Ruins

by Liberal Loon

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/132296.html)

Gabriel hated the New World. Not from the very first day; the first day, he had been too blessedly relieved to be freed from the rocking, shuddering, damp and salt-encrusted menace that was the Reina Del Mar, the cursed wooden prison that had carried him so far from home. No, at first he had been too perfectly overjoyed to see green again to notice the violent profusion of it, and too busy falling over himself on legs too used to that hateful rocking to realize how the air was barely breathable for the wet heat.

Well, it only took until midmorning of the day after his arrival for Gabriel to transfer his hatred in its purest form onto the country he’d been shipped off to. The ship had been awful enough, with the choice between the dismally stuffy area belowdecks and the deck itself, where the sunlight felt like the very fires of Hell, but at least there was a breeze. Of course, the salt spray always left him damp and oddly sticky, but he had given up on being wholly dry after only a few days on board ship. He missed the damp breeze almost immediately.

Waking up that first morning, Gabriel barely remembered where he was. After what had seemed an eternity at sea, it seemed quite unnatural to wake up in a bed, and one that wasn’t moving. For a moment, he could even believe that he was back in Spain, and the last weeks had been some dreadful fever dream.

Then the heat struck, and the sunlight sliced in through the window, and the sounds of a thousand strange birds assaulted his ears all at once. The shouting of voices outside the window resolved itself into the bustle of the ship being unloaded, not the sounds of morning in his home city. The cry of seabirds attested to the nearness of the ocean, a few short miles down the river, and the rough newness of the room around him forced Gabriel to admit that this was the colony his father was commanding in the New World, and certainly not the Pyrenees. He closed his eyes and was just beginning to feel truly sorry for himself when the door opened.

A voice said something in such rapid, heavily accented Spanish that he couldn’t catch a single word. Gabriel regretfully opened his eyes again, hastily squinting as the glare of the sunlight hit his pupils.

The boy in the doorway was about his own age, he supposed. Slighter, and with black hair and light cinnamon skin. These and the voice marked him as one of the native people, Mayans if Gabriel remembered correctly. In his letters, Gabriel’s father had described how one of the nearest tribes had made an effort to become civilized, and learn their language, and how many of them had been hired, if that was the right word, when they were being paid in Spanish goods like cloth and glass, to work various menial positions in the colony. Which wasn’t much of a colony. More of a military outpost. Entirely a military outpost, really, just with a few extra families of higher-ranking officers and some missionaries…

The boy was speaking again, slowly enough that Gabriel could interpret that strange accent. “Would you want some breakfast, señor? The commander requested that you come see him afterwards.”

“Um. Yes, please.” And before he could so much as blink, the Mayan boy vanished down the hallway, returning after a few minuted with a tray of what seemed to be mostly fruits. The boy sat in a chair near the door as Gabriel picked uncertainly at the unfamiliar, brightly colored fruit, until he was so uncomfortable that he absolutely had to break the silence.

“Is it always so hot here?”

The Mayan boy’s eyes sparkled brightly as he laughed. “This is still the dry season, señor, it will get much hotter than this in the next months.”

Gabriel’s complexion reddened, and not just from said heat. “You said my father wanted to see me?”

Getting up, the boy took the tray, still bearing much of its colorful load. He nodded. “In the meeting room, come, I’ll show you,” he said, walking briskly out of the room. Gabriel was relieved that he only had to follow. It didn’t bode well that the first thing he’d done in the New World was to be laughed at by the hired help.

By and large, Gabriel’s father just wanted to tell him to keep out of the way and try to pick up some of the mannerisms of soldiers and real men. He was to stay close to the colony at all times, unless he had a trustworthy native guide, and would otherwise be left to his own devices. It had been decided in the past that Gabriel didn’t possess any of those qualities of “real men” that were required in such a rough place as the New World, and his father made it clear that while it would be beneficial if he managed to pick some up, he wasn’t expecting much. Gabriel could record plants and birds as he liked to do at home, or remain in the fort all the time, or whatever he pleased, so long as he didn’t get himself killed–whether by uncivilized native people, poisonous plants, or unidentified animals–or endanger the safety of the soldiers in any way. He could eat with the men, or the officers’ families, or have his meals brought to his room, whichever he preferred. There were native servants around the fort he could ask for anything he needed, so long as he wasn’t expecting the comforts of home. After explaining all this, his father dismissed him by returning his attention to the rough maps in front of him, without a word of comfort or real welcome. Of course the great conquistador Alonso Davila couldn’t spare a moment’s affection for the son he hadn’t seen for years.

Gabriel left the meeting with his father feeling rather discouraged. This promised to be an exceedingly unpleasant episode in his life, and possibly a lethal one. His father hadn’t spared so much as an instant for delicacy while describing the horrid ways that some of the soldiers had died, or the nasty rashes some of the others had acquired while out in the jungle. He vowed not to so much as breathe too close to any unfamiliar plants. Which would be difficult, since the view out the windows wasn’t graced by anything even remotely familiar.

He was sitting despondently on the low wall surrounding the fort when the boy from earlier reappeared. Staring glumly into the jungle, the first thing Gabriel noticed was shade. When he turned around, the Mayan boy was standing just behind him with a sort of parasol that appeared to be woven out of palm leaves. One of the few plants Gabriel could put a name to, and there were at least three different types clearly visible without turning his head.

