asked. His tone was almost entirely normal, which was suspect in and of itself; there was no love lost between Raúl's patron and Fernando.
Raúl hesitated – not because he didn't know the answer, but because he was hesitant to speak it. Fernando read him perfectly, and said, "You'll go straightaway?"
"You don't have to come with me," Raúl said. "Go ahead to the cafe, if you like. Or if you'd rather return home – that is, to the house – "
"I'll come," Fernando interrupted. "It's been long enough. I owe the Institución a visit."
Raúl gave him a close look; Fernando appeared to be sincere, but for the ironic little twist of his mouth. Raúl let it lie. If Fernando was willing to set foot there once more, far be it from Raúl to discourage him.
The iron gates were open, as was custom. Raúl left Fernando in the arched, echoing antechambers. Set foot in the Institución he might, but Valdano's private offices were another matter.
Inside, Valdano's secretary had risen from his desk before Raúl even had time to greet him, already moving to fetch Valdano from the inner chambers. Raúl only had to wait a moment. "Raúl," Valdano said, all smiles, coming to greet him with both hands outstretched.
"Sir," Raúl said, with a deep nod. "You're faring well, I hope?"
"Well enough. Come, come." He led Raúl through the receiving room and into his private study, as cluttered and homely as ever.
Valdano wasn't one for excessive pleasantries, which was one of the things Raúl liked about him. Only the most cursory of greetings passed between them before Valdano asked, "What brings you to me today?"
"It's hardly of note," Raúl said. "Only, just now – "
He described the incident to Valdano, who clasped his hands and listened with every indication of attentiveness.
"Strange," he said when Raúl was finished. "But you had no trouble dealing with the boy?"
"No." Raúl hesitated, and then went ahead. "I had the hand of an Academy friend. Fernando Morientes."
Only someone who had known Valdano as long and as well as Raúl would have been able to read his surprise. He stilled for barely a blink, and his eyes flickered. "Morientes," he said, in a tone that Raúl couldn't decipher. "He's back in the city yet again."
"Yes," Raúl said. "For now."
Valdano was silent for a moment, a moment that stretched longer and longer with each tick of the carriage clock. Just when the weight of it would have become uncomfortable, he spoke again.
"He's staying with you?"
Valdano appeared to choose his words with even more care than was his habit. "I know Morientes is a friend of yours; I only remind you that he remains unpopular in certain circles."
"You needn't worry," Raúl said. "He'll be away again soon enough."
Did too much bitterness seep into his voice? Valdano lifted an eyebrow, but didn't comment. In fact, he let go of the subject altogether, saying instead, "The Leveler – you said he was alone?"
"He seemed to be," Raúl said. "No one came to take him away, anyway. We left him with the Watch."
"Hm," Valdano said. "I'm sure it's nothing but another hothead. But I'll have someone look into it." He smiled at Raúl, a real smile, and said, "The young man doesn't seem to pick his battles very well."
Raúl rolled his eyes and said, letting exasperation color his voice, "It was hard enough not to hurt him."
Valdano snorted. "I have no doubt." He paused, then added, "You'd better not let it get about, though. The Blessed Mother knows we hardly need a Leveler riot based on misheard rumor, or a pack of Academy students getting it into their heads to go on a rampage through town."
Raúl couldn't deny the sense of that. "As you say."
"Make sure Morientes knows the same," Valdano said, the faintest coolness in his voice. Raúl nodded, after a moment.
Returning through the gilded halls, he heard the murmurs before he reached the antechambers.
" – tall one, in the vestibule?"
" – never seen him before – "
"That's Fernando Morientes, idiot, don't you know anything?"
"Morientes? Didn't he – "
Fernando was leaning forward to examine a painting, hands in his coat pockets. As Raúl approached, Fernando turned and gifted him with a smile, lashed with irony.
"Nice to know the city hasn't forgotten me entirely," he said.
The concept of anyone forgetting Fernando was so utterly incomprehensible to Raúl that he hardly knew what to say. "I imagine very few have," he said, finally.
Fernando fell in step beside him as they passed under the arched doors of the Institución, down the wide marble steps to the square.
By silent consent, they turned off the main avenue and resumed their course toward the café. Fernando said, in a conversational tone, "It's changed very little."
"Even littler than it appears," Raúl said. "If at all."
Fernando made a humming sound. "You weren't nearly so well-positioned even a year ago."
Raúl shrugged. "That's hardly a change of momentous importance. The game remains the same, regardless of the players."
"I wonder," Fernando said. Before Raúl could pursue that remark, Fernando caught sight of something, and a smile broke over his face. Raúl followed his gaze to a facade of distinctive iron curlicues spelling out the name of the café. "Ah," Fernando said with satisfaction, "now there's something I hope hasn't changed. England has terrible chocolate."
"Your sweet tooth," Raúl said, shaking his head; the conversation was abandoned, but not forgotten.
They retired to the library in the evening, as was customary when Fernando was in the city. Fernando stretched out on the chaise lounge, half-draining his glass of wine in one sitting, while Raúl took his usual chair. As he relaxed in its padded embrace, his eyes slipped closed of their own accord, and he couldn't hold back a half-sigh of respite.
When he opened them, Fernando's eyes were on him, fond. It almost hurt; a masochistic urge made Raúl ask, as he had been avoiding, "How was England?"
Fernando took another drink. "Cold. Wet."
"You'd as well have stayed in Madrid, then."
Fernando laughed, as though the thought were genuinely amusing. Raúl dug the fingers of one hand into his palm and said, "I hope it was worth it, anyway."
Fernando shrugged, a fluid, liquid motion. "It served its purpose, for the time." He cupped the bowl of the now-empty glass in one hand and let the stem dangle from his fingers. "And you?"
Raúl matched his shrug. "Much the same as ever. There's always something to be done or someone to be placated or some argument to be made. Oh – " He recalled a piece of news Fernando would have wanted to hear. "Karanka's left. He's gone back to the country."
