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“Would you be my lover?” Tashir blurted desperately.

Vanyel found he needed to sit down. He did, just before his legs refused to hold him. He stared at Tashir, quite unable to speak for a moment.

Do you have any idea what you’re doing to me, lad? No, you can't. Poor boy. Poor, confused child—

He gathered his emotions and put a tight rein on them. The youngster did not have the feel of shay'a'chern, not in any way. This was the last question Vanyel would ever have expected from him. And his initial reaction was to tell him “no.”

And yet—and yet—he looked so like Tylendel. And I've enough experience I could be certain he'd enjoy it—was the unbidden thought. I could convince him he was. It would be so easy. And I'm so lonely. Oh, gods. Oh, gods. The temptation—

Instead of answering, he stood slowly and moved to stand before the boy, gently reaching out and placing the fingers of his right hand just beneath the line of Tashir's jaw. Ostensibly, this was to make the youngster look up into his eyes—but Vanyel wanted to know something of what was going on in the young man's mind, and if he could not Mindtouch, well, physical contact made his Empathy much sharper. As the dark eyes met his silver, he could feel the youngster's pulse racing beneath the tip of his middle finger. And the feel he received was—

—was—

Fear, overwhelmingly, of course. Vanyel didn’t think Tashir had lived a moment without it since the night of the disaster at the palace. Unhappiness was there, too, and that was no surprise, either; Tashir had much to be unhappy about even without bringing any potential feelings about Vanyel into the mix. But underneath it all…

Tashir’s pulse hammered in his throat, as fast and hard as Vanyel’s own. His skin was hot against Vanyel’s fingertips. Was that a flush in his cheeks, or just a trick of the light? Vanyel thought he felt something, attraction or excitement or mere curiosity, but he wasn’t sure. Without control over his own emotions, he couldn’t tease out what Tashir was feeling from what he himself felt, and, worse, what part of him wanted Tashir to feel.

He thought briefly of reaching out to Yfandes, to see what she made of Tashir’s feelings, but the idea of her knowing just how sorely he was tempted made him feel ashamed. Instead, he built a wall between them, sending her a quick apology and hoping she couldn’t pick up on anything wrong.

:Sorry, love. I need some privacy.:

Tashir stared at him, bewilderment clear on his face and to Vanyel’s Empathy. It felt wrong to be looking down at Tylendel, who had always been the taller. Vanyel had grown in the years since, but had ‘Lendel ever been so small?

“D-did… did I say something wrong?” Tashir asked, his voice shaking. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…”

Vanyel shook his head. “No,” he said. “You haven’t done anything wrong.”

“Then why—” Tashir broke off in mid-sentence and just stared at Vanyel for a short moment that nevertheless seemed to last far too long.

Then he reached up and kissed him.

To kiss him back would be wrong, Vanyel knew. It would be a terrible idea, and in the end it would only hurt both of them, because even if somewhere in the tangled mess of Tashir’s emotions there was genuine attraction, Vanyel was still much older, and Tashir was still vulnerable and afraid and far, far too much like ‘Lendel for Vanyel to ever love him without loving what he saw of ‘Lendel in him more. Vanyel could feel a fierce, hungry desire, and didn’t know whether it came from Tashir or himself or both of them at once. Kissing him back when he was so unsure of both of them would be opening a door for trouble and inviting it right in.

He did it anyway.

He took Tashir’s clumsy advance and turned it into an open-mouthed, desperate thing, and Tashir responded with an almost violent urgency, tangling his fingers in Vanyel’s hair as Vanyel pulled him out of the chair and into his arms. Through flesh and skin and cloth, Vanyel could feel Tashir’s thundering heartbeat, as his own slammed against his ribs and pounded in his fingertips. As Tashir pressed himself closer, Vanyel drew him away from the chair and into the centre of the room.

Tashir kept going when Vanyel stopped, pushing them both towards the bed. Reluctantly, Vanyel pulled back, just far enough that he could look Tashir in the eyes when he spoke.

“We don’t have to go that far,” he said, hoping Tashir couldn’t tell just how badly he wanted to. He fought to get his breathing back under control. It was much more difficult than usual.

Tashir was breathing hard, too, and there was no mistaking his flush for a trick of the light now. “I know what I asked you for,” he said. His dark eyes were serious, determined, and so captivating that Vanyel couldn’t look away.

He pushed all his own objections—this is wrong, you know this is wrong—away as best he could, and smiled. “Do you, now?”

Tashir smiled back—nervously, hesitantly, but he did. “It may be more of an educated guess,” he admitted. His fingers were still twined in Vanyel’s hair.

“And you’d have me continue your education?” Vanyel asked, raising an eyebrow.

Tashir nodded.

“Well, then,” Vanyel said, “I think you’ll find me an excellent teacher.”

He kissed Tashir again, and tried not to think about how different it was to kissing Tylendel. ‘Lendel had pushed, and he’d yielded; Tashir waited for him to push, and then pushed back just as hard. He shoved the memories away just like his conscience, and pulled Tashir tight against him.

