The Amanuensis

by shukyou (主教)
illustrated by serenity_winner

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/154391.html)

That morning, as he’d done every morning for the last fifty years of his life, Akiba ben Levi rose from his low mat, sank to his knees, and prayed for the end of the world.

That taken care of, he stood and stretched, feeling the morning chill in his bones; the day would warm, as it always did, but the ocean breeze stole all the heat into the sky every night, enough to make his joints ache come morning. He drew his fingers through his thick, dark hair, tugging as they caught in the tangles of his curls, and drew the tattered shade back from across the window to a grey scene: the storm that had rolled with a vengeance in the previous evening had not quite abated, and though the winds had died down, the rain still fell hard straight from the sky, painting the island and the Aegean beyond it the same shade as the heavy clouds overhead. With a sigh at the dreary weather, he pulled on his simple tunic and wrapped a heavier cloak around his shoulders, allowing himself the simple attire he preferred when he planned to greet no visitors.

Naissa kissed him on his mouth as he came into the house’s main room, a greeting he knew was meant to show both her affection and respect for him, and thus he allowed it. She was young and round, with a sturdy frame and a fair face, and her wavy brown hair spilled down from long twists pinned atop her head; she had never married nor would she likely ever. “Where is your sister?” he asked, taking his customary seat by the low table.

“Gone to the well,” said Naissa, turning back to her task of kneading pale handfuls of what would eventualy become bread. She was likely Rhene’s sister in the same way that she was Akiba’s sister — which was to say, not by even the most remote stretches of blood — but they had the same brown hair and the same quick smile, enough that it was a convincing claim, and as they had never purported to be anything but within Akiba’s earshot, he had never asked.

Akiba’s eyes turned to the window, where a trail of rainwater had leaked in past the wooden shutters and made a river of itself across the gently sloping stone floor. “In this weather?” He pulled his rough woolen wrap tighter about his shoulders.

Naissa shrugged, dusting her hands free. “We need water whatever the weather.” She went to the tall shelf by the side of the table and took down his work without even her having to be asked, gathering the pages in one hand and his ink in the other. On the table, she lay them out before before him with utmost care, arranging them with the same affection and respect she had for him, and he was so touched by the gesture that he waited until her back was turned to right one of the sheets she had left upside-down; Rhene could read and write numbers and her own name, but Naissa could not tell even up from down with her letters, and had declined all offers he had made to teach her. Even so, she liked to recline beside him and watch him work, letting her hands sew and mend of their own accord while her eyes watched the strange dance of his reed pen across the page, blackening the sheets with marks that to her were meaningless, and to him held all the contents of the world.

It was yet early, though, and Akiba left the pen and ink alone while he gathered his thoughts, running his fingers down the gentle ragged edge of the yellow paper. As a child, he’d learned to write crouched in the shadow of the Jerusalem Temple, scratching his Hebrew right to left and his Greek left to right in the dust, and when his father had finally allowed him valuable paper on which to hone his skills, the pages had been joined in a long scroll and the edges had been cut crisp with a sharp blade.

But the Temple had been gone for half his life, and the world still somehow went on. Akiba reached his hand into the bowl of dates and olives Naissa brought him, but only pushed them around from side to side without bringing any to his mouth. If the rain kept up, it would mean no boats to or from the mainland for at least a little while, which might mean an entire day without a knock on the door to his house from one of the island’s inhabitants asking him to read this or write that for them. True, no business meant no money, but he was established enough not to want for coin so badly that a single day’s quiet would run him into the poorhouse, and the quiet might even give him time to get back to his own dear project, the one Naissa had spread before him. With the hand that had not touched the olives, he lifted the first sheet with the intention of reading it all over from the beginning, hoping that doing so might give him the push to continue what he’d left unfinished now for so long.

His eyes had barely settled upon the first letter, however, when he heared Rhene’s voice from far past the door, her pitch high and sharp above the rain. “Help!” she shouted, and Akiba could hear her feet pound wetly against the stone steps that led to his home. “Sister, come quickly!”

Naissa and Akiba met one another’s eyes with alarm, and then they were off, Naissa springing swiftly from her place beside the stove, Akiba’s aging bones giving him a much slower start. By the time he made his way to the front door, he could see that both Naissa and Rhene had turned and were running down the steps faster than incline or conditions should safely have allowed. Akiba cursed himself for not having thought to grab his walking-stick, but by the time he had the thought, he was several steps into the rain, and in far too much of a hurry to turn back.

At first he thought Rhene had somehow injured herself, but it became clear as he neared that she appeared in fine health, leaning against the high stone gate that stood beside the main road, her clothes soaked nearly through; scattered around her feet lay the water-buckets, toppled over and empty. Before him, Naissa dropped to the ground, and he thought for a moment that she had fallen, until he realized that she was bending down to examine something. The rough, cold stone made the bare soles of his feet ache, and he hoped in a bitter way that something catastrophic had happened, because if Rhene had called them both out from the dry warmth of the house for nothing, he planned to be somewhat cross with her.

What he saw there in the road, however, chased all his threats of anger away. At Naissa’s feet, curled up on his side, was a youth, somewhere on the line between man and boy, his fine dark hair caked with mud and what might also have been blood. His skin was the colour of parchment, and he could easily have been mistaken for a corpse had his bright eyes not remained steadfastly open, surveying the scene before him with an unnatural calm. Naissa moved aside to allow Akiba by, falling into her sister’s arms, and Akiba tore his cloak from over his shoulders, spreading it across the boy’s bare arms and legs as best he could. He saw no visible injury, but had lived long enough to know the invisible were often just as dangerous, and so he gathered the boy into his arms with care, listening for cries of pain and hearing none.

“Water and dry clothes,” he ordered over his shoulder, and Naissa scurried back up toward the house. Rhene reached to help him stand, but Akiba found his new burden oddly light, as though he were lifting a bundle of straw instead of a young man. “It’s going to be all right,” he promised the boy, cradling him as one might carry a precious bolt of cloth. “We’ll get you inside.”

“I’m looking for the home of Ioannes the Scribe,” said the boy, searching Akiba’s face, and though he spoke flawless Greek, his accent was unmistakeably Judean. “Tell me I’ve found the right place.”

Akiba frowned, glancing at Rhene, who looked back blankly. “I am often employed as a scribe,” he said to the boy, “but there’s no one here by that name.”

The boy closed his eyes, and a soft smile of relief came to rest on his features. “There is now.”

~*~

After declining a change of clothes, eating everything put within arm’s reach, and saying nothing more about how he had come to be where he’d been found, the boy called Ioannes had curled up in front of the fire and fallen sound asleep on the bare stone hearth. He lay slumped with the pose of a heavy sleeper, but Akiba still felt compelled to keep his voice soft, as though an uncareful word might rouse their unexpected guest from his deep slumber. “But he wasn’t there when you went down to the well.”

Rhene shook her head, and a few damp locks swayed around her face. “Only when I got back.” Owing to the altitude of his property, which was situated atop the highest hill on the island, Rhene and Naissa had to travel closer to the village below to get water from a reasonable source. “And I would have seen him pass me, if he’d taken the road, but I saw no one else, and there were no tracks.”

“Do you think,” Naissa began, and then she dropped her voice until her words were barely louder than a breath, “he might be an angel?”

Akiba took another drink of the mulled wine Naissa had heated for him; it was a meager weapon against the damp and chill, but it was better than nothing. “Messengers of God don’t collapse in the street. No, I think he’s as mortal as the three of us. He no doubt passed you when you were distracted, and the rain covered the sound of his passing and washed away his footsteps.” Rhene opened her mouth as though to protest, but Akiba touched her shoulder. “And now he’s with us, he will be given everything he asks for. …Just in case I’m wrong.”

Naissa smiled and rubbed at the cold-prickled flesh of her bare arms as she looked over at Ioannes’ sleeping form. “…Say, do you know who he looks like?” she said, tugging at Akiba’s sleeve.

Akiba glanced over, but try as he might, the sleeping face rang no bells of recognition in his head. “Someone you know?”

“No!” She pushed against his arm. “From your story!”

“It’s not a story,” Rhene corrected her, folding her arms across her chest.

“Sorry, your history.” Naissa pointed to the table where Akiba’s writings still lay, disturbed by the wind and commotion but otherwise intact. “The young apostle!”

At that, Rhene grabbed her sister by both shoulders and used her few inches of extra height to her advantage. “Keep quiet!” she hissed, though Akiba could see her sternness waver as Naissa’s eyes filled up with tears. “…I’m sorry, but … we don’t know who he is or why he’s here. And until we do, we have to be careful.”

Naissa sighed and took a step foward into Rhene’s arms, resting her cheek against Rhene’s shoulder as Rhene stroked her hair and back, calming her tenderhearted sister as she always did. “But he’s even got the same name as the one they said–”

“There must be a thousand men named Iohannes in the world. There’s at least two dozen on Patmos alone! And,” Rhene added, inclining her head toward Akiba, “he’d have to be on past his fiftieth year, wouldn’t he? If that boy there has seen seventeen summers, I’ll eat a goat, horns and all, and I’ll like it too.”

Naissa giggled at the image, and Akiba himself managed a smile, though it was mostly from reflex. Instead, he stared ahead at the boy’s sleeping face as the firelight danced across his smooth features, and thought back to when he’d been that young, before the world had come crashing down around all of them, back amongst a crowd on a Jerusalem street — and wondered if in fact Naissa might be, impossibly, right.

~*~

He slept on through that night and all the following day, until even level-headed Rhene voiced their collective unspoken worry that Ioannes might never wake up. But the following morning, Akiba made his way into the main room to find both a nearly cloudless sky filled with the pink threads of sunrise and his young visitor seated cross-legged at the table, as though there might have been some — any — preamble to his being there. Blank pages were spread out before him, and he ran his fingers over them in descending rows, as though tracking invisible characters across the page. He seemed so deep in thought that Akiba was certain his entrance had not been noticed, but when he cleared his throat to announce his presence, Ioannes barely inclined his head in Akiba’s direction. “I need you to write something for me,” he said, his voice clear and soft.

