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folie à deux

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Once, this would have been his wildest dream – coming home at last.

It felt less a dream and more a nightmare, now, listening to Merrick gasp for breath as the airship rose past the tip of the last mountain peak. They couldn’t have left him on the burning ground, glass cracking with heat, but this barely felt an improvement. They were rising faster than Raphael would have liked, but it was hard to tell how badly Merrick was taking it - what was the effect of the blast, what was the thinning air, and what was old injury.

Old - Raphael had lost what little sense of time he’d had. He stood where the attendants had placed him like ballast and cataloged Merrick’s injuries as the light grew colder and brighter. Those raw streaks on his arm, scraped clean of skin from Anka’s granite grasp - barely a day ago; that rust-red patch along his leg from a glassy branch pushed too hastily past, that was new, not even an hour old. The bruise on his cheek that Raphael had ultimately given him, that had been supposed to save him - it seemed years ago, but had somehow deepened back to black. Raphael suspected Markham was to blame for its return, and was hypocritically glad yet again of his death.

For only having known Merrick fourteen days, there were far too many visible wounds upon him, especially when Raphael knew all too well that it was often unseen wounds that lingered worst. He didn't know how many of those Merrick had taken, by now.

He wanted almost desperately to take Merrick’s hand while he still could, but the attendants, nervously steering the ship around plumes of smoke and shifting thermals, kept shooting him frightened looks. Probably worried he would fall asleep on the deck of their vessel and render it holy ground, which would be bad enough without having to cut off the hand of a man trapped in a stone embrace.

It seemed as likely as anything else, at this point - that Raphael would become stuck here between heaven and earth. The longer they spent rising, the more the feeling grew that he didn’t belong here any more than Merrick, for all he was better suited to breathe the air and see in the incandescent light.

Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell; And, in the lowest deep, a lower deep. Raphael had preferred Shakespeare, but that line had stuck with him. "My dear fallen angel," Harry had said after delivering the quote, laughing. "You don't belong on Earth, do you?"

Raphael didn't belong anywhere. His own laugh now sounded like a rockfall, crackling and angry, and the ship jerked as the captain flinched at the sound. Fuck, but Raphael was almost as bad as Markham - feeling self-pity all the while he was worshiped as a saint, impervious to flame and injury and death, brought home by miracle alone. Said miracle who, if facing the same hardship, Raphael knew would only have shrugged and staggered on. Merrick sometimes seemed stubborn enough to stagger on past death itself - except Raphael knew better. Merrick could die of this, of bringing Raphael back home - with all his struggles for plant and empire and friend, all those deaths made pointless.

Raphael regarded his own fingers, gray with more than ash - it was stupid and unfair for Raphael be so angry over any of it, any of this, but the anger at least felt warm beneath his skin. That and the fight with Anka, which still thrummed through him like a struck bell, was something to stave off the slow encroaching quiet. He felt like there was magma at his core, molten and plastic, slowly cooling solid. It was an effort to keep it stoked; the anger helped.

Then Merrick called out Raphael’s name, head thrashing as he panted, and Raphael found himself at Merrick’s side - it was almost like losing time, moving between blinks. He could feel nervous eyes on him, the gazes as thick as the smoke. Someone stammered a warning, and was shushed.

He laid his hand flat over Merrick’s heaving chest, defiant, and felt nothing beneath his hand – maybe the slight give of something delicate and gentle, like the surface of water. He was careful not to break through it. He probably should have felt a little guilty over the fluttering panic of the priests and guards around them, but he didn’t have room for guilt.

An hour before he would have been able to feel the heartbeat against his fingertips. Now he had to watch the pulse at Merrick’s throat instead, too-fast and unsteady. Merrick stirred under his touch a little, and said his name once more, lashes brushing black smudges against his cheeks. He coughed again, chest rattling. There was not enough oxygen for him here, even without the smoke and ash in the air; he looked frightened. He looked like he was drowning.

“Shh,” Raphael said, his voice crackling, and ignored the distant sound of concern as he lifted his other hand, careful, so carefully, and brushed the ash-gray hair off Merrick’s forehead. Merrick sighed and settled, still wheezing slightly. He pushed his face into Raphael’s touch, just as he had at the hot spring. Melting into him trustingly in sleep, ignoring the alien rigidity of the body curled around him. A clockwork statue that had fallen in love, that was winding slowly, jerkily down. But not yet, not yet. “Shh.”

