I wanted to go back to the last town we'd stayed in, and garrote the wit who'd assured me we couldn't miss the Perblances. Not because he'd lied, but because of just how right he was. In my life I'd hated the Dogs, hocuses, the Mirador, a couple of flights of stairs in the Mirador, Keeper, and occasionally, my brother Felix. But I had never hated the very ground beneath my feet before now. The day was gorgeous: blue skies, green trees, white-crested rivers, flowers growing right out of the wild. And seemingly safe: no pack kids, no bloodwitches, no Bastion, and even Kolkhis (or her shade) had been left behind in Mélusine.
But the dusty rutted path we were on just kept climbing. No amount of "remember you're lame, Mildmay" and "use Jashuki" stopped the pain. And mostly I was glad we hadn't brought any drugs with us. I ain't saying I'd take phoenix if someone offered it to me, but I ain't saying I wouldn't, either.
I looked back at Felix, startled. He hadn't talked for hours, and then this? "Am not what?"
"I am not saying I would take phoenix," he said didactically.
I flushed, the heat obvious in the cold mountain air. "I didn't realize I was speaking aloud."
He said nothing, of course. Only improper grammar was worth responding to. He never realized how close I came some days to smacking him.
This unending path we were climbing, strewn with rocks like Kethe's own gravel, was beginning to make me hate silence. Silence alone was one thing -- waiting on a roof for the perfect moment to start sliding down the gutterpole; hiding in the Arcane until the Dogs passed -- that was silence with a reason. But the reason to have other people around was to not be alone. And some days I wasn't sure this qualified, even when I should have been glad that at least we weren't snapping and snarling at each other.
I managed to keep my thoughts out of my mouth the rest of the day. Throwing dinner together, frying up bread, I thought about telling a story, but talking when no one's listening is even worse than being quiet. Felix's silence seemed worse around the campfire, surrounded by dark and weird wind and tree noises. One trip to Krepkopia and back hadn't changed the fact that I was a city boy, and without us talking, the trees seemed to be calling back and forth between themselves like pack kids.
As soon as we finished our spare dinner, I unrolled my mat and gladly surrendered to sleep.
I startled awake and looked around. Then heard Felix cry out, "Gideon," followed by a raw whimper that clawed at my ears. Oh gods above, he sounded wretched; It was even worse than listening to him cry in his sleep.
I've never told anyone, not even Kolkhis, but I once slipped as I was stabbing a guy and accidentally gutted him instead. He'd sounded just like that -- ripped open.
I rolled over and heaved myself up, not taking the time to find Jashuki, and stumbled over to him. In the pale moonlight, he looked destroyed, like he was watching Gideon die. I knew better than to grab him out of a sound sleep, but there was nothing sound about this. I couldn't just stand there and see him like that. "Felix?" I said softly. He didn't seem to hear me at all. "Felix!" I yelled this time, for what little good it was -- the dream's hold on him was too tight, and he didn't even stir. Finally, knowing better, I grabbed and yanked at his shoulder.
It all happened at once: He shrieked and my hand spasmed and his witchlights burst into the night sky. Rosamund brayed in fright, but I didn't have time for her. Had I hurt him? He cried out again, and there was so much pain in that cry that every filthy tarquin in lower city could have been satisfied for a week on it.
His cries slowly weakened into broken sobs. When he saw me standing over him, he turned and tried to muffle himself into his bedroll, his whole body shaking.
Oh yeah, I had definitely made that better. I slammed my bad heel into the ground and swore under my breath. It was past septad night by the moon. I wanted to go for a run, burn off the witchlight feeling under my skin; I wanted to chase a Dog cut off from his troop, or race ahead of a pack of kids that could never match me. I wanted the three dimensions of my city -- the cellars and tunnels, the warrens and streets, the rooftops -- and to know my way around all of them. Fuck it, while I'm wishing like a girl in my first septad, why don't I wish myself back in time so I could kill Isaac Garamond instead of Felix and do it before Isaac killed Gideon and set this whole mess into motion.
I stumbled back to my own bedroll and laid down, trying to ignore the choked whimpers still audible from across the campfire, wishing -- there's that word again -- wishing I knew something I could do to make things better.
I felt the sun on my face, and realized I was walking. That is the strangest feeling in the world, to realize you've been walking and dreaming and to wake up. It was noon by the sun, and Mildmay stopped in front of me at a river -- more of a stream really, nothing like the Sim. I refilled my water bottles and washed up a little, cleaned the snot and tears off my face and the stale taste of disuse out of my mouth. The water was freezing cold, the type that seems pure simply because it's too cold to taste. I hadn't been hungry when we got up, and nothing looked good now, cold. I just hoped Mildmay wouldn't try and force me to eat.
I stood as he packed our water bottles back on the donkey and headed off again. Some part of me waited for him to just continue to walk out of sight, but of course, he stopped before the next bend of the road and made sure I'd come. Once I think he'd tied me to the donkey's lead, but it hadn't worked out well. I stumbled on the path and swore, but it was a highborn oath, not gutter swearing, so Mildmay shouldn't have thought anything of it. He stared at me anyway, and I stared back, eyebrows up. Then realized it was the first time I had spoken in hours and flushed. What business of his was it if I was quiet for a time?