“That is what I do,” Akiba answered, tossing more wood on the dying fire against the chill of the clear, still morning. Ioannes’ arms and shoulders were bare, and he did not seem to mind the temperature. “…Have you seen either of the young women of the house?”

His hair was as fine as Akiba’s was coarse, and though Ioannes ran his fingers through it once, as soon as the gesture was done, the strands popped their way back into their previous wild, slept-upon places. “They’re sleeping in,” he said, turning over the sheet before him and proceeding to ‘read’ its equally blank back side.

Not since he’d bought their freedom at an exorbitant price from a cruel slaver had Akiba known Rhene or Naissa to sleep later than he — but perhaps they’d been up late the previous night, either kept awake by the last gasps of the storm or worried about their sleeping guest. With a nod, Akiba settled himself across from Ioannes at the table, letting out a small and somewhat undignified sigh as his bones ground against one another all the way down. He folded his hands in his lap, flexing them slightly; he had already begun to feel strong stirrings of arthritis in his knuckles, and he feared the day it would come to cripple him would be soon. “Are you well this morning?”

Ioannes looked at him — finally raised his head fully and looked — and Akiba was startled by the incredible clarity of his gaze; he wasn’t just a man who could see into a person, but Akiba could feel the exit wounds where Ioannes’ gaze ran him right through. “I’ve had a vision,” he said, bypassing the question entirely. “I need someone to write it for me.”

“A vision?” Akiba frowned.

“Great secrets revealed.” Ioannes held his hands wide before him, palms open. “Things that have yet to come. Or things that have already happened. Sometimes I confuse the two. But it’s no use locked inside my head.”

Akiba leaned his back against the wall, supporting his aching back as best he could. “My usual clients are traders and merchants,” he said, scratching at his ragged beard, which he realized he hadn’t trimmed in some time. “Contracts, manifests, even documents for imperial eyes. There are others on the mainland more adept at recording … oracles.”

Ioannes shook his head, raking his fingers through his hair again, this time with a bit more force. “No,” he said, leaning forward across the low table, “I came because it has to be you.”

As reasoning went, it was equal parts flimsy and suspicious — but after a moment’s deliberation, Akiba merely closed his lips and began gathering together the scattered pages. Even if all reason said his feeling of familiarity toward the young man was well beyond impossible, the familiarity remained, and that alone seemed enough to quell any doubts about the arrangement that might have risen in Akiba’s mind. “…Very well. I accept your commission. You can settle payment by working for me, because I know you haven’t got a coin to your person.”

At that, Ioannes laughed, a bright silver sound, and he reached across the table to grab Akiba’s knobby hands in his warm, soft ones. “Anything you ask. I work hard, I promise.” He squeezed Akiba’s hands and leaned in closer, dropping his voice as though trying to convey a secret in a crowded marketplace, and Akiba leaned in as well, powerless against Ioannes’ compelling charm. “And I came to you because it will always be you. And because I knew you would not ask why. And because,” he added, and this time instead of finishing his sentence, he let go of Akiba’s hands and placed his own left hand palm-up against the table; with his right, he took one of Akiba’s writing brushes, dipped its tip into the black ink, and drew a long curved line across his palm.

After hesitating nearly a full minute, Akiba took the brush from Ioannes’ hand and completed the symbol — a fish in simplest terms, dark and wet on the pale skin of Ioannes’ palm. “…Forgive my rudeness.”

“It’s all right.” Ioannes smiled and reached again for Akiba’s hand, linking their fingers and pressing their palms together until Akiba could feel the imprint of the ink on his own skin. “You can’t be faulted for caution, especially when you have others who depend on you.”

As though they’d been summoned, Rhene and Naissa took that moment to enter the room, and though Akiba made as though to pull away from the shared touch with their guest, the young women seemed to react with surprise neither to the fact that their charge was awake nor that his palm was pressed to Akiba’s. “Good morning,” Naissa said to them both, and she bent down to press a kiss of greeting upon their mouths, first Akiba’s, then Ioannes’. Always the more reserved of the pair, Rhene made her silent greetings to both of the men at the table in turn, then passed along behind her to tend to the fire.

Akiba looked from them to Ioannes to the place where their hands met, as though he might find his own curiosity as to their lack of curiosity satisfied somewhere in the intersection of those three points. But Ioannes watched it all, placid and kind, and met Akiba’s inquiring look with that same immutable smile. “Can we begin?” he asked, indicating the papers before them.

“After we’ve eaten,” Akiba said, still unsure. He looked again to the girls, who were laughing with one another in private conversation, and as he spoke he saw Rhene’s hand come to rest on the soft curve of her sister’s hip, until they spoke close as lovers. “…Tell me, when did you wake?”

“Just before you did.” Ioannes gave Akiba’s hand one more quick affirming squeeze before letting go and hopping up from the table, jumping into the girls’ conversation as though he were an old friend and not some strange foundling, expressing his desire to be put to use doing whatever they would have of him. Together, the three of them went joyfully about the morning’s tasks, leaving Akiba at the table, caught halfway between bafflement and awe, listening to the lively commotion raised up inside his own house, but staring at the black-ink fish of the Christians that lay bled out across his palm.

~*~

“I am writing,” Akiba said, drawing a stray curl from his face, “an account of an incident in my youth.”

Ioannes stood by the window, looking out over how the sea sparkled under bright mid-day light; the sun reflected off the water illuminated his features, making his smile dance through no effort of his own. “Good.” He nodded, his eyes still trained on the vista. “That’s how it should be.”

Akiba smiled. “Then you don’t think it’s vanity.” He pressed lightly at the knuckles of his right hand; they had begun to ache the previous evening, and were now beginning to swell and pain him greatly.

“Vanity?” That set a line to crease Ioannes’ brow, the first Akiba had seen there since the stormy morning they had met. “Should I? I will if that’s what you’d like.”

“No, no.” Akiba waved his hand to chase away the suggestion as one might dismiss a cloud of smoke. “But to undertake such a project might be seen by some as showing … a lack of faith.”

That finally brought Ioannes from his view back to the room. “A lack of faith,” he echoed, making his way across the room with careful, even steps. He paused by the far window, where Naissa had left a date-cake cooling on the sill, and stole a piece from the corner. For a moment, Akiba thought about cautioning him not to do such a thing, but in the end, kept silent; after all, given the strange way she and Rhene had taken to readily to him at first sight that morning, stealing food was not likely to be in their minds a cardinal sin.

“Of the coming of the Kingdom of God.” They were words he’d said thousands of times in his life, repeated them from the mouths of the apostles and exhorters of his youth, taught them to Naissa and Rhene, spoke them in his morning prayers — but now they sounded strange to his own ears, as though he suddenly had no idea what they meant at all.

To all appearances undisturbed by Akiba’s sudden disquiet, Ioannes took a second piece and chewed it thoughtfully. He was delicate and youthful in appearance, but having spent a day and a half conversing with him gave Akiba the oddest suspicion that had he closed his eyes and forgotten everything they’d taught him, he might not be able to convince himself that he was not speaking to an elder. “The Kingdom is always coming,” he said, bringing his hand to his temple. “I know I’m confused sometimes, but not about that. Are you ready to begin?”

Akiba nodded, indicating the expanse of pages before him, all of which where blank, waiting to be filled with Akiba’s careful, cramped Greek letters. Despite Ioannes’ inquiry, they had not ended up starting the previous day; between Ioannes’ involvement fulfilling his promise to work for his living and the arrival of a local Roman official seeking copies of taxation records, by the time Akiba’s hand had stopped moving, Ioannes had once more curled up by the fire and fallen fast asleep so soundly that he had refused all efforts to wake and relocate him.

Seeing Akiba’s readiness, Ioannes took a deep breath and shut his eyes. Standing in the middle of the room, he planted his bare feet and took in his hands the edges of the long linen cloth Naissa had draped over his body the previous night; he had kept it about his shoulders all that morning, as though against the early chill, and now he pulled it over the top of his head until it draped down around him, obscuring his features so that all Akiba could see was his small, graceful mouth. “This is how it works,” he said, and Akiba got the sense that he wasn’t meant to transcribe this instruction, not just yet. “As I speak, preserve the words to the letter. Omit nothing; everything has meaning. Are we understood?”

“Of course,” Akiba nodded, pen at the ready. He straightened his spine and drew his right sleeve back fully to his shoulder, careful to keep both the fabric from the ink and the ink from the fabric.

Akiba didn’t know what he’d expected — some spectacular divine moment, perhaps, the point when the heavens opened up and shone forth a golden shower of light, perhaps a dove, trumpets, angels, something to indicate that something magnificent was indeed being revealed. But what took place before him was on the surface far more mundane: Ioannes, never uncovering his eyes or moving from the place where he’d placed his feet, opened his mouth and began to speak.

As Ioannes dictated the contents of his vision, the pitch of his voice was normal though his speech was slow, artificially paced with pauses between each word so that Akiba’s pen never fell behind. Akiba had before had many people commission him for services who spoke as they would in a conversation, narrating with all the speed of the illiterate, not understanding the gulf between the time needed to voice a word and the time needed to commit it to paper. For most of these customers, catching only the sense of their meaning was sufficient to the task, as Akiba had written enough legal and business documents to know what needed to be included and what could be omitted without worry. But Ioannes had charged him not to miss a single letter, and he had agreed; thus, he dilligently preserved everything that reached his ears, so concerned with the business of transcription that he did not even stop to weigh their meaning, so careful in making every character clean and of equal size that the stress of his desire for perfection began to creep from the clench of his muscles to the swell of his knuckles, until he felt a raindrop-trickle of wetness fall down his cheek and realized that he was crying from the pain. He did not stop, however; how was one supposed to ask a prophet could he please stop for a moment, his wizened scribe was developing a cramp?

