They are in the middle of fucking nowhere, and the professor is consulting his maps for their distance from civilization, his face half-buried in yellowing parchment. He yammers on and on about how he is certain that they are just south of Eklesias while Rook is burning for a bottle of beer or three.
“We should reach a small village soon,” he says, peering out from behind his mask of maps. A mixture of eagerness to please and discomfort rolls off from him so strongly that Rook can nearly catch its strange scent from several steps away.
“You said that two hours ago, you fucking Mollyrat,” Rook replies in his too-harsh voice, sharp enough to rip through metal.
Confusion sweeps through the professor’s reddened countenance. “I don’t understand—we should be there by now—”
The professor can barely repress his flinch when Rook’s arms reach out to snatch the maps away from him, his expression reminiscent of the one he wore tight against his features the night Rook exerted the same unexpected force to press him to the railing during their confrontation at th’Esar’s ball. Rook tenses his jaw at this realization. He knows that the professor Thom, his own brother, fucking Hilary fears him still. He holds the maps before him like the professor did. He pretends not to notice the cautious brush of the other’s wary gaze, green and vivid from behind his dusty spectacles. The edges of the maps crinkle and threaten to tear in his scarred hands because they lack the grace and deftness of the professor’s long slender fingers.
Fucking Mollyrat professor and his fucking maps.
“Time for a new plan,” Rooks says brusquely. “I lead, you follow.”
For a moment the professor, lips set in a taut line, tension evident in the strain of his brow, shoulders raised like a blade in attack, looks as though he is about to protest and for a moment Rook hopes that he does. When the moment passes, the professor’s bony shoulders collapse into a slump of defeat and submission, which, for some reason, only serves to irritate Rook even more.
It is nightfall by the time they finally see the village located in the middle of fucking nowhere, their limbs and heads aching and heavy from the long trek across the distance between Eklesias and this fucking rathole of a village. From afar the village emits a dim light like the bulb of a firefy, nearly extinguishable in the heavy darkness of night. The first thing Rook does is demand that they head to the local bar.
“Village taverns should be located at the heart of the village,” Thom tells him, recalling a textbook on rural life that he read several years ago.
“Why the fuck do you even know that?” Rook asks, his cutting features hardening into a scowl that enhances his stark good looks. “Don’t answer that. Let’s go put your theory to good use.”
Thom considers correcting the other and explaining what a theory actually is, but one glance at Rook’s imposing form, straight-backed and wide-shouldered, and the recollection of Rook pushing him against the railing, their faces merely a breath apart, are enough to make him falter. So he sighs and reluctantly gestures for Rook to follow him as they make their way to the center of the village, where, as predicted, a rustic tavern awaits them.
“The Bird and the Flower?” Thom reads, barely able to make out the words of the chipped paint on the sign. “Not exactly Our Lady of a Thousand Fans, is it?” he says wryly, before taking a breath of the fire-and-ash scent that clings to Rook and remembering to whom he is speaking to.
He was making comments like he would to a fellow ‘Versity student, one who would understand him and think like him even though he hugged the secret of his origins too closely to himself to develop any true lasting friendships during his time there. But Rook bears no resemblance to any ‘Versity student Thom has ever met, all anger and brutal strength and words that shoot out of him like dragon fire. Preferring to hide his fury and fears behind complacence and textbooks, Thom is unused to such rawness from anybody, least of all this man whom he shares his blood with, whom he had cried on when he was small and parentless, whom makes him ache like no other.
To Thom’s surprise, with something like humor Rook replies, “Sounds like a cindy place. But I’ve never much liked the whores at Our Lady anyways.”
When Thom’s head whirls around to measure the other’s expression, he finds that Rook appears distant, as usual, in his scrutiny. His response to Rook dies in his throat and his hands press tightly against his sides in futile defense, for he knows his inability to fathom the man who is and isn’t his brother is one that can destroy him.
“What the fuck are you waiting for? Let’s go in.”
And since Thom can read the impatience in Rook’s voice at least, they do.
Drinking, Thom soon learns after, increases Rook’s volatility the way alcohol enhances a fire. The barman keeps sliding bottles of alcohol across the rough countertop to Rook because his money is good and he does not look like the type of man who would accept refusal from a pot-bellied barman, while Thom’s ale sits in front of him, full and untouched.