Fernando frowned. "I liked him."
Raúl remembered that very well, as it happened. "It was of his own choosing. He said he'd tired of politics."
"Well," Fernando said, dry, "that is something, at least."
The same urge that had made Raúl ask about England had him add, "I think he'll likely be back to teach at the Academy, eventually."
Fernando nodded, but it was with an air of abstraction. Raúl was about to continue when suddenly Fernando leaned forward. "You haven't answered my question, you know."
Raúl frowned. "Madrid – "
"I'm not asking about Madrid," Fernando said. "I'm asking about you."
Raúl caught his breath. Fernando's eyes wouldn't let him look away. "I'm – "
He held the pause too long, and Fernando's mouth compressed.
"Doing my best," he settled on, finally. It might have been the right answer, or it might not have been, Raúl couldn't tell. Fernando sat back.
"Of course you are," he said. "And doing it very well, assuredly."
There was a note in his voice Raúl didn't understand, but over it, undeniable fondness, so that Raúl's heart began to beat too quickly, again.
He said, "It was no jest, what I said earlier. I was glad to have you."
Fernando snorted. "If you tell me you needed help with that boy, I won't believe you."
"Overconfidence is as dangerous as ineptitude," Raúl said, mimicking the words of a certain instructor, which made Fernando laugh, as it had been intended to. "Besides, I'm no duelist."
"I met a duelist in Valencia," Fernando said, with a reminiscent curl of the mouth. "He reminded me of you. You'd have liked him." He looked at Raúl, and his eyes creased. "Or perhaps not."
There was nothing Raúl could do about the hot curl of jealousy that flared in his chest. He said – equably, he thought – "Oh? Was he at the Academy?"
The amusement left Fernando's eyes. His mouth twisted. "No. You would know him if he had been. Everyone in Madrid would."
Raúl didn't know what to say to that. "He's – good, then."
Fernando didn't seem inclined to elaborate, which was fine with Raúl, who had no desire to pursue the subject further. The silence lengthened. Raúl stood, and made a show of examining one of the bookshelves, though he knew their contents by heart.
Eventually Fernando spoke again. "What about Hierro? How does he fare?"
"Oh – well enough, I suppose?" Raúl, whose thoughts had been taking an entirely different path, grasped to redirect them. "I don't see him as often as I'd like, these days."
"But he's kept his influence?"
"More or less," Raúl said, after a moment's thought. "Perhaps more."
"Good," Fernando said briefly.
England – even Valencia – was better than seeing Fernando brood so. Raúl said, "In England – I don't suppose there was any scope for your fascination with clockwork and steam engines and all of that?"
The brooding look left Fernando's face, and he put his glass down. "As a matter of fact, I met someone with the most fascinating experiments – "
At some point Raúl lost the sense of what Fernando was saying and let the words wash over him, letting himself be distracted instead by the sweep of Fernando's wide gestures, and the shifting of his mobile face. He caught up only when he heard a familiar word.
" – work within a stand, but he couldn't ever manage to take anything in with him. Anyway, they still haven't got much delicacy compared to what I've seen here, but it was interesting all the same." He took a good look at Raúl, and then started to laugh. "Raúl, you can tell me to stop, don't you know that by now?"
"You don't have to stop," Raúl said. Then he took a breath and said, in a way that made his meaning perfectly clear, " – unless you want to."
First Fernando looked startled; then, slowly, a delighted grin began to spread across his face, so like the smile of so many years ago that Raúl felt a pain in his heart, for a moment.
"Oh?" he said as he got up, voice curling around Raúl and rippling up and down his spine. "I don't think I'm sure of what you mean; you might need to explain."
Raúl set his wine glass deliberately on the shelf and affected an air of indifference. "Unless you'd rather I fetch a carriage for you to go looking – "
Fernando came to a stop just close enough that Raúl could feel the heat radiating from him, and just far enough to tease, trying badly to suppress his smile. "Oh no, I'm quite satisfied – but you, I thought, perhaps – with the advantages of your position – " He was laughing before he could finish the sentence, the huff of air brushing Raúl's neck and making him shiver even as he rolled his eyes.
Fernando was grinning outright now. Raúl couldn't take his eyes from Fernando's mouth, just at eye level. Fernando knew it, too, and laughed again, a sound of delight and anticipation. "Such hospitality," he said. "Is this the custom in Madrid now?"
Raúl growled, which made Fernando's eyes flutter closed, and then put a hand around the back of Fernando's neck.
Fernando came forward willingly, and Raúl closed his eyes.
It was several days before Raúl heard from Valdano again – several days, spent in cafés and coffeehouses; at concerts; in the library; among the sheets. Fernando's smile in the morning, and his pleased laugh after nightfall. It was a dreamlike existence, too impossible to be sustained.
Fernando never spoke of how long he'd stay, this time, and Raúl never asked.
The message requested that Raúl call at his convenience. This time he went alone.
"I sent Emilio to look into the Leveler," Valdano said, when Raúl arrived.
"Ah," Raúl said, neutrally.
He and Butragueño were nominally friendly; at least, they worked in service of the same ends, most of the time. Raúl, however, couldn't shake the impression that Butragueño didn't entirely favor him, and for his own part, he thought Butragueño's nickname well justified.
Valdano must have known this, but he had never drawn attention to it, and this time was no different. He only said, "He found nothing of note. The boy's friends paid for his release from the Watch, and the name he gave – Torres – doesn't lead anywhere. There are no signs of any particular unrest, beyond the usual."
Raúl nodded. He'd hardly expected anything else.
A thought occurred to him. "What about those scrips? If the boy bought them himself – "
Valdano was shaking his head. "Even Emilio couldn't trace two scrips in the entire city of Madrid."
That was the logical response, of course, but –
"I suppose not," Raúl said, and privately resolved to ask a few questions of his own.
