by Kagaku no osomatsu (科学のお粗末)
The ride to the palace took Gar three tedious days from the coast through the Clairmarais forest. His knee had been bad these last few months. Every village he passed through brought out the usual gawkers. At least the monks of Saint Bertin only turned their heads away as he rode past. He knew what the white-faced parents whispered to their children as he rode by: There passes the Beast. ‘Commander’ was what they called him at court. Gar had refused all of the noble titles that the King had offered him. What use would they be, when he had returned home after the treaty was signed, only to discover Ana had left him and become another’s wife? And left Gar their small house cold and empty, in a town where the market women shook with fear to serve him, and there were no storms over the sea, just endless mild waves and weak sunlight?
Once he reached the palace, Gar ardently wished that his journey had been longer. There was a party of nobles from the East visiting, and the King had wanted his most famous and feared army general in attendance.
The campaigns of peacetime were ornate and prescribed. There were balls and dinners, and low murmurings in the corridors of power. It was nothing like the heat and fury of battle, or the tense damp tedium of camp life between fighting. Gar was not built for dances, and his one remaining eye had no gift for assessing the finery on display.
There was no reason for him to pay all that much attention to the foreign delegation. They were a high-ranking family who had been among the King’s most loyal allies in the last stages of the war. This visit was part of the process that would bring the lands closer together. Besides, any sign of treachery, and the royal assassins would slit their throats while they slept. Gar had personally trained them.
He did not want to be there, with his bad knee and the weariness that followed him like a thousand ghosts from so many battlefields. In times of peace, it was people quick with their tongues who became favorites, not those who knew how to defend a mountain range with a minimum of men and no active supply lines.
His King knew that his commander was no people’s hero, no great orator, no one of breeding who was fit to keep his company in any other context. This son of peasants was called to court for one reason only. Gar stood silently at his King’s side as a reminder of the military might that had crushed their enemies on boggy fields many miles away from these gilded rooms.
Gar spent the first day at court trying not to hit anyone out of frustration. It was simple enough, as most people avoided him. He recognised some of his former comrades, now titled and self-satisfied. Theobald and Randall were the only two who dared to approach. They were eager to talk about their most recent successes in scheming for the King’s favor. Gar brusquely reminded them that he remembered how they’d been after battles lost, half-dead and covered in shit.
Gar didn’t see any of his favorites in the crowd. He tried very, very hard not to look, but then there’d be the suggestion over Theobald’s shoulder, a glimpse of a head thrown back in laughter, or a sardonic smile, that recalled some young man. A name would slither through his head and he’d wish, for a ridiculous moment, to see a long-lost face again. It was a fever impossible to shake, this noticing, and it had always tormented Gar. He had been doubly cursed to have his attention inevitably drawn in by the most spirited of his troops. It was always the rebels, the clever ones who knew just how much they could get away with talking back, that caught hold. When he was young himself, Gar would try to beat the beauty out of those who were such painful distractions. As a commander he resisted passively. He never held one back from duty, knowing that any such sign of kindness to one man would ruin morale and breed distrust.
Even at court it could happen. A young nobleman, too loud and too raw for his environment, had given Gar many sleepless nights but a half-year ago.
At the feast, the surrounding chatter didn’t make him any more comfortable. Even the food was perplexing. The roasted meat was so tender he nearly choked on it. The desserts were made of spun sugar and egg whites, formed into towers that looked about as edible as those constructions the women wore on their heads. Gar drank. The peon assigned to him poured his wine with shaking hands.
After the meal everyone rose to enter gardens lit by torchbearers. There was music playing, and the accursed dancing would start soon. Gar hid himself in a side enclave. It was a small, unobtrusive section where a spy had once been garrotted by Gar’s mentor in front of his eyes. The blood stains had long since been scrubbed away, but he still felt safe there.
“You look as if the melody was a death march.”
Gar shifted around at the familiar voice. It was Xavier, the best of the medics who had served under him during the war. Xavier was smiling, as he tended to in the most inappropriate moments.
Xavier’s face was as long, sharp, and finely boned as any noble’s, but sun-browned and with the deep lines of battlefield experience. Gar remembered the shocked expression he wore on his first week as a young apprentice who had been thrown unprepared into his camp during a vicious skirmish. Once the week was over, he still stood, and would go on to prove himself to Gar and his forces as a truly skilled healer with a calm head. Always too clever for Gar’s comfort, Gar had been all-too relieved that Xavier had survived the long conflict.