He knows that Rook can hold his drink. The bottles of alcohol he has consumed since his arrival at the Bird and the Flower is only an excuse for Rook to act reckless now that the open sky and Havemercy are lost to him. And Thom cannot begin to imagine the ordeals the other must have had to endure as a prisoner of the Ke-Han towards the end of the war. Rook speaks more with the excuse of alcohol, ranting about the Ke-Han and Mary Margrave and all the times he has shared with Havemercy when she wasn’t a scrambled heap of metal and a memory. Thom sifts through his experiences at ‘Versity Prep and then later at the ‘Versity, unable to recall a single moment, despite all of the books he has read and all the courses he has completed successfully, that holds the same weight as any of Rook’s experiences.
“Don’t just stare at me like that,” says Rook, casting his gaze on Thom when he notices the lull in Thom’s reactions. “Don’t tell me you haven’t done anything in the last twenty-one years.”
“I… went to live with the two whores, where I studied. And then I got into the ‘Versity. And then I worked on my thesis and went to the Dragon Corps.” And met you.
Releasing a bark of a half-laugh, “You know what you need to do?” Baffled, Thom slowly shakes his head. “You need to learn to relax—” he says, pulling a scantily-clad woman, a prostitute, onto his lap “—and learn to have a bit of fun.” Rook presses his upturned lips to the whore’s bare neck, taking in her floral scent.
Do you mean your type of fun? Thom wants to ask, biting his tongue to keep silent, for seeing the whore on Rook’s lap, giggling as his skin meets hers, reminds him of his years with the two whores, after Rook didn’t return for him and he thought he had lost his brother forever.
Meanwhile, a small, pudgy man approaches them from the opposite end of the room. “I believe I had my eye on her first,” he states as though it is the most obvious thing in all of Volstov.
“Move the fuck out of my way,” Rook is saying to other man over the woman’s pale shoulders.
“I know you’re not from here, but you’d better listen to what I have to say if you know what’s good for you,” warns the other man, and Thom knows this is a lost cause.
“What did you fucking say to me, Cindy?” Rook shoots back, lifting the woman off of him and rising from his stool, slamming his bottle onto the counter at the same time. The bottle remains intact from his force but just barely; Thom knows this is not a coincidence. “Do you know who I am and what I can do to you? I can fuck you over in my sleep. Now scamper off and find yourself a new whore.”
“You should listen to him,” Thom tells the villager, calmly, feeling some small degree of pity for a man foolish enough to challenge Rook’s rights over a whore.
“Shut your mouth, pillow-biter,” the man sneers, turning to Thom. “Your boyfriend can take care of himself.” Thom can tell he wants to say more, except Rook’s fist slams into the man’s face as his mouth opens to spew more insults.
“You’re a fucking idiot,” Rook growls as he shoves the man to the ground.
He is about to kick the man when Thom appears next to him, saying, “Rook, this is completely unnecessary. You’ve had too much to drink.”
Rook’s gaze is cool as the smooth surface of a lake when he tells Thom, “We both know I’m not in the least fucking bit drunk. You’re just too weak to stand up for yourself, to me or to Cindy over there.”
Dumbstruck by Rook’s statement, Thom does not protest as Rook proceeds to fight the villager until the barman gathers up enough courage and irritation to put a stop to their nonsense.
Rook is flying in the air with Havemercy harnessed beneath him, looking at Thremedon from above, his view of the city beneath him obscured only by the pinpricks of light reflecting off of where the sunlight strikes Have’s metal. “Where’re we headed?” Have asks, humming a familiar song, probably a bawdy one, with her machine-grind voice.
“How ‘bout the hanging gardens of Eklesias?”
“Bastion. You’ve turned into a fucking Annie Airman, I see,” she says, snorting. How is it possible that such extreme sarcasm can register on such a mechanical voice? Fucked if he knows. But Rook merely chuckles at her caustic remark, glad to be off the ground and in the air, where he does not feel oppressed by gravity.
“Do I smell of fruit and flowers like Balfour to you?”
“No. You stink like a pile of shit.”
That’s his best girl, Rook thinks.
“You wouldn’t smell so great if I don’t take such good care of you.”