"I'd like to see Luís," Fernando said, when Raúl returned. "Is he in town, do you know?"
"He is," Raúl said, "and there's something I'd like to ask him, anyway. I'll come with you."
Luís' shop was in the north of the city, beyond the central gates. Luís said he did it to stay out of reach of the dilettantes; Raúl thought he did it to have a good escape route at hand. The shop was dim, as usual, but even the dimness couldn't disguise the rich colors of the long, narrow envelopes that hung from every surface: crimson, royal purple, aquamarine. They stirred in the draft from the door, a draft that sent a whirl of dust motes through the air. Fernando sneezed once, then again, hard enough to shake his whole frame.
From beyond the heavy curtain separating the shop room from Luís' private quarters, there was a rattling sound, and then, nearer, a crash. Then from between the curtains emerged Luís' head, followed quickly by the rest of him.
His eyebrows flew up. "Morientes," he said. "I might have known."
Fernando smiled charmingly at him. "Is that any way to greet a long-lost friend?"
Luís sighed. "What godforsaken wilderness have you gotten yourself chased from this time?"
Raúl's eyes went quickly to Fernando, but his composure appeared unaffected; his grin only grew wider, and he said, "England's quite civilized, actually. You'd be surprised."
"And yet you're back here again," Luís said pointedly.
There was the barest of pauses before Fernando answered, "It does seem to be something of a habit. So are you, by the way."
Luís gave Fernando a hard look. Fernando remained unruffled. "Yes," Luís said eventually. "I'll give you that. Fine; what trouble were you up to this time?"
Fernando waved a hand. "Oh, this and that. It would be more to Guardiola's interest than yours, I think."
"You've made your point quite well, thank you," Luís said. "Speaking of which, Pep sent me some sort of strange clockwork that would probably interest you." He nodded back towards the curtains. "Upstairs. You know the way. We'll be along with the wine."
The moment Fernando was gone, Luís pinned Raúl with a look. Raúl ignored it. Instead he said, "There's something I wanted to ask you," he said, "even before Fernando wanted to visit. The other day, there was a Leveler who stopped me – us – in the street. Just a boy, but he was using phrases that almost certainly weren't his own. Blond, freckled. I don't suppose you..?" He nodded at the envelopes.
Luís looked thoughtful. "Not lately. He might have come by some time ago; that I wouldn't remember."
Once again, Raúl wasn't particularly surprised, but somewhat disappointed, all the same. "Let me know if anything comes to your ear, would you?"
"I will," said Luís, "but I'm not going to get myself involved in some kind of clash between your people and the Levelers. You may remember it's in my best interests to stay out of politics here."
There were a host of things Raúl could say to that. Before he got the chance, Luís said meaningfully, "About Morientes."
Raúl wasn't going to let Luís draw him. "What about him?"
"He's back again."
"Yes," Raúl said.
Luís persisted. "Why did he take it into his head to go to England, of all places?"
"How should I know?" Raúl said shortly.
Luís said, very slowly, "I thought you might have asked him."
"It's none of my affair," Raúl said, which made Luís give him a look of surpassing disbelief.
"For the love of God, Raúl," Luís said, "I know you're not actually that stupid. It's not as though any man with eyes can't see that he's – "
Raúl heard himself snap, "Then why doesn't he stay?"
Raúl had a moment, as Luís's eyebrows slowly rose, to wholeheartedly regret losing his composure.
"Perhaps you should ask him that instead," Luís said, after a long moment. "One assumes there's a reason."
"I can guess the reason," Raúl said. "I won't talk about this."
A second passed, before Luís nodded.
"Well," Raúl said stiffly. "Thank you for your help. I shouldn't trespass on your – "
"Oh, don't sulk now," Luís said, cutting him off. "Come up and have a drink at least, and I'll leave you and your pet wolfhound alone."
Raúl held out for a minute – he wasn't sulking, of all the ridiculous ideas – before acquiescing to good sense. Fernando was here to see Luís, and Raúl hardly wanted to trudge back alone.
Besides, Luís always had very good wine.
It was very good wine indeed – so good that Raúl didn't notice anything amiss until the rough stone walls of the alley they were cutting through vanished.
"What, again?" he heard Fernando say; he himself was busy berating himself for his inattentiveness. The stand was extraordinarily unsubtle, resembling a gilded birdcage blown to vast proportions. The man in its center wore his silver badge pinned prominently to the lapel of his shabby coat, so there could be no mistaking his affiliation.
He wasted no time. "I wish to contest you," he said.
"Usually one arranges these things outside the stand," Raúl said sharply.
The man smiled. "I didn't want to give you a chance to refuse."
"If you know as much about the Institución as you profess to, you'll know I can't refuse," Raúl said.
"I know more than you think," the Leveler said. "I've heard plenty about you, Señor González. Power has a nasty habit of rebounding on you; do they not teach that in your Academy?"
"Oh, no indeed," Fernando drawled. "They hand us the reins and tell us to run wild, practically."
"I know who you are, too," the Leveler said. "You shouldn't really be saying 'us', should you?"
Fernando's jaw clenched. Raúl caught Fernando's eye; Fernando nodded.
"Get on with it," Raúl said.
The Leveler was good: far better than the boy, good enough that Raúl wondered if he'd attended the Academy himself, once. He wasn't better than they were, though. As his attacks remained unsuccessful, he, too, began to falter. "Isolate," he tried, wiping his brow. "No sight, no touch, no sound."
"Illuminate," Raúl cast back. "Clarify all before it."
Fernando built on it: "Magnify exponentially. Blind."
The Leveler actually brought up a hand to shield his eyes; if he was losing consciousness of the boundary between sensation and reality then they were close to the end.
Then, as Raúl's jaw dropped, he straightened and, voice hardening, said, "Darkness like a velvet cloak. No moon, no stars. Engulf."
