"Do you understand, Kell?"
The words sounded muffled, as if they'd come from far away. Kell didn't understand them at all. He had a idle thought that he should probably answer, but the words do not come. He's too tired. He'll answer later.
He's so tired.
There had been pain, for a while, a screaming agony that he only barely remembers, the sound of Athos's laughter and his white hair swinging into his face, a face spattered with blood. There had been other pain after that. Athos and Astrid looking him over, pleased as cats with cream. Astrid speaking to someone, an agreement made, shaking of hands. Then he'd been left here.
He hung limply by his wrists, all his weight borne by delicate bones and aching shoulders. There was another ache, a deeper one, that he could not quite bear to think about. He closed his eyes, the blue and the black, tried to remember. His copper hair was plastered against his forehead with sweat, prickled the back of his neck, droplets running down his neck like tears. He should push it away, Kell thinks, but he can't. His arms would not move. The stone had gone from them and his hand felt so empty, so crawlingly empty, devoid of what it really needed.
He had killed Holland, hadn't he? Or tried to.
There had been a moment where he'd thought Holland wanted to die, would simply allow him to win this fight, and then there had been a splash of blood on the ground and a whispered Antari word that Kell did not know, ground out with rage. There were so many words that Holland knew that he never shared with Kell, seemed mildly surprised to learn Kell hadn't discovered already on his own.
There are commands you only learn from suffering, Holland had told him once, brusquely, on his way out after a visit to the Maresh royal family. Kell had been all of fourteen years old, and had still wanted nothing more in the world than Holland to show him everything he knew. It would be immoral of me to teach a child the way I was taught. Enjoy your coddled life, princeling. Learn to appreciate the things you do not know because you have never truly suffered.
The blood Holland called had become black ropes that drained his energy as soon as they touched him. He'd felt Rhy's heartbeat beneath his own, beating strong when his faltered, faltering when his pounded in his throat. Had felt, as if from across the room, Rhy call out his name. As he always did when Rhy needed him, Kell had tried to stand back up, but... he hadn't. The black ropes had tightened and Kell had fallen onto his knees.
After that, things had gone white behind his eyes. After that, the pain, Athos and Astrid laughing, the handshake. Now he was here. Where was here?
"Don't..." He mumbled, stumbling over a tongue that feels dry, too big to fit inside his mouth. His chest burned where he traded his life for Rhy's. The symbol may one day become second nature but for now he felt every moment of the responsibility. He had to live, so that Rhy could live. Kell had made a sacrifice... or forced Rhy to make one. Right now it didn't really matter, because the result is the same.
He didn't want to think about that. There was another strange pain in his back, just below his right shoulder blade, but when he tried to understand it his mind skipped away. He tried to move but chains rattled, and his wrists and ankles didn't move an inch.
"Sssshhh," The voice from before continued, a little clearer now. "You must be thirsty. Drink." A cup of water was tipped to his mouth, and Kell didn't have the energy to fight this small piece of mercy. He drank, the water cool and clear on a throat that is so raw it burns.
Why is his throat so raw? Oh, right, the screaming.
"Thank you," Kell said hoarsely.
"Our first lesson." The moment of mercy is gone. The cup, still half-full, is pulled away from him. "How to address me properly."
"N-no, I'm still thirsty," Kell said, and his voice cracked. His mind was coming back to him. He remembered now, remembered lying there struggling against the chains as Holland took the stone from his hand, the black stone transferring as though it had found someone more worthy to carry it. Holland's face had been a cold and empty sea as he'd stared down at him, as Kell had gradually slumped onto his side on the ground. Holland had had the stone in his hand-
Kell's eyes flew open, and he winced against a bright white light and a lance of pain through his head. "The stone! Where is the stone?"
"Sssshhh. Don't ask questions like that." He knew that voice. It was a voice he'd been hearing for most of a decade now, passionless and sharp as a knife. His heart dropped down somewhere near his toes.
His black hair had been carefully combed to one side, letting the green and black eyes focus entirely on Kell hanging by the restraints. He wore a loose pair of black pants and heavy black boots, but his bare chest showed Athos Dane's mark, freshly carved over the old scar and still bleeding, just a little. There are drips of blood that have run down his stomach, dried, and been repainted with new blood again.