This is not for me, Raphael had reminded himself again, and again, and once more still. His fingers stayed lightly curled against the pale cheek. With the soot and ash streaking his skin, Merrick looked almost as gray as a markayuq himself. But so much more fragile, no matter how ferociously strong the will that moved the flesh.

Beside them, the head steward was speaking the once-familiar, now strangely archaic Quechua, no lilt of Spanish curling behind it. Raphael refused to listen or parse the words, letting the sounds wash around him, only interrupting to ask for another blanket.

It would be cold, up here. Merrick got cold easily. Merrick let people take advantage of his kindness until it bled him dry; Merrick refused to stop, even if it killed him. Raphael would wake in the future and Merrick would be dead in a foreign field somewhere, so far away it would be as though they’d never met at all.

A hesitant young woman tucked the blanket about Merrick, and edged between them until Raphael was forced to step back, hand still outstretched midair.

This is not for you, her eyes said pityingly, even as Merrick called his name.

Merrick was too kind for his own good. Raphael wouldn’t quite call it pity, but still; she was right. They were all right. There was nothing here that Raphael could keep, once this was all over and done. Nothing for him, except the memories of Merrick’s kindness, of his ruthless calm. His long, capable fingers and the way they had so easily killed a man, and then shaken like leaves afterwards. The way he smiled at something beautiful, at children and at animals, at Raphael. The way he went perfectly still, when he was thinking.

So like Harry, and so different.

“Call her Ivy,” Merrick had laughed, dandling the baby girl and dancing her through the pollen, all light. Raphael had that memory perfectly fixed in his mind - could replay it now with his eyes closed; nothing but death would take it from him.

They docked at last, after what felt like years spent rising. The city looked smaller than he remembered, and less bright.

The guards picked up Merrick, his limp limbs dangling, with no idea what they held in their arms. Raphael was torn by feeling furious at how delicately they were treating one of the most stubborn, strong men he had ever known and wanting at the same time to shout at how cavalierly they were letting Merrick’s head tilt back, lolling on his neck. Which probably meant he was being irrational, so instead of yelling and breaking things, he focused on keeping pace with Merrick’s stretcher, wood crackling under his feet and heart thudding dully, as loud in his ears as thunder. They came to a rest in the monastery waitroom; he’d barely recognized the halls he’d grown up in, as a child - it was all as blurred as though he was back in the lowlands, in the dark away from pollen or windows.

Merrick was settled against the sheets at last, sponged clean of ash and blood. Jobs that should have been his, because Merrick hated being touched by strangers – but finally, Merrick lay breathing and quiet, at ease. In the rarefied dawn light, Raphael could see him clearly for the first time since… well, his vision had started dimming long before Merrick was born, hadn’t it?

Distantly, Raphael heard a lecture begin, on propriety and caution, on the sensibilities of his station. He’d forgotten that part of it, over all those years away spent too terrified to blink, lest he find himself covered in fucking spiders, and rot, and worms. Desperate to leave Bedlam, he’d forgotten he had once been excited to leave this place, his so-called home. He’d forgotten, while strangling on lowland air, how stifling the judgment and eyes up here could be.

Merrick seemingly calm at last in sleep, Raphael consented to his own examination. Stethoscope, thermometer, the doctor consulting his knotted statistics all the while and making adjustments to his notes, Raphael thought of Merrick’s worried face, asking about the monastery doctors.

Bedlam’s doctors with their guinea pig livers and ants no longer sounded so bad. There were worse things.

“You shouldn’t still be conscious, at this stage,” the doctor murmured, checking Raphael’s pulse again, tilting his head to regard his eyes, the dilation of the pupils beneath the protective haze, then allowed: “But there is much about this situation that is not quite – standard.”

You fucking think, Raphael didn’t say, not wanting to waste the effort on moving his heavy lips and tongue. He gestured at Merrick vehemently, until the doctor gave him assurances that Merrick was well, would not die, was not badly wounded, that he would wake soon, yes, even within the hour. Relief left Raphael more agreeable, and he let the attendants usher him a short distance away, to be washed and clothed in cleaned leathers, and kept his eyes trained on the shallow rise and fall of Merrick’s chest.

