It was better to wait here than be at home, Anubituf knew. Even though he only had ten days' leave, he'd been right to leave home early.
While he waited, he piled up kindling in the hearth and touched the fire off, then reflected that setting it off early may have been a bad idea. The winter woods on the outskirts of town seemed all under private ownership, and he didn't want to be arrested for stealing firewood.
Rodoreamon often talked about the plight of the poor, and the new war hadn't helped them. But maybe, at least, it made him sympathize, to shiver in this rented cabin at the gray edge of this town.
He stared out the window at the drizzle as the day dimmed; then he lit the oil lamp and set it on the table.
A half hour after nightfall came the familiar knock.
Anubituf sprang to the door.
"Oh good, this is the place." Guragief squidged in on damp boots and threw off his coat, casting raindrops.
"Watch it," said Anubituf, shielding his face.
"God, my neck hurts." Guragief divested himself of his hat and leaned against the counter casually, as if they saw each other every evening.
But it had been a year. Maybe neither of them quite remembered how to be around each other.
Anubituf stood a little way back. "What happened?"
"My Chor was on a training run, and those Plumbum girls--they're not the same caliber as our Sibyllae." He kneaded his neck. "Anyway, a couple of them buzzed each other, and one of the Simouns landed hard."
"Must have been quite a crash to do your neck in like that."
Guragief gave him a puzzled look. "Not really... Oh, those foreign ships just can't absorb shocks. We get rattled every time the Simouns land."
Anubituf wasn't sure what to say. "Do you want dinner?"
"Actually, right now I just want to lie down." He gave a sheepish smile. "Not the best of company, eh?"
"Sounds like a rocky day."
"More like a rocky couple of weeks. Never mind; we're alive." Guragief glanced around and found the bed. Quickly, he pulled off his boots and damp outer clothes and flopped under the covers. "A bit musty. Like my grandmother's hope chest."
Anubituf took off his boots, too, and got into bed beside him. Feeling awkward, as he always did at these reunions, he put an arm around Guragief's waist and drew close to him.
"Ow." Guragief shifted his head to relieve his neck. But there was a laugh in his voice. "Have I mentioned I'm glad you're here?"
"You have not." Anubituf made the words sound light, yet all of a sudden he was aware of a bruise in his heart that had been there all along.
"Well, I am glad," murmured Guragief. "Thanks for taking the time to come. It's not fair to your family, I know, but thanks." With that, he was asleep.
Anubituf watched him a while, measuring by lamplight what had changed in the year since they'd last met. His hair was shorter. Anubituf brushed it gently back from his forehead. Everything else looked the same. No: he had a little scar on the side of his neck, from a bullet maybe, by the sheen. That frightened Anubituf: a couple of centimeters deeper in and he might be--
But soldiers couldn't think like that, still less officers whose job it was to send young men into battle. (Or Sibyllae.)
Anubituf nestled beside him, lulled by the familiar rhythm of his breaths.
He awoke with a chilly ear. The fire had burned low; rain plonked on the roof. The lamp still flickered on the table, commanding the shadows to dance. Guragief was warm in his arms, breathing softly. When Anubituf rubbed against him, he stirred and rolled onto his back, eyes half open.
"How's your neck?"
"A little better." Guragief put his palm to Anubituf's cheek.
Anubituf leaned over him and pressed his face, nose to nose, cheek to cheek, nuzzling slowly closer till their lips met.
When they had been Sibyllae, they had kissed with abandon (out of Simoun), memorizing teeth and tongues. Now they were men, they kissed like Sibyllae. They began by granting several breaths to the motionless pressure of mouth against mouth. Then, slowly they relearned each other's lips. They had long ago fallen to earth, yet, thus, they kept on praying.
They pulled apart when the heat began to rise in their blood, because prayer surmounted carnality, and it was the mark of an undisciplined soul to permit the one to intrude into the other.
"Let's have dinner," said Anubituf, sitting up.
Guragief massaged his neck. "Do we have provisions?"
"I picked some things up on my way into town."
"You're a regular housekeeper."
Anubituf made no reply. He didn't think that was very funny.