“Write this to the messenger of the church in Sardis:” Ioannes began, and he paused so long that Akiba’s hand began to tremble over the page, his fingers frozen in agony, waiting for the continuation of the sentence. Nothing more came, however, and after a full minute’s silence, Ioannes pulled the veil back from his eyes and gave Akiba a slightly panicked look. “Your hand.”

Ever determined not to let any of his sufferings show on his face, Akiba straightened his spine anew and shook his head. “It’s nothing.”

Ioannes sighed and let the cloth fall about his shoulders, then came to kneel at the table; Akiba took this as a sign that they were done for the day, and placed the pen near its ink source with great care, as though the gesture did not pain him. Ioannes watched, however, his youthful eyes narrowing at the agonies of age before him. “You should have told me,” he said, sounding in that moment of shame precisely as young as he looked.

Akiba shook his head and gathered up the pages before him. “No, it’s nothing.” He glanced out at the sky and was shocked to see that the sun, which had been high when they had started, had nearly completed its journey to meet the western horizon; how long had they been working, anyway? “Are you satisfied?” he asked, turning the documents so that Ioannes could read over them, if he so desired.

But Ioannes’ eyes never even skimmed across the inked pages. “Perfectly,” he said, still gazing at Akiba’s hands.

“…Can you read?” It seemed an odd question to ask, perhaps even a rude one, but Akiba realized that he might be acting even more rudely by asking for the approval of one who had, after all, sought out a scribe instead of writing himself.

“I can,” Ioannes nodded. “But I don’t want to.”

Akiba frowned. “You seemed so concerned with the faithfulness of my transcription, I had thought you might … wish to check.”

Ioannes’ face broadened into a wide smile, and he closed his eyes, folding his arms atop the bare table and placing his cheek on them. “I know you get it right,” he sighed, as though exhausted from his efforts, and Akiba closed his lips and let the matter end.

~*~

He did not know how many hours had passed since he’d stretched out upon the pallet of his bed; he only knew that he was still awake, and that whenever sleep had come calling, it had been chased away by agony. He cradled his clawed right hand to his chest, but that provided only so much relief, because the inflammation seemed to have spread now to the whole of his right side, until he could not even bear to stretch on his back, lest his right shoulder be pushed against the hard floor. To his great shame, his mind was even too clouded by pain to pray, and so he simply lay in the dark, trying to think of nothing at all.

He was dimly aware of the sound of a door’s being opened, and he lay still, thinking Rhene or Naissa might have come to retrieve something from his room, and not wanting to give them cause to believe they’d wakened him. After a moment’s quiet shuffling, however, he was shocked to feel a body slip into his bed next to him and press against his back; it was somewhat difficult to tell through the light tunic he used for sleeping, but he was fairly certain that the frame curled against his was neither female nor clothed. “You should have told me you were in pain,” said a quiet voice, now in the Aramaic of Akiba’s past, sounding far more at home than it ever had with Greek words.

Akiba swallowed. “It was nothing,” he said, and though he hadn’t conversed with more than a handful of native speakers since leaving Jerusalem nearly three decades previous, the words came back to him as though they’d never left.

One of Ioannes’ small, delicate hands snaked around Akiba’s waist, following the line of his right arm all the way to his clenched hand, where he wrapped his fingers lightly around the joints. “Breathe deeply,” he said, which seemed a tall order at the moment. But Akiba concentrated on his lungs and drew as much air into them as he could, then pressed it out again in a ragged stream. Twice more he managed this, in and out, and as the third breath left his mouth, he noticed that the stiffness in his hand had slackened. He also noticed the presence of small, soft lips pressed against the back of his neck, and felt a shiver course through him. “Just keep breathing.”

“How are you–?” Akiba began, but Ioannes just shook his head, slipping his fingers between Akiba’s.

“Shh.” His warm breath tickled the back of Akiba’s neck, making the business of deep breathing difficult. “Keep breathing.” Ioannes trailed a line of kisses down the back of Akiba’s neck, then along the line of his right shoulder, pushing back the fabric to bare more skin.

illustrated by serenity_winner

Akiba shut his eyes against the emptiness of the darkened room and let his mind’s eye fill in the sight behind him — Ioannes’ body was slender and unblemished, and Akiba had examined all of it with a physician’s impassivity as he’d brought his visitor into the house for the first time. Now, however, the memory of that sight combined with the present reality of Ioannes’ touch, and Akiba’s breath caught in his throat despite admonitions to the contrary. Ioannes drew their bodies closer together until his knees bumped against the back of Akiba’s thighs and their joined right hands came to rest just at Akiba’s belly, and Akiba allowed himself to be moved without resistance.

Intellectually, he knew he should offer at least some protest to the arrangement — after all, not only had he been trained in the Law, one of his earliest memories was of having been drawn to the city center as a pair of shepherds were publically shamed by the Temple authorities for having been caught sleeping together beneath a single blanket on what they had both claimed had been an unexpectedly cold night — but couldn’t find even the slightest desire within him to have this stop. Even as the situation became clearer as Ioannes’ hand slipped lower down his belly to his thigh, then began to make the return journey beneath Akiba’s tunic, he found himself turning on to his back so as to allow Ioannes complete freedom of access to his body. “Relax,” Ioannes whispered in his ear, and wrapped his fingers lightly around Akiba’s rapidly stiffening cock.

Instead of relaxing, Akiba pressed his lips together and caught them between his teeth to prevent any sound from escaping, but Ioannes’ lips curled into a smile against the soft edge of his ear. “They won’t hear us,” Ioannes promised, “and if they did, they’d be glad.” His fingers stroked with tender efficiency, their soft pads brushing up and down Akiba’s shaft, causing such an unexpected wave of sensation that Akiba did cry out, a soft but clear gasp. Ioannes smiled again, then caught the lobe of Akiba’s ear between his teeth, flicking at the skin there with the edge of his tongue between kisses.

The whole of the encounter was so overwhelming that Akiba came to climax barely a full minute later, shuddering as he spilled into Ioannes’ clever hand. Surprised by both its timing and force, Akiba trembled as though striken with a chill, and was only pacified as Ioannes again fit their bodies together and drew a heavy blanket over both of them. “Sleep now,” Ioannes said, and despite all desire to stay awake and examine precisely what on earth had just happened, Akiba found himself powerless to refuse.

His last clear waking thought was of how his hand no longer pained him in the slightest.

~*~

When he woke the next morning, he was alone in his bed, and only the evidence of his emission dried against his bedclothes led him to believe the that not the entire experience had been a dream. Still, he thought as he rose, the rest of it likely had been nothing more than sensations brought on by a strange hallucinatory end to his bout with insomnia, and he resolved to put it out of his mind.

Whatever had happened, though, it had caused him to oversleep by some great degree; the sun had already risen in the sky past the top of his window, meaning that he’d already missed most of the morning. He dressed quickly, barely bothering to tame his wild slept-upon hair, and moved into the main room, half-expecting to find some calamity had befallen his household in his absence, leaving his own laziness at fault for their collective misfortune. Instead, he found the room quiet, orderly, and empty all at once, with not even the remotest hint of disaster.

“They’ve gone to the market,” said an unexpected voice from behind him, and Akiba jumped at the sound, turning to see Ioannes leaning against the far wall in a place Akiba might have sworn he hadn’t been before. He crossed the room and reached for Akiba’s hands, taking them in his own smaller pair. “I offered to accompany them, but they declined.”

Akiba nodded, surveying Ioannes with still-skeptical eyes. “…And how did you sleep last night?”

“As well as you did,” Ioannes answered, and he stood on the tips of his toes to cross the distance between their mouths, meeting Akiba with a kiss so warm and deep that it dismissed from Akiba’s brain any certainty he’d worked up that the previous night’s encounter had been a dream. “I’d like to come to your bed again tonight,” he said, his lips brushing Akiba’s, “if it’s all right with you.”

“I….” Akiba swallowed and took a long, deep breath. “I don’t think it would be proper.”

Ioannes laughed off any suggestion of mandated propriety and leaned forward as though to kiss Akiba again — but Akiba took a step back, broadening the distance between them, and a sad frown creased Ioannes’ handsome features. “…I’ve offended you,” he said, and he looked heartbroken at the idea that such might be true.

Akiba shook his head and withdrew his hands, folding them inside the sleeves of his tunic as he made his way over to a pitcher by the wall; he poured some of the well water held therein into a small earthen cup and drank it slowly before answering. “I would write your vision for no payment at all,” he said softly, staring at the cup’s irregular brown lip, “before I would take your body in exchange.”

He heard Ioannes sigh, a strange and heavy sound from one whose customary spirits were so light. “That was not my intention, and I beg your forgiveness,” he said, approaching Akiba before kneeling before him, pressing his forehead to the tops of Akiba’s bare feet. “I only saw in you a pain I hoped I could ease.”

Caught off-guard by the unexpected show of penitence, Akiba set the cup aside and lowered himself into a crouch, not noticing until he was nearly at Ioannes’ level that he hadn’t moved so easily in years. “Please, rise.” He brushed his fingers beneath Ioannes’ jaw and lifted his face until they could see one another. Ioannes’ bright eyes were red-edged, and the sight of him in such obvious distress chipped away whatever hardness might have calcified Akiba’s heart. “Please. I need no apology, and you need no forgiveness.”

Ioannes nodded and pulled himself to his knees, until they were almost equal in height, and touched his hand to Akiba’s face; then he stood, and gave his arm to Akiba’s rising until, standing, Akiba had nearly a full head’s advantage at height. “I forget sometimes,” said Ioannes, placing his palm against Akiba’s chest just over his heart, “what has and hasn’t been. Visions come and in them I find no past and no future, no difference between the things that have happened and the things that will happen. I don’t always know what has meaning for the present and what will not having meaning for ages. Do you understand?”

