Eclipse

Part II

© 2000 by E. Liddell


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I came to in the infirmary again. It must have been the middle of the Negaverse's arbitrary night, because I was alone, and the room, or what I could see of it, anyway, was lit only by the pulsing radiance that came from the green veins in the walls. I must have memorized the patterns on the ceiling before I fell asleep again.

The second time I woke, it was with someone shaking me. I groaned and tried to roll over, but I hurt too much to complete the movement.

"Damn you, wake up! They're almost here."

"They?" I echoed. The youma orderly leaning over me was a stranger, and I was still half-befuddled with sleep and pain, or I might have twigged to what was going on a bit more quickly.

"Damn it, you idiot, he's in no condition to answer your questions!" Alexandrite sounded distinctly annoyed.

"I thought you said his internal injuries had been repaired, m'Lord," replied the familiar, gravely voice of Sergeant Ban.

The youma who had been leaning over me winced and scuttled away.

"Barely, and he's so badly bruised, inside and out, that he's suffering from a serious level of blood loss. No, Sergeant. Your inquiry is going to have to wait until he's at least partly healed."

"With all due respect, m'Lord, I take my orders from General Jasper, not you."

"And I'm countermanding them! Or have you forgotten that I'm senior to Jasper?"

And so he is, I thought dazedly. Wonder why? I know Jasper's older. Alexandrite is... what, his younger sister's son? I couldn't remember, exactly. We'd done the family relationships of the Generals in the same class that had covered the order of seniority, but it had been a pretty rudimentary appendix to the rest of the material.

"Sir --"

"Out! I won't warn you again."

Silence. Then the sound of bootheels scuffing against stone, and the curtain that surrounded my bed parted.

"Sorry about that," Alexandrite said. "False alarm. Go back to sleep, David."

"Don't know if I can," I mumbled. My mouth really hurt. I ran my tongue over swollen lips.

"You need your rest," Alexandrite said firmly. "I'm going to have to let Ban at you tomorrow or the next day. What a mess!"

"Uh?" Okay, it wasn't the most brilliant thing I could have said, but I wasn't up to brilliant just then.

"They messed you up so badly that they're going to have to be charged with attempted murder -- the ones that actually hit you, that is, and the one that was holding you down. Normally, we just turn a blind eye to what goes on between you youma, but we're about due to make an example of someone, and Jasper seems to think that it might as well be your friends."

"Well, good."

Alex shook his head. "Not really. You see, I'll bet that the moment you get out of here, someone's going to try to make an example of you, if you take my meaning, and I might not be there to break it up next time."

Oh, I understood exactly what he meant. Damn it all.

"Story of my life," I said. "Was bound to happen sooner or later." And again I felt the same way I had during the beating: calm, relaxed, knowing that the pain would soon be over.

The young General perched himself on the edge of my bed, and reached out to smooth my hair back from my face. Even that gentle touch hurt, but I forced myself not to flinch. In fact, I reached out with aching hands to capture his wrist, not asking myself why. Not realizing that there were certain things about myself that I'd never dared acknowledge, that there were instincts that Alex, handsome, gentle, and protective, was prodding into action for the first time in my life.

"Why do you care?" I asked him, not entirely sure what I wanted to hear as an answer.

His hand curled into a fist.

"Because it makes me so angry, sometimes," he said wearily. "There's been so much violence... so many lies that have been told... so many deaths to bring us to this point... What good is any of it if we can't even save one innocent person?"

"I'm not innocent," I whispered.

Alex laughed, a bare breath of sound. "You only say that because you have no idea what it's like to be guilty. Go to sleep, David. We'll talk in the morning."

His fingertips brushed across my forehead, and the world dropped out from under me.

But it wasn't General Alexandrite that I found by my bedside the next morning. Instead, Sergeant Ban appeared, armed with dozens of questions for me to answer. I went over and over the events of the evening until I was hoarse and shaking with exhaustion. And even after that, it was a youma nurse who came to check on me. I didn't see Alexandrite again until that evening, when he brought me my supper. In person.

"Feeling a little better?" he asked cheerfully as he perched on the edge of my bed again.