Guragief came over to the gas stove, brushing dust off his hands. "That's almost the last of the wood."
"At least for now it'll be warmer."
Guragief peered at the sizzling tern breast as Anubituf flipped it over... tried to flip it over. "Is it supposed to look like that?"
"I think it's a little burned. It's hard to tell by this light."
"You can smell it, dear."
"Would you rather do the cooking?"
Guragief laughed. "I can try to scrape it off." He took the fork from Anubituf and chipped away. "Aren't you supposed to grease the pan?"
"I forgot. I should have just picked up some dinner at an inn." He set out plates with a sigh.
"It's all right." Guragief speared a crispy slice and dropped it on a plate. "You remembered the lemon; that's what counts."
Guragief had always enjoyed tern in lemon sauce, not that they had sauce here exactly. Anubituf halved the lemon and squirted it over the meat. Guragief uncorked the wine; it, at least, was a good year.
As Anubituf poured them each a glass, Guragief sawed off a piece of tern meat and chewed--and chewed. "It's not that bad. It's fun exercise for my jaws."
Anubituf forced a smile. He knew he shouldn't feel depressed about this: no one cried over a burnt dinner; Guragief found it funny. It just struck Anubituf as one thing too much.
They devoted their attention to eating.
"So how was the trip home?" The gentle sympathy in Guragief's voice fractured something in Anubituf.
A tremor passed over his face. With an effort, he unclenched himself, never looking at the face he knew was watching him minutely. "It was fine."
"Really. Everything went off on cue. Rodoreamon had the servants assembled to welcome me. I spent the first afternoon touring the estate. She runs the household like a warship."
"Rodoreamon does?" exclaimed Guragief.
Anubituf played his words over and realized how they must sound. "I mean, it's well oiled and whirring along, that's all." He stopped. Maybe he could just end it there.
"You got some time alone with the family?"
"Of course, in the evening." He sipped his wine.
"Mamina must be getting big. I can't believe she's already five."
"Yes. Still, she's pretty small for her age." He tried to mimic Guragief’s conversational tone, but he couldn’t find it.
A pause. "You wrote you were going to give her that Plumbum music box as a belated birthday present, right?"
"Yes." He watched the lamplight lick yellow on the rim of his wine glass.
"Did she like it?"
Anubituf felt his face constrict. "I don't know."
When Guragief made no reply, he stole a glance at him. Big eyes, mouse eyes, black in the lamplight.
"I don't know." He could feel those eyes drinking him. "She wouldn't look at me. When--when Rodoreamon had everyone gathered to welcome me home, and she came out holding Mamina's hand... and Mamina clenched her hand and wouldn't look up... and when Rodoreamon said, 'Welcome your father home,' she just looked down and said, 'Welcome home, Father.' She wouldn't--she wouldn't say anything Rodoreamon didn't tell her say, not the whole three days I was there."
Guragief reached out and pressed his arm. It made him want to cry; it was too much. And that made him pull himself together. He got up and took their plates to the sink, scrubbing off black crumbs.
"The pan's a mess," said Guragief behind him.
Anubituf didn't feel solid enough to answer.
"It came with the rental, right? Are we supposed to clean it?"
Anubituf went to the stove to assess. He cleared his throat. "We can use what's left of the lemon. That should break up some of the fat anyway."
"How do you know that?"
"Rodoreamon told me."
Guragief raised a quizzical eyebrow. "You two must have fascinating conversations."
"She was cooking our dinner; she likes to do her own cooking."
"She's an industrious wife."
"Isn't she?" He didn't want to discuss her. So he took the surest short cut to changing the subject. "But she isn't the one I wanted." Without waiting for a reply, he seized Guragief by the arm and led him back to bed.
The dwindling fire scarcely warmed the room, so they took off most of their clothes under the covers. Of course, they usually did it that way. It seemed more decent, as silly a concern as that might be in the midst of a sin against decency.
Guragief had stripped to his undershirt and trousers when he started out of the bed and grabbed his overnight bag.
He rummaged in it and pulled out a small clock. "I'd better set my alarm. I have to be up at 5:30 if I'm going to be back in good time to brief my Chor by 6:30."