It was Xavier who had attended to Gar’s eye when an arrowhead had been lodged in it. While some of the soldiers had fainted dead away at the sight of him returning to camp with the weapon still standing out of his skull, Xavier had worked briskly. After the removal, he’d sewn the scar neatly and with an admirable lack of fuss. It had earned him Gar’s regard.
But then the man had also seen him at his weakest. Fiddling with his eye patch, he muttered his reply, “I am not made for promenades, Xavier.”
“Neither am I, Commander. It was against my will that I was brought here. Our Prince demanded my company.”
“He seemed happy enough during the ceremonies.”
Xavier nodded. “Roland will be a fine leader. After the death of his elder brother, he has an extra burden as the heir, but he will flourish. Our land will be in good hands.”
Those dark grey eyes looked over Gar again. Gar straightened his back. His defences would remain up every minute he was at the palace. Any weaknesses could be whispered to the walls of his cottage when he returned home.
“I understand you taught him medicine.” Gar said.
Xavier’s amusement could be felt through the night air. “I taught him what he wanted to know — a young man’s interests, in the worst of wounds and the ways the human body can deceive us. I had a harder time gaining his interest in my herbs and the ways we can distribute such tonics to the poor.”
Gar turned a dark look on him. “I am sure our Prince cares for his people.”
A hand touched his sleeve. Few would even dare, but Xavier remained smiling. “He does, but Gar – he does not know what it is to have cheated death. You and I both know that feeling. It takes you up in the air, above everyone else.”
Gusts of conversation and song swelled up around them. Gar sighed. “And what happens after you return to earth, apothecary?”
The hand firmed around his forearm. “The dread Gahariet, Commander of Legions, the Beast of Boulogne, indulging in a metaphor! This calls for a drink.”
Gar did not shake off the arm, but replied that there were plenty of cask-bearers moving throughout the crowd. Xavier just laughed and told him, “Not here. Old men do not belong at these events. You should come to my rooms and drink my sub-par wine instead.”
The man was always too bold. But he was right. And any wine would taste better if he could sit down in comfort to drink it.
“That knee has worsened.”
“Do not meddle, medic.”
Gar felt less out of place now they were away from the gathering. Xavier’s quarters were snug and comfortable, and far from the crowds. This was where Xavier must work on his potions, going by the apparatuses set up and the bundles of plants hanging from the ceiling. Gar settled back on a blessedly high couch and watched Xavier extract a wine bladder from the clutter.
“It is against every bone in my body to ignore another’s suffering.” With quick hands Xavier poured wine into spotless vessels, adding with a pointed look at Gar’s knee, “Particularly yours.”
Gar grunted, and took further inventory of the crowded room for material to change the subject. His eyes lit on stacks of documents packed in carriers. “You intend to travel?”
Xavier huffed. “I would wish to. I want to go to the country and conduct a survey of herbs and their uses.”
“You would leave the palace?” Gar was surprised and unsettled by the idea of Xavier’s being somewhere else.
“I am no more made for this life than you. I am just a bit more adaptable. I dream of finding a small village where I would have time and space to work.”
“I cannot adapt.” Gar repeated. He knew it was right, and took no offence. “There is nothing I have left to serve with, save for a reputation that scares visiting nobles.”
Xavier said, “Your glowering during the court presentation was impressive. Though I suspected that it might have more to do with all that standing.”
Gar glowered back at him a little for that.
Xavier swigged his wine and murmured, “How is your wife?”
“Not my wife any longer. During the fourth year of fighting – the long winter – no word reached my village and it was assumed I was dead. She had our marriage annulled and married a local widower with two children.”
Grimacing, Xavier responded, “I’m sorry, I didn’t realise.”
“Neither did I, until I returned home and she attacked me in the town square for making a fool of her.” Gar looked Xavier straight in the eye as he said it.
Xavier clucked his tongue like an annoyed schoolmaster. “That seems … disrespectful.”
Gar lifted his shoulders in resignation. There was no reason to be angry at Ana for taking the best opportunity she could get. “She is happier now. Their household is busy. I visited once. Children are loud.”
Xavier scoffed. “Not when they see you.”
“No, not usually. Though the oldest wanted to see under my eye patch. I obliged, and Ana nearly screamed the house down.”
Gesturing towards Gar’s eye, Xavier asked, “May I check?”