“Would too,” she replies in a scoff.
Suddenly they are in Ke-Han territory and Have swerves abruptly to avoid being struck by one of the rocks the catapults are flinging while Rook curses, angry at himself for drifting off and not noticing the enemy. He tries to steer them into the clouds for some coverage, but it is impossible to remain concealed for any amount of time during a clear day like this one, and the catapults and Ke-Han warriors are increasing exponentially in number despite looking inconsequential beneath him. He lets out an angry cry, more to himself than anyone else and grips Have more tightly between his legs, maneuvering them through the rocks and spells to the Ke-Han and bent on destroying them with all the wrath of a vengeful god.
Rook had gone to bed in the room they share without a word after the incident, climbing into the bed with his coat and shoes on after chucking his rucksack onto the floor next to him. On the bed, he looks no less alert or powerful even with his eyes closed and his braids of gold and blue splayed out beneath him, appearing cruel to Thom in spite of the softening of the hard lines of his face against the groggy lamplight. It is obvious that he is angry at Thom, but there is rarely a time when he isn’t. To chase away thoughts of Rook and Rook’s accuracy about his own weakness and inability to stand up for himself, Thom retrieves a roman about Tycho the Brave, one of his favorites, and begins to read words worn with familiarity to him, wishing to glean some inkling of bravery from the hero of the story to fill the painful emptiness within him.
His eyes begin to tire and ache like they were filled with grit halfway through the roman and he slides the slim volume back into his rucksack in preparation for sleep. When he takes one last look at Rook, one that is inevitably tainted by some twisted sort of regret about what they could have been in a different reality, he sees that the other is twisting and thrashing madly in his bed and muttering angry curses beneath his breath.
Although he knows better than to catch an airman at his unawares, even a former one who no longer has a dragon or a purpose, Thom moves across the room to Rook’s bed and taps him lightly on the shoulder to wake him up from his nightmare. The fabric of Rook’s shoulder is damp with sweat and agitation and he is launching deeper into his nightmare still. Thom uses both of his hands this time, shakes the older man’s shoulders a little, to no avail.
“We’ll get them, Have…” Rook is murmuring, as Thom leans closer to him and grips the broad blades of his shoulders, his body held directly above that of the other. His own sweat mingles with Rook’s musky fear-sweat.
“John—” Thom blurts before he understands the word that is spilling from his parted lips.
And then Rook stops moving and wakes up at last, his eyes narrowed and wild as they take in Thom’s eyes, which are wide and bright as moons. “What the fuck are you doing?” He shoves Thom’s thinner, weaker arms away from him in an instant, before the other can properly react.
“You were—having a nightmare—”
“I’m awake now.”
Dry-lipped, Thom says, “I’m aware.” Rook pulls the covers back up to his chest even though he is drenched with sweat, ignores Thom, and returns to sleep. Because he knows that Rook would never reveal anything to him with his own lips and of his own accord, preferring to lock his feelings someplace detached from the rest of him, Thom can only wonder about what it is that Rook—John, his own brother—dreams about and let the fear within him rise in waves.
In the morning, Havemercy is the first thought on Rook’s mind when he awakens for the second time. Then comes the professor. Or Thom. Or fucking Hilary. How that spectacled, green-eyed ‘Versity type must fear him now, after mistaking the other for a Ke-Han soldier, he came so close to snapping his head with his bare hands off on accident last night. The professor is sleeping right now, curled up into a little ball, in spite of the ample if uncomfortable bed, like how Rook remembers he did those twenty-one years ago, the sound of his breathing light and shallow in the dusty air. It is strange that he is able to just sit there, on the edge of his own bed, and watch the younger man, his own fucking little brother, in his sleep and measure all the alterations, both inside and outside, that have occurred to that body in their long separation. It is strange that while the same blood runs through their veins, so to speak, they cannot be more different and contrasting, like two pieces of a puzzle that refuse to fit together.
“How long have you been awake?” the professor inquires quietly, his head still resting lightly on his pillow.
“Since you started fucking snoring,” Rook replies, stretching his arms above his head and yawning.
Reddening like a lovestruck girl, “Sorry.”
Just like that, Rook becomes exasperated. “Don’t you ever want to say what you think for once?”
“What are you saying?”