“The sun’s stronger here than where you’re from,” the boy said, grinning slightly and offering the parasol. “You’re even whiter than the others; if you aren’t careful you’ll burn to ashes right away.”

Taking the parasol–it was too awkward to just leave the boy holding it like that–Gabriel held a brief debate between the obvious practicality and the undeniable fact that he would look like one of his younger sisters in the summertime. Practicality won almost immediately. He’d gotten an excruciatingly painful sunburn within his first week at sea, once he’d given up the battle against damp and decided that the cooler breeze was worth the sun. The unrelenting sting and later blisters weren’t an experience he cared to repeat.

“Thank you.”

“Not at all, señor,” the boy said, hopping smoothly onto the wall next to him. Gabriel was struck by how natural he looked against the backdrop of the jungle, all the greens and browns complementing the smooth spice-brown of his skin. Gabriel had never felt so conscious of his own pale skin and light clothes. Not to mention his blond hair. Although, that flower over there was almost the color of his eyes…the Mayan boy would probably know a name for it.

“What’s that flower over there?” Yes, the question sounded stupid. There were about six different flowers per the foot in the jungle before them. “The blue one.”

The boy’s answer wasn’t in Spanish. “I don’t think there’s a name for it in your language,” he added at the end.

Gabriel’s stumbling attempt to mimic the sounds set the boy to laughing again, and he gave up almost immediately. “I don’t suppose it matters,” he mumbled. “No one here but me would care.”

“That would be the truth, señor. Your countrymen don’t much care unless something is dangerous or useful.” The hint of seriousness in the boy’s face was oddly…becoming. Mmmnh. Not a good moment for those tendencies to call attention.

“My name’s Gabriel,” the Spanish boy said, slightly disconcerted by the repeated honorific.

“I’m Elito, señor,” the boy said breezily. “I’ll be around whenever you need anything, so don’t hesitate to ask.” There was something faintly dark about those last words, but Gabriel was rapidly becoming too overheated to notice.

“I think I need a bath,” he said faintly. Suddenly all the dirt, heat, salt, and sweat hit him at once, and he was absolutely sure that his little sisters would swoon to see anyone so filthy.

~o~O~o~

Elito was surprised by the commander’s son. He’d expected a similarly brash, militant individual, with similar tendencies of treating Elito’s people worse than the dirt beneath his foreign boots. Instead, this Gabriel was decidedly…weak. Pale and thin, without any of the muscles all the soldier types had, or the tan the missionaries gained by teaching in the village square. He liked to learn about things, not do them; over the past week Elito had taken to bringing basketwork and pottery made by his aunts, and other, older artifacts for the amusement of the Spanish boy. Gabriel would spend anywhere from minutes to hours examining whatever it was Elito had picked up, until he’d made some sort of conclusion, which he’d then expect Elito to confirm or correct. He was so earnest about it that Elito was starting to regret not knowing more about some of the older trinkets he’d brought.

And he was polite. It was clear that he was used to being waited on, but he didn’t take it for granted. Elito was strangely appeased by that. The first week or two he’d been serving these strange foreign men he’d almost decided that the outright war some of the other tribes were waging against the invaders would be vastly preferable to this unnatural servitude, even if he wound up dead over it. Well, this way he was still alive and had a better chance of helping his people come up with a viable plan to get rid of the Spaniards, and Gabriel was a much easier person to serve than the last officer he’d been attached to, in the meantime.

Tossing the carved fragment of stone he’d brought with him from hand to hand, Elito let himself into Gabriel’s room. The door was almost always open in hopes of tempting a breeze, which Elito appreciated the utility of. Most of these idiots closed everything up against insects, and baked in their own juices during the day. By this time of mid-afternoon, their rooms were absolutely unbearable.

“Need anything?” Elito asked by rote. Gabriel was doing his usual Gabriel-things, which generally involved blank notebooks, charcoal pencils, and staring vaguely at nothing. Today it was the staring-vaguely option.

Gabriel shifted up onto his elbows from his position slumped on the bed. “No.”

“Brought you a rock,” Elito offered, waiting until Gabriel’s eyes focused before tossing it at him and sitting in the chair near the door.

“Where did you get it?” Gabriel asked, turning it in his hands and peering happily.

“Edge of the ruins,” Elito answered. “Picked it up a couple years back. I guess it got knocked out of the wall by the trees growing on it.”

Murmuring in acknowledgment, Gabriel fell into his serious-examination mood and didn’t say anything else for nearly an hour. Elito amused himself by tracking the minute shifts in his posture, and the pauses where his eyes went far away and his hands stopped moving.

“How long have the ruins been abandoned?” Gabriel’s head snapped up as he asked, eyes sharply focused. Elito’s breath caught the same way it always did when the Spanish boy looked at him like that. Odd how that happened. Suddenly that scholarly pale seemed to fit perfectly.

“A long time. Two hundred, three hundred years? More? We kept better track of time when we lived there than we can now.”

“What does this mean? It looks like an eye. What did your people carve on walls? Is it an animal? It looks like a cat eye. How many different kinds of wild cats are there here?”

Elito waited for a pause before trying to answer. “Might be a jaguar. There’s half a dozen different wild cats around here, but my people tended to use jaguars the most.”