Tashir’s response was to hurl both himself and Vanyel onto the bed.

He looked down at Vanyel, pinned beneath him, with an expression Vanyel couldn’t read even with his Empathy to help him. For a moment, neither of them moved except to breathe, and Vanyel found that the sound of those unsteady breaths was suddenly deafening. He waited for Tashir to decide what to do, though he wanted nothing more than to grab him and kiss him hard enough to bruise them both. Which, he thought, was probably not a good sign.

With what seemed like a great deal of care, Tashir touched Vanyel’s cheek. He slowly traced the line of Vanyel’s jaw, lightly enough that Vanyel could hardly feel it except for the trail of heat it left behind.

“Is this… all right?” Tashir asked.

No, it’s not.

But with Tashir so close, with those eyes looking at him with such furious intensity, Vanyel couldn’t bring himself to say it.

“It’s more than all right,” he said instead. “Can’t you tell?”

Tashir glanced down lower and then immediately back up again. “I didn’t want to assume,” he said, but a grin was tugging at the corners of his mouth.

“A commendable attitude,” Vanyel said. His hands were still at Tashir’s waist, and he stroked the younger man’s side with his thumb absently as he spoke. “And in a similar spirit, I’ve a question for you. What do you want to do?”

It was a moment before Tashir responded. “I want to see you,” he said eventually, quietly. “And I want you to see me. Really see me.”

I’ll never see anyone but ‘Lendel when I look at you.

Vanyel slid a hand lower, and gave the hem of Tashir’s tunic a playful tug. “Then what are you waiting for?”

Biting his lip, Tashir covered Vanyel’s hand with his own and pulled both it and the tunic upwards. He went slowly at first—a hesitation, a tremble, a deep breath for every inch of skin exposed. Vanyel reached up with his other hand and touched the side of Tashir’s face, trying to suppress the surge of sadness that came with it. Even the shape of him under his fingers was so achingly familiar and yet bitterly foreign. But he was warm and eager and nervous and beautiful, and Vanyel was in no position to resist any of those things. So he ran a thumb over Tashir’s bottom lip, and when Tashir opened his mouth slightly in surprise a brilliant redness bloomed where his teeth had been that made Vanyel’s own mouth tingle with the urge to kiss that colour a deeper, hotter red.

He pulled Tashir down towards him with the intent to try, and then suddenly it seemed to be more of a race than anything else. Tashir’s weight pushed them both down into the mattress as he stopped holding himself up and yanked his tunic the rest of the way off. Then his hands were on Vanyel’s tunic, then under it, and Vanyel couldn’t move fast enough.

He hadn’t felt this sense of urgency in years. A blink, a blur, and—faster, faster—a breath indrawn almost before the last could finish leaving, a heady, desperate rush—stop, stop—the sound of tearing threads and cloth put out of his mind along with everything else he was ignoring, Tashir’s fingernails grazing his skin in the clumsy, frantic efforts to strip him bare—see, see, he wants this—the thud of boots falling forgotten to the ground, the heat of Tashir’s skin, the weight of him, the shift from one position to another, first Tashir above him, then beside him, below him, thoughts cut off before they finished and sometimes before they began, a breathless never-ending torrent of action and accusation and justification inside his own head that grew louder and louder until—

Gods, ‘Lendel, I’m so sorry.

Through a haze of sudden tears, it was Tylendel who lay beneath him now. Tylendel, hair spilling gold and gleaming over the white linen of the bedclothes, lips and cheeks red, eyes almost black and bottomless. Tylendel… alive.

He knew, he knew, he needed to stop.

He didn’t.


The dawn light gilded Tashir’s hair, and Vanyel watched drowsily as the strands shimmered in the sun. He found himself following the pattern of Tashir’s breathing, their chests rising and falling together. Even Tashir’s heartbeat, felt in the hand that rested gently by his throat, seemed to be in time with Vanyel’s own pulse.

It would soon be time to rise, and to figure out how to explain all of… this. Vanyel remembered how he’d resented the assumptions that had been made about him in regard to Medren, and realised sourly that this would only make them seem the more justified.

Perhaps they are, he thought suddenly, a sick sensation washing over him. He knew there was a difference between what Medren had offered him and what Tashir had, and what he’d felt for both of them, but he wasn’t sure, lying there with a young man barely more than half his age in his bed, if that difference was enough. And he was worried that the difference might be less in what Tashir was and more in what—in who—he looked like.

Vanyel sighed.

Beside him, in his sleep, so did Tashir.

An ugly, creeping feeling made its way up Vanyel’s spine.

Don’t get carried away, he told himself. It could be nothing. He didn’t really believe it. He thought for a moment, frowning, trying to ignore the way that Tashir’s heartbeat echoed his own, and came to a decision.

Watching Tashir carefully, Vanyel held his breath.

At first, nothing happened. Tashir didn’t even twitch. But on his next outward breath, the exhalation went on longer and longer, until his chest was empty, and he did not breathe in again.