"How do we know we're even on a road?" I asked, voice hard. "A goat would scorn this misbegotten rock-strewn ditch!" Mildmay kept walking, his uneven lope punctuated by the fractured beats of his walking stick. He didn't even bother to wave dismissively.
"Are you listening to me?" I let an edge creep in. "Mildmay!" I gestured impatiently at the map case. "Show me where we are, or I'm not going another foot up this vertical gutter."
He kept walking, or at least limping. "You haven't cared one second for the last week; you don't need to see the map now." Mildmay motioned vaguely up the path, clearly not taking me seriously. "I'll get it out when we stop for lunch if you stop being an ass."
"You have no idea where we are, do you?" Anger was swelling into a dark swirling fury. I lurched after him, my hands clutching to grab him, make him listen. My chest swelled and I was about to scream at him to pay attention.
Rosamund let loose a fart loud enough to echo throughout the hills, and then dumped some proportion of her body weight onto the path in question. I saw Mildmay's shoulders tighten, but he couldn't help himself. A laugh burst out of him. He tried to turn it into a cough, and I tried to hold onto my anger, but we both gave up.
I laughed weakly, still shaky from emotion. As if on cue, a clap of thunder pealed, followed by a cloudburst, and we both started to run, tripping, dragging Rosamund and our gear up into the copse of trees ahead.
We stood damply under the thickest greenery to the sound of our breaths, the fall of rain, and Rosamund's absent chewing. It was close and awkward. I tripped pulling the water skin off of Rosamund and felt Mildmay twitch a little beside me. I could feel a coiled tension in him but had no idea how to loosen it. I hooked the skin back on Rosamund and fidgeted, wondering what next could happen. Mildmay looked at me, started to say something and looked away again, and I tried not to be grateful. I couldn't think of anything he could say now that I could bear to hear.
I looked up and finally met Mildmay's eyes, and maybe they were warmed by our impulsive run, but he didn't look angry or sad like he should, stuck in this insane wilderness with me. He looked concerned and worried, and all of a sudden I was mortified at my very existence. Self-hatred surged in me, choking and bitter. I began to cry in harsh angry sobs, a reflex I couldn't control.
"Don't!" I cried, before he could even move. I flung myself out into the rain.
It seemed fitting when barely seconds later the rain ebbed and stopped. The very earth agreed that I was ridiculous. I could feel my face turn red like yesterday's sunset and was glad I was ahead for now. I bit my own tongue to keep from talking, and headed up the wet track, leaving Mildmay and that animal to trudge behind.
It was already near septad-night, but that damned full moon wouldn't let me sleep. Evan dead on my feet, I could feel it through my eyelids. I was rolling over yet again, trying to shade my eyes in a way that didn't leave me feeling like I could be crept up upon, when I heard a choked cry. Oh Felix, I whispered across the cold ground.
I'm not proud of it, it's a shitty thing to think, but I cursed myself for not getting to sleep faster. If there was nothing I could do to help, there seemed no point in suffering with him.
I looked over, though. He had his skew eyes squeezed tight like a child, and he was gasping, his harsh breaths loud in the crisp night air. After a few minutes, the whimpers -- my least favorite sound on earth -- were back, and I could see tremors running through him. Felix had rarely seemed so fragile to me. Even before the obligation d'ame, he never seemed to realize I could kill him in an instant, despite knowing I killed the witchkiller. Of course, with the binding by forms, I didn't know what would happen if I tried to kill him, but that wasn't the point: sensible people flinch when the lion roars, whether he is leashed or not. Felix never did.
He looked so damn small. I didn't like it. Felix frequently angered -- even infuriated -- me, but I had never managed to shed my helpless fondness for him, and if I hadn't by then, I wasn't likely to.
I inched over a little closer so maybe he would realize he wasn't alone, but he still looked utterly wrecked, white-faced and miserable. My wrist throbbed, remembering shaking him last night. As usual with Felix, I didn't know what to do. My hands were aching, and I realized I had them clenched tight, but I didn't know if it was from wanting to touch him, or wanting to stop myself.
I'd always been glad to be annemer, but I wondered if a hocus would have known what to do with him, if Gideon would have had a clue. I moved closer before I could tell myself not to and kept crawling over until I was on his bedroll, my knees all but touching his thighs, still not knowing what in Kethe's name I was doing. He cried out again, pained and rough, and I said, "No, no, don't cry," like I was soothing the younger kept-thieves in Keeper's attic. "It'll be all right, Felix." Even as a child myself, I'd known better, and so had the younger kids, but it had always helped a little anyway. I knew he didn't like to be touched, but without thinking, I put my hand out to soothe him.
He didn't jerk awake, or scream, or let unpredictable magic loose, so I did it again, saying, "Shush, sshh, Felix," and touching his shoulder. I felt dumb, and if he woke with me soothing him, I would be embarrassed until I died, but he did seem to be quieting somewhat. I raised my hand to push his hair back off his forehead, ignoring the tear tracks down his face.