He needn’t have bothered; Gabriel’s eyes had already unfocused as he rummaged through a chest by his bed for paper and pencils, curling around these supplies back on the bed and beginning to sketch Elito’s offering. Elito sat back in his chair and waited. Eventually the young master would rejoin the present, and he’d probably be hungry by then.

Maybe it would be a good idea to bring Gabriel out into the jungle, and show him some of the ancient sites and sacred places that Elito’s people still remembered. He’d found a few himself that he was sure had been entirely forgotten, too. It would be more engaging for him, as well, than sitting in the corner watching Gabriel. Not that Gabriel wasn’t pleasant to look at, because he was–it was something in the peacefulness of his posture, and his slight smile of concentration–but all the sitting still got to be extremely dull. Maybe take him to a cave first. It would be interesting to see what that pale skin of his looked like in a cave. They could work their way up to the biggest Mayan city Elito knew of. It might take a while before Gabriel trusted him enough to spend the days in the jungle it would take to get there with him.

“Elito, could you go get my dinner? I’d like to eat here tonight.” Gabriel hadn’t lifted his eyes from his paper.

Murmuring assent he wasn’t sure Gabriel even heard, Elito traipsed out to the kitchens, relieved to have something to do.

Unsurprisingly, the young Spaniard hadn’t moved much when he got back a few moments later, though he sat up and his eyes slowly focused when Elito set the tray down.

“Thank you, Elito.”

He nodded acknowledgement. “So, señor, since you’re so interested in my people’s ancient culture, how would you like to take a few day trips, see the sights? You’d get more out of seeing the actual buildings than from the fragments I’ve picked up.”

The thrilled expression on Gabriel’s wide-eyed face was very gratifying, Elito had to admit. Quite worth it.

“That would be excellent,” he said breathlessly. “When? How far is it? Are there many old cities near here? How are the buildings still standing? What sort of repair are they in?”

Again, Elito waited for the pause. He’d gotten good at it in the past month. “Anytime you want; you’re in charge here. There are a few smaller sites close by, caves and such, plus quite a few worthwhile natural places without any of the history. But there’s an ancient city about a day from here, and that’s the one I’ve mostly been telling you about.”

Now Gabriel looked uncertain, biting his lower lip slightly, with his pale gold eyebrows drawn nervously together. Elito wasn’t surprised. After all, in the month since his arrival, Gabriel hadn’t left the fort for more than a few hours. Strange and almost cowardly, it seemed to Elito, but in all fairness, a concept Gabriel tended to wax eloquent on, he wasn’t sure if he could just walk out into the cities the Spanish boy described without any fear of the unknown.

“We could start with a cave,” Elito coaxed. He really wanted to get away from the fort himself, if just for a day. “There’s an interesting one just a few hours from here, with a river running through it. There are some interesting artifacts, and it’s really quite beautiful. You could draw it.” It was one of Elito’s favorite spots, actually. He’d discovered it years ago, and went back every so often.

“All right. Tomorrow?”

“If you’d like.” Elito was, again, pleasantly surprised. He’d thought it would take more than that to get Gabriel out of the fort.

Gabriel nodded decisively, more to himself than Elito, it seemed. “It’s about time I see some of the country, as I’ll be here for quite a while.”

~o~O~o~

Gabriel was a bit worried about this entire outdoors adventure idea. The spot Elito had chosen to depart into the jungle, a few hundred yards downriver from the fort, looked just like the rest of the landscape: Impenetrable. Completely indistinguishable from the rest of the excessively lush, desperately alive forest. There was nothing to even suggest a path. What there was, was palm trees dripping with vines, thick-trunked trees woven over by other trees and spotted with bromeliads, dense flowering shrubs, and dead palm fronds and fallen branches all over the uneven ground.

“It isn’t so dense as it looks, señor,” Elito said. “You all try to beat your way through the jungle in a straight line. That’s the hard way. It’s much easier to let the flow of the trees suggest the way, you’ll see.” He was grinning, looking more genuinely cheerful than Gabriel was accustomed to. That smile gave him a much better feeling about the whole idea.

“Why is your Spanish so good, anyway?” Gabriel asked as he trailed Elito into the trees. The question had been bothering him for a while.

“Well, when your people came over here, you brought soldiers and missionaries. The options seemed to be either to fight, or try to adapt. My tribe isn’t large or strong enough to have fought, and adapting involved learning your language and accepting your ways.” Bitterness seeped into those words, but the reassuring smile Elito flashed back at him assured Gabriel that the bitterness wasn’t really directed at him personally. “So I learned what the missionaries taught, and work at your fort. Our own culture has been fading anyway. This is better than dead. Watch your step, there.”

“Tell me more about these plants,” Gabriel requested, changing to a less prickly subject. “Will any of these hurt me?”

“That one will,” Elito said hurriedly, snatching Gabriel’s hand back from the tree he’d been about to touch. “You’ll get a nasty rash if you touch that tree with the splotchy bark. Some unfortunates get it from even the dead leaves, if it gets on their skin. Just keep your boots on, señor.”

Gabriel gulped, and kept an extra close eye on all the nearby trees for the duration of their hike. Elito completed the cacophony of the jungle with tidbits of botany; which trees bore fruit, which palms his people thatched their roofs with, which flowers attracted what birds and insects. Eventually, the burbling of a river joined the sounds of birds, insects, and Elito, who announced that they had nearly reached today’s destination.