The words weren't anything like his style thus far; they were like nothing so much as the mysterious words of the Leveler boy. Raúl was so taken aback he forgot to counter, and his vision was shrouded in darkness.
"Pierce with light," he heard Fernando say quickly, and his vision returned in time to see the Leveler say, "Inflame with venom, agony, scalding heat. Lose sight of boundaries; lose reason."
Raúl got himself together. "Numb with ice; crystal clarity." Strengthening, he added, "Bind with silken rope. Tighten. Tighten. Tighten."
The Leveler staggered, trying in vain to gulp for air, and in the space Fernando said, like a cannon shot, "Catapult."
It knocked the Leveler clean off his feet. He slammed against the gilded bars; a quick hand grasped hold of one even as the rest of his body slumped, and he managed, barely, to keep his feet.
Raúl was quicker. "Pin as a butterfly. Immobilize and shackle."
The man's arm jerked feebly. Raúl readied himself to end it when, with surge of effort, the man struggled upward and grated, "Concede."
The stand faded. They were back in the alley. There was no sign of the Leveler.
Neither of them spoke for a moment. Then Fernando dusted his hands off on his breeches: a symbolic gesture only. "Well," he said. "That was interesting. Does this happen to you often these days?"
Raúl was still trying to catch his breath. "No," he said, "only in the last few days. Since – " He stopped.
"I see," Fernando said, and nothing more until they were safely home.
They were in the library as usual, Raúl on the chaise, Fernando lounging against the bookshelves.
"Raúl," Fernando said abruptly. "Twice in a matter of days? That's no coincidence."
"I don't think it's a coincidence," Raúl said. "Did you hear him, when he got his second wind? Those words he was using weren't anything like before; they were like the boy's."
"That's hardly surprising," Fernando pointed out, "seeing as how they're both Levelers and probably have dozens of mutual acquaintances. I'm more interested in what the Levelers suddenly have against you, anyways."
"Valdano's man found no sign of unrest," Raúl said, and Fernando shot back, "That he told you of."
Raúl stared at Fernando. Fernando let out a sigh, closed his eyes, and rubbed his hands over his face.
"Raúl – look." Fernando spoke slowly, like he as dragging the words from himself. "The saints know I have no fondness for the man. I've – tried – to balance my prejudice, to see things clearly. But – hasn't it occurred to you – "
Raúl was angry, and angrier for not knowing at what, or whom. "That he would – what, foment rebellion? Attack me? The man who sponsored me into the Academy itself?"
"That he might conceal things from you for his own ends," Fernando snapped. "Of course he's fond of you, even I can see that. But that's not a man to let affection guide his hand."
Raúl knew that very well; he remembered, against his own will, the scene of years ago, pacing furiously across Valdano's study, constructing argument upon argument to conceal his desperation –
The immediacy of the memory made Raúl say, with a bitter twist to his mouth, "He's always been – honest with me. One might say to fault."
It was a long minute before Fernando nodded.
"You know him best," he said. "If you say that's not it, then it's not."
Raúl didn't know what to say to that, so he said nothing.
"They're right, you know," Fernando said suddenly. "The Levelers. Not how they go about it, but – there are so many with ability who could do so much, only they don't know who to appeal to, or they come to the city too late, or never, or they said the wrong thing, once."
Raúl thought of the duelist in Valencia. Fernando went on. "And what they do to you if you won't be satisfied with what they've chosen to give you, or if you disagree…" He glanced at Raúl and gave him a little smile. "Or if you listen to someone who does."
"You know I agree with you," Raúl said. "I always have."
"I know," Fernando said.
Raúl watched Fernando trail a finger along the tops of the bindings. He thought he knew what Fernando was trying to say. He had to look away, to ask.
"Where will you go next?" Raúl said.
A silence; when Raúl turned his head, Fernando was looking down at the shelf with a peculiar little smile. Something in Raúl's chest wrenched.
He caught sight of Raúl looking and the smile grew more natural. "Back to France, I suppose," he said. "Or perhaps Italy."
Raúl said, more edged than he meant, "Not Valencia?"
He regretted speaking even before Fernando gave him a long, unreadable look. "No, I don't think so," Fernando said, finally. "I've – done what I needed to, there."
"I see," Raúl said, with effort.
Neither spoke for a minute. Then Fernando laughed, under his breath, letting his hand fall from the books, and crossed the room in only a few strides. He sat on the edge of the chaise, thigh pressed against Raúl's, and braced one hand against its back, so he held himself only a hairsbreadth from Raúl, his arm caging Raúl in. Raúl's heart was racing. The house could have fallen down around him and it wouldn't have torn his eyes from Fernando's. For a moment, they did nothing but breathe, together.
Fernando's other arm came up. He laid his hand against Raúl's cheek and held it there for a moment, thumb pressed to the corner of Raúl's mouth, before he slid his fingers into Raúl's curls and then down to cup the back of Raúl's neck. His thumb stroked Raúl's nape, feather-light, so light it made Raúl shudder. Raúl closed his eyes, and tried to catch his breath; it only hitched, and still came uneven.
"In what world could one keep this, I wonder," Fernando murmured.
Raúl opened his eyes.
He put his hands to Fernando's shoulders, looking within himself for words. None came. After a minute, Fernando gave him a half-smile, and slid the hand cradling Raúl's neck around to trace a finger along Raúl's jawline, and then to cup Raúl's cheek again. Raúl's fingers curled in the front of Fernando's shirt, and Fernando bent his head, blocking out all light and air.
It was the middle of the afternoon when Raúl's manservant swept into the room and announced, "Señor Hierro, my lord."
"Hierro?" Raúl said.
"I'll be in the library," Fernando said. Raúl frowned and opened his mouth to tell Fernando to stay if he liked, but Fernando was already gone.
Hierro came in with his usual genial smile, which Raúl returned sincerely. When the demands of courtesy had been satisfied, Hierro glanced around and said, "Morientes is here, isn't he?"
