Laurence likes to play dangerous games, most often with himself.
Laurence gestures for Brador to bring him his cigarette case (Brador holds it open under his nose) and reaches for the spill vase next to his reading chair, finding a thin sliver of wood to set to the candle. Laurence takes a cigarette but doesn't light it. Instead he turns the lit match to all sides, watching the fire cling stubbornly to the tip.
Brador knows he has something to say.
"When I was being educated by the Erasmians as a child," Laurence says, "there was a boy in my year who announced he felt the Lord was drawing him to the priesthood. All of the friars started to make much of him (it goes without saying), and he received particular lessons in Latin and Greek. I was - well, I was jealous - I didn't want anyone ahead of me in class - and I waited some weeks - with an exacting kind of patience for a stupid child craving attention - and when I felt the time was right I privately informed the prior that I was thinking I might be called to the vocation myself." Laurence glances to the side at Brador, flashing him his one of his odd, warm, ironical smiles. "Of course it's a blessing nothing ever came of it. Can you imagine me in a scapular and habit?" Although he seems to be in effusive spirits, Brador has seen Laurence in this state often enough to know that a savage little mood was hanging just above them like the Sword of Damocles. Or a wineglass filled to brimming and just about to tip over.
Brador desperately wishes he knew how to keep Laurence happy.
"The prior just looked at me - watery blue eyes, open, unsmiling mouth - I can still see that expression plain as day -" Laurence pauses, trying to collect his thoughts. "He told me, hesitatingly, that God doesn't call to most of us. Not just to the vocation, I mean...or at least I knew that was what the prior meant even if it went unsaid. That most people live and die without hearing the voice of God. Until the end of days. And that was the end of it. I really could not protest."
Brador doesn't like the silence that follows, so he prompts him: "What did you do then?"
"Developed a lifelong antipathy towards people who say that God told them to marry someone or another or open up a shoe repair shop."
The match is burning down towards Laurence's fingers. Brador knows better than to say anything. He's holding his breath, but he doesn't know why.
Laurence tilts his chair back. "The gods speak to Willem, but not to me. With his gardens, and his lakeside view, and his rocking chair, and everything about him so neat and clean. If you love mankind, and I don't think anyone can, you have to love all of it. And he thinks his eyes are open but he's got no sense of dirt, no sex, no excrement - Ow! Damn it, who put a wall there?"
"You did, sir. Don't lean back in your chair." Brador bends down and picks the match up off the ground, black and smoking.
On a whim, Laurence lights another one, opens his mouth, and drops it on his tongue.
He swears loudly. "You know, I saw someone put matches out like this at a publick house somewhere. There's a trick to it..."
"And you tried it anyway, despite the fact that you don't know what the trick is?"
"Oh, exactly. Get me some ice or something, will you? This smarts."
Brador opens the window and runs his finger through the snow on the sill. He moves to Laurence, kneels down, and touches his fingertip to his tongue. The snow runs to water in Laurence's mouth.
The conversation dwindles down; Brador sits like a dog in front of the fireplace with a glass of nalewka (a position that gives him strange pleasure); and Brador finds the right time to leave Laurence alone before either of them can ruin things.
"I suppose he wanted to punish me and that was the worst thing he could think of to say," says Laurence, just as Brador's out the door.
"What?" says Brador, opening the door back open a crack.
Laurence closes his eyes. "Nothing," he tells him. He's still tilting back his chair.
Immediately Brador feels something like shame. Unworthiness might be a better word for it - like falling asleep in church, or worse, participating in the service and getting nothing out of it at all. Brador responds to it with a spate of irritation at Laurence's dramatics, which makes the shame worse, and somehow or another they end up making love on the floor before turning in for the night.
Brador falls asleep alone (cold sheets, snowfall), remembering himself desperate and fumbling, with a faint and wicked sense of satisfaction at how artlessly he took a man like Laurence.
"Will you kill me, when the time comes?" Laurence asks, doing a remarkably good job at wrestling out of his shoes and socks with his hands tied behind the chair. Brador bends down and pulls them the rest of the way off.
"Can't imagine who else would," Brador mutters, because he doesn't want to have to think about it much. Laurence leans forward best he can and presses his mouth to his black hair.
"I want you to tell me how you'll do it," he murmurs. Brador lifts his face for a kiss.
"Are you mad?" he whispers to Laurence.