"When you speak to me," Holland said with a voice like gravel, ominously steady, "you will show respect. 'Thank you, sir' would have been the proper way to address me. You will say please and thank you and mind your manners." Holland's mouth twisted in a dark humor. "The Danes would like you to remember your manners while you are here."
"Wh-what... H-Holland, I... where..." Kell tried to move again, twisting his head to look up above himself. His wrists are fixed by iron manacles to some kind of heavy wood. He can see blood trickling down from where the iron had cut his skin and he tried to call to it, to use it to escape, but... nothing happens. He wants to turn on Holland and the Danes and... nothing.
"You have been marked," Holland said, perhaps reading his fear in his face. He tapped the brand on his own chest. "You have a matching one of these on your back now. Well, it's a bit different than mine. Athos carved mine into me." There was a pause. "I carved yours. I'm sorry." There's no way to tell whether he meant it or not - Holland's smile and his voice mean nothing. "You cannot hurt the Danes. You cannot escape the Danes. You cannot hurt me. You and I are tools, now, the both of us."
No. Rhy. Was Rhy still at the Sanctuary? Were his parents... were the King and Queen...
"H-Holland, what happened?"
"I won," Holland said simply, holding out both hands as though trying to turn away a compliment. "Or the Danes did, anyway." They were in a simple circular room made of dingy white brick. Holland leaned slightly back against a pale wooden table covered in steel and iron instruments, and Kell's mind refused to let him look at the things on that table at all. It was warm, and Kell heard a fire crackling somewhere behind him.
Kell's body, hung by his wrists and with his feet just barely able to rest on the floor, resembled a thin, sweaty X. He could feel rough wood digging into his back, rubbing against the carving by his shoulder blade, making him hiss through his teeth at the ache. When he looked down, he saw dried blood, rivulets of it down his legs, his...
"Holland?" Kell asked, fighting his dry throat, his thick tongue. "Where are my clothes?"
"You won't need them for now," Holland answered with a shrug of one shoulder. Was that a smug smile? "I have been given my orders."
Kell's heart pounded in his throat. "Wh-what are your orders?"
"I am to teach you how to endure." Holland tilted his head, looking at Kell with an exacting, calculating expression. His green eye was hard to look away from, even as Kell's gaze falters before the black one, feeling it clash against his own. The power is there. The magic stirs in his blood as always, but he just... can't... use it. It rises, slams into the brand carved into his back, and falls away again, roiling with the need to be brought out, to be called.
"They were not specific." Holland smiled again, and Kell felt himself pushing back into the splintering wood against his back, as though he could sink into it and escape the expression on Holland's face. "When you want something of me, Kell, you will mind your manners. You will say 'please' and 'thank you', 'yes sir' and 'no sir'. Do you understand?"
Kell closed his eyes against the pull of the brand on his back. He is not being made to think or to feel or to want, no - this mark matches Holland's, different only in that Holland had been the one to carve it into him, was the one he was bound to obey. The magic carved into his skin will make him do.
"I asked you a question, Kell. You will answer every question I ask you truthfully."
"Yes, sir," his voice grinds out against his will, and he chokes back a sob. He is Antari. There are only two like him left in the worlds, and his will is being subjected to the other one. Kell clenched his eyes shut until the tears ran out, ran down his face, washing away sweat he barely felt. He will not cry. He is Antari, and Lila is still out there somewhere, and Rhy is alive, and that will be enough, for now.
It had to be enough. For now.
"Good," Holland replied. "Athos Dane watched me do the carving, at his command. Sadly, I can't give you any orders that contradict his. But when he commanded me to teach you how to endure, Kell, he left a certain element of... discretion. His sister, unfortunately, took advantage of it." Holland stepped forward, the emptiness fading from his face, replaced by a rage that was infinitely more terrifying. His hair, a faded charcoal, brushed against Kell's forehead as he leaned in. Kell's black eye tried to rebel, force itself away from the black of Holland's, but they were too close and there was nowhere else to look. Kell screwed his eyes shut again, breathing in harsh pants. "I cannot order you to hurt him, or her. I cannot help you escape them, or teach you how to do it yourself. I wouldn't even if I did know. I loathe you."