My fucking leg began to cramp and I pulled away, only to hear him cry out again. I looked around, but there was no rock or stump ready to hand that I could rest on, so I eased myself down next to him on the edge of his bedroll. I kept my hand moving on his shoulder, shushing him and murmuring nonsense, and willed him to stop shaking. It was almost like in the Grasslands when he'd been so lost and frightened, but this time he wasn't crazy. He knew exactly what he'd done, and at night, he couldn't bear it. I continued to pet him, and thank Kethe, his whimpers slowed and quieted a bit. Sleepily, he rolled towards me, his leg over mine, his arm over mine. He was warm against the mountain chill, and I curled into him a little, trying not to shiver myself.
Finally I tucked my head into his shoulder to hide from the moon and let myself doze, feeling his breath ease little by little. I felt held, protected, getting for free what I'd tried to give him. He nuzzled up into my neck, my jaw, his soft breath warm again my skin, snuffling sleepily along the edge of my jaw to my mouth, so sweet. And I stroked him back, not worrying as we touched, even as our lips pressed gently. His lips were rough but warm and I was melting, kissing him back, licking at his tongue, feeling the kiss slide wet and open and not worrying, just holding Felix safe. His hand brushed down my neck and I shivered and waited for his hand to slide down further, and pressed harder against him, panting and licking, little but want and need.
And suddenly I realized every part of me was throbbing. My cock, my balls, my head pounding my heart stuttering, and I was an inch, no, less than that from coming, my cock hard against his leg, and my tongue in my brother's mouth.
I pulled away as carefully as I could, cursing myself silently. I rolled him back to the ground, gritted my teeth, and ignored him sleepily trying to pull me back. My heart pounded loud and rough, and I panted as quietly as I could, feeling like a kept-thief with the Dogs right around the corner. I felt in danger, even though I could see Felix slowly falling back into a deeper sleep next to me. Unsafe. Exposed. I didn't want to wake him, but I couldn't seem to slow my breathing. If Felix weren't the last person in the world I would want to talk to about this, I'd almost wake him up, just to have someone to talk to. There was so much wrong here, I didn't know what to get upset about first.
I carefully moved back to my bedroll; tripping and waking him now would be farcical. My stupid mindless prick was waiting patiently for the final act, completely undisturbed by my mental torment. I frowned at the stupid thing, apparently still not realizing what wasn't in store for it tonight. My face was sweaty in the cold breeze, and I wiped my brow in frustration.
It wasn't enough that Felix was my brother. Not enough that this was how I found out I was apparently janus, not straight like I'd thought my whole life. Not enough that even without the binding-by-forms, at the moment, he was already my entire life and right now he was so fucked up and miserable that it would never occur to him not to try to absorb me right up into his. Not enough that it had felt so good to be wrapped up in his arms that even now, I kind of wanted to sneak over and crawl back in with him. No, the final touch was that I was bound by the Obligation d'âmes -- I couldn't fucking lie to Felix without him knowing. The next time he asked -- and I knew he would ask again; he couldn't seem to help himself -- he'd know I lied if I said I was straight, and so far, that was the only thing that had made him back off.
I pulled my cover up over my head like a child in his first septad. I would figure out a way to hold him off without actually lying to him. I would. But not tonight.
The last few days had been so gray, so thick and hard to understand that I almost felt we were back in the Grasslands. My mind had felt like my own, and yet not. Sometimes I felt insanity waving at me, offering me a ride. But not today. I walked, and looked at trees, and walked some more, and didn't quite feel insane.
The sun was still high in the clouded sky when Mildmay handed me Rosamund's lead and turned off the trail for a moment. Something different, however small. I turned to look behind me at the trail, realizing that we must have just walked that portion, but I had no memory of it. I waited for him, knowing there was no reason, that he'd catch up again in minutes at our speed. I had thoughts of conversation, but phrases disappeared before they reached my mouth. I just stood there, and when he joined us, I followed him and the donkey again.
Mildmay offered me a drink, a tired smile on his sunburned face, and I noticed the sun was reddish, flirting now with the tops of the trees. I drank, and it was good, and I handed him back the skin and watched him walk off. Something was different. Something was flitting around in my head. I tried to grab it, as I had watched children chase butterflies, and it was just starting to get dark, and I watched him, and his walk was easier.
Easier, because we were headed down. Finally. "Down," I said, feeling stupid.
"Yeah," he answered, smiling again at me. His hair was falling out of its braid, each strand caught in the setting sun behind him. "We passed the highpoint of the trail a couple of hours ago." He pointed to Rosamund's tail lashing happily ahead of us, the stupid animal no longer needing to be pulled up the hill. "I think I hear water ahead, too. If it turns out to be the St. Grainne river, it's even on our map. Wouldn't that be nice?" Thankfully, he didn't seem to need an answer from me.
"On this side, we've got more ev'nlight, too. Another hour, then we'll set up camp," he finished, and I heard him and understood him and didn't answer and didn't want to, but I felt just a little eased myself.