The Exquisite Line
The dreams have gotten so much worse since Novatlantis.
The first night Damien actually manages to sleep without some cry from above-decks of lava and ash, he finds himself dreaming naked in silk, slender fingers playing over his skin, and when he jars half-awake as the ship rolls on night waves, he thinks, he's not here. He's not feeding. God only knows why, but...
He prays for a moment, rolls over, exhausted, so fast back asleep that it feels like he is falling.
The woman's hands are quite cool, and in the close pounding heat that's been below-decks for weeks, it's a blessed relief, like a breeze from the north, like dawn. He cannot see very well; the dream is almost pure sensation, blurs and overlapping momentary glimpses of skin, pale, the curve of the inside of an arm. His hand is on her shoulder, the collarbone pronounced under his thumb.
Lips close over his. The hands run through his hair, draw his head back, commanding, as Ciani sometimes would. Heat rushes south, stiffening, and he makes a little growling purr in the back of his throat and slides his hand from her shoulder down her chest--
--nothing. No softness. A man.
He spins. It's a dream; reality blurs, softens, reasserts. He's had the thought once or twice, dismissed it. He is dreaming he is lying with a man. Fine. If Tarrant thinks this will terrify him, let him go hungry.
He ducks out of the kiss, and realizes only when he runs his tongue over his lips that the man's mouth had tasted of ashes and blood.
He knows it before he looks up, in some distant rational corner of his mind--of course, you idiot, it's obvious. But the dream hasn't ended. He has to look. The very perverted logic of it drags his head up, drags his eyes open, and silver eyes answer his, and the smile of a satisfied tiger tugs at the corners of Tarrant's cold lips.
The dead hand on his thigh is welcome cool.
He wakes with a strangled scream.
He cannot taste anything in his mouth, but he rinses with souring wine anyway, obsessively, until even the twisting chaos of his subconscious could not pretend it was there--ashes and blood. Was that what they'd tasted, all those women?
Bone-chilling revulsion, he thinks, with an abstract and bitter distance, has become an everyday thing. He barely notices the trembles in his hands, at least not when he's alone, nobody to impress. He slowly climbs to the deck, shudders under red moonlight, draws up seawater, rinses again, spits.
Again, he has to look.
Tarrant is perched with unnatural balance on the thick bottom end of the bowsprit, one leg dangling to the sea, one drawn up to his chest, an oddly relaxed look to him. Healing lava and sun burns spatter one side of his face still. He has his head back, eyes closed, the wind playing through his hair. At least, small mercies, he's clothed.
Damien grits his teeth against a tide of rage like he's never felt, more curses than he knows in any language. How dare he. How dare he!
And what did you expect? his mind taunts him in the Patriarch's voice. You're nothing more than prey to him, you know that. Prey to be hunted down, violated, tortured, killed.
Not even, of course, what he's afraid of.
He stares at the Hunter's back, and if his rage could have called the fae uncontrolled, he has no doubt he could set him afire with a glance.
Tarrant must know he's here, but he says nothing, and Damien knows, to the bottom of his soul, that no matter how angry he is, he can't say anything either. Simply...can't. Too many lines have been crossed for words.
He goes back below-decks, and slams the hatch, and does not sleep.
When he next sleeps at night--because he's exhausted, and Tarrant too, and for the sake of their mission he must--they are lying together, nothing more, as if in sick mockery of lovers entwined after sport. The dark coiling eaves are those of the forest citadel. The long, dark mass of a woman's hair is twined round a bedpost, and there is no head attached to it, and he does not look long.
The shadows move. He turns his head back to the impeccably smooth lines of Tarrant's chest. Perfectly preserved. He looks up; there is a hint of a dimple to the side of his chin, and his eyelashes are silvery at the tips. The feathery down along his hairline is catching the light of coldfire in the distance. He looks...almost human.
"All your life," Tarrant murmurs, and his breath is almost warm against Damien's cheek, "fighting evil. What if you lose? What then?" He brushes shivery-cold knuckles down the side of Damien's face, and Damien wants to answer, wants to rage, wants to curse, but somehow cannot speak. "A man does not throw himself headlong into battle, again and again, if there is not some part of him that longs to fall."
No, Damien protests, silently, and the thin pale tips of the Hunter's fingers touch his lips, and he realizes suddenly that he is gagged, some bit of cloth wadded and shoved deep in his mouth, and his roar comes out a whimper.
Tarrant shoves his shoulder, and he rolls on his back, spread out naked beneath his enemy as he rises, straddles him. He's still half-clothed, exquisitely tailored blue-gray wool clinging to his long legs, and his hair fans out over his bare shoulders, and he mantles over Damien like a hawk over a rabbit, and smiles.
For a moment, against all his will, Damien feels it. A warm shiver down his spine. The other side to the cruel promise in the humorless twist to Tarrant's mouth. Unwanted fear and unasked-for lust twisting together like two tendrils of fae, sparking into something new and nameless, coiling through his gut hot and cold at once, and he feels his eyes widen as he meets Tarrant's, cold silver gaze boring into his torn soul.
"There," the Hunter whispers, a bestial purr. "The ecstasy of prey."
The cold palm is against his cheek as he bites down hard and helpless against the gag and a humiliating moan.
He is bound, with the sudden, shifting transition of a dream. His arms are spread, his belly unprotected. There is a whip coiled like a serpent against his leg; perhaps, he thinks with vague hysteria, it is. Tarrant's other hand runs over one of his scars, from a saw-edged butcher knife, just below his left nipple.