"He's in the library," Raúl said. "I can send for him, if you like."
"No," Hierro said, "no, that's fine. As a matter of fact. Well." He cast another glance in the direction of the hall, then looked back at Raúl.
Raúl's good mood vanished, and he felt his expression go cold. "Someone sent you."
Hierro shook his head immediately. "No. I'm here only as friend."
"But it's about Fernando," Raúl said.
Hierro winced. "That's exactly – everyone knows you were close, but if you insist on reminding them – " At Raúl's expression, he stopped. "Look. You should know that certain persons are – less than inclined to look favorably on intimate familiarity with him. There's been some talk."
"Has there," Raúl said.
"It's what you might expect," Hierro said. "That he's no friend of the Institución, of what he might want with them. Of what he might want with you."
Raúl was on his feet before he realized it. "Oh? And what, exactly, would they have me do to satisfy them? Bar him from my house? Send him off in my own personal exile?"
"Calm down, Raúl," Hierro said. "You know I like Morientes. I'm not telling you what to do. You should only know what’s been said."
Raúl struggled to keep his breathing even. "Thank you for your concern," he said, tight-voiced. "If that's all."
Hierro sighed. "I'm not telling you what to do," he repeated. "Remember I'm not your enemy, if you please."
Raúl felt a momentary pang of guilt amidst the anger. He made himself say, reluctantly, "I – yes. I do. I'm – sorry. You've always been a friend to me."
Hierro waved the apology away, and rose to leave. Then, on the threshold, he turned. "There's one more thing," he said. "This business with the Levelers – what do you make of it?"
Raúl stilled. He hadn't spoken to Hierro about the incidents; he was sure Valdano hadn't, either. Hierro and Valdano weren't particularly friendly.
When he didn't answer, Hierro went on. "I'm sorry to ask this, Raúl, truly, but I need to know what you think. I know Valdano's your patron, but I don't like where this could lead."
The back of Raúl's neck prickled. "What do you mean?"
"He hasn't told you?"
Raúl shook his head. "What do you mean?" he repeated, more forcefully, less a question and more a command.
Hierro rubbed a hand over his face and turned to face Raúl fully, running a hand through his rumpled hair. "The Levelers think they've found a sympathetic ear in Valdano," he said. "He must be stringing them along; I – look, I'm sorry to speak ill of him to you, but you must know that he of all the Institución has no use for their ideas of equality."
"I know," Raúl said, after a long, dizzying moment. "I – had no idea." He regained enough sense to ask, "How do you know this?"
"I have it from an old friend; he's not foolish enough to be taken in by talk of revolution himself." Hierro rubbed a hand over face again. "It's mostly the younger ones. Valdano seems to have fed them the idea that we're all forward thinkers falling all over ourselves to hear them out, but for one or two villains barring the way – you know, oppressive, power-hungry, what have you." Hierro waved a dismissive hand. "I thought perhaps you knew what he was getting at, because in the name of all the saints, I don't."
"No," Raúl said. "No. I don't. I didn't know – " He stopped. A thousand things were passing through his mind in a flash – the mysterious phrase scrips, Fernando's voice saying, He's not one to let affection guide his hand. The second Leveler: I know more about it than you think. Power has a nasty habit of rebounding; do they not teach that at your Academy?
A child could have put it together. For a moment, Raúl was so infuriated he couldn't speak.
"Well," Hierro said, "if not, then I suppose I'd better be on my way." He paused, and then added, "Good luck."
Raúl must have bid him farewell; he was hardly aware of anything but his own pounding rage as he blazed down the hall, past portraits and tapestries, until he burst into the library, where Fernando was sprawled on the chaise lounge, a book open in one hand.
Fernando started at the sound of the door slamming open; at the sight of Raúl, he put down the book and stood immediately. "Raúl? What – "
"You were right," Raúl ground out. "It's – maybe it's not Valdano himself. I don't know. But it's certainly – he knows – he – "
Two steps brought Fernando to him. "Raúl," he interrupted sharply, catching hold of Raúl's shoulders and giving him a shake, then a firm squeeze. He caught Raúl's eyes and held them, bending his head so for a minute Raúl couldn't see anything beyond his eyes. "Raúl. Tell me what happened."
Raúl sucked in a breath and tried to tame his wild thoughts. Even over the seething fury, he felt the heat of Fernando's hands like a furnace. "Valdano. He's been cultivating the Levelers, they think they he's a friend. They were told I'm the obstacle, that I'm set against them, that – because I'm too powerful."
Fernando's head jerked back, though his hands didn't leave Raúl's shoulders. "What?"
"Hierro just said – he's got a friend, a Leveler friend. He wanted to know if I knew what Valdano was planning; he didn't even know about the attacks." Or maybe he knew more than he let on; that would be like Hierro. It didn't matter. "Anyway," Raúl said. "You were right. I should have listened."
"No," Fernando said, sounding dazed. "I was all wrong – I thought that because of me – " He shook his head as if to clear it. "I can't believe I'm about to say this," he said. "But – Raúl, are you certain? That's – and if you're wrong, the repercussions, what they'll do to you – "
"I don't care," Raúl said. "I'm certain enough to take it to him myself, right now. Let him lie to my face, if he dares."
Something flashed through Fernando's eyes, something dark and hungry that snatched at Raúl's breath. "All right," Fernando said. "Then I'm coming with you."
Raúl let out a breath. "I wouldn't ask it of you," he said. "But I would be grateful to have you."
Fernando relaxed his hold on Raúl's shoulders, finally, but only to slide his broad palms down Raúl's arms and give them a tight squeeze. "Raúl," he said. "You have me, always."
For a moment the wave of feeling nearly drowned Raúl; he had no response. Fernando, never taking his eyes from Raúl's, must have seen it. He repeated, softer, "You have me," and at last let Raúl go.
Raúl could only nod. Fernando cleared his throat. "Well then," he said, and flashed Raúl a grin. "Shall we?"