The priests were also there, draping him in demands instead of clothing, trying to pull him from the waitroom to a more ‘appropriate location for his turning.’ To put him on display for the populace like an actual statue. No wonder they had wanted him in clean clothes. Raphael thought himself admirably calm in his refusals, right up until he found himself about to shatter the doorframe he had gripped.

And then, thankfully, the idiot doctor turned out not to be quite useless after all.

It was his medical opinion that Raphael should be given whatever he damn well wanted, and eased into his transformation as peacefully as was possible given the circumstances. Raphael wondered as he continued the lecture to the infuriated, but slowly cowering priests, if the man was overstating the danger.

Not all martayuq survive the transformation, even in the best of conditions – sure, of course. But it was rare, Raphael had thought, to lose one. Although he’d been a child when he learned about it, and it was hard to know what had been glossed over or what he’d forgotten.

There had been no one at Bedlam to teach him.

It was a calmer conversation that led him outside, to sit on one of the benches overlooking the city while he waited for Merrick to wake. It was private and quiet there, with no overhanging balconies or public fountains. The monastery's tethered garden drifted upwards through the clouds, on its daily journey towards a patch of sun, pulleyed up by unseen hands. Even from here the succulents looked dewy, flushed pinks and greens. What would Merrick think of the gardens here – what would he look like in this light, bruised and bright-eyed? He thought briefly of what it might have been like – to meet Merrick here, as a young gardener, and angrily tossed the thought to the side. Pointless.

It was hard to hold onto the warmth of anger now; all he had was desperation and fear, and those were too cold. Minutes passed like clouds, damp and ephemeral. He thought of whitewood and empires, of Merrick’s hands as tender on a flower or fruit as they were on a baby’s cheek. He tried desperately not to blink – blink, and he’d miss it. He hadn’t gotten to say goodbye to Harry. He didn’t – he should probably already make his peace with missing Merrick, too. He wondered if Merrick was already gone – but no, smoke and ash were still curling past on the breeze. Raphael wondered, darkly, if he cared or not, whether this city burned down (he did, he did, but all the same he felt a deep hot rage at this place that he thought Anka would have understood).

“It will go better for you,” the doctor said, having returned to take his pulse yet again, “if you can stay calm as you can before your sleep. I am aware this request is not an easy one. But it would be a great injustice to your companion’s efforts, if nothing else, to lose hold of your control now.”

“Go fuck yourself,” Raphael said, carefully and politely, in English, and thought from the rise of the doctor’s eyebrow and hint of amusement in the corner of his mouth, that he had an idea of what had been said.

Waiting, again. It was ironic, how much he hated waiting, when his problem was the exact opposite. The world would not wait for him.

“Your guide will be waking soon,” the doctor said, and Raphael blinked at him. A member of a retinue was – different than a guide, he remembered. There was something important about it - it almost sounded like a proper noun, something to capitalize. But it was so long ago that he’d heard that particular title, and he was too tired to properly think of anything but staying awake for Merrick, just a little longer. “I can buy you some time to say goodbye in private. Only a few minutes, now.”

A gift, or a bribe, or maybe just a prescription – perhaps the doctor truly believed this would improve Raphael’s chances for survival. It was hard to be sure or, frankly, to care. Raphael made himself thank the man for it, feeling heavier and heavier. At any moment he’d sink again.

It was easier, though, as soon as Merrick moved into view. He was wobbling and dizzy as a newborn alpaca, long-limbed and confused, damp with sweat. His sooty lashes trembled as he squinted at Raphael, hand shielding his eyes from the rising sun. He looked sick; a sea creature cast by some strange storm far ashore.

This was goodbye - awkward and unhappy, both parties unsure of what it meant. Raphael was still lucky to get one, and he was earnestly and achingly happy for the pain of it, despite everything.

Except – except, before he could find the words to say so, an attendant appeared with a form, and Merrick was glaring him down, stupidly furious again. The same face he’d made when Raphael had blinked awake to find Merrick had stalked him across the other side of the river. Indignant, determined, so impossibly -

“I’m not Harry,” Merrick said, and his face twisted a little, an unfamiliar hint of self-pity there, and there it was again, at the core of Raphael - that heat, like a human heart, pulsing through him and moving his limbs.

It was like looking at a book right-side up, or taking off gloves to hold someone’s hand. It was like breathing after being underwater, and laughing into the air after, lungs burning and raw. Raphael could barely speak or think, struck dumb with more than his own stupid biology. Merrick’s arm was bleeding through the bandages, and his jaw was set and chin up and he looked resigned and proud and determined, always, always so determined.