"What?" Kell, confused, looked back up, only to discover Holland had come even closer, quickly jerking his head to the side to look away.
"You are a spoiled child." Holland's voice was soft but it shook, just slightly, with very old anger. "I have watched you, princeling, live your life of luxury and mope about its constrictions. You know nothing of suffering. You know nothing of hardship. You know nothing of pain, or what it means to take what joys still exist in a life that seems devoid of them. You know none of these things."
Holland reached up, laying his palm over the mark on Kell's chest, his shared heartbeat with Rhy. "Neither does your brother." Kell felt more than heard Holland move closer, the sense of a lukewarm body next to his, neither hot nor cold. "But the two of you are about to learn."
Holland's teeth grazed the shell of his ear and Kell jerked his head back, smacking it hard into the wood of the X behind him, groaning as black stars burst behind his eyes. "Stop! What are you- ugh!" Fingers twisted into his copper hair and held him still. He pulled at his wrists and arms as hard as he could, bringing only a new ache up his shoulders and back, even as Holland's grip only tightened and tightened. "L-leave me the fuck alone!"
"I can't. I wanted to, but I can't. Kell, there is nothing more in the world right now I would like to do than let you go free, to run back to your royal family and your cloistered little life. But I have been ordered to do this to you, and I must do as I am told. I wouldn't struggle, if I were you. I know that the mark on your chest means. If you struggle, I will hurt you, and Rhy will feel it." Holland's hand still lay over his connection to Rhy, and his skin felt like the air, just a pressure with no warmth outside of itself. Faded, like his hair and his skin and all of White London. Bled nearly dry of life. "Do you understand me?"
Kell tried to fight the compulsion, but the brand against his back burned and the words were finally forced out of him. "Y... yeh… yes, s-sir."
"Good. Would you like another drink of water, Kell?"
Kell swallowed against the pain in his throat, pain he realized must have come from screaming when Holland was carving into him, a pain he does not remember and isn't sure he would want to even if he could. Holland pulled back and away from him, finally away, and Kell let out a breath he hadn't realized he was holding. The cup of water was sitting on the table where Holland left it. His eyes strayed there, and then back to Holland. The older Antari was watching him closely, expressionless again. "Yes, sir," He said finally, softly. "Please. I would like water."
"Maybe you'll learn today's lesson faster than I thought." Holland's voice was thoughtful but he held the cup back up to Kell's lips. This is how you survive, of course; you take what mercy you are given but never forget that it comes at a price.
It was humiliating, being forced to drink from a cup held to his lips when he cannot move his hands, but Kell had a feeling there were larger humiliations still to come. He couldn't see the use in fighting every single potential bit of mercy right from the start.
"What do you say when I do something for you?" Holland asked, his voice deceptively gentle, tilting his head again.
"Thank you, sir," Kell muttered, and let his gaze drop to the ground.
"Good boy." Kell felt his face burn with the humiliation of the words, but he didn't look up. Instead, he watched Holland's black boots as the other man stepped closer, one step at a time, thinking about his own, narrowly built boots, made for a Red London with mild seasons, where Holland's had been built to withstand the heavy chill that had taken over his world. "Athos is not the only one who gave orders, of course. He told me to teach you to endure." Holland's hand brushed over Kell's face, grabbed his hair to hold him still. Holland leaned in again, the strange lukewarm sense of him against Kell's closed eyes, burnt like a bright red brand behind his black eye, feeling even now the way their Antari powers tried to fight each other, to clash.
"Holland, don't touch me-"
"Tomorrow's lesson will be for you to learn that telling me to stop touching you is a mistake you will not repeat. Athos wants you to learn to endure. Astrid wants you to learn to enjoy it."