Raúl's answering smile was grim.
They could see the dark figure standing on the steps of the Institución before they were across the square. Raúl knew, even at a distance, who it was. So did Fernando. He began to curse fluently and viciously; Raúl only pressed his lips together tightly enough to draw blood.
"Raúl," Butragueño said in a clipped voice when they drew near enough to hear, and then, with disdain he didn't bother to disguise, "Morientes."
"Butragueño," Raúl said coolly. "You're expecting someone, I see."
Butragueño snorted. "It serves more than one to keep on eye on what Raúl González hears, or where he goes," he said. His eyes flicked to Fernando. "Or with whom."
"I don't have time for petty gamesmanship," Raúl said. "What do you want with me?"
Butragueño's face hardened. "I accuse you of endangerment of the people, and will contest with you."
"You'll contest with both of us, or not at all," Fernando said before Raúl answered.
"Oh, yes," Butragueño said. "You're still classed, aren't you? Shall we see how long that lasts?" As Fernando's lips tightened, Butragueño said, "It's no matter to me. I mean to see both of you broken of your class. Expand."
The stand was a soaring, high-ceilinged room all in glass, hung with crystal chandeliers. If Raúl had had any lingering doubts about Valdano's involvement, they vanished now; his taste couldn't be clearer. And if Valdano was holding the stand, there was no way Raúl and Fernando could force their way out, neither apart nor together.
Raúl returned to Butragueño's words. "Broken, you say. And you think you're the best to do it?"
Butragueño wouldn't be baited. "I know I am," he said. "You're powerful, Raúl, but you're still too young."
"Will you tell me why?" Raúl said.
Butragueño's mouth curled in what might have been a smile in a softer man. "Need I? You're no fool."
"No?" Raúl's lips tightened. "Then I suppose we needn't waste any more time."
"As you will." Butragueño looked at Fernando and said deliberately, "You may still leave, if you like."
Fernando laughed, a sound that held no amusement. "I don't like, thank you." He caught Raúl's eye and gave a minute nod.
Raúl gathered his concentration to himself and said in as insolent a tone as he could muster, "You may try yourself."
Butragueño dipped his head, in a mockery of a bow.
"Divide," he said, and it was so far from what Raúl was expecting that he didn't realize what was happening until it was too late.
The thrum of Fernando's presence vanished. He whirled to his side, unable to help the wild instinctive thought that he'd disappeared, but Fernando was still there, his face a mirror of Raúl's feelings.
Fernando's mouth moved, and Raúl heard nothing. "Fernando," he said first, a reflex, and then, "Reunite. Clear. Make transparent." Fernando just stared at him and shook his head. He reached out, but where his hand should have touched Fernando's shoulder, it met nothingness. "Adhere," he tried. "Dissolve – "
"Hammer on anvil," Butragueño's voice said, like a whipcrack, and Raúl was knocked to his knees. He caught himself with both hands against the marble floor. "Strike," Butragueño said, and he went down the rest of the way.
He was braced for another blow but it never came; he pushed himself up, coughing, and raised his head. Fernando must have spoken, because Butragueño had fallen a step backward and looked irritated as he spoke a counter.
Fine; they couldn't speak to each other. It didn't matter. Raúl knew Fernando's style like his own, and Fernando his. He caught Fernando's eye, then turned back to Butragueño. "Hold with the strength of iron," he said, and waited.
He didn't hear what Fernando said, but the blow was clear enough. Butragueño's face went white. "Inhibit," Raúl said quickly, "slow reflexes, become sluggish – "
"Revitalize," Butragueño said, shaking it off, and then before Raúl could react, "Labyrinth. Vertigo. Disorientation. No way forward, no way up, no way out."
It hit Raúl like a battering ram. Suddenly the world spun around him; he couldn't tell his feet from the sky. Nausea rose in his throat. He put a hand out into nothingness to steady himself, and felt it even worse.
He shut his eyes tightly and made himself remain calm. Butragueño had said nothing specifically about his reason. Any moment he expected to feel a blow; it still didn't come, which meant Fernando must be holding Butragueño by himself. Raúl squeezed his eyes shut, and enunciated as clearly as he could, "Center, concentrate, balance. Obey the laws of nature, follow the path of gravity."
He opened his eyes. The room wasn't spinning any more.
Butragueño saw him. He frowned, opened his mouth; Raúl readied himself for the blow and –
Butragueño turned to Fernando and said, "Demolish."
Raúl had just a moment to reach out, uselessly, before Fernando was thrown from his feet. It seemed to Raúl a horrifying age, as Fernando arced backwards through the air, down, down, down to crash to the polished floor with a sickening crack.
For a moment Raúl couldn't breathe; then Fernando stirred, and made as if to push himself upright. Butragueño said it again: "Demolish."
"Deflect," Raúl threw out, but he wasn't quick enough. Fernando slammed back against the floor.
Incredibly, he was still conscious. His eyelids cracked open and his mouth moved; Raúl couldn't hear it. Butragueño must have, because he laughed.
He stopped when Fernando, arms straining with effort, pushed himself up on his hands and knees and gave him the faintest hint of an insolent smile.
Butragueño's face darkened. "De – "
Fernando's mouth moved. The blast rocked the stand, setting the chandeliers swaying and chiming. Butragueño staggered, face white, and Fernando collapsed to the marble floor. This time, he stayed still.
Raúl's vision narrowed to a point. He turned to Butragueño and opened his mouth.
He had no use for finesse, nor for elegance. He had no thought to spare for anything other than brutal force, hammering blow upon blow, one after another. "Smash. Collide. Flatten. Strike. Strike. Strike."
Butragueño could scarcely get in a word of his own; he had lost the contest, and he knew it. A tiny, unnaturally calm corner of Raúl's debated whether to draw it out, or to end it as quickly as possible. It would be very satisfying. But there was Fernando –
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Fernando stir.