"But you'll be able to come back tomorrow night, barring attacks and whatnot, of course?"
Guragief slipped back under the covers. "It shouldn't be a problem."
Anubituf paused in the act of peeling off his undershirt. "If something happens and you need an extra officer, you tell them I'm here." Yes, they'd both be reprimanded for sneaking off to spend the night, but that was a small concern if Anubituf's presence could save Guragief's life--any of their lives.
"I will," Guragief assured him and finished pulling off his clothes.
The feel of his skin was not so different from the old days. But the past couple years, Anubituf had noticed the aging: a few new moles and splotches, and the worry lines creasing Guragief's head, signs of the slow leaking of their lives.
The rest was nothing new. He'd long since gotten used to Guragief's maleness: the hard arms beneath his hands, the blockish body underneath him, the hardening organ he was never sure what to do with.
He caressed the remnants of Guragief's breast, slightly flatter than Anubituf's own, not enough to show beneath their clothes but a lingering softness that reminded him of how she'd once adored pressing her chest into her partner's. Guragief exhaled sharply and slid his hand down between their bellies to stroke Anubituf's organ.
As they held each other and rocked together, Anubituf drifted, unanchored. His past and present rushed to a single point, like the ever-existence of Tempuspatium. He felt himself a Sibylla with her partner in her arms, her fingers surrounded by the soft, wet heat of that beloved body; she lost herself in the sacred beauty of their figures intertwining.
At the same time, that female form became Rodoreamon, and he lay, as he had not three days ago, between her thighs, marveling that pleasure could convulse his being and yet the act be nothing. I could have kissed her in Simoun and our prayers be answered, and I wouldn't even recall her face. Yet the curve of her waist had been sweet beneath his hands...
...and not at all like the body beneath him now, heaving with him in ill-fitting desire.
Ill fit. Unfit.
Yet between them shouted a necessity no ugliness could silence. It made Anubituf bury his head on that broad shoulder and scrape his teeth against the soft flesh as she had in the days of their blessedness.
Afterward, they lay wet with each other's seed, Anubituf floating on the rise and fall of Guragief's chest beneath his head. His eyes opened and closed to the rhythm of fingers running through his hair.
"How's your neck?" he mumbled.
A soft laugh. "Worse."
"I think I might have finally wrecked things with my father."
Anubituf propped himself on his elbow. "Worse than usual?"
"This time, we got into it because of the war. When I was on leave, Father kept going on about how I might die and leave the estate without an heir. And the same old thing: if I was going to be more useless to the family than a woman, I should have just become a woman, and then my sister, of course, would have been a man and an infinitely better heir than me."
"Your sister's children?"
"It doesn't matter to him. They may be his blood, but they won't have his name. That's all that matters. I told him--I told him he was a bitter old man and, if he was so worried about the estate, he should hurry up and pass away because we'd all manage better without him."
Anubituf's mouth went dry. "You told him that?"
"I am afraid I did. I know it was unfair; I know it's selfish of me--I know you think I'm being silly. And I'm throwing away bloodline that's run our lands for seven hundred years. I know that. It's just sometimes..."
"Guragief, he'll disown you."
A tight smile. "Not as long as I'm his only hope." The smile slipped. "But I have my doubts he'll ever speak to me again."
A profound sadness closed Anubituf's throat. "You should have married Rodoreamon, as I said you should."
He'd stepped onto the fateful road shortly after their first night together as men.
"My father keeps pestering me to get married," Guragief had said over their evening glass of wine. "As if I could just happen upon a woman to fall in love with."
"Marriage is not about love; don't talk like a child," said Anubituf, pressed by the same parental expectations. "All you need is a woman from a suitable family who's intelligent and reliable enough to manage your lands while you're away but pliable enough follow your lead when you're home... someone like Rodoreamon, for example. It isn't as if you'd be spending very much time together anyway."
Guragief stared at him. "I can't in a million years imagine I'd marry Rodoreamon."
Anubituf shrugged and swirled his wine. "I take her at random."
Anubituf coasted on the rise and fall of Guragief’s chest beneath him. "You would have been much better for her than I am."
"No," said Guragief. "Not at all."
