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Harder Than Steel and Thrice as Cruel

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“Let the warriors clamor after gods of blood and thunder; Love is hard, harder than steel and thrice as cruel. It is inexorable as the tides, and life and death alike follow in its wake.” ~ Kushiel’s Chosen

 

Sebastian de Somerville dusts himself off and stands as tall as his eleven-year-old frame will allow, but it’s hopeless. James has two years on him in age, and he’d gone through a growth spurt recently that gave him a considerable advantage in sparring. Never one to back down from a challenge, though, Sebby wipes a hand across his face and picks up his practice sword from the ground. He stands light on his feet, waiting for his friend to come at him again. The fallow field around them lays quiet. James smirks at him and raises his own sword.

“Are you certain? I wasn’t even breathing hard that time.”

“You surprised me, that’s all. About time you made this an actual competition.”

“Let’s see if you’re still saying that when you’re on the ground again, little lord.”

Sebby laughs at the taunt and moves in to attack, this time more wary of James’ reach. For several minutes dull steel clanks together as swords meet and loose soil stirs into the air around quickly moving feet. It ends with James disarmed and on his back, but it could have easily ended the other way around. Sebby puts out a hand to help James up, which earns him a scowl as he gets to his feet. James grabs his sword and they start again.

The late summer sun warms the field as the boys go round after round. Sebby was first handed a wooden short-sword by his father’s master-at-arms when he was barely more than a toddler, and it shows in the developing deftness of his movements. James is not as good, but he is still impressive given that he has had no formal training. When they finally sheath their swords, they are both breathing hard and ignoring small injuries.     

“Not bad, peasant.” Sebby nudges James’ side with his shoulder as they walk towards the low stone wall separating the Somerville orchards from the land worked by James’ uncle. “You’re getting better.”

“Yeah, maybe. Chess tomorrow? You almost won last time.”

“I’m still regretting teaching you that game. I can’t tomorrow, though. Mother’s taking me to hear the King’s Poet, remember?”

“Right. The Palace tea. That sounds so exciting.” Sarcasm drips from his last words.

“It does, doesn’t it? But I have to go. Here, I brought you these. I think they are the ones you asked for?” Sebby picks up his satchel from the wall and pulls out three books wrapped together with twine. James’ face lights up when he gives them to him. He caresses the books as he reads the lettering on their spines.

“Yes. Thank you. I can have them back to you in a few days.”

“There is no reason to hurry. Father won’t miss them. Why do you like reading history books anyway? They’re so dull.”

James takes a moment to think before responding, and when he does it is with uncharacteristic gravity. “Because I want my name to be written in one someday.”

Sebby laughs. “That is one I will have to read. The rise of the great James Moriarty.” He slings the strap of his satchel over one shoulder and smiles at his friend. “So don’t be boring.”

“Of course not, my lord.” James bows, and Sebby rolls his eyes. They are both smiling as they walk opposite directions towards home.       

~ ~ ~

John watches the Alban coastline fall away as their ship’s crew opens sails to the winds of the Straights. These last weeks had been interesting in ways that John would rather not think about, and he is glad to be going home. Was it really only a month ago that the Cruarch’s messenger had arrived at Baker Street? The attempted political coup at the surface of it all, the case Sherlock was meant to solve, was merely a stepping stone. Almost as soon as they set foot on Alban soil, they fell into a world of monstrous wolves, primal magic, angry spirits, and too many truths. Sherlock was fascinated and solved the case with his usual veracity. John slept fitfully, with his blades close at hand.

As they sail towards home and its loving but distant gods, John tries to let go of Alba even though he knows it will be impossible. It has changed them, put them on a path neither expected. There is the confession heard at the end of it all, the name that is now a puzzle Sherlock must solve. ‘What's Moriarty?’ ‘I have absolutely no idea.’ He will not give up until he knows, he never does.And then, for John, there are the words of an old healer that are burned into his mind no matter how much he would like to forget them. John whispers a prayer to Elua because he does not know what else to do, but Alba’s ancient dieties do not seem to care if the mortal lives in which they meddle belong to gods of another land.