"I guess so. The Bannish Inquisition this morning took a lot out of me, though." I was shoveling food into my mouth, but not tasting it. All my attention was on him.

"Damn. I told them not to let him in yet." And he muttered something else that ended in "youma".

I shrugged. It hurt -- quite a bit, truth be known -- but I would have been too sore and weak to do it at all, that morning. I was healing at a phenomenal rate.

"I think he had some sort of papers from General Jasper." Or at least, while he'd been talking to me he'd been playing with a piece of paper with a purple seal attached. A goddamned wax seal, something that you never would have seen in the real world. The Negaverse can be the strangest mixture of the modern and the archaic, sometimes. "They may not have had any choice but to let him see me."

"I may have expected too much of them," Alex admitted, toying with the end of his braid.

I cast about for something else to say. "So, how long am I going to be in here this time?"

"At least a week. You've got to understand that you're at a very vulnerable point in your transformation from human to youma. There could be problems with your healing processes. So far, everything looks fine, but..." He shrugged eloquently.

I put my spoon down on the tray resting in my lap and reached out to capture his gloved hand between mine, not able to articulate the reason that I wanted to touch him, but knowing that it felt right.

"I'll be fine," I said, not understanding why I needed to reassure him, either.

His mouth almost drew itself into a smile, but then his face froze and he pulled his hand gently out of my grasp.

"I'm sure you will be," he said, but those wonderful, expressive dark eyes were cool and empty now. What had I done wrong? "Look, I have to go. I'll be back to check on you in a couple of days, all right?"

It wasn't, but what could I say? "Of course. Sir."

I think he was going to pat my shoulder, but he stopped short of touching me, instead rising to his feet and disappearing through the curtain. I was left alone with my bowl of cooling soup and some hurt feelings and a bunch of questions without answers.

Why did he pull away like that? I didn't mean to embarrass him, or anything. All I wanted was for him to -- and I think my mind censored a word it couldn't quite accept yet -- to like me.

What did I do wrong?

It was three days before I could even get out of bed without the help of one of the orderlies, not because of real physical dysfunction, but because I hurt too much. Youma don't get painkillers unless the situation is really serious. It's another one of those stupid rules like all of us having to learn to fight, meant to toughen us and turn us into warriors.

Ha!

I didn't see General Alexandrite once in that time, but I did have another unexpected visitor, who came by while I was reading some reference material that Ban had given me in an attempt to help me keep up with the classes I should have been taking. Of course, given that more than half of the curriculum was made up of physical and magical training courses, there was a limit to how much help that sort of thing could be.

"Can I come in?"

I looked up to see a familiar head of dark, curly hair sticking through the curtains and peering around. Rashid. What was he doing here?

I shrugged. "It'd be too much effort to stop you." I might not have been entirely conscious when Alexandrite had broken up the... well, you couldn't really call it a fight -- it had been too one-sided for that -- anyway, I hadn't forgotten what he had said.

...you, too, Rashid! I don't care what you were or weren't doing, except that you weren't trying to stop it!

The dark-haired boy -- all right, not a boy, or at least, he looked like he was about sixteen, just like I was, and I didn't feel like a boy -- seemed to consider that an invitation, because he walked in and sat down on the edge of the bed.

"What do you want?" I asked, trying hard to forget the fact that, a few days earlier, General Alexandrite had sat in exactly the same place.

"Um, actu'lly, I... I kinda wanted to say I was sorry. For bein' such a dummy. I mean, they coulda killed you, that night, and all I could think was how I was glad that it wasn' me. For a change." He was carefully avoiding meeting my eyes.

I sighed. So he was apologizing for... what? Letting me be the Number One Bully Magnet in our little group of undergraduate youma?

"At least you didn't try to join in," I said tiredly. What is this leading up to? I didn't for a moment believe that he'd come here merely out of the goodness of his heart. He had to want something from me. Rashid had struck me as the sort of guy who was always out for the main chance.

Sure enough, he hesitated for only a moment before pulling something out of the front of his loose trainee's tunic. A youma reading primer, really just a pamphlet made from stiff grey pseudopaper.