“…No,” said Akiba, because the sense of prophecy had never made sense to him; he had always been a practical man, a far cry from the visionaries and mystics and messiahs he had encountered throughout his life, and even his perfect belief in the truth of miracles often stretched and clawed at the edges of his rational mind.

But Ioannes smiled, and drew himself close to Akiba, wrapping his arms around Akiba’s waist in a fraternal manner that had none of the sensuality of the previous evening. “That’s all right,” he said, and his voice had a ghost of the heavy slowness he used to speak his visions. “Someday you will. Are you fit for writing?”

Akiba nodded, flexing his right hand and finding it feeling fine. “I am,” he said, and Ioannes let him go, walking to his earlier station in the middle of the room. Akiba set at his place at the table again, looking for the point where they’d stopped. “Do you want me to read to the point where you left off?”

Ioannes shook his head once before he pulled the cloth over it again, the seer’s obscuring his own vision. “I remember,” he simply said, and with a small breath began again.

~*~

“Can I read it?” asked Naissa, between bites of spiced lamb. “I mean, can you read it to us?”

Akiba turned to Ioannes, who was chasing one last bit of spiced oil around his plate with a piece of bread. “Let the author decide.”

Ioannes shook his head, then popped the bite of bread triumphantly in his mouth, looking once again on the adolescent side of manhood. “When it’s finished,” he said, leaning across the table to squeeze Naissa’s hand; she laughed and did not draw it away. Akiba wondered if they might make a good pair, wedded to one another and charged each to keep the other safe, and the thought did not comfort him as he had suspected it might.

Rhene, too, looked at the place where their hands met, but her expression gave no hint of her being disturbed by the contact, or, indeed, of her having noticed it at all. “You’ve been at it two weeks! How much more can there be to a vision?”

“Some go on at great length,” Akiba told her. “The words of the prophets are contained in more scrolls than could fit on my shelves. It’s said that some spent entire years composing and compiling their oracles.”

Ioannes, his hands returned to himself, reached for the pitcher of red wine, attending first to the other cups at the table, then his own. “We’re about halfway done,” he said as he carefully refilled Akiba’s portion. “Chapter thirteen.”

Naissa frowned. “It has chapters?”

“…Never mind.” Ioannes waved away the inquiry. “Halfway, anyway. And when it’s done, you can read it and you can tell me what you think.”

“Can you at least tell us what it’s about?”

Though it was a simple enough inquiry, the question seemed to puzzle Ioannes, which in turn puzzled the girls — though Akiba could understand his hesitancy, since the about of the matter was so strange. He’d gone back to the pages several times in the evenings following their shared transcription sessions, when Ioannes went out to help Rhene and Naissa with their chores, leaving Akiba to look back over the day’s work, and despite his having read the words repeatedly, he wasn’t sure he himself could give an adequate summary. It was a vision, in fact, one of the highest degree, and it reminded him of the scrolls his father had shown him of the words of the Prophet Ezekiel, whose visions teemed with fantastic creatures and monsters that waged war on one another far above the realm of the everyday, scriptures not allowed for study by any but the most dilligently trained, lest weaker minds read blasphemous literalism from esoteric metaphors.

Finally, Ioannes shrugged and tore off another piece of bread. “I don’t know,” he said. “Or, rather, I don’t know what it’ll mean to you. Something different for everyone, I suppose.”

Rhene frowned and folded her arms across her chest. “Don’t you think that’ll get confusing for the people who try to read it?”

Ioannes shook his head, then paused, staring at his wine as though the answer might be floating above its surface. “…Well, yes, all right. I suppose. But … you’ve got to understand, everything it’s supposed to mean, it will mean. When those who read it need it to say something, it will.”

“And what about the people who need it to say the wrong thing?” Rhene began clearing away the empty dishes, leaving the cups and the serving plates for the time being.

“Well, you can’t make truth obvious,” Ioannes laughed, in on a joke all to himself. “No one would read it. They’d use it for firewood. The same reason why even Moses couldn’t look on anything but the backside of God — no one can see truth plain. It only comes couched in other things: stories, songs, old legends, dreams.” He stood and took half the plates from Rhene’s arms, ever attentive to his promise to earn his keep. “Visions.”

“And you?” Akiba asked, and Ioannes turned to him. “Can you look on it plainly?”

His good-natured grin kept the corners of his smile lifted, but the good cheer seemed to fade from his eyes, and even in the dim lantern-lit room, Akiba could see Ioannes’ gaze grow distant. “…No,” he said, bringing the dishes to Rhene’s wash-bucket by the fire. “I was given secrets, but … too many.”

Naissa’s face brightened, and she looked up from where she’d taken up the task of mending the frayed hem of her dress. “Secrets?” She drew her legs up closer beneath her. “Can you share any?”

Naissa, honestly,” Rhene hissed, her tone meant to chastise, but Ioannes shook his head and raised a hand to stay her.

“It’s all right. After all, what good are secrets if they aren’t known eventually? They might as well not exist at all.” Ioannes nodded in the direction of the cabinet where Akiba kept his writing papers. “There will be plenty for you to find when I’m done.”

The conversation from there shifted to some domestic matters, which seemed to entertain all three of the young people enough that they left Akiba alone to his thoughts, presuming — and quite rightly — that these were not concerns high on his list of priorities. Instead, he sat in silent contemplating for several minutes, watching Ioannes’ face and frame, at the ready to turn and pretend he’d been doing something else the first second one of them glanced over. But they went about their chatter and laughter as though he were not there at all, and so he saw as Ioannes touched and caressed them as though he were indeed their younger brother, brought up from the cradle under their watchful eyes.

There was something so easy about him, especially in the way he had slipped so effortlessly into their lives. At times, in fact, Akiba knew it was too easy — but even this was an incongruity he had to think about sideways, much as how the most distant stars in the night sky could not be seen by looking right at them, but by directing one’s gaze slightly to the side. When Akiba thought about the idea of letting a person, some unspecified theoretical individual, into the heart of the reclusive little family they’d formed for themselves, his instincts revolted; and yet, here Ioannes was, filling an absence they hadn’t known had existed. He was sweet and gentle, but there was still something unmistakably human about him, from the way his feet could catch on stones and trip him into the grass as he and Naissa played together outside, to the honest curiosity of his earnest questions that had earned more words from Rhene than Akiba had ever heard her say at once. He was too imperfect to be an angel, but that somehow made him even more perfect.

Akiba rose unnoticed and took his papers from their place, taking advantage of the now-clean table to spread them out and see what had already been put to pen. It was fantastic, this vision of the Divine revealed only in the most fanciful terms, a narrative of bowls and trumpets and judgments that seemed completely extemporaneous as Ioannes spoke it, but flowed as though he had been able to recite it from birth. Akiba did not know what it would mean when it was finished, or for whom he was composing it, but he knew he couldn’t ask now. As Ioannes had correctly observed, Akiba was not one to interrogate the numinous, even when it set up shop in his own home.

He pushed aside the papers of Ioannes’ vision, stacking them neatly, and uncovered beneath them the pages of his own now weeks-neglected account: The three Apostles stood together in the street, surronded by believers and nonbelievers alike, and I climbed atop a nearby ox-cart, using youth’s agility to compensate for youth’s lack of height, so that I might see them. Two were old men with grey in their beards, but the third had smooth cheeks and seemed no older than I was, and though he kept silent as the other two spoke, he seemed in his silence to exude as much age and wisdom as they did with their speech. At last, a man in the crowd asked by what means they had assurance of eternal life, and the two elder apostles looked to their young companion each in turn before they began to speak, saying

Akiba became aware of a presence above him as his eyes reached the end of his last unfinished sentence, and he looked up to see Ioannes’ smile and outstretched hands, offering him a half-filled cup of wine. As Akiba took it from him, Ioannes knelt by the table, paying only the quickest glance to the pages arranged thereupon. “I was going to go for a walk along the bluffs. Would you come with me?”

Even had he not felt inclined toward some fresh air, Akiba knew there was no way to refuse such a charming offer. “I would,” he nodded, taking a drink of the wine. “If I could finish this first.”

“Of course.” Ioannes leaned forward and brushed his fingertips along the back of Akiba’s right hand, feeling the rises of bone and tendons alike through the skin. “Does it still pain you?”

Though he wanted to say no and put Ioannes’ mind to rest, he knew he could not out-and-out lie about his condition. “Some,” he admitted, taking another swallow just brief enough that Ioannes might not think he was medicating himself, when that was in fact what he intended to do. “Though not as badly as it has in the past. Thank you,” he added, the first time since the conversation the following morning he had spoken of what had transpired the night Ioannes had come into his bed.

Ioannes smiled, looking quite pleased with himself, and took one of Akiba’s hands in both of his; he pressed it to his cheek and lay his head against the table, demanding only that small contact, which Akiba could not refuse to give.

As promised, once his glass was empty, Akiba stood from the table and headed for the door, with Ioannes close on his heel. Though it was his custom to leave his walking-stick by the door, he did not see it there; instead Ioannes stood in its customary place, holding out his arm with his elbow bent. Despite suspecting some small foul play at work here, Akiba took Ioannes’ arm and let his younger companion lead his old bones out into the night.

Once they were alone again, Ioannes slipped back into Aramaic so effortlessly Akiba barely noticed the transition, only felt a strong sense of familiarity wash over him. “It’s nice out,” he said, smiling as his hair was ruffled into his face by an unexpectedly warm breeze.