“Want lunch now, or after seeing the cave?” Elito asked, setting the pack he’d been carrying on a rocky patch of riverbank. Gabriel collapsed next to it. He was sure he’d never been so stickily exhausted in his life. The humidity was the real killer, he decided. The river was looking extremely inviting.

“Or we could take a swim,” Elito continued, looking amused as he exercised his uncanny ability to read Gabriel’s thoughts. “Or more of a splash, really. The water isn’t too deep here. Though, it gets deeper by the cave entrance. Deep enough to swim in.”

“That sounds perfect,” Gabriel sighed, letting Elito give him a hand up. The spice-skinned boy didn’t look worn out in the least, the rat.

Sure enough, the crystal-clear river widened and deepened into a pool by the entrance of the cave, a soaring gateway in the side of the hill that put Gabriel in mind of nothing more than a cathedral, albeit hung with vines and searching roots and partially obscured by vigorous plant life. Gabriel gave over a few moments to unashamed gaping until Elito threw his shirt at him.

“Stare from the water, señor,” Elito suggested, bending over to unlace his boots. Gabriel had always thought it odd that Elito wore Spanish boots.

More pressing was the fact that he was taking them off. More pressing yet was the fact that his shirt was already off, as proven by its position in a crumpled pile at Gabriel’s feet. Gabriel was suddenly thankful for the long walk, since he was fairly sure his face couldn’t flush any deeper than it already was.

He really like the color of Elito’s skin. And the smooth muscles it covered, and the slender frame of bones under them. And the contrast of his short dark hair and sparkling dark eyes against that skin, and his expression when he was happy. And the confident way he moved, and…well, it would probably be a good idea for him to get in the water too, before Elito noticed him staring.

Managing to get his own shirt and boots off without too much trouble, Gabriel dashed off a quick prayer for the fact that Elito had set the precedent of leaving pants on, and stepped gingerly down the rocks into the water. It was cool, but not too cold–how could it be, in this heat?–and deeper than the clarity suggested. Gabriel supposed he could have figured that out from the way Elito was treading water, but he’d been a bit distracted, after all.

“Feeling better, señor?” Elito asked, grinning as Gabriel sighed in relief. “As long as we’re already in the water, want to swim into the cave? It’s just a few yards in, you can see the ledge from here.”

Still clinging to the side of the pool, Gabriel tore his eyes away from his guide to gaze into the dim mouth of the cave. Sure enough, a few moments of peering revealed damp rock sloping further back into the darkness, an easy distance from where Elito was floating.

“Sure.” Gabriel steeled himself to let go of the rock. It had been a while since he’d done any swimming in water over his head. “Let’s go.”

Elito moved like a fish, of course, as easily as he walked. Gabriel followed in a sort of awkward doggie-paddle and got water up his nose. Then nearly cracked his head open when he slipped getting out of the water.

Thankfully, Elito caught him, and Gabriel let out a belated yelp, flinching backwards and ending up on the ground anyway. Elito just raised one eyebrow at him and grinned.

“Why don’t you wait there a moment while I go back and get a torch,” he suggested.

Gabriel salvaged what dignity he could, nodded, and watched Elito swim out of the cave, rummage around in his pack, pull out a bundle of rags and matches, construct a makeshift torch, and swim back without splashing any of it. He vowed to learn how to swim better.

“Did you know that my people believe that caves are entrances to the underworld?” Elito asked conversationally. Gabriel twitched. It was creepy enough in here without any of that.

“…No.”

Unfortunately, Elito looked to be enjoying himself. “I’m about the only one brave enough to set foot in a cave. Used to be only shamans would, in the pitch-dark, to burn incense and pray for rain.” He lit the torch and wandered a few feet farther into the darkness. Reddish shadows danced across the damp walls as Gabriel scrambled up to follow him.

“Our hell is deeper than yours, too. There are nine levels, linked to our world and the heavens by the roots of the ceiba, the central world tree. There are thirteen levels of heaven, too, and the branches of the tree connect those to the earth.”

Gabriel was a bit too preoccupied by the echoing noise of dripping water, the surprisingly quiet susurrous of the river, and what he swore were bats to really listen.

“The underworld is called Xibalba,” Elito continued. “Obviously no one living really wanted to go there; that’s why my people stay out of caves. So I always wonder what she was doing in here,” he said casually, gesturing towards a ledge in the wall next to them.

Gabriel screamed. That was a skeleton, less than two feet from him, the skull laughing at him in the wavering torchlight. Throwing himself at Elito, he decided that he didn’t care that neither of them were wearing much, and just really needed a not-dead person at the moment. Even if said not-dead person had known about the very dead person right there, and was really enjoying Gabriel’s reaction, to judge by his own laughter.

“Hey, you said you wanted to see some artifacts,” Elito said, wrapping his free arm around Gabriel’s shoulders reassuringly. “She can’t hurt you, but she can tell you a lot. Look at all the jewelry she’s wearing. Probably enough to keep you engaged for days.”

Gabriel peeled his face away from Elito’s shoulder and let the Mayan boy guide him a step closer, so the light of his torch gleamed dully off of polished rock and cut shells. He perked up. Yes, that was quite interesting…Maybe he would forgive Elito for presenting the skeleton without any forewarning after all. He still didn’t really feel like letting go, though. Much to his guilty pleasure, Elito didn’t drop his arm, either.

