The truth is rarely pure, and never simple.
- Oscar Wilde
The dragon screams across the skies above Telea.
Beneath the shadow of its wings, the city goes about its daily business. Most people are hurrying on their way home from work, or to trade, or on to other more inviting places. Only the children stop, looking upwards, shouting excitedly at the thundering of wingbeats; the bright stream of fire.
The fighter the dragon had been aiming for curves, the arc of its flight graceful as it rolls away. It retaliates in a hail of gunfire, sending the dragon into a dive.
'Really,' Lysander Kyrios says, 'that's not fair. I thought we weren't using live rounds?'
“You need to be prepared for anything,” comes the familiar voice of his master. “I've told you before: your enemies will not wait for you to be ready.”
'Yes master; sorry master.'
“Sarcasm is the last refuge of a poor wit, Lysander.”
'That explains why you use it so often.'
A sigh, then. “Why do I even – ”
The fighter plummets suddenly, knocked off course by the heavy downdraft of the dragon's wings. There is a brief moment where Lysander watches, as his master struggle to regain control. The soft inhalation of breath on the other end of the commlink is as satisfying as a cry of surrender.
“Good,” his master says then, and the praise is as sweet as sarrin wine. “You are getting much better at this.” There is the slightest bit of strain in his voice, as he steers the fighter sharply up.
'Using the sun to blind me is a cheap trick,' Lysander says, dropping back and trying to track him.
“You must use everything to your advantage in battle.”
'But where's the honour in that? The glory?' He's looking around, the world spread below him, and his master is hidden in plain sight. There is movement – the slightest flicker of a shadow – and Lysander throws himself sideways, in time to avoid the hail of bullets Aubrey sends in his direction.
“Concentrate!” his master scolds. “Do you want to join the agaion or not?”
'You know I do.'
“Then pay attention.”
Lysander rolls, teeth snapping inches from one of Aubrey's engines as he streaks past. He is enjoying this. There is a deep, animalistic pleasure in irritating his teacher. He can hear it in the way Aubrey huffs, dropping sharply off to one side again too quickly for him to follow.
That's the problem with going up against the T-34, Lysander muses, banking as hard as he can to avoid another strafing run from Aubrey. Much quicker than me.
“And if you're making excuses for a poor performance by blaming it on my fighter, then we will be having words,” Aubrey says, as though he can read his mind.
He probably can. He can do everything else. The thought brings its usual sting of annoyance, soothed somewhat by the genuine fondness he has for Aubrey. 'Yes master,' he repeats again. 'Sorry master.'
Aubrey's fighter curves low, streaking back under Lysander and away. Lysander's claws scrape briefly across the cockpit – close enough he can see Aubrey's upturned face, grinning at him – but he misses.
He always does.
“Sarcasm,” comes the reprimand again. “If you paid more attention to what you were meant to be doing, and less time trying to rile me, this would have been over long before now.”
'We've been at this for hours,' Lysander complains, not even bothering to pursue Aubrey. He hovers in the air, wings beating as he follows the bright speck of his teacher's ship, glittering in the late afternoon sun. 'Can we stop yet?'
“When you are in battle there is no – ”
'I know, I know. 'There is no respite'. But I'm not in battle. Not yet. And we've only got another hour or so before we lose the light.'
“I am trying to help you – ”
It is the pleading that convinces Aubrey. It always does, and Lysander had been counting on it. There is a long moment of silence across the commlink, and then his master's ship changes direction. “Alright,” comes the agreement, “meet me at Marsah.”
If Lysander could grin right now, he would.
Instead, he throws himself down into a deep, spiralling dive, ignoring the flash of silver that indicates his master has peeled off, heading south. The air roars past him; the ground rushing up to meet him. Below, in the city, he can see the pale upturned faces of those still not jaded enough to ignore his flight.
At the last moment of his freefall, he snaps his wings open. He feels the strain and stretch of resistance as his descent slows, and he barrels between the two council towers. Sunlight reflects off the fantastic glass creations, as he chances a brief glance sideways. He can't see anyone inside; only the vague, distorted image of his own reflection, dark and imposing against the red backdrop of the sunset.
Praia may be in there, he realises, banking around the towers again. He could land on the roof – they've had worse than him on there – maybe go inside, see her. He has missed her these last few days: missed the dark intelligence of her eyes; the smile she gives when she sees him. She is his Grace, he is sure of it. If only he could tell her.
He almost does it. Almost lands and follows through on his instincts.
But Aubrey is waiting for him, and he will not take kindly to Lysander delaying. Not when he has other, more important, places to be, and instead chooses to waste his afternoon on his wayward student.
Later, Lysander promises himself.
With one last quick look back at where Praia is no doubt working hard, he banks again, and sets himself towards Marsah.
As he sails over the shoreline, Lysander spots the sharp silver of Aubrey's ship.