~ ~ ~

“A Casseline? Why do you need a Casseline? You’re already a better swordsman than half of your father’s guard.” James takes the last bite of his apple and tosses the core into the far end of their river swimming hole. Sebby sits up next to him on the rock, grabbing the stolen bottle of cider that sits between them and taking a drink.

“Because I’m spending so much time in the Palace. I could be considered leverage to use against the royal family, and I am only thirteen. Brother Watson is a far better swordsman than all of our guard, the Queen’s too. I think Father has always wanted to have one in the family anyway, but felt it would be too fashionable or highbrow or something. So now that it’s been suggested, he is thrilled to hire one.”

James takes the bottle and sips from it, staring straight ahead as he speaks. “It is highbrow. It doesn’t fit you.”

“You’re just mad at me for not being around lately.”

 “I am. But that’s not relevant. Are you going to come see me with your gray shadow in tow? Do you think he will let you? I am the orphaned nephew of a farmer. I am nothing. What place do I have in the life of a royal favorite?” 

“James, I have to.” James can feel Sebby’s eyes on him, identify without looking the expression on his face. Earnest, apologetic, scared. It makes him warm and anxious all at once, and he needs to move before he does something he will regret. He gets to his feet and walks to the rock’s edge a few feet above the lazy water, stripping away his shirt and boots as he does.

“You’re a duke’s son, you have a duty, et cetera, et cetera. I know.” He turns and looks back towards Sebastian. “Just, don’t lose yourself, Seb. Don’t forget this.” He motions to the world around them, and looks into bright blue eyes for a long moment, longer than he should. “Don’t forget me.” Sebby blushes and looks away.  

James turns and dives into the cold, deep water, letting it close in around him. His heart is pounding in his chest, and it feels like the water on his skin is the only thing holding him together. Stop being an idiot, James. Just stop. He is your lord for Elua’s sake! He floats near the river bottom trying to calm down until his lungs are burning for air. When he swims to the surface, Sebby is sitting on the edge of their rock watching for him. His bare feet are swinging above the water and his expression is uncertain.  

Elua, forgive me. I have to try.  

“Are you going to jump in or do I have to pull you?”

Sebby smiles, uncertainty fading. He pushes himself off the ledge and splashes into the water. He surfaces an arm’s length from James, and catches James’ gaze with his own before speaking. “You are far more than nothing. I could never forget you.”

It is now James’ turn to blush, but he doesn’t look away.

~ ~ ~

Sherlock watches the green fields of Azzale move by through the carriage window. Now that he is back in Terre D’Ange, far from the case and the strange shores of Alba, his body is demanding payment for days of neglect. His eyes drift close and his mind wanders from one thing to another, still trying to process information. White seaside cliffs and John’s face in the moonlight. Otherworldly howls in the night. Dark woods, magic, fearful wonder.  An entire world of new things to study.

He mumbles in his sleep and a familiar hand touches his arm lightly. “Come here, love. You’ll sleep better if you’re comfortable.”

Sherlock doesn’t open his eyes as he leans towards the sound. John. He curls around John’s torso, slinging an arm over his stomach and resting his head on his shoulder. He says something that might have been “love you” if it were intelligible. Fingers slide into his hair, lips press to his brow.

“Sleep, Sherlock. I love you too.”

John smells of leather and sea salt and sweat. Sherlock breathes in deeply and finally relaxes. Fingers run through his curls until his breathing grows even. His dreams are vivid and wild and dark, and weaving through each are whispers that tease and tempt and lure him forward.