Gar bent his head towards him. Flipping the patch right off his head and laying it on a small table, Xavier stroked the pouch of skin he had once stitched together in a dimly lit tent. The callused fingers felt familiar, though they had not touched his face for years. Gar’s eyelashes remained on his empty eyelid, and he was again surprised at how much sensation they picked up when Xavier’s fingertips brushed over them. “Good. You have some colour in the skin. You don’t wear the patch all the time, then.”
“No.” Only to town, when he would be among people. At his cottage there were only the horses and pigs to see him.
The fingers stayed, drawing shadow lines over his scarred cheek. Xavier said “You always kept clean, which was a minor miracle in those conditions.”
Gar let his working eyelid close. “I had an annoying young healer who constantly bothered me to wash.”
Knuckles lightly rapped his jaw. He knew, somehow, that Xavier was smiling. Then he spoke with what sounded to Gar like sadness, “I should have been there when your knee – ”
“Don’t. You were needed with the main battalion.”
Gar preferred to block out memories of the attack that had smashed his leg. All he liked to retain from the incident was the vision of strangling the life out of his assailant in the moments afterwards.
The hand slipped from his face, and he opened his eyes to take in the sight of Xavier kneeling before him. He began unlacing Gar’s boot. Gar grumbled, “Stop that at once.”
Ignoring him, Xavier pushed his breeches up. “Your calf muscles are far too tight. You must be in agony.”
Reaching his hand down to push him off, or clip him around the ear, Gar instead found his fingers combing through Xavier’s silver-speckled hair. He wished Xavier would give up worrying about what little was left of his body. Quietly, Gar said, “I am an old weapon, rusted and useless.”
Xavier did not look up. His thumbs pressed hard into the meat of Gar’s muscles. His voice came out thick with rage. “You saved this kingdom ten times over. You should not be left in this condition. They beckon you over here to stand stock-still next to them while they laze on their thrones and barter for wives.”
“No more, Xavier. You are on the edge of treason.” He was far over that edge, but Gar could not bring himself to put more bite into his words. Glittering steel eyes looked up at him. Xavier’s voice came thick with rage: “I have seen nobles up close, and I know the King’s family better than I know my own, how they wield power lightly with no understanding of consequences, and I have seen you lead thousands of men who would willingly shed their blood for you and no other. My highest loyalty has always remained with you. My liege. My Commander. Gar.”
He choked on the name, and stood suddenly. Gar felt at a loss for words. Moving away from Gar’s reach Xavier pulled back a curtain at the side of the room. Beyond it was a large bed. He pointed to it.
“Gar, the greatest general of our people, leader of men, demon of the battlefield, unconquerable warrior – take off your breeches and go lie down.”
Gar stood up with a sharp protest from his knee. “If you were still under my command I would have you horsewhipped for that.”
“I never left your command.”
For a second Gar was back on the precipice of a battle. His system was braced, his nerves were on fire, the drums of war beat faster and harder to a crescendo. Lurching towards Xavier, not sure if he would hit the man or rest on him for balance, he located the source of the hammering rhythm. It was his heart.
For the first time, Gar’s arms wrapped around Xavier for support. He felt Xavier’s hands run up and down his back.
“I know you are in pain, my general.” Xavier’s voice was soft as his words battered against Gar’s ears. “And I know that you can feel affection for someone. I have seen you look back at me. ”
Gar pulled back roughly. He had been exposed after all these years. Xavier’s hands remained steady on his shoulders even as Gar reared back from him. Gar kept his fighting stance. He could still look Xavier in the eye, this man, even when he was being seen through by him. But instead of the pity Gar expected there was something else on his face.
“You are just a man, Gar.”
Gar closed his eye and resisted shaking his head and telling Xavier that no, he was not just a man. That after the years of fighting he had discovered he had no idea how to be a protector instead of a destroyer. That he realised he was never meant to be a man. He wasn’t ever good enough. He was only ever useful as a threat. A weapon.
Xavier moved closer to him, stubbornly real and still watching. “What can I do, but offer to take the pain away for some time?”
He reached out to stroke Xavier’s face from brow to jaw. This man would never have the obedient quietness that Gar had trained into his forces. He would always talk back, prod Gar in his most tender places, and hold his eye with his chin jutted out in defiance.
Gar found this knowledge calming.