"They say I'm gonna flunk out," he said, staring down at it. "An' if I can't at least learn how to read, I'm gonna spend the next thousand years scrubbin' floors. You know how, right? You can show me?"

I almost laughed. I'd been expecting him to ask for any number of things, but reading lessons? That was just too mundane.

"Sure," I said. "Not a problem."

So we spent the rest of the afternoon with simple words like "war" and "hurt", and by supper time, he was sounding some of them out at least somewhat correctly. When I congratulated him on his quick progress, even his dusky skin (almost purple now, although it had been more olive when we had arrived) wasn't enough to hide his blush.

"Don' have anythin' much to thank you with," he said. Then his expression became crafty. "Less'n you like this sorta thing, course."

He twisted around and bent slowly over me, chest touching mine and pressing me back against the pillows that had been supporting me in a more-or-less sitting position.

"What the --" I began, but I couldn't finish, because at that moment, Rashid covered my mouth with his.

I know I was blushing fire-engine red. I could feel the heat all the way down to my chest -- and further, to tell you the truth. I'd never been so embarrassed in my life. But at the same time, I realized that I was enjoying the touch of that firm young male body. It felt so good that my bruises didn't even bother me anymore.

"I'll settle for you testifying for me, so that they don't make me catch up on my chores when I get out of here," I gasped when he finally let me go.

Rashid said nothing, but shot me a knowing, sidelong look as he pushed himself up and off me. No doubt by the end of the day, news of my supposed sexual preferences would be all over the Negaverse. I tried to tell myself that I didn't care, since it wouldn't make much difference when it came to my chances of being beaten to death, but I was still really, really embarrassed. And I was beginning to wonder. I'd enjoyed feeling Rashid's body against mine so much, even though I didn't really like him. What would it be like to kiss a friend that way?

What would it be like to kiss General Alexandrite?

That thought sent a wave of heat through my entire body. I knew I was blushing again, but I didn't care.

I was in love with Alexandrite. Absolutely, completely, hopelessly in love. It couldn't have been anything else. It didn't matter that I'd always thought that I was straight. It didn't matter that he was a Negaverse General, and I was hu-- a youma. It didn't even matter that the very thought of him, now that I'd admitted it to myself, filled my mind and body with fire. It only mattered that he was kind, and I was starved for kindness, and that he was willing to look after me.

It had been eight years since anyone had last cared whether I lived or died, except in the most impersonal way.

I even fantasized that he might return my feelings. Otherwise, why had he been so nice? If Ban was to be believed, most of the Generals treated youma trainees as one bare step above vermin. Certainly, none of them would be as kind to a stranger as Alex had been... unless he felt he had something to gain from it, and in my case, that something would have to be my body. I had nothing else to give.

Then I glanced down at my hands -- twisted, clawed, their skin sallow-pale and beginning to thicken into the slick hide common to most youma. Who am I kidding? I'm a monster. My body disgusts me. How can it fail to do the same to him?

Both hands curled into fists, and the tips of my claws drew blood from my palm. Because he's different, too, and maybe one day... It wouldn't be appropriate for a General to take up with a trainee youma. Even I could see that. But I wouldn't be a trainee forever. There would come a day when I'd be able to approach him and ask.

I do remember what I dreamed about that night, and all I can say is that it's a good thing the beds to either side of mine didn't seem to be occupied.

I had no visitors the next day. Not even Rashid, who had been supposed to return for a second lesson, much less General Alexandrite. I went to bed terminally bored, and was just beginning to doze off when a commotion outside my little curtain-walled cubicle caught my attention. I forced myself to my feet and limped out into the main room.

The curtains enclosing one of the other beds had been flipped up, and three youma were transferring someone from a stretcher to the more permanent supportive surface. A decidedly familiar someone... short, slender, with dusky purple skin. Rashid?

I made my slow and cautious way over to the trio of orderlies. They had him on the bed now, and two of them were folding up the stretcher while the third was arranging blankets around him. I grabbed at the sleeve of that last and pointed at Rashid.

"What's wrong with him?"