~ ~ ~

James sits against the trunk of an apple tree, one leg sprawled out in front of him, the other bent in close to his chest. He mindlessly fidgets with blades of grass and leans his head back onto the tree bark. He is early, but he couldn’t bear being in his uncle’s house any longer this morning. His eighteenth name day came and went last week, unnoted except for the increased pressure for him to find somewhere else to be. When his parents died, he was just a babe and his mother’s sister had taken him in out of obligation, but there was no love lost through the years and now that he is a man the obligation has ended.  He is no longer welcome here. He has very little knowledge of where else to go, though. He hopes Sebastian, with his much larger view of the world, will have some ideas.

Sebastian. Could he have a future there? They had been dancing at the edges of each other’s affection for years now, ever since that day at the river. Sebby is only ever here in the summer now, leaving for the city’s winter social season right after the first harvest, but his Casseline allowed him freedom within the boundaries of Somerville’s estates, and they were already quite good at finding reasons to see each other. They were soon finding innocent reasons to touch each other as well - sparring became more violent, chess became gentle. They learned subtlety in speech organically, so often having two conversations at once. It was the only way they could ever talk about it, even after the conversation changed. After urgent kisses were stolen around corners and hedgerows. After hands grasped for skin beneath clothing. After bodies pressed into each other in root cellars and tool sheds. A new need, a hunger was lighting up in each of them, but they were both too scared of what it meant to let it be serious. It was always playing, just practicing, experimenting, never real lust, never real love.     

Until an afternoon in a barn loft spent learning what it means to be intimate, to be vulnerable. To be laid bare in front of someone in every way that matters. Beneath the trappings of social class and economic fortune, they are both D’Angeline. James may not have the blood of Anael in his veins as Sebby does, but he is no less one of Elua’s children. They are each tasked to love without regard for crowns or thrones.

Surely that is what it means to love.          

And if it is, he has to try to keep it.

 That afternoon was eight months ago. It was the last day of summer and the last time he saw Sebby. They were both still glowing and awestruck and lost in each other when he left. What will they be now that he is back?           

Motion to his right catches his attention, and he sees Sebastian walking down the row of trees towards him. He smiles widely as he gets up to go meet him. Sebby has passed him in height over the winter, and filled out as well, broad muscles replacing most of childhood’s softer shapes. He is dressed in simple brown trousers, a dark red tunic shirt, and leather boots. His straight, perpetually messy blonde locks have grown out a bit, now falling just over his brow in the front. He walks with the surety of a grown man, and it is not until they are in front of one another that James sees hesitation in his eyes. He looks worried.  

“Welcome home, my lord.”

Sebby’s smile is small and shy. “I’m sorry I never wrote you. The time went by so quickly, and I just never got the chance.”

“I assumed as much. But you’re here now, so it’s all right.” James reaches for him, brushing fingers across his cheek and stepping closer. “I missed you.” Sebby closes his eyes, nudging his head ever so slightly into James’ hand. James’ breath quickens, his heart pounds in his chest. Please, Elua, let me keep this.

They stand this way, just breathing, for a moment. Then Sebby pulls away, opening his eyes to look at James. He is still anxious. “I missed you too.”

 James holds his gaze, his brow crinkling in concern. “Tell me what’s wrong.”

Sebby’s eyes dart between his for a moment and look away. “John and I rode in a day early because there are things you should know, and I need you to hear them from me first.”         

“What things?”

“That day in the barn-” Sebby stops and starts again. “You and I were always just playing at love, weren’t we? But that day suddenly we weren’t, and I should have told you. Perhaps you should have known all along, but I never thought it would matter. I never dreamt that I could be someone you would want. Afterwards, I was selfish, and I am so sorry, James. I wanted to hold on to that day, to remember it as the perfect, beautiful thing that it was. So I just left. I ran away to the city instead of telling you the truth.”

“Seb, whatever it is-” A pause. A heartbeat. I have to try. “Whatever it is, you can tell me. I love you.”

“And I love her.” He looks at James as he speaks, his voice quiet, defeated. “Sybille de la Courcel. I love you too, you must know that, but she has the lion’s share of my heart and she always will.”