It made it easy to move, when before each breath felt like dragging himself to the surface of a distant ocean. He took the form from the attendant, picked his way through the knots of their names and granted his permission for Merrick’s return, quicker than he’d thought possible.

“You’re damn right, you’re not Harry,” he said, and his voice almost sounded like his own again.

He handed the form over Merrick’s shoulder, leaning in to press the precious cargo into the attendant’s outstretched hand. For a moment, as he did, Merrick leaned back into him, softly, against his chest. He felt his own heart beat once, twice, so hard it shook him.

There had to be a way to explain, if only he could find the words, how different and singular Merrick was, how despite having the same shape as his grandfather, it would be impossible to mistake Merrick for anyone but himself.

Martel had once given Raphael a glass of champagne as gold as pollen glowed, after the first group of expeditionaries had died. A gift for a pet that had performed well. Raphael had thought on his first sip – oh. Oh, Harry. Effervescent, bubbling, brilliant. Something to get drunk on, gone quickly. The warmth didn’t last, and left behind an ache in his head and heart.

Years later, he stared at Harry’s grandson, pale and woozy with the altitude, yet shockingly alert all the same, his eyes sharper than the wind outside. In Martel’s lamplight, he had looked like a fractured reflection of Harry, seen through water or a broken mirror.

But within a day, it had been perfectly clear even to clouded eyes that there was nothing of champagne about Merrick – and little of Harry. They could barely be compared at all, except that they were both clever in their own ways, that they were both good men, and kind. But there was nothing effervescent or light or—or luxurious about Merrick. Nothing casual, either. Maybe rum? Something rich, unfolding slowly on the tongue. Straightforward, yet subtle. But no – Merrick was more practical even than whiskey.

Raphael had puzzled over it idly, during their journey to Bedlam, and while cleaning martayuq, and while trying to sleep. Even now he can’t quite put words to the difference between the two men, the variance too profound. Apples to oranges to maracuya.

It didn’t matter, maybe, that he couldn’t put words to it. Just that the difference existed. Merrick was here, and Harry was not. Merrick was here.

But Raphael was so tired, and the words were hard, to find let alone to say.

This was enough. That Merrick had offered at all, even if he never returned – it was enough. It would have to be enough.

Merrick was staring at him now that Raphael’s word had been given, Merrick’s invitation back to the floating city secured. His chest was heaving visibly. Maybe - probably - due to the lack of oxygen, but his eyes were so hotly bright. There was something in the way he leaned forward over his own hands, the way that he looked sideways at Raphael through the veil of his hair.

Raphael let himself think, now – stupidly pointlessly futile – of what it could have been like. To feel the warm throb of a heartbeat beneath his palm, taste the salt of sweat, of skin. He was no virgin, now, not after his years upon years on the earth below. He’d been curious and bitterly lonely, eventually less a person than Martel’s plaything.

With Merrick, Raphael was sure, it would have been – different. It was stupid to think of it now, as Merrick weaved his way back inside the waitroom, a whitewood cone subtly tucked in his palm. He was as ever, ruthlessly clever.

He was talking over his shoulder yet again about brewing Raphael a cup of coffee, when he knew full well Raphael couldn’t possibly feel or taste it. As though caffeine could wake stone, as though the heat could reach him. Merrick was always doing that, and for some reason Raphael was always taking the cup, even when they both should know better.

And then it came to him as he closed his eyes in a sigh. Coffee. Of course. Of course, coffee. If there was a way to compare them, it would be that. Champagne, versus coffee. Sweet decadence, versus – Merrick. Efficient, practical, kind. An everyday luxury hard to live without, once you’d had it. Warm. Merrick.

Coffee was beyond Raphael now; he drank it for the memory of something he could no longer taste. Yes, altogether too appropriate. His eyes were dry, and he was abruptly aware that was yet something else he had lost – he could no longer cry.

Merrick had to leave, soon, before the hour was out. This height wasn’t for him; Raphael wasn’t for him. Though he had a strange memory, now, out of nowhere, of Merrick high above him, laughing and dropping red petals on his head. Poppies, his mind supplied. Opium, of course. Poppies. What had made him think of that now? When had Merrick ever climbed above him?