Akiba nodded and held tighter to Ioannes’ arm as the ground beneath their feet became rockier and more uncertain. Up they travelled, past the edge of Akiba’s legal property, onto the high bluffs overlooking the ocean which belonged to no one but themselves. Miles below them, the sea crashed against the heavy broken boulders it had torn from the cliffsides, and Akiba wondered what would happen if he held fast to Ioannes’ arm and stepped off the edge; how much faith did one need, anyway, for the business of walking on water?

“He was terrified,” said Ioannes, his voice so quiet against the thunderous wind and the roar of the surf that Akiba wasn’t wholly sure he’d spoken at all. “Simon, stepping out of the boat. His face was pale and his hands shook. He could never stop fighting the impossiblity of it, even as the waves held up his every step.” He leaned in and rested his head against Akiba’s shoulder, and Akiba turned his body slightly, offering his larger frame as a windbreak.

“I saw him once,” said Akiba. “I was a boy by the steps of the Temple when I saw three apostles raise a man who had been crushed by a falling chunk of masonry. One went by the name of Simon Petros; the second, I learned later, called himself Matthaios.”

“And the third?” asked Ioannes, his eyes as distant as always, looking out over the night sea.

“I never heard his name,” Akiba said, his hands tightening around Ioannes’ arm, pressing his mouth shut and drawing taut every muscle in his body to keep down the question that paced inside him, clawing to get out: Was he you?

But he knew he could never ask it, because to ask would be like trying to catch the moon on the surface of the water: worth a handful of water, and no moon to show for it. Whatever answers he might gain from it would not be equal to what he’d lose in the asking. And really, what would it change, were it true?

What would it change if it could be true?

He was brought back to the moment by the touch of Ioannes’ hand along his cheek, tracing the line of his jaw with his fingertips, the way he’d seen blind men learn the faces of their friends; but Ioannes’ eyes were wide open, and Akiba could not read upon him what it was that he saw. Their wind picked up, and their clothes whipped around them as they stood there out in the open, lit only by the near-full moon that hung like a lantern in the sky, and Akiba realized that all it would take to touch Ioannes’ mouth with his own was to cross a distance of barely his forearm’s length. He could do it in an instant, and he knew Ioannes would not mind; in fact, he would probably welcome the touch and return the embrace, his young arms so strong and soft, his gentle body so beautiful–

Instead, Akiba turned away and shut his eyes, breathing in the salt on the air and facing up to the inevitable. “What will you do, when we are finished?”

“Go.” Ioannes pressed his fingers to Akiba’s lips, turning Akiba’s face so their eyes met again. “It’s not my place to stay. Not here, not anywhere.”

“You’re welcome in this house,” said Akiba, because he couldn’t muster enough of his selfishness to say, please stay, we need you, I need you, there’s no one like you in the world.

Ioannes laughed. “If I could stop, I would stop here,” he promised, and he bent forward on tip-toes just enough to touch their noses together, a child’s playful show of affection. “This is the first place I’ve been that’s felt like home in a long time.”

“How long?” asked Akiba, getting out the words so quickly that his better sense could not hold them back.

Ioannes’ smile faltered, just a fraction, and Akiba could tell that it was not the question that had pained him, but the answer he had for it. “Longer even than you’ve been searching,” he said, and he moved forward to bury his face in the crook of Akiba’s neck, wrapping his arms around Akiba’s waist and holding him tight, until Akiba could feel the tug in his garments where Ioannes’ hands clenched the fabric tight, clinging to him against the wind, against the world. Akiba turned his face so his mouth was pressed to Ioannes’ hair and took a deep breath, smelling the salt and sunshine of Ioannes’ skin.

At last, Ioannes let go, though he extended his arm again and moved Akiba’s hand into the crook of his elbow once more. Akiba consented to be guided in this gesture, though he suspected he would have been content to hold Ioannes in his arms like that until the end of the world he’d once wanted. As Ioannes led him back down the hill, however, he realized that for the first time in perhaps his entire life, that the coming of a New Earth was no longer his heart’s fondest desire. It seemed such a shame to waste this one.

~*~

The soldier at the door was a man Akiba had never seen before, and he had about him a grim and contemptuous scowl, as though he were considering exactly how much force he would need to throw the old man before him off his feet. “I’ve come to see Iacomus the Jew,” he said, his Greek so thick with a Gaulish accent that he could barely make himself intelligible.

Thrown momentarily by the use of his Latin name, Akiba paused before nodding. “I am he,” he answered, straightening his spine and drawing himself to his full height — which still left him shy of the Roman’s chin, and far shy of the plumage atop his helmet, but he made do with what God had given him.

The solider thrust a wound scroll into Akiba’s hand; it had once been sealed with wax, but the seal had been broken, and the two sides unfurled easily in his hand. “I am Caius Sepunius and I have come in search of the fugitive described in this document. You can read, can you not?”

Only with the greatest show of restraint did Akiba keep from making a decidedly sour face at the man trained to kill people with nearby objects such as the sword perched ready at his hip. “Professionally,” he said, unfurling the scroll. The text was in Latin, which he could understand when spoken only with great difficulty, but which he had transcribed enough to be able to comprehend.

From behind him, Rhene approached, her hands full of a tub of wash water; she didn’t strictly have to go out the front door to dispose of it, but the soldier didn’t know that. “Begging your pardon, sir,” she gritted through clenched teeth, her lips lifted in an artificial smile. Sufficiently warned of her coming by the sound of her footsteps, Akiba sidestepped her effortlessly, but the Roman at the door was a bit slower in his retreat, and he jostled the basin just enough to send rank water spilling all over his sandals. Despite his exclamation of disgust, Rhene kept going as though she hadn’t noticed the mishap, and Akiba could swear he saw her smile even in the spring of her retreating heels.

Satisfied at having seen that particular little drama, Akiba turned to the scroll and studied it carefully, reading the words he could and guessing at the rest. Some of the details were off — the fugitive’s height was too low, and his age was too high — but there yet remained little doubt in Akiba’s mind what individual had provoked such a description. “How many are in your household?” asked the soldier, still glowering in the direction of Rhene’s departure.

“I am the whole of my household; I have neither wife nor sons.” It was splitting hairs, Akiba knew, but by certain estimations of the question, he had answered truthfully.

Caius Septunius’ scowl grew even deeper, something Akiba had not thought possible, until his face was as twisted the knot of a pine tree. “And slaves?”

Choosing not to try his luck with the particulars of that line of inquiry, Akiba re-rolled the scroll and handed it back to the Roman. “I have three household servants; one you met, and two are at their duties as we speak.”

Upon hearing this, Caius Septunius pushed his way into the house, sending Akiba off-balance; he paused for a moment by the door, listening for what Akiba knew it was pointless to hide: the sound of laughter from the far side of the house, as Naissa milled the grain for the following day’s bread and Ioannes kept her company. Heavy-footed, the soldier stormed through rooms and out onto the back terrace, and he slammed the wooden door open so loudly it nearly cracked on its hinges. Naissa jumped at the sound, upsetting the bowl of flour in front of her, and Ioannes lifted a hand to his mouth as though surprised, even though Akiba had the oddest sensation that he wasn’t in the slightest.

With only a glance, Caius Septunius dismissed Naissa — with her long hair and tunic that held her generous breasts, there could be no doubt as to her gender — but turned to Ioannes, obviously connecting the information on the scroll with the body before him. “Your name, slave!” he ordered, pointing a meaty finger directly at his chest.

Akiba wished he had some secret means of communicating with Ioannes, some way of letting him know the true reason behind the query before him, and thus the danger he was in, especially since the name ‘Iohannes’ had been written clearly on the document in multiple places; out of time, however, and certainly in no position to intervene, he concentrated all of his being, every inch of his mind and heart into a single word: lie.

“I am Yeshua,” answered Ioannes with a smile, and as he spoke, his native accent grew so thick around his words that it gave the impression of a very limited facility with Greek. He appeared as calm as ever, and perhaps even a little stupid, given the persistence of his pleasant expression even as the giant angry soldier before him demanded information in harshest tones.

Caius Septunius faltered in his fierce gaze, his brilliant leap of logic temporarily foiled, but his face no less red for it. “Are you not the man known as Iohannes, who escaped from the dungeons of the Royal Emperor, Titus Flavius Domitianus, after employing devilish sorcery in the cause of escaping the just and righteous fate of being boiled in oil?”

“Boiled in … oil?” Ioannes repeated, giving the impression that the words had only the slightest meaning for him. He frowned and turned to Akiba, slipping into rapid Aramaic. “Not very bright, is he?”

Akiba bit the inside of his mouth to keep from smiling. “I’ve seen brighter,” he answered in kind.

“Ah.” Ioannes nodded, as though Akiba had just performed a helpful act of translation for him. He turned back to the Roman, his smile still bright, and shook his head. “No oil! Sorry, sir!”

Puffing himself up like an angry cockerel, Caius Septunius leaned in again and grabbed Ioannes by the front of his tunic, and at this Ioannes did have the presence of mind to look frightened, given his just having been hauled nearly off his feet by a man twice his size. “Are you a Christian?” asked Caius Septunius, his mouth curled into a smug snarl, a hunter’s snare snapped shut.

That, Akiba thought, was the end. They all knew the dangers of the Empire and had seen their greatest brothers and sisters brought to bloody ends by their refusal to deny their faith. He could keep his secrets and could change his name, but this was a question no true believer could answer falsely. They would take him, and then the question would fall to Akiba and Naissa and Rhene, and none of them would hesitate to stand. To bear witness to the end was an honour, of course, but Akiba still felt his heart clench at the thought of what fates might await them all. Clearly, Caius Septunius was a man who had tracked down atheists against the religion of the Empire before, and he knew what weapon would bring down his prey every time.

But instead, Ioannes shook his head. “Yeshua the Jew,” he said, pointing to his chest. “Of Bethel in Judea. Yeshua the Jew.”