They clasped each other loosely, unspeaking.
"I've been thinking," Guragief said at length. "Try not to take it to heart: the thing with Mamina."
A pang shot through Anubituf and a flash of anger at Guragief for reminding him of all that right now when he was almost peaceful.
"You know it's only because she's shy, like her mother. And she just doesn't know you very well, but she will when she gets older."
"That's exactly what Rodoreamon says. You two are really birds of a feather."
Guragief caressed his back in silence. "Sorry."
To quell his irritation, Anubituf focused his eyes on his hand, lying limp on the sheet by Guragief's shoulder. "You know, when you climax, your right hand falls back on the bed like some sort of gesture of surrender. You always did that. You still do it."
After a moment, Guragief said, "You make it sound like a crime."
"This crime is... You know the crime." Anubituf pulled away from him and flopped down on his back. It was an old complaint, but the years hadn't washed out his bitterness yet. "We had an understanding." He glared through the guttering lamplight. "We entered into each other's bodies. You bled for me the first time my fingers went inside you. We whispered promises in the night."
"I'm sorry, Anu."
"You betrayed our love."
Guragief brushed a hand over his eyes and gently met Anubituf's glare. "I thought it would keep us together. I assumed we’d keep serving together. I never dreamed... this would happen." He threw his eyes to the ceiling to encompass the war, and surrender, and war.
"If you had known, would you have made a different choice?"
"No." He paused. "I'm sorry for that too."
A sudden fatigue pressed Anubituf like to stone lid of a tomb.
Guragief went on as if to himself. "The life she has. That's what I didn't want."
"Yours would never have been like that."
"That's true. Because I couldn't choose it."
Anubituf's chest tightened. Oh, his heart can be steel beneath that soft voice.
Guragief sniffed. "It's for the best though," he said calmly, "given a list of imperfect choices. That's why I have no regrets. And one day--one day this war will be over--"
"And then what? Assuming we’re both still alive? There’s no guarantee we’ll ever be assigned to work together again. We’ll just be--" He broke off. The future stretched before him like a slow drowning in lifelong responsibilities to everything except what mattered most to him. He wanted to throw it all away, find a cabin like this somewhere, abandoned in some forest and snare little creatures for food. Farm a little. Others did it. There were wild lands few people ever came through, and the south had good soil.
In an instant, their lives snapped into focus. "After the war, Guragief, it occurs to me no one will need us. My wife can run my household; your sister's child can inherit yours." He grasped Guragief's hand under the covers. "Perhaps we could escape, just disappear, as if into time and space."
Guragief leaned in and kissed him, then studied him. "You're serious."
"Yes, I am."
"You'd truly leave your little girl?"
"She doesn't want me."
"She doesn't know you. And you'd make sure she never does?"
Anubituf turned away, his first impulse anger at Guragief’s rejection of his dream, another rejection, another betrayal. And it was unfair to thrust his daughter in his face. His second impulse was anger at himself because, of course, Guragief was right. With every word he said, he was earning his daughter’s distrust in him.
"I don't know what to do," he said.
Guragief shifted his arm to pull Anubituf close. "Just the same as we've always done. What needs to be done. And trust that Tempuspatium ordains a home for all true partners. If you think about it, we're already there."
"You mean, eternity is in the moment and that sort of thing?"
"Well, what is time, after all?"
"That's a little too.... No, never mind."
Guragief was obviously wrong. They had no home and their time was fleeting, and no "moment" could resolve that. He was wrong, yet he’d invoked a teaching generations had deemed wise: that happiness existed only in moments; the only path to joy was to seize the instant. So perhaps, again, Guragief was right and the error was in Anubituf that he couldn’t surrender to those moments.
He remembered when they’d decided to violate orders, he and Guragief and their Sibyllae, to let Neviril and Aaeru escape. He’d been certain it would mean the end of their careers, their freedom, and yet it was the happiest he’d ever been because, in that moment, he’d been free.
He didn’t know how to feel that way again.
But perhaps if he pretended hard enough, he could shut out the flow of time a little. He closed his eyes and did his best to surrender to the solace of his beloved's body and convince himself their prayers had been answered.