Butragueño did it, too; Raúl saw his gaze sharpen and his eyes narrow. A thread of panic worked its way up. If he tried to – Raúl didn't have time –
A hot, raging pressure was building behind Raúl's eyes. He felt it coming, rushing back like the sea before a tidal wave, the power swelling and gathering behind his voice.
He opened his mouth.
"Shatter," he said, and in a crashing, sparkling shower, every pane of glass exploded.
The small room was quiet. On the bed, Fernando's chest rose and fell, slowly.
Luís had said he'd be fine, eventually; bruised, and possibly concussed, but not seriously hurt. Which allayed Raúl's worry very little, and comforted his guilt not at all. Luís himself had vanished; undoubtedly he was prowling through the locked cabinets in the library. It was a small price to pay, as far as Raúl was concerned.
This would be it – this would have to be it. Fernando had left Madrid to get away from the Institución; now that he couldn't even make a brief return without getting snared in its power struggles – because of Raúl –
Fernando's even breathing suddenly hitched. All other thoughts fled. Raúl leaned forward, eyes on Fernando's slack face, ready to call for Luís if needed –
Fernando's eyes fluttered open.
His gaze was unfocused, at first; as Raúl watched, his eyes focused on Raúl's face, and he tried to wet his lips. When he spoke, it was in a dry rasp. "Water – "
There was a pitcher beside the bed. Raúl poured as Fernando pushed himself up so he was at least supported against the pillows. The movement made him flinch and his face twist; he put a hand to his side, then winced again and sucked in a short breath.
"Don't," Raúl said, a hand going out automatically; he checked it, mid-reach, and it hovered awkwardly in the air before he reached instead for the goblet of water and gave it to Fernando.
"How do you feel?" Raúl asked, when Fernando had drained it, or nearly, and licked his lips again.
Fernando made an attempt at his customary smile. "I've had better," he said. He was looking more and more aware by the minute. "What happened? That last thing I remember, I..." He frowned.
"Butragueño tried to break you of your class," Raúl said. "You nearly knocked him insensible instead."
Fernando nodded slowly. "I do remember that. And then you – did you finish it, on your own?"
"I broke the stand," Raúl said.
At first Fernando just stared at him, mouth parted slightly. "What?"
What had seemed so obvious at the time was suddenly hard to explain. "Butragueño was taking too long – and you were, if you didn't get out of there – " He stopped, and finished lamely, "It seemed easier."
"Easier," Fernando said, in a peculiar voice. He was looking at Raúl with an expression Raúl didn't understand. After a minute, he laughed under his breath, and lowered his head, putting a hand to the back of it. "I shouldn't be surprised by you anymore. So you can... That's... good."
Raúl didn't like his tone. "What is?"
"Nothing," Fernando said. "I should apologize – I seem to be causing even more trouble for you than before." Raúl made to protest, and Fernando gave him a shadow of his usual smile.
"It's no matter anyhow," he said. "I mean to leave Madrid as soon as I can."
For a moment, Raúl was numb; here, at last, was the blow he had been dreading since the moment Fernando had returned. The reality of it overwhelmed for a moment the practical considerations. Then Raúl recalled the situation and said, "You can't. You're injured, you have to rest."
"I can rest as well in France," Fernando said. "Better I do it out of the eye of the Institución. I'd like to do you a good turn, while I still can." He glanced up, and the corner of his mouth lifted. "Don't think I don't know that I do you no favors with my company. I always have."
Raúl said, "What?"
Fernando was looking down at the counterpane, tracing the embroidery with one finger, so he didn't see the look on Raúl's face. Something that was probably meant to be a smile twisted his mouth, self-mocking and bittersweet. "I've been very... selfish," he said. "I do have better intentions. It's just that somehow, I can't ever bring myself to stay away for too long."
For a moment, Raúl could only gape. He struggled to find his voice. "Do you mean to say," he managed eventually, "Do you mean to say that you've been – that you've been staying away, all these years, because you think I want you to?"
Something of what Raúl felt must have come through his voice, because Fernando's head came up; his expression, so clearly surprised, was like a dash of vinegar in an open wound. "I – not want, exactly, but – I don't understand. You don't? But for how long?"
It was too much. Raúl exploded, "Since the second you told me you were leaving!" Fernando's eyes were huge and uncomprehending. "Since the first time – every time, my God – "
"But – " Fernando sounded confused, and alarmed. "Raúl – your position, the Institución, you – "
"I – " Raúl's breath caught in his throat, before the hot wave of anger set it free again. "Is that what you've thought of me, all this time? That I cared more for position? For status? Have I ever – " The rush was so overwhelming it almost choked him. "I only – I want – "
Fernando sounded hesitant, uncertain. "I know that you – care about me."
"'You know'," Raúl said. "You know – you – " He laughed, a harsh, ragged sound, and buried his face in his hands, clutching at his hair.
Something brushed his sleeve; after a moment, it resolved into a hand grasping his arm, lines of heat searing through the cloth.
"Raúl," Fernando said again. His voice was pained. "I don't understand. Tell me, please?"
Raúl realized, distantly, that he could taste blood in his mouth. He was biting his lip. He said, "Do you know the best thing the Institución has ever given me?"
Fernando sucked in a breath.
"You had to go, the first time," Raúl said. "I know that. But then you came back, and I was so – and then you left again. And again. And you never said – not once – what was I supposed to think?" A shudder racked him from head to toe; Fernando's hand on his arm tightened.
"I never thought you cared for position for its own sake," Fernando said after a moment had passed. "But for what you could do – I thought that was important to you."
"I can't leave it," Raúl said. "But I wouldn't give it you."
Fernando's grip tightened again, until it was almost painful. "Raúl," Fernando said. "Look at me."
Almost unwillingly, Raúl looked.