Thrice thwarted in his attempts to ensnare his bounty, Caius Septunius let Ioannes go with a push, and Ioannes went toppling backward, barely catching himself against the low stone wall where he’d been seated earlier. So enraged that Akiba thought he might catch on fire, Caius Septunius turned to Akiba and struck him on the shoulder with the scroll. “If you see this man,” he growled, “turn him over immediately and your life and the lives of those in your household will be spared. Do you understand?”

“Yes, of course, I understand.” Akiba raised his hands defensively, ready to catch any further blows that might follow. None came, however, and Caius Septunius stormed off through the house, finding his exit without asking for or needing Akiba’s assistance.

For a long moment, no one said a work.

The tension was at last broken by the sound of Rhene’s careful footsteps as she rounded the side of the wall, advancing slowly as though she might not know what scene might greet her behind the house. They all looked to her, and Akiba let out a breath he didn’t even know he’d been holding, slumping against the outer wall and placing a hand across his eyes. Naissa made a choking little sound, the very edge of tears — but Ioannes, inexplicably, began to laugh.

Naissa balled her hands in her dress and smacked her fists against her knees, now as red-faced and upset as their unwelcome visitor had been. “How could you?” she asked, her tone somewhere between accusation and sheer bewilderment.

Caught by the forcefulness of her reaction, Ioannes fell to his knees before her, bundling up her hands in his and covering her knuckles with kisses. “Shh,” he whispered. “Don’t be afraid.”

“But–” Naissa sniffled, and Rhene put her hands on her sister’s shoulders. “But he asked — and you — how could you deny–?”

“Shh,” Ioannes said again, and this time he brushed away her tears with his hands. “Stop crying, please. Will you listen to me?” She nodded weakly, and Akiba leaned in closer to hear the explanation; he was surprised himself to feel Naissa’s sentiments echoed within him: how could someone who had presented himself as the very conduit of Divine visions also turn around and declare that he had nothing to do with the very sacrifice that had saved him? But Ioannes only waited for her to take three deep, calming breaths, then grasped her face in both hands and met her gaze with absolute seriousness. “First answer me this: what obligation do I have to tell him the truth?”

The question stunned Naissa into silence, and even gave Akiba pause. Only Rhene spoke up, and as she talked, she drew Naissa’s hair away from her neck and parted it into three separate sections, readying it for a braid. “What obligation do you have to tell anyone the truth?”

“Exactly. You always ask the best questions, did you know that?” Ioannes smiled up at her, and she didn’t manage to check her flattered grin before it spread across her face.

Having recovered at last from the rather loud and generally unwelcome encounter, Akiba found his feet and walked over to where Naissa sat; he nudged her aside, and she moved enough to give him space on the bench, then leaned into his shoulder. Ioannes let go of her hand with one of his and took Akiba’s, squeezing them both tight. “You’ll be needed for more than this,” he said, addressing all of them but looking Akiba straight in the eye. “And if it takes lying to an idiot to save you, I’d lie to a thousand idiots. Besides,” he added with a shrug, rocking back to sit more comfortably on his ankles, “I am a Jew, and he’d be free to check under my belt if he doubted me.”

That admission, at least, won a blushing giggle from Naissa, who buried her face in her hands at the suggestion of such an inspection, and if Akiba had been a young girl her age, surely he would have done the same. Even Rhene deigned to crack a slightly scandalized smile. “Hide a lie inside the truth, and secrets inside of stories,” she said, bidding Naissa keep still while she wrapped her hair up around her head.

“Then you really are from Bethel in Judea?” asked Naissa, still fighting to cool her cheeks by pressing her face back toward her sister’s busy hands.

Ioannes shrugged. “Thereabouts. Bethel, I figured, he might have heard of and thus been less likely to accuse me of having made it all up.” He took a deep breath, and as he exhaled, fell back against the tiles of the patio, spreading his arms wide as he faced the blue sky. His bare brown skin had no traces of burn marks or blisters, not a single sign of torture, yet Akiba was filled with the sudden certainty that every word on the Roman’s bill had been correct, save the accusation of sorcery. As it had been with Daniel among the lions, he had no doubt that sometimes the world turned in unexpected ways to secure an outcome more deisrable than its otherwise-constant goal of absolute consistency.

“And ‘Yeshua’?” Akiba’s mouth tuned in a wry smile.

“A friend,” answered Ioannes, his eyes shut tight, and his bright smile faded. “…But I lost him a long time ago.”

~*~

It was difficult to say how, precisely, Akiba knew this would be Ioannes’ last piece of his vision, but the awareness of its impending end sat as a stone him, as certain as anything else he’d ever known. And thus, after Naissa and Rhene had slipped out into the exterior of the house to tend to their day’s work, and as Ioannes brought him his implements for completing the task, Akiba did something so utterly foreign to his nature that it shocked him even as it took place: he lied.

“My hand is troubling me,” he said, holding it close to his chest in an attempt to help the credibility of his fiction. “I don’t believe we can continue today.”

A line of worry creased Ioannes’ brow. “Let me see,” he said, reaching for Akiba — and, caught by his own dishonesty, Akiba drew away.

“It’s nothing,” he said. “It should clear up on its own. Nothing for you to trouble yourself over.”

“I…” Ioannes’ concern melted into an understanding smile. “You’re trying to get me to stay, aren’t you?”

The effort of generating falsehoods had already exhausted Akiba’s capacity for them, it seemed, and thus he could answer Ioannes’ piece of the inquiry with nothing but the truth. “…Ineffectually, it seems.”

With a sigh as gentle and compassionate as the expression on his face, Ioannes sat down at the table beside Akiba, and reclined against his breast until his wild, fine hair brushed against the underside of Akiba’s jaw. He reached for Akiba’s right hand and took it in his, then pressed it palm-down against his chest and upper belly, covering it with is own to ensure that Akiba could not easily pull away. “It won’t matter,” he said, his voice barely louder than a sigh. “You won’t miss me when I’m gone.”

Akiba frowned, and his fingers clenched involuntarily against the suggestion. “Why would you say that?” he asked, becoming more than a little hurt that his feelings might be so easily dismissed.

But Ioannes smoothed the back of Akiba’s hand until he relaxed again, and Akiba felt Ioannes’ chest rise and fall as he took a deep breath. “It isn’t you. I don’t doubt your friendship, and I don’t want you to doubt mine. It’s only that….” Ioannes took another breath, this one longer. “It’s difficult to explain.”

“I’ll listen.” Akiba kissed the top of his head, because it seemed the most immediately comforting gesture he could offer, and was rewarded with the beautiful, rich smell of Ioannes’ hair. How could anyone, even the most modest of companions, expect he would forget that?

For several minutes, Ioannes said nothing, and Akiba held him still, feeling as the rhythms of their breathing fell in line, then out again. At last, Ioannes turned in Akiba’s embrace and crawled into his lap in the most child-like and innocent way possible, bending his knees over Akiba’s thighs and placing his cheek against Akiba’s shoulder; his hand curled beneath his chin, just above Akiba’s heart, and Akiba could do nothing but wrap Ioannes in his arms, cradling him against whatever sorrow the world might have in store for them. “I’m sorry,” Ioannes whispered, “I never should have come. I should have done this myself. I can, you know.” He shook his head and buried his face against Akiba’s neck. “I learned to write a long time ago.”

Akiba stroked his back through his coarse wool shirt. “Then why did you come?” he asked.

Ioannes sighed. “Because I had to. Because it’s always been you. Even if … no one’s going to remember it that way.” He shook his head again, this time with greater forcefulness. “I told you, everything gets jumbled sometimes. You probably shouldn’t even listen to me.”

“It’s all right,” said Akiba, holding to him as tightly as he could in the desperate hope that he might somehow make Ioannes’ body stop trembling.

“Do you want to know a secret?” asked Ioannes, and without waiting for a response, he continued: “Do you know what secrets do to you? When you hear too many of them? It’s like … salting meat. You become preserved, changed, but not the way you were before, and you can’t go back to what you were before any more than you could turn a piece of salted mutton into a fresh chop, or worse, turn it all the way back to the breathing, bleating animal it was before. You could tell every one of them, and it wouldn’t save you; it would just dessicate everyone else.”

Is that what happened to you? sat just behind Akiba’s lips, but he pressed his mouth against Ioannes’ hair and said nothing. As it was when Ioannes dictated the pieces of his vision, Akiba did not feel it was his place to interrupt; and so he sat and listened, keeping his place steady in the center of all things. He could wait here until the end of the world, in fact, and if it took all of eternity to come, he could wait that long too.

“Everywhere I come, I find welcome, and for this I’m grateful, absolutely. I could talk all night and still not tell you the full measure of all the hospitality I’ve received.” Ioannes’ hand uncurled from beneath his chin and reached up to wrap around the side of Akiba’s bare neck, just below the edge of Akiba’s beard, his fingers so warm they nearly burned. “But I leave and … what I leave behind isn’t me. It’s an image of me, a legend. I hear later news from the churches that have given me shelter and the captors that have held me alike, and….” He stopped and took a deep breath, and Akiba waited for him to continue. “Stories, miracles, impossible accounts. Signs and wonders. Like what that soldier was talking about, with the oil and my boiling in it — I think I know what he’s talking about, but what he tells of it has gone so far away already from what I remember that now my story would sound like lies. I can’t get back what’s mine. All that lasts is everything of what people want to believe. Nothing of me.”

With a gentle touch, Akiba reached up to stroke Ioannes’ hair, marvelling as always at how soft it was. “…What would you like me to remember about you?” he asked, his voice soft.

Ioannes laughed, a hard-won sound from out of the previous misery of his voice. “What would you like to remember of me?” His hand curled tighter around the back of Akiba’s neck.