His master has already landed, and is apparently making good use of the extra couple of minutes, thanks to Lysander's diversion. He is divesting himself of his helmet and flying gear.
The beat of Lysander's wings obviously alerts Aubrey to his approach. He cranes his head up, a tiny speck of gold amongst the sands as he tracks Lysander's flightpath. As Lysander watches, he waves once, then jumps from the wing of his fighter to land crouched on the ground.
Because he can – and because there is a small part of him that will always enjoy showing off – Lysander rolls, dipping upside down until all he can see is the deep blue of the sea beneath him. He concentrates, dropping his altitude until he is almost skimming the small waves foaming along the shoreline, and at the last second he shifts.
The stretch and blur is something he never quite gets used to, and he miscalculates his speed slightly. With a yelp, he finds himself dropping the last ten feet, tumbling head over heels straight into the forgiving embrace of the water.
He flails for a moment, limbs uncoordinated after so long in his other form. The water blurs his sight, suffocating him briefly as he struggles not to breathe in.
Down is up and up is down, until suddenly there – the glitter of sunlight above him.
He kicks up and breaks the surface, grinning and half-blind. He blinks water from his eyes, paddling in a small circle for a moment until he sees Aubrey standing, arms folded, at the edge of the sea.
“Was that entirely necessary?” his teacher asks dryly, as Lysander swims lazily towards him.
“No master, but it was fun.”
“Fun,” Aubrey repeats flatly. He rolls his eyes as Lysander makes it to the shore, crawling ungracefully up out of the sea, until the waves are simply frilling around his ankles, not trying to pull him back under.
Lysander flops onto his back and smirks up at him. His hair, already growing too long, is falling in his eyes. He rakes a hand through it and stays where he is, even when Aubrey nudges him with one foot.
Aubrey sighs. “Why is it that, whenever you call me that, it sounds like an insult?”
Lysander shrugs. “It's not meant to be.”
“Really,” Aubrey says dryly. “You do astonish me.”
Lysander can't help himself, his smile widens at the expression on his master's face. “Just because you choose to take it that way...”
Aubrey heaves an exaggerated sigh and, when Lysander refuses to respond to a further nudge of his boot, he gives up and sits down next to him. “Do you know,” he says, “I think I have made a huge mistake in believing you could be my Commander?”
The words take a moment to sink in.
“What?” Lysander yelps. He rolls over onto his side, ignoring the way sand sticks to his wet skin, and flails into an upright position. “You want me to – ”
“In five years or so, yes,” Aubrey says. He shoots a sideways glance at him. The corners of his mouth twitch, as though he is suppressing his amusement.
“But you've never – I mean that's not even – ”
“Lysander,” Aubrey says patiently, “surely you must have realised this? Why do you think I've been training you the last three years?”
Lysander is aware his mouth is hanging open. His heart is racing as he watches Aubrey, taking in every incremental shift in his master's expression. “I just assumed it was because of what I can do.”
“You, and about twenty five percent of the rest of the population,” Aubrey says dryly. “I hate to break your heart, but you are not so special in that respect.”
“I know you can shift,” Lysander says dismissively. “I don't think there's anything you can't do – ”
“Oh, flattery now, is it?”
“Honesty, master. But – ” He blinks, raking a hand through his hair again, snagging on sea-tangled curls as he stares at Aubrey. “Commander,” he repeats again, helplessly. He finds he is grinning so hard, his face is starting to ache.
“You've got a while yet.” Aubrey tries to sound stern and fails. “You're eighteen, much too young to – ”
Lysander groans theatrically. “Don't start that again,” he begs. “You say that like you're old. You are twenty eight, Archaeus. By my age you'd been commanding legions for six months.”
“And you have plenty of time left to do the same,” Aubrey says. “You just need to learn patience. Something I am desperately trying to teach you.” He reaches out to ruffle Lysander's hair.
Lysander snags Aubrey's hand before it can make contact and cradles it, carefully. His master's fingers are strong and clever; the callouses on them evident after years of weapons practice. He studies the back of Aubrey's hand for a moment, cataloguing the small scar on his thumb; the faint dusting of freckles in a starburst across the surprisingly delicate skin of his wrist.
“When you are crowned,” he says at last, hoarse and finding himself unexpectedly sincere, “I will serve you devotedly, Archaeus. Archaeus Timaea already has his own Commander. I know Strattia is better than me now; cleverer.”
“That's hardly – ”
“She is.” Absently, Lysander presses a thumb into the steady beat of Aubrey's pulse. “But it won't matter. I will be the best. I won't let you regret your choice. Not ever.” He looks up. Aubrey is watching him, one eyebrow raised. “I swear it.”
“Lysander – ” Aubrey begins.
Lysander ignores him and bends his head, pressing his lips to the back of Aubrey's hand. It is meant to be a sign of his oath, his vow of fealty, and nothing more.