"I hope you give me a good crack across the head first," says Laurence. Brador climbs onto his lap. "I don't want to feel, don't want to think. Just have the pleasure of it. Then stick a spike in my throat and let all that sacred blood out to the ground." Laurence pauses, breathing low against his mouth. "It's funny," he whispers. "I can't imagine it hurting."
Sacred blood? Brador questions, but Laurence's kiss makes Brador forget whatever he thought Laurence meant.
There are empty glass vials on the shelf, licked clean and pinkish, and if he had seen it Brador would have questioned why, but Brador is beyond noticing.
Laurence sits lush and naked on his chair, the same dark flat smooth wood as the dissection surfaces in his prosectorium. He has barbed wire wrapped around his right thigh, and, businesslike, he sets his teeth and gives it a yank, trying to tighten it to his satisfaction. He swears as if an afterthought, neither a sound of pain nor irritation but, Brador thinks, something else.
Whatever it is, it compels him. Brador - as slowly and carefully as you'd approach a wounded animal - sinks to his knees. He presses a kiss to Laurence's wounds, then a long lick. His tongue catches a barb.
"Damn it," Brador mutters. Blood splatters out of his mouth. Laurence reaches down, smoothing his hair back.
"Not you, darling," he whispers. "Never you."
Brador feels a rush of something he can't name, an eagerness, the fulfillment of a hunger and a void, an empty space inside of that he hadn't noticed was there until Laurence came close to filling it. Perhaps it was that which makes him ache and stiffen.
Laurence would never say anything like that to him again.
Brador opens his mouth just enough. He closes his eyes and touches the wire with the soft dryness of his lips, dragging them feather light across the barb. He takes it into his mouth, acknowledging the sharpness, every movement soft and slow, moving with it, capitulating. Laurence doesn't want him hurt, Brador thinks. He delicately sucks the taste of Laurence's blood off the metal thorn.
Laurence standing contrapposto in the doorway, Brador looking up from his writing desk. For the rest of his days Brador would remember the shape of his thighs, his hips and waist, his curving stomach, and always, that odd smile, almost sad. He moves over to Brador, touching his shoulder, bending down towards him, leaning in. Brador can feel the heat of Laurence's naked skin against his back, through the thin white fabric of his shirt.
Laurence trails his breath up from Brador's collar to his hair, like an animal catching his scent. He hovers his lips just behind his ear.
"I've noticed something you haven't," he whispers.
Brador takes a moment. "And what is that?"
"Gehrman is grooming you to kill me."
Gently, Laurence bends Brador forward, Brador's cheek touching the cool wood of his desk, and he fumbles for Brador's belt.
"I'd die for you," Brador mumbles. He lets Laurence hold him, gripping the arm around his waist.
"Yes," says Laurence softly, reaching between his Brador's legs, smoothing a hand over the crotch of his trousers. "Yes, I rather expect you would."
Laurence moves behind him while he's sitting, wraps his arms around Brador's neck, and rocks him back and forth, nuzzling his hair.
"He's too much of a coward to do it himself," Laurence tells him, thoughtfully. "Not to me. Or he's doing it for Willem. One of these. The problem with men who are dog loyal is you can't choose who they love."
Brador is dizzy. It would be casual talk between two lovers, if not for the subject matter.
"Do you do this with him too?" Brador asks.
"Mm..." he mumbles, into Brador's hair, with a laugh. "There are easier way to control Gehrman."
Laurence rests his fingertips on Brador's jaw. "Here, give me a kiss," he says, in a soft voice, giving his cheek a little tap. Brador turns his head and touches his lips to his.
Brador wonders why he's doing this, thought some time later of how strange the conversation was, Laurence at his warmest, gentle and affection, all the while idly discussing the possibility that Laurence was manipulating him to save his own life. Why was he so honest? With Brador, with himself?
"I want to be a good lover to you," Laurence whispers. "In all my viciousness, and all my iniquity. I want to look myself in the eye."
"Is that what we are, then?" says Brador, his voice low and wavering, as weak and desperate and searching as a boy's. In that moment he hates himself.
But Laurence makes a quiet sound. He moves his mouth to Brador's neck, giving him a light caress that shoots arousal through the whole of Brador's body. Laurence wets his lips, pressing them to his skin again. Brador lets out a choked moan, and he knows the reason why he wants it so much is because Laurence is trying to give him pleasure, kissing his neck entirely for him.