Those teeth grazed along the shell of his ear again and Kell could not move, only grunted softly in the back of his throat. A bite at his earlobe, a flicker of tongue below his jaw where his pulse beat in his neck, trailing downwards, leaving a trail of wet that made Kell shiver when it met the warm air. Holland closed his mouth slowly around the spot where Kell's shoulder and neck met, first biting hard enough to draw blood. Kell gasped at the spike of pain, his body jerked forward as if to try and pull himself free. Holland began to suck at the skin and Kell swallowed against a strange mix of pain from those teeth and the more unsettling way his tongue against the bloody bite mark sent a thrill down from his neck straight between his legs. "Stop-" He whispered, but the sound of his voice had changed, and, terrified, Kell realized that Holland's tongue felt so good. "Stop-"
"No," Holland whispered against his skin, tonguing at the wound. "You will share pain with your brother, like this. Astrid Dane would like me to show to you - and him - what else you share." He lowered his head back to his neck again and Kell's head fell back against the wood, eyes staring sightlessly up at the white light somewhere in the ceiling, feeling his hips beginning to shift on their own as his cock began to harden.
"You really need to find a partner," Holland said with a hint of faded humor in his voice, looking down, before going back to his work. "This should not be this easy. I really thought I'd have to do a lot more than that-"
"Go to hell! No- no, I-... hnnnngh, stop-"
Within himself, he felt Rhy's heartbeat. Wherever he was, he must be awake by now, must feel everything Kell does, if faded, from a distance. I'm sorry, Kell thought wildly, as Holland's mouth trailed up the side of his neck, over that spot in his jaw, up to his earlobe to bite again. I'm so sorry, Rhy.
"If it helps," Holland said, devoid of emotion, as his fingertips trailed down the center of Kell's chest, over his collarbone and slowly down his stomach, a hand moving to grab him by one hip as he sagged in the restraints, "I don't particularly want to do this either. If it were up to me, I'd rather inflict pain. At least if I'm given the choice between those two. But orders are orders." He shrugged again, that one-shouldered shrug, even as Kell fought a losing battle to regain control over his body's responses to the other Antari's touch.
"They say Antari are like different aspects of the same dark sky," Holland said thoughtfully. "That we are endlessly drawn together, by magic trying to find its way back to its home, to combine. I will be your home, now, Kell."
"Never," Kell tried to spit in Holland's face, but his mouth was still too dry. "I'll die first."
"Then Rhy will die, too," Holland replied reasonably. "Is that what you want?"
"N-no. No, sir."
"Lesson one seems to have taken hold well enough. Astrid did command that you be rewarded when you learn your lessons. I... Kell, I fucking hate her commands. Athos at least deals in pain. Astrid... Astrid is so much worse." Holland's hand found its way to the growing hardness between Kell's legs and as his fingers closed around it, Kell caught his breath at the strangeness of it, cold fingers, pale and thin. It wasn't that no one else had ever touched him before, but this... "Worse because you can guard yourself against pain. You can learn to close it off. But to mix it with this, well... she knows where we are weak. And you are very young and don't know yet how to make this empty. I think her instincts were probably correct. You are Antari, you can withstand pain. But you will be weak to this."
Holland pressed his mouth to his and Kell's eyes were wide, feeling the clash of their Antari powers, the repulsion between them, as Holland's hand began to move and his mouth pressed harder, trying to open Kell's, seeking entrance.
"Mmmmph! Mmmmf!" Kell couldn't move his hands, couldn't pull them down to fight back. The chains rattled as he tried desperately to free himself, but nothing happened and his blood did not answer his call. Holland's hand tightened almost to the point of pain and he pulled back. "Open your mouth," He said softly, and Kell groaned as his body did as it was told without his input. Holland kissed him again, if you could call it that, pushing his tongue into Kell's mouth, his hand moving expertly, Kell's muffled protests turning into grunts and then finally, weakly, moans, hips moving, tears running out of his eyes and down his face freely.
Holland pulled back, chuckling in an empty voice. "How does your brother's heart sound?"
Rhy's heart was racing, the second pulse beside his own going even faster than his. Somewhere, Kell thinks, his brother is as trapped as he is, feeling everything he feels. Will he know what it is? Why it is? That Kell has been captured here in the Danes' palace? Or will he just think...
No. Rhy knows him better than that.
"Fast," He says, softly. "His heart sounds fast."
"How do you feel?"