"Bad transformation. Look." She flipped the sheet back. Rashid was naked underneath, and my attention was immediately drawn to his legs. Or what had been his legs. I couldn't say exactly what they were now. They appeared to have fused together along the insides, for one thing, and I couldn't seem to find the joints.

"We get one of these every few months," the orderly said, returning the bedding to its proper position. "If he lives, and only about half of them do, he's going to have a snake-type tail instead of legs."

"And if he doesn't live?" I wasn't quite sure what I wanted her to say, but...

She shrugged. "Then he doesn't live. The life of an unskilled trainee isn't worth much here. To be honest, you've gotten more care than most. I don't know why General Alexandrite bothered." The look she gave me wasn't friendly.

"Maybe he's just a decent person," I suggested.

She gave me an odd look. "Not really. None of the Generals are. They can't afford to be. It'd kill them. I'll admit that Alexandrite is better than most, but don't expect too much of him."

She must have caught the look I was giving her, because she added, "Just be glad that you weren't here under Beryl, the way I was. King Malachite and his Generals may not be nice people, but at least they're just. And sane. Beryl was crazy, and she infected everyone around her with her craziness. Back then, all youma were considered worthless, and they killed us for entertainment. You have no idea how lucky you are."

I couldn't find anything to say as she limped away. I just sat down on the rickety chair that was the only other item of furniture in Rashid's little cubicle, trying not to think about where I was or why.

After a while, I leaned back in my seat and dozed off. It wasn't that I intended to keep vigil by Rashid's bedside or anything -- I was just so tired...

It was the sound of voices that woke me for the second time -- actually, one voice in particular. I think it must have been around midnight.

"I kind of had to rescue him, Jay." Alexandrite sounded like he was right outside the curtains that enclosed Rashid's bed and my chair. "I mean, if he stays in that meat grinder right now, he's going to die."

"So what's the problem?" That voice was familiar too, although less so than Alex's. General Jadeite? What's he doing here? "You don't need me to smooth things over with Jasper, do you?"

"No, no, of course not." Alex was silent for a moment, and I heard the click of a bootheel striking against stone. Then, half-muffled, "I think he has a crush on me."

"Who, Jasper?"

"No, Santori."

Suddenly I was wide awake. They're talking about me!

And then Alex's next words brought my entire world tumbling down around my ears.

"He's a nice kid, Jay, and I want to let him down gently, but I can't seem to find the words. I was hoping that you could help."

Looking back on it now, I can see that I was a stupid young fool in the throes of my first infatuation -- never mind that I was way, way too old for first love -- but at the time, it felt like the end of the world. Being rejected by someone that I'd known for less than a month.

Jadeite snorted. "'I'm straight' always seemed to work for me. He's going to have to learn to deal with disappointments, Alex. You know as well as I do that fragile people don't survive here."

"And how much of that is because we spend so much time smashing them?" It was barely more than a whisper, but it must have carried through the walls and all the way back to the Earth Realm.

I suppose they might have said something more, but Rashid picked that moment to go into convulsions, and Alex pushed through the curtains. I was still sitting there, in my chair by Rashid's bedside. Frozen. And staring at Alex. I'd thought that those smoky brown eyes were warm and caring before, but now I saw only cold in them.

He was a Crystal Weaver, a General of the Negaverse, and I was only a youma. Worthless.

He grabbed Rashid's wrists and tried to pin him to the bed, swearing horribly when it turned out that he wasn't strong enough. He looked around frantically... and saw me.

"David! I... Ah, damnit, there's no time! Come here and hold him down for me."

I just stared at him. I heard his words, but they were just noise.

And that's when he slapped me across the face. Hard.

"Snap out of it, David! Your friend is going to die if you don't help me."

"He's not my friend." I mumbled it. Alex glared at me in apparent exasperation, then turned back toward Rashid as the latter jerked one last time and then went limp. The dark-haired Crystal Weaver checked Rashid's pulse and shook his head angrily. Then he brought his hands down on my roommate's chest. There was a crackle of electricity, and Rashid twitched, then settled back. Another crackle. Another jerk.

"He's going to die, isn't he?" I was beginning to come out of my daze.

"Clinically speaking, he's already dead," Alex snapped. And it's all your fault. Words not spoken, but they hung in the air between us.