It was usually Laurence's place. So that, Brador thinks, he could decide when it began and ended. This time they stumbled half-drunk into Brador's room, Laurence's arms around him, pulling him desperately to the bed. Brador has to wrench himself away from Laurence, from his hungry kiss, to get himself out of his trousers and make himself ready for him.
"I want you to control me," Laurence whispers. Brador pushes open his legs.
Brador awakes from strange dreams, as he often does as of late, an odd itch at the back of his head. What had he been dreaming about? Laurence. Always Laurence. Laurence's death, the little live thing in the heart of him, malignant, the black mote inside of him that Brador could never pull out. Lately when he wakes from sleep he can taste Laurence's blood in his mouth.
Tonight Brador gets up out of bed and lights a candle. He fishes in his drawers until he finds a long needle - something he keeps around to mend his boots. He sticks it right-side-up in the candle wax, and while the needle heats, he sits down on the side of the bed, opening up his shirt.
Brador takes the heated needle and finds the place on his stomach where he dreamt about pulling the death out of Laurence. He slips it in, hot and almost painless.He only meant to prick himself, but he finds he can go farther than that. The solidity of the little needle inside of his stomach, he thinks, reminds him of being fucked.
Then he realizes what a mad thing he's done and pulls it out of him, dropping it on the floor. It's not bleeding as much as he thought it would, he thinks.
He sits there, panting, realizing he's breathing heavily. He rubs this thumb over the warm place on his stomach where the needle went in him. He can't find the wound in the dark.
Years later, Brador would be hurried through the Cathedral in the head of night, shackles on his legs. He asks for a moment alone and was granted it.. ("You're the one who asked for this. Getting cold feet, are you?" "No.")
In his chains Brador lowers himself painfully before the altar. Laurence's skull wasn't fully cleaned in their rush to enshrine it there, and in the air is the scent of meat. This is the last time Brador will see it, he knows. His death is somehow divinity. His skull all cracked, and lit prettily by candlelight. Laurence's blood has long dried in his tangled hair.
Instead of the petty, simple, selfish thought ("I want my lover back.") he tries to feel the god in Laurence. His mutilation and his violence, his passion like the waters poured from a vessel, his horror and his love. The things that Vicar Laurence carried with him the way other men carry a knife. Brador yearning tries to find whatever it was Laurence was trying to seek, to make his heart larger than his loneliness and love for him, until pain starts to throb at his temples. One of the guards coughs from outside.
Brador thinks: Why don't I feel anything?
I want my lover back, Brador thinks, as the door to his cell slams shut.
"Woe is me," Laurence sighs, eyes closing, the blood pouring of him. "I think I am becoming a god."
And there in the middle of the night Brador comes to his senses, the back of his head itching, and his mind, clouded by arousal only moments ago, turns sharp and clear as cold winter. He yanks his hands out of the water, grabs Laurence's bare shoulders, tries to lift him up, clutching and scrabbling, trying to hold his mortal lover to him as if it'll save him from death. He thinks desperately of the few nights they truly shared together, nights where he stayed with Laurence, where they held each other while they slept. Laurence buttoning his shirt all wrong in the morning, his eyes bleary and mood irritable until damn near mid-morning, the little face he'd make trying to swallow his yawns.
And Laurence lies back in the water, head limp against the rim of the bathtub, the ropes around his wrists cut, and his wrists cut, and on his face an expression of dull peace.
A violent love for him bursts in his chest.
"What are we doing?" Brador whispers.
Laurence grasps the collar of his shirt. Brador never knew whether he bends to him or whether Laurence pulls him down.
Brador's eyes meet Laurence's. (Amber and clear and even now, strangely bright.) Laurence holds his gaze, wide and staring, and Brador somehow knows that this is the first and last time that Laurence will ever truly look at him.
"I'm searching," Laurence tells him. "I'm searching."
Brador lets him go.
Laurence sits up painfully, turns his arms, and watches the gashes they made together seal.
Laurence licks the inside of his wrist as if testing the veracity of a gold coin. (Even now, in the midst of that miracle, the depravity in Brador feels it as if on his own tongue. The milky taste of smooth warm skin beneath the sharpness of blood.) He gives his flesh a look of clinical satisfaction.
Brador looks at his unscarred, unsullied veins. Brador tells him this:
"You will never die."
Laurence sinks back into his bath, unto the reddish water, tilting his chin heavenward.
"Well, tell me," he says to Brador, mouth twisting upwards. "Was it good for you too?"