“Your smile,” Akiba answered. “Your laugh. The way you smell. Your eyes. The way you eat everything on the table. The way your voice sounds.” He swallowed, knowing that such an admission of affection should embarrass him, yet being unable to summon the appropriate feeling of shame. “Your hands. Your mouth.”

That gave Ioannes cause to laugh again, a silver sound of delight, and as he did, he turned his chin so his lips brushed the side of Akiba’s neck. “Not the stuff of legend,” he said, sounding far more self-conscious about the admission than Akiba did.

“No, hardly–” Akiba began, starting to agree and instead finding the sentiment folding in his throat the way autumn leaves curled at their dried edges. Though it pained him beyond measure to lose the moment of perfect contact, he nudged Ioannes off his lap and stood, bracing himself against the wall until he could find his balance. Over he went to his shelf of pages, and he picked up his own document, thumbing through its many pages. As a document, it spoke of hours of painstaking composition and transcription; as a history, it held the account of a miracle that he alone might yet be alive to remember, evidence of God’s work on earth that should not be dismissed or forgotten. He had put several months of his life into its creation, and as he had no children of his own, when he died, it would be the sum total of the testimony that he had existed — words on paper, a story, a legend.

Slowly, and with great care to convey that this was no rash act, Akiba walked over to the fire burning in the far wall and set the pages atop the wood. They dry, reedy paper caught in an instant, flaring bright as the greedy fire ate them, turning words to smoke and ash. He stood by as the document crackled and blackened, steadfast an attendant at a royal funeral, paying his respects to the triumph of the inevitable. And then it was done, and the wood burned on as it had before, barely noticing the change.

He felt a pair of gentle hands come to rest against his back, and the pressure of a pair of lips between them. “You didn’t have to do that,” Ioannes said, and it wasn’t polite protest.

“I know.” Akiba nodded, and where he had expected to feel burdened by the weight of his decision, he instead felt free. “But I think I’ve had enough of putting the past before the present. Are you ready to conclude what we started?”

“Whenever you are.” Ioannes placed his hand on Akiba’s right arm again, but made no other motion, and Akiba too stayed rooted by the fire for a long time, watching the last lightweight scraps of grey ash flare red at their tips, wondering how many secrets it took before there was no return.

~*~

When the door to his room finally opened, he was again awake, but this time standing by the window and staring out into the night, listening to the far sea crash against and retreat from the coast. He had undressed himself and washed the day from himself with a damp cloth in preparation for bed; but he had not dressed again afterward, and had instead gone to the window where the night breeze could steal the dampness from his skin. He did not have to turn to know who his visitor was, nor was he surprised in the slightest to hear the wooden hinges groan against themselves as they turned first open, then shut again.

“Our work is completed,” said Ioannes, his voice soft — though by now Akiba was certain that Ioannes could have shouted down the rafters and, had he desired no one hear him, disturbed not even the mice living in the boards.

Akiba nodded, drawing the still-damp ends of his hair from his bare neck. “Of course, I still advise the customer read over his final transcription, in case of–”

“You get it right,” Ioannes interrupted, the words a reassuring laugh. “I don’t need to see it to know that.” The light from the low-hanging half moon was not enough to provide Akiba’s eyes with the ability to see inside the darkened room, and so he chose instead to concentrate on listening as Ioannes approached, every measured step a hushed meeting of bare feet and rough floor. “What I meant to say is, our work is competed; do you feel I have compensated you appropriately for my stay and for your efforts?”

Instead of responding right away, Akiba lifted his right hand and placed it before his face for examination, fingers splayed, palm facing outward. It wasn’t only that the day’s earlier complaints of his hand’s sorry state had been exaggerated; they had been just plain imaginary. Not only had Akiba’s joints ceased to pain him completely over the course of Ioannes’ stay, but he felt altogether more spry and fit than he had in decades. He had never been particularly young, in mind or body, even when both had been correspondingly small in years. “Indeed you have,” he said at last, clenching his hand into an effortless fist and releasing it again. He’d felt a passing twinge of insult at the suggestion that Ioannes might still consider their arrangement an entirely business transation, but dismissed it, knowing the question had greater weight than just making sure no parties left feeling cheated.

A small, warm hand came to rest against the bare curve of Akiba’s waist. “Then we owe one another nothing. Are we agreed?” Ioannes’ thumb traced a small circle just above Akiba’s hipbone.

Akiba swallowed, finally taking his eyes from the outside world to try and see the vision he knew stood beside him in the dark; he could see only shapes and suggestions, but Ioannes’ lovely figure was the same pale shade from his chin to his feet, unchanged by the addition of clothing. “We are agreed,” he nodded, though the words stumbled finding their way out past his lips.

Despite the darkness, he could see Ioannes’ mouth lift into a smile. “Then I am here,” he said, bringing his other hand to rest against Akiba’s chest, “because I want to be. No other reason. No payments, no exchanges. Right here with you, this is where I want to be.” He took a small breath, weighing a hesitation, and Akiba waited for him to speak again. “And if you still don’t want me here, I’ll go, and we’ll still part friends.”

“I want you here.” The admission was from his mouth so fast he didn’t have time to think about it, which was good, because had he spent too long on the idea, he might have found ten thousand reasons to decline politely — but none of the reasons were what his heart called him to do. Nodding as though to make sure he hadn’t been misunderstood, Akiba placed his hands on Ioannes’ shoulders, allowing himself the luxury of letting his hands confirm the beauty he knew to be there. Ioannes’ skin was soft and supple, without mark or blemish, and especially without any showing of age beyond some sixteen years, if even that many, though Akiba no longer had any illusions that the boy before him was a boy at all. He was a miraculous work unto himself, as perfect and immutable as the statues the Romans placed in their towns and temples, only Ioannes was flesh and blood, and that flesh and blood raised up on the tips of its toes to give Akiba a kiss.

Akiba had been kissed before in greeting many times by his brothers and sisters in the faith, the meeting of mouths in a heartfelt sign of fidelity and affection, but he had never before in all his years been kissed like this, so deep and strong that he felt light-headed for it. Ioannes’ mouth met his and then his lips parted, his tongue nudging its way into Akiba’s own mouth until he had no choice to relent; everything about him was joy and play, though it was clear that to Ioannes this was no joke, no insincere gesture or compassionate recompense. He kissed Akiba’s mouth deeply and brought his arms up around Akiba’s neck, holding tight until their bare bodies were pressed together, and Akiba could feel both the way Ioannes’ body responded to him and the way his own body reacted to that knowledge.

One of Ioannes’ hands snaked up the back of Akiba’s neck to curl into his hair, demanding that he stay in the kiss — though, really, there was nowhere else in all creation Akiba could have wanted to be more than right there. He let his arms travel down the length of Ioannes’ body, feeling how soft he was, how steadfast and delicate all at once. The regular slight rises of his ribs gave way soon to his softer sides, which in turn descended into the taut skin just above his hip bones. When his fingers reached there, Ioannes made a needy sound into his mouth and surged forward into the kiss, pressing his own erection against Akiba’s hip. “Lie with me,” he said into Akiba’s mouth, and though there was nothing of a command to his voice, Akiba still knew he had no power in him to refuse.

By mutual agreement — which was to say, because attempts at any other arrangement would have been disastrous — Ioannes broke from the kiss and stepped away from Akiba’s embrace, letting Akiba see his full, flushed, erect body. Keeping his eyes fixed on Akiba, Ioannes lowered himself to the mat straight in the path of what little silver glow the moonlight afforded them, and there he displayed his body against the rough sheets, his arms stretched high above his head, smiling with smug pleasure. Akiba watched, his heart pounding faster in his chest, knowing that the sight not only was meant for him, but promised more pleasures to come.

Leaving one arm extended, Ioannes brought his other hand down his body, tracing the length of his own skin; he passed his fingertips over the long muscles of his arm, then brought them to the side of his face and neck as they came close. His knowing smirk faded into a soft, open-mouthed gasp as he drew his hand down his throat, then to his chest, letting it come to rest somewhere about the middle of his belly, just shy of what Akiba was certain had been his goal. He paused for a moment, then laughed, opening his eyes. “Come touch me,” he said, reaching for Akiba. “Please. I want to feel you.”

Akiba took Ioannes’ hand and knelt beside his body with easy agility that would have been impossible to him a month previous. “You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” he said, letting his fingers come to rest along Ioannes’ bare side.

Ioannes laughed again and squirmed at the touch, at once modest and wanton, a combination so contradictory that only he could have pulled off with grace. “Lie with me,” he said again, grabbing Akiba’s wrists and pulling him closer. “I’ve been waiting for you for a long time.”

“How long?” asked Akiba, bending over Ioannes’ frame and bracing himself against his elbows. His hair fell down around the sides of his face, obscuring his side vision, a blindness of which he couldn’t complain — after all, there was nothing left in the world worthy of his attention than Ioannes.

“Since I saw you in the crowd. In Jerusalem. Sitting on the cart so you could see over all the people.” Ioannes brought up a finger and pressed it across Akiba’s lips. “Ah, but that’s a secret too.”

There was nothing in the world Akiba could think to say to that, so he simply kissed Ioannes’ finger, then bent in to kiss the impossible secret from his mouth, finding in himself a forcefulness he hadn’t known he’d possessed. He lay atop Ioannes’ smaller body, and Ioannes placed a hand on his hip, holding him in place, tugging at him to urge their bodies closer. Both of their erections lay trapped side-by-side, rubbing against one another even as the meeting of their bodies pressed them between. Ioannes’ clever fingers snaked down from their perch at Akiba’s hip and wrapped around them both, stroking them in a gentle rhythm so consuming that Akiba could no longer devote enough of his attention to kissing, and instead broke away gasping, pressing his mouth to the smooth rise of Ioannes’ shoulder. His tongue flicked out between his parted lips, tasting the salt of Ioannes’ skin, committing it to memory even as he gasped and thrust his hips against Ioannes’ hand.