... I want to let him down gently...

... "I'm straight" always worked for me...

... it's all your fault...

I couldn't stand it anymore! There were so many voices in my head, all closing in on me... I ducked through the curtain and ran, not caring where I was going, dodging the figure who loomed to my left as I fled the infirmary. Tears blurred my vision.

Down. I remember heading down, whenever I had a choice of directions, because it was quieter that way. I think a youma officer tried to stop me at one point, but I tore away and kept on running. I just wanted to be alone. Since I'd arrived in the Negaverse, I'd had very little privacy. Why wouldn't people just leave me alone?

Finally, I staggered out of the hallway and into what must have been a storeroom. I didn't care what it was. It was unlit, and quiet, and mercifully empty of anything except stacks of anonymous crates, and that was all that mattered. I wedged myself into a corner that faced away from the door and just sobbed.

Why couldn't I make a life for myself in Crystal Tokyo?

Why didn't I just jump off a bridge or something, instead of coming here?

Why don't I correct that now?

My new claws were sharp. Draw them across my wrists, across my throat... that would be the end. Tentatively, I unsheathed them, reached up to scratch at my neck. I was beyond fear, beyond pain.

I'm a monster, just like *him*. A murderer. I killed Rashid by not helping General Alexandrite. Better that I make sure that I'll never be able to ruin anyone else's life. And I dug my claws in deeper.

Someone grabbed my wrists, forced my hands away from my throat. I still couldn't see anything. Maybe that was why I hadn't noticed him come in. Or that was what I told myself at the time. The truth was that I hadn't noticed because I hadn't cared.

"Damn, but you gave me a fright for a moment there." It sounded like a young man's voice. "Are you all right?"

I couldn't find the words to answer him. Go away, half of me wanted to say. The other half wanted to lean into this stranger's shoulder and cry.

"I'm just not youma material, I guess." To my surprise, I sounded quite calm.

The stranger snorted. "Hardly anyone really is, and the ones who are, we don't really want."

"That doesn't make any sense," I complained.

"Well, I'm not really very good at explanations." Finally, he let go of my wrists, but he didn't seem to be leaving. Instead, he sat down beside me. "What's your name?"

"David Santori." Well, there was no reason why he shouldn't know. "You?"

His shoulder was pressed against my arm in such a way that I could feel him shrug. "Call me Priam Landry, if you like. And yeah, you can blame my parents for that one. You don't remember me, do you?"

"Should I?"

"Maybe not. If you're who I think you are, I last saw you plastered to the floor of a corridor, beaten to a pulp, after Alex called me in to help him tidy things up. Shouldn't you still be in bed?"

"No," I snapped.

Silence. He didn't say anything more, but he didn't seem inclined to go away, either. In a way, I was grateful for that. With him there, I didn't feel quite so... isolated.

Maybe being left alone wasn't quite what I wanted after all.

"Priam?"

"Mmmm?"

"How did you end up here? In the Negaverse, I mean?"

"I just fell into it, I suppose." He sounded thoughtful. "My home in the Earth Realm had been destroyed, and most of my family was as good as dead. The only ones to survive were me and my cousin, and he was already living here. It seemed... quite natural to join him. And you? I take it you haven't been here long."

I shook my head, even though I knew he wouldn't be able to see it. "No, I haven't. As for how I ended up here... it really isn't much of a story."

"Tell me anyway."

"I..." It wasn't something that I'd ever spoken of. To anyone. I'd always been too afraid. But he couldn't reach me here, except in the unlikely event that he chose to immigrate himself, and... I placed my hand on top of Priam's, realizing, suddenly, just how large mine was by comparison. And his shoulder wasn't even with mine, either. A short man, probably quite slender... no threat to someone of my size, unless he had unusually potent magic. Not dangerous. Maybe even trustworthy.

"All right," I said. "But I still don't think it's very interesting, especially not when similar things have been happening to other people for thousands of years."

"Go on." Somehow, I could feel his eyes on me, even though I couldn't see him as more than a kind of vague silhouette. It was an uncanny sensation, and it wasn't until several minutes later that I felt comfortable enough to begin speaking.