Gar tested the strength of Xavier’s bed by rocking his hips side to side. Looking at where his breeches and one good linen tunic had been hung up, Gar thought they looked like flags of surrender. It was more entertaining to watch Xavier, now shirtless, still smiling, rushing around the small room. He went from stoking the fire to gathering up an armload of items, refusing to meet Gar’s eye as Xavier had always done when he deemed himself too busy to be bothered.
Xavier thumped a stool on the ground next to the bed and stacked his selected wares on it. Gar enquired if he was done with all this fussing.
Xavier looked slyly at him. “Did I ever interrupt you when you were explaining strategy? Tell you how to carry your sword? Care is my vocation, commander.”
Steam made the walls sweat as Xavier dampened a length of muslin in hot water and began rubbing him down with it. Lying back in just his breechclout, Gar felt far away from the clamour of the palace. Tremors ran through his chest as he watched Xavier focus entirely on him, looking harder than Gar could ever think possible. It was far harder for Gar to endure than being playfully ignored had been. Eyes full of hunger and appreciation travelled over his body. Gar could not remember when someone had last looked at him without a twinge of fear curling their mouths or sharpening their shoulders.
Xavier had kissed him. Before bidding him to lie down again, after he had entered the sleeping quarters, he had kissed Gar as a man would kiss his wife. Now he was bent over Gar’s swollen knee. The liniment he was rubbing into it smelt of pine. Neither of them said anything, though Gar let out a groan of appreciation as the ache subsided. It made Xavier half-smile.
Then his clever hands were stroking up and down Gar’s legs, pushing the muscles to give at long last. He looked fiercely serious as he kneaded each thigh with vigour. Gar found himself letting out more of those moans.
Xavier said “It’s good to be loud. Breathe more.”
Gar argued back, “I am breathing, medic.”
Pressing his thumbs into the cleft of Gar’s hip, Xavier smiled. “You don’t know what breathing is. Deeper, from your gut.”
Gar wanted to scoff, but instead puffed out his belly and let the resulting exhale shudder out of him.
The stroking and rubbing were making him even warmer, bringing memories of movement back to his limbs and core. Not ones suited to this place – the beheading of a traitor in a muddy gulch, a long hike up a mountainside in a hail storm, his own hand tugging at himself on the edge of his bed while the sun insisted on rising once more outside. As each thought was released it moved through him and left nothing more than the aftertaste. For so long all he’d had were bitterness and fatigue. That he could simply breathe deeply and let them ebb away was a revelation.
“Commander,” Xavier whispered as he hovered over Gar’s chest, hands either side of his face. His neck looked so long and delicate. It had never occurred to him to use necks for anything other than swallowing or throttling. Now Gar had the notion of running his lips over it, of licking away the sweat that beaded on Xavier’s collarbone.
His arms felt longer and his hands far away, but he lifted one from where it gripped Xavier’s shoulder and touched his jaw. The soft feelings he’d always considered unobtainable were suddenly real and happening to him.
Then Xavier was coasting his fingers over Gar’s cock and breathing seemed momentarily impossible. With a flick of his wrists he had Gar’s breechclout off.
Gar was struck dumb. Over his belly his cock stretched out, hard and hot, and yet Xavier’s long fingers were moving away from it, trailing down over his thighs to the soles of his feet. It was suddenly imperative that Xavier be back over Gar, who was hungry now that his memories had been banished from the room.
“Here, to me.” Gar barely realizing he was saying it out loud as he beckoned with arms outstretched. Had he been in his right mind it would have been an order. Instead it was a plea.
Standing at the end of the bed, Xavier shimmied out of his breeches. Gar took in the look of his body in the flickering light: lean, toughened, marked by age and use, with freckles – Gar assured himself he would taste every one – on his shoulders; dark, wiry hair between long thighs, a firm cock that bounced as he clambered over Gar’s splayed feet.
Xavier kept his voice commanding. “Sit up for me.”
The big man obliged. Xavier sat neatly over his thighs as if they were made for him. His knees dug into Gar’s hips as he pressed their chests together and without preamble kissed him again. Gar was more prepared now, which is to say not much at all. But there were helpful hands to guide him into an embrace, and tongues and lips touching began to make sense. Xavier sucked his mouth to reddening and sat back on his haunches, looking satisfied.
Their cocks were close enough to brush together. His instinct was to push, grind, conquer, but he knew that his techniques weren’t appropriate here. He liked Xavier settled over his lap, not sore or scared by brute force. Happy with this conclusion, Gar enquired, “How do you want us to fuck?”