As he felt himself begin to lose control, right on the verge of beginning to thrust with abandon toward what release he was promised, Ioannes let go and reached away — and Akiba responded with a look of betrayal that must have been terribly comic, because Ioannes laughed and kissed him on the tip of his nose. “Patience, love.” When his hand returned, it held a small vessel, almost small enough to be concealed inside Ioannes’ palm, and when he worked the cork free, the smell of clean olive oil reached Akiba’s nose. Ioannes let some leak upon his hand, then reached down between them to wrap his fingers around Akiba’s cock — and then lower still, Akiba could feel, to the joining of his own young thighs. He gasped a little as he slid his slick hand between his legs, letting it slide against them a few slow times before withdrawing and taking Akiba’s cock in his hand again again.

With a gentle nudge — and some less-than-dignified squirming on his behalf, but it was perfectly charming of him, all told — Ioannes led Akiba’s cock to the place where his slick, soft thighs pressed together. At first, Akiba was uncertain about what, precisely, was being asked of him, but Ioannes parted his thighs just long enough to let Akiba’s cock slip inside, and Akiba understood. He moved slowly to begin with, trying to find the right balance to their arrangement, and Ioannes smiled gently at him all through his deliberations, petting his furred cheek with his clean hand. When finally he found a position that allowed him the right angle and leverage to thrust against Ioannes’ body, he did so, giving himself over to the sensation that was the meeting of their bodies. Ioannes’ thighs were smooth, and the oil made them so slick that Akiba felt himself approaching that earlier point of abandon he’d wanted, the place where there was nothing but the two of them.

He bent to kiss Ioannes, but wound up moving quickly from a kiss to simply pressing his mouth to the side of Ioannes’ neck, breathing heavily. Between their bodies, Ioannes’ own cock still lay stiff and insistent, and every time Akiba thrust between his thighs, he felt Ioannes’ erection push against the skin of his belly. Together, they rocked like this for what could have been as long as the entire night or as short as a few minutes — though Akiba was inclined to believe the latter, given how close he was already.

What broke their steady joining, however, was not his own climax, but Ioannes’; a soft cry rose in Ioannes’ throat, which Akiba felt against his lips, and then a louder one as he spilt forth between them, wet and hot, shaking and clinging to Akiba as a sailor shipwrecked in a storm might hold the torn plank that was his only promise of survival against the force of the deep. He was so beautiful in that moment that Akiba could do nothing but kiss him, and then his own body followed suit. He came between Ioannes’ thighs, adding his seed to the oil and sweat already gathered between them, so human and earthly that there was nothing for him but to believe it was all true, every last touch.

At last, he collapsed against Ioannes’ body, vaguely aware that Ioannes was kissing at his ear. The touch felt good at first, then tickled, and Akiba laughed, squirming away with such unexpected agility that Ioannes laughed right along with him, rolling with him until they were on their sides, facing one another. Akiba touched their foreheads together, and sighed out the last of the tension in his muscles. “…We’ve made a mess.”

Ioannes glanced down between their legs, then smiled and kissed Akiba’s mouth. “I don’t mind,” he said. “The occasional cleaning is more than a fair price to pay for the gift of having bodies.” He reached behind him again, however, and produced from the dark the same damp cloth Akiba had used earlier to bathe himself; he passed it over Akiba’s now-soft cock and belly, wiping away all the lingering evidence there of their time together before going to the much more difficult task of cleaning himself. “…Although I wouldn’t mind being a bit more washable,” he admitted as he rolled on his back and spread his thighs to get the last bits of the oil away.

Akiba petted his neck and shoulder, watching this less-than-graceful process with a delighted awe. Perhaps that was what everyone else missed when they looked at him and only saw what would linger in their legendary tales — the part of him that must have started human, that stayed human despite whatever else the Divine Grace might demand of him. For every ounce of seemingly miraculous nature to him, there seemed an equal measure of perfect fleshly imperfection, even if somehow only Akiba could see it. That awareness tugged at his heart, and he leaned in to kiss Ioannes again, full of desire and love.

Discarding the cloth, Ioannes smiled and kissed back, and after a moment he curled his body next to Akiba’s. Akiba pressed a kiss into his fine hair and held him close, his own last talisman against drowning. “…Give me your secrets.”

Frowning, Ioannes pulled away and looked at Akiba straight on. “I … can’t.” He sighed. “It would change everything for you.”

“It doesn’t matter.” Akiba drew Ioannes back to his breast. “I know you’ve been wanting to tell someone. It’s why you came here in the first place, isn’t it? To tell secrets.”

Ioannes shook his head a little even as he wrapped his arm around Akiba’s bare chest, nuzzling close. “Some secrets,” he admitted, his lips brushing Akiba’s skin. “You’ve got them written down. Even sharing that was too much, but I had no choice.”

Akiba shook his head. “Then if you can’t give them, share them. You can’t do this alone. You can’t ever have been meant to.” He reached for Ioannes’ left hand and took it with his healed right one, twining their fingers together and pressing their palms one against the other as they had been that night across from one another at the table, barely a month previous yet so long ago it felt like the whole of Akiba’s life had been waiting for that moment to begin. Now that it had passed, now that he had seen what life was like with Ioannes at his side, he couldn’t imagine what death it would be to go back.

A quiet sigh lifed and lowered Ioannes’ chest. “No,” he said, after a long moment’s consideration. “You’ve got your life here, and I envy you your peace. Mine, though….” Ioannes squeezed Akiba’s hand. “Mine will be a long time coming. I promised I would wait, and I intend to keep my promise.”

“And if it never comes?” asked Akiba, knowing he chanced blasphemy with the suggestion.

Ioannes shrugged. “Then I will keep waiting.” He cupped Akiba’s face with his free hand, then kissed him lightly on his mouth. “Don’t look like that. I was given the choice. I could have refused; I answered willingly.”

“Then so do I.” Akiba turned his face to kiss the center of Ioannes’ palm.

“You shouldn’t have to….” Ioannes sighed, though Akiba could see that behind his lonely smile, a flicker of possibility had begun to kindle in his eyes. Maybe everything he saw wasn’t fixed — maybe there was still room for the unexpected, still that slightest chance for something the seer hadn’t seen. Maybe there was, in fact, reason to face down even the grimmest certainty with undaunted hope.

“I don’t. I want to go with you.” Akiba brought one of Ioannes’ hands to his heart, the closest he could come to expressing the sincerity of his impromptu vow. “Where you go, I will go; where you live, I will live,” he said, and he saw Ioannes’ smile broaden at hearing the familiar words of the ancient promise. “Where you die, there I will die, and there will I be buried — and if that day never comes, then I will simply have to wait out the world with you.”

With a delighted laugh, Ioannes threw his arms around Akiba and kissed him, deep and long — and finally Akiba understand what it must have been all those years to be Ioannes, standing still and alone as the world turned around him, having his own past change in his wake while he could find nothing outside himself to hold. They kissed again like that for a long time, until at last, Ioannes rolled Akiba atop him again, this time parting his knees and allowing his feet to wrap around the backs of Akiba’s thighs.

Surveying their renewed position, Akiba gave Ioannes a wry smile. “…How,” he brushed Ioannes’ lips with his own, “did you come by them in the first place?”

“That’s its own secret,” Ioannes laughed, and he kissed whatever question might have followed it out of Akiba’s mouth.

~*~

“Will they forget us?” he asked, drawing his cloak about his shoulders.

“Naissa and Rhene?” Ioannes shook his head. “No. Not as long as they live, and they’ll carry that secret to their graves.” He lifted his hand to return a wave to the small contingent of Akiba’s acquaintances he’d made during his time on Patmos that had gathered to wish him well on his journey into the larger world. “But see the others, how their eyes fix in a single spot? They’ve already forgotten we were two.”

The wind whipped off the sea, coursing through Akiba’s hair and clothes as he stood on the deck of the vessel, his one bag at his feet, ready to make the trip to the mainland. He didn’t know where they’d go after that, and didn’t even think that Ioannes knew; they’d travel on faith, and where they needed to be, that would be where their feet would take them. The world was wide, after all, and if it would end, as Akiba had once so earnestly prayed it would, well, it wouldn’t be tomorrow or the day after that. Everything else could be taken one step at a time.

He lifted his own hand to bid farewell to his sisters, who had cried and kissed him when he’d told them he was leaving — but also, as Ioannes had said they would, let him go with an unspoken understanding, regretting his leaving them but never challenging that the decision was the right one. On the dock, Naissa wept into her sleeve and clung to Rhene, whose brave face only betrayed her as red crept in from the corners of her eyes toward her irises. They would be fine, Ioannes had promised him: they would live together and love one another, and they would do good in all things and better the lives of those who knew them, and whenever they thought of him they would rejoice that he was happy — and what more could any man ask for the people he loved than that?

Among the things the bag at his feet contained was not the pages filled with Ioannes’ words and Akiba’s writing. They had been left for the community of Christians on the island, though Akiba had no doubt the text would follow them shortly after, great living beast it was, bearing up its truth astride the spine of its story. He didn’t know what would be made of it, and sometimes wondered how it would fare, so deep in mystery, so far from home. It didn’t matter, though, because they’d done their part — the rest was far beyond their hands.

The last rope cast back on the dock, the ship pulled away from the island, its heavy canvas sails whipping in the wind. “I’ll go speak to the captain about what we should do for lodgings when we land,” said Ioannes, and he squeezed Akiba’s hand before walking away, leaving Akiba alone to take in one last sight of the place that had been his home for nearly a decade. In the early morning light, he could see the white walls of his now-former house high above the rest of the island, and though he did not entertain any hope that he would see any of it again, he did not discount the idea that he might again set foot on the same shores that now retreated from him as the boat set forth. After all, sometimes the whole world moved on nothing more than the possibility of return.

Author’s Notes

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