"Haven't you wanted this all your life?" Tarrant asks softly, and draws the gag from his mouth, shaking out damp fabric with his hand, and upon it is his own face, as if a mirror of that very moment, eyes alight with unspeakable lust.
In the swaying dark of the cabin afterwards, he huddles. A man does not throw himself headlong into battle, again and again, if there is not some part of him that longs to fall.
Should I not ask the same of you, Hunter?
He has the peculiar sensation, that he has had so many times on his travels with that accursed beast, of his soul being held in the upper half of a sandglass in the back of his mind, and of watching the grains of it slide away into darkness, one by one, irretrievable, a clock running down to damnation.
You want this. A grain. You want this. Another. His own self, his light, his immortal soul, dying, bit by bit, by inches.
Gerald Tarrant stands in the forecastle, tracks the stars, smiles.
Two nights pass, three, each leaving him waking, shaken, hagridden by dreams of Tarrant over him, the cool hard touch of his skin, the bite of pain from some whip or rope through his flesh that he welcomes, loves, and there is the nightmare incarnate. Tarrant dripping coldfire like ice over the helpless shaking lines of his body. Tarrant binding him and setting a knife to his throat, on the edge of life and death, on the edge of pain and pleasure, and steel bites his skin just a little, and blood seeps out warm, and Tarrant laps it up as his hand closes freezing tight round the burning heat between his legs. Such an excellent line, Tarrant says, beautiful excruciation, between heaven and hell, life and death, you and I, and Damien looses himself against his will, forced pleasure, in his hand, and his hot seed blisters skin all down the dead arm.
It's only when it gets worse that he takes a handful of Gerald Tarrant's perfectly tailored shirt, slams him up against the nearest wall--not hard to find on a ship--flattens a blessed blade burning to his throat, and spits out the only words he can manage, because any more will unleash a tide of rage too terrible to comprehend.
"Go back to monsters, you bastard."
Their faces are nearly close enough to kiss. His eyelashes really are silvery. Damien grits his teeth against bile, shoves the edge closer to home.
Tarrant shows no fear. His eyes are half-lidded. He smiles, and murmurs, perfectly and mockingly submissive, "As you wish."
Damien's rage is so profound that he's deafened. Blood roars like a mast-snapping wind. He tosses the knife aside, punches Tarrant once across the jaw, hard enough to break a mortal's neck, and the smooth pale skin he knows so well from dream reddens a little, like sunburn, where the shape of his knuckles is left on that fey, handsome face.
The night it got worse was the night he dreamt they were in the caves under the rakhlands, Tarrant's thin, inhumanly pale body looking peculiarly vulnerable amongst all the hard, jagged stone.
Damien is fully dressed, outfitted for battle. He reaches for his sword almost without hesitation.
Tarrant isn't doing anything. Not hurting, not mocking, not seducing. Just...standing there.
Honor stays his hand.
It's the first time he's seen him naked in the altogether, at least clearly. There's a wiry strength in him, an elegantly honed power which, in a woman, he would have found devastatingly arousing. Fine brown hairs dust his calves and a line down his belly. It occurs to him to check--
The Prophet had, quite famously, ritually circumcised himself, as an adult, without anesthesia. The people of Earth had long since discarded the custom as barbaric, a mutilation made unnecessary by good hygiene and the fading of old religions. But the Prophet took it up again. A sign of dedication. A sacrifice. The fae had gathered roaring around him as he'd done it, for of course it too was a Working. The legends say the power caused his hand to shake, some extra blood, a tiny scar.
Damien remembered performing the ritual himself, at his initiation, sick anticipation churning his gut as the fae roared up and he took hold of himself and bit his lip hard and slid the fine sharp blade through skin. He'd had a brother of his order to guide his hand, though. No slip of the blade.
His eyes fall to the scar, barely visible on the now deathly pale skin. The Prophet's scar. Then back up to Tarrant's eyes, sharp and gray as steel, familiar.
There are no words. Not anymore. He steps forth, boots and leather creaking. Tarrant's feet are bare on the stone. He takes hold of the fine pale brown hair, kisses him, and this time he tastes almost human.
The caverns shake. Dust falls. With a thunderous crack, the ceiling gives way ten feet behind Tarrant, and rocks pound down, and sunlight cuts blinding bright through the pale gloom of the tunnel.
As his eyes adjust to the light, everything else becomes a shadow. He plants a bracered hand against Tarrant's bare chest, shoves. There's a lightness in the back of his head, a pounding in his temples. Tarrant stumbles back, leaving bloody footprints where the stone tears his soles, and the blood is thin and bluish, and he's so weak Damien can catch his arms, hold him helpless, catch lower, run his thumb cruelly rough over the scar. They near the light; Tarrant's back reddens, smolders, and he hisses in pain. Damien shoves him a few inches closer, on the edge of life and death, day and night, and his flesh is almost to the point of flame, a roasting smell beginning to rise, and Tarrant stumbles and falls to his knees, hard, and lets out a hoarse cry, and fear shatters those sculpted features into something like beauty.
And then looks slowly up to Damien, shaking with pain, and the silver eyes open, and Damien recognizes the look, knows it intimately, because he's seen it on his own face. Spread out before him on a wet and wrinkled cloth. The ecstasy of prey.
He holds the Hunter in his hands, at the edge of death, as prey.
Fierce, terrible joy rises and falls within him like the wind, a triumph so profound he feels as if he could fly, rise up off the ground, do anything, because he has Hunted the Hunter; and in its wake, a horror like he has never known roars up into him like a tsunami. Because he has Hunted.
"Now," Tarrant whispers. "Now you know."
It is the only time he's awoken in tears.