Merrick returned with the coffee. His eyes were dancing and his smile was bright in a way that shocked Raphael’s heart into throbbing again. He noticed that smile, so much happier than the one he’d worn earlier, before he saw anything else. Before he saw the clean skin, the fine lines around Merrick’s eyes, the missing bandages. Understanding dawned, and then he saw his own rosary around Merrick’s wrist.

When he saw that, Raphael thought he understood what the mountains felt, when they exploded out hot glassy lava. Before he could sort out the mad seismic roil in his chest, Merrick’s smile widened, and he pushed the cup into Raphael’s yielding hands.

“You like it black, don’t you?”

Raphael laughed soundlessly despite himself, before he had even thought to worry about no longer being able to speak.

Impossibly, Merrick’s smile widened.

Raphael took the cup mostly to test himself – markayuq did not drink, or eat, of course. And Merrick would not have known that such brittle ceramic vessels as these weren’t meant for markayuq hands.

But that was the quicksilver lining to his fractured sleep, that he had learned to touch things gently.

“Taste it,” Merrick said, nudging him with an elbow Raphael could sense more than feel. “No, you have to! I worked hard on that. Even Anka likes it.”

Raphael felt his eyebrows shoot up and before he’d meant to, he tried to talk and there was a horrible, panicked moment when nothing came out, not even a gasp or a choke, and he thought he might shake apart.

“Sorry, sorry,” Merrick soothed, looking panicked himself, and reached out – switching hastily to his left hand when someone hissed at him. He touched Raphael’s arm as light as a butterfly settling, and ducked his head to catch his eye. “It’s been twenty years, remember. Of course I’ve been back to Bedlam. Anka says she’s sorry. She’s – better, these days. And Aquila’s doing well, he sends his love, and St. Thomas--” he cut himself off as Raphael blinked at him, slowly, several times.

Merrick laughed, scrubbing a hand through his hair ruefully. “I’m doing this all wrong.” He laughed again when Raphael nodded. “Shut up. The coffee – look. I experimented with some new strains and spices while you were sleeping. It’s stronger than normal - don’t let any human try it, I’ve got the Navy asking for barrels to use as weaponry. But I thought it’d be nice, for you. And other martayuq, but. Mostly for you.” Raphael stared at him, something deep inside his chest shuddering and cracking open. “Look, please don’t let the guards arrest me for upsetting you.”

He grinned sheepishly, and he looked strangely young. Older physically, maybe, but also lighter than Raphael had ever seen him, hopeful. This was Merrick healthy, he realized, as he’d never gotten a chance to see him before.

If anyone tried to arrest him, Raphael would throw them from the balcony without the slightest remorse.

The coffee wasn’t cold or warm, but it was thick and strong enough to taste, with something spicy and faintly sweet that lingered on his tongue. He stared at Merrick, wide-eyed, and Merrick laughed and sipped at his own mug of presumably less lethal coffee, looking enormously pleased with himself.

I want to kiss you, Raphael thought, and then had a strange, double-overlay of memory, of carefully pressing his thumb to Merrick’s lower lip and Merrick’s mouth opening for him, lashes low and eyes dark. Did I ever kiss you? Raphael thought, startled. I remember kissing you.

“You know, I’ve had twenty years to think of what to say now, yet here I am, tongue-tied,” Merrick sighed. “And I think you’ll be called off to your awaiting audience soon. But oh, look – I had Keita, my—hm. Maybe I’ll explain Keita later. But you see, it’s magnetic, for you to write on. I thought it might be useful if you came to visit the Himalayan plantations. Less wasteful than paper, but more universal than knotwork.” He stopped then, still holding out the strange object, still smiling so brightly Raphael thought he could probably have seen the light of it eyes closed, blindfolded or asleep, on earth or here in the sky.

He slowly, carefully took the glass sheet from Merrick’s hands, and thought that probably Merrick was having to be patient at his newly glacial pace. Which irked, but at the same time moving quickly felt – not difficult, precisely, but unnatural. Though he’d almost felt normal earlier, when he’d just realized he was awake after a long sleep, when panic had been flooding his core.

But in honesty, Merrick’s pauses didn’t seem impatient, or even unnatural. He really had spent time in Bedlam, hadn’t he? Talking to other martayuq. Getting used to their movements, the slow rhythm of their conversations.