“You always give me that hurt look. Don’t you get sick of it?”
“I don’t recall ever giving you a hurt look,” the professor says stiffly.
“It’s the one where you act like you’d like to clock me over the head and then become too afraid to.”
“Well what would you like me to do instead?”
“Grow a set.”Rook does not quite understand why he is goading the professor on but he finds that he cannot stop now that they have started the descent downhill and must wait for the final crash.
“I’m sorry if I’m not your ideal brother,” sneers the other, bitter and sarcastic. “It’s not as though I had no idea of this considering you insulted me and sulked at every turn.”
“It’s hard not to sulk when Have’s just scrap metal out there somewhere and all I have is a fucking pillow-biter of a brother who acts afraid of everything. I used to be something and have a purpose. Now I don’t fucking have anything. I have nothing.” He did not know what he was thinking until he had said this inflaming truth out loud to his fucking pillow-biter of a brother who acts afraid of everything.
I have nothing. Thom’s head is thrown back from the impact of Rook’s words, but his recovery is quick. “How can I not fear you? You’re a monster.”
He is beginning to regret this already and knows that things have shifted inescapably between them, but Thom, after swinging his rucksack over his shoulder and going for the door, refuses to look at him and he cannot conjure up words that can return things to the way they were before they finally stated in the open what they had both known for some time.
A fucking pillow-biter of a brother who acts afraid of everything. That’s what he is, thinks Thom as he leaves Rook behind and slams the door to the room behind him, feeling possibly for the first time in his life the type of anger that blinds and consumes him like darkness, the kind of anger that often seizes Rook. I have nothing. How dare Rook accuse him of cowardice when he has sought to intimidate and damage him since meeting him at the Airman? How dare Rook mourn the loss of Havemercy while directing his rage at him the same time? And why does, even now, he care that Rook thinks of him as a coward and would think the worse of him for running off like a girl?
Rook considers him nothing, after all.
And Thom, despite being nothing, is fucking pissed off.
And the solution is to put as much distance between him and his brother-in-name as his legs can carry him for. Thom has no qualms or fears about traveling or finding his way back to Thremedon on his own. Without being constantly harassed by that monster. Then who is the coward?
Why does it even matter what Rook thinks of him?
Havemercy is coated with grease and ashes as Rook’s skin and hair are from their last encounter with the Ke-Han like she is made of soot and oil rather than bright metal and magic and smart remarks. She’s cranky about being dirty but cleaning her after a battle is always a pain in the ass for Rook. “Clean my wings better,” she complains, while Rook struggles to distinguish between the ashes on Have’s wings and the darkness of the docking bay.
“That ain’t nice, sweetheart,” he says, putting the scrubbing cloth down momentarily.
“You aren’t nice.”
“That’s right,” Rook replies. “Don’t you forget that.” Nevertheless, he wipes off his face with the back of his hand quickly and industriously continues to clean Havemercy off, relishing the lack of misunderstandings and the comfortable silence between them.
Her newly-cleaned wings pale against the dimness of the room, Have asks sweetly, “How’s the professor?”
“Being stupid,” Rook answers, refusing to look up from his work on her back. “Don’t know why you fucking thought we were alike at all. We’re not.”
If it is possible for a dragon to smile, Have is certainly smirking at him, gleaming almost complacently in the jaw. “No? The two of you are both equally bone-headed, for one.” Rook cannot disagree with that entirely, but he hates it when Have is right and he is wrong—she gets so full of herself when that happens.
“He is a fucking coward while there’s a statue commemorating me back in Thremedon.”
She jibes, “And an ugly statue it is.”
“’least I’ve got one.”
“You’re afraid of him, aren’t you?”
“I’m not afraid of anything—not the Ke-Han, not you, and definitely not my own fucking brother.”
“Of course you’re afraid of your own fucking brother, you Nellie. You’ve never had anything to care about before.” Does he care about the professor? Is that why he thinks of the other as a coward? Because he cares?
“I care about you, Have.” And that is the truth. Rook knows he can never again reach the same kind of peace that spreads through his mind and body as the kind he experiences through the simple act of cleaning Have and riding Have through the air, unrestricted by rules and obligations, just him and his girl.