~o~O~o~

So far, jungle day trips had been a stunning success. Gabriel was getting more confident, and spending less time indoors, which allowed Elito to not be indoors, which was the whole point, and was therefore working splendidly. As a bonus, Gabriel was more vibrant, excited, and happy than he’d been before. And a happy Gabriel dashing back and forth asking questions with that perfectly earnest look in his eyes was an undeniably attractive Gabriel.

Gabriel with his shirt off and dripping river water was undeniably attractive too, which might or might not be why Elito had chosen this string of small waterfalls and clear pools as the day’s destination. That and the ungodly heat, bad even by his own standards.

Lounging on one of the warm rocks lining the pools, Elito realized that it was high time to figure out what Gabriel was to him, before everything spiraled out of control. They were certainly friends, strange as that seemed. There were moments when Elito would like to be more, like now, watching Gabriel step into a deeper pool until only his head showed above the water. The Spanish boy was wearing the hat Elito had gotten him when he’d complained about needing both hands, and not wanting to carry the parasol around. That had been a bit of a joke, really; he hadn’t expected Gabriel to actually use the thing. He was a bit sad to see it go, now, though. It’d been damn cute. The hat was more practical, but hid too much of Gabriel’s shiny blond hair, and often his eyes too.

Back to the point. No matter how cute the Spanish boy looked with some stupid girly parasol, he was still Spanish, and that was the problem. Harmless, as far as the Spanish went, but it was the principle of the thing, really. Could Elito justify feeling more than friendship for one of the invaders? Could he really justify the friendship? Well, yes. And yes. It didn’t seem to matter on those personal levels, since Gabriel was nothing like the rest of them. So, then…Could he keep Gabriel safe, if his people’s plans came to fruition? Because it was going to happen soon.

“Elito, aren’t you just baking up there?” Gabriel sounded playfully concerned, but was gazing at Elito intently enough that he hadn’t noticed the back edge of his hat dipping into the water.

Elito considered the question, and came to the conclusion that yes, he’d been up on this rock for long enough, and was feeling like a…like a…well, like something extremely dry, in the sun, on a rock. Which he was. And didn’t want to be anymore.

Jumping out into the air above Gabriel’s head elicited a very gratifying yelp, as did the wave of water that his contact with the pool created as it drenched the last dry spots of Gabriel’s hat and hair.

“What was that for?” Gabriel spluttered, laughing. Elito had been so surprised the first time he’d gotten the other boy to laugh. He’d expected, as much as he’d thought about it, something quiet and girlish to match Gabriel’s wide eyes and delicate complexion, but his actual laugh was so unguardedly real that Elito had actually stopped and stared until Gabriel had finished, which of course made the whole moment so ridiculously awkward that he’d had to laugh himself.

“Oh, you just reminded me that iguanas swim, too, and since I was up there impersonating one, it’d be best to uphold the image. Come on, let’s go slide down one of the little waterfalls.”

Elito was grateful that Gabriel didn’t ask any more questions, and just followed him to the edge of the pool and down the smooth slide of rock a few times, until they were both thoroughly waterlogged and Gabriel had lost his hat. After a moment of confusion, Elito spotted it floating in one of the pools farther downriver. He’d swum there and back before Gabriel had time to do anything but gape. The Spanish boy had gotten better at swimming, sure, but still had nothing on Elito.

“Remember, hibiscus is a bad color for your face,” Elito mock-scolded as he settled the decidedly sopping hat onto Gabriel’s equally wet hair, holding his shoulder to keep him in place. “Be careful…” he trailed off. Hibiscus was almost exactly the color of Gabriel’s face, creeping over his cheekbones in fuchsia swathes, and it couldn’t be from the five minutes of direct sunlight. Come to think of it, that was a pretty common color for him to turn. Whenever he touched Gabriel’s skin, and in the moments when they got undressed to swim, and occasionally after periods of his faraway-eyes contemplation. Well. That erased a few doubts. How had he missed it earlier…?

Just to test, Elito trailed his hand down Gabriel’s arm, and brushed his flaming cheekbones with the other. Sure enough, the color followed his fingers down Gabriel’s throat and onto his collarbones. With a split second to decide between following through and laughing it off as a joke, Elito decided that “more than friendship” was the decision of the day.

Gabriel squeaked, stiffened, and then melted when Elito brushed their lips together, pushing that irritating hat out of the way and burying one hand in Gabriel’s soft hair. His skin was just as soft, where Elito’s other arm wrapped around the small of his back, still cool with river water, and where his hands were pressed against Elito’s chest. Any illusion of “cool” was swiftly disappearing.

Elito tilted his head to get a better angle, and coaxed Gabriel’s mouth open–it didn’t take much effort–to continue his exploration of the Spanish boy’s teeth and tongue. Gabriel was making some delicious muffled moaning noises that Elito would really have liked to hear louder, maybe from a more horizontal position, but the sun was starting to reflect orange and red off of the river, which meant that it was time to start heading back. If there wasn’t a meeting tonight…

Pulling back reluctantly, he took a moment to drink in the glazed look in Gabriel’s dilated blue eyes–very different from the way he looked concentrating on a new artifact, but just as distant. “Time to get going, unless you feel like tramping through the jungle in the dark.”