James lets out the breath he is holding in a huff of a laugh. “We are D’Angeline, Sebby. ‘Love as thou wilt.’ If I must share your heart with a princess, I will take the lesser half and be eternally grateful that I was allowed so much.”

Sebby’s brilliantly blue eyes brim with tears and he turns away. “You don’t understand. Dalliances outside of a royal marriage are not something that is done.”

“Marriage? That is your news then. You are bretrothed.” James’ stomach clenches, his heart sinks like a stone.

 “As of last week, yes. If she were anyone else, it would make no difference. But she is the Dauphine, so I can’t have both of you.”

“And you choose her.”

Sebby looks at him for a long moment, and James wonders what he sees. What does a man look like when his heart is breaking? When he speaks, Sebby’s voice is hardly more than a whisper. “Yes.”

James fights back the tears threatening behind his eyes, determined to not let Sebastian see what this will do to him. “Then I will take my leave.”

“You don’t have to go. You are my oldest friend, James. Let us find that again, at least.”

“I can’t, Seb. I would be content with a pittance of your heart, I would share you with a dozen others and count myself blessed. But you ask me to stop loving you, to stand by one day as you wed and not cry from the rooftops that you are mine too.” He swallows back the rage and overwhelming grief rising in his chest, takes a breath to calm himself. “I can’t do that, I am not that strong. I’m sorry.” One last glance - is it possible to memorize every nuance of a face in a moment? “Farewell, Your Highness.”

He turns and walks away as calmly as he can. Sebastian calls for him, his name filled with anguish and loss, but he can’t turn around. If he turns around he will stay and live forever in the shadow of a love that cannot exist, the peasant pleading in vain for the heart of a king. He makes it to his uncle’s hay field before collapsing to the ground, a wailing cry clawing up from his center. He screams at the sky until his lungs and throat are raw, but it does not stop the gaping, gnawing nothing in his stomach from reaching his lungs and stealing his breath. He clutches at his heart, curls up on his side in the tall grass, and lets the tears come.

Later, still lying in the grass, he makes a decision. He was naïve to believe Elua cared for all D’Angelines the same. Crowns and thrones apparently do matter, quite a lot. So he will leave. It doesn’t matter where he goes as long as the gods of Terre D’Ange and their false promises of love do not follow.

He walks home to gather his few things, leaving the last books he borrowed from Sebby on his bed with a note for someone to return them. Without looking back, he walks out to the road and turns south. The Somerville estates are close enough to Eisande that he easily finds a ride from a passing cart. At the end of the next day, he walks the docks of Marsilikos looking for a ship that will accept an unskilled deckhand as payment for passage to wherever it is already going. Just when he is about to give up, a small merchant vessel takes him on for their voyage to Tiberium. As the ship sails out from the harbor at sunrise, he stands at the stern watching Terre D’Ange fall away. He lets his mind wander through all of his memories of Sebastian, of home, his heart aching in his chest. He caresses each moment before letting them go on the wind. If Tiberium is to make him a new man, it must start now.

Goodbye, Sebby.

~ ~ ~

John looks out the window of their bedroom, watching clouds move across the moon in the sliver of sky he can see from the bed. Sherlock sleeps soundly next to him and most likely will for several hours yet. John envies him. Being home is remarkably comforting, but he has only been able to sleep for a couple of hours. Inevitably, the healer’s words filter into his dreams to worry him awake. If not her words, it is her eyes glazing over, or firelight shifting the shadows on her wrinkled face, or the way her voice filled his skull as she spoke, powerful and feeble all at once.

He rolls over, turning away from the window, and curls himself around Sherlock, laying his head on Sherlock’s chest. He closes his eyes and focuses on the fact that they are home and safe and in each other’s arms. The steady cadence of Sherlock’s heart lulls him eventually towards sleep, but the last words in his mind before he lets go are hers.

Be vigilant, warrior. His feet are on a path you cannot follow, but if you are not there when he reaches the end of it, he will surely fall.