Vanyel didn’t wait any longer, too afraid of accidentally suffocating Tashir. He stopped holding his breath, and Tashir inhaled with a gasp, waking.

“…Morning,” he said, blinking rapidly.

Vanyel made a noise of vague agreement, but he wasn’t paying attention. He was searching the boundaries of his shields, the ones he’d placed on both himself and Tashir, trying to find where he’d left the opening. Where had this magic slipped through?

And was it mine?

Tashir pushed himself up onto one elbow, looking at Vanyel. “Is something wrong?” he asked, his voice hesitant.

“No,” Vanyel said automatically. He tried a smile. “We should think about getting up, though.” He thought about asking Yfandes if she could find where he’d gone wrong, but the idea of telling her what he’d done didn’t exactly fill him with joy. If I can just find where I went wrong, I can fix this.

Tashir nodded. “We shouldn’t miss breakfast,” he said. He smiled back, and Vanyel felt sick. “You, especially.” He poked Vanyel in the ribs.

“That was uncalled for,” said Vanyel mildly, only half paying attention.

It was like he’d kicked a puppy. “I’m s-sorry, I didn’t mean—” Tashir began.

Vanyel shook his head as best he could while lying on his side. “It’s fine,” he said. He wondered if Tashir was picking up on Vanyel’s feelings of guilt, or if he was just that jumpy. Both seemed equally likely. He was trying to think of something to say to reassure him when—

There!

He’d opened up to try to reach Tashir with his Empathy, and Tashir had reached back. If it had been intentional, he’d have felt the attack, but done unconsciously it had seeped through his barriers like blood through a bandage. And with no control from Tashir, Vanyel’s own feelings had flowed back along the link, and were doing so still—he could sense Tashir’s mounting anxiety as he fought to manage his own.

How could I have been so selfish? If he’d only been paying attention, if he’d questioned what he’d picked up on from Tashir instead of trying to have something he’d lost years ago, he would have seen that it wasn’t right. Tashir had wanted him to say yes, but somewhere under a tangle of mutual confused emotions was why, and when Vanyel saw it for what it was he knew just how badly he’d acted.

It had been a cry for help, and he’d been too desperate to pretend that the boy was someone else, too intent on his own pathetic desires, to realise it.

Gods.

“Vanyel?”

And he was still putting his own feelings ahead of Tashir’s welfare.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

Tashir looked confused. “What?” he said. “What are you sorry for?”

“This,” said Vanyel, and severed the link between them.

His vision went black for a moment as his breath and his heart froze for a moment. When he could see again, he was looking into Tashir’s bewildered face, and he was just in time to see confusion change to outright panic.

“What just happened?” Tashir said, voice weak and trembling.

Vanyel pulled away from him, trying to think of a way to explain that wouldn’t shatter the already fragile trust that Tashir had extended to him. It’s a little late to worry about that, you fool. You already ruined this. “Listen—” he began.

Tashir grabbed his shoulder. “Kiss me again,” he demanded. “Vanyel, I don’t—something’s wrong, I don’t feel—”

“Tashir, listen to me,” Vanyel said, hoping that he’d have come up something else to say by the time he’d finished saying it. “What happened last night was…” He sighed. Better to tell the truth, he thought. That’s the only way he’ll be able to deal with what I’ve done to him. “It’s common for someone with an uncontrolled Gift to exert a certain… influence on other people, completely unintentionally. I should have been watching for that, but I wasn’t doing my duty there.” He paused, trying to figure out what to say next.

“You mean I forced you,” Tashir said hollowly. The awful blank look that he wore when he thought about the night he’d been Chosen was starting to settle over his face now too, his eyes flat and lifeless. “Gods. I never meant… I’m so sorry.” He pulled away, made to stand up.

“No,” Vanyel said, more forcefully than he’d meant to. Tashir flinched, and stayed where he was. “You did nothing wrong, Tashir. I…” He sighed. “I tried to sense what you were feeling, and I left a path open for our emotions to mix because I wasn’t paying enough attention to realise it was there or that I’d have to close it. That’s what you just felt, me closing that path. Your feelings are your own now.” He glanced away, unwilling to look Tashir in the eye. “Not mine.”

“…But I don’t know what they are,” Tashir said, sounding desperate. “Last night I wanted you, it was good, it felt good!” He snatched at Vanyel’s hand, holding him so tightly that it hurt. “Can’t you make me feel like that again? I like you, I liked it, I felt—” He broke off. There were tears in his eyes. “I felt safe.”

Vanyel held Tashir’s hand, but didn’t move any closer. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but I won’t lie to you like that.” Not again.

“Then what am I supposed to do now?” Tashir asked plaintively.

“Whatever you want,” Vanyel said. “Whatever you truly want.”

Tashir’s breathing was unsteady. It sounded like he was on the verge of sobbing outright. “I want to stay,” he whispered. “Can—can I stay? Like what happened last night was real?” His voice cracked. “Can we just pretend for a little while?”

No.

“Yes,” Vanyel said.