“What? Oh…umm, okay.” Gabriel looked flustered and mildly confused, rather well-kissed and…like the temperature had dropped twenty degrees in ten seconds. Which it was going to just about as soon as the sun went down, and Elito wanted to be well on their way back by then, so he sloshed out of the pool and started pulling his boots on.

~o~O~o~

Life, because that’s what it does, conspired to make Gabriel’s life a completely unexpected and horrifyingly busy hell for the next week. At the end of any given day, he couldn’t honestly say what on Earth he’d done that took over sixteen nonstop, Elito-free hours, but by the end of the week he realized that his father had recognized that he actually knew something about the various dangers of the jungle. So, because most of the soldiers, missionaries, and assorted family members were too caught up with their Spanish superiority to listen to the natives, Gabriel got to explain it to them. The fact that he’d learned it all from Elito was seemingly below their notice, or simply too far removed for them to care about.

Nice as it was to be viewed as something other than an inconvenient piece of furniture, at least as furniture he always had Elito around. The Mayan boy mysteriously disappeared anytime Gabriel was near any other Spanish person, so he hadn’t had a chance to ask him about the end of their last outing.

Not that there was any doubt as to what had happened; Gabriel just wanted to know what it meant. Love was a rather strong word, but he’d much rather have that than the other options. Which were, unfortunately, so much more likely. He’d barely had any time to think about it, but still, the idea wasn’t so difficult. Either Elito like liked him, or he’d been bored and acting on whim, or some variation on that theme. It’d be so easy to ask.

In an ideal world, that is. One where Elito was actually around, and Gabriel was more confident that he could ask without melting into a puddle of mortified goo with a palm frond hat floating on it. As it was, he found it more likely that he would start asking, get as far as “I was wondering if you…”, clam up, turn sunset red, and stammer while Elito laughed, effectively preventing any further attempts.

So, that being the situation, Gabriel was slightly terrified and inordinately relieved when the flood of Spaniards stopped one morning and Elito sauntered in with his breakfast.

“Having fun being the local expert?”

Gabriel shook his head mutely, too exhausted by the mere idea to articulate how much he was not having fun.

“Didn’t think so. Well, it seems like they’re done for now, so do you want to plan out our long trip? I promised I’d take you to the city, after all.”

Life was out to get him, really it was. Elito was acting as if nothing had changed, and wanted to go spend days in the jungle alone together? Gabriel didn’t think he could act normally to save his life, or even his books.

“Sure. Um, when?”

“How about tomorrow? It’d give me time to get everything together, and you could probably use some extra sleep. Here, eat,” he pushed the tray at Gabriel, “and I’ll go start packing.”

“Why so soon? Are you sure there’s enough time? Won’t we be gone a long time?”

“Only three days or so. The sooner the better, I say. Aren’t you excited?”

“Of course I am, it’s just–”

“You don’t want to leave enough time for another wave of idiots to commandeer your time, do you?” He seemed oddly serious.

“Well, no.”

“Of course not. Get some sleep, like I said, and I’ll wake you up for dinner.”

With that, he left Gabriel still curled up in bed, with breakfast balanced precariously enough on his knees that he couldn’t make a move to stop him even if he’d wanted to. Gabriel gaped at the empty doorway for a few moments, processed what had happened, and decided that it was good, really. He wanted to go see the ancient Mayan site Elito was always talking about, and he wanted to spend time with Elito himself. So this was perfect. Then why did it feel so much like a disaster?

He did as Elito had suggested; ate his breakfast, slept, woke up, ate the lunch that someone–well, almost certainly Elito–had left on the side table, and drew in his notebooks for a while before Elito reappeared with dinner.

“Everything’s all ready,” the Mayan boy said, flashing a grin at Gabriel. “We’ll leave tomorrow morning if no one remembers you exist again, walk for the whole day, camp, and reach the city sometime the next morning.”

“Great. How early tomorrow?”

Elito grinned. “Why don’t you just go to sleep right after you eat. Then we can leave extra early.”

Gabriel groaned. When Elito said early, he meant it. Extra early was probably the middle of the night. Taking Elito’s advice, he wolfed down his dinner while listening to the other boy’s description of the terrain they’d be traversing the next day, then let him blow out the lamps and said goodnight.

The next morning did come sometime in the middle of the night, by Gabriel’s reckoning. He was half convinced that Elito wanted to get going at this ungodly hour just so no one could make any demands upon Gabriel’s time, even at the risk of making their outing look like a kidnapping. The sky was the dark violet of pre-pre-dawn.

Other than the pitch-darkness, the beginning of their trip went just as usual. Gabriel blearily noticed that a lot of Elito’s people seemed to be awake when they walked through the village, but for the first few hours he was too owlish to notice much in any detail. Following in Elito’s trail took up most of his concentration. For almost the entire day, because after a brief, late-morning period of lucidity, the endless uphill plodding made him as blearily exhausted as he’d been earlier. Nightfall had never seemed quite so welcome in the jungle.

Elito let them sleep until the sun was very nearly up the next morning, as far as Gabriel could tell from the faint diffusion of light that was making it through the trees. And they only had to walk for maybe an hour before he announced they were there.