Fernando's eyes were locked on his. "Listen to me," he said, with an almost painful desperation. "I didn't have a choice, the first time. And after, I came back, and I saw what you were doing, and I thought – Raúl, in all the world, the last soul I would willingly hurt is you. You must know that. You – It always has been. Raúl."
Raúl didn't speak; he couldn't.
"Whatever you want from me," Fernando said. "You have only to ask it."
For a long moment, there was no sound but that of their breath.
"Ask," Fernando whispered.
Slowly – achingly so – Raúl reached out and touched Fernando's cheek.
Fernando drew in a breath. His eyes never left Raúl's. Inch by agonizing inch, Raúl leaned forward, until Fernando's trembling exhale brushed his cheek.
"Stay," he said, so low it was a mere breath. "Stay with me."
Fernando's warm hand caught his and held it, curving his fingers over Raúl's and turning his head to press his lips against Raúl's palm.
When his eyes met Raúl's again they were too bright, so bright they pierced Raúl's breastbone. "Whatever you ask," he said.
The final distance vanished with a breath, and he was kissing Fernando, or Fernando was kissing him, or both. He didn't know, or care; all he knew in the world was Fernando's mouth anchoring him in place, Fernando's arm against Raúl's back and his hand in tangled in Raúl's curls. Fernando's breath, mingled with his.
Raúl pulled back, and then, at the sight of Fernando's face, cradled Fernando's head between his hands and kissed him again, with all the fervor he could summon. Fernando was making a sound, wordless and and almost pained; he clutched at Raúl's back, at his shirt, and pulled him closer.
"You're injured," Raúl murmured, when they broke apart once more.
"A bruise," Fernando said. "Come here." He tugged impatiently at Raúl's shirt until it came loose and Fernando could slide his hand underneath, spread his fingers and press his palm flat against Raúl's back, as searing as any brand.
Raúl lost himself briefly in the feel of Fernando's familiar hands; the murmur of Fernando's voice in his ear, stroking along Raúl's spine. Slowly, the words penetrated.
"I do," Fernando was saying, "I did tell you, I do, can't you hear it? Every time – ah – every time I say your name – "
He said no more, as Raúl's mouth covered his again. Fernando made a sound very close to a whimper. Raúl lost the sense of anything except the heat and weight of Fernando, the breath in his ear, the heartbeat racing beneath his hand, the burning in his own chest –
Afterwards, spent and exhausted, Raúl made to sit up, to avoid the bruises, but Fernando pulled him back down and he went willingly. Fernando's hand carded through his hair, then slid down to cup his neck, then went back to his hair. He rested his cheek against Fernando's chest and absentmindedly counted the pulse thrumming beneath his ear.
When Fernando spoke, eventually, his voice was low and soft. "I told you. You have me. Always. Whether I stay or not."
"Stay," Raúl said. "Stay. Stay."
Fernando laughed, a little breathlessly. "For as long as you mean it."
"Forever," Raúl said recklessly, which made the arm over his waist tighten.
Fernando pushed himself up on his elbows, and Raúl rose, too, bracing himself against the bed so he was still half over Fernando, looking into his solemn face from a distance of perhaps a few inches. Fernando smiled, by reflex, and pushed a stray curl from Raúl's eyes.
"What will the Institución make of that, I wonder?"
"Oh," Raúl said, feeling his lips curl into an anticipatory smile, "I believe they may be in for a surprise."
The secretary's eyes flicked over Raúl with the nervous timidity of a frightened rabbit. "Señor González – I don't – that is, I'm not sure – "
"He's expecting me," Raúl said, in a voice that brooked no opposition. The secretary made to protest – weakly – but Raúl brushed him aside and went into the study.
Valdano was seated at his desk. He looked as though he'd aged several years; his face was grey and haggard, set with deep lines, and there were several strands of white in his hair that hadn't been there before.
He looked at Raúl without expression.
Faced with him, at last, Raúl didn't know what to say; he clung instead to his anger, remembering the crack of Fernando's head against the marble and the cold, terrifying moment when the stand had broken and Fernando was still lying unconscious on the steps.
"Emilio's ability will never be the same again," Valdano said, after the silence had gone on long enough.
"Nor will yours," Raúl said. "Tell me, was it because of Fernando, or because of me?"
Valdano didn't answer him, not directly. He said, "I don't think you realize the extent of your own influence, Raúl. I've always told you to choose your friends carefully."
"I have," Raúl said.
Valdano was silent again for a minute. Finally he said, "I've never wished for the Institución to be riven by factions."
Raúl believed him. But – "It's too late. First Fernando, then Hierro; now me."
Valdano didn't stoop to bluster or posturing. Beneath the anger, Raúl respected him for that. He only said, "You won't get far if you insist on turning the whole of the Institución against you."
Raúl let a smile curl his lips. He said, "You may let anyone so interested know that if they want to contest me they have more to contend with than they imagine."
Valdano's face stilled. "Do you mean to say Morientes is staying?"
"Try me and find out," Raúl suggested, and walked out.
Fernando was waiting outside, leaning against one of the marble pillars of the facade. A woman passed, ascending the steps, and he gave her a beaming smile. She returned it, seemingly puzzled, and hurried on.
At the sound of Raúl's footsteps, Fernando turned, and his entire face lit up. Raúl wondered if he'd kept himself restrained all along, or if Raúl himself had simply been too blindered to see it.
"The café?" Fernando suggested. Raúl nodded.
They set off along the familiar avenue. Fernando's hands were in his pockets and his arm brushed Raúl's; Raúl kept his eyes on the cobblestones ahead, helpless against the lightness in his chest. Tomorrow would come, and the day after that, and still Fernando would be here. And the next week, and the one after, and after –
"Raúl," Fernando said, and again when Raúl turned his head, "Raúl," – lingering over the final syllable, caressing, letting it rest in his mouth.
A naked smile curved his lips of its own accord. "And what are you trying to say this time?"
Fernando said, "The only word that matters."