Being jealous of those martayuq, of whoever Keita was, of anyone who’d had the privilege of Merrick’s company over the last twenty years – it was incredibly unproductive, but Raphael felt grumpy and envious anyway, in spite of himself. The glass in his hands helped remind him to be less of a brat about it, though, and the rosary too.

It wasn’t as though Merrick hadn’t been thinking of him. He’d waited, and come back. You selfish, ungrateful statue, he thought, and lifted the stylus.

Plants probably felt this way, unfolding leaves for the sun, the same slow way Raphael moved his arm to make an experimental curlicue with the metal stylus on the glass surface. It scratched a little, at first, but he adjusted quickly. Easier than knots, and faster. Merrick was right. And he’d said plantations – Himalayan plantations. The whitewoods…

He wrote, “You didn’t sleep at all while I was gone, did you?” and was pleased to see his handwriting was the same as it had been before. Like he hadn’t lost everything after all, and he felt a flush of real warmth at his very core when Merrick laughed, head tipped back. There were streaks of silver threaded through the gold of his hair.

It looked good.

“Well. I stayed busy, but I did make time to sleep for once. Thanks to you.” Raphael tilted his head, and Merrick dimpled at him – curse those damned dimples. “I… dreamed of you. Quite a bit. And, ah. I probably shouldn’t say more, with priests lurking around.” He stopped then, looking away. Raphael took slightly longer to respond than before, distracted by the flush in Merrick’s cheeks.

“Were these sacrilegious dreams?” Raphael wrote, feeling dizzy with confused hope, and want at what he thought was being suggested. He was sure that twenty years previously he would have been blushing furiously. He considered briefly, then worked out that swiping the edge of the stylus over the glass could erase his previous messages.

“Slightly. Um. Christ, Raphael, I’m not ready to talk about this yet, out loud, but - but you must know how much I’ve missed you.” Merrick still was flushed and avoiding his gaze, tapping his foot nervously.

Despite the strangled sound from the attendant behind him, Raphael reached out almost on instinct, running a finger over the rosary beads on Merrick’s wrist. Merrick shuddered slightly, pushing up into his touch, hard enough that the beads had to be pressing down bruises into the thin skin – and he remembered that too, suddenly. Merrick on top of him, murmuring against his mouth that he didn’t mind bruises.

“You love bruises,” Raphael had mouthed back.

“Only from you.”

It was rare for martayuq to dream, even if they did sometimes settle into a lighter sleep. True dreams were nearly unheard of, except in fairytales: the ones St. Thomas loved to talk about, the ones threaded through old looms, the ones he almost remembered, from his childhood, before his condition had become apparent and fairytales had turned from fanciful to fraudulent, hopeful to hopeless.

And yet, and yet.... Raphael was fairly certain he had dreamed at some point during this last sleep, because he was positive Merrick had never said anything like that to him during the two weeks they’d shared.

The two weeks they’d shared twenty years ago, he had to keep remembering. Merrick looked too bright for how old he must be - fifty or more, surely.

Raphael might have possibly dreamed it during those weeks, of course, and only be remembering it now. He had been trying extremely hard not to think of how much he wanted to touch Merrick for essentially the entire time they’d known each other, and had mostly been successful, death and existential terror being an excellent distraction.

But a dream like that, he thought he’d have remembered. Raphael wondered abruptly at his new body -- wondered what he could do with it, if he actually could kiss that smile, or touch, or feel -- well. He’d never thought about it, before, as strange as it seemed now. The martayuq had always seemed entirely sexless. But then, he hadn’t thought they’d talk to each other, either, and some of those tales in the weaving room had been filthy.

“You look healthier, here, you know. It’s nice,” Merrick was saying, smiling at him like a sunrise. “I mean, you look good.”

Raphael drummed his fingers over the rosary beads, and Merrick flipped his hand over so they could lie their palms flat together without anyone causing more of a fuss than they already were. You too, he tried to say without resorting to the stylus, and Merrick caught his meaning quickly, as always, absorbing the tilt of Raphael’s head and tap of his fingers with a blush.

“I don’t, I look old,” he laughed, and Raphael scowled at him and slowly shook his head.

“Good,” he mouthed insistently, and traced the letters of it in English on Merrick’s palm. “Better.”