“Well, we’re entering the city area now,” Elito said, gesturing languidly around them.

Gabriel stopped and peered abound carefully. Eventually, the abstract mounds of dirt and vegetation surrounding them resolved into something else: low stone walls, partially buried and overgrown with vines. The long, low mounds to the right were also suspiciously regular, all the same height and rectangular. Still, Gabriel had to admit to a faint disappointment.

“Is everything all grown over like this?”

Elito ruffled his hair, and Gabriel fought back a blush. “No. Were you worried? The taller buildings haven’t been covered over yet. Come on, this is just the outskirts. Homes of lesser noble families, probably. You’ll want to see the palaces.”

Considerably cheered up, Gabriel stuck close to Elito’s side as they emerged into a clearer area. The trees here were younger, and in some places Gabriel could see paving stones under the cover of dirt and leaves. This evidence of civilization engrossed him enough that it took Elito’s hand tilting his head back for him to notice the buildings.

“Oh.” He breathed, staring in awe. The stepped pyramid-shaped palace in front of him was easily a hundred feet tall, maybe more. He’d never been a good judge of height. There was dirt and debris piled sloping up by the base, but by a few meters up the steps were clearer, and Gabriel found his feet carrying him closer before he’d really decided to.

“Before you go over there, take a look at the doors,” Elito suggested, pointing to a place about three-quarters of the way up. Gabriel looked, then looked at Elito for an explanation of what he should be seeing. There was a row of doors in the side of the pyramid, and low walls, ad there had probably been roofs at some point.

“There are thirteen of them,” Elito prompted.

“Like the layers of heaven?”

“Yep. Nine and thirteen; my people’s favorite numbers. They pop up all over the place. We can climb up now, if you want.”

The rest of the daylight was spent climbing up and down the palaces. From the top of the first one, Gabriel realized that they’d come into the clear space from the corner of a square, surrounded on all four sides by the amazing ancient buildings. Naturally, he’d wanted to climb all of them, then Elito had shown him an area off to one side with lower, more residential-seeming buildings. At one point, he’d asked Elito about a plume of smoke visible in the distance, but the only explanation he’d had was forest fires. In the rainy season. He wouldn’t meet Gabriel’s eyes, either, but that was probably because he’d been too busy pointing out a carved stone set into the ground near one of the palaces. Finally, sunset found them sitting back at the top of the tallest pyramid, whose position at the edge of the hill the entire complex was situated on yielded an excellent view.

“It’s beautiful,” Gabriel sighed, staring out at the forest canopy below them, the river running through it stained orange by the sunset. A chorus of birds seemed to agree with him.

“Glad you like it,” Elito responded automatically, smiling calmly. “We can stay a few more days, if you want. There’s a lot more to see. I’ve found a few tombs, some interesting monuments, you name it.”

“Mmmn,” Gabriel mumbled, gazing at Elito from under his bangs. Now would be a good time to bring up that important question, unless it would ruin the moment…?

“We should find a place to sleep, while there’s still some light left,” Elito announced, standing up briskly as if in direct defiance to Gabriel’s indecision.

“Where?”

“How about one of the rooms down there?” Elito gestured towards the line of empty doorways. “Used to be, only rulers and priests lived in these places. Don’t you want to sleep in the king’s bedroom?”

“Sure.” Gabriel found the idea a bit disturbing, but why not.

The walls of the narrow room Elito picked out were cool, despite the day’s heat, and there was a sort of stone dais in one corner. Elito said that was the bed, and dumped the pack he’d been carrying next to it with their bedrolls.

“So, would you rather we each get our own room, or stay in the same one? I realize it’s a bit creepy to be sleeping in a place like this.”

If that wasn’t the opening he’d been waiting for, then it was the best one he was going to get. Now, how to transition from sleeping in the same room, to in the same bed…?

“I’d like you to stay here with me.” The ‘with me’ part of that was a good start, at least.

Elito looked uncertain for the first time Gabriel could remember. “You’re sure?”

Gabriel nodded strongly, biting his lower lip and taking a half-step towards Elito. “About our last adventure…”

A wry smile graced Elito’s face. “Wondered if you’d bring that up. I…meant it, if that’s what you’re asking. Assuming we’re both talking about the same thing.”

Nodding was about all Gabriel could manage. His throat seemed to have closed up as he stepped carefully across the last few feet between them.

Kissing Elito was exactly as wonderful as he remembered. He hadn’t fully appreciated the muscle in Elito’s arms until he had them wrapped so firmly around him. Elito’s hand in his hair was wonderful too, holding him just strongly enough that this was a serious kiss, but Gabriel knew Elito wouldn’t stop him if he pulled back. He really didn’t feel like doing that, though.

Gabriel didn’t realize he’d been making those little mewling noises until Elito broke the kiss and the newest sound came out unmuffled. The sheer embarrassment kept his hands over his mouth while Elito bend down and unrolled their blankets over the bed with a few deft movements. When Elito sat down and offered his hand, Gabriel decided that Elito’s lap would be a very positive place to be. Kissing more seemed like an excellent idea.

So did getting more clothes off, Gabriel thought vaguely, as Elito’s hands slid under his shirt. Elito seemed to get the idea from Gabriel’s aimless tugging, and Gabriel doubted the wisdom of that idea quite strongly for the few moments it took to get their shirts over their heads, because they couldn’t be kissing at the same time.