"My mother died when I was just a kid." Simple fact, often recited, almost easy to speak. "My Dad started drinking after that. He... drank a lot, and... when he came home fighting drunk..." I couldn't bring myself to complete the sentence, but I felt Priam wince.

"I was lucky, in a way, I guess," I added. "He never hurt me badly enough to send me to the hospital, and he didn't like boys that way. It wasn't so bad until he lost his job, and started spending the food money on more booze. But I still... I..." I felt warm wetness trickle down my cheeks, dripping from my chin, and realized that I was crying.

Priam shifted, swinging over to straddle my knees and pull my body against his. I couldn't remember the last time anyone had just held me, or who it had been. My mother, probably. All those years ago.

"It's a terrible thing for a parent to betray his trust to his child," he said softly, almost in my ear. "You don't have to say any more, if you don't want to."

I swiped the back of one hand across my face, knowing that I was only smearing the tears.

"I ran away the day before my sixteenth birthday," I said, still crying, but not caring anymore. "I never dared to tell anyone what he was doing. I was scared that he'd kill me if I did. I could have waited for my majority, but that would have been two more years." Two more years of near-starvation, of always watching over my shoulder, keeping a careful eye on his movements around the house so that I could stay out of the way. No. Never again. "And so this was the only place that I could go, but..."

And I forced the rest out, too. The other trainees. Alexandrite. Rashid. Priam held me through it all, his body solid and warm against mine, supporting me and waiting patiently when my sobbing made me incoherent.

"I feel like such an idiot," I said at last. "How could I ever have imagined... that he wanted..."

Priam sighed. "I guess Alex can be too much of a nice guy for his own good, sometimes. If it's any consolation, I once had the damndest crush on King Malachite. Even managed to steal a kiss from him once, while I was disguised as the Prince Consort. That was doomed from the start, of course, just like you and Alex." His fingers brushed my cheek, wiping the tears away.

"You're still in love with him, aren't you?" I asked in a sudden burst of inspiration. "The King, I mean."

"I guess so, a little bit." He shifted position, his weight pressing down more firmly on my knees. "I can't help it. He's so beautiful... and I'm so alone."

"Yeah." I wrapped my arms around Priam, returning his embrace for the first time. "There aren't many gay youma, are there?"

He snorted. "Not males, no. Not when there are still eight females for every one male. In fact, there aren't even many monogamous male youma -- the girls divide them up so that they each get their share. That's a little detail that we don't put in the recruiting brochures."

"You should," I said. "I can think of a dozen guys I know who would agree to come here, if it meant that they could have harems."

"Actually, it would be more a case of their harems having them. Warrior youma can be pretty aggressive."

I laughed. Well, okay, it was more of a croak, but the mental images that produced were... Oh, never mind.

"That's good to hear," Priam said. "I was beginning to wonder if you could laugh."

"It isn't something I do very often," I admitted. "There haven't been many reasons for it lately."

"I can understand that." And again, his fingers ran featherlight over my face, brushing my lips.

"We're both very alone, aren't we?" I asked.

"I suppose we are." I could feel him moving again, loosening his grip on me as he rose to his knees. "Perhaps we can help each other..." he breathed, just before his mouth fitted itself over mine.

Even as we kissed, I felt a bittersweet sense of loss. Neither of us could have what we really wanted, so instead we took what we could have. That didn't mean that I was going to throw away what he was offering me -- far from it -- but at the same time, I knew that there was a part of my need that he just couldn't fill.

"I have a private room," he murmured as we parted. "It isn't much, but it'll be more comfortable than the bare floor in here."

He drew me to my feet, still holding me close. There was an instant of cold and perfect darkness that lacked the faint green glow that had permeated the storeroom, and then we were somewhere else. The lighting was no brighter there, but it was noticeably warmer than the corridors and the public rooms -- which was just as well, since Priam already had my shirt half off.

I know I cried a lot that night. Priam just kissed the tears away every time.

I woke to light just barely sufficient to see by, and the sounds of someone else moving around the room. Still sleepy and a bit disoriented, I pulled myself into a sitting position and rubbed my eyes. Where...? Oh, right. Priam's room. Wherever that is.