“How bad did I look before?” Merrick asked, mock offended, but he did look better. The pained wrinkles around his eyes had been replaced with laugh lines, and his skin was warm-looking, flushed and full. Not nearly as skinny as he had been, he was broader and maybe even taller, with the whitewood brace to keep him from curling in on himself. Here Raphael could see, as he had not been able to for days (for years, dammit), the red flush of Merrick’s mouth, the glacial blue of his eyes glinting through golden lashes. There was a new scar that ran through an eyebrow, but it only gave him a rakish look, almost piratical.

A strange image popped unbidden into his brain, of Merrick in billowing ultramarine trousers, reminiscent of an Arabian harem and faintly diaphanous in a way that was impossible to consider directly without expiring. In the memory – the dream? – Merrick was arguing with him, and blushing, holding a wickedly curved saber in one hand. Something about having been traded for a camel?

Raphael was almost entirely certain he couldn’t have possibly come up with that one on his own.

Dreams, he wrote on the magnetic board, underlining it and adding as many question marks as would fit the space, but that was all he had time to say. Apparently he’d used up his allotted amount of privacy to process all of this, because he could hear the approach of the Priory now, the ceremonial march of the guards that accompanied them unmistakable.

“I—wasn’t sure you’d remember,” Merrick said, staring at him, cheeks reddening even further, and then the priests and priors arrived in a wave of requests and scandalized sounds. “It’s fine, I’ll be here when you’re done,” Merrick said, and took his hand back from Raphael’s grasp, stretching on the bench. He was golden in the sunlight. Raphael stared, unmoving, as people strongly, silently suggested that they wanted to pull on him without actually having the audacity to physically do so. “Go, your adoring public needs you. I don’t mind waiting a little longer.”

Raphael had only been waiting a few minutes, and he minded immensely, but when Merrick kicked gently at his ankle, he went.

He hadn’t for the last ten years of his waking life truly thought he’d make it to the city at all. Now he stomped after the priests to go give blessings and get prayed over, darkly pleased at the cracks that spread beneath his feet.

He was no saint; he knew that perfectly well. He didn’t want to be here. He wanted – to be wherever Merrick was, to be alone with him without a crowd of guards and attendants watching worriedly. He wanted to be profane, without it being called sacrilege. To be a man, to be himself.

The Himalayas, or Heligan, or Timbuktu. It didn’t matter. He didn’t need that much time to decide; he had probably decided long ago – it felt familiar, the weight of resolve. He remembered something too, now, from his boyhood and from skeins of knots. A fairytale, of protective guides, who navigated dreams. Dreams were important, somehow. It was like smelling a certain perfume, and the memories flooding back. Raphael let them filter in - it was a little easier to let them settle in, if he didn’t look at them directly, and meanwhile suffered silently and politely through the parade of the city.

Time was moderately more difficult to measure, now, but he registered the change in light abruptly, and gently set one of the priests to the side and let the crowd scatter around him. The priests trailed him back to the waitroom of the monastery, where the sick and crippled and malformed awaited judgment before being cast out of heaven and down to earth. To be cared for, and lied to, in exchange for salt. What kindness. He scowled at the door, rooted in his own annoyance for a long moment, before the sound inside registered and shook his limbs into movement again.

Merrick was standing to one side of the fracas, hands behind the back of his head and looking carefully cheerful in a way that immediately raised Raphael’s hackles.

He was not especially surprised to hear the doctor and attendants and a scarlet-cloaked father of the Prior all attempting to talk at once, the words on everyone’s lips either ‘guide,’ or ‘dreams,’ or ‘nonsensical fairytale.’

He strode to Merrick through the morass of irrelevant figures, ignoring how they all swiveled around him and followed him like the iron filings in his new glass tablet followed a metal stylus.

“Oh, just about to get ex-communicated and sent back down to Earth for my blasphemy,” Merrick answered his unspoken question lightly. “I didn’t realize even saying you’d dreamed of martayuq was nearly as bad as saying you want to move one.”

Fuck, he had no idea if these assholes could even read Spanish, let alone English; he was already impatient with tangling out knots. He managed to make one, then another, snatched from a scribe’s alarmed hands, and then wrote it on rope another still.

“They can ex-communicate me, then,” he wrote, using thick angry knots – it was a good language for anger, at least. “Because I dreamed of him, too.”

That, shockingly, gradually silenced the room around them. The doctor was smiling and adding some knot to his notes with a strange amount of smugness.