Later, he will look back on this moment and know: this was when it happened.
Aubrey's hand is warm beneath his lips; his pulse still steady. But this close there is –
There is something rich and sweet; a deep, heady incense that Lysander has not scented before. For a moment he wonders if it is a perfume, or a soap. But Aubrey doesn't wear such things – he never has, practical as he is. It is there, lingering in the dips of his knuckles; the tender vulnerability of his pulse point. It makes something primal stir in Lysander's chest; a strange, painful longing that he has never associated with his master until now.
For one brief second of eternity, he wants to trace the pads of Aubrey's fingers with his tongue. He would like nothing more than to chase that delicious scent across Aubrey's skin, with lips and teeth; to suck a mark, dark and claiming, into the pale underside of Aubrey's wrist. He thinks, in that instant, of biting.
“Lysander,” Aubrey says again, exasperated.
His voice is like a thunderclap.
Lysander flinches back, dropping Aubrey's hand. His heart is racing. He finds that, bizarrely, he can't quite catch his breath. He stares wide-eyed at Aubrey and licks his lips, unconsciously chasing any taste of that delicious scent he can find.
There is none.
“I – ” Lysander says. He drops his gaze, unable to meet the sea-green calm of Aubrey's eyes. In that moment, he burns with shame.
What was he thinking? What was that? He has never had that kind of reaction; not with Praia, not with anyone.
His Grace does not deserve this. The woman he adores should be always at the front of his mind; a guiding light in the darkness of his own emotions. She is his balance, his calm, and in that heartbeat of sheer madness he had not even thought of her. He had not even stopped to consider what his love would say, if he had done what he wanted to in his spark of insanity, and pulled Aubrey closer; drawn one of those gorgeous fingers into his mouth and sucked.
The sound Aubrey might have made if he had, though. The soft inhalation of his breath if he had let him –
“We should be getting back,” Lysander says. He scrambles away from Aubrey, ignoring the puzzled concern he can see on his teacher's face. “It's late. The sun's nearly gone.”
“If you're sure,” Aubrey says, his bemusement evident. He stands as Lysander staggers to his own feet, and brushes sand from the creases of his tunic.
Fastidious, Lysander thinks. Then, Elegant. He grits his teeth. “I'll fly back,” he says, already turning away. “I need to stretch my wings.”
“You were complaining half an hour ago that you wanted a break,” Aubrey says. “What changed?”
“Nothing. I just – ” He trails off, shrugging. He still can't quite look at Aubrey. His fingers are itching. He wants to smooth them along the strong, sturdy lines of Aubrey's shoulders; to tilt his master's chin up and press a thumb into the softness of his lower lip.
What the hell is wrong with me? he thinks, panicked.
“I'll see you back at the palace,” he says, around the lump in his throat.
He knows he should wait for a response, for a dismissal. Aubrey is set to be crowned in less than a month, and Lysander shouldn't be leaving him alone. He should, at least, wait until his master is back in his fighter.
Instead he takes off, running down the beach as fast as he can, until the sand blurs into sky, and he can't hear his own thoughts over the thunder of his wings.
He realised what had happened on the beach that day, and he will never forgive himself for it.
He had miscalculated. He had thought he had another week, maybe two. That Lysander would never think of him like that; would never so much as bat an eyelash over his old, uninteresting teacher. He had taken his suppressants and assumed that all would be well.
It hadn't been.
And in the end, what had that mistake cost? Countless lives. Fire. Blood. The unending guilt of knowing he should have walked away a long time ago, when he realised what was happening.
Which all leads to this:
Some seven years after that fateful day, he takes his first real breath in a long time. The bar he is in is a run-down hovel, because he cannot afford to be seen here, and certainly not meeting with his contact.
On the screen above one of the tables, playing on a loop, is the news he has always feared. He can't watch it. He already knows what it means.
The woman he is meeting has hair as red as the Telean sunset. She is human, not Drakkia, and possesses a kind of solid, obnoxious honesty that Aubrey has always found the most reassuring thing about her. She is dangerous, angry and occasionally clever, and cannot be bought for any price.
“What do you want?” she asks, as he sits down opposite her. She is nursing a Ssing cocktail, and doesn't bother making eye contact. He spots the pistol at her hip and relaxes slightly. She has her own weapons then, and that in itself is one less thing he has to consider.
“High Commander Kyrios, of the Drakkian Hegemony, has today been sentenced to death,” the news reader is saying, her grin fixed. “Archaeus Timaea – ”
He can bear it no more. He leans across the table and grips her wrist. He is desperate, and she knows it.
Aubrey Draxios is dead. Everyone knows this. But right now he is sitting in a filthy bar on a backwater planet, because his student, his friend, his best-beloved traitor and murderer, is to be executed in three days' time.
He looks at his contact and she looks back.
He closes his eyes, knowing that he is going to regret this before he even does it.
“Save him," he begs.