Another few moments put paid to that thought, because being able to touch Elito’s wonderfully warm skin was the best thing since, well, kissing. Which had previously been the best thing ever. Rather indistinctly, through the haze of pleasure elicited by whatever it was that Elito’s hands were doing on his chest, Gabriel thought that he was going to re-estimate his opinion of the best thing ever quite a bit in the next short while.

Yielding to the gentle pressure of Elito’s hands, Gabriel leaned back into the blankets, quite pleased by the new friction of Elito lying on top of him. It brought to attention certain parts of his body still covered by clothes, though, which raised important questions. Such as: How on Earth was he to get his pants off, when it would certainly be fatal to let go of Elito for that long?

Elito solved that problem by kissing down Gabriel’s chest and shifting his weight to one side to get a hand between them. Gabriel shivered and moaned, no longer particularly ashamed of how he sounded. Elito was breathing heavily and moaning a bit too, the sound striking chords all through Gabriel’s blood. He was, however, a bit embarrassed by how hard he already was once Elito had gotten their pants off. Another concern appeased by the fact that Elito was in a similar state.

Some of the friction had gone away with how sweaty they were getting, but Gabriel couldn’t bring himself to care, because this was better, letting his hands skate over the smooth planes of Elito’s back as their groins pressed together. Better, but the pressure was either far too much or not nearly enough, and if Elito didn’t figure that out from the rather desperate noises Gabriel knew he was making, he wasn’t sure what he’d do. Literally; he only had the vaguest idea of what might happen next, but was quite sure he wanted whatever it was.

He moaned even louder when Elito’s fingers brushed his length, and a slight shift brought Elito’s in contact with his own. Gabriel was more than willing to comply when Elito coaxed his knees up and apart. Having some idea of what that would lead to, he added it to his list of good ideas.

When Elito brought his fingers up to Gabriel’s mouth, Gabriel decided that they tasted very good, in promise if not literally, and sucked enthusiastically while Elito teased around his length, and farther back. He was about ready to scream when Elito finally withdrew his fingers from Gabriel’s mouth.

Almost-screaming evolved into breathless gasps when Elito finally slid one finger into Gabriel’s opening, making soothing noises as he kissed along Gabriel’s collarbones. Gabriel would have preferred less soothing and more moving, but was wary enough to listen to Elito and relax as he slipped another finger in. Gabriel pulled Elito’s head into a better position for another kiss, hoping that conveyed the right message, since he was fairly sure words were beyond him.

He had to break away to gasp for breath when Elito pushed into him, though, moaning his name wantonly enough that the last functional speck of his brain retreated in shame. Elito’s answering gasp was enough to silence that fragment of his thoughts for good.

Again, the new friction was wonderful, but needed to be more. After a few moments, Gabriel figured out the timing to grind upwards and increase the pressure on that spot that was making him see stars and fireworks, and he couldn’t distinguish Elito’s ragged breathing from his own.

When Elito said his name, moaning “Gabriel!” as he drove in as deep as possible, it was simply too much, and Gabriel’s vision narrowed to white with shocking finality as he shuddered, muscles seizing around Elito, who came moments later. They eased down with a kiss that was so much the sweeter for the lack of desperation, and Gabriel was absolutely certain that he could stay in this dead city forever if Elito stayed with him.

“What will I ever do if Father makes me leave?” Gabriel mumbled sleepily. “I can’t imagine.”

For some reason, that made Elito twitch, with an undeniably guilty expression. “I…Gabriel, you won’t have to worry about that.”

“What?” Wide awake again, Gabriel shifted back just enough to get a good look at Elito’s face.

“My village attacked your fort this morning. That was the smoke you saw.” Elito took a deep breath. “Your father might be dead, Gabriel. I’m sorry.”

“That’s why you insisted that we leave yesterday.” Gabriel’s sex-contented mind struggled to make sense of this new situation.

Elito looked uncharacteristically pleading. “I had to get you away. I couldn’t sacrifice my village by telling you, I could never do that, but I couldn’t lose you, either.”

Strangely, Gabriel wasn’t feeling too upset. Sure, it was frightening to be suddenly adrift in this strange new world, but he wasn’t, not really. Elito had been there for him from the very first day, more than his father had ever done. He hadn’t been at all attached to any of the other soldiers, either.

“Most of the missionaries and families should be all right,” Elito continued anxiously. “We just wanted them gone, not necessarily dead. They’ll have fled downriver.”

Gabriel cuddled closer to Elito, who stiffened in surprise before wrapping an arm around him. “I’m not mad,” Gabriel mumbled. “If you say I should leave with them, I might have to kill you, but apart from that I’m fine. Better than fine. If you stay with me, I think I’ll be happier than I’ve ever expected to be.”

Elito’s relieved sigh told him everything he needed to know. “I was worried. Even if you hated me afterwards, I had to get you safely away.”

“I love you. More than I’ve loved my father since I was small. More than I love my country, though I’ll miss the Pyrenees. I was born there, you know, near the border with France. It’s beautiful, but I need you more.”

“I love you too.” Elito paused, and Gabriel basked in the sweetness of those words. “I promise I won’t leave you.”

“Good. Let’s sleep, then, and you can show me the rest of the wonders of this place in the morning.”

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