“It’s been several generations since we’ve seen a true guide,” he said absently, ignoring the hot glare of the priest next to him. “A blessing difficult to understand. I wish I could have taken measurements on you both when you arrived.”

“What is going on?” Raphael asked on his tablet, flashing it to Merrick, then underlining the whole several times.

“Something about me being able to sleep with you – hah, not like that! Um. Sorry. No, I meant – I can find you, in my sleep, and… share dreams with you. If I need to, I can help you wake up, it seems? The doctor thinks it’s something to do with hormones, or brainwaves and magnets. Apparently something of ours has synced, anyway.” He shrugged, waving a hand. “Thomas told me about it too, back in Bedlam. He said I’d—been connected to you, and that he noticed it years ago, back when we first met.”

Thomas didn’t tell me, Raphael thought, offended, but then - maybe there had been some esoteric comments he’d brushed aside in his hurry. He’d been understandably distracted.

Well. Maybe he could go apologize now. The possibility left him not light-headed, but lighter, at least.

“There used to be one guide for every martayuq,” a priest was saying solemnly, having done an abrupt about face. He was using extremely formal Quecha, and had taken a startled Merrick’s free hand. Raphael smiled despite himself at disgruntled expression that Merrick was clearly attempting to keep off of his face. “If St. Raphael has accepted your gift, you may accompany him and do as he wills.”

“He’s not a pet,” Raphael snarled soundlessly, and ignored Merrick mouthing the word saint at him. Merrick didn’t look nearly bothered enough by what the priest was saying - more by the priest being unwilling to relinquish his hand. “He doesn’t have to do anything.”

Being able to speak only on occasion, he was realizing, was very different than not being able to speak aloud at all. He had to go over and separate Merrick from the priest bodily, the priest leaping away like a reversed magnet, while Merrick stayed still, and close. Maybe even swaying in.

“Neither do you,” Merrick said, because he somehow understood. It wasn’t anything metaphysical, either - not this, at least, Raphael was almost sure. It was just Merrick, observant, intuitive.

Though Raphael was sure, as arrogant as it felt to assume, he’d always been a bit more intuitive with Raphael than anyone else.

Merrick shifted from Quechua to English, folding his arms together as though to stave off both cleric and medic, who was still standing nearby with a contraption that looked half magnet, half thermometer. “It’s just an option, you know. You don’t have to decide right away, it’s just - I could stay with you, if you want.”

Of course I want, he felt the words on his tongue, but of course they didn’t come. He felt foolish and young, like a schoolboy, fumbling for his pockets until he found the tablet again. The attached stylus dangling until he caught it with stiff, stupid fingers.

Have I not been clear, about what I want? he scratched out, and felt magnificently inadequate when his stone hands somehow managed to shake.

“In dreams, yes. Awake, well. I think probably we should make a number of things more clear. Hopefully in private.” Merrick delivered this to the ceiling and Raphael felt slightly better, that despite the extra years and clearer memories, they were still on relatively equally awkward footing when it came to this thing between them.

“A martayuq’s guide is free of most taboo,” the doctor commented, and he and Merrick shared a familiar speaking look that made Raphael feel moderately insane with jealousy, given that the doctor was clearly on their side. As opposed to the head attendant, who was making an offended, high-pitched sound very reminiscent of a tea kettle. “Perhaps we should give the holy saint and his companion a moment to converse, and take their decision to the people in the morning.”

This set up a great deal of bickering between the doctor and the priests, although the guards seemed happy enough to troop out of the room before the argument had even ceased, one of them tipping Merrick a bright smile that left Raphael grinding his teeth audibly together. The sound took a moment for the remainder of the room’s inhabitants to recognize, but it did have the effect of clearing everyone but Merrick out with relative haste. Meaning that half an hour later, they were alone at last. Merrick stood against the door frame that twenty years prior, Raphael had nearly detached from its moors. He was long and lanky, and he watched Raphael’s approach with bright, bright eyes.

“I missed you,” he said simply. Outside the last of the sun’s light slipped below the clouds as Raphael kissed him, and the soft sigh of it licked warm through him.

There was a lot he didn’t entirely remember, conversations half-had, but he was content to have them over again later. To discover what his body, their bodies, could do together. To find where they could go next.

But for now, Merrick was here, and for now, he would not leave.

There were worse fairytales.