Softening in a way that shouldn’t be possible for machinery, “But I’m gone, Rook. I’m scrap metal.”
“Then how come I’m seeing you right now?” he forces himself to ask, even though he is unsure of whether he wants Have to answer this question.
“You’re unconscious and locked up in a shed ‘cause that villager you pissed off and his friends got you when you weren’t being careful.”
Rook’s heavy eyelids fly open to the sound of thumping against the door of the shed, but his arms and legs are bound to a rickety chair with thick unyielding ropes that dig into his skin when he tries to pull his wrists free. He curses the villagers for ganging up against him and himself for being so incredibly fucking stupid and letting his instincts dull. His angry attempts to stand up while attached to the chair cause him to fall sideways to the ground, the left side of his face landing on the gritty dirt floor. He kicks the air in front of him in fury then begins to plan out his escape from this hellhole.
The door to the shed swings open after several soft, urgent clicks coming from the doorknob and who else but his brother the professor emerges from the darkness outside, a set of lockpicks dangling from between two fingers. “I thought you promised Adamo you wouldn’t get into any more knife fights,” says the bastard, calm as fuck about all of this except for a slight unevenness of breath. He has the same look about him as he did what seems like a lifetime ago when he stepped off Havemercy, gritting his teeth to keep himself from falling to pieces, eyes blazing like the eyes of a soldier in battle.
“It ain’t much of a fight and I didn’t have a knife,” Rook replies against the dirt, noticing the bruise that is beginning to form on his cheek. “Thought you were gone for sure.”
“I was going to, but then at the edge of the village I heard the idiot from last night bragging about how he and his cronies got you…” he explains, bending down to untie Rook’s wrists with those graceful fingers of his without a pause.
“Didn’t know you knew how to pick locks.”
He shrugs. “There are some things you have to know as a Mollyrat if you want to survive and the lock was insubstantial.”
Rook flexes his stiff wrists and rises from the ground as he says, “Not bad at all,” hoping the other can comprehend the true meaning of his words without a blatant explanation.
“Except one of the village idiots caught me eavesdropping on them so they’re probably all going to be here in a minute or two,” the professor adds as an afterthought, matter-of-factly.
“We’re more than a match for them.” When Rook turns to look at the other, to read his expression, he sees that his smile, that ironic curl of the lips and those icy pools in the eyes, is reflected on the face of his brother.
They leave the village in the middle of nowhere early the next morning, completely prepared to never return again in their lifetimes. As they walk, Thom holds the maps in front of him, planning out the next leg of their journey, while Rook sings something with a familiar tune, probably a bawdy song, under his breath.
“What do you want me to call you now?” Rook asks, out of the blue, in inquisition, surprising Thom.
“Do you think I honestly give a fuck?” Thom retorts, wearing a smirk that Rook is sure was stolen from him.
“Nope,” is all Rook says. They do not speak again until they reach the next village, orange in the sunset, but Thom knows they have come to consensus for the first time.
It’s him and Have again to a backdrop of winking stars, cloaked in darkness, just like the old times that he cannot return to no matter how hard he fights to do so. “So was I right or was I right?” Have is saying, while Rook pretends he can see the gears in her head whizzing and turning.
“We’re not completely different, me and him.” Rook admits. He runs a loving hand down the sleek musculature of his girl’s back, committing the feel of her beneath his skin to memory while knowing that he is going to forget all of this one day or another.
“Both bad-tempered, bone-headed, and completely scared. Admit it. You’re scared because you love him.”
There is a pause as Rook attempts to come up with a protest for the sake of principle and Have completes a smooth dive that’s a thing of beauty.
“I fucking hate it when you’re right,” Rook growls, tightening around Have out of habit rather than aggression.
They have landed now, somewhere by the sea, and the cadenced sound of waves is in sync with the measured beat of Rook’s heart, which is pressed lightly to Havemercy in a tenuous and intimate kind of connection. Laughing against the waves and Rook’s heartbeats in a startling mechanical counterpoint, Havemercy informs him, “I always know best.”
Though the loss and burden of her remains a substantial and tangible weight in his chest, the lack of Havemercy becomes easier to bear day after day as Rook’s fears subside like a weakened enemy and he, knowing that Have can never be completely gone from him, realizes that loving another individual is no longer an impossibility.