Holland laughed. Holland's hand kept moving, stroking a thumb over the head slowly before taking hold of him again, and Kell's resistance to it broke down faster than he'd ever admit. The pleasure of it, of Holland's hand moving up and down him, built, the strangeness of Holland's cool fingers a counterpoint to his own sweating heat. When Kell came, against his will, every muscle tightened and his head thrown back, groaning nonsense words to nothing and no one in particular, Holland did not let go or pull away but only stepped closer, seeing Kell through to the finish of it.
When it was over, Holland looked down at the mess on his hand and the floor and smiled, just slightly, at something funny Kell couldn't even begin to fathom. "Did you enjoy that, Kell? Remember that you must answer honestly."
Kell collapsed as the shame took over him, slumping, letting his aching shoulders and arms take his weight once again. "Yes, sir," He whispered, his voice shaking, feeling tears prick his eyes again. "I did." He can feel Rhy's fear, too, somewhere deep within him, his worry. His heart is still pounding alongside Kell's own.
I hope he was still in bed. Please, to anything that might hear me, please let him have still been sleeping.
"Good. That was a reward for learning your lesson. Athos wants you to hurt and endure, just as I do. To suffer the indignity of not even belonging to the monarchy now, to be a slave's slave instead. Astrid wants you to be ashamed of enjoying it." Holland stepped back over to the table, washed off his hand in a bowl of water, and returned with a thin strap of black leather with a buckle on one end, a small ring of metal hanging from it. Kell doesn't understand what he's looking at until Holland slides the leather around his neck and fastens it. Kell's heart goes cold. He could hide this with a high-necked shirt but it's just slightly too tight, and he can feel it every time he swallows.
"Never take it off," Holland said softly. "Never again."
"She told you to put that on me?" He asked, barely breathing the words.
"Yes. And to put this on myself." Holland fastened identical black leather around his own wrist, a length of it that twined around his arm twelve or thirteen times, like a woven bracelet. "She badly wants me to have to lead you around by this. Do me a favor, Kell - don't make me do that in front of her. That would just be embarrassing for both of us. Let Astrid enjoy the symbolism. I belong to the Danes, Kell." Holland's eyes met his. "And you belong to me."
Kell stared slowly down at the ground, trying to figure out where it went so wrong.
"Do you understand what I just said, Kell?"
"Repeat it back to me."
"You belong to the Danes," Kell said numbly. He still felt languid, his skin a shivery mess, weak and spent. The black leather against his neck was just a little too tight, he can't stop feeling it, thinking about what it represents. He can't stop thinking about the leather wrapped around Holland's wrist the idea of Astrid watching him be led by it. He closed his eyes.
"And I belong to you."
"Good. Eventually they're going to discover they made a mistake, with that plan."
Kell looked up, seeing something new in Holland's eyes. Pity? Sympathy? Determination? At least, he thought, it's something other than hate or the usual vague, ill-defined contempt. "Holland, I-"
"Until then," Holland cut him off, "consider yourself a pet Antari. No different than you were before, really. But I am not as kind as the Maresh family is to those things that belong to me. Nothing's really changed about your position, Kell. You were the Maresh family's property before. Now you are mine. I apologize for your future, but try to take comfort in the fact that I now have explicit commands to teach you more Antari magic. Once they believe you'll do their bidding as well as I do, I imagine you'll even go back to running messages between the Londons with me. On a leash, of course, so to speak. Or maybe literally."
Holland went back to the table full of objects again, and Kell closed his eyes, breathing hard, trying to decide what to do next, if he could do anything at all. Lila was still... somewhere out there, being Lila. She might rescue him. She might not know how to begin. And Kell wasn't sure he could bear it if the Danes forced him to attack her.
Or if Holland did.
"Drink this," Holland commanded, holding up a small brown glass bottle, faded to something closer to beige, against his lips. Kell drinks, wincing at the metallic taste and strange, thick texture. He can feel the world starting to crumble at the edges, falling apart like glass, within a second of his first swallow.
"Sleep," Holland said, sounding gentle and soothing again. "I am your new home. I'll go get the guards."
The blackness, a soft and gentle, irresistible thing, crashed into Kell's mind as the drug took hold. He blinked, slowly, at Holland's back as he exited through a door Kell hadn't even realized was there. His blinks become slower. It was harder to open his eyes again each time he tried.
Rhy's heart pulsed in time with his as the black fog finally closed over his head and Kell slept.