That wiped the knowing look off of Xavier’s face for a moment. Gar was an army man, used to the rough language of rough men and fluent in it, even if he was unpractised in the actualities.
“I have a few ideas. Wait.” Xavier moved away, fiddling with his stack of things by the bedside. Then there was the glint of a vial in his hands, and he had something shiny and slippery on his fingers. Reaching behind himself, his arm worked in small, stabbing motions. Gar held Xavier’s weight steady and watched his face as he relaxed himself.
Gar was not unfamiliar with the concept. He had lived most of his life in all-male environments. But he had never dared take refuge in another’s body for pleasure before. He was born to be a leader of men. A commander and conqueror. It meant making himself something different, both more and less, than those he had served with. It was all he could do to turn away from the bright lights of his favorites. Now, one of them was in his arms.
The sound of oil being slicked on muscle filled the space between them. The smell of their mutual arousal was noticeable, and Gar was fascinated by so many things: the wetness of the tip of Xavier’s hard cock, the tightness of his stomach, the barely-there weight of him against the fortress of Gar’s chest. It was too much and not enough. Lifting his hands from where they held him at the waist, Gar nudged his shoulder, issuing a command: “Turn, let me see.”
Xavier’s ears pinked, but he moved around. Gar had let his own body be exposed and now wanted to see everything he could. Xavier clung to his shins and let his haunches rise up.
His arse was round and high. Gar had observed it often enough in the past. Now he wasn’t living on army rations it was plumper and fit well in Gar’s hands. He grasped it as Xavier rested his forehead on the bed and shook slightly.
Gar’s thumb moved along his cleft. The dusky muscle was wet with oil, and pressing into it he could feel Xavier’s own heartbeat strumming.
The commander was a man of action, so he quickly grasped Xavier’s balls and gave them a few gentle pulls. It was enough to get his shin slapped. Laughing, he lifted the struggling medic back up to his chest so his arse nestled over his heavy cock and he could rub his face over those freckled shoulders. Xavier muttered, “You are insufferable.”
“Climb off of me, then.”
Xavier twisted his neck to look back at Gar with insolence. “That does not serve my plan.”
They repositioned. “I don’t want you putting weight on your knees,” Xavier announced as he clung to Gar’s shoulders. Then his breath was cut short as he sank down on Gar’s cock. The short breaths he made were so delicate that Gar felt his heart might stop. He stayed as still as he could despite the neediness in his hips to move up. It was as if he might break this man, who was smaller than him and now cradled in hands so used to slaughter.
Then Xavier’s eyes opened and he smiled. And began to rock up and down. The neediness took over and Gar pushed up into him. At least his hips still worked as well as they ever had.
Gar didn’t know that fucking could feel as good as this. The pressure on Xavier’s thighs made them shake like saplings. He held Xavier as firmly as possible and let him sag forth with each thrust, his breath wet on Gar’s neck. Gar wanted to kiss and suck and bite but his focus was on his prick. His hips moved up unremittingly with a franticness they hadn’t known in years.
Gar wanted everything. Reaching for Xavier’s cock he grasped it with all the control he could muster. Panting yes, Xavier let him move with their irregular motion. This was too desperate to be rhythmic. They had no time to spare on finesse. Gar was so close to releasing into completion, but first he wanted to see Xavier come apart while he was inside him. To take the smile right off his face.
Touching Xavier’s hardness was nothing like touching his own. It felt like he’d been given a gift. With a gasp, Xavier spilled on his belly. Collapsing like rainfall he slumped into Gar’s arms. Gar’s hips stopped moving as he was overcome by the muscles contracting around him. He came, buried deep inside the lean body.
Gar tasted copper. He had bit his own lip open. A spot of blood dropped onto Xavier’s sagging shoulder, a crimson pinpoint among the freckles.
Xavier told him “Stop that.”
Gar licked at his lip. “I cannot command my flesh to stop bleeding.”
Xavier tutted. “Don’t worry at it like that. Oh, Gar. My Lord. How did you get by for so long with no one to look after you?”
Gar suspected that this was one of Xavier’s questions he was not meant to answer. He let himself be petted and cleaned up and tucked into the bed. An arm stretched across his chest, as if Gar was something that needed protection.
He sunk back into the bedding and closed his eye. In his mind the doors and shutters of his cottage were open and the sea breeze blew in. There was more light in the rooms than before, and warmth reached farther into every corner. On the stone bench there were piles of herbs and a mortar and pestle, and by the hearth, two seats instead of one.