"David?"

I turned toward the voice. Priam was standing with his back to me, pulling on a pair of pants.

"Morning," I said as I admired the play of muscle in his shoulders and back. Oh, he wasn't especially built or anything, but there wasn't an ounce of fat on him, either. I squinted, trying to figure out what color his skin was, but the dim, greenish lighting defeated me. "Do you suppose we could have a little more light in here? I feel like I'm living in a cave."

Priam chuckled. "Sorry. I was trying not to wake you. Just a moment."

He raised one hand and flicked his fingers upward, and the glow from the globe set into the ceiling intensified.

"Is that better?"

I couldn't answer his question. I was too busy staring. You see, Priam's skin was a pale, uniform pinkish color -- the color of human skin that hadn't been exposed to the sun for a very long time. But he just couldn't be! Unless... Hadn't Ban mentioned that there were some rare humans who had enough innate magic to keep the energy residues here from transforming them, almost all of whom were high officers? Was I warming a Captain's bed?

"David? Are you all right?" My lover turned toward me, another garment in his hands, and I found myself making an odd, rusty croaking sound that I think should have been a laugh.

"No, I'm not all right -- my Lord. Do you do this often? Picking up lonely youma kids for kicks, I mean?"

Priam, or whatever his name was, winced, and his slanted, dark eyes slid shut for a moment as he twisted the grey jacket that he held.

"I didn't want to hurt you," he protested. "I just wanted..." He sighed, pain and exhaustion flickering across his perfect, chiseled face. "I'd hoped..." he tried again, then shrugged. "Oh, what does it matter, anyway? You'll never believe me now, no matter what I say. Even though everything I told you last night was the truth. I admit it wasn't the entire truth, but what else could I do? At least this way I got one night."

He wadded the grey jacket into a ball and threw it, hard, at a chair that stood on the other side of the room, beside the door.

"'Priam Landry' isn't exactly a Crystal Weaver name," I pointed out. "What kind of truth is there in that?"

He shrugged. "It was my name, once upon a time. Back in the Shadow Millennium, when we all had to hide what we were. My relatives called me Pyrope in private, but 'Priam Landry' is what's written on my birth certificate. And, David?"

"Yeah?"

"If it helps at all, I'm sorry."

"Sorry you slept with me? Yeah, so am I."

"Sorry I didn't tell you everything right away," he corrected. "The other... I'd never be sorry about that. Never." I didn't realize that he had moved closer to me until he sat down on the edge of the bed. "Please. Don't go away and leave me alone again. Don't go away and leave yourself alone again. I don't think I could bear it if you tried to kill yourself again over this."

"It wasn't coincidence that you found me in that storeroom, was it?" I asked. "You were looking for me." I remembered a brief, confused glimpse of a grey uniform and dark eyes, in that hallway after I'd been beaten... Why had he cared?

"I was looking for you," he agreed. "I have a certain sympathy for people who don't quite fit in, I guess. I remembered you, after we broke up that fight in the hall. When Alex told me that you had run away, I volunteered to go find you. Incidentally, you might like to know that they managed to get your friend Rashid's heart started again, and it looks like he's going to be all right."

"He is?" I tasted salty warmth, and realized that I was crying again. Tears of relief, this time. I'm not a murderer. I'm not! "Damn, I seem to be falling apart all over the place these days," I said, wiping my face.

"The transformation hits new youma that way, sometimes, especially when they're about your age," Pyrope said. "You'll start to feel better in a couple of weeks. In the meanwhile... may I help?" And he leaned toward me with a smile that I was beginning to learn to recognize.

May I help? Our relationship is founded on those words, I guess. It isn't love. How could it be? He still longs for Malachite with a depth he tries to hide from me, and I still feel the occasional twinge when I think of Alexandrite. I wanted a protector, someone who would keep me from getting hurt ever again, and Pyrope can never fulfill that role -- he doesn't have the strength it would need, either physically or magically. Still, even if he isn't quite what I want, he's the one who shares my bed and my life and keeps the loneliness at bay.

Sometimes it's enough just to have someone to cling to, in the dark.

The End


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